Bethany Allen, Computational Paleobiologist and Education Outreach Fellow

Fossil hunting at Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, UK. Photo credit: Alex Dunhill.

I am currently a PhD student at the University of Leeds, UK. My research looks at the role of mass extinctions in driving long-term trends in ecology and evolution. I do this by analysing large volumes of data from the fossil record, which requires statistical programming, an approach often termed computational paleobiology.

I’ve always enjoyed the problem-solving nature of science; it can be frustrating at times but really satisfying when all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. As an undergrad, I studied Biology and Earth Sciences at Durham University, UK, before going on to complete a Masters in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol, UK. Both of these courses helped to cultivate my passion for evolutionary biology, and equipped me with the scientific approaches and data analysis skills I needed to tackle “big data” questions in paleontology.

Admiring the museum collections at Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée [Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy] in Paris, France, with fellow paleontologist Vishruth Venkataraman. Photo credit: Rhys Charles
My PhD project is focused on comparing large-scale spatial patterns of biodiversity (=the variety of life in an area or on a global scale) before, during and after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event (~250 million years ago), the most severe mass extinction event in Earth history. During this time,  up to 95% of marine species became extinct. Widespread volcanic activity drove extreme global warming, leading to ‘hothouse’ conditions which prevented ecosystems (=a community of animals and how they react with the environment around them) from fully recovering for several million years. Understanding how global warming has affected the biosphere in the past is important for making accurate predictions of how global warming will affect animals and plants in the future.

Most of my data comes from the Paleobiology Database, a global database of fossil occurrences compiled by paleontologists, which is freely accessible to everyone (you can explore the data using the Navigator app). As one of the data enterers, I spend a lot of my time looking for information on fossils published in journals and books and adding them to the database. Once I’m happy with my occurrence data, I analyse them using R, a programming language and environment designed specifically for statistics. It enables me to carry out complex calculations across big data sets relatively quickly, to establish what the fossils are telling us about large-scale evolutionary patterns.

Volunteering with the Palaeontological Association at the Yorkshire Fossil Festival in Scarborough, UK. Photo credit: Jo Hellawell.

I also really enjoy outreach. Alongside my PhD, I work part-time delivering environmentally-themed school sessions, building on the experience I gained doing outreach with the Bristol Dinosaur Project during my Masters. At present, I’m particularly involved in delivering ‘Fossil Hunt’ sessions, visiting local schools to give 7-11 year olds the opportunity to handle fossils and learn about paleontology. It’s great to be able to show the children what ‘real’ scientists look like, and I always leave refreshed by their enthusiasm.

I love my research because it strikes the perfect balance between being something I’m really interested in (evolutionary biology) and requiring something I’m good at (data science). My advice to aspiring scientists would be to find this crossover in your own skills and interests – science takes perseverance, and that’s much easier when you’re making the most of your talents and are passionate about what you’re doing!

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