Francis J. Nge
National Herbarium of New South Wales in the Botanic Gardens of Sydney
Plant Diversity and Evolution team
X (formally Twitter): @jason_nge
I am a plant systematist and evolutionary biologist by training and am interested in macroevolutionary patterns and processes across different scales in time and space.
I have just recently commenced my new role as an ongoing systematic botanist researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, in Sydney, Australia. I am part of the Plant Discovery and Evolution team that curates and works in one of the largest herbaria in Australia (and the Southern Hemisphere). The vibrant team focuses on core alpha taxonomy, plant systematics, and evolution of the Australian flora.
I completed my PhD at the University of Adelaide in 2021 looking at the evolutionary history and diversification dynamics of the Australian temperate flora. Main findings include major regional shifts in diversification (extinction) of the eastern Australian flora compared with the southwestern Australian flora during the Eocene–Oligocene boundary (~33 Myr) as an explanation for the disparity in plant species richness across the two regions today. I also looked at the biogeography, geographic-dependent diversification, and trait evolution (e.g., polyploidy, and spines) of specific plant groups in more detail (Myrtaceae, Proteaceae, and Rhamnaceae).
Following my PhD, I took up a postdoc position from 2022 to 2023, as part of Thomas Couvreur's lab at the Institute of Research for Development (IRD), in Montpellier, France. For this project, I looked at the phylogenomics of the custard apple plant family (Annonaceae), where we have sequenced more than 80% of the extant species diversity out of the 2500+ total number of species. With a robust dated and well-sampled phylogeny of Annonaceae, we hope to use this as a case study group to look at tropical rain forest macroevolution more broadly.
My main ongoing research interests include understanding the drivers and mechanisms that have resulted in the uneven distribution of earth’s biodiversity across the Tree of Life. Particularly, I am interested in region-specific diversification dynamics, and understanding the origins and evolution of the Australian flora, as well as tropical rain forest systems and biodiversity hotspots globally. I am particularly interested in the evolution of the south east Asian floristic region, as it is currently understudied compared to other tropical regions (e.g., the Neotropics). This interest also partly stems from my personal upbringing, having spent a good chunk of my early childhood years in Borneo, Malaysia (where my extended family is from).
I incorporate different approaches across the fields of evolutionary biology, systematics, taxonomy, biogeography, ecology, and physiology to address fundamental questions of biology. Plant groups of which I have particular interest in and ongoing research on include: Proteaceae, Myrtaceae, Rhamnaceae, and Annonaceae.
Blue mountain of Sydney, a region that hosts a number of endemic flora species found nowhere else around the world.
How Francis got interested in the botanical sciences:
My interest in plants came relatively late in my life. I remember after high school I was still pretty uninterested in plants, apart from the odd carnivorous ones. I was interested in animals and ecology more generally back then. My family moved around a lot across different countries, and we had just relocated to Australia a year prior to me starting my university years. I remember being unimpressed with the dry yellow-green eucalypt forests and sandy soils of the continent. I thought, what life could possibly grow and flourish in these barren inhospitable environments? I was more used to the lush rain forests of New Zealand and Malaysia that were filled with life. Apparently, Charles Darwin was also unimpressed when he visited the southern coast of Western Australia. Stopping by Albany in 1836, he noted: "We staid (sic) there eight days and I do not remember since leaving England having passed a more dull, uninteresting time.... He who thinks like me will never wish to walk again in so uninviting a country." (Reference link for the quote
But my view soon shifted when I progressed through my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth. I was astounded that Perth is situated at one of the few global biodiversity hotspots on earth, with a huge diversity of plant life to boot. The inspiring lectures from the research and teaching staff there at UWA had revealed to me the amazing unseen world of plant physiology, taxonomy, ecology, and evolution. This includes going on several field trips to explore the diversity firsthand. I was hooked from that point onwards. Following that I was able to develop and follow my research interests in uncovering the evolutionary drivers for plant hyperdiversity in the southwestern Australian biodiversity hotspot, and other global biodiversity hotspots more generally. My interests have been shaped by the inspiring professors there (Kevin Thiele, Hans Lambers, Steve Hopper, and others), many of which I still maintain contact and collaborate with till this day.
Lechenaultia tubiflora (Goodeniaceae), an endemic species to the southwest Western Australian global biodiversity hotspot.
Francis's advice for those just starting their botanical journey:
Go out in nature and be exposed to it firsthand, letting that inspire you and guide your thinking and research. I think having hands on experience with local floras or plants in general to fuel your inner passion in botany is important! And don't be afraid to reach out to other likeminded people who are also interested in plants. Having mentors and a supportive network would assist in your career aspirations so I say go for it!
Francis's other passions:
I admire all things that are part of our natural world. When I'm not deep in scientific research, I partake in other nature-related activities such as bushwalking or jungle-trekking (Australian and Malaysian terms for hiking, respectively), photographing plants in their natural habitat, and doing a bit of gardening and collecting some rare and unusual plants (e.g., lithops, other succulents, and Australian native wildflowers).
Published Articles in BSA Journals:
Nge, F.J., Biffin, E., Waycott, M., Thiele, K.R., (2022). Phylogenomics and continental biogeographic disjunctions: insight from the Australian starflowers (Calytrix). American Journal of Botany 109 (2):291–308.