Using mathematical models to explain plant community structures
If you have any preconceived notions of what a mathematician is supposed to sound like, perhaps based on representation from the media, a chat with Kenny Jops will have you thinking otherwise. Witty conversation, unfeigned curiosity, and deadpan humor are the trademarks of Jops, a graduate candidate in the Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior program at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who currently studies the math underlying plant communities.
Jops grew up on the northwest side of Chicago, near a large forest preserve along the city’s edge. This is where he says he made his first, perhaps unconventional, connection with nature.
“My friends and I would often ride our bikes up there and hit each other with sticks we found,” Jops joked. “You know, the stuff that boys do when they're unsupervised in a forest. That was my first connection to plants and trees, because the trees provided me the opportunity to hit my friends with sticks.”
In addition to playing in the forest, he said his mother also kindled his early interest towards nature.
“My mom is this awesome, second-wave feminist, hippie weirdo,” Jops said. “When they stopped providing bins for recycling in our neighborhood, she drove me out to this nature reserve where they have a whole recycling program. We would throw glass bottles into shipping crates and sort our recycling, and that experience got me thinking more about the environment and being eco-conscious.”
Growing up, Jops also had a profound love for math, which he says came naturally to him. He participated in Mathletes throughout school and excelled in his math classes. While attending Northwestern University for his bachelor’s degree, he double majored in math and environmental science.
“I thought it was the perfect way to apply math,” Jops explained. “There are really cool mathematical problems in biology that you don't get in other fields. And I appreciate that with biology, you have to step back every once in a while and think about what's actually happening in nature, and whether your math is applying correctly to reality.”
An analysis class with Jared Wunsch, a mathematics professor at Northwestern, cemented his love for math. Jops says though the class was difficult, it gave him the tools to be successful in his current work. He recalls spending hours a week with his friend trying to solve some of the homework problems.
“We would just completely dissociate from the world trying to solve these absurdly hard problems,” Jops said. “Those challenges really got me going, and now I can say that I don't need to learn any more analysis math for the rest of my life because of Wunsch.”
When he finished college, Jops joined a law firm as a contract consultant, but quickly grew to dislike it.
“Right out of undergrad I went into contract law, with my thought being ‘Well, I gotta make money, and this is what normal people do. Science and math is fun, but it’s time to get a big boy job.’ But that kind of work culture is not for me. I couldn’t take the thought of 50 more years of standing around the watercooler being asked how my weekend was.”
Jops decided to quit his job and enroll into graduate school, with the goal of eventually becoming a professor. He reached out to undergraduate mentors to discuss options for him, and they connected him with James O’Dwyer (CAIM), an associate professor of plant biology at University of Illinois. Jops is now a 5th year PhD candidate in O’Dwyer’s lab, studying the mathematical properties behind the processes that allow diverse communities of flora to live together. Jops creates mathematical models and theories that work to explain the biodiversity found in an ecosystem, and how varying plant life histories function within the community.
“Let’s say you have a fast-growing weed that produces tons of offspring, and a slow-growing tree that’s robust but takes years to mature,” Jops explained. “Despite having different strategies, they manage to live together, and they end up having the same long-term growth rate in the community. As a mathematician, I ask what makes this possible.”
Jops uses large databases of real-world data to create his mathematical models. First, he creates theoretical plants with varying properties based on what is seen in the wild. Then he uses an algorithm to test how the theoretical plants would fair in the real-world communities based on the real-world data. By changing out and testing different properties, he can create models explaining how these factors influence the diversity of plant communities.
“One of the really fun parts of my job is taking biological reality and trying to figure out what lines of code, equations, and probability distributions would make the model look real,” Jops said. “Basically, I throw the kitchen sink at things until I’ve used so much of the school’s computing resources that I feel bad and decide to go home, only to get an epiphany as soon as I’m there. Then I jump back on my laptop and try reworking the model again.”
His most recent paper was published in Nature. The study looks at niche partitioning of plant species, essentially the selective roles that plants evolve to fit into that allows them to share resources. Jops is also currently working on other projects involving new areas of interest, such as spatial modeling, population genetics, and the influence of external factors on community stability.
Jops says he enjoys graduate school, and work-life balance that the flexibility of his field allows for.
“I enjoy history-themed podcasts and books, as well as video games, and going out and doing ‘normal human’ social activities,” Jops said. “It sounds shocking but mathematicians do have hobbies. I actually think I have a good work-life balance. Since my most important tool is my computer, that allows me to work in the office, at home, or even while traveling. I’m not on the normal field season schedule of a biologist which is nice, so my work schedule is flexible.”
He says this makes it easier to travel to Chicago to see his friends and family, and to Europe to visit his girlfriend Hannah Scharf, former PhD candidate in the EEB program, now a postdoctoral researcher working with Great Tits at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, in Germany. “I want to give a shout out to Hannah!” Jops said, “She’s a great researcher with a cool position and cool system. And because of my flexibility I can pop away to Europe to see her and still work while I’m there, which is awesome!”