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ForestGEO Spotlight Series: Yan Zhu & the Donglingshan, China FDP

Yan Zhu is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences. She got her start with ForestGEO through fieldwork at the Gutianshan, China FDP during her PhD work in 2005, and she is now a PI of the Donglingshan, China FDP. Yan has cultivated a robust community at the plot, welcoming not only graduate students and early career researchers, but also plant lovers from the general public who support the plot through the Beijing Volunteer Service Federation. 

When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist/work in forest ecology? How did you decide to go down this career path?

It can be traced back to my experience of three years in Xinjiang, China. My master’s project was about tree selection and design of urban greening projects in Xinjiang, and I visited most of its cities to study the variety of urban greening styles across multiple cultures, including those of ethnic minorities. I also explored trees growing under natural conditions in the wild through field investigation to inform my recommendation of tree selection and design for urban greening projects. What touched me the most was the wild field investigation part. I was really shocked by the natural landscape of Xinjiang, where plants are so tough and vibrant in natural forests and grasslands, and even in extremely dry deserts. I was attracted by the wonders of nature formed by plants. Then after I got my master’s degree, I decided to change my major to pursue my PhD in forest ecology, advised by Prof. Keping Ma. After I finished my PhD, Dr. Ma kept me in his research lab, and I decided to continue down this career path.   

Yan Zhu standing in a meadow.
My career dream was sprouted in the field investigation of Xinjiang (2002-2005).  The photos were
taken after a heavy hail storm in the morning of a summer day in Zhaosu, Xinjiang.

What led you down the path to your current job? What has been your biggest challenge in getting to this point in your career?

As part of my PhD in 2005 I worked in the Gutianshan plot in Zhejiang, China. There I witnessed the establishment and development of the Chinese Forest Biodiversity Monitoring Network (CForBio), which now includes 24 large-scale forest dynamics plots. Because I was familiar with the research methods of the network and the process of building  large-scale forest plots, after I got my PhD in 2010, I started the work of building a new plot, Donglingshan of Beijing forests, and continued to do research based on the platforms of CForBio and ForestGEO.

My biggest challenge is to maintain a balance between my family and research life. I am a mom of two young children. Sometimes I have to take them to conferences or field work. Fortunately, the working environment in the field of ecology is very supportive of working parents. And my parents and parents-in-law have no big health issues for now, so they help me a lot.

When did you first get involved in the ForestGEO network?

My involvement in the ForestGEO network in China began when I was a PhD candidate in 2005. At that time, it wasn’t yet ForestGEO, but CTFS (the Center for Tropical Forest Science). I attended the CTFS-AA International Field Biology Course in 2007, as well as other workshops taught by ForestGEO staff scientists.   My first two papers in English were done using data from the Gutianshan plot (Zhu et al. 2010; 2013).  I also published two papers using data from the BCI plot (Zhu et al. 2015; 2018) when I was at Dr. Liza Comita and Dr. Simon Queenborough’s Labs at Ohio State University and Yale University, respectively. I greatly appreciate the support from CforBio and ForestGEO during my growth in scientific research.

What is the most interesting or unique aspect of your site?

The Donglingshan plot is located in the central area of ​​the warm-temperate zone of North China and is representative of the typical deciduous broad-leaved forest. It provides an important platform for research on warm-temperate deciduous broad-leaved forests and biodiversity. Because we use a shared, standardized methodology, it also contributes significantly in comparative research across temperate and tropical plots of both CforBio and ForestGEO. While part of the plot is a relatively primary forest, most of it is a secondary forest, which is useful in understanding the process of vegetation restoration in secondary forests.  This allows us to provide data-informed suggestions for approaches to vegetation restoration.

What questions are you currently addressing in your research/site?

My research mainly focuses on the study of conspecific negative density dependence (CNDD). My current research is addressing the difference of density dependence across latitudes from temperate zones to the tropics by analyzing data from CForBio and ForestGEO sites. In this work, we test whether a species in tropical forests suffer stronger negative density dependence than in the temperate forests, with the end goal of explaining why so many species coexist in tropical forests. Another aspect of my work is examining the variation of density dependence across different disturbed gradients of 12 1-ha plots in Gutianshan. I want to better understand the role of CNDD in forest restoration by monitoring seedling dynamics. Last summer, I became PI of the Donglingshan plot. I plan to continue doing work on density dependence, together with attention to functional traits, phylogeny, soil pathogens, etc.

What kind of capacity building opportunities does your site provide for students, early-career researchers, and the local community?

The Donglingshan plot can be an open research platform where people from the world can realize their ideas of nature exploration. We welcome master’s and PhD students, as well as early-career researchers, to do their research at the site. Students with biology backgrounds can intern with us and contribute to our work at the plot - the development of the Donglingshan plot needs their professional wisdom and effort. Meanwhile, the Donglingshan plot is a site of natural education in the broader Beijing community. We welcome volunteers from the general public who are plant lovers or interested in learning about forest ecology, as well as students from colleges, primary, and middle schools. We actually built the Donglingshan forest plot with the incredible support of the Beijing Volunteer Service Federation (BVF). We have also provided nearby residents with opportunities to make a living during the building and re-censusing of the plot. We and the local community are all happy to see a better and better Donglingshan forest.

Mosaic of images include field crew working in field, rolling hills of Donglingshan,  a white-brick building.
It takes about two hours to drive from the interior of Beijing City to our living place for field work at Beijing Forest Ecological Station, CAS. 
Then, it is about 20 minutes walking from our living place to the Donglingshan plot.

What is your favorite part about your work?

Actually, I love most of my work, I don’t have just one favorite part. I like to stay in the forests to enjoy the quiet and natural beauty. I also like to chat or discuss research work with students or colleagues and am often fascinated by the wisdom and interesting ideas of my peers. If I finally find good results after correcting R code and analyzing data again and again, it will make me ecstatic; publishing these research results gives me a sense of accomplishment.

What do you like to do when you’re not studying forest dynamics? 

Simply, I separate my time into two main parts, one is for my research, the other is to take care of my daughter and son. So, if I am not studying forest dynamics, probably I am doing work as a mother. I don’t feel my life is boring, conversely, very fulfilling, just I need to have some techniques to make life move smoothly.

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Selected Publications

Yan Zhu, Simon A. Queenborough, Richard Condit, Stephen P. Hubbell, Keping Ma, Liza S. Comita. Densitydependent survival varies with species lifehistory strategy in a tropical forest. Ecology Letters. 2018. 21: 506-515. DOI 10.1111/ele.12915.

Yan Zhu, Liza S. Comita, Stephen P. Hubbell, Keping Ma. Conspecific and phylogenetic density-dependent survival differs across life stages in a tropical forest. Journal of Ecology, 2015. 103: 957–966.  DOI 10.1111/1365-2745.12414.

Yan Zhu, Xiangcheng Mi, Haibao Ren, Keping Ma. Density dependence is prevalent in a heterogeneous subtropical forest. Oikos, 2010. 119: 109-119. DOI 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2009.17758.x.

Yan Zhu, Stephan Getzin, Thorsten Wiegand, Haibao Ren, Keping Ma.  The relative importance of Janzen-Connell effects in influencing the spatial patterns at the Gutianshan subtropical forest. PLOS ONE, 2013. 8(9): e74560. DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0074560.

Liza S. Comita, Simon A. Queenborough, Stephen Murphy, Jenalle L. Eck, Kaiyang Xu, Meghna Krishnadas, Noelle Beckman, Yan Zhu (2014) Testing predictions of the Janzen-Connell hypothesis: A meta-analysis of experimental evidence for distance- and density-dependent seed and seedling survival. Journal of Ecology, 2014. 102: 845–856.  DOI 10.1111/1365-2745.12232.

Yan Zhu, Gufeng Zhao, Liwen Zhang, Guochun Shen, Xiangcheng Mi, Haibao Ren, Mingjian Yu, Jianhua Chen, Teng Fang, Shengwen Chen, Keping Ma. (2008) Community composition and structure of Gutianshan forest dynamic plot in a mid-subtropical evergreen broad-leaved forest, east China. Journal of Plant Ecology, 32 (2), 262-273.  DOI 10.3773/j.issn.1005-264x.2008.02.004. (in Chinese with English abstract)