At the heart of all the research we do in my group is the basic question: what controls patterns of diversity? The Ross Reserve has about 25 species of trees. Why 25 instead of 7 or 300? Why that set of 25 instead of some other set of 25 species?
Research in the lab involves a mixture of empirical and theoretical tools to explore questions. I generally approach questions using three steps: (1) I like to try to think through how I imagine the system works and describe all my assumptions and ideas with a mathematical model; (2) It can be useful to check some of these ideas and assumptions in the greenhouse with a model system. (The first and second step may go back and forth for a while, depending on how wrong I was in the first step.), and; (3) Once I feel like I understand the system I try to scale it up to natural ecological systems (e.g. a grassland or a forest).