Dr James Kempton

Research Interests

In the summer of 2023, I led Expedition Cyclops, a scientific research expedition to the Cyclops Mountains of Indonesian New Guinea. During four weeks of gruelling fieldwork, my team and I rediscovered Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, a species of egg-laying mammal not seen by science for 62 years. We collected thousands of invertebrate specimens, and nearly a hundred frogs and reptiles. Already from these specimens we have discovered two species of frog new to science, and dozens of new insect species - even new genera. A great surprise is the discovery of a new genus of terrestrial shrimp, so moist is it in the Cyclops Mountains. By collaborating with geologists that work on New Guinea's tectonic history, I am trying to understand how the Cyclops formed and how this has influenced its modern-day biodiversity. We collected 75 kg of rock during Expedition Cyclops to inform palaeogeological reconstructions of the mountains. The long-term aim of Expedition Cyclops is to inform a case for increased protection of the Cyclops Mountains, and I am working with Papuan NGOs, Papuan universities, and Indonesian government to make this happen, including by training Papuan students in biodiversity survey techniques. With 83 % of Indonesian New Guinea's old-growth forest still intact, we are at a critical moment to ensure the preservation of the world's most biodiverse island, and in my future work I aim to extend my research across all of Indonesian New Guinea. To learn more about Expedition Cyclops, check out the expedition website here and subscribe for updates here.  

Alongside my work in New Guinea, I research malaria epidemiology. When one looks at a graph of how many children are hospitalised by severe malaria in East Africa, one tends to see a rapid rise among toddlers followed by a steep decline as age increases. Why is this? My current focus is on how age and number of exposures to malaria influence disease outcome, and how this varies between settings of different transmission intensity. My approach to understanding the empirical patterns of hospitalisation is to fit mathematical models of transmission, and functions of disease risk, to clinical data. Using these models, I can then try to predict how the distribution of severe malaria with age might vary under different transmission settings, such as those created by prophylactic interventions.

I made a small jump to epidemiological modelling from the field of flight biomechanics, which was the concern of my DPhil. Here I sought to understand how albatrosses and their relatives can fly hundreds of miles without flapping, and how falcons and hawks can so precisely intercept their prey. For the former, I devised a new way to calculate how effectively any flyer – whether animal or vehicle – is harvesting energy from the wind. For the latter, I employed equations devised by homing missile engineers, to test how birds-of-prey implement their pursuit of targets.

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