Alberta Researcher Profile
Who: Dr. Nadir Erbilgin
Professor and Chair, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, past Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Department of Renewable Resources.
Dr. Nadir Erbilgin is a Professor and Chair for the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta. His research group specializes in Forest Entomology and Chemical Ecology with a broad emphasis on invasion biology, plant-symbiont interactions, and plant-insect-disease susceptibility to insects and diseases. In particular, he focuses on how biotic stressors (i.e., insects and diseases) and abiotic stressors (i.e., drought) alter plant defences and anatomy and how these changes in turn affect trees’ suitability to such stressors. He also investigates the consequences of insect outbreaks in soil microbial communities and their subsequent downstream effects on host plant suitability to biotic organisms.
For Dr. Nadir Erbilgin, science has always been an interest and a passion, but it has also become a tool for interacting and engaging with the world and environment around him.
Following his postdoctoral research, Erbilgin became an Associate Specialist in the Division of Organisms and Environment at the University of California, Berkeley (USA) and is currently a Professor and the Department Head of Renewable Resources in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.
Through this, Erbilgin has become an expert on facilitating learning and believes that a large part of this is admitting that he is still a student himself.
“I really feel that I'm a long-time learner… we know so very little about natural events and their consequences, concerning natural resources surrounding us, we might not [ever] have a full understanding… We, my group, contribute [one] part, other groups may contribute other parts, eventually our [knowledge] is going to [grow].”
As a result of his research opportunities, Erbilgin has become an expert in areas such as invasion biology, plant-symbiont interactions, plant insect disease relationships, and on species such as the Mountain Pine Beetle. He defines his area of expertise as research on forest health.
“Forest health is [an] umbrella term for many interacting disciplines including forest entomology, pathology, ecology, microbiology, what’s happening in the soil, forest systems… it’s challenging to understand, but with challenges comes opportunities.”
Within this, part of these opportunities lies within genomics research says Erbilgin.
“No one truly understands whole [forest] systems, we really need to use various tools. Genomics is a very effective tool to help us understand [these] complex interactions among living organisms and their environment.”
To understand forest health, Erbilgin says that we must first understand the system’s intricacies, how they work, what the key players are, how they interact with one another, and most importantly, the implications of removing a significant species or introducing an invasive species to a forest ecosystem.
He cautions that we cannot assume there is only one straightforward outcome to address the existing and potential threats to forest health.
“The problem is so complex; we cannot have only one view; we have to develop multiple views. Genomics is one important component, phenomics is another. Even the social dimension is another response we should incorporate to understand [forest systems]."
Erbilgin says his next project could uncover unexplored aspects of insect-plant interactions by assessing the microbial composition of the soil and how it influences the biological interactions between trees and other organisms in the higher trophic levels.
“We are incorporating drones equipped with various equipment in forest health. For instance, we are incorporating deep learning-based approaches and a drone equipped with thermal and hyper-spectral imaging cameras to detect changes in crown foliage discolouration of dying trees associated with Mountain Pine Beetle attacks before they become visible to human eyes. Likewise, we are using drones to collect volatile chemicals emitted from forest canopy to study how insects detect sick or stressed trees.”
The next step for Erbilgin is to investigate how the soil biome influences plants. On a larger scale, he wants to investigate how this impacts the entire forest ecosystems.
“What differences are seen in the nature of interactions between plants and other organisms in naturally forested areas versus those managed for timber and other forestry products? The need to connect and collaborate to answer these questions is as important as ever and provides openings for new students to explore their curiosity.”
Words of Advice
In Erbilgin’s time as a professor he says he is impressed by the knowledge students gain not only through their studies but through their own experiences and access to the vast amounts of information that is out there.
“There [is] a lot of free information available. Some of them right, some of them wrong, but [students] are more suited for facing some of the challenges that we are dealing with at the moment; they are more flexible.”
Erbilgin has also set them up for success by advising them to stay open-minded and be innovative when coming up with solutions.
“[Students] need to see the big picture… working [for] two, three years or four years is one thing. However, down the road, the most important thing is how the information we gain can help solve the [bigger] problems … I always tell my students to be open minded, open for different ideas, even ones contradicting your supervisors.”
Working with Genome Alberta
Because of the complexity and necessity of interaction within forest systems he has witnessed, Erbilgin has continually pushed the importance of cooperating within the academic community in order to achieve better solutions.
“Problems are so complex; we can only deal with the problems when we integrate our forces together. I think that's why Genome Canada and Genome Alberta [are] so useful. They bring in that expertise and define the problem; this makes finding the solution much easier.”
Learn more about the Genome Canada Large Scale Applied Research Project RES-FOR
(Resilient Forests: Climate, Pests & Policy – Genomic Applications) led by Dr. Barb Thomas and co-led by Dr. Nadir Erbilgin and Dr. Yousry El-Kassaby.