Saturday, 17 October 2015

Notes of a prodigal paleontologist

I am at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings in Dallas, Texas. I haven't been to this meeting in two years, during which I've done very little paleontology, and in fact rather little evolutionary work. The last time I came, I was presenting the final part of my dissertation work. That presentation was on the results of four years of solid, focused work. This year, I presented the results of a side project collaboration which I am not leading (I'm the methods guy). The feeling was very different.
SVP was my main professional academic meeting throughout grad school. It was the first meeting I attended, the first meeting I presented at. I have good friends, colleagues and mentors here. In many ways, it still feels like home. My dissertation project was inspired largely by a single talk I saw at SVP Cleveland seven years ago. By the end of my time in graduate school, I almost felt I was beginning to get a certain reputation as a methods person. At the very least, the other paleontologists in that sub community knew of me.
But for the past two years, I've been doing something completely different, and attending different meetings, where I know far fewer people, and am known by almost none. I'm somewhat out of the loop on the paleo literature, having had to devote my reading efforts to understanding the literature of swallowing physiology and dysphagia. The abstract I put together for the meeting was on a completely different paleontological problem to what my dissertation was on (using the same methods). My co-author was the dinosaur footprints expert. I would be presenting to his peers. And I also wondered (giving my growing interest in comparative physiology and neural mechanism of muscular function) whether I would still be interested and excited by the meeting. And whether people here would still be interested and excited by me.
SVP is a surprisingly eclectic meeting, certainly I think more so than people not in the society might think. As paleontology has become more and more focused on understanding the biology of extinct animals over the past half century, the amount of comparative functional morphology at the meetings has increased. The advent of tree based methods for reconstructing evolutionary history has meant that many questions that were once the purview of fossil analysis can now be approached by looking only, or mostly, at living animals. Thirty years ago, these innovations resulted in virulent fights in the paleo community. Now, a quiet synthesis has occurred, and no one is surprised to see a talk discussing comparative gestation times in extant mammals follow the description of a new fossil. The first day, I struggled a little to find my feet. Much like when I return to France after a long break, the thoughts and ideas seemed to come from far away, and I wasn't entirely sure I could engage with anything. As the week wore on however, the language came back, as did the excitement. What's more, my new research was causing me to look for new things in the meeting. The paleoneurology (yes, it's a thing) and ontogeny talks were now on my radar. And I found (always a good sign), that many abstracts had ideas that paralleled some of my thinking, both on the questions from my dissertation, and on my new questions.
On the very first day, I saw a talk by one of the big guys in understanding early mammalian evolution. He was discussing the evolution of the unique mammalian nasal respiratory tract, and talking about the complex integration of smell, taste, chewing and respiration in mammals. Immediately I began tying in what he was saying with my thoughts on the neurophysiology of swallowing, and in particular how the mammalian oropharynx goes through a major neurological, behavioral and anatomical transition at infant weaning. After, I went to talk to him, and he seemed interested enough in my ideas, that were not coming from the study of fossils, but from my experimental work, that he wanted to know more. It was a reminder that I still belong here.
This morning, the last day of the conference, there was an entire symposium dedicated to the methodology I became an expert in as a paleontologist (an aspect of which had formed the basis of my own talk). I watched as several people, whose work I had always admired as a graduate student, got up and gave more talks. Talks I found compelling, novel and exciting. I now have new ideas I'd like to explore in my old data, and I'm reminded why I did this thing in the first place.
I came to this meeting unsure of what I would find, and more out of a desire not to abandon my identity as a paleontologist. I'm leaving reinvigorated, my ideas about the evolution of mammalian oropharyngeal function clarified, and new ideas of how I could link what I do to the fossil record emerging.
As I work on my transition to independence as a researcher, I'm glad to find that I'm still energised by the work and ideas of my earliest mentors, and that I in turn can energise them with what I'm doing as an experimental biologist. My path to this point makes more sense to me now, and I'm glad to know I still belong at this meeting, even as I make a place for myself at others.

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