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Spotlight Series: Ekaphan “Bier” Kraichak and the Epiphytic Organisms of Khao Chong (& Santa Cruz, Too)

Ekaphan ”Bier” Kraichak is an Assistant Professor at Kasetsart University (Thailand), where he teaches courses on both botany and ecology and heads up the Biodiversity Ecology and Evolution Research Lab.  He has a passion for fieldwork and after studying in the United States for 12 years, he returned to Thailand where he researches epiphytes and tree dynamics in the Khao Chong plot.  He participated in the 2019 ForestGEO Analytical Workshop and, per the request of other workshop participants, assembled a playlist that makes for good background music to listen to while coding.

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

My first forest ecology project dates back to high school. I went to a high school in Bangkok, an hour north from my hometown, and when my teacher learned that my hometown was full of mangrove trees, he suggested that I do an ecology project to examine diversity of local mangrove forests. I didn’t think too much about his suggestion at the time but quickly realized that I am constantly drawn to natural history and working in the field. Even now, every time I try to branch out to other fields of biology, I find myself right back in the field, looking at trees and other things in the forest. I probably cannot say that I am a real forest ecologist, but more like an organismal biologist who is also interested in forest ecology.

Photo caption below.
Bier Kraichak during the epiphyte census in the Khao Chong plot.

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

Since high school, I tried working in different types of labs to figure out where I belong.  I got completely hooked when I took a Population and Behavioral Ecology Course during my undergraduate years, where we went to the field every week to collect data on various topics. Then I decided to do my undergraduate thesis at a small field site on a remote island in Canada. That experience made me believe that being an ecologist was the right call, so I decided to go to grad school to pursue a Ph.D. in plant ecology, and I have been lucky enough to land a job in Thailand, teaching botany and ecology.

The biggest challenge for starting my career as an ecologist was starting it in Thailand. I had been in the U.S. for almost 12 years and suddenly found myself at home with zero connection to the local foresters. They are a tightly knitted group, and it takes some time (along with the right place and right people) to get to know them and find myself working with them in Thai forests.

When did you first get involved in the ForestGEO network?

It all started at a Halloween party. One of my friends just got back from the ForestGEO site in Santa Cruz, California and could not stopped talking about it. He was amazed by how much work had been put into tagging and identifying all the trees in the plot and convinced me to go see it to cook up some side project that we could work on. A few weeks later, we found ourselves in the middle of poison oaks (2,000 of the 6,000 stems that we sampled at Santa Cruz are poison oaks) surveying lichens and bryophytes.  We did this work on a volunteer basis for the next six months.

Photo caption below.
Santa Cruz Field Crew: left – Bier Kraichak and Justin Schaffer, right – Justin Schaffer and Ben Carter (*Ben was the guy at the Halloween party)

This probably sounds like a dumb question, but are the poison oaks why everyone’s wearing the white suits and gloves – because of the prevalence of a tree that can cause a nasty rash upon contact?

Exactly! That’s why we were all in Tyvek suits (industrial grade for people working with chemicals). We all got rashes at the end in anyway, except for me!

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

I work primarily at Khao Chong (KC) Plot in Thailand. Being in Southern Thailand, the plot receives a lot of rain and has a similar set of species to the rest of wet tropical plots (Malaysia and Singapore). However, it does experience some distinct dry periods which bring about some unique phenological patterns that are distinct from those seen in floristically similar dipterocarp-dominated forests. Not to mention that we have more than 600 species of trees! That is both fun and daunting at the same time.

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

We have collected data on epiphytic lichens and bryophytes in Khoa Chong plot with the hope of addressing a long-standing question about the importance of host species in the occurrences of these epiphytic organisms. On the side, I am also looking into the co-occurrence of congeneric species of trees in this plot to determine if there are some non-random processes that might allow the co-existence of the closely related species from the same genus.

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

Our PI (Dr. Sarayudh Bunyavejchewin) is very committed to hiring local people on a permanent basis to help run several research programs in the plot. These local people know the plot so well and are now some of the best people to identify trees in the plot and surrounding areas. Many Ph.D. students from abroad have come through this plot for their theses, and I, myself, have brought a number of students to work here, and four of them have done their undergraduate and master’s theses from our work at the plot.

Photo caption below.
Caption: Bier and his students at the end of bryophyte/lichen census at Khao Chong. From top right clockwise, Panupong (B.S. thesis on lichens), Wannaporn (M.S. thesis on bryophyte communities), Sangsuree (B.S. thesis on epiphytes, now doing Master with plants from HKK plot), Bier (yours truly), Amarisa (B.S. thesis on bryophyte), Napat (B.S. student, research assistant)

What is your favorite part about your work?

Opportunities to really get to know the forest. It’s truly a humbling experience to work with such a large and extensive network of people who commit to the same standardized protocol and produce amazing datasets from the forest. It makes me aware that we know so little about the forests, and how much more work remains to be done.

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

I spend way too much time teaching and thinking about teaching biology and bio-statistics (does this count as studying?). Outside work, I enjoy good history books, addictive TV series, and trying out different recipes and restaurants.

Awesome!  Would you have any interest in sharing a recipe?

I did compile some of my Thai home-cook recipes a while back…they may or may not work in your kitchen!

Recent Publication

วรรณพร เอี่ยมศรี ณรงค์ วงศ์กันทรากร เอกพันธ์ ไกรจักร์. 2562. ความสัมพันธ์ของความมากชนิดและองค์ประกอบชนิดของไบรโอไฟต์ในชนิดของถิ่นที่อยู่ที่แตกต่างกัน. การประชุมพฤกษศาสตร์แห่งประเทศไทยครั้งที่ 13, 107-123.

(Eiamsri, W., Wongkantrakorn, N., & Kraichak, E.  (2019).  Associations of Species Richness and Composition of Bryophytes to Different Habitat TypesProceeding of 13th Botanical Conference of Thailand, 107-123)