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A researcher holds a gopher frog with a gloved hand

Developing agency among agent-based models 

A recent journal edition sparks conversation on the role of women in science


Working toward her doctorate at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Angela Burrow (Ph.D. ’21) spent a lot of time with gopher frogs.

It meant hours in Georgia’s southeastern pine savannas, in the hours before dawn, tracking and monitoring juvenile frogs as they wrestled with changes in their habitat. She wondered: Could changes in ground vegetation affect the frogs’ body temperature and hydration—and ultimate survival?

To investigate, Burrow collaborated with another Warnell graduate, Kira McEntire (Ph.D. ’18), to develop an agent-based model that incorporated behavior and other mechanisms to understand larger-scale patterns. By analyzing the microclimates created with different vegetation patterns, Burrow and McEntire showed optimal—and not so optimal—models for increasing gopher frog survival.

Their results were published earlier this spring in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, part of a special issue focused on all female scientists.

For gopher frogs, which face increasing habitat loss, the study sheds light on the importance of even small changes in upland areas surrounding breeding wetlands. But as part of a special issue featuring female-led research, the study also highlights women’s representation in the field—or, say Burrow and McEntire, lack of it.

“My feeling is that women are still very underrepresented in science,” said Burrow, who is now a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University. Often, this ties to decisions—or, more precisely, sacrifices—that women are forced to make early in their careers. Burrow pointed to her mother, trained as a physicist, who decided against pursing a research career and took a teaching position at an undergraduate institution to pay the bills.

While more women are studying in STEM-related fields than in previous generations, many still filter out of the workforce pipeline. It happens for a variety of reasons, added McEntire, an assistant professor at Queens University of Charlotte. And while she and Burrow grew up with mothers who were also scientists, they recognize that not everyone has that kind of role model.

As a result, it’s up to colleges and workplaces to provide support to female scientists if we are to see better representation. This can take many forms, whether it’s mentorship, specialized training for female leaders or just acknowledging where gaps exist. Representation matters, they said.

“It does take that for anyone or any group that’s underrepresented—you need the support and you need the representation,” said McEntire. “Because part of what drives people to be something is being able to imagine themselves doing the thing.”

What we tell girls at a young age also carries weight. In elementary school, for example, Burrow said she was told she was good at writing, and that she should be a writer. But writing is also an essential skill for a scientist.

“So many girls think they are good at language, and then they think that’s the direction they should head in, when writing is a huge part of what we do in science,” she added. “Now, when I do outreach, I tell kids that to be a scientist, the first thing you need to do really well is know how to write.

Those early influences can be transformative. “I loved biology since I realized it was a thing. And I don’t think I was once told, growing up or even in my early college years, that that’s what I should do,” Burrow said. “Nobody ever said, ‘You love all this nature stuff, you should be a scientist.’”

Burrow and McEntire agree that numbers are shifting—McEntire, for example, notes most of the faculty in her department are women. But it’s not the norm, and recent data from the National Science Foundation showed that while women make up half the workforce, they only make up 35% of STEM-related fields.

So, Burrow and McEntire mentor. They show up to STEM events. They get on video chats with classrooms and they collaborate with other women.

Like, for example, a study to model gopher frog habitat and survival.

What makes the study unique, Burrow said, was using an agent-based model to weave together different sources of data. The collaboration worked well, as Burrow had a wealth of data after years out in the field while McEntire had experience working with this type of model.

“We did some work in the field, looking at different temperatures and humidity under plants or not under plants,” said Burrow. “But we also pulled information from the literature, like soil data, and temperature data over several years. And we also included some expert opinions—that’s part of the modeling. That’s why I like it; it’s a really neat kind of modeling.”

Their results offer examples of habitat improvements to increase gopher frog survival and can help guide land managers in the future. For example, availability of gopher tortoise burrows combined with more rainfall can have overall positive effects on frog survival—in fact, models reinforced previous studies that showed the importance of prescribed burning and vegetation to support gopher tortoises will support gopher frogs in areas where they both live.

But vegetation also played a role, they found. During warmer, wetter months, the model predicted that increasing vegetation cover could, in turn, increase juvenile frog survival. With more vegetation, it allowed temperatures near the ground to stay cooler and frogs could stay hydrated even at farther distances from the wetland areas where they are born.

In her postdoctoral work, Burrow is continuing to look at environmental stressors on amphibians. More recently she has been looking at salamanders and how they are affected by deer abundance, invasive plants and other invasive organisms in natural forests.

Deer and salamanders might not be the first forest pairing people think of, but, Burrow said, they are linked by vegetation.

“Deer preferentially eat certain plants, and a lot of those are understory plants—and that affects not only the temperature and humidity of the ground layer, but it also affects what is available for them to eat,” she said. “And then there’s other things going on with the presence of deer—so, yeah, things get pretty complicated really quickly.”

It’s these interwoven relationships that keeps Burrow and McEntire passionate about their field. Even in talking about the study, separated by hundreds of miles and several states, they continued to plan for another collaboration.

But being part of the special issue in Frontiers was a nice way to highlight their most recent work, they said.

“It’s nice to highlight the work because it’s a lot of computer simulation and a lot of coding, and that’s something you just don’t see as many women doing,” said McEntire. “And one thing that’s interesting about this project is it’s also herpetology focused, which is another field that does not have a lot of women in it, relatively speaking. So, I think it’s neat to have an issue highlighting that and we’re able to say, ‘Yeah, we’re doing that too.’”

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