Outstanding Young Researcher
Dr Angela Moles
Planting the Seeds of Ecological Success
Why are some plant seeds small while others weigh 20kg? Why are trees at the equator 30 times taller than those at high altitudes?
They are questions we could not have answered eight years ago. Yet thanks to an epic research agenda by Associate Professor Angela Moles, the book of knowledge about the world's plant life is being rewritten.
It is work that has taken the 35-year-old to every continent except the Antarctic - from an inflatable boat weaving between the icebergs off Greenland to a seat in the back of a truck in Africa with a silverback gorilla just metres away. Along the way, she has revolutionised our understanding of the factors that determine the size of offspring in plants and animals.
Associate Professor Moles, from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of NSW, has won the 2011 Eureka Prize for Outstanding Young Researcher for her work on understanding and quantifying global patterns in plant ecological strategy.
The prize is part of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the most prestigious awards in Australian science. The winners were announced last night at a star-studded evening for the country's most inspired minds.
‘The Eurekas', as they are fondly known, have become the most coveted science awards in this country. Every scientist knows a ‘eureka' moment comes after decades of singular dedication, deep inquiry and rich collaboration. Receiving an Australian Museum Eureka Prize is regarded as a pinnacle achievement for any Australian scientist.
"Already acknowledged as a world-class science leader, Associate Professor Moles is a rapidly rising superstar in the fields of ecology and evolution," says Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum. "One would be hard-pressed to find a more impressive research record for someone whose career has just recently begun."
Associate Professor Moles has been asking the ‘big questions' since launching her research career. While examining seed sizes, she discovered that seeds in the tropics are on average 300 times larger than seeds in colder places.
She has also uncovered a global pattern to plant height that shows species at the equator are roughly 30 times taller than those at 60 degrees latitude north and south. The observation overturns the accepted wisdom that temperature is the main predictor of size, instead revealing that the key is how much it rained in the wettest month.
Associate Professor Moles' most ambitious assignment to date is the World Herbivory Project, a collaboration with more than 50 scientists involving the establishment of 75 sites in different ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, arctic tundras, deserts, boreal forests, heathlands and savannas. In essence, the work is developing a new approach to ecology. Traditionally, ecologists have collected data on a specific ecosystem without focusing on how ecology works in a global sense.
The exceptional breadth of study sites gives Associate Professor Moles the insight to determine what factors underlie global patterns in plant strategy and enable her to make conclusions that have international scale and significance. It has also inspired other ecological research teams to follow her lead and compile similarly large, powerful databases of plant characteristics to address questions of previously unobtainable scope.
The $10,000 Macquarie University Eureka Prize for Outstanding Young Researcher is awarded for outstanding scientific research conducted by an individual or group of early career researchers who are 35 years old or younger.
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Dr Angela Moles
University of New South Wales, NSW