People behind the Science: Loren Rieseberg

The first in a series of monthly interviews on the Molecular Ecologist was a logical choice: Dr. Loren Rieseberg, the Chief Editor of our parent journal Molecular Ecology. Dr. Rieseberg is both a Professor in the Department of Botany at the University of British Columbia and a Distinguished Professor at Indiana University. He is best known for his work on the role of hybridization in evolution and speciation, particularly in sunflowers. He has won numerous awards including a MacArthur Fellowship. Below, we ask Dr. Rieseberg about his background, his thoughts on the field of molecular ecology, and how he does everything he does:

1) How did you come to work on sunflowers?  

Loren Rieseberg with his favorite plant

Loren Rieseberg with his favorite plant

When I arrived at Washington State University (WSU) in the fall of 1984 to begin my PhD, my advisor, Doug Soltis, handed me a copy of Verne Grant’s Plant Speciation and told me to find a problem. I was especially intrigued by Grant’s discussion of the potential role of hybridization in adaptation and speciation. Sunflowers were one of four classic examples of this process discussed by Grant, and were especially attractive to me because the sunflower genus also included two domesticated plants and several weedy species. Thus, it was an easy decision. I wrote and defended my proposal within three months after my arrival at WSU and also worked in a collecting trip to California, where I had the opportunity to take a short excursion with Ledyard Stebbins to observe a sunflower hybrid zone that he had been studying near Davis since the 1940s.

2) With over 300 papers published, what’s your favorite paper that most people don’t know about? 

There are a lot of these (regrettably)! However, one my favorites is a book chapter that I co-authored with a former postdoc (Alex Buerkle – now at U. Wyoming) and graduate student (Diana Wolf – now at U. Alaska):

Buerkle, C.A., D.E. Wolf, and L.H. Rieseberg. 2003. The origin and extinction of species through hybridization. Pages 117-141 in C.A. Brigham, and M.W. Schwartz (Eds.), Population Viability in Plants. Springer Verlag, Berlin.

The book chapter reports on a computer simulation that estimated the likely frequency of different evolutionary outcomes of hybridization. For those who are interested, we found that even a fairly weak reproductive barrier essentially eliminates extinction through hybridization. Also, the ecological and genetic conditions favoring hybrid speciation appear to very stringent. In contrast, adaptive trait introgression was a very frequent outcome in our simulations.

3) As Chief Editor of Molecular Ecology, can you describe your philosophy about the journal and its role in the field?  

Four general rules guide our decision-making at Molecular Ecology:

  • First, we base decisions about the acceptability of manuscripts for publication mainly on the quality of the science rather than on how well the manuscript fits the current scope of the journal. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, when papers are so different from what we typically publish that they would be of little interest to our readers. The rationale behind our emphasis on quality rather than scope is that we have seen many established journals decline because the perceived scope of the journal failed to expand quickly enough to capture studies based on new conceptual or technical advances. I do not want this to happen at Molecular Ecology.
  • My second rule is related to the first. We aim to publish papers that are both of high scientific quality and of broad importance to the field of molecular ecology. The first change I made after taking over as Chief Editor in 1999 was to establish an editorial policy that required papers to address a consequential question in ecology, evolution, behavior, or conservation and that discouraged papers that were primarily descriptive and/or only relevant to a single taxon. This editorial policy change helped define what papers we want or do not want to publish want and continues to provide direction for our editors.
  • A third rule is to provide an efficient, fair, and friendly editorial service for our authors. We take great care in recruiting new editors and staff. We find that the performance of reviewers in terms of speed, critical thinking, and fairness is highly predictive of how they will perform as editors. We also staff our editorial office with experts in molecular ecology (currently Dr. Tim Vines and Dr. Jen Gow). This leads to more rapid and thoughtful responses to author’s queries than would otherwise be possible and also helps ensure that similar scientific standards are employed for decision making across the journal.
  • Lastly, we are strong advocates of open data. Thus, we support and enforce the journal data archiving policy (JDAP). Journals that do not enforce data sharing, including some major Open Access journals, were recently shown to have very low rates of data availability (FASEB J 27, 1304–1308 (2013). Because unshared data are likely to be lost to science forever, we feel that more attention should be given to open data, and we do our best to make data archiving as straightforward as possible by directly coordinating uploads of data from accepted papers to Dryad.

In terms of our role in the field, I feel that the journal catalyzed the formation of the nascent field of molecular ecology in the early 1990s. We attempt to serve as the intellectual home for the community of molecular ecologists through the blog, symposia, our News and Views section, special issues and so forth. Lastly, we play a role in the setting of standards for the field both through our editorial policies and through the comments and opinions we publish.

Lab_Wordle

Rieseberg Lab wordle

4) What are some of the most exciting advances you’ve seen in the field since you’ve been Chief Editor? Any areas of research that you’re particularly excited about?

Advances in high-throughput sequencing have done most to revolutionize the field of course. It is amazing to me that very large genomic datasets can now be affordably generated for essentially any organism on the planet. Who could have predicted this 15-20 years ago when it was still a major challenge to develop and genotype a population for a handful of microsatellites?

I probably have been most gratified, however, by the many analytical advances in molecular ecology. When I became Chief Editor in late 1990s, I was worried about the viability of the field of phylogeography because of the paucity of robust analytical tools. Now the field is thriving as model-based methods allow phylogeographers to quantify the probability of different evolutionary scenarios (there is a nice discussion of this in the molecular ecology roadmap paper published earlier this year – Molecular Ecology (2013) 22, 2605–2626).

5) How do you balance running a research lab, collaborations and your editorial duties?

I do everything equally poorly.

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About John Stanton-Geddes

Postdoc at the University of Vermont studying adaptation to climate in a key seed-dispersing ant species.
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