My research interests are broad, although they tend to focus on fossils charting major evolutionary transitions. One such focus is terrestrialisation and the palaeobiology, evolutionary relationships, and palaeoecology of early land animals. The earliest widespread fossils of life on land are from the Carboniferous Period (359 million – 299 million years ago). Then — as now — the vast majority of living organisms were members of terrestrial arthropod groups: the insects, arachnids, and myriapods. Carboniferous representatives of these groups are often found as three-dimensionally preserved fossils in iron carbonate nodules. Their study has traditionally been conducted by splitting nodules and inspecting the revealed surface. Such an approach results in incomplete data recovery, and limits the utility of these valuable insights into early terrestrial ecosystems. I use CT scanning and 3D computer reconstruction to overcome the limitations of traditional palaeontological approaches when studying these animals, and also older terrestrial fossils – those representing rare glimpses of the very first land animals. By using with CT scanning coupled with other computational, zoological, and biological techniques, I try and provide new insights into the origins, evolutionary relationships, and early evolution of these important groups. In the process, I hope to help build a clearer picture of the assembly of the first ecosystems on land, and their palaeoecology.
I contribute to a number of other projects, outlined in the next section. These include the study of early cellular fossils, early multicellular organisms, amber-hosted vertebrates, and fossil and extant arthropods to look at the growth and development of extinct species. I also work on the development of novel X-ray techniques and computer-based techniques to investigate both the morphology and the chemistry, and thus preservation, of fossils. I have written a third of the SPIERS software suite, and am also currently collaborating with colleagues on a program that simulates evolution over long time periods, with large population numbers.
Much of my work is conducted in collaboration with researchers at a range of different institutions, both in the UK and abroad. Within the Unviersity of Manchester, I work with colleagues in The Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life (ICAL), and look at experimental tomography approaches with colleagues in the Manchester X-ray Imaging Facility, led by Philip Withers, and at Diamond Light Source. Much of my work on arachnids is conducted with Jason Dunlop at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin. Other collaborators on arachnid research include Prashant Sharma at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Paul Selden, at the University of Kansas. Other work on terrestrial fossils is in collaboration with Gonzalo Giribet, Harvard University, and Greg Edgecombe, Natural History Museum, London. I work in collaboration with with Mark Sutton, Imperial College, and Imran Rahman, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, on developing and documenting 3D techniques in palaeontology. In the past I have worked with Martin Brasier, University of Oxford, applying high-resolution CT to early cellular fossils, work I am continuing with David Wacey at the University of Bristol, and Keyron Hickman-Lewis at CNRS Orleans. Other collaborations include: work with the Friedman Lab at the University of Oxford; cladistics-based studies with Rob Sansom in ICAL; vertebrates in amber with Emma Sherratt and the Losos Laboratory at Harvard; the simulation of gait in extinct arthropods with Bill Sellers in ICAL; early biomineralising animals with Aodhan Butler and colleagues at Uppsala Universitet; organic geochmistry of fossils with Bart Van Dongen in ICAL; the evolution of insect development with Carolin and Joachim Haug at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich; terrestrialisation with Javier Ortega-Hernández, University of Cambridge; the application of synchrotron tomography to fossil plants with Alan Spencer, Imperial College, and colleagues; CT scanning a range of interesting igenous rocks with Brian O'Driscoll at the University of Manchester; and the application of novel 3D X-ray techniques to geological samples with Antony Burnham at the Australian National University, and Simon Kohn at the University of Bristol.
Honours and awards
- 2010 - present: Founder and commissioning editor for public-outreach website Palaeontology [online].
- 2017: Named as the recipient of the Geological Society's Wollaston Fund, 2017 — a prize for contributions to the field, on the basis of noteworthy published research.
- 2016: Extensive press coverage for Proceedings B paper; Altmetric score third highest of any paper published in this Royal Society journal.
- 2016: Awarded third visit to Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, through EC Synthesys programme; Co-I on successful BBSRC grant on fossils and phylogenetics.
- 2015: Named as a Software Sustainability Institute Fellow for 2015, to provide training in open-source packages for tomographic reconstruction.
- 2015: Awarded second visit to Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, through EC Synthesys programme.
- 2015: Invited to talk, and then lead SPIERS training at Micro-CT applications on fossil studies workshop, Zoologische Staatssammlung, München.
- 2014: Awarded funding for two-week research visit to Museum für Naturkunde, through EC Synthesys programme.
- 2014: Extensive press coverage of two papers - Journal of Paleontology with highest altmetric impact score to date for a paper in the journal, and Current Biology paper altmetric in 99th percentile of >2 million tracked articles.
- 2014: Royal Society Interface paper amongst most downloaded of 2013, and SI dataset included as highly downloaded list of open-access Dryad repository.
- 2013: Invited to be Scientific Associate of the Natural History Museum, London.
- 2013: Three collaborations awarded a total of 12 days' beamtime at Diamond Light Source, and 2 days at Swiss Light Source.
- 2013: Invited to talk at TEDxAlbertopolis launch event and ToScA tomography conference.
- 2013: Elected Fellow of Geological Society and Royal Institution.
- 2013: Co-authored book for Wiley Analytical Methods in Earth and Environmental Science series: Techniques for Virtual Palaeontology.
- 2012: Winner of international palaeontology competition, Paleonturologia 12 for 2011 Nature Communications paper on fossil harvestman.
- 2012: Awarded 1851 Research Fellowship to study the origin and early evolution of insects.
- 2012: Awarded Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (declined, accepted 1851 Research Fellowship).
- 2012: Winning entry (Highly commended) in Manchester Science Festival Images of Research Competition.
- 2012: Participated in Royal Society Summer of Science festival.
- 2012: Awarded beamtime on I12, tomography beamline at Diamond Light Source.
- 2011: Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) of the year: Faculty of Engineering, Imperial College.
- 2011: Janet Watson Centenary Memorial Prize for Research Excellence, Imperial College.
- 2011: Invited to speak at EGU session '3D Modelling in Earth Sciences', Vienna 2011. Photo-competition finalist.
- 2010: Interviewed for NERC Planet Earth podcast: Teeth, spiders and epic migrations.
- 2010: Invited to speak at the 5th International Conference on Fossil Insects, Arthropods and Amber, Beijing.
- 2010: Winner of GTA of the Year: Earth Science & Engineering, Imperial College.
- 2009: President's Prize: Annual Meeting of the Palaeontological Association, Birmingham.
- 2007: Clement Le Neve Foster Prize for Excellence in Geology, Imperial College.
- 2007: Ernest Edward Glorney Scholarship in Earth Science & Engineering, Imperial College.
- 2006: Nominated for The Dave Johnson Memorial Undergraduate Field Mapping Prize, Tectonic Studies Group.
- 2004: Roycroft Prize for Examination Results, Imperial College.
- 2003: H.H. Reade Scholarship, Imperial College.