Prof Awarded Japan Prize

For Peter S. Ashton, the Harvard ecologist who won the prestigious Japan Prize for his research on tropical ecology, teamwork has always been crucial—to his professional success and, in one instance, to his survival.

Ashton, the Bullard research professor of forestry, emeritus, was among three winners who received the annual award from the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan (JSTF) last month.

The prize honors “outstanding achievements in science and technology [that] are recognized as having advanced the frontiers of knowledge and served the cause of peace and prosperity for mankind,” according to the foundation’s Web site.

The JSTF Committee commended Ashton’s commitment to the study of tropical forests in Asia and his contribution to tropical conservation efforts. He will formally accept the prize in Japan in April.

“I was pretty shocked,” Ashton said in an interview. “The Japanese Consul of Boston came to my room at Harvard and told me about the award and I thought, ‘Why should I get the award?’”

For his colleagues, however, the prize came as another affirmation of his innovative work.

“It’s a great achievement to get this prize,” said Robert E. Cook, who succeded Ashton as the director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. “It acknowledges not only a lifetime of outstanding work but his love of tropical forests as well.”

Ashton’s research dates back to his years as a graduate student at Cambridge University, where he began his career doing fieldwork in Brunei. Ashton wanted to understand how different species of trees were able to randomly mix in the same environment and coexist without competing.

He pioneered the strategy of building plots and studying them—a method already common in agriculture—in the study of tropical forests. Ashton continued to do work in Asia throughout his career.

Stuart J. Davies, a former advisee of Ashton’s and the current science director of the Center for Tropical Forest Science-Arnold Arboretum Asia Program, said Ashton’s work “ is significant not just in his research” but also through its educational and interpersonal value.

Not only has the plot method spread throughout the world, with eight research sites using it in six different countries, but students from Ashton’s early career continue to pass on his teachings and passion for tropical ecology as young professors and researchers.

Ashton said he owes the success that led to the prize to these “teammates” in Asia and in the US.

“It’s because of the teamwork,” Ashton said. “I just happened to be the [teams’] catalyst.”

This same teamwork later helped save his life. During an expedition to Borneo 15 years ago with his professor from graduate school, Ashton was bitten by a venomous snake on Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest mountain on the island. Two other members of the expedition carried him down the mountain and into a nearby village.

“I thank them for my life,” Ashton said.

Ashton is currently working on a book chronicling his work with tropical forests in Asia, and expects to continue his research in not only ecology but its interaction with global warming as well.

—Staff writer Marie C. Kodama can be reached at