Posts Tagged ‘RVC’

Maybe it’s uncool to talk about heroes in science these days, because everyone is poised on others’ shoulders, but “Neill” (Robert McNeill) Alexander is undeniably a hero to many researchers in biomechanics and other strands of biology. Our lab probably wouldn’t exist without his pervasive influence- he has personally inspired many researchers to dive into biomechanics, and he has raised the profile of this field and championed its importance and principles like no other one individual. Often it feels like we’re just refining answers to questions he already answered. His influence extends not only to comparative biomechanics and not only around his UK home, but also –via his many, many books on biology, anatomy and related areas, in addition to his research, editorial work and public engagement with science– to much of the life sciences worldwide.

What does a kneecap (patella) do? Alexander and Dimery 1985, they knew. My team is still trying to figure that out!

What does a kneecap (patella) do? Alexander and Dimery 1985, they knew. 30 years later, my team is still trying to figure that out!

Sure, one could (and with great humility I’m sure Alexander would) mention others like Galileo and Marey and Muybridge and Fenn and Gray and Manter who came before him and did have a profound impact on the field. Alexander can, regardless, easily be mentioned in the same breath as luminaries of muscle physiology such as AV Hill and even Andrew + Julian Huxley. But I think many would agree that Alexander, despite coming later to the field, had a singular impact on this young field of comparative biomechanics. That impact began in the 1970s, when Dick Taylor and colleagues in comparative physiology were also exploding onto the scene with work at the Concord Field Station at Harvard University, and together biomechanics research there, in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and the world truly hit its stride, with momentum continuing today. I’m trying to think of some women who played a major role in the early history of biomechanics but it was characteristically a woefully male-dominated field. That balance has shifted from the 1970s to today, and my generation would cite luminaries such as Mimi Koehl as key influences. There are many female or non-white-male biomechanics researchers today that are stars in the field, so there seems to have been progress in diversifying this discipline’s population.

Hence, honouring Alexander’s impact on science, today our college gave Neill an honorary doctorate of science (DSc). Last year, I also helped organize a symposium at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s conference in Berlin that honoured his impact specifically on palaeontology, too- compare his book “The Dynamics of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Giants” to current work and you’ll see what fuelled much of that ongoing work, and how far/not far we’ve come since ~1989. Even 10 years later, his “Principles of Animal Locomotion“, with Biewener’s “Animal Locomotion“, remains one of the best books about our field (locomotion-wise; Vogel’s Comparative Biomechanics more broadly) , and his educational CD “How Animals Move“, if you can get it and make it work on your computer, is uniquely wonderful, with games and videos and tutorials that still would hold up well as compelling introductions to animal biomechanics. Indeed, I’ve counted at least 20 books penned by Alexander, including “Bones: The Unity of Form and Function” (under-appreciated, with gorgeous photos of skeletal morphology!).

1970s Alexander, with a sauropod leg.

1970s Alexander, with a sauropod leg.

And then there are the papers. I have no idea how many papers Neill has written –again and again I come across papers of his that I’ve never seen before. I tried to find out from the Leeds website how many papers he has, but they’re equally dumbfounded. I did manage to count 38 publications in Nature, starting in 1963 with “Frontal Foramina and Tripodes of the Characin Crenuchus,” and 6 in Science. So I think we can be safe in assuming that he has written everything that could be written in biomechanics, and we’re just playing catchup to his unique genius.

Seriously though, Alexander has some awesome publications stemming back over 50 years. I’m a big fan of his early work on land animals, such as with Calow in 1973 on “A mechanical analysis of a hind leg of a frog” and his paper “The mechanics of jumping by a dog” in 1974, which did groundbreaking integrations of quantitative anatomy and biomechanics. These papers kickstarted what today is the study of muscle architecture, which our lab (including my team) has published extensively on, for example. They also pioneered the integration of these anatomical data with simple theoretical models of locomotor mechanics, likewise enabling many researchers like me to ride on Alexander’s coattails. Indeed, while biomechanics often tends to veer into the abstract “assume a spherical horse”, away from anatomy and real organisms, Alexander managed to keep a focus on how anatomy and behaviour are related in whole animals, via biomechanics. As an anatomist as well as a biomechanist, I applaud that.

How do muscles work around joints? Alexander and Dimery 1985 figured out some of the key principles.

How do muscles work around joints? Alexander and Dimery 1985 figured out some of the key principles.

Alexander has researched areas as diverse as how fish swim, how dinosaurs ran, how elastic mechanisms make animal movement more efficient, how to model the form and function of animals (see his book “Optima for Animals” for optimization approaches he disseminated, typifying his elegant style of making complex maths seem simple and simple maths impressively powerful) and how animals walk and run, often as sole author. In these and other areas he has codified fundamental principles that help us understand how much in common many species have due to inescapable biomechanical constraints such as gravity, and how these principles can inspire robotic design or improvements in human/animal care such as prosthetics. Neill has also been a passionate science communicator, advising numerous documentaries on television.

~1990s Alexander, with model dinosaurs used to estimate mass and centre of mass.

~1990s Alexander, with model dinosaurs used to estimate mass and centre of mass.

Alexander’s “Dynamics of Dinosaurs” book, one of my favourites in my whole collection, is remarkably accessible in its communication of complex quantitative methods and data, which arguably has enhanced its impact on palaeontologists. Alexander’s other influences on palaeobiology include highly regarded reviews of jaw/feeding mechanics in fossil vertebrates (influencing the future application of finite element analysis to palaeontology), considerations of digestion and other aspects of metabolism, analysis of vertebral joint mechanics, and much more.  Additionally, he conducted pioneering analyses of allometric (size-related) scaling patterns in extant (and extinct; e.g. the moa) animals that continue to be cited today as valuable datasets with influential conclusions, by a wide array of studies including palaeontology—arguably, he helped compel palaeontologists to contribute more new data on extant animals via studies like these.

Neill Alexander did his MSc and PhD at Cambridge, followed by a DSc at the University of Wales, a Lecturer post at Bangor University and finally settling at the University of Leeds in 1969, where he remained until his retirement in 1999, although he maintains a Visiting Professorship there. I had the great pleasure of visiting him at his home in Leeds in 2014; a memory I will treasure forever, as I had the chance to chat 1-on-1 with him for some hours. He has been Secretary of the Zoological Society of London throughout most of the 1990s, President of the Society for Experimental Biology and International Society of Vertebrate Morphologists, long championing the fertile association of biomechanics with zoology, evolutionary biology and anatomy. More recently, he was a main editor of Proceedings of the Royal Society B for six years.

Many people I’ve spoken to about Neill before have stories of how he asked a single simple question at their talk, poster or peer review stage of publication, and how much that excited them to have attracted his sincere interest in their research. They tend to also speak of how that question cut to the core of their research and gave them a facepalm moment where they thought “why didn’t I think of that?”, but how he also asked that question in a nice way that didn’t disembowel them. I think that those recalling such experiences with Neill would agree that he is a professorial Professor: a model of senior mentorship in terms of how he can advise colleagues in a supportive, constructive and warmly authoritative, scholarly way. For a fairly recent example of his uniquely introspective and concise, see the little treasure “Hopes and Fears for Biomechanics”, a ~2005 lecture you can find here. I really like the “Fears” part. I share those fears- and maybe embody them at times…

My visit with RMcNeill Alexander in 2014.

My visit with RMcNeill Alexander in 2014.

Perhaps I have gushed enough, but I could go on! Professor RMcNeill Alexander, to summarise the prodigious extent of his research, is to biomechanics as Darwin is to biology as a whole. One could make a strong case for him being one of the most influential modern biologists. He is recognised for this by his status as a Fellow of the Royal Society (since 1987), and a CBE award, among many other accolades, accreditations and awards. And, if you’ve met him, you know that he is a gentle, humble, naturally curious and enthusiastic chap who instils a feeling of awe nonetheless, and still loves to talk about science and keeps abreast of developments in the field. And as the RVC is honouring Neill today, it is timely for me to honour him in this blog post. There can never be another giant in biomechanics like Alexander, and we should be thankful for the broad scientific shoulders upon which we are now, as a field, poised.

I hope others will chime in with comments below to share their own stories.



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Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10 for ambiguous sacks.

I mainly post here about my team’s research and interests, but today I felt like sharing something special and concrete: the contents of our freezers. They are not just John’s and there’s more than one freezer; thus there is room to share, within reason. So if you’re a researcher, especially in the UK/EU, needing unusual research specimens/tissue, you might want to contact me to use them. This blog’s posts summarize most of what I have available, and for security/other reasons I don’t want to get into deep detail here, but we sport a respectable collection of limbs/bodies of animals like:

Birds: ostriches, emus, broiler chickens, guineafowl, assortment of others.

Crocodiles: Nile, Osteolaemus, Morelet’s and some others (1 Melanosuchus, 1 normal Caiman).

Squamates: a monitor lizard or two and some other random lizards.

Amphibians: a few fire salamanders and such.

Mammals: of course, plenty of elephant bits (no ivory!), rhinos too (no horns!), giraffes, a dwarf forest buffalo, alpacas, deer, pieces of camels and zebras (feet etc.), wild cat species (no penises!) and a few other things. And then the usual assortment of veterinary species like cows and horses. A heavy focus on limb material– very few if any heads, torsos, etc.

This is in addition to a nice little comparative skeletal collection, focused on cleaned members of the above groups and a smattering of others. Nothing on the scale of RVC’s marvellous Anatomy Museum, but we’re young.

And two African land snail shells (inhabited) I was reminded of during a recent inventory… Here are some of my helpful helpers in that inventory extravaganza!


Especially if you’re searching for CT scan data (sooner or later these data will appear online; I want it to happen!), tissue samples for genetics or cell biology (if frozen is OK!), comparative anatomical specimens to inspect, or other uses of frozen anatomy (photography? other art? We’ve helped artists before!), the freezers might be able to help you! The less destructive, the better, but even some destructive analysis might be OK. We regularly accommodate visitors, either independent ones or collaborators, and I aim to provide good hospitality when I can accommodate them!

Get in touch with me if the above description is you. It’s not an open invitation to everyone, but for valid research purposes I can and should try to help. But I’m limited by time and other human factors, so I can’t do everything and help everyone. Our ability to host others to come work on our specimens here in-house is very limited, I’m sorry to say. The primary purpose of all the hard work we’ve done accumulating these specimens remains to support our research, but there’s room to help others too, and we want to maximize the impact of our research collection, including potentially on teaching and public engagement with science where feasible. So I’ve put it out there, and that ends this post.

UPDATE May 2016:

I am planning more freezer cleaning; under more pressure due to dwindling space; so if specimens here interest you and you’re EU-based, I am possibly up for loaning out material. Conditions: (1) you do all transport pickup and return; (2) skeletal material is kept intact unless I approve in advance; (3) 2 year-ish loan at most, informal. We are curating material, so it must return– and it must stay in the EU (ideally UK) if on loan. Everything gets CT-scanned before it goes out. Not everything is up for grabs, but there is room for negotiation as to what’s available or not. For scientific usage only! Best to email me if interested.

Is there something in the "Non-Elephant Freezer" for you?

Is there something in the “Non-Elephant Freezer” for you?

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Deck the ‘Nets With PeerJ Papers— please sing along!

♬Deck the ‘nets with PeerJ papers,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
‘Tis the day to show our labours,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Downloads free; CC-BY license,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Read the extant ratite science,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

See the emu legs before you
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Muscles allometric’ly grew.
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Follow the evolvin’ kneecaps
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
While we dish out ratite recaps 
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Soon ostrich patellar printing
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Hail anat’my, don’t be squinting
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Dissections done all together
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Heedless of the flying feathers,
Fa la la la la, la la la la♪

(alternate rockin’ instrumental version)

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10: cheesy songs vs. fatty chunks of tissue; there are no better Crimbo treats!

Today is a special day for palaeognath publications, principally pertaining to the plethora of published PeerJ papers (well, three of them anyway) released today, featuring my team’s research! An early Crimbo comes this year in the form of three related studies of hind limb anatomy, development, evolution and biomechanics in those flightless feathered freaks of evolutionary whimsy, the ratites! And since the papers are all published online in PeerJ (gold open access), they are free for anyone with internet access to download and use with due credit. These papers include some stunning images of morphology and histology, evolutionary diagrams, and a special treat to be revealed below. Here I’ll summarize the papers we have written together (with thanks to Leverhulme Trust funding!):

1) Lamas, L., Main, R.P., Hutchinson, J.R. 2014. Ontogenetic scaling patterns and functional anatomy of the pelvic limb musculature in emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae). PeerJ 2:e716 http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.716 

My final year PhD student and “emu whisperer” Luis Lamas has published his first paper with co-supervisor Russ Main and I. Our paper beautifully illustrates the gross anatomy of the leg muscles of emus, and then uses exhaustive measurements (about 6524 of them, all done manually!) of muscle architecture (masses, lengths, etc.) to show how each of the 34 muscles and their tendons grew across a more than tenfold range of body mass (from 6 weeks to 18 months of age). We learned that these muscles get relatively, not just absolutely, larger as emus grow, and their force-generating ability increases almost as strongly, whereas their tendons tend to grow less quickly. As a result, baby emus have only about 22% of their body mass as leg muscles, vs. about 30% in adults. However, baby emus still are extremely athletic, more so than adults and perhaps even “overbuilt” in some ways.

This pattern of rapidly growing, enlarged leg muscles seems to be a general, ancestral pattern for living bird species, reflecting the precocial (more independent, less nest-bound), cursorial (long-legged, running-adapted) natural history and anatomy, considering other studies of ostriches, rheas, chickens and other species close to the root of the avian family tree. But because emus, like other ratites, invest more of their body mass into leg muscles, they can carry out this precocial growth strategy to a greater extreme than flying birds, trading flight prowess away for enhanced running ability. This paper adds another important dataset to the oft-neglected area of “ontogenetic scaling” of the musculoskeletal system, or how the locomotor apparatus adapts to size-/age-related functional/developmental demands as it grows. Luis did a huge amount of work for this paper, leading arduous dissections and analysis of a complex dataset.

Superficial layer of leg muscles in an emu, in right side view.

Superficial layer of leg muscles in an emu, in right side view. Click any image here to emu-biggen. The ILPO and IC are like human rectus femoris (“quads”); ILFB like our biceps femoris (“hams”); FL, GM and GL much like our fibularis longus and gastrocnemius (calf) muscles, but much much bigger! Or, perhaps FL stands for fa la la la la?

Data for an extra set of emus studied by coauthor Russ Main in the USA, which grew their muscles similarly to our UK group. The exponents (y-axis) show how much more strongly the muscles grown than isometry (maintaining the same relative size), which is the dotted line at 1.0.

Data for an extra set of emus studied by coauthor Russ Main in the USA, which grew their muscles similarly to our UK group. The exponents (y-axis) show how much more strongly the muscles grew than isometry (maintaining the same relative size), which is the dotted line at 1. The numbers above each data point are the # of individuals measured. Muscle names are partly above; the rest are in the paper. If you want to know them, we might have been separated at birth!

2) Regnault, S., Pitsillides, A.A., Hutchinson, J.R. 2014. Structure, ontogeny and evolution of the patellar tendon in emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) and other palaeognath birds. PeerJ 2:e711 http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.711

My second year PhD student Sophie Regnault (guest-blogger here before with her rhino feet post) has released her first PhD paper, on the evolution of kneecaps (patellae) in birds, with a focus on the strangeness of the region that should contain the patella in emus. This is a great new collaboration combining her expertise in all aspects of the research with coauthor Prof. Andy Pitsillides‘s on tissue histology and mine on evolution and morphology. This work stems from my own research fellowship on the evolution of the patella in birds, but Sophie has taken it in a bold new direction. First, we realized that emus don’t have a patella– they just keep that region of the knee extensor (~human quadriceps muscle) tendon as a fatty, fibrous tissue throughout growth, showing no signs of forming a bony patella like other birds do. This still blows my mind! Why they do this, we can only speculate meekly about so far. Then, we surveyed other ratites and related birds to see just how unusual the condition in emus was. We discovered, by mapping the form of the patella across an avian family tree, that this fatty tendon seems to be a thing that some ratites (emus, cassowaries and probably the extinct giant moas) do, whereas ostriches go the opposite direction and develop a giant double-boned kneecap in each knee (see below), whereas some other relatives like tinamous and kiwis develop a more “normal”, simple flake-like bit of bone, which is likely the state that the most recent common ancestor of all living birds had.

There’s a lot in this paper for anatomists, biomechanists, palaeontologists, ornithologists, evo-devo folks and more… plenty of food for thought. The paper hearkens back to my 2002 study of the evolution of leg tendons in tetrapods on the lineage that led to birds. In that study I sort of punted on the question of how a patella evolved in birds, because I didn’t quite understand that wonderful little sesamoid bone. And now, 12 years later, we do understand it, at least within the deepest branches of living birds. What happened further up the tree, in later branches, remains a big open subject. It’s clear there were some remarkable changes, such as enormous patellae in diving birds (which the Cretaceous Hesperornis did to an extreme) or losses in other birds (e.g., by some accounts, puffins… I am skeptical)– but curiously, patellae that are not lost in some other birds that you might expect (e.g., the very non-leggy hummingbirds).

Fatty knee extensor tendon of emus, lacking a patella. The fatty tissue is split into superficial (Sup) and deep regions, with a pad corresponding to the fat pad in other birds continuous with it and the knee joint meniscus (cushioning pad). The triceps femoris (knee extensor) muscle group inserts right into the fatty tendon, continuing over it. A is a schematic; B is a dissection.

Fatty knee extensor tendon of an emu, showing the absence of a patella. The fatty tissue is split into superficial (Sup) and deep regions, with a pad corresponding to the fat pad in other birds continuous with it and the knee joint meniscus (cushioning pad). The triceps femoris (knee extensor) muscle group inserts right into the fatty tendon, continuing on over it. A is a schematic; B is a dissection.

Sectioning of a Southern Cassowary's knee extensor tendon, showing: A Similar section  as in the emu image above. revealing similar regions and fibrous tissue (arrow), with no patella, just fat; and B, with collagen fibre bundles (col), fat cells (a), and cartilage-like tissue (open arrows) labelled.

Sectioning of a Southern Cassowary’s knee extensor tendon, showing: A, Similar section as in the emu image above. revealing similar regions and fibrous tissue (arrow), with no patella, just fat; and B, With collagen fibre bundles (col), fat cells (a), and cartilage-like tissue (open arrows) labelled.

Evolution of patellar form in birds. White branches indicate no patella, blue is a small flake of bone for a patella, green is something bigger, yellow is a double-patella in ostriches, and grey is uncertain. Note the uncertainty and convergent evolution of the patella in ratite birds, which is remarkable but fits well with their likely convergent evolution of flightlessness and running adaptations.

Evolution of patellar form in birds. White branches indicate no patella, blue is a small flake of bone for a patella, green is something bigger, yellow is a double-patella in ostriches, black is a gigantic spar of bone in extinct Hesperornis and relatives, and grey is uncertain. Note the uncertainty and convergent evolution of the patella in ratite birds (Struthio down to Apteryx), which is remarkable but fits well with their likely convergent evolution of flightlessness and running adaptations.

3) Chadwick, K.P., Regnault, S., Allen, V., Hutchinson, J.R. 2014. Three-dimensional anatomy of the ostrich (Struthio camelus) knee joint. PeerJ 2:e706 http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.706

Finally, Kyle Chadwick came from the USA to do a technician post and also part-time Masters degree with me on our sesamoid grant, and proved himself so apt at research that he published a paper just ~3 months into that work! Vivian Allen (now a postdoc on our sesamoid bone grant) joined us in this work, along with Sophie Regnault. We conceived of this paper as fulfilling a need to explain how the major tissues of the knee joint in ostriches, which surround the double-patella noted above, all relate to each other and especially to the patellae. We CT and MRI scanned several ostrich knees and Kyle made a 3D model of a representative subject’s anatomy, which agrees well with the scattered reports of ostrich knee/patellar morphology in the literature but clarifies the complex relationships of all the key organs for the first time.

This ostrich knee model also takes Kyle on an important first step in his Masters research, which is analyzing how this morphology would interact with the potential loads on the patellae. Sesamoid bones like the patella are famously responsive to mechanical loads, so by studying this interaction in ostrich knees, along with other studies of various species with and without patellae, we hope to use to understand why some species evolved patellae (some birds, mammals and lizards; multiple times) and why some never did (most other species, including amphibians, turtles, crocodiles and dinosaurs). And, excitingly for those of you paying attention, this paper includes links to STL format 3D graphics so you can print your own ostrich knees, and a 3D pdf so you can interactively inspect the anatomy yourself!

(A) X-ray of an ostrich knee in side view, and (B) labelled schematic of the same.

Ostrich knee in side view: A, X-ray, and (B) labelled schematic.

3D model of an ostrich knee, showing: A, view looking down onto the top of the tibia (shank), with the major collateral ligaments (CL), and B, view looking straight at the front of the knee joint, with major organs of interest near the patella, sans muscles.

3D model of an ostrich knee, showing: A, View looking down onto the top of the tibia (shank), with the major collateral ligaments (CL), and B, View looking straight at the front of the knee joint, with major organs of interest near the patella, sans muscles.

You can view all the peer review history of the papers if you want, and that prompts me to comment that, as usual at PeerJ (full disclosure: I’m an associate editor but that brings me £0 conflict of interest), the peer review quality was as rigorous at a typical specialist journal, and faster reviewing+editing+production than any other journal I’ve experienced. Publishing there truly is fun!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays — and good Ratite-tidings to all!

And stay tuned- the New Year will bring at least three more papers from us on this subject of ratite locomotion and musculoskeletal anatomy!

♬Should auld palaeognathans be forgot, 
And never brought for scans? 
Should publications be soon sought, 
For auld ratite fans!♪

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How do I manage my team of 10+ researchers without losing my mind <ahem> or otherwise having things fall apart? I’m often asked this, as I was today (10 December; I ruminated before posting this as I worried it was too boring). Whether those undesirable things have truly not transpired is perhaps debatable, but I’m still here and so is my team and their funding, so I take that as a good sign overall. But I usually give a lame answer to that question of how I do it all, like “I have no secrets, I just do it.” Which is superficially true, but…

Today was that time of year at the RVC when I conduct appraisals of the performance and development of my research staff, which is a procedure I once found horridly awkward and overly bureaucratic. But now that it focuses more on being helpful by learning from past missteps and plotting future steps in a (ideally) realistic fashion than on box-ticking or intimidation, I find the appraisals useful. The appraisals are useful at least for documenting progress and ensuring that teammates continue to develop their careers, not just crank out data and papers. By dissecting the year’s events, one comes to understand what happened, and what needs to happen in the next year.

The whole process crystalizes my own thoughts, by the end of a day of ~1 hour chats, on things like where there needs to be different coordination of team members in the coming year, or where I need to give more guidance, or where potential problems might arise. It especially helps us to sort out a timeline for the year… which inevitably still seems to go pear-shaped due to unexpected challenges, but we adapt and I think I am getting better myself at guessing how long research steps might take (pick an initial date that seems reasonable, move it back, then move it further back, then keep an eye on it).

Anyway, today the appraisals reminded me that I don’t have a good story for how I manage my team other than by doing these appraisals, which as an annual event are far from sufficient management but have become necessary. And so here I am with a post that goes through my approaches. Maybe you will find it useful or it will stimulate discussion. There are myriad styles of management. I am outlining here what facets of my style I can think of. There are parallels between this post and my earlier one on “success”, but I’ve tried to eliminate overlap.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 but no photos, long-read, bullet points AND top 10 list. A different kind of gore.

Successfully managing a large (for my field) research team leaves one with fewer choices than in a smaller team– in the latter case, you can be almost anywhere on the spectrum of hands-off vs. hands-on management and things may still go fine (or not). In the case of a large (and interdisciplinary) team, there’s no possibility to be heavily hands-on, especially with so many external collaborations piled on top of it all. So a balance has to be struck somewhere. As a result, inevitably I am forced into a managerial role where, over the years, I’ve become less directly in touch with the core methods we use, in terms of many nitty-gritty details. I’ve had to adapt to being comfortable with (1) emphasizing a big picture view that keeps the concepts at the forefront, (2) taking the constraints (e.g. time, technology and methods, which I do still therefore have to keep tabs on) into account in planning, (3) cultivating a level of trust in each team member that they will do a good job (also see “loyalty” below), and (4) maintaining the right level of overall expertise within the group (including external collaborators) that enables us to get research done to our standard. To do these things, I’ve had to learn to do these other things, which happen to form a top 10 list but are in no order:

  1. Communicate regularly– I’m an obsessive, well-organized emailer, in particular. E-mail is how I manage most of my collaborations within and outside my team, and how I keep track of much of the details. (Indeed, collaborators that aren’t so consistent with email are difficult for me) We do regular weekly team meetings in which we go around the table and review what we’re up to, and I do in-person chats or G+/Skype sessions fairly frequently to keep the ball rolling and everyone in synch. I now keep a notebook, or “memory cane” as I call it, to document meetings and to-do lists. Old school, but it works for me whereas my mental notebook started not to at times.
  2. Treat each person individually- everyone responds best to different management styles, so within my range of capabilities I vary my approach from more to less hands-off, or gentler vs. firmer. If people can handle robust criticism, or even if they can’t but they need to hear it, I can modulate to deliver that, or try to avoid crushing them. While I have high expectations of myself and those I work with, I also know that I have to be flexible because everyone is different.
  3. Value loyalty AND autonomy– Loyalty and trust matter hugely to me as a manager/collaborator. I believe in paying people back (e.g. expending a lot of effort in helping them move their career forward) for their dedicated work on my team, but also keeping in mind that I may need to make “sacrifices” (e.g. give them time off for side-projects I’m not involved in) to help them develop their career. I seek to avoid the extremes: fawningly helpless yes-men (rare, actually) or ~100% selfish what’s-in-it-for-me’s (not as rare but uncommon). Any good outcome can benefit a research manager even if they’re not a part of it, but also on a big team it’s about more than what benefits the 1st author or the senior author, but everyone, which is a tricky balance to attain.
  4. Prioritize endlessly– for me this means trying to keep myself from being the rate-limiting step in research. And I try to say “no” to new priorities if they don’t seem right for me. Sometimes it means getting little things done first to clear my desk (and mind) for bigger tasks; sometimes it means focusing on big tasks to the exclusion of smaller ones. Often it depends on my whims and energy level, but I try to keep those from harming others’ research. I make prioritized to-do lists and revisit them regularly.
  5. Allow chaos and failure/imperfection– This is the hardest for me. My mind does not work like a stereotypical accountant’s- I like a bit of disorder, as my seemingly messy office attests to. Oddly within that disorder, I find order, as my brain is still usually good at keeping things organized. I do like a certain level of involvement in research, and I get nervous when I feel that sliding down toward “uninvolved”– loss of control in research can be scary. Some degree of detachment, stepping aside and allowing for time to pass and people to self-organize or come ask for help to avoid disaster (or celebrate success), is necessary, though, because I cannot be everywhere at once and nothing can be perfect. And of course, I myself fail sometimes, but with alertness comes recognition and learning. Furthermore, too much control is micromanagement, which hurts morale, and “disorder” allows the flexibility that can bring serendipitous results (or disaster). And speaking of disaster, one has to be mentally prepared for it, and able to take a deep breath and react in the right way when it comes. Which leads to…
  6. Think brutally clearly – Despite all the swirling chaos of a large research team and many other responsibilities of an academic and father and all that, I have taught myself a skill that I point to as a vital one. I can stop what I’m doing and focus very intensely on a problem when I need to. If it’s within my expertise to solve it, by clearing my head (past experience with kendo, yoga and karate has helped me to do this), I usually can do it if I enter this intensely logical, calm, objective quasi-zen-state. I set my emotions aside (especially if it is a stressful situation) and figure out what’s possible, what’s impossible, and what needs to be done, and find what I think is the best course of action quite quickly, then act on that decisively (but without dogmatic inflexibility). In such moments, I find myself thinking “What is the right thing to do here?” and I almost instinctively know when I can see that right thing. At that moment I get a charge of adrenaline to act upon it, which helps me to move on quickly. From little but hard decisions to major crises, this ability serves me very well in my whole life. I maintain a duality between that singleminded focus and juggling/anarchy, often able to quickly switch between those modes as I need to.
  7. Work hardest when I work best (e.g. good sleep and caffeination level, mornings)- and let myself slack off when I’m not in prime working condition. I shrug aside guilt if I am “slacking”– I can’t do everything and some things must fall by the wayside if I can’t realistically resolve them in whatever state of mind I’m in. The slacking helps me recharge and refresh– by playing a quick video game or checking social media or cranking up some classic Iron Maiden/modern Menzingers, I can return to my work with new gusto, or even inspiration, because…
  8. Spend a lot of time thinking while I “slack off”, in little bursts (e.g. while checking Twitter). I let my brain process things that are going on, let go of them when I’m not getting anywhere with them, and return to them later. This is harder than it sounds as I still stubbornly or anxiously get stuck on things if they are stressing me out or exciting me a lot. But I am progressively improving at this staccato-thinking skill.
  9. Points 7+8 relate to my view that there is no “work-life balance” for me—it is all my life, and there’s still a lot of time to enjoy the non-work parts, but it’s all a blend that lets me be who I am. I don’t draw lines in the sand. Those just tend to make one feel bad, one way or another.
  10. Be human– try to avoid acting like a distant, emotionless robotic manager and cultivate more of a family-like team. Being labelled with the word “boss” can turn my stomach. “Mentor” and “collaborator” are more like what I aim for. Being open about my own flaws, failures, and life helps.

Long post, yeah! 1 hour on a train commute lets the thoughts flow. I hope that if you made it this far you found it interesting.

What do you do if you manage a team, what works for you or what stories do you have of research management? Celebrations and post-mortems are equally welcome.


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Hey I almost forgot, it’s the blog’s second anniversary! What the hell happened this year?

Stomach-Churning Rating: there’s an 8/10 photo of ostrich guts here; otherwise 2/10ish.

I bring you tidings from the past and future!

I bring you tidings from the past and future!

This was the Year of the Rant, and I enjoyed ranting to you on this blog. Sometimes you ranted with me, and that was even better. It kicked off with that cat documentary that spurned me in a feline dismissive fashion, then I lit off on documentaries in general and how they should give more back to scientists (what a discussion in the comments!!!!). Ooooh that felt good. And helped me sort out my thoughts about the topic. And after then, I got paid more often and still did a lot of documentaries– if you haven’t been watching Secrets of Bones on BBC4, you should be weeping bitter, bitter dregs (and be scrambling to get access). Catch me tomorrow (Tues) night with some of our emus! They paid me reasonably and in return I worked hard for them; before, during, and after filming, and I think we all felt good about it. Or I did anyway. The show is excellent, so I feel even better!

Sneak peek from BBC4's Secrets of Bones episode 3... recognize anyone?

Sneak peek from BBC4’s Secrets of Bones episode 3… recognize anyone? (from their website)

But no ranting palaeo-related blog would be complete without a good T. rex rant, and I did that this year. Took a big dump on the scavenger-predator non-troversy. That went over so well, Slate picked it up– I never had expected that to happen! I also appreciated how many colleagues joined in to condemn the senseless perpetuation of this dead issue by the media and a few scientists.

There were also some posts on more introspective things, like the feeling of being lost that pervades both visiting a strange foreign city and doing science. And like how science needs both the qualities of a Mr Spock and a Captain Kirk. Those were fun experiments in combining  a personal, internal experience with a broader message.

Darwin greets Chinese visitor Microraptor in my office.

Darwin greets Chinese visitor Microraptor in my office.

When I asked for suggestions last year, you wanted more coverage of other people’s stuff, and so I did that to a degree, reviewing the All Yesterdays and Unfeathered Bird books. And then I fell off that wagon, which I may come back to. But along the way I realized I don’t enjoy writing about papers that other people have already published because, generally, I then lack the personal experience of doing the science and showing it in progress, which is what this blog tends to be about and what excites me on a personal, visceral level. Once the paper is out, I feel like the cat is out of the bag and it’s not as fun to talk about unless it’s totally mind-blowingly (A) cool or (B) idiotic. Anyway, I might do a solicited post if someone gets me excited about a paper before it comes out, or who knows, I may change my mind.

Entirely unfeathered Indian peafowl in matching views.

Entirely unfeathered Indian peafowl in matching views, with Unfeathered Bird’s author-illustrator.

I also posted on a fabulous blog that more people need to hit, because you may be surprised just how fascinating it is- Veterinary Forensics. I get the feeling often, both on my blog and from scientific colleagues, that veterinary anatomy/pathology issues are seen as “lesser science” than basic, even descriptive anatomy. Somehow, insanely weird diseases or pathologies don’t excite people as much as insanely weird “normal” anatomies. I know there are exceptions to that generalization, but I think it’s a common (mis)perception people have, and part of it is likely because those fields (veterinary medicine and zoology, for example) are historically separate, and people tend to see anatomy and pathology as separate things- as opposed to points along a continuum. Since coming to the RVC, I have come from that kind of a misperception to one in which pathology enormously enriches my understanding of form, function and evolution. I also love the “applications of basic science to helping animals live better lives” angle. We should all be trying to do that as scientists, but from time to time I notice that it isn’t taken seriously (I even get reviewers’ comments bluntly stating that it’s none of our business as basic scientists, or for anatomy/experimental biology journals to mention!). Whoops better stop there or I’ll be writing a new ranty post!

Can't get enough of this -xray GIF, so here it is again.

Can’t get enough of this x-ray GIF, so here it is again.

Darwin Day got into some of the vet-y issues regarding feet, in a post on hooves and then another on pigs’ feet.

Toward the end of the year I got some guest posts going, by two main people from my team: Sophie Regnault on rhino feet, and Julia Molnar on crocodile spines. I liked those posts a lot, and so did you, it seems, so there will be more of those coming in year 3. Quite a few are planned already.

One of my favourite papers I’ve ever done came out this year, by Vivian Allen et al. on dinosaur body shape/postural evolution, and that went nicely as a blog post with tons of extra context and stuff. Digital 3D dinos, what’s not to love?

I was on sabbatical for much of the year, so I was posting a lot about patellae (kneecaps) and how fun they are to study, which led to posts about basal bird skeletons and more, like Darwin’s chickens and a joke about cake that only I seemed to find funny, and ending with a grand summary of avian kneecaps. I also reported on some new (post-sabbatical) research, still ongoing, with Dr. Stephanie Pierce and Dr. Maedeh Borhani at the RVC, on how salamanders walk. During Freezermas, I plugged our new comparative cat project.

The mesenteries are so gorgeous!!!!!!

The mesenteries are so gorgeous!!!!!!

Speaking of Freezermas: It happened, it was terrifying, and we’ve all grown from the experience of surviving it. I had a blast dissecting that ostrich, and the x-ray pics were a hit with everyone, too!

Then there was random “freezer love” and assorted posts to give insight into the daily life of a freezer manager, such as doing an inventory and reflections on childhood. I snuck in a tour of Dublin museums and the amazing Crocodiles of the World near Oxford. I meant to do more of those “anatomy road trip posts” and still aim to.

And we ended the year by ending the ongoing drama of the Mystery Anatomy competition, starting off a new year with a new scoreboard. We got more poetic and lyrical in 2013 with the answers to those mysteries, and that will continue (groans from those who are poetically challenged).

Elephant skull mystery x-ray

Elephant skull mystery x-ray

Some brief numbers: view-wise the blog has been pretty close to last year; about 87,000 views in the past 12 months for a total of almost 200,000, wow! This year, Twitter just barely edged out Facebook for bringing people to the blog (3,134 vs 3,022 clicks) but then geenstijl.nl bizarrely brought 2,732! There was no big Reddit or other social media site moment this year, but various sites and links continued to bring in a steady flow of visitors to add to the Google-search-firehose’s. Thanks to folks who linked here!!!

What google searches brought people here the most often? The top 3 are the most interesting; the fifth one just makes me laugh because I’ve never discussed Deepstaria enigmatica anatomy here, but will continue to promote people finding the site by searching for it, if only to annoy cnidariologists:

rhino 83
giraffe 76
camel anatomy 62
what’s in john’s freezer 60
deepstaria enigmatica 56

I’m a little surprised “elephant” and “dinosaur” don’t bring as many searches here, but there are probably more sites about those animals and hence I get fewer of the hits. Looking forward to more hits on “ostrich anatomy”…

My two top rants were the top posts this year, and that’s no surprise given the comments and other attention they got. Thanks for helping by participating! Those were nice group-rants. Healthy and vigorous. Shockingly, a poetry round of mystery anatomy came in 3rd! People just liked the chickens + bones + poetry. Those, and some hits from year 1, broke the 1000-views marks.

Americans came here in a 3:1 ratio to Brits, which means that Brits punched above their weight per capita (~5:1 ratio)! Canadians, you tried, too. Here, have some back bacon of dubious provenance. 🙂 Saint Kitts and Nevis with 670 views, wow! Very unexpected- you beat Italy and many others!

Most importantly, the blog has been about sharing my passion for anatomy (as preserved via freezers). I shared a conference talk about this subject here, using the blog as a prime example, to a warm reception. I want to try experimenting in new ways to use the blog to share things this year. I think you will like what I (we!) have lined up. Thanks for showing up and staying with me!

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Freezermas continues with track 3 of our rockin’ anatomy concept album! The number of the beast today is 5 (five days to go in Freezermas!), and I will deviate from the rock/metal theme to embrace the other side of the tracks: hip hop and rap. The Beastie Boys and I go way back: their “Licensed to Ill” album was the second cassette tape I bought (I remember proudly showing it off in Geometry class, circa 1986/7), and still ranks as one of my favourite albums ever. Everyone should own a copy of that, and of this next album…

The Five Felids, featuring KC

If only MCA were still alive to do this follow-up album…

The Beastie Boys’ superb, old school rap NYC-style (and themed) “To The Five Boroughs” (2004) satisfies my search for a #5-themed concept album/song. No track has that title, so I’m going with this one, “Triple Trouble” (song 3; day 3 of Freezermas… c’mon this is all just an excuse for me to talk about music I like and celebrate the concept album/freezers anyway!), as an introduction to a collaborative cat (felid) project we’ve started; and to continue the felid theme from Sunday (also be sure to check out the Snow Leopard dissection I posted on earlier!):

If You If You 
Wanna Know Wanna Know 
The real deal about the cats
Well let me tell you 
We’re felid funded ya’ll 
We’re gonna bring you some mad facts

(yes, that’s painful, I know… be relieved, I tried working some rap jargon into this post’s text but it just looked wack)

Dodgy-looking bagged-up skinned jaguar (bag-uar?) after delivery from Scotland.

Dodgy-looking bagged-up skinned jaguar (bag-uar?) after delivery from Scotland.

Anjali Goswami at University College London, myself, and Stephanie Pierce have teamed up to join the former’s skills in mammalian evolution, morphometrics, evo-devo and more together with our RVC team’s talents in biomechanics, evolution and modelling, and to apply them to resolving some key questions in felid evolution. We’ve hired a great postdoc from Bristol’s PhD programme, soon-to-be-Dr. Andrew Cuff, to do a lot of the experimental/modelling work, and then we have the marvellous Marcela Randau as a PhD student to tackle more of the morphometrics/evo-devo questions, which we’ll then tie together, as our Leverhulme Trust grant’s abstract explains:

“In studying the evolution of vertebrate locomotion, the focus for centuries has been on limb evolution. Despite significant evolutionary and developmental correlations among the limbs, vertebrae, and girdles, no biomechanical studies have examined the entire postcranial skeleton or explicitly considered the genetic and developmental processes that underly morphological variation, which are captured in phenotypic correlations. We propose to conduct experimental and geometric morphometric analyses of living and fossil cats, including the only large, crouching mammals, to study the evolution of locomotion, the mechanical consequences of size-related morphological evolution, and the evolution of correlations (modularity) in the postcranial musculoskeletal system.”

Above: snow leopard (headless) reconstructed and taken for a spin

Our study will integrate some prior studies from Anjali’s group, on modularity for example, and from my group, on the apparent lack of postural change with increasing size in felids (most other birds and mammals get more straight-legged as size increases, to aid in support, cats don’t– paper forthcoming). How does the neglected vertebral column fit into these limb-focused ideas? We’ll find out!

And it’s all very freezer-based research, using a growing stock of specimens that we’ve collected from zoo/park mortalities, many of which are kindly being supplied by Dr. Andrew Kitchener from the National Museums Scotland. We’ll be scanning, dissecting, measuring and modelling them and then returning the skeletons to be curated as museum specimens. This page features five sets of felid specimens involved in the research. We’ll be presenting plenty more about this research on this blog and elsewhere as it continues!

Above: ocelot from Freezermas day 1, now in 3D!

The Bag-o-Cats: whole specimens of a black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), juvenile cheetah, and juvenile snow leopard. I think. Sometimes you get a bag-o-cats and are not sure.

The Bag-o-Cats: x-ray CT slice showing whole specimens of a black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), juvenile cheetah, and juvenile snow leopard. I think. Sometimes you get a bag-o-cats and are not sure.

Panthera atrox (large American lion) from the NHM in LA. Oh yes we'll be applying our insights to strange extinct cats, too!

Panthera atrox (large American lion; “Naegele’s giant jaguar”) from the NHM in LA. Oh yes we’ll be applying our insights to strange extinct cats, too!

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Hey, a short post here to say go check this new blog out! I love it. The first main post-introductory post is a dissection of a snow leopard, documenting a real vet case attempting to figure out why it died. The “Veterinary Forensics blog” is going cool places, and it is a kindred spirit to this blog. You might, as I do sometimes when walking into a veterinary pathology/postmortem facility, see surprising and rare stuff– like in this photo of urban foxes:

troop of foxes


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Today, to help thaw you poor Americans out of that Arctic Vortex, we have a guest post bringing the heat, by my PhD student Sophie Regnault! This relates to some old posts about rhinos, which are a mainstay here at the WIJF blog- I’ve posted a lot about the rhino extinction crisisfeet, skin, big and bigger bones, and more, but this is our first rhinoceros-focused, actual published scientific paper! Take it away, Sophie! (We’re planning a few more “guest” blog posts from my team, so enjoy it, folks!)

Almost a year ago to the day, I submitted my first paper written with John Hutchinson and Renate Weller at the RVC and it has (finally!) just been published. To celebrate, I have been allowed to temporarily hijack ‘What’s in John’s Freezer?’ for my first foray into the world of blogging. I started the paper back as an undergraduate veterinary student. It was my first experience of proper research, and so enjoyable that I’m now doing a PhD, studying sesamoid bones like the patella!

We wanted to discover more about the types of bony disease rhinos get in their feet, of which there isn’t much known. Rhinos, of course, are big, potentially dangerous animals – difficult enough to examine and doubly difficult to x-ray clearly because of their thick skin. Unlike diseases which are fairly easy to spot (like abscesses or splitting of the nails and footpad), there is hardly anything out there in the scientific literature on bony diseases in rhino feet. It’s no small issue, either. When your feet each need to support over 900kg (typical for a large white rhino), even a relatively minor problem can be a major pain. Progressing unseen under their tough hide, lesions in the bone can eventually become so serious than the only solution is euthanasia, but even mild conditions can have negative consequences. For example, foot problems in other animals are known to have knock-on effects on fertility, which would be a big deal for programs trying to breed these species in captivity.

Hidden treasures abound!

Hidden treasures abound! (Photos can be clicked to embiggen)

Data gathering was a blast. I got to travel to Cambridge, Oxford, and London during one of England’s better summers, and these beautiful old museums were letting me snoop around their skeleton collections. I’d been there often as a visitor, but it was anatomy-nerd-heaven to go behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum, and to be left alone with drawers and drawers of fantastic old bones. Some of the specimens hadn’t been touched for decades – at Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, we opened an old biscuit tin filled with the smallest rhinoceros foot bones, only to realise they were wrapped in perfectly preserved 1940’s wartime Britain newspaper.

rhino-feet (2)

rhino-feet (4)

rhino-feet (3)

Osteomyelitis… (3 clickable pics above) the toe’s probably not meant to come off like that!

In addition to my museum studies, I had another fun opportunity to do hands-on research.  John (of course!) had freezers full of rhino legs (looking disconcertingly like doner kebabs, but maybe that’s just me!), which we CT scanned to see the bones. Although it is a pretty standard imaging technique, at this point I had only just started my clinical studies at the vet hospital, and being able to flick through CT scans felt super badass. Most vet students just get to see some horse feet or dog/cat scans, at best.

Another osteomyelitis fracture, visible in a CT scan.

Another osteomyelitis fracture, visible in a CT scan reconstruction.

We expected to find diseases like osteoarthritis (a degenerative joint disease) and osteomyelitis (bone infection and inflammation). Both had previously been reported in rhinoceroses, although it was interesting that we saw three cases of osteomyelitis in only 27 rhinos, perhaps making it a fairly common complication. It’s an ugly-looking disease, and in two of the cases led to the fat, fluffy bones fracturing apart.

We also had several unexpected findings, like flakes of fractured bone, mild dislocations, tons of enthesiophytes (bone depositions at tendon/ligament attachments) and lots of holes in the bones (usually small, occasionally massive). For me, writing up some of these findings was cool and freaky paranoid in equal measures. They hadn’t been much described before, and we were unsure of their significance. Was it normal, or pathological? Were we interpreting it correctly? Discussions with John and Renate (often involving cake) were reassuring, as was the realisation that in science (unlike vet school at the time, where every question seemed to have a concrete answer) you can never be 100% sure of things. Our study has a few important limitations, but has addressed a gap in the field and found some neat new things. Six months into my PhD, I’m enjoying research more than ever, and hoping that this paper will be the first of many (though I promise I won’t keep nicking John’s blog for my own shameless self-promotion if that happens!  EDIT BY JOHN: Please do!).

Nasty osteoarthritis wearing away the bone at the joint surface. Most cases occurred in the most distal joint.

Nasty osteoarthritis wearing away the bone at the joint surface. Most cases occurred in the most distal joint.

Deep holes in some of the bones: infection, injury?

Deep holes in some of the bones: infection, injury?

The paper:
Sophie Regnault, Robert Hermes, Thomas Hildebrandt, John Hutchinson, and Renate Weller (2013) OSTEOPATHOLOGY IN THE FEET OF RHINOCEROSES: LESION TYPE AND DISTRIBUTION. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine: December 2013, Vol. 44, No. 4, pp. 918-927.

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At this writing (17 October, 2013), I am headed home after a 10-day trip to China as part of an RVC delegation participating in a London Universities International Partnership (LUIP) event (celebrating London innovations, especially those developed with Chinese input) as part of a broader UK/London-China trade mission. I am still processing what has been an astonishing, exhausting, exhilarating, chaotic, lavish, smog-ridden, and inspiring visit. As a simple scientist, I’ve found myself in the midst of major global politics, business and science policy, with little time to assimilate what has happened but still learning plenty about how the bigger world, way beyond my lab, operates. I thought I’d share that experience, by way of pictures illustrating key – or just unusual or interesting – events and places from my journey. It was surreal, in so many ways…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 except for a couple of odd statues. No squat-toilets; I will spare you those.

Odd sight above entrace to the art gallery building that housed the LUIP event.

Odd decoration above entrance to the art gallery building that housed the LUIP event.

Several months ago the RVC selected me to help RVC Access director Nina Davies and colleagues set up an exhibit, as part of the LUIP event, featuring the work that my team has done, and is still doing, with Chinese collaborators at the IVPP in Beijing (exemplified by this past post). Dinosaurs and 3D computer modelling were thought to be a good potential draw for the public (ya think?) as opposed to more controversial subjects such as avian flu, with which the RVC also has research strengths and Chinese collaborations. I saw it as a great chance to go spend time at the IVPP’s spectacular fossil collection and develop ongoing collaborations with scientists there like Drs. Zhou Zhonghe and Xu Xing. Subsequently, I learned that it was a small enough event that I’d probably be meeting Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) there as well, possibly even presenting our research to him.

Hallway lined with art galleries, one of which is the Yang Gallery.

Hallway lined with art galleries, one of which is the Yang Gallery, which the event was held in.

The preparations for the exhibit were full of surprises, as you might expect a long-distance interaction between UK and Chinese people to be, especially if you’ve spent time in China and know some of the broad-brush cultural differences (e.g. “Yes” can mean no, and “maybe” usually means no). There were many cooks involved! Artists, policymakers, scientists, universities… and then the Mayor’s office got thrown into the action, and then it snowballed, with UK Higher Education and Science minister Rt Hon MP David Willetts coming to the LUIP event, and UK Foreign Chancellor George Osborne then scheduling a related trip to China at the same time. Meanwhile, I just supplied some images (courtesy of Luis Rey) and a video (by Vivian Allen and Julia Molnar) from our past paper to illustrate what we’re doing with Chinese collaborators.

There wasn’t time to prepare a fancy exhibit with lots of bells and whistles, but I was pleasantly surprised by what the LUIP organizers cooked up from what we provided, as photos below show. The addition of four great casts of fossils on loan from the IVPP was crucial and made us stand out from all the other exhibits in a big way! The event was held in the trendy 798 Art District in eastern Beijing, which is an old industrial area converted to a surprisingly bohemian, touristy area that still sports its rusting old industrial infrastructure, but bedecked with modern art! That really worked for me as a setting. This was my third visit to Beijing/China but my first time in this gritty area of the city, which I recommend spending an afternoon in sometime if you visit– the streets are lined with cafes and art galleries.

Boris bike and nice design of exhibits (placed on/around the giant letters LONDON) .

Boris bike and nice design of exhibits (placed on/around the giant letters LONDON). The back wall sports a Communist slogan, partly painted over, exhorting the workers to give their full effort for the glory of Chairman Mao or something (seriously). The building was once a weapons factory, I was told.

All the work we put into this event was a big deal to me, but as the event developed, and the schedule for my 10 day visit shifted almost daily as various political factions shuffled the LUIP and UK trade mission plans, I became aware of the vastly broader issues at play, and humbled by their scope. Sure, studying the 3D changes of dinosaur body shape across >225 million years is truly awesome to conduct, but the socio-political issues around the LUIP event boggled and baffled me. Issues like “How do we get more Chinese students to come study at London universities?”, “How do Chinese parents feel about their students studying to become veterinarians?” and “What are the key obstacles limiting UK-Chinese collaborations and how can they be resolved?” gradually eclipsed the technical, scientific issues in my mind, and I started to feel lost. I learned a lot from this eye-opening experience.

These two news stories here (with video; me speaking at ~01:15) and here (with pic of me w/exhibit) give a good idea of the scale and potential importance of the events.

The rest of his post is mostly a photo blog to illustrate the goings-on, but I consider some psychological/philosophical matters toward the end.

The London innovation event lighting gets tested out-- and looks sweet.

The London innovation event lighting gets tested out– and looks sweet.

Boris arrives, and proceeds to tour the exhibits rather than give his speech as planned. But it worked out OK in the end; he had 2 exhibit tours and a speech in the middle.

Boris arrives, and proceeds to tour the exhibits rather than give his speech as planned. But it worked out OK in the end; he had two exhibit tours and a speech in the middle.

Minister Willetts arrives and prepares to speak about UK higher education for Chinese students.

Minister Willetts arrives and prepares to speak about UK higher education for Chinese students.

I give Minister Willetts a tour of our fabulous fossil casts.

I give Minister Willetts a tour of our fabulous fossil casts.

Left to right = back in time through avian evolution, represented by Yixianornis, Pengornis, Jeholornis and Microraptor casts courtesy of the IVPP.

Left to right = back in time through avian evolution, represented by Yixianornis, Pengornis, Jeholornis and Microraptor casts, courtesy of the IVPP.

Arguably one of the most important fossil finds, the "four-winged" dinosaur Microraptor.

Arguably one of the most important fossil finds (ever?), the “four-winged” dinosaur Microraptor.

Added benefit of thaw in UK-Chinese relations: Microraptors for everyone!!! Well, for me anyway. And a cast, not a real one. But still pretty damn cool, and now it’s in my office for comparative research and teaching. See?

Darwin greets Microraptor in my office.

Darwin greets Microraptor in my office.

Like I said at the start, I don’t have a profound insight from this trip, not yet if ever. But it has obviously made a strong impression on me. It has reinforced some thoughts about Big Life Stuff. With the jetlag, the big geopolitical issues, the foreign country, the opulence, and my research thrown into that heady brew (ahem, along with some Tsingtao beer), I became lost. And I liked it, even though I was totally clueless at times, just looking around wide-eyed at the events unfolding and hearing about the political manoeuvring behind the scenes (e.g. how would big figures like Boris and Willetts share the limelight? And the news media was playing up the question of whether Boris’s or Osborne’s contingents were “winning” in some sense of some struggle, even though ostensibly they are on the same Tory team).

But we’re all clueless; we’re all lost. In some ways that’s a good thing. We have work to do; broad landscapes to explore whether evolutionary or socioeconomic or whatnot. There are big questions left, and no easy answers sometimes. That’s a bad thing, too; if we were less lost in major issues like climate change or habitat destruction or gross imbalance in wealth/power, the world would be a better place.

Quite apropos! Rockin' artwork found in the 798 art district surrounding the Yang Gallery.

Quite apropos! Rockin’ artwork found in the 798 art district surrounding the Yang Gallery.

I find it helpful at times to ground myself in the knowledge that I am lost just like everyone else. There are different ways we can get lost: such as in pondering how dinosaur anatomy and physiology transformed over the Mesozoic era, or in throwing ourselves into weighty issues of business and diplomacy in the real world. To pretend we’re not lost risks becoming foolhardy; to exemplify the Dunning-Kruger effect.

It might be helpful for others to remind themselves of this sense of being lost, and that we all feel it or at least should at times. Students may sometimes look to their professors and think they have some monopoly on wisdom, but they’re lost too, and surely in some ways more lost than any of their students.

Smaller scale dino art.

Smaller scale dino art in a local shop.

Boris got a bit lost, too, when he came to my exhibit – pondering the dinosaur-bird fossils, he pondered out loud “There’s some bone that birds and reptiles both have that shows they’re related… the, umm, the ischium?” Not understanding what he meant by this (all tetrapods have an ischium), I redirected him, along with a reassuring comment that he’d done his homework. I did this a bit clumsily as the multitude of news cameras and lights and boom-mikes hovered around us in eager anticipation of Something Interesting Happening, and as his minders began to urge him to move onward through the LUIP exhibit. I noted the wrist of a dinosaur like Microraptor and how it already had the unusual wing-folding mechanism that modern birds now use during flapping flight or to keep their feathers off the ground when standing. He seemed to sort of like that, then shook my hand and said something like “very impressive, well done” and moved on to the next exhibit. (Willetts fared a bit better and stayed longer, but science is his business)

funky statue (4)

Random artwork from the Yang Gallery and around the 798 Art District follows… I liked the style. My kind of funky art. The statue above combines childlike toy aspects with sinister jingoistic imagery. And the next one, well… see for yourself.

In that brief, frantic conversation, we were both lost, and I think none the less of Mayor Johnson for it. He’d come off the plane, rushed to hotel and to the LUIP event, gave an impassioned speech about London and China, and then was whisked around between a dozen or so exhibits, pursued all the while by a throng of media and minders and gawkers- was he expected to know all the sundry details of maniraptoran evolution at that point? No. But we had some fun and smiled for the cameras and then it was all over as we spun off, reeling into our different orbits. I wouldn’t be surprised if, from time to time, a politician like Boris pinches himself and thinks privately, “Wow, these issues I am embroiled in are so convoluted. I am totally, utterly lost.” I think that’s a healthy thing, and I enjoyed repeated doses of that feeling during my trip. funky statue (2) In science, we often deal with a sense of awe or wonder—that is the sunny side of being lost. The other side, which can coexist sometimes in duality with awe/wonder, is the more fearful/anxious side, like when you’re stuck in a foreign city far from your hotel; surrounded by alien, fantastic scenery; and night is falling but no taxis are around to take you back, and the locals are starting to watch you to see if you’ll do something stupid (this was me, briefly, after doing some evening mall-shopping in Shanghai). How we react to that duality is, in some way, our choice. I point to a scientist studying evolution and a creationist freaking out about the subject as a good example of two polar opposites in how an awesome topic in science can evoke very different reactions within that duality. A seasoned traveller who likes to throw themselves into a city and experience blissful, unpredictable immersion, and a worrisome tourist who can’t stray far from their tour group provide analogous examples. But I digress; this post is in danger of becoming lost… Enjoy some cool statues as the denouement. funky statue (3) Get lost in the comments—what makes you have that sense of awe, or being lost, and how do you deal with it? funky statue (1)

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What a week!

My team had a new technician arrive, Kyle Chadwick from Uni. Virginia, and NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr. Ashley Heers (see here for an example  of new stuff she’s starting here at the RVC!), started working with me at the RVC, and then these guys showed up…


Woo hoo!

First a tiger salamander (Ambystoma) paid a visit, for filming an episode of the Windfall Films/PBS documentary “Your Inner Fish” (a la the famous book):

So cute! Tiger salamander, soon to be a TV celebrity.

So cute! Tiger salamander, soon to be a TV celebrity.

Dr. Stephanie Pierce (who was also a coauthor on a great open access croc paper in Proc Roy Soc B this week) was filmed with Prof. Jenny Clack to recap some of our past work on tetrapod locomotion. Watch out for the 3-part series!

And that gorgeous salamander was a star performer in strutting his stuff for the camera to demonstrate the locomotion of modern tetrapods, including some lovely slo-mo footage from our lab cameras:

(if that’s too slow for you, try the normal-speed footage. I’ll admit, salamanders don’t really need slo-mo video for normal walking, but I like it)

So cool!

But then we got a special package… with three frozen fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) from colleagues in Germany!

Three new occupants of the freezers, for planning our studies of salamander locomotion

Three new occupants of the freezers, for planning our studies of salamander locomotion

This marks the start of an exciting new period in my team’s work in the lab. I’ve always liked salamanders and newts, and we’ve scanned and modelled plenty (e.g. this old post), but now we’re going to work with live fire salamanders (a first for me)! We are using the dead ones to plan the new studies with the live ones– these new studies will involve lots of high speed videos and force platform analysis (as shown above), in conjunction with XROMM (biplanar fluoroscopy/3D skeletal motion analysis) and other techniques including computer simulations. We got initial approval this week to work with these salamanders, and found a reputable source this week too, so it was definitely Salamander Week in my group!

This research all will feed into our upcoming studies of extinct tetrapods: we’re using salamanders to figure out how salamanders move and what limits their speed and gait, and then we’re using the same sorts of computer tools to try to estimate how extinct tetrapods may have moved and how locomotion evolved, in much more specific detail than our prior work had done, which was mainly about using 3D reconstructions of anatomy to show what those animals could not do. More about the project here.

Watch this space for more scampering salamanders!

UPDATE: And here’s one! Not quite scampering, but…

Setting up our two fluoroscopes for a test run of our gait studies-- but with one of the deceased salamanders. Gotta get a good image  before any live animal work!

Setting up our two fluoroscopes for a test run of our gait studies– but with one of the deceased salamanders. Gotta get good images before any live animal work begins!

An example of the kind of footage we’re aiming for (single 2D fluoroscope view from Nadja Schilling’s team’s research; see XROMM website for more details on the methodology)


I did a CT scan with a normal medical grade CT scanner at the highest resolution we can manage (0.625 mm slices). Check out the results below, which amuse me:

Looks like a toy; too crude resolution. But we can see major structures, and we can very nicely see the “microchip” (which looks HUGE) that was placed in this animal’s back when in captivity, and then another structure is visible near the pelvis which might be another chip or else remains of some food, pathology, or a really odd pelvis– I am not totally sure!

So this is why we tend to use microCT, which can go down to as low as ~5 micron resolution, to get 3D anatomy of animals this small. It’s no surprise to me, but it is fun to see how far we could push our normal CT machine. The results aren’t horrid but wouldn’t have much scientific value for us. They did confirm for us that this specimen is heavily ossified, so the faint images of bone that we are getting in our x-ray fluoroscopes (above) are due to something going wrong with our camera system, not the animal’s immature skeleton. Stay tuned for more updates as the science happens!


20 wonderful adult Fire Salamanders have joined our team and are relaxing over the coming week before we start taking them for walks. Here is one exploring its new home:

Fire salamanderUPDATE 4:

August 11-15, 2014 we are in Jena, Germany using their fancy biplanar radiography system (“x-ray video”) to study our salamanders, at last! Follow the tweets starting here, for more information as it happened! https://twitter.com/JohnRHutchinson/status/500187568416518144

and this video of “Jabba” the corpulent salamander walking-

with a top view, too-

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