Chancellor's Friday Letters

Professor Allen’s Network

Professor Allen’s Network

May 14, 2010

Dear Friends,

What is an embedded network sensor, and why does it matter?

First, let me say that the National Science Foundation finds it important and, since 2002, has provided core funding for faculty from three UC campuses, as well as Cal Tech and USC.

The Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, which UCLA hosts, is a national best practice model of how partnerships can be formed to focus on important matters for society and our quality of life (http://research.cens.ucla.edu/).

UCR’s lead on our aspect of the project is Professor Mike Allen, who chairs the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology as well as our Center for Conservation Biology (http://ccb.ucr.edu/). Co-investigators include John Rotenberry (Chair/Professor of Biology; Director, Natural Reserve System) and Darrel Jenerette (Assistant Professor of Functional Landscape Ecology). Several students and post-docs have been involved.

UCR’s work has focused on developing a terrestrial ecology observing system.

Typically, studying natural ecosystems requires the very labor intensive approach of recording temperature, soil constituents including water, animal movement, plant and tree growth, etc. As you can imagine, these types of measurements are made infrequently, and so the data provide general insights into the average behavior of an ecosystem, but not the important fluctuations around the averages that actually occur.

Furthermore, studying systems, say by taking many soil samples, disturbs an ecosystem, and just the act of taking the measurements runs the risk of altering the data in a way that renders it meaningless.

The contributions from Mike, John and Darrel allow us to study the ways in which ecological systems, such as in forests, actually behave in real time and simultaneously in many locations above and below the soil surface, without disturbing these growing and dynamic systems.

This is done by placing very sophisticated instruments in a variety of locations above and below the soil surface, and connecting the recorded data output into a network, which paints a picture of how an ecosystem really works.

These sensors measure such things as carbon dioxide levels, temperature, and soil moisture, and make multiple measurements during the course of a day – day in and day out. They are connected in time and in spatial relationship to each other.

This approach allows us to understand what really occurs when an animal disturbs an individual tree, and when phenomena such as a monsoon, snowfall, drought or even a hurricane occur.

The embedded sensors can study big events, as well as such tiny occurrences such as root growth and development down to the level of root fungi … which are instantly responsive to changes in the environment. Fungal hyphae are microorganisms that function in this context as a “canary in a coal mine,” a sentinel or dashboard indicator of what is about to occur on a profound scale.

Amazing, actually.

So, let me come back to my opening question … why does this matter?

Beyond the basic and applied science interest, this new level of sophistication enriches our scientific knowledge about our environment. And so, when policy makers, business interests, and the public discuss environmental matters, those discussions can be informed by real and unbiased data, and not overrun by political, economic or ideological agendas.

Indeed, we hope to soon see these sensors in our national parks, where the resulting site-based images, rich datasets, and subsequent modeling will allow better management of these national treasures.

Our goal is to inform policy with the best science available. This is a wonderful and inspiring example of the core function of the “honest broker” piece of UCR’s mission of contributing to society.

That matters.

Best regards,


Tim White, Chancellor

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