Vaughn Shirey selfie on beach with mountains
News Story

Biology Ph.D. Student Recipient of 2020 GBIF Young Researchers Award

Vaughn Shirey, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology, is one of two winners of the 2020 Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) Young Researchers Awards. An expert jury has recognized Shirey for their effort to address data bias while modeling the long-term impacts of climate and land-use change on the butterflies that inhabit the boreal forests of North America and northern Europe.

Charting Their Own Path

Disparities in the availability of biodiversity data across space and time present challenges for modeling, measuring and mitigating threats like climate and land-use change. With the world’s boreal forests now facing rapid warming and widespread land conversion, the sparsity of data from these high-latitude environments only increases the difficulty and urgency of such challenges.

Combining butterfly data available through GBIF with trait data extracted from literature, Shirey’s research both examines a family of organisms particularly sensitive to global change and provides a model for using data with known gaps and biases to analyze high-priority conservation areas. 

The results synthesize a macroscale study of butterfly richness and composition trends in North American and European boreal forests between 1940 and 2019.

“GBIF-mediated data serves here as the backbone for making inferences about butterfly communities in a time of global change,” said Shirey. “The ‘pseudo-sampling’ technique I apply, alongside accounting for observer behaviors, can help develop best practices for using sparse, opportunistic occurrence records to understand biodiversity dynamics.”

Leslie Ries, a professor in the biology department who worked with Shirey in their lab at Georgetown, says that this award is “truly well-deserved.”

“Vaughn is a tremendously creative and independent thinker who has charted their own path since arriving at our lab,” she says. “With their combination of data science skills, passion for serving the community and commitment to high-latitude fieldwork in a vast and logistically challenging ecoregion, Vaughn has all the qualities of a leader for the next generation of ecologists.”

About the Award

Since its inception in 2010, the annual GBIF Young Researchers Award has sought to promote and encourage innovation in biodiversity-related research using data shared through the GBIF network.

Shirey is the second US national to win the award, after Kate Ingenloff in 2018 who was the first from Georgetown. They are the third nominated by the US delegation to GBIF, following Ingenloff and Andrés Lira-Noriega, a Mexican researcher then studying in the United States, who received an award in 2010, the first year of the award.

Shirey shares the award with Angel Luis Robles of Mexico. The pair will both receive a €5,000 prize and recognition at the upcoming GBIF Governing Board meeting.

-by Shelby Roller (G’19)