iCER Student Highlights: Emily Dolson

Exploring Ecosystems

Emily Dolson is currently a fourth year Ph.D. Student earning a dual degree in Computer Science and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior at Michigan State University. She works with Dr. Charles Ofria, professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Deputy Director for BEACON, Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.

Dolson uses AVIDA, an artificial life software platform, to study how ecosystem trajectories evolve over the long term. Because ecosystems are constantly changing, predicting these changes is extremely important to figuring out what is going to happen in the future with all species, especially in response to climate change.

Reflecting on highlights she has experienced thus far, Dolson says, “The goal of science is to increase the amount of knowledge we have in the world and actually being able to do that is always really satisfying.” Whether it’s submitting finished papers or pushing a new commit of code to GitHub, she says that she gets the same satisfaction either way because she knows other people can use this knowledge and it can do actual good in the world.

Dolson has also experienced some roadblocks while performing her research. She says, “Evolution as a process is this thing that comes from these incredibly simple rules but then results in really complicated and hard to predict patterns. But that means that once you understand what's going on, it seems obvious.” While things may seem simple when worked backward, she says, “it’s this constant struggle with myself to remember that the results weren't obvious to begin with and are worth sharing.”

Persevering through highlights and roadblocks, Dolson’s main reason for conducting the research she does is that she is terrified of what is happening to our world with climate change. With ecosystems on the brink of collapsing, she wants to contribute a solution so all species, including humans, that depend on these ecosystems are getting the food, clean water, and clean air required to live.

In the short term, Emily would like to figure out enough about the general principles of how we expect ecosystems to change over time in various conditions to be able to stabilize some of those that are collapsing by putting selective pressures on them or introducing some new species to help prop up a hole in the ecosystem. In the long term and over the course of her career, she says that she wants to succeed in doing research that helps figure out the more fundamental problems. She wants to find out how to help ecosystems evolve from nothing to being able to fill a specific role on the planet. 

All of this would not be accomplished if not for the help from resources like iCER and the HPC. Dolson says, “the HPC definitely means freedom to actually explore the interesting leads that I find and freedom to make sure I can really thoroughly check my assumptions on my research. “ iCER in total, she says, “has been this great community…A lot of times computational people can kind of get scattered across institutions and not have a way to form bridges and help each other and I’m really glad that we have a place to help fix that problem.”

Dolson is also apart of BEACON, an NSF-funded science and technology center where she studies evolution in action, or evolution observed in real time in either biological populations like E. coli or by using computers. About BEACON, Dolson says, “It’s this really great environment where we have biologists, computer scientists, engineers, and even some philosophers all working together to each bring their own unique perspectives to this problem. It’s this very dynamic and collaborative environment where I feel like any ten-minute conversation I have with other people gives me one hundred new ideas for what I should be doing.”

Another important aspect of her research is Michigan State University as a whole. MSU is a big facilitator and supporter of interdisciplinary research, making it possible for students like Emily to not only become a better computer scientist, but a better biologist at the same time. She boasts about Michigan State, saying, “I love all of it. I love the research I’m doing and the fact that I have gotten the chance to teach different workshops at iCER. I love the people I’m working with. They’re nice, smart, and supportive and I couldn’t ask for a better lab.” 

View Emily Dolson's research highlights video>>

Article by Kristin Lauzon and Emily Dolson
Photo Credit: Xiaoxing (Adele) Han