Saturday, 30 January 2016

PhD of travelling! Holy moly

I've been living in the UK now for 4.5 years. The first year and a bit was on a student visa (very restrictive, not fun), but for 3 years now I've been on an Ancestry Visa which is much better. This means that at the end of my 5 year visa, I can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain to settle here in the UK if I choose to. I've been looking up the requirements and eligibility, and stumbled across some fun things.

One of the requirements is that I cannot have been out of the country for 180 days or more in any year. Looking back at my passport, I got a bit worried about that requirement. It seems like so much, but when I'm constantly going to museums, and conferences for work, plus the occasional vacation, it's not that much. This is how I discovered just how much travelling I've done since moving.

Growing up in Canada I didn't fly all that much. I did a few trips, but considering how far away everything was, it was typically for few long trips rather than any short ones. Since starting my PhD, I have been on no fewer than 14 international trips. The majority of those were work related in some way with conferences, field work and museum visits often being tacked onto or followed by a bit of vacation. My PhD has taken me to Germany (several museum visits and SVP conference), Italy (EAVP conference), Romania (field work), Switzerland (PalAss conference), Norway (museum), Canada (museum and field work), and the US (museum), and wanted to reflect on some of this.


I have spent by far most of my work-related travel going to and from Germany. German museums are full of pterosaur specimens from all over the world, partly because of a lot of German fossil sites like the Solnhofen, but also because of some significant German fossil collectors, and one of the first main resurrectors of pterosaur palaeontology - Peter Wellnhofer. I had a great time in Munich at the Bavarian collection where I got to work with some of the material Wellnhofer originally described, which is some of the best material for understanding pterosaur articulation and bone morphology. Also in this collection are some very famous specimens, and you can read more about it here, along with some material I saw in Stuttgart. I also spent some time in Tübingen, which is a lovely town, and Karlsruhe, where they graciously loaned me a large amount of material that I spent a year CT scanning. Returning the material was fun as we took the train down the day after the Paris attacks with an IKEA bag and a duffle bag full of fossils - 7 trains, 2 nights, and much stress later we managed to hand deliver the fossils to the museum on the 'Incredible Fossil Journey'. And of course we can't forget SVP 2014 in Berlin - my first SVP! 
The dejected bags of fossils after arriving in their final destination in Karlsruhe. Photo by Josh Silverstone.


I've managed to spend some time at 2 different American museums. First, I went to LA to visit one of my supervisors, Mike Habib, and spent a week talking about pterosaurs and looking at some Pteranodon and Nyctosaurus material they have in the museum. They have a few neat specimens that were fun to look at. At the beginning of 2015, however, I got to spend 2 weeks in the collections at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which was great. They don't have a lot of pterosaur material, but there's an amazing Anhanguera, and some pretty nice Pteranodon bits. While I was there was just at the tail end of the pterosaur exhibition as well, which was pretty cool. 


Last time I was home I managed to make it down to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta to check out the material there. In particular, I wanted to see a partial, 3D preserved azhdarchid specimen that is famous for being partially scavenged. Some of this material has been CT scanned, and I wanted to take a look. I had some time to check out the other pterosaur material, which is plentiful, but not particularly well preserved. However, there's some great azhdarchid material which I haven't found much of elsewhere, so that's great. Plus I like to keep my ties to Canada open, so any data I can get from Canadian museums is a plus, especially when it's so close to home!

I've also got to check out a specimen at a museum in Oslo, Norway which was a lot of fun, have made it to Romania on field work twice, done some field work in Canada (even if that was a bit like a vacation!), and gone to conferences in Switzerland and Italy. 

I'm now in the "buckling down" stage of my PhD where I am heavy into analysis and paper writing, which means most of my travel is done. No more museum visits for me (except in London)! However, I still have some conferences I'd like to make it to, and maybe do some more field work. I've just submitted an abstract to go to the International Congress on Vertebrate Morphology in Washington, DC this June/July, which I'm really excited about. Then in October is SVP in Salt Lake City, which I'd really like to make it to again after missing last year. I'm hoping to submit sometime during the summer of 2017 (or earlier?), and then will definitely be heading to SVP in Calgary in August. I can't not do it when it's so close to home! 

I guess this reflecting has made me realise two things:
  1. I am pretty lucky to be able to do this during my PhD. I have been very fortunate that I've manage to get enough funding to do most of what I wanted to do and the visits I needed to. For this, I am eternally grateful to my grad school, NSERC, the Geological Society, and PalAss for helping out with this. Funding is not always easy to come by (believe me, I know), and I'm so thankful I've been able to scrounge up enough to get it don. 
  2. Palaeontology is pretty awesome. There aren't a lot of sciences that allow you to do this much travel. My husband is a physicist, and sure he travels for conferences, but he doesn't get to spend a week in Germany in a museum collecting data. He sits in his lab in Bristol collecting data for most of the year, then gets to go somewhere else to present it. We are so lucky in palaeontology, and other natural/environmental type sciences (if we can get the funding of course) to be able to do field work and travel as part of our work. Of course it isn't for everyone, and it can get tiring after a while, but it's something I wouldn't trade for the world. I love doing this, and hope I can keep it going!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Look at the little baby dinosaur!

Finally, the baby Chasmosaurus paper is out! This specimen is by no means new to the media or public, being highly publicised since it was first discussed at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in 2013, and has been on display in Edmonton, Canada for a period (at least a cast has). However, the highly anticipated description of this specimen is finally out, which is very exciting for several reasons. Not only is this a truly beautiful dinosaur fossil (nearly complete, skin impressions, may the list go on), but it's also very significant (it's a little baby!).

I remember when this specimen was found, as I was still at the University of Alberta then. If I remember correctly, the story goes something like this: In 2010, Phil Currie was wandering through Dinosaur Provincial Park (as he normally does in the summer), when he saw something sticking out of the sediment. He thought it was a turtle shell (which are fairly common in the area), but he thought he'd investigate. Once he started uncovering it, he realised he had found something truly special, but just how special wasn't clear until the animal was uncovered - a nearly complete baby Chasmosaurus, the smallest baby ceratopsid, missing just it's front limbs and part of the pectoral girdles, and a few tail vertebrae. This specimen was so special that it was hidden in the lead preparator's office (Clive Coy), and I remember them taking off the blanket that constantly covered it so I could see. The specimen was recently published by Currie and colleagues in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. And here it is:
Baby Chasmosaurus from Currie et al. (2016)
Isn't it cute! While adult Chasmosaurus are typically 4-5m in length, this little one was just 1.5m long, making it the smallest ceratopsid ever found. It can be hard to determine what species juvenile fossils belong to due to the change in morphology throughout an animal's life (ontogeny), but several features of the skull tell us this was a Chasmosaurus. Juvenile dinosaurs are important because they show us how animal's grew, and can give us ideas into what features were important for adults. For example, there is virtually no evidence of the nasal horncore in this specimen, and only very small orbital horns, showing that these features grew later on in the animal's life, possibly relating to sexual maturity. Another cool feature of this specimen is that it had skin impressions preserved, which is not very common, and the reason for blocks of matrix still present on the specimen that have not been removed.
Baby's skull - look at the tiny orbital horns! From Currie et al. (2016).
Skin impressions from Currie et al. (2016)

Aside from the obvious awesomeness of the preservation and completeness of this specimen, it's also significant for what it shows about determining species in juvenile animals, and using juveniles in phylogenetic analyses. Using 2 different phylogenetic analyses made the animal move around quite a bit in the ceratopsid tree. When doing the analysis using all features, including characters that are very clearly juvenile or immature features/states, this little dinosaur comes out at the base of the ceratopsid tree, close to a juvenile Triceratops and along with centrosaurine ceratopsids. This isn't really surprising as centrosaurines are known for having shorter, wider frills, and this is obviously a feature of this juvenile, but this is also known to change throughout ontogeny. Centrosaurines also have smaller orbital horns, a feature seen in this specimen, but which is not common in chasmosaurines. When these immature features are coded as unknown (?), the specimen ends up in the right place, nestled with Chasmosaurus belli and Chasmosaurus russelli. This shows the importance of how careful you need to be when using immature specimens in a phylogenetic analysis of any kind.

If you want to hear a bit more about this find and other dinosaurs from Alberta, check out my Palaeocast interview with Phil Currie.

This specimen has been CT scanned (yay!) and we can expect more studies on this awesome little dude in the future. Until then, imagine this little guy running around, about the size of a golden retriever (credit to Andy Farke for that comparison!) and just try not to go "awwwwww!".

Currie P.J., Holmes R.B., Ryan M.J., and Coy C. 2016. A juvenile chasmosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1048348. 

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Scholarship applications, the bane of my existence

I've talked a lot about my situation as a PhD student that is not fully funded, and this is something I have had to deal a lot with over the years. My funding situation has meant that I have applied for a lot of scholarships or awards over my time as a graduate student. I'm not going to tell you how many have been successful, but I've written over a dozen applications/cover letters/budgets for anything from £200 to go to a conference, up to a full research scholarship worth $21000 CAD/year. Sometimes it's just a simple letter to prove your case and show why you need funding, and other times it's a full application with your background, CV, research proposal, references, etc.

Regardless what the application requires or what it's for, I always have the same thought: How do you decide if it's worth the time?

I have always gone with the belief that if you qualify for it, and there's a chance you could get it (even if that's a small chance), to go for it, if you can spare the time to apply for it. This is part of why I've applied for so many. Many of them I didn't think I'd get, but I figured why not? And one of those includes the biggest and the one that saved my PhD - a 3 year research award from the Canadian government that I never expected I'd get. Basic statistics - 10% of people need to get it, and eventually you will be in that 10%, right?

But lately I've been thinking maybe this is not the best tactic. Maybe it's because I'm getting later into my PhD and so my time is more precious, but I just can't help but think "Is it really worth it?". My husband has a strategy of working out whether or not things like this are worth it. It's related to the likelihood you'll get the scholarship (which is a bit of a guess of course), and the amount of money it's worth. Then he decides if it is worth it for that amount. Typically this means he doesn't bother applying for anything small, as the metric isn't high enough. That being said, he generally doesn't apply for anything because he doesn't think the effort is worth it, but I suppose he has less reason to apply for things like travel grants (he doesn't have to go to museums all over the world to do his research).

I have a deadline coming up for a Canadian scholarship that I have applied for before and been unsuccessful. They don't tell you why you are unsuccessful, but I suspect it's related to my number of publications. I've been debating whether or not to apply again and if it's worth it, but it's a significant chunk of money, and not a large amount of work, so I likely will. I'm sure I still won't get it, but my CV has improved, and I am on par with previous winners in most categories, so I'll give it a go.

So how do I decide whether or not to apply? I ask myself a series of questions:

  1. Do I really need the money? Will I be able to do the research/survive without it?
    • If the research won't happen without the money, then I always give it a try. If I can survive without the money, then it depends. For example, could I survive without this next one? Yes, but it would be a lot easier with it. My husband and I pay rent in 2 cities, plus transportation between them, and I don't get a stipend... so it would be nice to stop using my savings to pay for my PhD.
  2. How competitive is the scholarship? 
    • This is tough and not really quantifiable. If I can get my hands on them, I look at past winner profiles. Can I match any of them? If I'm not anywhere near the previous winners, then there is probably no point. If, however, I'm not far off, then I'll normally try it. 
  3. Finally - how much work is the application?
    • Again, hard to quantify. If the application is easy, always go for it. I normally have a fairly updated version of my CV ready to go, and sometimes all you need is a CV, cover letter, and a budget. If I'm busy, then it's probably not happening. There's a very complicated Canadian one that I applied for last year and didn't bother with this year because it involved something like 7 copies of each document, and all this crazy stuff. Not worth my time... But this is possibly the most important question. If you're too busy and stressed, then it's probably best to leave it. You likely won't write the best application if you rush it, and chances are, it's not worth stressing yourself out more. Again, if it's a really big one then maybe it is worth it.
Those are my thoughts about applying for awards and scholarships, but I'm curious about other people. How do you decide? Do PhD students generally apply for a lot of awards? Or very few? What about as post docs or early researchers? Any advice for other students thinking about scholarships?