Our Researcher Spotlight Series profiles DataLab affiliated faculty, staff, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars across disciplines to demonstrate the diversity of our community and highlight their amazing work.
Ryan Peek is the new Drought Resiliency Coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He has been affiliated with UC Davis since 2011 and engaged with DataLab since its founding. Ryan obtained his PhD in Ecology with a certificate in Conservation Management from UC Davis in 2018, after which he was a postdoctoral scholar and Senior Researcher for the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences until 2022.
As an undergraduate at UC Davis, Ryan spent a summer doing frog surveys and removing invasive fish from lakes in the Sierras with the National Park Service. “I always liked frogs and fish and water,” he said, “but I never realized that was an avenue for employment. I realized how much I really enjoyed both working outside in aquatic biology, and how cool frogs were.” From then on, his career has been shaped by moving water and what lives there – specifically, amphibians in the western United States – and a lot of data.
After his master’s program, Ryan returned to Davis for his PhD and began to learn R. He got involved with D-RUG, enjoying the community and learning opportunities more than he expected. “D-RUG really kicked off a whole other world that I’ve used daily. It is a huge part of my work and life,” he notes. After completing the Carpentry instructor training and helping teach several Carpentries workshops, he started his journey as an instructor and became a co-coordinator of D-RUG. He also developed and taught the R-DAVIS courses, “which have been amazing and a huge success.”
The ability to quickly take any sort of data and visualize it and then tell a story about it has been the thing that learning data science tools has been really powerful for. I wish more people realized that it’s worth the pain of learning a new language, because it does open doors. You can do more things and connect more things in a way that it’s much harder to do otherwise.
Ryan’s investment in data science has transformed his ecological research. Using genetic data from amphibians and other organisms in streams and rivers has allowed him to “answer difficult questions we wouldn’t otherwise be able to get at in the field, either because there are so few frogs out there to study or because they’re very difficult to track down,” he explained. Excel, R, and Python—among other data science tools—enable him to find alternative ways of measuring and predicting patterns in ecological, environmental, and genomics data; for instance, when river flow is modified or regulated by dams. Ryan’s research asks “how do these altered flow regimes, or flow patterns, change the organisms that live in and around the river?” Data science and genomic tools allow him to measure these changes in a way that is often not possible using traditional field methods to count or observe these changes in person. “Genetics gives us the ability to go out once and sample a bunch of things, and answer all those questions about population change, genetic connections, and population movement in a different way. Then we have a mountain of data to wade through,” Ryan explains.
As Ryan starts a new phase in his career as the statewide Drought Resiliency Coordinator for the Wildlife Diversity Program, he’s looking forward to working with amphibians as well as reptiles, birds, and mammals – and lots and lots of data. He plans to continue with his conservation genetic work in parallel with his new responsibilities: “we are analyzing where [we can] restore populations by connecting populations and getting frogs on the landscape,” he says. He hopes his data-driven research will “help inform where we translocate or recolonize habitats to protect endangered species in the state.”
You can read more about Ryan’s work on his website and in his recent feature in the Sierra Club Magazine.