Ashton Dickerson: Humans of BioScience

Meet Ashton Dickerson, a PhD candidate who is examining the effect of light on the nocturnal song rate of willie wagtails. Ashton grew up in a rural town in Victoria and moved to Melbourne when she started her Bachelor of Science. Ten years on, she is in the final stages of her PhD supervised by Dr. Therésa Jones and Dr. Michelle Hall in the Urban Light Lab at the University of Melbourne. Ashton is also highly musical, as her analysis of birdsong might attest, and in her spare time enjoys playing piano and guitar.

Ashton Dickerson portrait
What problem are/were you trying to solve with your research?

The invention of the light bulb changed the face of the planet and not everyone realises that it is one of the most pervasive forms of pollution on the planet. We know that for humans, excessive exposure to light at night is bad for our sleep and health, but are lights at night also bad for the wildlife that we share our cities with? We know less about whether artificial light at night is bad for wildlife, too.

For my PhD, I am interested in whether night lighting changes the behaviour of birds. Since we know bird song is integral for birds to find mates and protect their territories, we can determine from any changes in behaviour whether our night-time lights may be harming urban birds.

My focus is on the willie wagtail, an iconic Australian species that is notorious for is night-time song. To test if artificial light at night changes night-time song behaviour I recorded willie wagtails across all of Victoria, from the darkest areas at night through to the brightest. I will test to see if there is a relationship between willie wagtails song behaviour and the amount of light they are exposed to at night.

Willy wagtail image by Ryan Potter

What do you enjoy doing outside of science?

In my free time I like to practise playing music. I am a classically trained pianist and I have been teaching myself how to play guitar. One day I hope to have the confidence to perform at an open mic night. I have also recently began creating digital art, which has been a fun new endeavour for me. In the evenings, my favourite activity is to play video games. I enjoy role-playing games where I can get lost in the story line.

Willy wagtail drawing

Do you have any advice for undergraduate students?

My advice for undergraduate students is to try lots of new things. Take a range of subjects that interest you and volunteer your time helping on projects or with committees. I am a firm believer that it is hard to know whether you like something until you try it (and also whether you don’t like something, which is just as important). This will also help you meet lots of new people from different backgrounds whose experiences differ from your own. Use this time to explore your interests and meet new people. You never know where you might end up.

Ashton in the field

'Humans of BioSciences' is a special series to introduce the School of BioSciences' undergrad and postgrad students, our academics, professional staff and associates.