Dr. Kate Thibault Brings Long-Term and Big-Scale Perspectives to Battelle

alt=Kate Thibault in the field in 2011, using a wildlife PIT tag reader.

The study of ecology is important at any scale, from the smallest mammals to continental carbon flux patterns. Dr. Kate Thibault understands this better than most.

As the Science Lead for the U.S. National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a program funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by Battelle, she provides scientific and budget oversight of NEON Science Team activities. The NEON program, with 81 field sites across the U.S. and intended to collect standardized data and samples for 30 years, is designed to allow researchers to draw upon its free and open resources for ecological study.

It’s a program with thousands of assets and over 500 staff across 24 states and Puerto Rico. Although her career path started with small organisms, Thibault expertly manages the science components of this massive, continental-scale Observatory.

From Small Mammals to Big Data

She was drawn to ecology the way many people are—through her love of animals. She initially planned to become a vet at Boston College, but discovered her passion for ecology and wildlife biology, leading her to earn a Bachelor of Science in Biology.

Studying ecology piqued her interest in small mammals – affectionately called “smammals” at NEON – and she learned just how critical they are to ecosystems of all types. “Small mammals, including bats and rodents, among a few other groups, are among the most abundant and diverse mammals on Earth, occurring in nearly all terrestrial ecosystems,” she explains. Small mammals are pollinators, seed dispersers, consumers, predators, and prey.

“From a practical perspective, they are relatively easy to trap and study,” she says. “And they are, of course, adorable.”

alt=closeup photo of a kangaroo mousePhoto: Thibault’s favorite small mammal: the Kangaroo Rat. These charismatic critters have cheek pouches to store seeds. Well-suited for harsh environments, they generate all of their water through metabolism, and some are even resistant to rattlesnake venom. (Credit: Nevada Department of Wildlife).

In the late 1990s, Thibault  experienced life on Colorado’s Front Range by spending summers studying the bats in Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks with Dr. Rick Adams of the University of Northern Colorado. She later earned her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of New Mexico, focusing on desert rodent communities in Arizona. Then Dr. Thibault moved to Utah State University, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in macroecology and served as an adjunct professor at Furman University, teaching field classes based in New Mexico, Costa Rica, and South Africa.

During her graduate work, she was a contractor for more than ten years for various federal agencies, including the USFS, BLM, and DOD designing and implementing bat studies throughout New Mexico. The NSF and other agencies have funded her research, which has led to over 20 papers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, American Naturalist, and Ecology, among others.

Broadly, she is interested in the processes underlying community assembly, biodiversity, and the dynamics of vertebrate communities. She wants to know how applying data science tools to ecological questions can expand the field of ecology and foster open, reproducible workflows in science.

Two Missions, Same Drive

In 2011, Thibault joined the NEON program as a vertebrate ecologist, responsible for small mammal and breeding bird sampling and data products. She brought with her experience from a postdoctoral research position, where she studied the community dynamics of birds and mammals across various scales. By 2015, she transitioned into a co-lead role for the Terrestrial Observation System, overseeing over 20 standardized protocols for diverse organism sampling and biogeochemical measurements. Since 2017, she has been serving as the NEON Science Lead.

When Battelle won the NEON contract in 2016 to complete the Observatory construction and manage operations, she felt that the Battelle mission resonated with her. “I am like every other ecologist and environmental scientist who chose these fields with a shared goal of conserving, restoring, and sustaining healthy ecosystems and wildlife populations for the good of humanity. This mission falls squarely within the broader mission of Battelle.”

alt= NEON Science Lead Kate Thibault kneeling next to a rodent trapPhoto: Kate has conducted small mammal research throughout her career, focusing on rodent communities in deserts

Thibault is driven by NEON's mission to gather and provide top-quality open data, which aids in understanding ecosystem dynamics on a large scale amidst climate and land use changes. She believes this data is vital for scientists and policymakers. Despite the challenges and time constraints of managing NEON, she finds the scientific discoveries enabled by NEON's data and resources rewarding.

The NEON science team ensures the quality of the vast data generated, optimizes designs, and collects remote sensing data. In collaboration with cyber, field, and engineering experts, they are continuously working on creating more advanced and automated systems to identify and address quality issues; recently, the teams moved all data to a cloud computing environment, opening exciting possibilities for AI applications in data use.

“The NEON science team is the best. They are passionate, intelligent, and highly skilled scientists who are good people who care about their colleagues and are fun to be around. The team includes ecologists, environmental scientists, project managers, data scientists, and remote sensing payload operators – all unified in their drive to support NEON’s mission with high-quality data.”

The science team also collaborates closely with the NEON user community to enhance and increase NEON's value. They work with scientists from Battelle and beyond to broaden the Observatory's impact. "Thanks to Battelle’s internal R&D program, I've worked with several Battelle scientists and Dr. Rita Colwell. We've been exploring the viromes of mosquitoes collected by NEON using advanced lab and informatics techniques. We're looking forward to submitting our findings for publication soon."

Photo: Kate Thibault and other NEON staff at the Sycamore field site (SYCA) in Arizona, 2022.Photo: Thibault and other NEON staff at the Sycamore field site (SYCA) in Arizona, 2022.

The vision for NEON is to contribute significantly to science over the next three decades. She believes that we can maintain healthy and productive environments by improving our understanding of ecosystem dynamics across various scales, even in resource-limited areas. She also emphasizes the importance of engaging a diverse group of people to understand and benefit from this data. Her goal is to inspire communities to gather similar data, fostering a deeper connection between people and the land and its many societal benefits.

Women in STEM

Like many scientists, Thibault faced challenges in her career. During her undergraduate studies, she felt fortunate to have excellent professors, opportunities for fieldwork on Cape Cod, and work experience at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

She acknowledges that earning a Ph.D. is a humbling journey requiring persistence, confidence, and hard work. She notes the added challenge of being a woman in a field traditionally dominated by men. However, she credits her supportive mentors and colleagues and her early diverse field experiences for building her confidence. “The life of a field biologist requires many days, weeks, and months away from home. Pursuing a career after earning a Ph.D. requires acceptance of temporary appointments and a willingness to relocate as needed. Balancing family and finances through all the chaos is no small feat. I feel so privileged to have spent time in the field worldwide and to have established a career that is so rewarding to me.”

As for advice to other people in STEM who may be facing similar challenges, she suggests seeking out the right people as advisors, collaborators, and friends. “It is rarely worth it to continue working with people who do not fundamentally support you as a person and fellow scientist.”

Learn more about the NEON program at neonscience.org and Battelle at battelle.org.

The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)

Uncover the ecological secrets hidden across diverse ecosystems.

April 02, 2024
Battelle Insider
Estimated Read Time
6 Mins


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