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My Experience - Steve Brusatte

A domino effect of good fortune brought me to Bristol and my experiences studying for the MSc, and living in England, will be carried with me for the rest of my life. It was unexpected that I even applied for the MSc, as I never thought about doing a Master's or living abroad. I was fortunate enough to participate in many research projects and fieldwork expeditions while studying under Paul Sereno as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I could envision my whole career path: jump straight into a PhD, do some research on theropod dinosaurs, get a postdoc, then hopefully a job. Why even consider a Master's, since I had already been involved in research and knew exactly what I wanted to study? A bit stubborn, perhaps. Maybe even haughty. But doing an MSc didn't even cross my mind.

And then came one of those contingencies of life, a chance encounter that I now look back on as an unanticipated turning point. I had received a small scholarship for undergraduate science majors and stopped by the University's scholarship office to fill out the necessary paperwork. Sensing my boredom with bureaucratic procedure, the scholarship director asked if I had ever considered applying for one of the so-called "British Scholarships", the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, that allow Americans to pursue two years of graduate work in the UK. I laughed him off at first: these scholarships were tough to win and usually went to students building orphanages in Burma during their few spare moments between researching cancer vaccines and playing first chair oboe in the New York Symphony Orchestra. He didn't flinch. No, he said, he was serious. He really thought that studying dinosaurs and evolution, a perpetually interesting but controversial subject in the US, could give me a leg up. So, what the heck, I said I would apply. Then one thing led to another and somehow, someway, I received a Marshall Scholarship.

And now, where would I study in the UK? The obvious choice was Bristol. Two of my professors at Chicago, Mike Coates and Mark Webster, hailed from England and gave a ringing endorsement. After studying dinosaurs for a few years I was very familiar with Mike Benton's work, and I even remembered reading one or two of his several hundred dinosaur books as a child. And at conferences I had previously met a few Bristol students, including Graeme Lloyd, who would later become one of my advisors, a trusted research collaborator, and a good friend. All signs pointed towards Bristol: the program was respected, the professors were world-class, and the students there were happy, productive, and highly intelligent.

I ended up spending two years in Bristol, completing the MSc in Palaeobiology in 2006-2007 and then doing a research MSc during the second year of my scholarship tenure. Almost immediately Bristol felt like home to me. I jumped into an exciting research project on the higher-level phylogeny of archosaurs (dinosaurs, crocodiles, and their close relatives), which then morphed into a macroevolutionary study on the origin and early evolution of dinosaurs. I learned a lot from my fellow classmates, most of whom were from the UK and had very different research interests, and a very different academic background. I was able to attend a few conferences in Europe and make many good friendships and build invigorating research collaborators. Indeed, a few years after leaving England, some of my closest collaborators remain as Mike Benton, Marcello Ruta, and Graeme Lloyd (my Bristol advisors) and Roger Benson and Richard Butler, both young vertebrate paleontologists who did their PhDs at Cambridge.

Looking back, I appreciate two things in particular about the Bristol program. First, I was given great freedom to explore whatever subjects suited me, and I had the support of a helpful faculty with diverse research interests. I was able to work on many side projects, visit many museums, do some fieldwork, and write papers on many topics. Second, I learned to think big. When I came to Bristol I was interested almost entirely in the minutiae of dinosaur anatomy and phylogeny, but at Bristol I learned many new statistical methods and began to think like an evolutionary biologist rather than a theropod dinosaur anatomist. Why are some groups more successful than others, and how can we measure this success? How does a group, which must necessarily begin with a single species living at a certain time and place, blossom into a range of species with different body types and ecologies? Why did dinosaurs, my specialty, rise to prominence in the Triassic Period and other groups, including their close crocodilian cousins, succumb to great extinctions?

But, really, the most profound way that Bristol changed me was personally. It was in Bristol where I met my wonderful wife, Anne, a native Bristolean who was finishing her degree in history when we met only a month into my first year at Bristol. Like any self-respecting American, I did the imperialistic thing and brought Anne back with me to the US, where I am now in my second year of a PhD program at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I continue to work on theropod dinosaurs as my primary group of interest, as well as the basal archosaurs that I studied for my MSc, and bigger-picture questions about evolutionary radiations and morphological evolution over deep time are at the forefront of my research.

Steve Brusatte, April 2010.

Read more about Steve's wide range of palaeontological activities on his personal web site here. His MSc thesis was published as Brusatte et al. (2008a, b). Steve is now a Reader at the University of Edinburgh, where he runs a very active research and teaching programme. The Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology can offer many things, but cannot always guarantee marital partners as well.
  • Brusatte, S.L., Benton, M.J., Ruta, M. and Lloyd, G.T. 2008. Superiority, competition, and opportunism in the evolutionary radiation of dinosaurs. Science 321, 1485-1488.

  • Brusatte, S.L., Benton, M.J., Ruta, M. and Lloyd, G.T. 2008. The first 50 million years of dinosaur evolution: macroevolutionary pattern and morphological disparity. Biology Letters 4, 733-736. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2008.0441

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