Professor Kristine French, Director of the Janet Cosh Herbarium at the University of Wollongong.

Kristine French honoured for contribution to study of ecology in Australia

Kristine French honoured for contribution to study of ecology in Australia

UOW biologist named as a 2021 Ecological Society Of Australia Gold Medallist

Professor Kristine French from the University of Wollongong (UOW) was named today (Thursday 15 July) as a 2021 Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) Gold Medallist, alongside Professor Richard Kingsford of the University of NSW.

The ESA Gold Medal is awarded to ecologists who have made a substantial contribution to the study of ecology in Australia over the course of their career and/or in recognition of an ESA members substantial contribution to the research community.

“Both Professor Kingsford and Professor French have made sustained and invaluable contributions to the understanding of Australian ecology,” ESA President Dr Bek Christensen said.

“They have been pioneers and world leaders in their respective fields, fostered and mentored the next generation of scientists and given back to the research community through their leadership and service roles.”

Professor French is the Director of the Janet Cosh Herbarium at the University of Wollongong. She was Vice President of the Ecological Society of Australia from 2000 to 2007 and President from 2011 to 2013. 

“My career has never focused on one area; it has had many facets,” Professor French said.

“My PhD supervisor used to tell me I would have a problem with focusing on a single line of research and that is still the same 30 years later!”

That broad curiosity has forged a 25-year career investigating environmental weeds, threatened species, urban ecology and plant stress; in fact understanding how disturbances of all kinds influence species and ecosystems.

Through her early work with urban birds Professor French noticed that they were helping to disperse the seeds of many environmental weeds.

“I started asking questions about how weeds overtake, take control, how to control them and it built into something broader,” said Professor French. Linkages with researchers from many different fields has forged new questions – and new answers.

Her research has had a significant impact at state and national levels of government, with her expertise being sought in the management strategies for species such as lantana, bitou bush and invasive grasses and vines.

She helped to lead the national Birds in Backyards program which was awarded the 2008 Eureka Prize for Environmental Sustainability Education.

“The relationships that I have built with the state government weeds groups in the Department of Primary Industries and National Parks have brought me great satisfaction,” said Professor French.

“I enjoy working with them to provide the ecological research to support their management decisions to build better ways of controlling weeds.”

Through her leadership roles at UOW and the Ecological Society of Australia, Professor French has had a substantial influence on generations of ecologists.

She has taught thousands of students, instilling in them a love and appreciation of ecology, and training many into careers as conservation scientists. Many have moved into leading government or research positions, including CSIRO, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Royal Botanic Gardens, as well as universities and environmental NGOs.

“I find it really satisfying that students who have undertaken research in my lab have contributed to finding answers but have also have gone on to do good things with their skills,” she said.

Despite her achievements, Professor French remains modest.

“Being judged by my peers as being worthy of this award is really humbling,” she said.

“I often feel that there are many people who have made magnificent contributions to ecology so it’s nice when someone says you’ve done that too.

“But I do like feeling like I’m doing something for the world that is positive and contributing my science to help solve environmental issues.”