Professor Ricardo Holdo receives the Provost Outstanding Junior Faculty Research and Creative Activity Award

Ricardo Holdo
Melody Kroll
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Biological Sciences

The University of Missouri has named Ricardo Holdo, assistant professor of biological sciences, as recipient of the 2014 Provost Outstanding Junior Faculty Research and Creative Activity Award.

The annual award is presented to a junior faculty member on campus who demonstrates superior research and creative activity.

In nominating Holdo for the award, John C. Walker, professor and director of the Division of Biological Sciences, highlighted his strengths in the increasingly important field of computational biology.

“Rico came to MU with a truly impressive set of quantitative and computational modeling skills in addition to an established reputation as a first-class ecologist,” wrote Walker in his nomination letter. “Where he particularly stands out is in his ability to translate complex ecological phenomena into computational simulation models.”

Holdo studies tree communities in savanna ecosystems. He is particularly interested in how different ecological forces – competition, fire, grazing, climate, soil composition, etc. – influence tree growth, diversity, and distribution across the savanna landscape. Understanding tree communities is important because tree canopy influences everything from the variety of plants and animals found in the ecosystem to human interactions with it.

Holdo carries out his research in savannas throughout southern and eastern Africa. But his studies, says Curators’ Professor of Biological Sciences Ray Semlitsch, have broad implications to tree-grass systems worldwide, including in Missouri, Kansas, and the Great Plains. The reason, he says, is because Holdo’s research program is both “quantitatively rigorous” and “grounded in ecological theory.”

To tease apart the relative contributions of and interactions among the various ecological drivers of tree cover in savannas, he employs a combination of observational data, field experiments, and computer modeling with satellite imagery and remote sensing data. His studies span trophic levels – from soils to large herbivores – as well as multiple spatial scales – from individual plots to entire parks. His ultimate goal is to create a synthetic model of tree community dynamics in savannas.

His modeling of these multiple interactions is particularly significant, says Professor Anthony Sinclair. Sinclair, who is a renowned wildlife ecologist at the University of British Columbia, says that it is now clear that complex ecosystems are affected by numerous interacting factors and that the best understanding comes from modeling these multiple interacting factors, making predictions based on the models, and then going back to the field to make further observations.

“This is what Rico Holdo has done with remarkable success,” he says, adding that his work in this regard is “well ahead of the field.”

Holdo currently teaches two advanced computational biology courses, both of which he designed and developed since coming to MU. Both courses draw students from across the life sciences, not just biology. He also has attracted many graduate students to his lab. He is currently the primary advisor to four graduate students and serves on the committee of seven additional graduate students.

It is not just his knowledge about computational biology that attracts so many students to Holdo, says Semlitsch. “He cares just as much about teaching modeling to graduate student as he does about doing ecological research,” he says.

Holdo earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1994, his master’s degree from the University of Florida in 1999, and his doctor of philosophy degree from Princeton in 2005. Following a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of the theoretical ecologist Robert Holt at the University of Florida, he joined the faculty in the Division of Biological Sciences as an assistant professor in 2010.

As recipient of this year’s award, Holdo will receive an honorarium and will be recognized at the annual faculty awards dinner in the fall.

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