Friday, November 26, 2010

Youngina, Undergrad Research, and Nick Gardner

Last week, the online, open access journal Palaeontologia Electronica published a new issue, with a fantastic spectrum of papers. Much discussion has ensued on the blogosphere. For one, PE is unusual among paleontological journals in having its own blog (would that other major paleo journals follow suit!). A series of posts has detailed many of the articles in the current issue. Furthermore, Mike Taylor over at SV-POW! blogged about figures and the online journal, with a focus on PE. Not to be left off the bandwagon, here's my own contribution to the blogstorm.

Among other fantastic papers in the latest PE, Nick Gardner, Casey Holliday, and Robin O'Keefe have published their description of the braincase of Youngina. Youngina is an early diapsid (the group including crocodiles, dinosaurs, birds, lizards, snakes, and probably turtles), which was very lizard-like in appearance during life (its skull is pictured at left, modified after Gardner et al. 2010). It lived in South Africa during the Permian, and has been a key animal for understanding the early evolution of diapsids. Despite some excellent fossil material, the braincase of Youngina has never been completely described. This could provide important information for figuring out more precisely how Youngina is related to other early diapsids. Thus, Gardner and colleagues turned to CT scanning to see all of the details hidden behind the rock in a specimen of Youngina housed at the American Museum of Natural History.

Others (including Nick, Casey, and the PE blog) have blogged about some major aspects of the new paper. So, I wanted to focus on a different angle altogether: undergraduate research. Nick is a senior at Marshall University and has been active in research nearly from the beginning. The fact that he already has a first-authored publication (and a second-authored one) is going to serve him very well in applications to graduate school (and beyond!). Given Nick's successes so far, I thought I would ask him about his thoughts on undergrad research (along with some other OSP-relevant parts of the project).

It's pretty unusual for an undergrad to have lead authorship on a major project like this. How did you get started working on this paper?
I've always wanted to participate in doing research since I was younger. Casey [Holliday] gave me my first opportunities, assisting him in his lab working on lizard and croc head anatomy. Somewhere midway along that, Robin [O'Keefe] brought up redescribing Youngina, and I sort of just fell into it. The braincase project was mostly something I worked on during last summer after I got an institutional research fellowship for undergrads.

I see that you used the Amira software package in order to generate the reconstructions of Youngina's anatomy. Were there any particular challenges to working with this program, or the particular dataset?
I went with Amira because that's what I was trained on. There were some issues in getting the data to load properly at first, so I ended up having to get help from Witmer Lab to fix some issues with the individual slice files. The other big issue was the data was flipped along the sagittal plane, so that had to be corrected before I could do any real work on it. But that was a pretty easy fix for Ryan [Ridgeley; research associate at Witmer Lab]. The big issue was just loading it up on a computer where the data could be managed. It's a really big data set.

What, if anything, was the most fun part of the project?
The most fun for me was in segmenting. It was pretty amazing to sit and work on virtually digging out something that no one had ever seen before. Every day was more exciting, to see new bits of it come together. The braincase is mostly hidden by matrix in the holotype, and no one had ever seen what an articulated and almost entirely complete braincase of Youngina looked like.

What advice would you give to other undergraduate students who want to get involved with research at an early stage?
Find out what's available to you at your university, talk to professors who do research, and just get involved. Be careful, though, while doing research. Something I struggle with is maintaining balance between grades, work and research. It's best if you can get into a situation where you're paid for helping out as a research assistant. But when you're trying to juggle all three, that's where it gets tough.

Thanks, Nick! And to all of the OSP readers, don't forget to check out his wonderfully-titled blog, "why I hate theropods."


Gardner, N.M., Holliday, C.M. , and O’Keefe, F.R. 2010. The braincase of Youngina capensis (Reptilia, Dipsida): new insights from high-resolution CT scanning of the holotype. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 13, Issue 3; 19A:16p. [link]


nick gardner said...

Also worth bringing up was the help of fellow lab mate Helen Zhu, she contributed to figure 7.6-7.7 in the paper and several figures in the poster I presented at SVP. I should be getting the paper's webpage up soon...I'll put the original (high res) figures up soon.

Thanks for the airtime/interview, Andy. Very appreciated. =)

Casey said...

The subject of Undergrad research is really important and likely deserves the full attention of a separate post. But its critical to get experience as a UG these days, regardless of the field you may be wanting to work in, though relevance helps. Many graduate programs, and federal funding programs, look heavily at research experience, the letters of rec from those lab supervisors, and the ability of the UG to speak intelligently about whatever it was they were working on.

It also helps the UG to figure out what they like and don't like, but the breadth is sometimes important. I worked in an animal nutrition lab, then did some stints as a gel jock (poorly-god that sucked), and got lucky by scoring a collections/prep position while dorking out in a macroevolution class. Never turned back from there. But those other experiences were really important in understanding how labs, research, academia etc works, let alone what extra bit of knowledge about the FIV plasmid you accidentally jabbed into your thumb while extracting dna 1990's style.