Empezamos nuestra nueva sección Q&A con un invitado excepcional: Mike Taylor, paleontólogo especialista en saurópodos, y uno de los autores de «Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week!» ¡Disfrutad de la entrevista!
Hi Mike, and thanks for taking part in this interview. Our palaeo-blog is mainly followed by young researchers and students, who are beginning their research. So, would you like yo share with us how were your beginnings in palaeontology? When did you decide to become a palaeontologist?
Although I loved dinosaurs as a boy, my degree was in pure maths and computer science, and I hardly looked at a dinosaur again until I was into my thirties. Then the fever infected me again and I started to read the Internet’s Dinosaur Mailing List. I never exactly decided to become a palaeontologist — I just started to do palaeontology. I started reading papers, thinking about the issues, corresponding with established workers. Then one day I read a paper so bad that I thought «Huh, I could do better than that», and I suppose that was the key moment for me. I set out to write a smackdown to this paper.
Actually, that would have been an unambitious and mean-spirited thing to publish, but happily I got distracted from that project by many others, and in the end I dropped it in favour of better things. This key moment was on the 1st of October 2003 — I still have the email that I sent about it. So that was the beginning of my setting out to do serious work.
Do you have any advice for young researchers? What do you think is more important in the beginning of a PhD?
I am the absolute worst person to ask for advice on planning a Ph.D, because literally all five chapters of what ended up being my dissertation were side-projects that I took on while I was meant to be working on the core subject. I just couldn’t resist those side-project — they were so fascinating! The idea of my Ph.D was to
describe a brachiosaurid sauropod that’s lain unstudied in the basement of the Natural History Museum for 75 years, and to use the insight gained from that to work on neck biomechanics. As it turns out, six years after starting the Ph.D, I have still not got that description written (although I am now, finally, actively working on it), but I have racked up a decent number of other publications along the way, with more in the pipeline.
So if there is any actual advice in there, I guess it would just be this: work on what you love. If you do, you’ll be energised; otherwise, you won’t. And don’t be too inflexible about your project, don’t invest too much time and emotional energy into a Grant Plan so that you don’t feel able to abandon it as things change.
Why did you decide to focus on Sauropod Dinosaurs?
I can’t for the life of my imagine why anyone would voluntarily focus on anything else. It seems completely self-evident that sauropods are BY FAR the coolest and more awesome creatures ever to have existed. They thrill me, inspire me, excite me, delight me, and leave me in awe. Come on: we are talking about 100-tonne animals walking around on land. That is as close to impossible as you can get.
In which topics are you working at this moment? And future prespectives?
I have a lot of descriptive work on: another new sauropod that is in revision right now, the NHM brachiosaur that I mentioned which I will get done soon, and at least two other new taxa that are less far along. Some of those projects are collaborative, some solo. I also have a paper in revision with Matt Wedel on a neglected aspect of pneumaticity, that is, air-filled bones. Then we want to work on the problem of haemodynamics: how sauropods could pump blood up their long necks to heads that we believe were habitually held high above the body.
I’m also one of the founders of the Open Dinosaur Project (http://opendino.wordpress.com/), which is recruiting a lot of volunteer effort to build and analyse a database of limb-bone measurements for ornithischian dinosaurs. We plan to use this to figure out how the ornithischians made the transition from bipedal to quadrupedal gaits, which they did in at last three separate lineages.
And there’s a shedload of other projects burbling along in the background.
You are one of the ‘SV-POW!sketeers’, together with Matt Wedel and Darren Naish. Your blog, «Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!)» is one of the most visited in the Paleoblogosphere. Do you think blogs have changed anything in science-communication?
I think blogs are incredibly important in the world of science, and they’re only going to become more so. I’m pleased that, with SV-POW!, we got in on the ground floor of this movement, and delighted that so many more people read it than we ever expected. We seem to average about 1000 hits a day, with a recent spike of 20000 — not huge numbers compared with some blogs, but I think pretty darned impressive for something so focussed on such a specific niche. I think this is great news because it shows that there are a lot of people out there are interested in serious science, not just What Was The Biggest Dinosaur Ever and such things. SV-POW! can be very technical at times (though also very lighthearted), but hopefully in a way that makes the technical detail accessible.
Blogs are fantastic tool because science is largely about communication. Your research can be ground-breaking, rigorous, original and reproducible, but if no-one ever hears about it, it might just as well never have happened. A paper in a technical journal might get read by as many as a hundred people, if you’re lucky, or maybe just ten, or ever fewer. But when we blog about our work, it goes out to thousands of people, maybe even tens of thousands. It’s going to become increasingly important for scientists to use this channel for letting the world know what they’re doing. I fear for those that don’t get on board — they run the risk of being left behind, however good their research.
On SV-POW!, we have a whole section entitled The Shiny Digital Future, and I encourage anyone who’s interested science communication to check it out. We think, and talk, a lot about these issues.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk to you.