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Spotlight Series: Fangliang He & the Many Magic Moments

Fangliang He is a Professor and Canada Research Chair (Tier I) in Biodiversity & Landscape Modeling at the University of Alberta, Canada.  He is a Principal Investigator of three ForestGEO plots in China (Hainan, Heishiding, and Baishanzu) and got his start with ForestGEO through use of Pasoh plot data during his PhD.  He deeply appreciates opera.   

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

To be honest, forestry and ecology did not really come to my mind until I was in the fourth year of university. For much of university, I was very determined that I wanted to be a geneticist and evolutionary biologist, even though I had been accepted through a forestry program. I was so fascinated by the simplicity and elegance of the Mendelian law that I learned from my genetics course. Although it had been settled by the time I was in university, my retrospective reading of the debate that took place in China during the Cultural Revolution between Michurinism and Neo-Darwinism really piqued my interest in evolution. However, for whatever reason that I cannot remember now, magic happened. One day in my fourth year, I just decided I wanted to go to graduate school for ecology, or more precisely “mathematical ecology” because of my love of math (my dream during high school was to go to university to study math).

My interest in ecology and math continued to grow during my three years at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where I pursued my MSc. Afterwards, I decided to go to North America for PhD study in math ecology. I ended up in Pierre Legendre’s lab in Montreal in 1990 for quantitative ecology, and later on I went to the University of Victoria for an additional MSc in statistics. It has been a long journey, but when I look back today I don’t have a moment of regret for choosing ecology. My early interest in population genetics has lived well and empowers me to see the ecological world from an evolutionary perspective (see He & Hu, 2005; Hu, He, & Hubbell, 2006). In my humble opinion (and building upon the words of Dobzhansky), “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution and ecology.

Researchers sitting and standing in a tropical forest.
Researchers in the Hainan plot, 2012: Dr. Han Xu (right front, PI of the plot), Prof. Fangliang He (center front), Dr. Yu Liu (back right), and Prof. John Spence (back middle).

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

Right after I completed my PhD in 1993, I joined the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) as a postdoc research fellow. Two years later I was hired as a research scientist, working at the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria on Vancouver Island, a position that I held for 10 years. One of the major research projects that I undertook with CSF summer students was the establishment of six one-hectare stem-mapping plots along a chronosequence in the Sooke Watershed that supplies drinking water to the Greater Victoria region. These plots have led to several widely cited publications (see He & Duncan, 2000; Getzin, et al., 2006) on spatial patterns and dynamics of the magnificent BC coastal temperate rainforests and are still in use by the Capital District Region and the CFS for monitoring the impact of forest succession on the watershed and water quality.

In 2003, I was surprised to be contacted by the University of Alberta and offered the position of Canada Research Chair; I joined UofA in the fall of that year. That was a major change. Moving from a government lab to a university setting offered new, exciting opportunities for my career, but the change from the coast to the prairies also proved to be a challenge for my family. After 20 years in Alberta (which now we enjoy), I have learned how long it can take for one (or any life) to adapt. Adaptation is a business of the long haul.

When did you first get involved in the ForestGEO network?

My involvement in the network started when I was a student in Pierre Legendre’s lab. I was looking for spatial data to do reaction-diffusion modeling in the early stage of my PhD thesis research. At the time James LaFrankie was looking for expertise in spatial analysis. He flew from Boston to Montreal one morning in Spring 1992 and showed Pierre the Pasoh data over a sandwich lunch in the lab. Pierre turned to me, and said, “Here are the spatial data. Do whatever you want.” I did not fully realize the significance of the data until a few months later after I read Peter Diggle’s book Statistical Analysis of Spatial Point Patterns. That was another truly magical moment that changed my research direction and forever hooked me up with the CFTS network (the Center for Tropical Forest Science, now ForestGEO).

My PhD thesis was about the spatial point pattern analysis of the Pasoh species, which led to the publication of some of the first papers about the Pasoh plot. After completing my PhD in 1993, I sent Peter Ashton and Steve Hubbell a copy of my thesis. Steve told me that before he retired, UCLA archived his correspondence, and the letter that I sent him (accompanying the thesis) was part of the archive. But it was not until the late summer of 1998 that I first time met Steve at the CTFS meeting in DC.

My connection with ForestGEO would be deemed incomplete if I didn’t mention my involvement with the first Chinese plots to join the network. I had long been interested in expanding the CTFS network to temperate forests after I established those small plots on Vancouver Island. In late 2002, I met then Deputy Director-General, Dr. Yiyu Chen, a prominent ichthyologist, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences when he led a delegation to visit Canada. I asked him to help connect me with ecologists in China who might be interested in the idea of “plotting.” With a list of names in hands, I eventually met Keping Ma in Beijing in the summer of 2003. He immediately fell in love with the idea of mapping trees, again another magical moment. We later assembled a group of like-minded people, including I-Fang Sun, Zhanqin Hao, Xihua Wang and Wanhui Ye, to start the very first four plots in China (Changbai, Tiantong, Gutian and Xishuangbanna plots, varying from 20 to 25 ha in size). The number of plots in China following ForestGEO protocol has since mushroomed; I have already lost count of them but should be close to 30. A good number of them have not yet been part of the ForestGEO network. Hmm, it sounds like I have a job to do here.

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

I am associated with many plots in China but none are MY plot, de facto. I am more closely tied with some than others, e.g., I am a PI of the Baishanzu 25-ha plot (which is located in my hometown), Heishiding 50-ha plot, and Hainan 60-ha plot. I am also closely affiliated with the Tiantong 20-ha plot. Each plot is unique in many ways, but they also share many things. For example, the Baishanzhu plot is home to a living fossil fir (Abies beshanzuensis M.H. Wu) that I wrote about in 2009. In the Hainan plot lives the largest water strider, Gigantometra gigas (Heteroptera: Gerridae), in the world!

Image caption below.
Baishanzu fir and Dr. Yu Liu, July 2021. Photo credit: F. He
Researchers wading in a river.
Catching water strider in the stream of the Hainan plot, 2015. Mr. Mingxian Lin (middle), local field support staff, is a remarkably enthusiastic person with a consistently cheery disposition even when things don't go as planned in the field.
Image caption below.
Prof. John Spence, entomologist, from University of Alberta holding a water strider in the stream of the Hainan plot, 2012. Photo credit: F. He

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

My team and I have been working on plant-soil microbe interactions and the impact of global change on them over the past several years. We have recently expanded that interest to aboveground, with a great focus on broader ecological networks, of which plant-microbe interactions is a part.\


VIDEO!  Soil sampling in Tiantong plot in September 2018.  Video credit to F. He.

Over the past 2.5 months, China more than anywhere else on the planet has been roasted by extreme heat and drought. A group of plot PIs in the country are currently working together to assess the assault of the extreme weather on seedling survival and tree growth across the plots. This could contribute to understanding the impact of extreme weather on forest ecosystems and their functions.

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

I am grateful for the many opportunities the network provides to bring people together. Over the years, I have supported more than 30 students and young researchers from the plots in China to come to my lab in Canada for 4 – 12 months to join in collaborative research. More specifically, I usually funded one or two students from each newly established Chinese plot to come to my lab to learn R and analyze their plot data. I also supported a young scientist from the Pasoh plot to visit my lab to show my gratitude and my special connection with Pasoh. These connections that the network facilitated are a great reward of my career and my life. I feel enormously privileged and satisfied to be able to associate with this group of wonderful people.

I would also like to mention that the establishment of the ECNU-Alberta Joint Lab for Biodiversity Study five years ago (between the University of Alberta and East China Normal University) has taken capacity building to new heights. The joint lab provides an intellectually rigorous environment for training graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows, exchanging international students between ECNU and UofA (as well as other universities, e.g., Sherbrooke, UQAM, Adelaide), and hosting international visitors. We welcome and provide support to anyone who is interested in ecological study in China to visit the joint lab.

What is your favorite part about your work?

I have been constantly inspired by the simplicity, the complexity, and the subtlety of the forest plots. By simplicity, I mean I can see, touch, and even smell every single tree in the plot. I know who they are, how big they are, and exactly where they are located - even where their neighbors are located. Nothing can be simpler. But when they come together they form perplexingly complex patterns of distributions and composition (just try to map species in different colors in R to see that with your own eyes!) The complexity is so elusive that even the most brilliant theoreticians are not able to develop a theory capable to describe it. This is the world we live in; the world that inspires. There are many unknowns. What we do know, however, is that there is no single hand behind what we see; rather, the great subtlety of interactions and randomness reign.

Each time when we answer one question, more arises. It is this challenge that makes the favorite part of my work.

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

I have long been a jogging enthusiast. I jog 10K once a week, regardless of weather conditions (sunny, raining, or snowing) and regardless of where I am (Gamboa, Hainan, Fushan, or Bangalore). My 10K record is 49 min and 1 second! (Victoria City 10K run; April 24, 2022). I am also an opera lover (sound like an old-fashioned man?). La Bohème, Tosca, and Figaro among many others are my favorite. I don’t know Italian but Google translation helps. The sadness, the happiness, the love, the hatred, the vengeance, the remorse, the hope, the hopeless, and the despair sung behind the arias and the magnificent human voices are so contagious and powerful. They give me a kind of real touch of humanity. I just love them.

Fangliang running.
Jogging in Edmonton river valley, Spring 2022.

Web Presence: Biodiversity & Landscape Modeling Group


Select Publications

Liu, Y. & He, F. (2022).  Warming shifts soil microbial communities and tropical tree seedling mortality.  Ecology.

Boyce, S. & He. F. (2022). Political governance, socioeconomics, and weather influence provincial GHG emissions in Canada. Energy Policy 168, 113019.

Jiang, Y., Wang, Z.-H., Chu, C.-J., Kembel, S. & He, F. (2022). Phylogenetic dependence of plant–soil feedback promotes rare species in a subtropical forest. Journal of Ecology 110, 1237-1246.

Deane, D.C., Xing, D.-L., Hui, C., McGeoch, M. & He, F. (2022). A null model for quantifying the geometric effect of habitat subdivision on species diversity. Global Ecology and Biogeography 31, 440-453.

Liu, Y. & He, F. (2021). Warming intensifies soil pathogen negative feedback on a temperate tree. New Phytologist 231, 2297-2307.

Xing, D.-L. and He, F. (2020). Analytical models for β-diversity and the power-law scaling of β-deviation. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 12, 405-414.