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NSERC Prizes 2020: Mary O'Connor

Department of Zoology
The University of British Columbia


Video name

NSERC Prizes 2020: Mary O'Connor


NSERC Communications



Release date

November 10, 2020


Rising temperatures and waning biodiversity are reshaping ecosystems around the world. If we’re going to devise conservation efforts that support these evolving environments, we need to be able to predict the ways that ecosystems will adapt in response to climate change.

Mary O’Connor untangles the intricate connections between changes in climate and biodiversity. O’Connor’s lab develops mathematical models that predict effects caused by temperature, and test them using simple ecosystems in the lab, and then in larger, complex ecosystems in the field. The UBC ecologist focuses on temperature because it affects everything in nature, from the bacteria to the largest mammal and tree. Even minor warming can have a major impact on how quickly natural processes occur—accelerating plant growth, for instance, or increasing risk of extinction—which can then trigger other changes throughout an ecosystem.

O’Connor’s research has uncovered recurring – and predictable – patterns in the way organisms, food webs and ecosystems respond to temperature change, giving ecologists a vital framework to forecast the ecological changes that will occur in warming areas, and design sustainability strategies that nurtures our evolving natural world.

Mary O'Connor

Ecology has become at the forefront of all of our societal problems, whether it’s disease, climate change, biodiversity, sustainable foods—those are all ecological problems.

We can’t solve our problems without also advancing our understanding of nature. I really want to dive into the intersection between biodiversity change and climate change, and understand feedbacks between those two systems, understand areas where biodiversity makes systems more resilient to climate change, and also understand areas that really need our attention.

So what we do is we create really simple ecological systems, and we set them up across a range of temperatures, and then we measure things that historically haven’t been measured together. We measure the energy flux, the biomass, and we also measure the population growth and the diversity, all in the same system.

We find a lot of common patterns in the way organisms, communities, food webs respond to changes in temperature. So what that means is a little bit of warming can have a surprisingly large impact on how quickly things happen in nature.

I think looking at temperature and the ways it affects ecological systems in the way we do allows us to look at a map and projected temperature changes with climate change and start to say, okay, in these places we might be seeing accelerated function, we might be seeing more productivity. It also allows us to identify higher risk places on the planet. There are definite applications in the way that we choose to look forward into the future and plan how we’re going to interact with nature.