Wildlife studies attract Shrum chair

February 09, 2006, vol. 35, no. 3
By Jennifer Gardy

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With sightings of deer, bears and other wildlife so common at SFU's Burnaby Mountain campus, it often feels as if we're closer to nature than we are to the city.

For recently appointed faculty of science Shrum chair Steven Thompson, our lush forests and their denizens represent a return to his academic roots.

Thompson, a professor in the department of statistics and actuarial science, began his scientific career as a math major. Over the course of his studies, he cultivated an interest in issues surrounding wildlife ecology, particularly the study of bears in their natural habitat.

“I had an interest in finding study methods to estimate the number of bears without handling or otherwise disturbing them,” he notes.

Discussions with wildlife researchers led him to the study of the statistical aspects of ecology, and after completing a PhD at Oregon State University in 1982, Thompson headed north to Alaska's bear country.

“From grad school, I took a position in Kodiak with the department of fish and game,” recalls Thompson. “It was a great place - amazing amounts of fish and wildlife, a fjord-like coastline and lots of natural beauty.”

During his five years on Kodiak Island, Thompson worked on issues surrounding the commercial fishery. This work would form the basis of his career-long investigation into adaptive sampling methods - techniques that can be used to study hard-to-sample populations.

“Kodiak is where I first had the ideas for adaptive sampling - from going out on the survey vessels - because the fish were so unevenly distributed,” says Thompson.

“Animals, the commercial fishery, migrating birds - all of these populations are extremely uneven, unpredictable and very patchy,” Thompson explains. Adaptive sampling allows researchers studying these populations to more accurately estimate population characteristics by modifying their sampling techniques based on initial observations.

“When the survey vessel found low (fish) abundance in an area, they could move on to another area,” Thompson says, “while when they found extremely high abundance, they could spend more time in that area.”

Adaptive sampling also has uses beyond wildlife measurement. The technique can be applied to the study of human populations, including one of particular interest to the Lower Mainland public health community.

“I was asked to look at populations at high risk for HIV such as injection drug users and sex trade workers,” says Thompson. “There's no standard way to sample these people.”
“With adaptive sampling, social scientists and field workers identify some of these people, talk to them, gain their confidence and find out who their social contacts are. They can then be introduced to these people, too. It's the adaptive sampling idea but using social links.”

More recently, Thompson has investigated sampling procedures for moving populations.
“We were motivated by the problem of placing sensors to detect harmful micro-organisms in the atmosphere, but the results apply to any situation where the population and the sampling units move, like surveys of migrating whales from boats.”

At SFU, Thompson plans to continue his research into sampling techniques for both animal and human populations, and is interested in exploring the integration of experimental design with sampling.

Thompson is especially excited about the opportunities that the position of Shrum chair affords.

“I can get out and talk with people in different fields, which is something I've always liked to do.”

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