EGU Blogs


Partially sane; roads – many; and time

So I hit the 9 month barrier for my PhD the other day. Where ze hell did all that time go??

Well, you can actually see if you want – I’ve uploaded the 9 month report to Figshare, excluding the preliminary results (which are beginning to look cool btw). You can find it here, where it’s already had almost 200 hits. Figshare is so awesome it hurts.

Summary points:

  • The primary task is to assess biodiversity patterns over the Jurassic/Cretaceous interval
  • Primary data collection for this is now complete, and some preliminary stats run on it to account for imperfections in the fossil record
  • There is a hell of a lot to do

I’m actually in Munich at the moment, working on alternative route to assessing this first point. I’m using a method called ‘phylogenetic diversity’, which essentially maps evolutionary trees onto time (stratigraphy), and you can interpolate where you know species should be but haven’t been found, based on their evolutionary relationships and artificially inflate diversity through time. I’m doing this for about 500 species atm, so it’s taking a lot of time, but looking pretty awesome atm – stay tuned! 🙂

Oh, the title? Not a clue – I’ve only had one coffee. PhD research is tough – you work long hours, do difficult work, and get paid a pittance, so times it can be a bit much, but it’s totally worth it; there are many paths the research could take; and thyme, never enough thyme..

Anyway, have a flick through and let me know what you think! If you think there’s something I’m missing, or an avenue in particular you’d like me to explore, drop a comment here (this is funded by UK taxpayers’ cashmoney after all) 🙂

Plan of action!

Crikey, it’s been 3 months already?! *panics* At Imperial College, new PhD students have to produce an initial plan of study within the first three months of setting off, and submit it for independent assessment. Having uploaded mine just now (not in the slightest bit late..), I figured I’d share it here! It’s a broad outline of what I’m aiming to do for the next wad of months – any comments or feedback will be massively appreciated!

Proposed title of thesis: Diversity crash at the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary: a forgotten mass extinction?

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Week 3, and the rising of a new dawn

It hit me. As I stared in to the depths of the ~500 or so papers I’d carefully curated in Mendeley, the gravity of a PhD came down like a tonne of dinosaur bones. This is big. Even simply in terms of background reading, there was so much to do it would probably take a year just to get through it. It was time for a pondering and a pint, and a reassessment of strategy.

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Week 3 in the Big Brother House wasn’t all speculative despair though. This Palaeontologist has been [relatively] busy! Between the deciphering of all compendiums on mass extinctions, the sourcing of new material to add to the never-diminishing pile of ‘stuff I have to read’, quite a lot has been going on! There’s always something going on in London.

Despite being thrust back in to academia, I’m still maintaining a pretty active interest in policy, largely with regards to education and science. So naturally, when a new ‘Policy Lunchbox‘ was announced looking into research careers, I was there. I think it’s important that, even if students aren’t aware of specific policies governing higher education, they should at least be aware of what people are saying, and any changes that might be lurking on the horizon. Hosted by the Brisitsh Ecological Society, Society for Experimental Biology, and Biochemical Society, this seemed like a good chance to see the direction that future of academic careers were heading. And have a free lunch. Imagine the anguish, then, when asides from one member of the Panel, I was the only actual academic to turn up, in an audience of 40-50, and one of I think only 4 males in the audience (naturally, the Panel consisted of 4 middle-aged white men). That was odd. Why weren’t there more researchers here to hear about what people had to say about their future? Slightly bewildering. I’d encourage academics, particularly those just starting out on the path, to get involved more in events and discussions of this nature. It’s important to venture outside of university once in a while to see what’s happening in these external but highly relevant spheres.

Turns out there is such a thing!

The Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology held their annual meeting this week in Raleigh, North Carolina. A swarm of hammer-wielding loonies, with various animals hides adorning their sun-beaten torsos descended on the unsuspecting city, and by the sounds of it, had a damn good time! For twitterers, the hash tag feed #2012SVP has plenty of 140-character long gems, and Bora Zivkovic has blogged the event.

Official logo, of what appears to be a crocodile noshing a leaf. Not sure about that, but then, I wasn’t at the conference!

Bora is also the co-host of an annual event called Science Online, also held in North Carolina. Tickets for this illustrious event have already been gobbled up by a hungry mob of scientists, reporters, journalists and science communicators of every breed. NESCent have procured a couple of tickets however, and are giving them away as a prize in a blog competition along with a travel subsidy, with the theme focused on evolution. I’ve submitted, and with a bit of luck, will be heading over early next year! This is about the time when C3-PO tells me how slim the odds of this occurring are.

Damn straight.

ORCID is a new tool for identifying and connecting with researchers. It seems like any other networking tool atm, but is quite young so might be worth signing up for and following any developments. Like any shiny new online toy, I signed up, naturally.

London also have an equivalent to the Science Online in NC, called Science Online London. The event series has been re-branded as SpotON, but the premise is still the same: a bunch of people who love science getting together to discuss how to boost it forward, with themes such as science communication and outreach, online and digital tools, and science policy. I’m co-coordinating a couple of sessions in the science policy strand for this year’s event. Stay tuned for more details! Again, I think it’s quite important that young researchers grasp these opportunities when they’re presented. I haven’t even presented orally at a conference before, and now, will have helped organise a session on increasing reciprocal engagement between policy makers and scientists, in the hope that we can take steps forward in evidence-informed policy. Neat eh!

It was also Earth Science Week last week! If you didn’t know, it’s not too late, but the whole idea was that you give a geologist a beer and a hug. It’s not too late! The real concept was to increase public engagement with the geosciences, and help foster an appreciation of the geosphere, geodiversity, and geoconservation. Note, you can add the prefix geo- to most words to make them georelevant. There was an event on at the Science Museum in London called ‘Science on a Sphere’, where a series of specially-designed short films about various aspects of geoscience were three-dimensionally projected onto a large sphere suspended in mid-air. The films themselves were pretty cool, albeit largely themed around meteorology, strangely, and the visuals were amazing. Unfortunately, there must have been a communications meltdown, as none of the people there for the half hour showings realised that the footage was anything beyond the usual material projected there. This was a pity, as pretty much everyone stayed for about a minute to watch, took a photo, and moved on, instead of enjoying the whole experience. Did anyone else manage to do anything for Earth Science Week this year (UK or elsewhere)? Dave, the creator and co-runner of Palaeocast managed to get a blog post out of it for the Geological Society – good publicity for our project!

Earth Science Week is supposed to get people of all ages engaged with geoscience! Maybe next year.. (2013, not what this image says)

A final point of mention, is that the Royal Veterinary College held their first RVC Lates this week, as part of Biology Week (which strangely coincides with Earth Science Week). There were some cool engagement activities there, including a highly suspect strawberry DNA extraction experiment (mush it up, add washing up liquid and 100% ethanol, and extract the DNA. I thought it was more complex than this..), evolution of the the V-formation in avian flight, zebrafish embryology. The piece to resistance was surely the dissection. A pony was uncovered and butchered by one of the professional anatomists of the RVC, much to the delight and horror of the audience members. My one memory will be the smell. And the blood. And the artificially breathing lungs. It was awesome, and I hope they do it again in the future! No photos unfortunately, as there were warnings about photos being mus-interpreted by certain parties should they be distributed. I also got to meet awesome Palaeo-artist Sam Barnett (@Palaeosam), who demonstrated some skill at sketching the various anatomical elements on display (including the only surviving image of the poor pony!)

This is pretty much what it looked like. That stuff on top is DNA apparently!

So yeah, a busy week generally for this Palaeontologist. London gives you the chance to uncover so many aspects of science, largely for free, and it’s so worth embracing them. You get to meet great new people, and learn a lot, and it makes a nice break from the current information-pump lifestyle of background reading (not that I’m complaining – my project is pretty awesome!). My final words will just be a note of encouragement to PhD students to get out there, break beyond the barriers of your research project and explore science and the other networks and opportunities out there!


A declaration of fossiliferous intent

Welcome! The EGU have been kind enough to absorb my old blog (link) into their wonderful new blogonetwork here. I’ll be providing the fossily/palaeoy joy, along with two others who will be discussing… Well, why don’t you head over and see! Geosphere is Matt Herod’s page, where he’ll be discussing mainstream geology (I think), and Geology for Global Development by Joel Gill – kind of speaks for itself with that title!

Followers of my old blog will be aware of my style (although more it’s just the result of the angle my face smashes into the keyboard). I like shredding into science, and getting stuck into the details, as well as trying to tell a story along side. Hopefully, this will become apparent in future posts. In fact, probably the best description of my blogging style comes from Oliver Knevitt, a conodont overlord at Leicester University (UK):

“Jon eats and he tweets and he never sleeps; he slogs and he blogs and he never stops. He calls out whackjobs and bitchslaps dodgy scientists; he rhapsodizes about dinosaurs, and he ridicules science policy. All in all, he a one man paleontology machine. So you should totally check out his blog.” (source)

I’ll take that. Hopefully, this gives you some sort of idea about what to expect here. Lots of dinosaurs, other Palaeo ponderings, and occasional drifts into the murky world of geoscience policy. The idea behind all of this is to initiate discussion. It’s the unheard voices that can often be the most [beneficially] provocative, and it’s the dialogue behind concepts and ideas that can be a core driver behind the advancement and increased rigor of science. So please comment away to your hearts delight here: question, query, prod, provoke.

Strangely, today I also start my PhD. Whoop. I’ll be investigating the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary to see if there’s a ‘hidden’ mass extinction in terrestrial vertebrates, as well as looking in detail at some groups such as atoposaurid crocodylomorphs. This is to feed into a much larger ongoing project to reconstruct the patterns and processes of vertebrate biodiversity from their origins on land to now. Neat eh!

Mass extinctions might be scientific concepts, but we might also be thinking about them a little too deeply..

With this in mind, I figured I’d try and sort of live-blog das PhD, from day 1 to day 1000, or however long it’s going to take. The idea is to open up the PhD process, by going into what exactly a vertebrate palaeontologist does nowadays, as well as occasionally the more general aspects of PhD life. This means going into the details of the processes, not just ‘I drawed you a graph’, but ‘here’s how you can replicate this analysis 100% if you wanted, and here’s why it’s awesome/I’m doing it’. I’m still expecting this PhD to be an awesome ride, as opposed to some of the more negative stories floating around the interwebz recently, and hopefully will be able to convey this and show that doing a PhD is something pretty damn awesome. Of course, it could be *expletive deleted*, and you might just read weekly posts of “added some data, computer died, beat up undergrad, ate soup made from cold water and ketchup”, and the like, but hopefully it’ll be a bit more of a dynamic insight than these delights.

I leave you with this warning in the mean time

The rationale behind this is simple: If I’m doing something I love, why wouldn’t I want to write about it, and if it’s something I think is awesome, why wouldn’t I wouldn’t to tell everyone else about it?? I wouldn’t be doing a PhD otherwise. It’s also a neat way of keeping a record of the experience.

Some of you are probably thinking, ‘but if you open up your PhD, won’t you just get scooped on the idea you’re investigating?’ This thought has crossed my mind, but frankly, I’m not going to be doing anything that isn’t theoretically beyond anyone else’s reach anyway, as the data is all openly available, as is much of the software I’ll be using too. Naturally, I might have to keep some of the conclusions slightly secret, until I publish them in an open access journal anyway. Every publication I’m first author on in future is going to be fully available, as far as it’s possible for me to make in terms of content and data. Taxes paid by you all are allowing me to conduct this research, so I’ll be damned if a single aspect of it will be paid for again.

I’ll post weekly updates on here, and using Twitter under the #OpenPhD hash tag, when the time comes. What I hope this will achieve is some sort of dialogue were people can see not just the end result of research, but query the processes, and gain some understanding of the scientific process at the same time. And of course, opening up the discussion means that I might be able to crowd-source some valuable points of view from you great peeps! Of course, along side this will be as much Palaeo I have time to write about. Hopefully this will be once a week, but if for some reason I can’t keep up, and fossils are like crack cocaine to you, then I recommend checking out Palaeocast for some awesome Palaeo-podcasts in a project I co-run. Let thy science be done!