Fulbright Awardee Ashley McGuigan


I grew up in Minnesota until I moved to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Biology at North Carolina State University. During my undergraduate education I also spent a year at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji where I became interested in Pacific Island ecosystems, ethnobotany, and indigenous land management practices. 

Now I am a PhD student in Botany within the Ethnobotany track at UHM in the Ticktin lab of the Botany Department. I study Pacific Island agroforestry systems and their importance in supporting human health and resilience to environmental shocks and disturbances, such as cyclones. Socio-economic changes have been leading to the replacement of biodiverse agroforest food systems with monocultures of cash-crops.  This has contributed to the rise of nutrition-related non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic plaguing the region. In Fiji 77% of all deaths are caused by NCDs. Exacerbating these issues are risks associated with climate change such as increased severe weather events and cyclone activity. Fiji’s recent catogeory-5 cyclone, which was the strongest cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere, hit in February 2016 and raises additional cause for concern.

To better understand how Pacific Island agroforests  and their capacity to enhance community resilience,  I plan to draw on existing datasets and field data that I will collect as part of this Fulbright Fellowship, to 1) assess drivers of post-cyclone recovery in agroforest ecosystems, including identifying how individual and species-specific traits affect tree damage, survival, and regeneration over time and how decisions and preferences by people shape changes in agrobiodiversity; and 2) assess the relationships between agrobiodiversity and nutritional diversity.

I chose to study at UHM first and foremost because of the research practiced in the Ethnobotany program of the Botany Department at UHM under my current advisor, Dr. Tamara Ticktin. This research crosses both the social and natural sciences and works closely with local people to best serve the needs of the communities. I was also drawn to the intellectual independence and flexibility the Ethnobotany program affords their graduate students, because of this I am able to accept the Fulbright Fellowship to Fiji and complete part of my PhD dissertation and represent UHM and the US as a Fulbright Academic. The Botany Department also hosts a suite of highly accomplished and knowledgeable tropical ecosystem botanists and ethnoecologists whom I was eager to learn from and work with. Together, these aspects formed the basis of my decision to study in the Botany Department at UHM.

As an undergraduate, independent research and studying abroad at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji were pivotal to my own academic, professional, and personal development. They gave me confidence to pioneer my own academic path, expanded my intellectual boundaries, and encouraged me to explore diverse career options, which ultimately led me to pursue a PhD at UHM. Undergraduate research and international education opportunities are less readily available in the Pacific Islands and my long term goal is to develop and direct an international undergraduate research exchange program between UHM and USP to help provide these experiences. In the spirit of the Fulbright’s cross-cultural mission, I plan to establish the foundations of this program as a Fulbright Fellow in Fiji.

I acknowledge that this is not an official Department of State website or blog, and that the views and information presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.