Biology professor receives Humboldt Award for pollen-driven research


When Tia-Lynn Ashman was growing up in the San Francisco Bay area and frequently camping and exploring nature with her family, she found herself drawn to a certain fast-fluttering feathered friend.

Tia-Lynn Ashman“I was very enamored with hummingbirds,” recalls Ashman, a distinguished professor of evolutionary ecology in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences Department of Biological Sciences. “They’re all sort of ... the pollinator that started it all for me, because we were big bird watchers in my family. I think it was sort of the going from hummingbirds to flowers to pollination in general was sort of the trip that I took.”

That trip led increasingly further into the pollination process, specifically a plant’s response to it. “I’m interested in the plant-pollinator interaction itself,” she says. “And the majority of the work that I do is actually on the plants and the way they are evolving or ecologically sorting in response to pollinators — the way that mutualism can work.”

Ashman’s pollination passion recently bore further fruit for her already illustrious career when she was selected in March for the prestigious Humboldt Research Award, which recognizes her entire academic record to date. The award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, based in Germany, comes with a cash prize of 60,000 euros (around $61,200)

The Humboldt Foundation sponsors distinguished international scientists and scholars from outside Germany regardless of academic discipline or nationality, maintaining “an international network of academic cooperation and trust,” the foundation’s website says. Like other Humboldt recipients, Ashman was invited to Germany to carry out research projects of her choice in cooperation with specialist colleagues there.

Calling the award a “huge recognition,” Ashman says she’s pleased to receive an “international award recognizing my career in terms of the accomplishments that I’ve had. So, that’s nice. It’s particularly appropriate for my fields because Alexander von Humboldt (was) a big naturalist. He was really interested in the natural world and understanding of biodiversity and the patterns that shaped that. The namesake is very close to the field of research that I do.”

Ashman is looking forward to visiting Germany, though what research she may delve into remains an open question. “I’m not obligated to do any particular thing,” she says. “I proposed people that I would work (with) and things that I’m interested in as part of that application, but no way does it require me to do those things. It’s helped promote interactions that could lead to new projects, right? So, I think it’s more open-ended than a specific research project, per se.”

While Ashman has studied pollination of flowering plants for decades, the accelerating accumulation of “urban” threats against pollinators in recent years lends her work added cache and perhaps a level of urgency.

“One of the focuses in the lab for many years now has been to understand what the drivers of plant reproduction are — how sufficient pollination is for the 90 percent of flowering plants that rely on pollinators,” she explains. “We’ve had big international collaborations to gather data across thousands and thousands of plants to understand how dependent in general the flowering plants are on the surfaces of pollinators. That work has become even more timely of late with the understanding that pollinators are being threatened in terms of their diversity and their abundance by human actions like urbanization and pesticides and climate change and things of that nature.”

Ashman and her colleagues are exploring how to better understand which plants are most threatened by the loss or reduction of pollinators.

Ashman arrived at Pitt in 1994 after receiving her Ph.D. in 1991 with M.L. Stanton at the University of California at Davis. She performed her postdoctoral studies at McGill University. When asked what keeps a West Coast-bred academic in Pittsburgh for close to 30 years, Ashman doesn’t hesitate to take inventory.

“The research, the research environment and the really strong biology department, and the colleagues that I have here,” she says. “The support for my research obviously has been huge and very fruitful. So that and the fact that I’ve had really great graduate students and postdocs who all make this environment really exceptional for my work.”

James Pipas, Pitt’s Herbert W. and Grace Boyer chair in molecular biology and biological sciences professor since 1980, marvels at his longtime colleague’s ability to derive big-picture implications from the study of tiny organisms.

“If you look at the breadth of (Ashman’s career), she studies pollen. That’s part of what she studies,” he says. “We looked at viruses and pollen, these tiny pollen brains [ED: am clarifying this term with Prof. Pipas.]. But she sets it up in a way that when you get the outcome of these studies, it has ecosystem-scale consequences. And so just by these really good observations of a small thing, you can really get a big picture of what’s going on in biology. That’s what’s been sort of a joy for me to work with her.”

Ashman’s chemistry with students and impact on education at Pitt bodes well for future endeavors, Pipas notes. “I’d say she creates an environment that’s really conducive for exchanging information and pursuing your own goals … A lot of her projects are driven by the students and by the postdocs she attracts. So, what’s next really depends on what their interests are,” he says. “And that’s really a great thing about the way she trains the next generation’s scientists.

“She’s very good at keeping people on track, on focus, but giving them the independence to explore and make mistakes,” Pipas says. “Which is the way science works.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at


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