Tuesday, 11 June 2019

A scientist in four dimensions

The past five years have been a wild ride intellectually and professionally. When I started this postdoc I was a year out of completing a PhD in paleontology. Specifically, I'd been looking at the relationship between bone morphology and mammal ecology in the fossil record of the North American Paleocene-Eocene (roughly the first 20 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs) to see if it could tell us anything about the role of locomotor specialization in the success of certain groups of mammals. I came to this lab to learn the techniques necessary to do biomechanical work necessary for testing the functional aspects of the correlations between morphology and ecology I based my paleontological work on. I thought, if I thought anything (I wasn't seeing particularly far into the future at that time, for a number of reasons) that I would spend a couple of years learning the techniques in a different system, then go back to my comparative functional morphology work with a little bit of biomechanics thrown in.
Fast forward five years later, and I'm leaving this lab with a completely different research focus. I'm off to start my own lab studying swallowing in the context of neurological disorders. I'm a Co-I on an NIH funded R01 I helped write. I'm increasingly interested in incorporating more explicit neuroscience into my work. I'm still interested in comparative question, but completely different ones based on the ontogeny of musculoskeletal systems and behaviors in mammal feeding. I haven't worked on anything paleontological in 4 years. I haven't touched a fossil since I finished my PhD.
This transition, or, more accurately, this complete change of track, is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about and coming to terms with. I had wanted to be a paleontologist since I was nine. How was it that after having come close to that goal, I was willing to move away from it all of a sudden? Did I really want to give up evolutionary biology and comparative zoology? Was I selling out?
Initially, my worries about this problem were acute, until I began to realise they were based on a false story I had been telling myself about myself. Yes, I'd wanted to be a paleontologist since I was nine, but that wasn't all I'd wanted to be. I'd also wanted to be a librarian, a policeman, and a doctor. More relevantly, I remembered that in my last year at Cambridge the three subjects that had really gripped me were paleontology, physiology, and neural mechanisms of behavior. I had even considered continuing with neuroscience, until I balked at the amount of animal work required (another change I've gone through since that time). So in some ways, the things that were drawing me into my new research direction, the problems and questions, were things that had always interested me as much as paleontology. One of my frustrations as a mammal paleontologist in fact had always been how little we discussed in any detail the unique physiological adaptations of mammals. I am first and foremost a mammal biologist, and that means that their physiology and behavior are interesting to me.
Yet my thinking has now matured even past that recognition into the realisation that what I do now doesn't erase what I have done. My five years working in paleontology, the fossils I collected, the museum collections I measured, the methods I used, the papers I published, the conversations I had, haven't been erased by my years working in mammal feeding physiology. Collapse the time dimension, and I am still a paleontologist, and a physiologist, and a neuroethologist, and a comparative zoologist.
I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was nine, and I am one. That doesn't mean I cannot be anything else as well.

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