Kari Norman never expected to become an indoor ecologist. Her passion for nature and the outdoors permeates to her favorite color, green — that of living things and trees. Yet Norman’s days are spent in an office looking over large spreadsheets, spatial files, and coding. It’s not the typical image of a conservationist.
Norman is pursuing degrees in conservation and restoration ecology and statistics. Through the Undergraduate Research Fellows (URF) program, she’s been building biodiversity maps of bird species in North America.
Biodiversity maps tell a reader where they are likely to find a type of bird and which areas have the greatest species diversity.
“They are really important because they are used to form conservation prioritization,” Norman said.
“They inform both research and governmental organizations about where the most important areas are to conserve. We want to conserve the areas with the highest number of species.”
Norman’s research compares maps created from two types of data: survey and range maps.
In the past, conservationists largely relied on range data. Based heavily on expert opinion, including believed habitat preferences and a few sightings, these maps had high levels of uncertainty. The increase of projects like the North American Breeding Bird Survey — a large-scale monitoring project combining the expertise of scientists and citizen volunteers — have created large datasets based on actual observations of birds.
“It’s important to understand how these two data types are inherently different and the implications for these findings,” Norman said. “At this point I can confidently say that there are differences and that they are pretty big differences. Scientists and conservationists need to be aware of them.”
Although Norman volunteers for other research projects that take her outdoors, she loves the problem-solving challenges that coding brings as well as the range of impacts of her work.
“I’ve always had a passion for nature and animals, but as much as it (conservation prioritization) does apply to an individual creature, I find it really fulfilling that the project is applicable on a global scale.”
Norman added, “I’m really inspired by people doing the things that they love and being really passionate. When people can translate their passion into productivity it makes society a more interesting and open place to be.”