Hi folks, I’m Roxanne and I’m currently a PhD candidate over at Yale University in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. As a vertebrate palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, I spend a lot of my time wondering “how on earth did snakes get to be so damn weird?” and use tools from various scientific disciplines to answer different aspects of this question.
What research are you doing for your PhD?
My PhD research focuses on the question “why are snake skulls the way they are?”
Most modern snakes feed in a very unusual way – they are able to consume prey items significantly larger than the size of their own heads, and do so without chewing or breaking their food up into smaller pieces. If a human were to do this, it would be like swallowing an entire chocolate cake whole instead of cutting it up into slices first. Modern snakes can also control the left side of their face independently to the right side. This enables them to direct their skull bones in way which produces a tooth-laden conveyer belt motion that drags food into their mouths. Pretty useful when you have no hands to help you eat! These behaviours are only possible due to the unique way modern snake skulls are built – but how these novel anatomical features have arisen over evolutionary time is not yet well understood. When in geological history did these key anatomical changes happen? Were some parts of snake anatomy only able to change once other features had evolved, or been lost? Are there compromises to having a flexible skull, such as limiting the type of prey snakes can eat, or how strong their bite force is?
To answer these questions, I spend a lot of my time examining snake fossils. The snake fossil record is pretty sparse, especially if you are looking for skull material, but through a combination of new fieldwork sites and rummaging around museum collections, we sometimes get lucky! These fossils help us understand what regions of the snake skull have changed over 60(+) million years, when in geological time modern groups of snakes first appeared, and how small changes in anatomy can lead to big differences in an animal’s feeding behaviour.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? I grew up in the UK and began my university education there too. When it came to picking a place to conduct PhD research, I was excited about the possibility of working abroad, and being able to explore fieldwork in new landscapes and biomes than I was used to. I love that being a scientist can take you anywhere in the world, and you get to discover new places and cultures, whilst still having geeky conversations with folks from different backgrounds to my own.
As a kid, I was one of those people who was always asking the questions and trying to link together what I knew of the natural world. Learning new things relating to prehistoric life and ancient environments was what brought the most joy.
As a first-generation student, the concept of going to university was pretty alien, and at that stage in my life, I don’t think I’d even met a scientist who wasn’t one of my high school teachers. I deliberately picked an undergraduate degree which would let me continue to explore multiple science disciplines which ‘traditionally’ were not considered to compliment each other: geology, developmental biology, and evolution and behaviour. By then I knew I loved science but did not want to give up asking questions from these different perspectives. I never thought I’d actually become a palaeontologist – it was one of those impossible dream professions, no different from the musings of a 5-year-old who wants to grow up and become a princess, or a steam train. Midway through undergrad one of my guidance tutors reassured me that not only was palaeontology ‘a real job’ but something that I could build a career in too. He encouraged me to reach out to palaeontology professors around the UK; some of which offered me summer research positions in their labs. After getting a taste of doing research full-time, I knew I wanted that to be a large part of my vocation.
What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? It’s never too early to build yourself a network of scientists. Introduce yourself to researchers whose work you enjoy, respect or are excited to ask questions about. Whilst this can seem daunting, there’s a lot of empathy in the field. For every experienced academic, there was once a shy undergraduate feeling out of their depth – so those scientists worth talking to will be kind to someone new to academia. The vast majority of modern research is not possible without collaborating with others – so find scientists who value you as a researcher and a thinker, irrespective of your ‘academic age’ or academic position. These are the folks you will likely grow the most from, and also have the most fun being a scientist with.