Wednesday, 30 December 2015

My year in review

So it is that time of year, where everyone is putting up their exciting top finds and top science stories, and thought that I could do the same for my academic year. I won't over big it up, as the review won't be too exciting, but a fun way for me to link together my blog posts and papers, and put things into perspective of where I'm heading for 2016.

As it turns out 2015 was the first calendar year of my postdoc (although Feb 2014-Feb 2015 was the first full year). The year started off really well in India, where we were in the field on the 1st of January (we had been there for a few days by this point).

The artistic New Years messages in front of many houses in Tamil Nadu
After another 10 or so days in the field, we'd found bits of dinosaurs, sharks, ichthyosaurs, ammonites, sea urchins, belemnites, turtles, and fish. A good field season if you asked me.

When back from the holidays I got the stark reminder of how difficult it is balancing work and social life as an academic. Something I remain very envious of all of my friends who have successfully managed it. I instead buried myself in work and very rapidly had my first manuscript of my postdoc submitted and in review on felid body mass evolution. Before Easter had rolled around I was also at a very advanced stage of revision with a paper on ornithomimosaur cranial reconstructions, and had submitted a long running paper on finite element validation in an ostrich cranium. I had also helped put together a small display in the UCL Grant Museum for their Strange Creatures exhibit showing how palaeontologists and biomechanists work together to understand what dinosaurs looked like, and how they moved.

I was also lucky enough to be involved in some field work with felids at Colchester Zoo, where we had a forceplate in enclosures with their tigers and cheetah. This was part of a BSc project looking at forces exerted by cat species on the ground at various speeds, and how limb posture changes with gaits in different sized felids. As this is ongoing research that we are hoping to add to I will save that for another time. It was lots of fun but worrying when my supervisor scampers away when she first saw the tiger behind me without saying a word...

The shock moment when a tiger says hello!
June was a great month for my publications, as both the cat body mass paper and ornithomimosaur crania papers were accepted. We finished up all the dissections from the various cat species by the end of June, having had a bit of a delay with missing data and vertebral column issues whilst figuring out the best way to analyse all of the data in regressions. Thankfully we fixed those issues and those manuscripts were getting written.

Tiger dissection. If you want to see the photogrammetry click here.
In July, John went to Los Angeles and we acquired some stunning scans of two extinct felids fom the La Brea Tar Pits: Panthera atrox (North American lion); and Smilodon fatalis (the commonly known, although equally misnamed, sabre tooth tiger).

In August/September I was off on field work again, this time in Argentina. It was an amazing place, with lots of fossil finds ranging from dinosaurs, to mammals, fish, frogs, crocs(?).

The rock formations were spectacular, even if you aren't a trained geologist or palaeontologist
I spent the end of the summer reconstructing the P. atrox skeleton, resulting in the most complete reconstruction of a single individual of the species (the rest, as with S. fatalis, are composites of several individuals).

Panthera atrox skull
The resulting skeleton allowed estitmates for the body mass, and using the scaling equations for the muscles (how muscles scale with body mass) for all extant felids I was able to reconstruct the muscles for P. atrox. A sneaky side project meant that I also extracted the endocast for the specimen, allowing the first digital brain, and endosseous reconstruction.

In October my ostrich validation paper came out meeting my minimum estimate for number of publciations for the year (was hoping 3-5 based on ongoing projects at the start of the year). The joyous SVP was also upon us again for the year. Dallas was a good conference, and I presented the dissection data, as well as the reconstructions to a good reception as my first invited poster.

November rolled around and the forelimb and hindlimb muscle papers were submitted, and work began on attempting to validate loading cat bones by loading them and measuring the strain patterns. Unfortunately, this would be an ongoing problem through December when I finally gave up with it. Our rig is just too unstable for small scale things.

December led to the submission of the P. atrox brain paper, the submission of a big grant, and also a fun interview with a crew as part of a new ITV and PBS documentary called Story of Cats. Apparently I am now considered a domestic cat expert (or at least the easiest one to get at short notice), which is flattering but always thought it would be dinosaurs first! Continuing the outreach, I was also invited to give a public talk as part of the Animal Showoff (Science Showoff spinoff) at the Grant Museum, which was a load of fun. I also finally got to get on to the Smilodon reconstructions, so that has been a fun holiday project. Paper-wise, the hindlimb paper came back out of review with relatively minor corrections, as did a collaboration on vertebral column morphology in cats. More excitingly, and in a beautiful wrapping up of 2015, a collaboration on a fish fossil from India was accepted for publication. It is my first fossil find that is being published on, and have already written the blog for that whenever it comes out fully.

So 2015 is pretty much done and dusted, what's lined up for 2016?
1) Building on the 3 papers this year, I'm hoping there will be 4-5 first author papers (3 are already in review/revision, 2 in prep), and equal numbers of co-authored ones (1 accepted, 1 with minor corrections already, 2 to be submitted).
2) More zoo visits for experiments in Jan/Feb which will hopefully lead to a fun blog post with pics and videos.
3) Off to Argentina in March for some more fieldwork in different areas that will hopefully yield more fossils, and maybe something new to add to my Indian find?
4) The rest of the year will be getting the FE validation done (we've got leads to possibly use another setup), and then hopefully computer modelling of the musculoskeletal models.
5) September brings about the biggest and scariest (potentially) change of the year, as I will be out of my current contract. The big grant that I am named on, and a job application will be out, but due to the joys of academia, I may still be stuck and searching for the next big research project. If you do know of any, please let me know!

Thanks for reading the blog, and hope everyone had a good 2015, and has a great 2016!

No comments:

Post a Comment