Friday, 29 January 2016

What do I do all day? (Friday)

At last! The week comes to an end and I can play Skyrim non-stop til Monday!


I am sand-blasted by gale-force winds on the way to catch the shuttle-bus this morning, but make it safely to the Kings Building of the University of Edinburgh with my cargo of fossil Tritylodont teeth intact.

First thing's first - hot tea. With a full mug and a thermos for refills, I set to work answering all the emails I've been putting off since Monday (travelling is a great excuse to procrastinate). After a tedious 45 minutes photocopying chapters from a book the library won't let me keep any longer, I meet up with my friend Amy, who is currently reconstructing the brain-case of a Tyrannosaur for her Masters project.

In the afternoon I make my way to the Zoology department for the practical I'm demonstrating on today - the dissection of a lugworm. For those new to the term demonstrator (we didn't have them at all in my undergrad degree, so it was new to me), demonstrators are basically assistants to the lecturer or class leader. Their job is to support the undergraduate students with their learning, keeping them on track and guiding them to the answers (as opposed to just giving them the answers). It's fun because it's not as formal as being a lecturer, and you always learn new things, no matter how much you think you know about a subject. There is a team of us for this class, and we have a great time cutting up dead things with the students.
The tools for the job.
Dead lugworms, ready for dissection.
It turned out that one of the lugworms being sliced up in the practical was a rare species, only differentiated from the common lugworms (Arenicola marina) by the number of segments in the head region. Lucky for us (and decidedly unlucky for the lugworm) it had been collected for dissection alongside the regular worms. You can always rely on biologists to find rare species... and cut them up for further study (though I should add that although it may be rare, it's in no way endangered or protected).

By 5pm I was in desperate need of a coffee. On the bus ride home I found that the podcast I'd recorded with the up-and-coming radio presenter Stuart Russell had gone live on his website. A nerve-racking hour commenced of listening to check I hadn't said anything too stupid (I don't think I did... you can be the judge!)

Palaeontology Revealed -
And now here I am, finishing a week of blogs, sipping some Balvenie double-cask, and eyeing the PS3 controller. Skyrim, here I come.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

What do I do all day? (Thursday)

It occurs to me that this is an atypical week to be blogging about what I do, but I imagine no-one wants to read a blog where every day is: got up, went to Uni, read scientific papers, drank tea, read more scientific papers, wrote emails, went home. That's a more typical week, but why blog it when I can blog about mystery boxes and cupboards full of horses?


Last day in Bristol, and it's a crisper morning outside - a relief to my Northern blood, I've been boiling hot since I arrived.  I meet up with the singular Christine Janis, whose lifetime expertise in mammals is second to none. We begin scrutinising the latest re-analyses I've been running for the publication of my Masters thesis, which she supervised, looking at correlations in the shape of extant carnivore's ankles and their locomotion. My second supervisor, Max, joins us later, and we talk for a couple of hours about what to keep, what to cut, and what is still left to do to make a publishable paper.

What does a carnivore's ankle look like? Well, for example here is the ankle (calcaneum) of a polar bear, Ursus maritimus. The top bit is where the achilles tendon attaches - it's what sticks out when you feel your own ankle - and the bottom half is where it articulates with the other bones of the ankle, the foot and lower leg. The shape changes depending on whether the animal is a habitual runner, tree-climber, or digger. My research uncovers that shape change and uses it to understand the habits of fossil carnivores.

It's great fun making such plans and seeing a paper take shape, but inevitably it's also a little daunting. There's always more to be done, so many things that could be included... it's important to remind yourself that while you are a very capable person, you are not superhuman. At the risk of sounding like one of those twee magnets your aunty has on her fridge: you have to think big, but take it one step at a time. You will get there in the end.

At noon I said my goodbyes and fled Bristol for the airport, where I was dreading security. What would they make of the many little tubs of Tritylodontid teeth I was "smuggling" back into Scotland*? Should I declare them?

I make it through the metal detector without beeping, then stand waiting for my bag. The security woman pauses the X-ray monitor and leans in close to examine the contents of my suitcase. There, on the screen, is my camera, multiple chargers, my hard drive, and underneath them a puzzle of clip lock boxes with 166 million year old black shapes inside them. Here we go, I think to myself, I'm going to have to explain... but no. She unpauses the screen and my bag comes trundling down the conveyor without another thought.


I make the mistake of experimentally buying a veggie burger from Burger King for lunch (I haven't eaten from there since I was 13 years old - now I remember one of the many reasons why...), before a brisk and wobbly flight takes me home to Scotland. I step off the plane and POW, I'm whacked in the face with icy rain. I love it! After a blustery bus ride home to my tenement flat in the heart of the city, I make the first decent coffee I've had in days.
This is the life.

*obviously I wasn't really smuggling anything, Roger Benson's Oxford team found them on the Isle of Skye and I was ferrying them home to the National Museum of Scotland to be added to the collection - all the material found on Skye is collected with the understanding that it will go to the museum. Another important piece of our geological heritage, preserved for the people - plus I'll also be studying them for another paper.
Also, the answer is no: there's no problem carrying little bits of tooth-shaped rock on a plane, provided you aren't stealing them or removing them from their home country without permission.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

What do I do all day? (Wednesday)

Mid point in my week of blogs...


There's nothing like the sound of running water to calm you... and make you desperate for the loo. I spent the morning re-examining some of the key specimens and making extensive notes, but the room I did it in was right next to the Dr Leonard P Annectens office. All morning the sound of his water filters made me slightly uncomfortable...

Dr Lenny in his office. He came to Bristol to be dissected, but ended up joining the staff. Strange, usually it goes the other way around...

He's a handsome fellow. Look at those sweet, milky white eyes.
Today has been another collaborative one, chatting with Roger Benson from Oxford University about work on Skye and the scattered collections of Robert Savage. I'll be joining the Oxford team as well as the Edinburgh one to carry out field work in Skye later this year (and I'll blog about it, so watch this space!). Days like today - full of discussing and planning - don't make for great blogs... but I have found a few more interesting things to share with you.

The room I was working in contains some of Bristol's teaching materials, and many of them are mammalian (Cenozoic rather than Mesozoic). There is the fascinating Cupboard of the Horses, the impressive Shelf of the Elephants, and the less impressive Shelf of the Ancient Moth-eaten Replica reptiles.

The Cupboard of the Horses (a little known Jean M Auel sequel)

The Shelf of the Elephants.

A dead bat. Look at those wonderful fingers.

I know, it's hardly a white knuckle-ride, but it's the best I could do!
After spending the afternoon writing emails, I retired to spend the evening working on analyses from my Masters thesis, preparing for publication. And eating curry. Lots of curry.

Tune in tomorrow for another day in the exciting life of a PhD researcher.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

What do I do all day? (Tuesday)

My week of blogs continues...

A 9am start, meeting the curator of the University of Bristol collections in the stunning Will's Memorial Building. He leads me into the hidden rooms behind the grand hall, where the thick walls shroud the wooden drawers in total silence. We find the specimens and take them to an empty room where I can set up my gear for a day of research.

Specimen drawer to the left of me, microscope to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with Borealestes. (Apologies
for the finger in the bottom corner, I hadn't had my coffee yet.)

Hopefully no-one could hear me gasping and squeeking with delight as I placed each specimen under the microscope and opened up a tiny world of 166 million year old anatomy. In my notebook, I record the details of the specimen, and notes on what I see.

After an hour of microscope hunching, I take a break to meet up with the wonderful Pam Gill for a coffee. It's always great to meet up with other researchers and share news and information, and Pam is not only one of the leading experts in Mesozoic mammals (especially the Welsh fissure fills) but is an all-round lovely person. We discuss our current projects, take a look at the specimens together, and make plans for future collaborations and project ideas.

In the afternoon I photograph the specimens of greatest importance to my research. This is no easy task: the bones and teeth and very small, so getting enough light - even with my specialist ring flash kit - is tricky and time consuming.
Drawer of specimens - it takes more time than you think to look at all of these teeth and bones.

The holotype specimen of Borealestes serendipitus, the docodont species my research is centered on.

The rest of my day is devoted to pouring through Robert Savage's notebooks, photographs and correspondance. I have a small desk in the hot stuffy basement, sandwiched between the rock-filled shelves. The bowels of the building humm and whirr around me, as I open each box and search through. Original journal manuscripts, field notebooks from Libya, Australia, Africa and Europe, photographs of specimens on thick photo paper, yellowed and crumpled along the edges. It smells amazing: like dry leaves and dusty hot summer afternoons. The sheer volume of correspondance is impressive. It's sad to think that in the age of emails and data storage such archives will be rendered obsolete.

The many drawers in the basement of the University, filled with fossils, rocks and other treasures of the earth.

Boxes of Savage's notes, papers, correspondence and photographs.
One of the greatest things about rummaging around in collections is the random stuff you find. Today I discovered several mystery boxes, each one opening to reveal something unexpected. One of them was filled with shallow drawers of tooth cross sections, including a platypus. In another, test tubes with mammal inner ear bones. I also find a picture of Savage with an Irish Elk skull, found in Ireland in 1953.

What's in the box?


...cross sections of mammal teeth of course!

...including a platypus.

5.30pm, and I'm ready to call it a day. It's been productive, and I've had a good look at the most important specimens. But there's no rest for the wicked. Back in my room, I download the pictures from my camera and label them, and make further notes on what I've seen. Tomorrow I'll be back at it again, but until then...

Photograph of Savage inspecting the fossil of an Irish Elk, found at Lough Beg in 1953

Return tomorrow for the next blog!

Monday, 25 January 2016

What do I do all day? (Monday)

At my parent's recently, I was asked a lot of intense questions about my work. I realised during this grilling that what my folks were trying to understand is exactly what it is I spend my days doing. Yes, you're studying Mesozoic mammals, but what do you do to study them?
What do palaeobiologists do?

So this week I thought you might like to get a snapshot into the life of a PhD researcher.

After an hours flight from Edinburgh, I find myself in a cheap and moderately cheerful room near the University of Bristol, watching TV and pigging-out on tortillas and salsa. Today is just about getting here, but over the past weeks I've been preparing for this trip south to examine the collections held at the University.

Flying out from Edinburgh - I'll miss you!

In my first year of studying Mesozoic mammals - British Jurassic ones specifically - the important thing is to become familiar with the specimens. To do this, I'll be visiting collections across the UK that hold material of the right age and genera. In order to decide where to go, I've spent time reading published papers and books that list specimen numbers and locations, and picked the brains of experts in the field to get recommendations and guidance. I now have a master list that will dominate my next six months of scientific enquiry.

Bristol was always going to be the first stop. The specimens that form the core of my PhD are housed in Edinburgh (National Museum of Scotland), but they were collected by the respected palaeontologist, Robert J. G. Savage (1927-1998). Born and educated in Ireland, "Bob" Savage held a double degree in Zoology and Geology from Queen's University in Belfast, and a PhD from University College, London. He had a long prolific career and was a world-leading expert in fossil mammals. He was Curator of the collections in the Department of Geology at the University of Bristol, being promoted to a Readership in 1966, and a Personal Chair in Vertebrate Palaeontology, in 1982.
Bob Savage Image: UoB
Savage and colleagues discovered several new Mesozoic mammal species through fieldwork on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, including the material I'm now studying. Some of this material is at the National Museum of Scotland - the rest is in the University of Bristol collection.

So here I am: laptop, camera and notebook at the ready. Let's look at some fossils....
More tomorrow.

The Isle of Skye (Image: Wikipedia). This is where the material I study
comes from.