Photo:

Vera Weisbecker

Wow, evictions have started!The heat is on...!

Favourite Thing: Finding an unexpected pattern and an even more unexpected explanation…love it!

My CV

School:

Many Schools, and all in Germany: 1rst-2nd year, M├Ânchenglattbach primary – 2nd-4th, Bietigheim primary – 5-9th, Bietigheim High – 9-10th, Speyer High – 10-13th, Gummersbach High

University:

I did Biology at T├╝bingen Uni in Germany, did my PhD on the evolution of the marsupial skeleton at Uni of New South Wales, Australia

Work History:

After getting my PhD in 2008 I started (and still work on) a Postdoc which was half in Earth Sciences in Cambridge (UK) and half at the Institute of Special Zoology of Jena University, Germany.

Employer:

I am currently working at Jena University, Germany

Current Job:

I am a “postdoctoral research fellow”, meaning I have a 3-year contract with the Volkswagen Evolution Foundation to do some in-depth research on mammalian brain evolution

Me and my work

I try to understand why and how animals (particularly mammals, like you and me) ended up looking (that is, evolving) the way they do today.

Mammals come in a crazy variety of shapes and sizes – blue whales, pygmy shrews, moles, platypuses, kangaroos, giraffes, bats, naked mole-rats and of course those weird, mostly hairless and big-headed creatures walking on two legs (known as humans). My job is to work out what has made this diversity possible. Part of my work is to measure mammalian shapes and sizes so I can more easily compare them. As all mammals look the way they do because they happen to grow this way (like people grow into different sizes), I am particularly interested in comparing how different mammal species grow. For example, marsupials (kangaroos, koalas etc.) are born at tiny sizes (some species are born as tiny as a rice grain – the largest babies are the size of a jelly bean). This seems to be the reason that they can’t have as many shapes as other mammals. Crazy, hey?

My Typical Day

Err, there is no typical day but to keep things interesting I try to do data collection, analysis, and writing up at different times during the day.

The day starts with dropping off my baby daughter in childcare and then having a strong coffee at work. After that, the days really vary. Sometimes I spend the whole day on a particular problem (like, how do I interpret my analysis output), or I have a day away from the office to do CT scanning or data collection at the museum. To maximize my productivity, I try to do different things depending on how I feel. For example, making virtual reconstructions of my CT scans in the morning (CT is a method of making animals “transparent” so you can see their bones – a bit like x-ray; see piccie of a 1 cm baby possum CT reconstruction, with white bones and purple “rest of body” myimage1), and doing simpler things during my afternoon low (like data entry). In the later afternoon I meet with colleagues for another coffee and we talk science (or not), and often the last hour of the day is for e-mailing and administrative stuff.

What I'd do with the money

I would commission an interactive wall panel for my Department’s Museum which explains the core concepts of evolutionary biology.

Right now, I work at Jena Uni in which a guy called “Ernst Haeckel” was professor. Haeckel was one of Charles Darwin’s biggest fans (in fact, he was so enthusiastic that Darwin was reportedly scared of him!). Like Darwin in the UK, Haeckel encountered a fair bit of resistance when he tried to teach the idea of evolution. It simply didn’t fit with people’s world view. Strangely enough, this problem is still encountered by many evolutionary biologists, and I think much of this is because people don’t understand the basic concepts of Evolution. I therefore would spend the money on an interactive wall panel for my institute’s museum. On that, the concept of Evolution will be explained and some common issues that people have with the idea will be discussed.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious, talkative, happy

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Guns ‘n Roses!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Going mackerel fishing on a tiny boat off the coast of Nova Scotia when I was 17. We caught 250 kgs of Mackerel!

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1) 5 more hours in the day, 3) having all my research published in Nature, 2) being able to eat as much chocolate as I want

What did you want to be after you left school?

A marine biologist…well, I became the next best thing I’d say.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

I regularly nearly had to repeat a grade because of my maths grades – I still can’t convert currencies or work out interest for the life of me.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Together with colleagues I have shown that the mammals of Australia (e.g. koalas, kangaroos, possums) are FAR more interesting than people used to think

Tell us a joke.

I never remember jokes, even the really funny ones. Why don’t you guys/girsl tell me a good one!