I gave a TEDx talk late last year where I chatted about taphonomy and decay in the fossil record, in Japanese Buddhist paintings, and on Mars. If that sounds interesting to you, check out the video below!
The day has finally arrived... I am now Dr Caitlin Syme! My PhD thesis went through the various stages of PDF upload, revision, re-upload, approval, FINAL upload, and then I received the letter I'd been waiting for...
I'm looking for more 'normal' paid work while I apply for post-docs and museum-related jobs, but for now I can breathe a little easier. Thanks for joining me on this PhD journey, and I hope you continue to find these posts useful for understanding both PhD and post-PhD life. And to keep enjoying fossil and taphonomy related news, of course!
Image by Sarah Andersen
This is why we want equality, and equal representation for women in science... so we can JUST TALK ABOUT OUR RESEARCH like anyone else!
I have finally handed in my PhD thesis!
I've included the title and thesis abstract below, for anyone so inclined to read it.
So what's the next step? Can I call myself Dr. Syme yet? Not quite. Over the next 3-4 months, two qualified taphonomists will examine the thesis, and note whether any changes to the text or figures need to be made. Once those changes have been incorporated, the thesis can then be formally accepted by UQ!
Now for the waiting game...
Life by the Eromanga Sea: Taphonomy of crocodyliform and osteichthyan fossils from the Lower Cretaceous (upper Albian) portion of the Winton Formation at Isisford central-west Queensland.
In 1995, the articulated and semi-articulated fossilised remains of two small crocodyliforms and a large predatory fish were discovered in the Lower Cretaceous (upper Albian) portion of the Winton Formation near the town of Isisford, central-west Queensland (hereafter referred to as ‘Isisford’). Subsequent expeditions yielded further crocodyliform and osteichthyan fossils, as well as those of non-avian dinosaurs. The crocodyliforms were described as a new genus and species, Isisfordia duncani Salisbury et al., 2006. Phylogenetic analysis found that Isisfordia was a basal eusuchian, indicating that modern crocodyliforms may have originated in the Australian part of Gondwana. A partially complete and articulated osteichthyan fossil discovered in 2005 was described as a new species of the ichthyodectiform Cladocyclus, C. geddesi Berrell et al., 2014, expanding the geographic range of this genus outside of Brazil and Morocco. As deposition of the Winton Formation is thought to have occurred in fluvial and lacustrine settings, these taxa are considered to have inhabited freshwater environments.
The preservation and composition of the Isisford vertebrate assemblage is in sharp contrast to that of other vertebrate-bearing localities of the Winton Formation, the best known of which occur near the town of Winton, 240 km north-west of Isisford. The Isisford fossils are found encased in fine-grained sandstone concretions, often ex-situ and laying in Cenozoic and recent alluvium. In contrast, vertebrate fossils found nearer to Winton are typically preserved as disarticulated elements in siltstone hosted ‘bone-beds’. Additionally, taxa found nearer to Winton include sauropod and theropod dinosaurs, freshwater turtles, and lungfish, none of which has been recovered from Isisford. Furthermore, a detrital zircon dating study of the fossil-bearing Winton Formation localities indicates that Isisford is 6–8 million years older than localities nearer Winton. It is not clear if these differences in fossil preservation and faunal composition are temporal, or due to dissimilar environmental or taphonomic processes. It is also not known whether the Isisford fossils are autochthonous or allochthonous, which has bearing on the interpretation of their preferred habitats in life, and in clarifying the nature of the depositional environment in which their remains were interred. With this in mind, the primary aim of this study was to record decay sequences in modern crocodyliforms (C. porosus) to better understand the taphonomy of I. duncani fossils, examine the sedimentology of the Winton Formation at Isisford to identify the depositional setting, and elucidate the taphonomic history of the I. duncani and C. geddesi specimens.
An aquatic actualistic decay experiment using juvenile Indo-Pacific crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) revealed that on average, carcasses ‘bloat and float’ five days post-mortem then remain at the water’s surface for approximately one month. The majority of disarticulation occurs not during bloat and float, but after the carcass sinks. Excluding rapid burial, it appears that high degrees of articulation and completeness can only occur if the bloat and float phase is either inhibited or eliminated.
Sedimentological analysis indicates that the Isisford concretions consist of feldspathic litharenites cemented with calcite. Given the cement-supported nature of the concretions, along with minimal fossil deformation, this suggests that the concretions formed during early diagenesis prior to sediment compaction. Stable isotopic analysis of calcite 18O/16O and 13C/12C ratios versus Vienna Pee Dee Belemnite (delta 18O VPDB and delta 13C VPDB) indicates that this cement precipitated from brackish pore waters during sulphate reduction and methanogenesis. Given the location of Isisford during the late Albian near the regressing Eromanga Sea, along with the presence of mud rip-up clasts and fossil plant debris, it appears that the concretions formed in a lower deltaic plain or estuarine setting.
The Isisford fossils range in preservation style from fully articulated through to disarticulated skeletal elements, and show minimal signs of abrasion or weathering. The close association of discrete articulated skeletal segments suggests that prolonged bloating and floating did not occur. Additionally, the lack of tetany in these specimens suggests they did not suffer any toxic shock pre- or peri-mortem. I propose that the majority of the fossils are autochthonous or parautochthonous, and that I. duncani and C. geddesi lived and died in a delta or estuary connected to the Eromanga Sea.
The fossil taxa of Isisford should be analysed in the context of more contemporaneous taxa of the late Albian Eromanga Sea – namely those from the Toolebuc Formation, Allaru Mudstone, and Mackunda Formation – rather than taxa from the relatively younger portions of the Winton Formation. Furthermore, studies focussing on the J/K mass extinction event and radiation of crocodyliforms should list the preferred habitat of I. duncani as deltaic or estuarine brackish waters, not freshwater. And no longer do palaeobiogeographical studies involving C. geddesi need to invoke mechanisms for freshwater adaptation, as it appears it was brackish water tolerant, which has already been proposed for other Cladocyclus spp. from South America and Morocco.
TRIGGER WARNING: Depression
Some caveats to begin with:
Everyone experiences depression differently, and to different degrees. I’m describing my (abbreviated) personal journey through my depression. This will not be the same for everyone, and is not The Answer™, just one answer. But I hope it will be useful to someone going through depression, or a friend or loved one who wants to know how depression may feel.
PhD programs can be stressful. If you didn’t know that, now you do. It is fantastic that people discuss how they’re feeling about their PhD workloads and how stressed they may or may not be, using Twitter hashtags such as #phdlife.
The issue comes with normalisation - thinking that it’s ok to always feel stressed during your PhD - and then just living with the stress.
Don’t get me wrong - in small doses, stress is a great motivator. A problem arises when those feelings of stress persist even when there isn’t, for example, a looming deadline. And then it can lead to depression, limiting your ability to deal with any upcoming deadline at all.
When stress isn't motivating, but crippling. Image by Loading Artist.
And therein lies the problem. I had great supervisors, and an interesting project, so I counted myself as one of the lucky ones. I also had a fantastic, supportive partner (and still do!). Stress was a ‘normal’ part of the PhD, so what did I have to worry about?
There were days where I just couldn’t get out of bed. I wished that the day would remain on ‘pause’ until I decided I was ready to get up and face the world. Even though my PhD was progressing nicely, I still felt stressed and sad.
I couldn't concentrate on reading a paper for more than 2 minutes before my vision blurred for no apparent reason. I couldn't write a sentence without having three other trains of thought (relevant or not) interrupting it. I’d also find myself walking to or from my office and feel the sudden urge to sprint down the corridor. But I had no energy to do anything of the like.
But I figured that I mustn’t really have depression, because what do I have to be depressed about? Perhaps I had just spontaneously become scatterbrained.
Over a period of a few months, things got worse. My morning sleep-ins became longer, I sniped at my partner, I still felt sad and always felt like crying. Even my favourite computer and console games felt boring.
I figured that yes, maybe now I do have depression. But only a little bit. Just a light case.
Turns out, this doesn't work. Also, you should definitely read this article+comic by Allie Brosh about how depression affected her. Image by Hyperbole and a Half.
I didn’t see a doctor about how depressed I felt for a long time because, again, I thought it was a natural part of the PhD process. It wasn’t coming out of nowhere, as it does for some, but from a definable stressor. I likened it to someone repeatedly hitting their head against a wall: their head hurts, they know why it hurts, so wouldn’t it be silly of them to take some painkillers and merrily continue on their head-smacking ways?
My doctor nodded when I described this scenario, and said, “Are you going to stop doing your PhD?” I said no, the PhD program was fine, I was just stressed and depressed for no apparent reason.
“So”, she replied, “Why don't you medicate yourself while you continue the PhD, and when you’re finished, if you want to, you can slowly come off the medication?”
And there was the seemingly obvious answer. If the cause of my depression was the PhD, I needed to take some antidepressants to continue the program. If it wasn’t the PhD, but the beginning of clinical depression, then I would have refused medication for the entire PhD program for no reason.
Here was a new option: finish the PhD program WHILST AT THE SAME TIME feeling better about myself and the world in general.
I have to remind myself that, sometimes, maybe, doctors just might know what they're talking about.
Image from KnowYourMeme.com.
(A side note: when you have an upswing in mood, and everything is feeling a bit better with the world, go see your doctor. This may seem counterintuitive - after all, you’re feeling better - but now is the time you’ll be motivated enough and able enough to step outside and talk to someone about how you’re feeling. If you wait until you are at your worst, you may not feel able to talk to the doctor about what your going through and just put off the potential diagnosis and help.)
This is the way I personally feel about antidepressants (besides complicated issues of overprescription): if the medical community has spent millions of dollars and decades of research into helping people with depression, why not take advantage of their hard work? Why suffer in a time where you have options to feel better?
I know that not all cases of depression can be easily fixed with medication. In my case, it did work. Some people need to try different types of medication, or find that the medication only takes some of the depression away.
But if you are on the road to some kind of recovery, please don’t feel guilty about the time you’ve lost. You were unable to work during that time, just like with many other illnesses. But when you feel better, capitalise on it. Use this time to talk to your supervisors, get a clear idea of your tasks, and create plans to get work done.
This doesn’t mean you should work yourself into the ground to make up for 'lost time'. It means you should work efficiently and at your normal pace, to keep that good feeling going for as long as possible. Also explore whether you can extend your PhD program deadlines, or go part-time for a little bit (if you are able) for more time to get back on your feet.
And read ALL the papers! Images by Hyperbole and a Half.
I still suffer from periods of depression. But those depressive periods are much shorter and much less emotionally exhaustive than before. And I can bounce back to the pure enjoyment of research much, much quicker.
Now, I’m off to read about fossil preservation in deltas and estuaries, and tonight will play video games I’ve actually been looking forward to!
A huge thank you to my Twitter friends for reaching out and showing support. You guys rock!
Academic life is a confusing mix of this:
From twitter user @A3PatchProblem
Which I should probably follow up with a link to this article on mental health problems in academia, and how the status quo remains unchanged.
But the answer is also an obvious no, because I grew up privileged. Cis-white-straight. Surrounded by family who never once told me that I couldn't do whatever I wanted to do. Even my school mates (excluding these kindergarten kids), teachers, and other adults never questioned my chosen career. Frankly, they were just as impressed that a 6 year old could pronounce 'palaeontologist'.
I also had no female palaeontologist role models growing up, and if asked to draw a palaeontologist, I'm sure I would have drawn a white man. But I never linked this to my sense of potential, and nobody else did either. That's the kind of idyllic shelter a privileged life gives.
But when Barbie puts on a lab coat and magically transforms into a scientist, does she become the best women-in-STEM role model?
Catwalk Model Pink Wearing Lab-coat Barbie. Image via Barbie and Friends Doll Clothes.
A recent experiment looked at the influence of seemingly 'feminine'* role models on middle school girl's perception of their own STEM abilities (summarized nicely in this article, flaws and all). For those who had indicated they were interested in STEM subjects, and then shown pictures of 'feminine' role models, their decisions stayed the same. They were still interested in STEM subjects.
But for those who hadn't made up their minds and were then shown the 'feminine' role model pictures, the results were telling. It seemed that their already potentially shaky sense of self-worth and beauty was compounded by the idea that to be a scientist you had to be smart AND beautiful.
When Barbie is already seen as a terrible role model for beauty and normality, should we spend time dressing her up in a lab coat so she becomes an even more unattainable ideal?
Some might argue that Barbie is the best placed role model for STEM careers, at least to normalise the idea of female scientists. Yes, we do exist. But would the young girls who have non-supportive families (when it comes to career choice) have those very same families buy them a STEM doll? Or is it that, given the choice, many families (who might say they don't think deeply about or have an opinion on sexism and feminism) might buy a STEM doll if it was easily available? Or these girls might be gifted STEM dolls by friends or extended family?
I am curious as to what you all think. Do you remember any female scientists as role-models during your childhood, and did they influence your chosen careers? Did you or have you given your children or grandchildren, male or female, STEM based toys or dolls?
* Where 'feminine' is classed as "wearing pink and saying they were interested in fashion magazines" and neutral is classed as "shown wearing dark colours and glasses and enjoying reading." I'm not sure I'd agree with those categorizations myself...
Hope you're all having a wonderful holiday break!
Image ©2013 alexine-pankhurst
I've not been writing very much about my PhD here lately.
The reason? Fear of being scooped.
Which is a little bit hilarious, because on the one hand I suffer from imposter syndrome, but on the other hand I must think my ideas are *so* brilliant that they would be stolen the minute they're posted online.
After attending the 14th Conference on Australasian Vertebrate Evolution, Palaeontology & Systematics (CAVEPS) last week, and talking to a few people who said my blog was more about research techniques and technology than actual palaeo research, it's time to mend my ways. Even if it means my ah-mah-zing ideas are up for grabs, it's better to practice pitching them and getting some feedback. And it'll be a hell of a lot more interesting for you, dear reader.
So, it's time for more palaeontology, more taphonomy, more dinosaurs!
About the author
Dr Caitlin Syme is a palaeontologist studying the taphonomy (preservation state) of fossil non-avian dinosaurs, crocodiles and fish from the Winton Formation, Queensland, Australia. Think forensic science or CSI for fossils, and you're on the right track!
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Prerogative of Harlots
The Integrative Paleontologists
The Mammoth Prairie
The Professor Is In
UQ Palaeo Blog
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.