Academics on Archosaurs: John Hutchinson

Professor John R. Hutchinson, The Royal Veterinary College, University of London
Specialist in the evolutionary biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion, with a particular focus on body size influences on posture and movement.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

I was passionate about reptiles from an early age; “dockadile” was one of my first words; so of course dinosaurs became a natural fixation, and I went through the usual palaeontologist cycle of forgetting about dinosaurs during puberty then falling back in love with them in college. What kickstarted my more intellectual love affair with dinosaurs in college was reading and later watching Jurassic Park, taking a bunch of classes in evolution and later palaeontology, and reading Greg Paul’s “Predatory Dinosaurs of the World” book in my final undergrad year, while working as a volunteer at the University of Wisconsin Geological Museum (helping w/nice mosasaur fossils). The vivid animations in Jurassic Park (the movie) and Paul’s book, along with a class I’d taken on functional morphology/biomechanics, got me really interested in dinosaur locomotion, and that led soon enough into my PhD at Berkeley. The rest is history (infamy?).

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

From my own work, I think my favourite paper is the paper that I recently published in Science on the evolution of false sixth toes (predigits) in elephants. We integrated data from dissections, imaging, histology, fossils, biomechanics and phylogeny in a way none of my prior studies had really achieved and went in a direction that was a novel step for my research, enabled by a great collaborative team. That was an incredibly fun project and came out of left field from just dabbling around with research, as I like to do, until I stumbled across a neat story. Yet I still have a fondness for my “Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner” 2003 Nature paper, which more or less established my career and happened during a very challenging year in my life. That paper was basically what I set off to do when I started by PhD in 1995, so it was very satisfying to see the final payoff (and actually end up doing the same PhD project I originally aimed to do, which is uncommon in the USA).

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

My field encompasses both neontological and palaeontological research; I think the boundaries between these disciplines are very limiting for both; so the discoveries I value the most are those that transcend these traditional boundaries. It is hard to put a finger on just one favourite but off the cuff, I think the work that Larry Witmer’s team has done on reconstructing cranial anatomy in dinosaurs is the most important multidisciplinary work of our time – it shows how far you can get with good anatomy, and how rigorous the science can still be when reconstructing soft tissues. In a way, I’d put that ahead of the feather discoveries. In my related field of biomechanics, the way that dynamic models of the musculoskeletal system have matured into very rigorous computational tools is incredibly exciting and beginning to have massive payoffs that are bound to continue well beyond our lifetimes.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

I’ll be potentially controversial and say that dinosaur locomotion is almost worked out as far as we can get. The rest is just details. For now, anyway. I say “for now” because now we’re up against a fundamental lack of understanding of how living animals work, which impedes how far we can get with reconstructing extinct animals, leaving a serious danger of constructing a lot of houses-of-cards in this area. That is why I urge palaeontology-type researchers I work with to contribute both to our understanding of living animals, for their own sake, as well as to our inferences about extinct animals. For palaeontology to proceed much further, we need to push neontology forward, and unite these disciplines more strongly. I’m profoundly tired of “us vs. them” arguments in both fields, such as molecules “vs” morphology; the latter is an analogous example of how people waste time defending their disciplinary territory. There’s just one life science; one history of life on Earth; get over it and work together where necessary to find the one answer. Similarly, in biomechanics there’s a lot of guff about theoretical “vs” experimental methods and which is better science. The focus on questions often gets forgotten. So, unity is what I’m preaching, because it will lead to questions getting answered.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

A quick shopping list:

-Don’t trust your supervisor; after a year or so of your research you probably know more than them. Challenge their authority, objectively.

-Read the crappy science as well as the good science. It makes you a better critical thinker.

-Push yourself to be a questions-researcher, not just a methods-producer (or worse yet, just a user). Methods are ephemeral; answers can be eternal (if you’re lucky).

-Defy disciplinary boundaries. Never let someone tell you “don’t do that, you’re a palaeontologist.” Define your own identity as a researcher; scoff at labels. BUT…

-Know your limits; that’s what a young researcher is probing. Reach out to work with others that complement your skills, rather than try to do everything yourself.

-Push yourself to value scientific and professional integrity. I’m no saint either, but people do get known for being honest and fair in their scientific and professional lives.

-“Work-life balance” is nonsense. Practice work-life integration; boundaries can be fluid. Science is about an all-consuming passion for the natural world; it shouldn’t be contained within 9-5 working hours or it gets stale. Nor should it prevent you from having fun, including taking breaks to “refuel” when your Science-Fu levels are low. In these days of a terrible job market, the competition is insanely tough so you need to work efficiently and prioritize what is best for your career (which may be best for your life in a broader sense).

-Be incredibly ambitious, but with full recognition that your “5-year plan” will last your whole career, and everything in science takes immensely more time than almost anyone thinks it will.

2 Responses to “Academics on Archosaurs: John Hutchinson”

  1. 1 Casey 26/07/2012 at 5:17 pm

    “I’ll be potentially controversial and say that dinosaur locomotion is almost worked out as far as we can get. The rest is just details.”

    Curse that interpretive asymptote.

  2. 2 Mark Robinson 27/07/2012 at 3:40 am

    Defy disciplinary boundaries. THIS
    Reach out to work with others… and THIS

    You wonder why dinosaurs didn’t sink up to their armpits in the mud in which they left their trackways. Do you
    a) guess/make something up;
    b) fap about trying to design an experiment in an area outside of your current expertise;
    c) find a materials scientist or soils engineer and have a chat?

    Also the bit about studying the living to learn about the dead. It seems to be happening a lot more these days but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

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