How to become a palaeontologist

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  Last updated April 18, 2018 at 9:53 am

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Alice Clement shares her story of how she travelled half the world to become a palaeontologist at Flinders University.


Alice Clement with a Lungfish at Melbourne Museum.


Somewhat unusually for a palaeontologist, I never caught the “dinosaur bug” as a child. I always had a great love for animals and the outdoors, but wasn’t one of those children who knew all the dinosaur names. I was born in England, but my family moved to Australia when I was four years old. My parents were amazed by their new country, and we endeavoured to experience as much of it as we could.


Every school holiday was spent camping in the bush around south-eastern Australia, feeding King Parrots from our hands, diving for abalone off the Victorian coastline, chasing small skinks and being chased back by giant goannas. I held a special fascination for marine animals, taking a set of Great White Shark jaws to Ascot Vale Primary School for “show and tell”, much to the bemusement of my classmates, and later opting to visit the Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute for my year 10 work experience.


The path to a career in science


A young Alice enjoying the beaches of her new home country


 It was in year 10 that my feelings for science really began to blossom. A particularly enthusiastic and inspiring teacher, Mr MacDonell, opened up my eyes to the fascinating world of science, something that I had only found daunting before then. I then went on to study Biology, Chemistry and Maths Methods, alongside English, Renaissance History and Japanese in my final years of high school (VCE).  I took a year off after high school to go on a two-month camping trip with my father to the Gulf of Carpenteria and Arnhem Land, before moving to Hokkaido, Japan, to teach English for six months.


Upon my return to Australia I enrolled in a double Arts/Sciences bachelor degree at the University of Melbourne so that I could continue my Japanese language studies. Finding the Japanese courses a bitter disappointment, I focussed instead on my Science, going on to do a double major in Zoology and Conservation. It was then that I came to another point in my life that changed my trajectory forever.


Although having not studied any palaeontology at university, I knew I had an interest in evolutionary biology, but wasn’t tempted by any one of the four major themes of research being offered by the Department of Zoology. I spoke to Dr David Young, whose comparative anatomy lectures I had enjoyed most of all, and asked his advice about what to do. David suggested I speak to a palaeontologist he knew who was working at the Melbourne Museum, Prof. John Long.


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Right: Alice in the field at the Gogo Formation, WA in 2008


Fortuitously, John was shortly due to give a public lecture at RMIT about his research. I was immediately blown away by the spectacular Gogo fossils he showed. I commenced my Honours project with him shortly thereafter for my first foray into palaeontology. John had a near-complete lungfish fossil from Gogo that had been discovered the year prior, and entrusted me to prepare and describe the specimen. In my Honours project I named my first lungfish, Xeradipterus hatcheri, named for Lindsay Hatcher who had discovered the specimen.


In 2009 I commenced my PhD, again working with John at the Melbourne Museum, but this time enrolled at Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, under the additional guidance of Prof. Tim Senden. I continued my work on fossil lungfish from Australia, going on to describe another two new species and with the opportunity to partake in some incredible fieldwork adventures.


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A worldwide adventure


Halfway through my PhD, John threw a spanner in the works and announced he was to move to Los Angeles. This meant that I no longer was to be working alongside one of my supervisors, and ANU started to make more and more grumblings that I should really be working on campus in Canberra. In late 2010 I moved to Canberra, leaving my partner, friends and family behind. In the next 18 months I worked closely with Dr Gavin Young who agreed to come on as an additional supervisor for me. I was also fortunate enough to meet the powerhouse duo of Prof Ken Campbell and Dr Dick Barwick, two giants of Australian palaeontology, and known in particular for their huge body of work on fossil lungfishes. During my PhD I had wonderful opportunities for travel, visiting fossil collections in museums around the world, and meeting scientists whose names I had only read in papers before then. I visited and worked in the Natural History Museums of London, Paris, Stockholm, Edinburgh, LA, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York. There is something truly magical about being granted access to the countless cabinets of priceless treasures held in the world’s best museums.


Alice in the Muséum National d’Historie Naturelle, Paris 2010


On my travels I had met Prof. Per Ahlberg and colleagues at the International Congress on Palaeontology in London 2010, and visited his Evolution and Development lab in Uppsala, Sweden. I immediately fell in love with Sweden and the friendly atmosphere of his working group. After graduating with my PhD in 2012, I hassled Per until he gave me a job. This is my top tip for up-and-coming palaeontologists; there is a lot to be said for persistence! In early 2013 I moved to Sweden and worked with Per and his group for just over two years. There I was very productive scientifically and also made many good friends, including meeting the man who would eventually become my husband, Niels Nielsen.


Alice and Niels visiting Innes National Park, South Australia in 2017


Niels and I moved from Sweden to Australia in late 2015, and I took up my current role, again working with John Long, at Flinders University in Adelaide. Having grown up in Melbourne, Adelaide was a new city for the two of us, and we took great pleasure in exploring the beaches, wineries and burgeoning café culture that our new home had to offer. Now I was working in the largest Vertebrate Palaeontology group in Australia, alongside experts in Mammals (Gavin Prideaux, Rod Wells, Aaron Camens), Birds (Trevor Worthy), Reptiles (Mike Lee) and of course fish! Here I continue my work on fish, using modern scanning and imaging techniques to examine spectacular 3D fossils to answer questions not answerable by more traditional means.


I am so incredibly fortunate to have a job doing what I absolutely love, constantly learning and discovering things never before known to the human race! Aside from palaeontology, I enjoy being active and have played water polo (badly) for more than half of my life. I still enjoy the camping and the outdoors, travel, as well as sharing good food and wine with friends.


If you would like to learn more about Alice’s research visit:


https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Alice_Clement


http://www.flinders.edu.au/people/alice.clement


Alice’s own blog: https://draliceclement.com


This post first appeared on the Flinders University Palaeontology Blog


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About the Author

Lisa Bailey

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