Peter L. Falkingham, at Brown University, USA, and at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.
Focusing on computer modelling of dinosaur tracks.
1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
I’ve just had a run through past Academics on Archosaurs, and well, like pretty much everyone else I’ve been into palaeo (and not just dinosaurs) since I was, as my mother used to put it, “knee high to a grasshopper.” As to my specific field, dinosaur tracks, that came much later. Like many other children tracks flew under my radar, with mounted skeletons and artistic reconstructions taking all my attention. I have a fondness for computers though, and during my undergrad I started getting into the computer-based biomechanics research that was going on, and felt that would be a good way to go. I eventually got a PhD on the computer simulation of dinosaur tracks, and I’ve not looked back since.
2. What is your favourite piece of research?
The yet-to-be-published stuff I’m working on now. If you’d asked me that 3 years ago, I’d have said the same thing, and if you ask me again in 30 years I’ll probably still respond the same way – it’s one of the great things about being a scientist – finding out what’s just around the next bend!
3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
Less of a discovery, and more of a general shift in understanding, track workers are really starting to get into the mechanics of how tracks are made, and what they can tell us about the animals that made them. There have been some really insightful experiments involving emus and elephants in the past few years. There’s also the technology being applied; in just the last 5-10 years digitisation techniques have gone nuts, from laser scanning to photogrammetry. Where previously larger studies based on published data pretty much just had outlines and photos to work from, we’re starting to see papers published which include topographic height maps, normal mapped images (making edges clearer), and even in some cases we’re seeing papers submitted to online journals such as PLoS 1 and Palaeo Electronica where the digital models serve as appendices. The implications for repeatable studies, data sharing, and general scientific progress in the field are staggering.
4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Probably how much information is locked away in tracks. How much can we learn from them? People have been really starting to look in a systematic way at how vertebrate tracks can vary in morphology according to substrate conditions, animal behaviour etc. I’m also a fan of the bigger picture that we can get from tracks – looking at evolutionary trends and so forth. Because tracks are always preserved in situ, they’re a really valuable resource – if they can be assigned and understood, which is where the first part of this answer comes into play.
5. What advice would you give to students about research?
Just before I started my PhD, I had been volunteering at the Yorkshire Museum where a colleague said to me “If, when doing your PhD, you ever get up in the morning and wish you were doing something else, quit.” When I recount this to my present colleagues some agree, and some grumble and say there will always be somedays when you want to be somewhere else (usually paperwork days rather than research days). They are of course correct, but I think it’s the attitude that’s important. With the same qualifications, you can get far higher paid work outside of academia. The perks of a research career are that you get to do what you love – it’s genuinely exciting, and that excitement breeds curiosity. With excitement and curiosity, you’ll do the reading with ease, and you’ll work late on experiments/fieldwork. Essentially if you keep loving research, you’ll work hard.