5 October 2016

A young Lancaster University researcher has won a prestigious international award for using big data methods to predict plant and animal species distributions

Juan M. Escamilla Mólgora, a Mexican PhD student within the Lancaster Environment Centre, is one of only two recipients of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) Young Researcher’s Award.

Juan won the award for his work: ’A network-based geo-statistical approach for reconstructing local ecological communities’, which combines elements of mathematics, ecology and software development. Focused on Mexico’s ecological communities, the goal is to produce open-source modelling software capable of predicting how likely a given species is to occur at a certain place and time based on the presence of other species. This is important when planning to protect migrating species due to the effects of climate change.

The research project will apply computational analysis and complex network theory to the species and groups of organisms that form constituent components of Mexico’s ecological communities. An initial statistical framework will use mathematical rules to define ‘equivalence relationships’ between species that hinge on presence of co-occurring groups of organisms and environmental variables.

The proposed modelling software would provide the means for using data available from sources like the GBIF (an international open data biodiversity infrastructure, funded by governments) network, combined with environmental and other data, to infer probable local patterns of species occurrence.

“My research really aims to improve our understanding of mathematical structures that link ecological and environmental processes,” said Juan. “The information available through GBIF for taxonomic classifications, geographic locations and collection dates is essential to developing a data-science statistical approach to species distribution modelling. It is extremely pleasing to have been selected as a winner of this award.”

“Juan’s project is complex and novel because it takes into account the spatial and temporal dimensions of the species distribution together with the effects due to species co-occurrence,” said Dr Luigi Sedda, a lecturer in Spatial Epidemiology at Lancaster University Medical School and who supervises Juan’s research along with Professor Peter Diggle and Professor Peter Atkinson, Dean of the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology.


“He’s a talented informatics and data scientist with a huge passion for geographic information systems, biodiversity and ecology,” added Dr Sedda.

The GBIF Young Researchers Award aims to foster innovative research and discovery in biodiversity informatics by encouraging graduate students to use biodiversity data mobilised through the GBIF network of member states and organisations.

Juan shares the 2016 Young Researcher Award with Bruno Umbelino da Silva Santos, a Master’s student from Brazil conducting research in the 21st Century Conservation Laboratory at the Federal University of Alagoas’ Institute of Biological Sciences and Health. The GBIF Science Committee commended both award recipients for embracing ‘research innovation, originality and the creative use of GBIF-enabled data.’

Juan is a member of Lancaster’s Data Science Institute and CHICAS (Combining Health Information, Computation and Statistics) group.