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Statistician Helps Researchers from Montana to Antarctica Examine Diverse Ecological Questions

October 8, 2012 -- Amy Stix

Megan Higgs. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.
A harbor seal with a satellite transmitter on it’s back
in Cook Inlet, AK. The transmitter is used to collect
dive depth data. Photo courtesy of Dave Withrow,
Polar Ecosystems Program,
National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

From her office in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, Megan Higgs, assistant professor of statistics, collaborates with people across campus, and the country.

“I really try to keep my research tied to real problems. That’s the point of statistics,” says Higgs. She notes that “number crunching,” a term often associated with her field, is, in reality, a much smaller facet of a statistician’s daily work.

Rather, says Higgs, she prefers to focus on helping researchers refine their research questions and effectively design studies before data are collected. After data collection, she helps researchers appropriately analyze data and interpret results.

To that end, Higgs works with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to address questions about grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and has helped researchers studying blister rust in whitebark pine assess whether accurate predictions of infection can be made related to climatic and topographic variables. She also collaborates with graduate students in ecology on numerous research projects, ranging from the relationship between cow elk predation and habitat characteristics in Yellowstone, to individual variability in reproductive success of Weddell seals in Antarctica. Higgs has even helped the head biologist of Grand Teton National Park develop a model for predicting pregnancy status of bison through analysis of the fecal progesterone content in their scat. The results of this study will be published in the December 2012 Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Outside the region, Higgs has assisted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory to develop methods for analyzing dive depth data from harbor seals in Alaska. That work was published in the September 2012 issue of Biometrics. More recently, Higgs began collaborating with the University of Idaho’s Fish Ecology Research Lab to address questions related to the impact of Columbia River dams on the anadromous Pacific Lamprey fish.

According to Higgs, her broad-ranging work is grounded in “developing and applying rigorous methods to quantify the uncertainty in estimates (from scientific data).” 

She stresses that the use of statistics is most effective to researchers before they set off in the field, because the decision to use statistical inference shapes how researchers should approach a problem.

 “The whole process starts with posing your question.”

Updated: 06/19/2013