Sunday, 24 October 2010

Dinosaurs, career dilemmas and dissection

Dinosaurs are officially cool. That's if you believe the 13 year old who emailed about wanting to work with dinosaurs. I get quite a few emails like this and try and reply to them all... sometimes not an easy task when in the field or travelling on the road, as per my last year. The young chap, for my purposes I will call 'Bob', had gotten his mum to email me earlier in the year, to help suggest which subjects he should take to become a palaeontologist down the line. Interestingly, his careers advisor at school suggested two career paths to becoming the said fossil hunter, either Geochemistry or Petroleum Engineering? The former geochemical approach I fully understand, although most courses do not address much in the way of palaeontology, the latter more oily suggestion made not sense at all? If there are any career advisors reading this Blog...yes, you really can do a degree that has a vast amount of palaeontology as content...please read your UCAS book! Failing that, I always recommend a biology or zoology route, as palaeontology is full of folks from this side of the academic gene pool. However, as I usually reply to those who ask, just do what you are best at and most enjoy at school (the two usually coincide), as palaeontology is the ultimate multidisciplinary field that draws upon scientists from physics to biology and from chemistry to computing...not to forget the many artists and writers who contribute vastly to the field. The early over specialization of a mind can often be counterproductive to the development of new ideas. Palaeontology thrives on folks looking at the same old material in very new ways. Particle physics for example...

Dr Uwe Bergmann aligns his Archaeopteryx at SLAC

Four years ago the Manchester Palaeontology Research Group started working with a particle physicist, Dr Uwe Bergmann, at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University (California, USA). The SLAC/Manchester group now consists biologists, avian veterinarian, computer scientists, physicists, geochemists and even, yes you guessed right, a palaeontologist or two! However, without the other disciplines being present, the synchrotron might as well have been a giant science machine (a complicated one) with no instructions. With Uwe Bergman literally driving the experiment and the remainder of us collecting and interpreting results, we could not have completed the work on the Archaeopteryx we publish earlier this year in PNAS. This is typical of the type of research we undertake in our palaeontology research group, one that relies upon collaboration. So back to our friend 'Bob' and his career dilemma...there should be no dilemma at all. Just make sure that in the future, you find a palaeontologist who wants to work with what-ever field you are working within....and before long, like Uwe Bergmann, you will be able to to hold you head-up high at the most esteemed meeting of palaeontologists.

Dr Roy Wogelius (Geochemist) adds a fossil feather to his cap...or should I say, experimental stage!

It is clear that by working out of your own box, in my case palaeontology, you can also learn a few new tricks. This week, in my attempt to learn a new thing or two, I have been starring at a horses rear end! Why? I hear you all ask...I'm back in dissection and the beasties have gotten bigger. My dog has now morphed into a goat and horse.

Brandon and Rachel get hooked on the horses rear end!

My attendance (when possible) at the Penn Vet Gross Anatomy classes has opened my eyes to the complex world of plumbing, electrics, engineering and general goo of animal dissection. I am not a complete stranger to this area, as I have dabbled with Dromaius (Emu) and cut through croc (Alligator mainly), in the search of muscles to apply to our various locomotion models we create for dinosaur locomotion studies (work with Dr Bill Sellers). However, I am utterly gob-smacked by the amount of terminology the vet students have to learn! This is rich, coming from someone working in a field laced with names, terms and technology, but it is the shear amount that these folks have to squeeze into their brains over a relatively short period of time. Respect! I would be lying if I did not admit that I also find this very hard! The key thing I am trying to say; I am still learning. It does not matter if you are choosing subjects to study at school to prepare you for University or studying a horses rear-end to understand something new on the musculoskeletal world...we keep learning....and it does not get any easier!

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