Tuesday, 5 February 2019

2018: A Year In Review

It's becoming a tradition for me to summarize the work we've done in the previous year, mainly as a way of taking stock and in a (usually futile) attempt to keep up this blog more regularly. There were lots of changes in the lab this year with numerous arrivals and departures and everyone has had a really busy year.

I was pleased to welcome two new postdocs to the lab early in 2018: Dr David Button and Dr Marc Jones. Both David and Marc are working on a NERC-funded project that I'm leading with Laura Porro (UCL) on the evolution and biomechanics of feeding in early dinosaurs. They've spent most of this year beavering away on building 3D models of various dinosaurs, birds and lizards, including some beautiful material from Argentina that Ricardo Martinéz loaned to us over the summer. They've already been able to present some of their results already, at the SVPCA meeting in Manchester, on Coelophysis and Hypsilophodon. Watch this space as the project develops in future.

David, Marc and Vincent Fernandez looking at scans of Adeopapposaurus

Although not members of the lab, I'm also thrilled by the appointment of two new colleagues that will be frequent collaborators both with me and other lab members and who also strengthen the NHM's expertise in fossil reptiles. These are Dr Susie Maidment, who joins us as a new researcher and Dr Mike Day as a new curator. We're already building strong links, with Susie and me co-supervising Tom Raven's PhD and many more projects planned for the future.

Balancing our arrivals, it's been a bittersweet year with several members of the lab departing for pastures new. Terri Cleary, Serjoscha Evers, Richard Fallon, David Ford and Selina Groh all submitted their PhDs this year and at the time of writing I'm very proud to report that Terri, Serjoscha and Selina have all had their vivas and passed with flying colours. Terri has moved on to a postdoc at Birmingham University (in Richard Butler's group), Selina has taken up a research assistantship at UCL (working with Paul Upchurch) and Serjoscha is due to start a postdoc at the University of Freiburg (in Walter Joyce's lab). Paul Varotsis took the difficult decision to call time on his PhD, although he's continuing his interest in the history of palaeontology with a new project on Baron Nopcsa. I'll miss seeing them around so often, but wish them all the best of luck in their new posts and careers and hope that I'll be continuing to work with them all on many occasions in future.

Lots of vivas late in 2018 with (clockwise from top left), Terri, Selina and Serjoscha all freshly minted PhDs. There's a fourth ex lab member in here for good measure too ...
All members of the lab have had busy travel years, mainly for collections visits, but also for conferences, talks and fieldwork. We were lucky enough to have a combined lab fieldtrip for a couple of days before the SVP Meeting in Albuquerque, when Terri, Omar Regalado-Fernandez, Selina, Simon Wills, João Leite, Tom Raven and me, accompanied by Emma Dunne (University of Birmingham) and Phil Mannion and Alessandro Chiarenza (Imperial) headed down from Denver to New Mexico taking in Dinosaur Ridge, Garden of the Gods, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Sante Fe en route. In addition, I was able to spend July in South Africa, based at the ESI in Johannesburg, working on a number of projects with my colleagues Prof. Jonah Choiniere and lab PhD student Kimi Chapelle, as well as catching up with lots of other colleagues. Earlier in the year (March) Paul and Kimi were both able to do two weeks of fieldwork in Zimbabwe, collecting Late Triassic dinosaurs and other tetrapods on the shores of Lake Kariba with our friends at the ESI, and in September Kimi did work in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, on a project that is likely to run for several years and that will involve me and other members of the lab in future. Becky Lakin even managed some work on living dinosaurs, helping with a bird-ringing project in Chamela National Park, Mexico.

On the road at Dinosaur Ridge, CO prior to SVP 2018 (photo: Emma Dunne)
Tom, João and Omar did lots of travel between them this year, with trips to collections in Canada, China, Mongolia and the USA between them. Tom had a particularly good year in terms of getting travel awards, with a record-breaking number that included grants from the Geological Society Daniel Pidgeon Fund, the Palaeontological Association Whittington Award, the Society of Systematic Biologists, the Jurassic Foundation, the Universities’ China Commission and the Palaeontographical Society. João also had a magic funding touch, getting grants from the Universities’ China Commission and the Welles Fund, University of California, Berkeley. Paul had a great trip to Argentina in November (including seeing the penguins on the Patagonian coast), kick-starting a project with Diego Pol on early sauropodomorph dinosaurs, with Diego carrying out a return visit to London later in the year.

We've been to a lot of conferences between us this year with particularly strong showings at EAVP in Portugal (talks from Omar and Terri and a poster from João), SVP in the USA (talks from Kimi, Omar and Selina, poster for Tom, and invited talks for Paul and Terri), and SVPCA in the UK (talks from Marc, Omar and Paul, posters from David and Tom). SVP was busy for other reasons too, with this being Paul's first meeting as Program Co-Chair, with Dr Pat Holroyd. It was a very busy run-up to the meeting as a result, but it was a fulfilling experience to build the scientific program of the meeting. Paul was the keynote speaker at PSSA in Bloemfontein, as well as a coauthor on several other presentations, and also attended his first RCAPA in Puerto Madryn. Becky flew the flag for the lab with a poster at IPC in Paris. One meeting-related prize also came our way, with Kimi winning the prize for best student presentation at the PSSA meeting in Bloemfontein. It was tremendous to see associate lab member Angela Milner pick up an Honorary Membership of SVP in recognition of her numerous contributions to the subject over the course of her long and distinguished career, especially as she has been one of Paul's most important mentors.

Angela Milner displaying her Honorary Membership of SVP
As well as presenting at conferences, lab members also helped run sessions. Tom and João have been active in organizing NHM student events, including the annual NHM student conference, and Richard co-organised a workshop on 'Self-Fashioning Scientific Identities in the Long Nineteenth Century', at the University of Leicester in July. Omar was President of the UCL Mexican Society and responsible for running many events through the year. We've also given workshops and seminars at varied venues with David talking at the Leicester Literary and Philosophy Society and Paul giving talks to an archosaur workshop at IVPP, Beijing, the Hakkusan Geopark meeting in Japan and seminars to the palaeo and evolution groups at UCL, Portsmouth and Bath. Paul also gave the Annual Address of the Palaeontographical Society, coinciding with the end of his 5-year term as President (and 13-year term on Council!). Following his departure from Pal. Soc., Paul took on a major new role as Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, so now has to read papers on brachiopods, forams and insects to atone for his sins in a previous life.

Reaching out to different audiences is really important and we've also been busy in that respect. Tom helped out with the Palaeontological Association stand at the Yorkshire Fossil Fair, Paul went to assist the team at his first Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, and Kimi participated in a number of workshops for local communities in the Eastern Cape. We've also presented a lot in the NHM with frequent appearances from Becky, David, João, Tom and me at NHM Nature Lives and Lates Events and also in the media. David was even filmed for the "So Beano" show on Sky TV and also participated in the Royal Society's annual Young Person's Book Awards in Belfast. Dippy on Tour continues to do really well at venues around the country and we're also planning some major new dino exhibitions at the NHM for the future ...

Becky presenting a poster in association with her nomination for a UNESCO Women in Science award
In addition to research and outreach, we also helped out with teaching. Richard co-taught four days of workshops on the earth sciences and Victorian culture at South London primary schools, in collaboration with the heritage engagement group Emerald Ant and in support of the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. At the other end of the globe, Kimi led courses on R and geometric morphometrics and demonstrated on animal form and function at the ESI, as well as co-supervising a Master's project. Selina, João and Omar all helped out on various courses at UCL, including demonstrating practicals and helping with projects.

So, a hectic year, not without its frustrations, but with plenty positive to look back on. 2019 is already shaping up to be another manic year!

Papers published (excludes early online versions)

Baron, M. G. & Barrett, P. M. 2018. Support for the placement of Chilesaurus within Ornithischia: a reply to Müller et al.. Biology Letters, 14, 20180002.

Butler, R. J., Nesbitt, S. J., Charig, A. J., Gower, D. J. & Barrett, P. M. 2018. Mandasuchus tanyauchen gen. et sp. nov., a pseudosuchian archosaur from the Manda Beds of Tanzania. Memoirs of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, 17, 96–121. 

Carrano, M. T., Loewen, M. A. & Evers, S. W. 2018. Comment (Case 3506)—Conservation of Allosaurus Marsh, 1877 (Dinosauria, Theropoda): additional data in support of the proposed neotype for its type species Allosaurus fragilis Marsh, 1877. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, 75, 59–64.

Chapelle, K. E. J. & Choiniere, J. N. 2018. A revised cranial description of Massospondylus carinatus based on computed tomographic scans and a review of cranial characters for basal Sauropodomorpha. PeerJ, 6, e4224.

Cleary, T. J., Benson, R. B. J., Evans, S.E. & Barrett, P. M. 2018. Lepidosaurian diversity in the Mesozoic–Palaeogene: the potential roles of sampling biases and environmental driversRoyal Society Open Science5, 171830.

Close, R. A., Evers S. W., Alroy, J. & Butler, R. J. 2018. How should we estimate diversity in the fossil record? Testing richness estimators using sampling‐standardised discovery curves. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 9, 1386–1400.

Dunne, E. M., Close, R. A., Button, D. J., Brocklehurst, N., Cashmore, D. C., Lloyd, G. T. & Butler, R. J. 2018. Diversity change during the rise of tetrapods and the impact of the ‘Carboniferous rainforest collapse’. Proceedings of the Royal Society B285, 20172730. 

Fallon, R. L. 2018. "Literature Rather Than Science": Henry Neville Hutchinson (1856–1927) and the literary borderlines of science writing. Journal of Literature and Science, 11, 50–65.

Graham, M. R., Choiniere, J. N., Jirah, S. & Barrett, P. M. 2018. The remedial conservation and support jacketing of the Massospondylus carinatus neotype. Palaeontologia africana, 52, 222–227. 

Jones, M. E., Lucas, P. W., Tucker, A. S., Watson, A. P., Sertich, J. J., Foster, J. R., Williams, R., Garbe, U., Bevitt, J. J. & Salvemini, F., 2018. Neutron scanning reveals unexpected complexity in the enamel thickness of an herbivorous Jurassic reptile. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 15, 20180039.

Nesbitt, S. J., Butler, R. J., Ezcurra, M., Charig, A. J.  & Barrett, P. M. 2018. The anatomy of Teleocrater rhadinus, an early avemetatarsalian from the lower portion of the Lifua Member of the Manda Beds (~Middle Triassic). Memoirs of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, 17, 142–177.  

Nicholl, C. S. C., Mannion, P. D. & Barrett, P. M. 2018. Sauropod dinosaur remains from a new Early Jurassic locality in the Central High Atlas of Morocco. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 63, 147–157. 

O’Connor, R. E., Romanov, M. N., Kiazim, L. G., Barrett, P. M., Farré, M., Damas, J., Ferguson-Smith, M., Valenzuela, N., Larkin, D. M. & Griffin, D. K. 2018. Reconstruction of the diapsid ancestral genome permits chromosome evolution tracing in avian and non-avian dinosaurs. Nature Communications, 9, 1883. 

Raven, T. R. & Maidment, S. C. R. 2018. The systematic position of the enigmatic thyreophoran dinosaur Paranthodon africanus and the use of basal exemplifiers in phylogenetic analysis. PeerJ, 6, e4529.

Viglietti, P., Barrett, P. M., Broderick, T., Munyikwa, D., MacNiven, R., Broderick, L., Chapelle, K. J., Glynn, D., Edwards, S., Zondo, M., Broderick, P. & Choiniere, J. N. 2018. Stratigraphy of the Vulcanodon type locality and its implications for regional correlations within the Karoo Supergroup. Journal of African Earth Sciences, 137, 149–156.  

Wills, S., Choiniere, J. N. & Barrett, P. M. 2018. Predictive modelling of fossil-bearing locality distributions in the Elliot Formation (Upper Triassic­–Lower Jurassic), South Africa, using combined multivariate and spatial statistical analyses of present day environmental data. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 489, 186–197.

Xu, X., Upchurch, P., Mannion, P. D., Barrett, P. M., Regalado-Fernandez, O. R., Mo, J.-Y., Ma, J.-F. & Liu, H.-G. 2018. A new Middle Jurassic diplodocoid suggests an earlier dispersal and diversification of sauropod dinosaurs. Nature Communications, 9, 2700.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Looking back: 2017 in NHMDinoLab

For me, New Year is a time for looking back as well as forward. Looking forward to the opportunities ahead and looking back to learn lessons that we can apply in the future. Everyone in the lab has had a really busy and productive year, with lots of standout achievements, but our fair share of bumps in the road too. Below is a quick summary of some of these achievements, many of which have been accomplished despite quite a few of us facing some major personal challenges during 2017.

Last year saw the departure of four valued people from the lab, the first being David Nicholson who moved in to the UK Civil Service, as a Home Office statistician, following the completion of his postdoc. PhD student Amy Waterson successfully defended her thesis on ecological niche occupancy in deep time and also went on to work in government, in a role that combines her expertise in climate change with a deep interest in public engagement. The second was another former student Matt Baron, who defended his PhD thesis on early dinosaur evolution in September. Matt is hoping to continue in the subject and has some promising job prospects in store, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future. The third and final departure was lab associate Lorna Steel, our former curator of fossil reptiles, who for personal reasons decided to leave the NHM to pursue a new life in rural Wales (which seems to be suiting her just fine). An amazing colleague, we were all sad to see her go and will miss her stoicism and sense a fun a lot.

These departures have been balanced by new arrivals, however, with two new PhD students Becky Lakin (based at the University of Bath) and Tom Raven (at the University of Brighton), joining the lab. Becky’s project is on the evolution of avian reproduction (supervised by Nick Longrich and Dan Field), whereas Tom’s is on thyreophoran phylogeny (supervised by Susie Maidment) and I look forward to seeing each of them in London more often. We’re going to be joined by a whole host of new people in early 2018, with Susie Maidment returning to the museum in a new permanent Researcher position. It will be terrific to have another full-time dino person working at the NHM and February can’t come soon enough. Two more new staff will be joining the lab in February also and I’m delighted that David Button and Marc Jones will both be starting on NERC-funded postdocs, working on a project that I’ll be running with Laura Porro, so there should be exciting times ahead. We also had two short-term MSc students in the lab this year, Joe Bonsor and Danielle Moraviec, who were both great fun to have around.

Current lab members have spent a lot of time abroad this year. Omar Regalado-Fernández had an extended research visit to a bunch of major North American museums and Terri Cleary visited Pat Holroyd in Berkeley, to get up to speed on fossil turtles. Richard Fallon visited New York, chasing up letters relating to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. In another US trip, Simon Wills went to a new Morrison Formation quarry in Wyoming to search for microvertebrates. João Vasco-Leite had his first major research trip, taking in collections in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland and the lab has been well represented with talks and posters at meetings in Calgary (SVP: Omar, Matt, Terri, Selina Groh, Paul B.) and Munich (EAVP: Serjoscha Evers, Paul B.), as well as in the UK (SVPCA and PalAss). Paul B. and Terri were able to go on the SVP fieldtrip to Dinosaur Provincial Park, which was stunning. Omar successfully upgraded to full PhD status and got a Bogue Fellowship from UCL to support his US trip: João has also just found out that he was also a Bogue, so will be off the US sometime in the spring of 2018. Paul B. had an amazing fieldtrip to Zimbabwe in January 2017, together with colleagues from the ESI (Johannesburg) and local colleagues in Zimbabwe, looking for new dinosaur sites along the shores of Lake Kariba. Lots of terrific new sites, with some surprising new material and the pleasure of seeing elephants, hippos and crocs on our field sites on a daily basis. Paul B. also finished off the year in Africa with a quick trip to Johannesburg to try and finish some long running projects on early dinos. Serjoscha also got to do some cool fieldwork, joining his former mentor Oliver Rauhut’s crew for a trip prospecting in the Middle and Late Jurassic of New Zealand.

Most lab members have had their heads down this year getting chapters ready for dissertations or gathering new data, so most of the publications action has come from either Matt or Paul B. Terri has submitted the first paper arising from her thesis (fingers crossed) and Selina and Serjoscha have a bunch of things brewing. Matt has had a bumper year for papers, getting chunks of his thesis published, most notably his new dinosaur phylogeny, published in Nature, which proposes a radical rearrangement of the dinosaur family tree (Baron et al. 2017a). This has had lots of comment online, huge media attention (making it to #84 in the Altimetrics global listing for 2017), and has also generated published debate (leading to another paper: Baron et al. 2017b). More fanfare accompanied our suggestion that the enigmatic Chilesaurus might be an ornithischian (Baron & Barrett 2017), which again is leading to another comment and response. Matt’s other papers included one applying Bayesian methods to his phylogeny (Parry et al. 2017) and his postcranial description of Lesothosaurus in which we sank Stormbergia (Baron et al. 2017c). Also related to our ongoing collaborations in South Africa, Simon published a paper with a new GIS-based method for predicting fossil occurrences in the field (Wills et al. 2018). Serjoscha and Paul B. were both invited to be involved in a big project on plesiosaur inner ears that came out in Current Biology (Neenan et al. 2017).

Otherwise, most of the lab’s other outputs this year have come from Paul B., with reviews of dinosaur quadrupedality (Barrett & Maidment 2017) and the use of moment arms in vertebrate biomechanics, using Sophie the Stegosaurus as an exemplar (Brassey et al. 2017), papers on craniodental evolution and biomechanics in sauropods (Button et al. 2017) and herbivorous dinosaurs in general (MacLaren et al. 2017) and involvement in a policy statement on the use and storage of digital data (Davies et al. 2017). A third Nature paper was based on the naming of Teleocrater, an early avemetatarsalian from the Middle Triassic of Tanzania (Nesbitt et al. 2017), which marks the beginning of the end for describing the NHM Manda archosaur material (more to come in 2018). Finally, the team also got a paper out describing the stratigraphy of the Vulcanodon type locality, arising from our trip in January (Viglietti et al. 2018). Paul B. also published a new popular science book on Stegosaurus, again based on Sophie.

Various honours, grants and prizes came our way, with Serjoscha and Matt each receiving research grants to support their work (from the Systematics Association and Christ’s College, Cambridge, respectively). Selina had a great year, taking the prize for best talk at the NHM Student Conference and being a finalist in the ‘Research Images as Art’ competition at UCL. Richard received an honorary mention for his submission to the British Society for Literature and Science's ECR essay prize, which will be published in due course. Selina also became the leader of the 500 Women Scientists London Pod this year, an organisation founded to empower women and non-binary people and Simon took on a leadership role, joining the Council of The Palaeontographical Society. Paul Varotis has been looking after the finances of Les Amis du Museum (MNHN, Paris), which contributed to the organisation of IPC5 in Paris, the training of doctoral students, computerisation of their archives, and acquisition of new equipment. Finally, Paul B. had his Honorary Professorship renewed at the ESI.

Many lab members have also found time to do lots of outreach. Richard co-curated 'The Art of Dinosaur Science' (at University of Nottingham Lakeside Arts) and 'The Victorian Studies Centre at 50' at the University of Leicester. Selina was the runner-up in the cosplay competition at the London Comic Con and took place in a mini version of SoapBox Science at UCL for Open Day. Paul B., Matt and Terri all took place at various events in the NHM over the course of the year and Paul B. made his first appearance at New Scientist Live at the ExCel Centre, as well as participating in an evolution masterclass at The Guardian in addition to his usual involvement in other public lectures and media appearances (including a museum project with Sir David Attenborough, TBA). 

Phew. So, on balance, a terrific year for the lab and the basis for what will hopefully be a happy and successful 2018. We’re really looking forward to welcoming our new arrivals and wish everyone a tremendously exciting and fulfilling New Year.

Baron, M. G. & Barrett, P. M. 2017. A dinosaur missing-link? Chilesaurus and the early evolution of ornithischian dinosaurs. Biology Letters 13: 20170220. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2017.0220
Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. 2017a. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature 543: 501–506. doi:10.1038/nature21700
Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. 2017b. Baron et al. reply. Nature 551: E4 - E5. doi:10.1038/nature24012
Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. 2017c. Postcranial anatomy of Lesothosaurus diagnosticus (Dinosauria: Ornithischia) from the Lower Jurassic of southern Africa: implications for basal ornithischian taxonomy and systematics. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 179: 125–168. doi:10.1111/zoj.12434
Barrett, P. M. & Maidment, S. C. R. 2017. The evolution of ornithischian quadrupedality. Journal of Iberian Geology 43: 363–377. doi:10.1007/s41513-017-0036-0
Button, D. J., Barrett, P. M. & Rayfield, E. J. 2017. Craniodental functional evolution in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Paleobiology 43: 435–462. doi:10.1017/pab.2017.4
Brassey, C. A., Maidment, S. C. R. & Barrett, P. M. 2017. Muscle moment arm analyses applied to vertebrate paleontology: a case study using Stegosaurus stenops Marsh, 1887. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 37:  e1361432. doi:10.1080/02724634.2017.1361432
Davies, T.G., Rahman, I. A., Lautenschlager, S., Cunningham, J. A., Asher, R. J., Barrett, P. M., Bates, K. T., Bengtson, S., Benson, R. B. J., Boyer, D. M., Braga, J., Bright, J. A., Claessens, L. P. A. M., Cox, P. G., Dong, X.-P., Evans, A. R., Falkingham, P. L., Friedman, M., Garwood, R. J., Goswami, A., Hutchinson, J. R., Jeffery, N. S., Johanson, Z., Lebrun, R., Martínez-Pérez, C., Marugán-Lobón, J., O'Higgins, P. M., Metscher, B., Orliac, M., Rowe, T. B., Rücklin, M., Sánchez-Villagra, M. R., Shubin, N. H., Smith, S. Y., Starck, J. M., Stringer, C., Summers, A. P., Sutton, M. D., Walsh, S. A., Weisbecker, V., Witmer, L. M., Wroe, S., Yin, Z., Rayfield, E. J. & Donoghue, P. C. J. 2017. Open data and digital morphology. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284: 20170194. doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0194
MacLaren, J. A., Anderson, P. S. L., Barrett, P. M. & Rayfield, E. J. 2017. Herbivorous dinosaur jaw disparity and its relationship to extrinsic evolutionary drivers. Paleobiology 43: 15–33. doi:10.1017/pab.2016.31
Neenan, J. M., Reich, T., Evers, S. W., Druckenmiller, P. S., Voeten, D. F. A. E., Choiniere, J. N., Barrett, P. M., Pierce, S. E. & Benson, R. B. J. 2017. Evolution of the sauropterygian labyrinth with increasingly pelagic lifestyles. Current Biology 27: 3852–3858 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2017.10.069.
Nesbitt, S. J., Butler, R. J., Ezcurra, M. D., Barrett, P. M., Stocker, M. R., Angielczyk, K. D., Smith, R. M. H., Sidor, C. A., Niedźwiedzki, G., Sennikov, A. G. & Charig A. J. 2017. The earliest bird-line archosaurs and the assembly of the dinosaur body plan. Nature 544: 484–487. doi:10.1038/nature22037
Parry, L. A., Baron, M. G. & Vinther, J. 2017. Multiple optimality criteria support Ornithoscelida. Royal Society Open Science 4: 170833. doi:10.1098/rsos.170833
Viglietti, P. A., Barrett, P. M., Broderick, T. J., Munyikwa, D., MacNiven, R., Broderick, L., Chapelle, K., Glynn, D., Edwards, S., Zondo, M., Broderick, P. & Choiniere, J. N. 2018. Stratigraphy of the Vulcanodon type locality and its implications for regional correlations within the Karoo Supergroup. Journal of African Earth Sciences 137: 149–156. doi:10.1016/j.jafrearsci.2017.10.015
Wills, S., Choiniere, J. N. & Barrett, P. M. 2018, Predictive modelling of fossil-bearing locality distributions in the Elliot Formation (Upper Triassic–Lower Jurassic), South Africa, using a combined multivariate and spatial statistical analyses of present-day environmental data. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 489: 186–197. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2017.10.009

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A quick career biography - a case study in swimming though the system

Following a series of interesting discussions on Twitter, which set out the problems and perils faced by early career researchers, I thought it might be somewhat therapeutic (for me at least) to sit down and think about the pathway that’s led me to my current position. This isn’t intended to be preachy, to trivialise the problems faced by others, or to brag, but I thought it might be of interest to the broader discussion about careers in academia and how they might progress.

During my PhD, in the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Cambridge, I had a blast. I was lucky enough to be a member of large cohort of friends, all of whom were really into what they were doing and who knew how to have a great time while doing it. I had the funding to do what I needed, opportunities to earn extra cash through teaching, was at a university were life was made pretty easy in general, had a terrific social life and a strong mutual support network. As the end of my PhD loomed closer and the spectre of unemployment appeared I started applying for jobs – in total, I applied for something like 20 positions in a relatively short space of time. Of those applications, I only got long-shortlisted for one (which was ultimately unsuccessful) and on the day my funding ran out I had only a couple more irons in the fire and went to sign-on for unemployment benefit. Luckily, the last decision I was waiting for struck gold and I got a fully-funded four-year fellowship at Trinity College. So, two weeks after I signed-on, I went back to the job centre and signed-off as the job started almost immediately. This gave me a financial cushion and also the freedom to do what I wanted to academically – I had no ‘boss’ as such, just my own research proposal to work with. The first 6 months of my fellowship were spent completing my thesis and the rest of the time pursuing various other projects. In many ways this was a great time – I had a salary, no other responsibilities, could set my own agenda and continued to work in a place with established linkages and friends – the ideal first job.

It wasn’t all roses, however – during the second year of my fellowship (a few months after submitting my PhD) I suffered from a lengthy bout of clinical depression and had a period of around 9 months where I simply wasn’t able to function properly. I couldn’t work and could barely bring myself to interact with anyone else – a large portion of this time was spent lying on a sofa staring blankly ahead, with periods of intense, unresolvable restlessness in between. Thanks to support from my partner, friends, family, GP and Trinity I got through it, though I was on medication for around 18 months, and had regular counselling during the first (and worst) few months of this illness. Trinity responded well, allowing me as much time as I needed to recover and offering to add time to the fellowship to account for the period where I was too ill to work (a generous offer, which in the end I didn’t need to take up due to getting another job after the fellowship). They didn’t offer any other formal help, aside from general moral support, but they did give me reassurance and space to recover. The depression wasn’t due to the fact that my future beyond the length of the job was unclear, nor to any stresses involved in the job, but to a combination of other personal reasons, related to the fact that my cohort of friends gradually departed (while I remained), a certain amount of PhD post-partum anxiety, and two other coincident minor, but worrying, illnesses, which got blown out of proportion. Apart from this, the majority of my postdoc period was, on balance, pretty enjoyable. Other than the eventual stress about where the next job might come from as the fellowship ticked down, I was able to set my own agenda and was treated as a grown-up by my colleagues in permanent positions. I was given opportunities to shoulder some collective responsibility ­– I, along with all of the other junior fellows participated in a minor way in the running of the College and had the same voting rights and privileges as the other fellows – and I never felt marginalised. Luckily for me, I applied for a got another job while still in the tenure of my fellowship, so went straight into this, without an extended period of failed applications or unemployment.

My next job was as a lecturer at Oxford University. It involved a move to a department that I found much more challenging, not only due to the change in role – which involved more formal teaching as well as the associated administrative demands it made, and the need to increase my research profile (not to mention some pressure to get that first grant) – but also due to the different set of personalities I encountered. It was a much less enjoyable place to work than my old Department and if it hadn’t been for a handful of friendly staff that took me under their wing, I’m not sure how long I would have lasted (although I eventually built up a small research group of my own, which helped buffer me from the isolation I’d felt on arrival). In addition to not liking my new department, I took a quick dislike to Oxford ­– a city too large to retain the charm of the university precinct, but too small to have the diversity and distractions of a bigger city. It was isolating socially and much more hierarchical academically than anything I’d witnessed in Cambridge: although I was a full member of faculty, most decisions in my department were made by a small group of senior professors who rarely consulted more widely. In addition, there were few people who had any inkling or interest in the sorts of things I worked on. My partner was still a PhD student at the time, and still based in Cambridge, so we also had the added strain of maintaining a long-distance relationship while neither of us had any money (his grant was on fumes and eventually ended – I was on a low salary). Although I lived in Oxford for a while (in temporary accommodation that was provided for new staff, which remains the worst place I ever lived in) I found that I had no social life, nor much in the way of an intellectual life either, and when my partner got a job in London and moved there I soon followed. For the next two and a half years I commuted back and forth from London to Oxford: this was physically exhausting and financially burdensome, but at least meant I had a social life again. To be fair to my boss, he was happy to support my decision to move and enabled me to work in London one day each week out of term time. I became a visitor at the Natural History Museum (NHM), with Fridays becoming a research day in the collections.

The Oxford job was a 4 year fixed-term post and as the end drew near there were relatively few other opportunities available. This led to another period of anxiety and I spent time applying for the few relevant academic jobs that arose and for individual fellowships (with zero success at making a shortlist) and I began to have serious discussions about alternative career paths (I still think I’d have had potential as a Foreign Office diplomat or savage management consultant). At this time, the NHM dinosaur researcher job came up and I was lucky enough to be shortlisted. Following the interviews I wasn’t the first choice candidate (that honour went to a colleague and close friend who went on to head up another major dinosaur collection instead), but when this candidate declined I found myself offered the job. In many ways the NHM has been exceptionally kind to me – I find myself in constant awe of the collections, the building, the sense of history and also my colleagues who are hardworking, brilliant to hang out with and dedicated. As with all permanent jobs, however, there still loomed the prospect of passing my probationary period – and this isn’t just a rubber-stamping exercise (and least three of my close contemporaries failed their probation and either left or transitioned to other non-research roles). Nevertheless, I was able to cross the Rubicon and the stability that this now permanent job gave me boosted my productivity, which has been recognised by my subsequent climbing of the greasy pole within the museum’s ranks. Even now there are still anxieties – we’re a public institution and in times of austerity permanent jobs get cut, and I’ve seen good, productive colleagues lost to these purges. Although the days of worrying about changing jobs are to some extent behind me, and I’m financially stable, I now have different burdens of expectation in terms of getting consistent grant funding, contributing to managerial and corporate roles, and in maintaining a research profile, despite having less and less research time. There were not stress factors when I was younger and the jobs were less pressured and more research oriented. In addition, when you reach middle age other burdens come into play - your own health can be more of a concern and parents, and if you have them kids, take more of a toll on your personal time in terms of finding that work/life balance.

Many of the career-related problems that academics face are not unique to academia. My friends who work in other sectors have also had to change job frequently, including changes of town or city, often with young families in tow, and difficult decisions regarding relationships, children and other life choices have to be made. They also face periods of uncertainly and unemployment and a few work in industries where there isn’t much support to deal with these issues. I’m sorry to say that the pressures don’t go away or lessen as you transition into a permanent job – they just change. Moreover, although I think that things are genuinely tougher for postdocs now than they were in my day (which should be the subject of another post), to some extent those in my generation been there too – facing the same uncertainties over the next job, where it will be, and how this will affect our lives outside of the workplace. I’ve had two particular lows in my career (my period of depression and my first year in Oxford) and in neither case were they associated with career worries, but with other factors. Career worries were real also, but I found mechanisms to manage them, which involved keeping a dialogue going and being realistic about the next stage when things didn’t look like they were going to work out the way I wanted.

As I said at the outset, it’s not my intention to preach. I just wanted to set out my own experiences as a case study, so those going through the early stages of their career can see how things might pan out. Some of you might recognise some of this, others might think I’ve been fantastically lucky (with no cause to pontificate), and others might be disappointed that the challenges they face now are tougher than those I had to overcome.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Shaking the tree ...

Evolutionary biologists are constantly striving to improve our knowledge of the tree of life. Although this may seem like an esoteric exercise, of interest to a select few, understanding the pattern of evolution is fundamental to everything else that we might want to know regarding evolutionary history. Schemes of relationships offer a framework for understanding rates of evolution, the geographical history of a group, the ways in which different anatomical, physiological and behavioural features develop and change, and provide insights into the dynamics of adaptive radiations and extinctions. Given the foundational nature of this work, it should be unsurprising that scientists are forever revisiting the relationships of even the most familar of animal groups, in order to check and double-check that they've got things right. An impressive recent example of this comes from work on the interrelationships of the major mammalian groups, where new analyses of primarily molecular data were able to solve many features of the mammalian tree that were previously mysterious and that created a number of new, previously unsuspected groupings, such as Afrotheria, that paved the way for a different understanding of mammal evolution.

In 1887, Harry Govier Seeley, then a Professor at Kings College London, proposed a new classification for a group of extinct reptiles whose remains were being unearthed in Europe and North America. These animals, dinosaurs, were known to share a number of features in common, but there had been little consensus over their relationships and how they should be classified. He noticed several features that differed consistently between the various animals that had been assigned to this group and proposed that they could be divided to into two great tribes - Saurischia (the 'lizard-hipped' dinosaurs) and Ornithischia (the 'bird-hipped' dinosaurs). Unsurprisingly, the most obvious feature he used was hip structure, but Seeley also noted other features that supported these groupings and that distinguished them from each other. Seeley considered that his two groups were probably not particularly closely related and that they arose from different ancestors. Indeed, his arguments were so persuasive that his scheme held sway unchallenged for almost 100 years. The first challenge came in the early 1970s when Robert Bakker and Peter Galton (1974) argued that Saurischia and Ornithischia were each descended from the same common ancestor, making Dinosauria a natural, or monophyletic, group, rather than distant relatives as Seeley and others had advocated. This challenge was debated by the scientific community and upheld by analyses of expanded datasets (and new computational methods for assessing relationships) during the 1980s. Since the late 1980s, the palaeontological community has accepted dinosaur monophyly as dogma (and expanded this dogma to include birds firmly within the dinosaurian radiation), in comparison with the previous 100+ years where dinosaur polyphyly was the accepted model. However, in spite of this radical change, Seeley's dichotomous division of dinosaurs into Saurischia, composed of Theropoda and Sauropodomorpha, and Ornithischia survived (e.g. Gauthier 1986; Sereno 1999).

Since the 1980s, various dinosaur experts have looked at these fundamental splits in the dinosaur tree and their work upheld Seeley's model, with most of the debate concentraing on the exact positions within the tree of a few early, controversial species, such as Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus (e.g. Langer & Benton 2006). However, although these analyses often examined numerous detailed features they relied on only a handful of animals to inform the shape of the dinosaur tree. The past 20 years have witnessed a rush of discoveries of early dinosaurs, from all major lineages and from many parts of the world, and have also seen the recognition of a whole new group of close dinosaur relatives, the silesaurs (e.g. Nesbitt et al. 2010). This new information was incorporated into a variety of analyses, but all of these were focused primarily on the particular relationships of these new animals rather than the overall structure of the dinosaur evolutionary tree - probably because of the broad consensus that surrounded Seeley's neat and logical scheme.

The vast amount of new data now available, in combination with new software packages that allow huge datasets to be analysed rigorously and rapidly, seemed to offer an opportunity to take another look at dinosaur relationships with fresh eyes. With this in mind, my PhD student Matt Baron together with my former PhD advisor (and Matt's other advisor) David Norman, and I decided to see if this new information might affect our knowledge of the dinosaur tree. Matt built a data matrix containing 74 species of early dinosaurs and their close relatives, using specimens from all over the world and concentrated in the Middle Triassic–Early Jurassic, the time at which these major splits took place. Over 450 separate anatomical features were checked for each of these species and the resulting data analysed. It's worth bearing in mind that all other recent analyses of this problem included no more than 12–15 examples of early dinosaurs, on which to base the entire early evolutionary history of the group. Analysis of these data resulted in the recovery of an unexpected and radical tree topology that offers a challenge to Seeley's 130 year old hypothesis. This tree found that theropods were more closely related to ornithischians than either group was to sauropods, thus removing much of the content from Seeley's Saurischia (the carnivorous herrerasaurs remained with the sauropodomorphs, however). This new grouping of Theropoda + Ornithischia has been dubbed Ornithoscelida in a paper published in Nature that presents our new hypothesis (Baron et al. 2017). Ornithoscelida is a name originally proposed by 'Darwin's bulldog' Thomas Henry Huxley in 1870 in a classification that preceded Seeley's, but that was largely ignored. The name means 'bird-limbed' and refers to the hollow, gracile and elongate leg and arm bones found in theropods and ornithishians. In our analysis this new grouping receives strong support, with 21 features that seem to unite these animals to the exclusion of the sauropodomorph dinosaurs.

Given previous definitions of various dinosaur groups, this new tree requires some new definitions for commonly used names if we are to keep all dinosaurs as dinosaurs. For example, the most common definition (the common ancestor of sparrows and Triceratops and all of its descendants), would now exclude Diplodocus and other sauropods from Dinosauria. This was a step too far for us and so we proposed a new scheme of definitions to help stabilise the use and definition of some of these names, not only to account for if the new tree is potentially right, but also that would allow the tree to change if we were wrong without altering the meaning of these names.

In addition to giving us a new dinosaur tree, if our results stand up to detailed scrutiny by other palaeontologists, then they might be used to provide many new insights into dinosaur evolution. This would include looking again at the timing and pace of dinosaur origins, the evolution of various key characters, such as feathers and carnivory, and into the areas where dinosaurs might have first appeared. As with anything in science, our tree is a hypothesis - it is there to be stretched and tested to see if it is stronger than those that have come before and if it has the power to explain more about dinosaur evolution than other competing schemes. If we're wrong and there are better alternative explanations for the patterns we see then we'll have to accept that evidence and move on - that's how science works. In the meantime we hope that people will look at this with an open mind rather than rejecting it in a knee-jerk fashion due to its challenge to a well established and embedded dogma. While Huxley might be cheering us from the shades, we're also aware that Seeley would be shaking his head. Time will tell which one of them was closer to the truth.


Bakker, R. T. & Galton, P. M. Dinosaur monophyly and a new class of vertebrates. Nature 248, 168–172 (1974). 
Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature (2017).
Gauthier, J. Saurischian monophyly and the origin of birds. In The origin of Birds and the Evolution of Flight (ed. K.Padian). Memoir of the California Academy of Science 8 1–55 (1986).
Huxley, T. H. On the Classification of the Dinosauria with observations on the Dinosauria of the Trias. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 26, 32–51 (1870).
Langer, M. C. & Benton, M. J. Early dinosaurs: a phylogenetic study. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 4, 309–358 (2006).
Nesbitt, S. J., Sidor, C. A., Irmis, R. B., Angielczyk, K. D., Smith, R. M. H & Tsuji, L. A. Ecologically distinct dinosaurian sister group shows early diversification of Ornithodira. Nature 464 (7285): 95–98 (2010).
Seeley, H. G. On the classification of the fossil animals commonly named Dinosauria. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 43, 165–171 (1887).
Sereno, P. C. The evolution of dinosaurs. Science 284, 2137–2147 (1999).