Jeff Wilson, University of Michigan
I’m interested in sauropod dinosaurs, the fossil reptiles of the Indian Subcontinent, and ichnofossils.
1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
I was never interested in dinosaurs (or fossils, for that matter) as a child. I’m still not crazy about them. I loved anatomy from an early age, which manifested itself in unsupervised frog dissections and me following around my uncle, a surgeon, in hopes of getting into the operating room (which I did). This interest in anatomy led me to believe I should be a doctor, and so I took the MCAT and worked for a year as a surgical technician – only to find that I didn’t like the clinical atmosphere or dealing with patients. I didn’t really know what to do with myself at that point. I ran into my advisor at Kalamazoo College, Paul Sotherland, who recommended Gould’s book ‘Wonderful Life’ to me. That book changed everything. It brought together anatomy, evolution, history, and adventure in a way that I hadn’t thought about before. I wondered who could be doing that sort of work nearby and eventually wrote Paul Sereno, who in 1992 was fresh from his second trip to Ischigualasto. I drove down to Chicago to visit him, and he showed me the skull of Herrerasaurus, which was mysterious to me. I don’t remember much about what Paul and I talked about, but after a couple of weeks he called to invite me to spend three months in the Sahara excavating a sauropod graveyard. I remember him telling me we were driving there from London. I said yes.
2. What is your favourite piece of research?
I will take a ‘pass’ on this question, but I will say that the most fun I ever had working on a manuscript was when Matt Carrano and I put together the ‘response to reviewers’ for our 1999 paper on wide-gauge sauropod trackmakers. We were graduate students then, and we were reviewed by the formidable R. McNeill Alexander, Martin Lockley and Tony Thulborn. Thulborn alone had 80+ marginal annotations specifically about word choice and composition. He was so charming in the way he flayed the paper, one had to laugh. Example: we used the word “freer” in the original to refer to titanosaur vertebral articulations, to which he wrote something like (from memory, not a direct quote), “Gentlemen, there is no ‘freer’ ? one is either free or not, just like one cannot be ‘partially pregnant’ or ‘somewhat dead’.” Ha! There’s more to the story, but I’ll end here.
3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
I really admire some recent work on saurischian dinosaurs, but it is difficult to pick one discovery. Perhaps I’ll go with a technique. I was really blown away by Steve Gatesy’s recent SVP talk on 3-D motion analysis in birds.
4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Sample sizes are typically quite low for sauropod dinosaur species, many of which are represented by a single exemplar. We have become habituated to describing all (or most) morphological variation in our exemplars as differentiating species or genera, often without entertaining the possibility of within-individual, within-population, and within-species variation. Discriminating among these sources of variation is to me one of the most important questions facing us.
5. What advice would you give to students about research?
Philip Gingerich wrote this nice paper ‘George Gaylord Simpson: Empirical Theoretician’ in which he examined and categorized the nearly 13,000 pages of Simpson’s primary output. Although he was thought of as a ‘theoretician’, much of Simpson’s work, especially his early work, was empirical. I think that collecting careful, quality empirical data is important, and I would encourage students build their datasets with a question in mind. Bigger is not necessarily better; the dataset should be small enough that it can be managed and mastered.