On breadth in research interests
March 16, 2014
I was wondering, in the course of your career, have you ever gotten tired of studying sauropods? Not to say that sauropods aren’t interesting, or that you might be losing interest in them, but have you ever looked out the window one day and gone “you know, I’m sick of working on sauropods for a while, I’d like to do some research on (say) stegosaur necks”. I ask this question because many prospective paleontologist nowadays, particularly graduate and undergraduate students, are feeling increasingly pressured towards being pigeonholed in a certain, rather small area of paleontology, e.g., tooth wear in extinct ungulates, histology in dinosaurs or therapsids, or ankle adaptations in Triassic archosaurs. In particular, many students end up working on whatever the professor they are working under gives to them as a project, and come out feeling they are so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to. Though, in your case because sauropods exhibit such weird and diverse neck anatomy, it may not be a problem. In my case, I have been doing work on a group that is very morphologically stereotyped, and while I enjoy doing work on it, it would be nice to branch out into more diverse groups given my interesting in things like functional morphology and paleoecology. I know several other people in my research group feel the same.
I am going to answer first for myself, and then invite Mike and Darren and everyone else to share their thoughts.
For me, two things. First, I don’t always work on sauropods–I have a human anatomy paper in press, and two different projects on mammal skull osteology struggling toward publication, and a couple of bird things. You could be forgiven for thinking that sauropods are all that I do, though, since almost all of my publications to date have been on sauropods. :-) But I have been doing research on non-sauropod things that interest me for many years, they’re just taking longer to see the light of day.
Second, within the admittedly narrow field of sauropods I do many different kinds of projects. To take four consecutive papers: my part of the Brontomerus paper (Taylor et al. 2011a) was mostly writing about North American sauropod diversity in the mid-Mesozoic, whereas for the next paper (Taylor et al. 2011b) I was hacking through the sexual selection literature, and for Yates et al. (2012) I was thinking about the early evolution of pneumaticity, and for Wedel (2012) I was grappling with the internal processes of neurons. So that’s a spectrum of stuff from cell biology to biogeography–sauropodomorphs are just the thread that held all of these disparate bits together. Army ants typically have a central camp or bivouac from which they send out foraging parties in radiating directions. That’s my scientific development in a nutshell.
And I’m still pretty narrow compared to a lot of other folks. Dan Ksepka is best known for his fossil penguin work, but he also described the sauropod Erketu and has published on choristoderes, among other things. By the time he finished his dissertation, Jerry Harris had done a morphological description of a sauropod (Suuwassea) and another of a theropod (Acrocanthosaurus) and had published on pterosaurs and IIRC some other things as well. And then there’s Darren, whose remit is Tetrapoda, and not just for blogging.
One thing you wrote particularly caught my interest:
In particular, many students end up working on whatever the professor they are working under gives to them as a project, and come out feeling they are so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to.
Really? I am having a hard time wrapping me head around that. Does “this area” not butt up against any number of others? I mean, my first project was Rich Cifelli saying, “Hey, why don’t you go identify these sauropod vertebrae?”, which metastasized into the description of Sauroposeidon. But along the way I got interested in:
- the diversity of Early Cretaceous North American sauropods;
- how birds breathe (and, yes, that’s a separate topic from pneumaticity);
- neck muscles in birds;
- biomechanics and posture of sauropod necks; and
- all the weird stuff lurking in the OMNH collection (see for example Bonnan and Wedel 2004 and Taylor et al. 2011a).
That looked like several lifetimes’ worth of work even back in 2000, and it looks like many more now.
Now, I worry that I am sounding like a jerk, because I know–I KNOW–I was handed the most cherry planned-to-be-one-semester undergraduate research project ever. I get that, and I’m as grateful and humble about it as any naturally arrogant genius could be. But still, it seems to me that just about every project involves applying [method] to [taxon] to measure or infer [parameter], and by the time you look into applying the method to other taxa or problems, and into related or complementary or opposing methods, and into other animals that closely related to or in some way analogous to your ‘home’ taxon, and into other parameters or the same parameter in other places or times or clades, you’ve got a pretty full slate of possible things to work on–and this is just a list of areas where you have a head start because you’re already up to speed. If you want to go work on something completely different, who’s stopping you? And if you have intellectual wanderlust but don’t know what to work on, I’ve already written something that might help with that.
But maybe I am misunderstanding your complaint. If the problem is that your research project is narrow, well, that’s a common lament, but the upside is that it’s the kind of limit that might make things easier. If the OMNH crew had found any more of Sauroposeidon, it would have taken longer to prepare, and it would have been more obvious that it was new, and it would have been a lot more work. So I probably wouldn’t have been put on the project, or if I had been, it might have taken up my whole MS and kept me from working on pneumaticity. I am wondering now if a useful heuristic for student projects–or any projects, really–might be, “Keep narrowing it until it looks tractable.”
If you’re bored, start a side project. At best you’ll have a second thread of publishable work, at worst you’ll have an excellent distraction from writing up your thesis.
If the complaint is that your research project is making you too narrow, then maybe you just haven’t been at it long enough to have found all of the interesting links to other methods and taxa and parameters. But I am certain they are there. And discovering them is one of the chief joys of doing research in the first place.
So, there are my thoughts on the desirability–or inevitability–of breadth in one’s research interests. What does everyone else think?
- Bonnan, M.F., and Wedel, M.J. 2004. First occurrence of Brachiosaurus (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Oklahoma. PaleoBios 24(2):13-21.
- Taylor, M.P., Wedel, M.J., and Cifelli, R.L. 2011. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56(1):75-98.
- Taylor, M.P., Hone, D.W.E., Wedel, M.J., and Naish, D. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x
- Wedel, M.J. 2012. A monument of inefficiency: the presumed course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in sauropod dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(2):251-256.
- Yates, A.M., Wedel, M.J., and Bonnan, M.F. 2012. The early evolution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(1):85-100.