Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Caution: Animals may bite

So the past 6 months have been absolutely manic as many people may have known. For those of you who don't know the reason, it was possibly the worst kept secrets at the vet college. Crocodiles, Nile crocodiles. We had been working with a group of them trying to understand their locomotion across a range of behaviours (see the project website here). What this actually means is we had been trying to get crocodiles to walk, run, turn and jump in a runway or a treadmill (all work fully approved of by both the RVC in-house ethics board, and the UK Home Office). During these activities we were looking at the crocodiles' movements, and to get the best insights we used a combination of light videos, X-rays (to look at how the bones move during locomotion), force plates (to measure the forces exerted by the crocodiles on the ground as they move) and EMG (electromyography - measures muscle activity by measuring their electrical activity).

And when I am talking about working with crocodiles, everyone instantly thinks of the famously enormous ones in the Masai Mara taking on wildebeest. It leads to an abundance of concern (the health and safety people had a field day), which is obviously healthy to have around animals that have dozens of teeth and eat meat. Let me allay fears now, or reduce how impressed you are about my awesomeness as the new Crocodile Dundee, these crocodiles were all small (all less than 2m and 7.5kg, with most less than 4kg). Why would we pick small ones? Besides the health and safety, and the difficulty in working and housing large crocodiles, small crocodiles actually exhibit a wide range of locomotor behaviours, including low walking/belly sliding, high walks, trotting/galloping, jumping, and climbing (ours regularly were found in the foliage added to their enclosures). As crocodiles get bigger, they are unable to perform some of the higher energy behaviours due to their increased weight .
One of the crocodiles looking out of the straight runway through an acrylic end
Crocodile showing off a high walk. Force plates just visible below the crocodile's neck, and the two X-ray systems receiving drums visible in the background.

Our work with them has now ended, and in the end we have something like 150 hours of working with the crocodiles and have collected some incredible data. There will be many months of analysing it, writing papers, and then combining the data into digital models of an "average" crocodile.

X-ray picture of a crocodile skull
However, it was not all smooth sailing. Working with animals is incredibly difficult (see post on felid field work), let alone mostly aquatic animals who tend to enjoy dominance in their environments. This means motivating them to walk (or run) on demand can be difficult. Or often, impossible. As such, we often had hours of crocodiles being nothing more than angry lumps refusing to do anything. This leads to great videos of stationary crocodiles, and increasingly delirious conversations between the people present.

For our data collection we also needed to move the crocodiles regularly from their enclosures to the research area, which undoubtedly meant lots of handling crocodiles. We were trained by crocodile experts in how to handle crocodiles safely (more for our safety than the crocs I think). Inevitably, I was the one who got it wrong one day trying to tape the jaws of our smallest crocodile shut (in the oral history of this story, she was far bigger, and I may have been doing some heroic act to save some small child). The tape slipped and the croc did what crocs do, and bit the nearest thing. Just this time it happened to be my finger. 
All taped up, finger still attached. The healed picture is even more disappointing so wasn't worth showing
No major damage (think cat bite), just a few punctures and a nice cut across the top of my finger which will leave a memorable scar. I had to go to the hospital to get it cleaned up and get my antibiotics. Funnily they had run out of tetanus jabs (in a walk in centre for minor injuries no less), and it has led to health and safety having to write a bunch of new forms (oops).

I have to say this was one of the more interesting and most frustrating parts of my career. However, the work continues on new things! Keep an eye out on the blog for future updates on our research, and crocodile updates.

A year to never repeat

For long term readers of my blog (thanks and apologies to you all at the same time), you know that I seldom talk about personal feelings linked to work, besides a post on the stress of finding jobs. And stress linked to the job is what I am going to talk about in this post. Academia has a mental health crisis that often goes undiscussed and overlooked (a study on it here). This post won't be me preaching how to manage it (read on and you'll see why). It is a discussion about why I am ready for my year to be over.

Work has been crazy. There is no better way to say it. I have enjoyed academia, particularly the flexible working hours and doing what I love. However, the part of the project I have been doing has meant that the hours are less flexible and have been long for months on end. Added to that is a lack of holidays. I haven't really been able to take a break of anything more than a 3 day weekend since February because doing so means stuff doesn't get done, and major deadlines are approaching. Add to that additional academic things like completing papers and work from previous projects, and the never ending search for a permanent position (I got awfully close to one) has meant that I am drained.

And it is noticeable. Not as much at work, where I hope the quality of my work hasn't decreased, but I have grumbled a lot about needing a break. I am still getting things done on the long hours, but I have not had a functional personal life since the end of July. I remember having a conversation with my boss early this year where I discussed trying to get a better work life balance (I was pretty exhausted by work at the end of last year too). Clearly I failed, and I am aware of what it has done to me. To friends and family who I have not seen much of I am sorry, but I am overwhelmed. When I get home after a day of work (or across weekends), I just want to be alone and shut down/relax. Chances are I am already feeling like awful and feeling like I am letting you down further that I really really don't want to be going out (I don't like people seeing me down, and it takes a lot of effort to hide). Relaxing doesn't come easily and I often have a drink to take the edge off. Sometimes it is many. This is particularly true after some of the things I have done at work which haven't been the most pleasant. I don't sleep properly anymore, the joyous combination of crappy sleep at night and just exhaustion/naps on the weekend. The lowest I got was the two nights in a row I actually cried myself to sleep (thankfully only those two).

I am not calling out for help and I think I am getting through the lowest bit, particularly now the workload lightens into the Christmas break. I got all of my side of things caught up and completed last week and I will get the better part of 10 days off with only some work to get done. I also hope people do not judge me for it (writing this has been hard and a worry that publishing it will affect my career). I am merely hoping to bring awareness and general conversation as no-one knows quite how low I have been. I have always encouraged friends with their issues to talk to others and I have not practised what I preached and have been the stereotypical academic suffering mental health issues.

In the New Year, I already have things I am looking forward to such as 2 trips away early in the year (ok, both work related, but a conference and a dig are different and far more enjoyable than the current workload). I will also be making sure that I actually get home at a reasonable hour and get out and do more things (even if it's exercise which has mostly been dropped, and is usually the first thing that goes when it gets busy). A request for anyone who reads this though, please don't look at me or treat me particularly differently. If you see me working long hours many days in a row again and drifting away, just encourage me to join in things (preferably ones that aren't always drinking), and accept (without kicking up a fuss) that sometimes I do just want to go home and do nothing.

I will be back blogging normally in the New Year (probably about the conference), and work will resume. Hopefully you all will have stuck around!

Monday, 14 August 2017

Alternative fieldwork

The summer is here, and it's field season for all palaeontologists (and field scientists) in the Northern Hemisphere. My Facebook and Twitter have been inundated with photos (including articulated dinosaurs, ankylosaur skulls, tyrannosaur teeth, etc etc.). Check the Twitter tag #fieldwork for an idea for some of the things. Sadly I don't have any field plans and am busy with my mysterious experimental work for the rest of the year. However, I was craving my fieldwork fix so organised a trip down to the Jurassic Coast with a few friends from RVC and UCL to go find some fossils.

If you've missed my previous posts, I have a soft spot for the Jurassic Coast. This stretch of coastline spans 95 miles of Dorset and Devon and ranges in age from the Triassic to the Cretaceous (185 million years). It was made famous by Mary Anning finding large numbers of fossils near her home in Lyme Regis, and is today a World Heritage Site. It was also on the coast at Charmouth where I first went fossil hunting when I was a young kid.

Our car consisted of 5 enthusiasts with backpacks, a couple of rock hammers, and a chisel. None of the usual pick-up trucks filled with pick axes, shovels, plaster, tents etc. We even failed to bring the usual supply of beers (although that was rectified from the field site). A 3 hour drive turned into 4 after a decision to drive by Stonehenge (where traffic was awful), but we eventually made the beach at Charmouth in the rain.

This section of coast is famous for it's ammonites and marine reptiles, although many other things are found here including belemnites, crinoids, starfish, fish, sea urchins, and occasionally dinosaur bits. We parked in the Charmouth car park and worked towards Lyme Regis, focussing on the area around Black Venn. Although not as impressive as it used to be, the slide still gets eroded daily and fossils continually wash out. Highlight was finding my first ichthyosaur vertebra (at a massive 1cm), although found some lovely pyrite (fool's gold) ammonites too.

We repeated this on Saturday, when the weather was far nicer, with another ichthyosaur vertebra being found and lots more ammonites across the group. Sunday we decided to mix it up, and walked to Lyme Regis overland (tide was in) so everyone could see the famous little town and pay respects to Mary Anning at her grave.
Mary Anning and her brother share a grave site. Easily identified in the cemetery as it has a fossil alter at the bottom that we duly added to.
We also had a quick walk around the town, one of the fossil shops (a trend seems to be increasingly less of the local stuff, and far more imported fossils), before lunch on the sea wall before heading down onto the beach and walking back towards Charmouth. The offerings to Mary Anning seemed to have helped as two nice ichthyosaur vertebrae were found in quick succession as we walked along the beach admiring all the ammonites in the rocks (and failing to extract many from the rock falls). As we got back to the Charmouth side, we passed a group of people going for the first time with a guided walk from the heritage centre at Charmouth. The group of 30 or so people (mostly kids) had found a bunch of fossils, and one lady found a pair of articulated ichthyosaur vertebrae.

Then we bundled back into the car and drove down to Lulworth Cove, where faulting and folding have created this beautiful natural cove as the softer chalks inland get eroded.

Bright sunshine over Lulworth Cove. Portland just visible off in the distance on the left of the sun.
After that it was a long old drive back up to London and getting some sleep before work began again in earnest in the office on Monday. I did find some time to take some photos of all the fossils I collected on the weekend:
The random little collection. Everything from millimetre sized ammonites/gastropods to bits of bones. There could have been hundreds of more pieces but I leave many bits on the beach now (particularly the belemnites), and try to give away a good number of finds to kids who are struggling to find their own so they aren't paying for them at the shops.
Piece of pyrite ammonite shell showing off sutures
A small pyrite ammonite showing more sutures.
Nicest two ammonites.
Nothing spectacular as far as science is concerned, but always love finding fossils, and some of them are gorgeous (if I do say so myself). I never tire of finding pyrite ammonites, although it can be tedious finding them when the beaches are so heavily picked across the summer. If you want to find your own, go search! I can offer my limited advice on where to find these sort of things (get in touch), but am still needing to go with some of the local pros to see what they do.