By Abby Weingarten
Studying the decomposition of wood and its relationship to climate change has fascinated Brad Oberle, Ph.D. for years. About nine months ago, he co-authored a paper about it. Then, a few weeks ago, his readership exploded overnight.
“It turns out our paper was featured as a case study for an international competition in mathematical modeling for undergraduates and high school students,” said Oberle, an assistant professor of biology and environmental studies at New College. “The contest drove a ton of interest in the work, and my ResearchGate profile racked up 1,300 reads in a single weekend.”
The collaborative paper, entitled A trait-based understanding of wood decomposition by fungi, was published in May 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)—one of the world’s most-cited, multidisciplinary scientific journals.
The piece was one of only three papers selected for the Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM)—an annual competition that attracts students and faculty advisers from more than 900 institutions globally. Presented by the nonprofit Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP), the MCM challenges teams of students to clarify, analyze and propose solutions to open-ended problems. The contest ended on February 8 and the results have not yet been released.
“Exactly how our research became a case study for this competition, I have no idea, and neither do any of my co-authors,” Oberle said. “The journal that published our work is very prestigious and publishes papers not just in biology, but across the sciences, including pure math. Presumably, the competition organizers found it there, or related social media, and decided that our research could inspire teams of high schoolers and undergraduates from around the world to extend our results by developing their own mathematical models.”
Either way, the selection resulted in Oberle and his colleagues receiving a sudden, unexpected inundation of emails from MCM competitors.
“Apparently, the competition has been going on for 34 years and the participants have a shot at a $10,000 prize,” Oberle said. “No wonder we have been getting so many random emails.”
So what is this paper about exactly, and why does its content matter to aspiring mathematical modelers? In a nutshell, the research proved that “you can actually explain how quickly wood decomposes by knowing how fast fungi grow and how stress-tolerant they are,” Oberle said.
Fungi play an integral role in the global carbon cycle, as they are the main decomposers of wood and litter. The implications of what they can do in terms of impacting the climate are endless, and Oberle and his colleagues have been digging into the possibilities since 2008. Their methodology is particularly inspiring to both scientists and mathematicians. And their research is relevant because it “shines light into a kind of black box,” Oberle said.
“Inside decomposing wood, hundreds of species of fungi compete for carbon, but no one had a good way to predict whether one species might break wood down faster than any other. We showed that logs full of fungi that extend their bodies faster also break down wood faster,” Oberle said. “Why, then, don’t fungi all grow lightning fast? Fast-growing fungi are sensitive to water stress; they drown or dry out more easily than slow growers. That creates a kind of tradeoff between species that grow fast and furious (risking water stress) and others that grow slowly but surely (regardless of wood moisture). Biologists love these kinds of tradeoffs. Apparently, mathematical modelers do too.”
It made sense that the paper would be a candidate for the contest.
“I expect the competition organizers selected our research for a case study for several reasons. First, the biology is pretty easy to grasp: many different fungi break down wood, but no single species can be the best at everything. Second, our research involves microbiomes, which are very cool, and global climate change, which is very important,” Oberle said. “Finally, while the most basic mathematical models of wood decay should be familiar to any high school or undergraduate science student, experts continue to develop more sophisticated models every year.”
And Oberle is continuing to develop his own research—collaborating with his colleagues on more projects that explore the microbiome of decomposing wood.
“I’m working to apply these insights to manage environmental problems here in Sarasota. With support from the EPA, and in collaboration with other New College researchers and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, I’m working to understand how wood decay affects the success of ecological restoration of coastal habitats,” Oberle said. “I’m also exploring a new collaboration with New College researchers and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens to understand how sea level rise influences the breakdown of wood and other important materials in local cultural heritage sites.”
Oberle is thrilled that his research is inspiring young environmentalists—both in the New College classroom and beyond.
“As an environmental scientist and educator,” he said, “nothing tops inspiring young people to work together on creative solutions to challenging problems.”
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.