Ecology of Infectious Disease Special Competition - Spring 2011

Ecological systems are undeniably complex. Evaluating the appropriate level of complexity needed to fully understand their dynamics is essential to more efficiently increase the predictive accuracy of models. With funding through this Grant, this theoretical and empirical research will analyze the benefits of added complexity in host-parasite models and the extent to which including complexity increases the predictive accuracy of dynamical models. The team from the University of California-Santa Barbara and Princeton University will examine the role played by parasites in food webs for 16 estuarine systems along a latitudinal gradient of the Pacific coast of North America. They will model four focal parasites found in these webs and perform laboratory and field studies to parameterize the model. Versions of these models will vary in aspects of ecological complexity, including alternative hosts, other parasites, varying detail about life stages, direct and indirect effects of non-hosts and temperature.

The study is innovative and certainly worth of funding. The research will advance understanding of how model performance changes with added complexity and investigate the level of detail needed to address life-stage complexity, alternative host diversity and food web complexity. Examining how model performance improves with complexity and the cost of including that complexity will provide insight on the most appropriate level of complexity needed for infectious disease models to be most suitably predictive.

The broader impacts of this project are very strong. The research from this study will provide a framework for how to most effectively model infectious diseases in complex systems and will address how parasites impact ecological networks and surrounding biodiversity. This project will make excellent provision for the training and support of a post-doctoral researcher, graduate students and undergraduates, including individuals from under-represented groups. This study will also feature excellent and very appropriate outreach to K-12 teachers and students and will enhance international scientific collaboration through interaction with scientists and students from Mexico, Czech Republic, Argentina and Australia.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Michael Lesser
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Princeton University
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