Griffith Science's 2020 Outstanding Young Alumnus

Doctor of Philosophy

Bachelor of Science (Honours)

Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Conservation Biology

Dr Louise Ashton is an Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong and an Adjunct Fellow with Griffith’s Environmental Futures Research and The Natural History Museum in London.

Her interest areas include ecosystem manipulation experiments, climate change impacts on biodiversity, vertical stratification of forest assemblages and using insects as indicators of environmental change.

Although she has now completed three degrees at Griffith University, it was during her undergraduate degree that her career interests began to truly form, when she was on her first international field course to Borneo, Malaysia. Her research involved studying how groups of insects change across gradients – latitude and elevation, and from the understorey to the canopy, to try to understand these ecological patterns and predict what will happen to rainforest ecosystems under climate change.

"One of the best parts of my degrees was the practical field work experience, including lots of field trips. Studying ecology on a campus in the middle of Toohey Forest was a big bonus and allowed us to have a high degree of practical learning," said Dr Ashton.

Dr Ashton completed her Doctor of Philosophy at Griffith University in 2013, under the supervision of Professor Roger Kitching and Dr Chris Burwell and went on to secure employment with Griffith University.

However, she longed to reignite the spark that was lighted during her undergraduate field work, so Dr Ashton relocated to London, where she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum, with field work based in Borneo. It was here that she worked in collaboration with the University of Liverpool on the first large-scale study to determine the role that termites play in rainforests in maintaining ecosystem processes in times of drought.

The research team conducted the study in Malaysia during and after the 2015-16 El Nino drought, where they compared sites with termites to those where termites had been removed experimentally using suppression methods. They found the sites where termites had not been experimentally suppressed saw an increase of termites during the drought, and fewer termites during the non-drought period.

"This work was the first large scale experiment of its kind and we were able to publish it as a science cover story, with wide international interest and coverage by 22 news outlets," Dr Ashton recalled.

Continuing her international career, Dr Ashton is now a tropical ecologist at the University of Hong Kong, using insects as study tools to understand biodiversity and environmental change, particularly in tropical regions.

Two years ago, she established her own lab at the University of Hong Kong, where researchers are now focusing on understanding how tropical forest canopies function and will respond to further climate change. The earth's period of unprecedented environmental change, means this research field is particularly important and communicating the research findings in an accessible manner for all, is at the forefront of Dr Ashton's mind.

"I continue to develop the field of tropical insect ecology, with publications and commentaries in top journals, and I endeavour to communicate my science online and in news outlets, so it is accessible to everyone.

"I have developed strong research ties in Asia and Australia, linking these regions through ecological research and collaborations. I have a strong collaborative research emphasis, working with microbiologists, modellers and remote sensing experts. This multi-disciplinary approach allows us to address the most pressing questions in ecology and conservation," said Dr Ashton.

In true alignment with Griffith University's values, alumnus Dr Ashton contributes wherever possible to her local and intentional communities and has therefore been recognised as Griffith Science's 2020 Outstanding Young Alumnus.

She enthusiastically teaches the next generation of scientists to understand the complexities of rapid anthropogenic change and is proudly following in the footsteps of her PhD supervisor, Professor Roger Kitching.

"By establishing my own undergraduate tropical field course to Borneo, I hope to be as formative and exciting to my students as it was to me when I was at Griffith.

"I’m happy that I can pass on the hands-on learning approach that I learnt at Griffith to a new generation of students," said Dr Ashton.

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