Sunday, 9 July 2017

A day in the life of a palaeontologist

I regularly get asked what I do on a day to day basis, and the honest answer is there is no standard day. So I came up with a lot of things that I reasonably could be be doing on any given day (minus paperwork).

If I was to average all of my days from the beginning of my PhD to now, the majority of days would be sat in front of a computer doing CT scan segmentation. I love (and hate) CT scan segmentation. It's basically high tech colouring in, and who doesn't love that (although I admit some geographers I've teased for their degrees being sponsored by Crayola now get the last laugh).
Fig. 1 from Cuff et al., 2017. See last post for all the details.
Whilst it may not sound particularly fun, and it is incredibly time consuming where the bones are hidden amongst the rock, it is often the first time a lot of the material has ever been seen by anyone and those digital bones can be used for so many more things, like reconstructing skeletons, estimating body masses etc.
Fig. 2 from Cuff et al., 2017. Skeletal reconstruction showing the original bones from Panthera atrox.
But what about those days I escape the computer and get to do other things? It really varies a lot. Most recently there has been nearly all of my time out of the office as we are preparing a new experimental setup in the lab for XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction Of Moving Motion). We will have some animals moving through two X-ray beams to be able to look at their bone movement in real time, and because we have two aligned sources, we are able to get 3D models (see the website by the brilliant people at Brown University which explains it all in greater detail if you are interested). As such we are building runways, aligning and testing settings of the X-rays, and spending far too many hours in X-ray protective lead vests in a surprisingly warm English summer:
Rocking the lead protective gear, with the X-ray setups to the left of the figure with a "bent" runway between them. Also a dog treadmill at the right which we will be using too.
However, due to the fact the experimental stuff is all in the early stages I won't be saying more about it now, but I promise you there will be a lot of posts on it when it is all done. Suffice it to say we've just gotten some preliminary data and it looks incredible! I've also done experimental work on skulls for my PhD using strain gauges which was a whole different set of issues. Linked to this sort of work is a lot of coding too, but my coding is generally rubbish compared to people who spend a lot of time on it, so I won't linger.

Besides that I've also spent a lot of time learning anatomy and carrying out dissections (please note, all of the animals have been humanely euthanised, and were not put down just for the research). This is perhaps the area that has changed the least since Richard Owen's times (1800s) when comparisons with modern animals helped him to realise that fossils of dinosaurs belonged to a completely different and now extinct (ignore birds) group. Whilst for some it seems incredibly disgusting, there is something indescribably fascinating about actually getting to see how the inside of animals works:
Tiger dissection at the early stages of identifying the muscles.
It would appear that a lot of people agree, as we ran a public dissection of a cheetah after hours in the vet college last year and we got hundreds of people attending over the sessions (more photos here).
The cheetah dissection being carried out for the audience, showing off various bits of the anatomy of the animal.
Which brings us nicely to something I spent a lot of time doing during my PhD, and still am actively involved in, which is outreach. Teaching the public (of all ages) about science is incredibly fun and rewarding. During my PhD, I taught over 1000 kids in various small classes in and around Bristol about the Bristol dinosaur (Thecodontosaurus) as well as interacting with thousands of people at various science festivals and events.
The junior school children are often the most easily enthused about dinosaurs. Who doesn't love dinosaurs when they are young? Why do so many grow out of it?
Since then I've co-curated museum exhibits, done talks, and recently have been back in schools as part of the DawnDinos project where we've been working through science and art to teach about evolution (see updates here).

We also do a lot of travels for work as conferences take us all over the world. Since my PhD I have been to Las Vegas NV, San Francisco CA, Barcelona, Raleigh NC, Berlin, Los Angeles CA, Dallas TX. Whilst conferences are a lot of work (attending talks, meeting people, presenting your research), there is always at least some time to go have an explore of the cities.

However, the things I enjoy as part of my job above all else are the days in the field. Working with animals is great, although cats are particularly hard work and scared(y).
Setting up forceplates, whilst being closely watched by a tiger.
Nothing compares, for me, to fossil hunting though. Those special few weeks a year (in a very good year) where I get to leave a lot of my usual work behind and just enjoy being in the wilderness, and finding some new fossils. It's a lot of hard work, but I'd do it a lot more if I got the chance to.
Last day of a long season in Dinosaur Provincial Park, we dug up a turtle and then hiked it back a few kilometres. The long sleeves was a mistake for this bit...
So those are the things I do as part of my job. I will also note my list above will be very different to other palaeontologists who have different interests, e.g. people who work on reconstructing phylogenies (family trees) will not do most of what I do and vice versa. I am lucky in that my job is so varied and I love it (or I most certainly wouldn't be doing it). I wonder how many people can say they look forward to going to work more often than not?

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