Research overview

Current research

My current research involves using DNA metabarcoding of blood meals from leeches to assess biodiversity by identifying the host animals fed on by the leeches. DNA from the leeches allows animal presences to be inferred, and Bayesian occupancy modelling is used to correct for false negatives arising where animals were not fed on by leeches or where the leeches were not collected. This work, using leeches collected from the Ailao Mountains in China's Yunnan Province, allows ranges for many species to be assessed simultaneously without the need to trap the animals themselves, and thus represents a rapid and cost effective way to assess biodiversity in an area over time. This work is being conducted with Professors Naomi Pierce (Harvard University), Doug Yu (University of East Anglia and the Kunming Institute of Zoology) and Viorel Popescu (Ohio University), supported by the Harvard Global Institute.

Previous research

As a postdoctoral researcher in the Pringle and Tarnita labs at Princeton University, I explored how termite mounds in African savannas generate spatial patterns that propagate throughout the ecosystem. Using DNA metabarcoding methods, I showed how Odontotermes termites spatially pattern bacterial and fungal communities in the soil across the savanna. Using ddRAD and DNA barcoding methods, I also examined diversity and population structure in the Termitomyces fungal crops farmed by the termites. Both projects were conducted at the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, in collaboration with colleagues Jessica Castillo Vardaro and Johan Pansu.

My PhD work in the Pierce Lab at Harvard University focused on ant-associated microbial and arthropod communities on Vachellia (Acacia) drepanolobium ant-plants. These trees, which are widespread throughout the East African tropics, host colonies of mutualistic ants in swollen-thorn domatia. In exchange for this housing, as well as extrafloral nectar, these ants protect their hosts from large mammalian herbivores. Three different species of ants live obligately in the domatia, and each ant species tends to be accompanied by a distinctive community of microbes and arthropods living alongside them in the domatia.

Previous employment and education

I worked as a microeconomist at the Reserve Bank of Australia prior to joining Harvard’s PhD program. I began in the Bank’s Payments Policy Department, where I undertook research and policy work in relation to retail payment instruments. After moving to Financial Stability Department, I conducted research on financial market indicators, composite financial stability indices and the Basel II bank regulatory capital requirements. I then returned to Payments Policy Department, where I worked on the Bank’s review of its payments system reforms.

Before working at the Reserve Bank, I completed undergraduate degrees in biology and economics at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. My biology degree focused mainly on genetics, evolutionary biology, ecology and statistics. My economics degree focused on microeconomics, including game theory, uncertainty and information and industrial organization.