The warmest of EEB welcomes to María Natalia Umaña and Luis Zaman, the newest assistant professors to join the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Umaña joined the department Jan. 1, 2019. She studies tropical ecology, functional trait ecology and plant community ecology. Her research seeks to answer an outstanding question in ecology: how do species coexist using a limited handful of common resources?

“I am a tropical ecologist interested in understanding how plant communities are structured,” Umaña's lab website states. “To this end, I utilize field-based and statistical modeling approaches that provide further insights into the processes that govern community structure. My current research focuses on providing a deeper understanding of one of the classical and still not answered questions in ecology: what are the mechanisms responsible for the incredible number of co-occurring species in tropical forests? My approach considers information from organismal traits at the individual and species level as well as spatially explicit long-term demographic data, evaluated with statistical models and validated via field-work with a special focus on natural history.”

Zaman joined EEB and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems in 2017 as a College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellow. He begins his assistant professorship in EEB and CSCS Sept. 1, 2019. Zaman’s research spans several disciplines all while trying to answer fundamental questions about how evolution works. Work in the Zaman lab relies on a mixture of computational, mathematical and microbial systems.

“I became interested in evolution because of an undergraduate computer science class,” Zaman’s lab website states. “It's still amazing to me that we can bottle up evolution in an algorithm, and yet are still just scratching the surface of understanding the biodiversity and complexity it has produced.

“One of the challenges is that evolution creates diversity and complexity, which then strongly influences further evolution. Untangling this feedback loop between what evolution produces and what then becomes selectively favorable motivates much of my work. Host-parasite coevolution is a prime instance of this complex feedback loop at what I consider the core of evolutionary biology.

“Coming to evolutionary biology via computer science has left its marks on my academic interests. I study host-parasite coevolution using a mixture of computational and microbial experiments. I treat computer systems as another experimental system, much like E. coli and elephants are two living systems that can be studied in surprisingly similar ways.”

Watch for feature articles on these two rising stars in our fall newsletter, Natural Selections.

Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein