Faculty Spotlight: Scott Burgess, Assistant Professor of Biological Science

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"The role of biologists like me is basically to understand how nature works so we can explain why biological changes have occurred, predict what biological changes will occur in the future, and communicate this information to stakeholders," Burgess says.


Scott Burgess is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Science, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Tell us a little about your background.

I’m from Australia. After my bachelor’s degree from the University of Sydney and James Cook University, I worked for several years at the Australian Institute of Marine Science as a coral ecologist and spent about 100 days per year living on a research vessel and surveying coral reefs along the Great Barrier Reef. After that, I got my Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Queensland. In 2011, I moved to the U.S. to do postdoctoral research on a fellowship at the University of California Davis, before moving to FSU in 2014.

When did you first become interested in topics such as the population biology of coastal marine invertebrates?

I grew up in Perth and on the coast of Western Australia and spent a lot of time at the beach (surfing, camping and hiking) and on the water (boating, snorkeling and diving). So I’ve always had a fascination and respect for life in the ocean. But it was not until my last year as an undergraduate that I realized I wanted to study ecology and evolution.

I went on a field trip to the rocky intertidal zone, which is above water at low tide and underwater at high tide. While there, I had to look closely at organisms doing their thing, come up with a hypothesis for what I saw, then design an experiment to test if I was wrong. I loved the challenge of coming up with interesting ideas for how some part of nature works, and confronting them with data. Now I consider myself an ecologist, or evolutionary ecologist, who happens to study marine things.

What are your current research interests, and what makes you passionate about them?

My research is broadly focused on how biological populations adapt and persist in the presence of environmental variation and change. I study things like who mates with whom and why, where tiny larval stages disperse in ocean currents and why, as well as how successful they are in their new habitat, and why. At the moment, my group works on marine invertebrates such as bryozoans, oysters, sea squirts and marine snails (conch) in the Gulf of Mexico.

I also work at Mo’orea, in French Polynesia, on the processes that influence coral resilience. Some corals there (species in the genus Pocillopora) appear to recover particularly well after cyclones, bleaching and being eaten by sea stars, but these corals also show varying levels of susceptibility and tolerance throughout their wider geographic range in the Indo-Pacific. I am basically trying to figure out why this is.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?

Human welfare, in terms of health, economy, jobs and income, is tightly linked to the health of the ocean and coastal habitats. For example, just think of oysters in Apalachicola Bay. Historically, it was one of the most productive oyster systems in the world; now, a complicated web of factors have reduced the abundance and survival of oysters. Families in the area who had relied on oystering for generations have faced the near-total loss of their livelihoods.

The role of biologists like me is basically to understand how nature works so we can explain why biological changes have occurred, predict what biological changes will occur in the future, and communicate this information to stakeholders. This means that fundamental research on topics that might seem abstract to the public in fact provide the crucial building blocks needed to solve environmental problems, even if they are not directly related. Use-inspired fundamental research should be valued, protected and supported in order to reduce uncertainty when the public, resource managers and policy makers make decisions about how to solve environmental problems.

Who are your role models? Who has influenced you most in your life?

I highly respect the people who have mentored me along the way, the people I collaborate with, and the people that really push fields forward, be it in science, music, art or sport.

What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?

The people. I have excellent colleagues in the Department of Biological Science. Not only are there some top researchers here, but everyone is unusually collegial and supportive.

I was also drawn to the fact the FSU has a marine research laboratory down at St. Teresa, about an hour from campus. The FSU Coastal and Marine Lab has been very supportive of my group’s research in the Gulf of Mexico. The research facilities across FSU are also quite good.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I like being able to discover new ways that nature works and telling everyone about it. The flexibility and support to be innovative in research and teaching is incredibly helpful. Inspiring students from diverse backgrounds to learn and to think independently, rationally and critically is also rewarding. Finally, I enjoy doing research with smart, ambitious people who are driven by doing the best science, but also know how to unwind at the end of the day!

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Getting funding for research, and supporting an active lab group, is challenging. I’ve been lucky lately, but it does take significant time and effort.

How do you like to spend your free time?

I like to be outdoors in nature. It’s also how I stay mentally healthy. I like trail running, especially in the forested areas around Tallahassee. I still like to surf, hike and travel.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

I would hope that they would develop an appreciation for the role of science, and the scientific method, for generating knowledge, and evaluating alternative pieces of information to understand how nature works and how humans affect the healthy ecosystems and climate we rely on.