Computer Science, Mathematics and Environmental Science

Building Environments for Discovery: Professor Elena Berg’s Research on Beetles and Beyond


Early in her career as an evolutionary biologist, Dr. Elena Berg’s academic advisors told her to specialize. Instead, she ran full-tilt into the multiplicity of her interests, which span anthropology, human behavior, and environmental science. Now Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer Science, Mathematics and Environmental Science, Berg infuses her diverse expertise and boundless curiosity into the scientific community at AUP for an ever-evolving inquiry into the natural world. 

“I’ve always been a generalist and a tinkerer,” Berg admits. “At the core, I’m an interdisciplinary, a liberal arts person. I believe in this notion of knowing a little bit about everything, that being the only way to be a truly global citizen.”  

Berg can easily claim that title, but she also qualifies as a species ambassador. Originally from Colorado with stops including Paris, Denmark, and both US coasts, she developed a passion for mountains, animals, and all things outdoors that translated naturally into fieldwork. Berg studied green monkeys in Barbados and the Milne-Edwards sifaka (a type of lemur) in Madagascar, and for her PhD from University of California Davis, the white-throated magpie-jay in Costa Rica. At Cambridge University, she studied primates for a master’s degree in biological anthropology. 

In 2014, Berg landed in Paris and brought her methods and knowledge to the lab at AUP.  Expanding on research she began in Sweden, she has intensively studied the behavior and life history of seed beetles, including the aggressive reproductive behavior of males. In 2017, she launched an ambitious two-part experiment examining the impact of climate change on beetles. Her team found that beetles exposed early to stressful, fluctuating temperatures enjoyed greater reproductive success compared to those who only knew stability; this suggests that animals who experience temperature variability might be better equipped to respond to short- and long-term changes in the environment. Their study was recently published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology (Ivimey-Cook et al. 2023). 

This semester, the second phase is underway, in which Berg is exploring how the more adaptive beetles respond to heat waves–a scenario becoming more prevalent around the world. Berg exposed them to week-long blasts of heat in the lab’s climate chambers, and through June the research team will be conducting 12 experiments to measure their lifetime reproductive success.  

The study is a collaborative effort between Berg, AUP Professor Claudio Piani, Dr. Ed Ivimey Cook of Glasgow University, lab technician Sophie Bricout, and four students of various fields of study, including Senior Project student Sarah Glavan who will be a co-author on the eventual publication. Berg commends the team’s dedication to research that demands consistency and meticulous attention to detail, including tracking hatching insects. “The beetles don't care if it's the weekend or a Parisian holiday,” she says. 

Active far beyond the lab, Berg’s other courses include the History of Life on Earth and the Science of Sex, and she directs the Joy and Edward Frieman Environmental Science Research Center, which houses the climate chambers and research activity. She focuses increasingly on communicating science and is exploring the potential for an Environmental Outreach master’s program. Also a certified water sommelier–watch out for her podcast, “There’s Something in the Water” this summer on Pine Forest Media–Berg conducts water tastings in the lab, and is looking forward to collaborating on a new marine lab with Professor Manuel Caballer Gutierrez. 

As opposed to larger research universities where “research is very narrowly defined,” Berg finds that AUP is the perfect place for this kind of interdisciplinary exploration. “Research can take many forms here, and AUP is a very collegial place. I feel lucky in that regard. I have such great colleagues. It’s the kind of community where we support each other and value what the others are doing.” It’s a vibrant ecosystem where every individual can thrive.