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My Experience - Ben Kotrc

I had already decided that I was going to apply for a PhD in the US, but I knew that the lengthy application process would leave me with a year to bridge. What better way to spend that time than taking some classes in the subject I'd be studying for the next few years, while getting my feet wet in research at the same time?

It turned out to be a happy time at Bristol. I enjoyed the warm atmosphere in the department - everyone seemed to treat one another with a genuine friendliness that made it a comfortable environment for exploring ideas. What I noticed early on was that the faculty treated the MSc students as colleagues, which made interactions - discussions in class, over tea, or over beers at happy hour - very different, and much richer, than I had experienced as a undergraduate.

The best part of the degree, though, was the close-knit group our cohort formed. The MSc was an intense year with a lot to learn, but it was a communal experience: whether it was engaging discussions about our research projects, pulling all-nighters to finish a paper for class, studying for an exam, or overtone singing in the echoing gothic entrance hall of the Wills building in the wee hours after everyone else had long left, the most memorable moments were with the fantastic people I was fortunate enough to meet that year.

Looking back, I think the most useful aspect of what I learnt at Bristol was the sheer breadth of material covered. The courses in the MSc are quite short, and while they might not go into as much depth as a semester-length course would, it does mean you get to take a lot of them. This in turn means you can cover a great deal of ground in a year. Being able to make sense of papers in such disparate fields as, say, vertebrate biomechanics and taphonomy, or to have the vocabulary to hold a conversation about museology or cladistic methods has been a great reward of the MSc for me.

That said, I have also gained much from the more specialized skills I came by through my research project, which was on the Cenozoic evolution of radiolarians. I am still working on siliceous plankton for my PhD, and I'm even using some of the same techniques I learned during my MSc. I have also continued to benefit, long past the MSc, from the help and guidance of one of my advisors, Dave Lazarus, who has remained a mentor, collaborator, and friend.

I am now a PhD student in Andy Knoll's group at Harvard University. In my time here, I have taken a whole new range of quite different classes, mostly of a much more geological and quantitative nature, and it's been very exciting to learn to think about the history of life and earth from that perspective. I have been very to have traveled to a lot of exciting places for field trips, field courses, and field work over the past few years-from upstate New York to Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Catalina Island off the California coast, Hawai'i, Newfoundland, Oman, and Australia... it's been quite an adventure, and there's nothing like seeing rocks in their natural habitat. Back in the lab, I've also had the opportunity to explore new avenues for research, in learning new techniques for looking at fossils (like confocal laser scanning microscopy and focused ion beam SEM) but also working with living organisms through culture experiments, which has been a stimulating challenge.

I've particularly enjoyed my involvement in education here, as a teaching fellow for undergraduate and graduate level courses and when, during the Darwin year celebrations, I gave a public lecture amidst the exhibits of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. It was especially fun to team up with a local artist and the museum to start a community art/science project where the public created a 700 ft timeline depicting the Phanerozoic history of life in sidewalk chalk. It's amazing to see what science can bring out in people when it strikes a match for their imagination-and my time at Bristol definitely played its part in making that happen for me.

Ben Kotrc, May 2010.

Ben's MSc project on radiolarian evolution was published, with his supervisors, in 2009:
  • Lazarus, D.B., Kotrc, B., Wulf, G., and Schmidt, D.N. 2009. Radiolarians decreased silicification as an evolutionary response to reduced Cenozoic ocean silica availability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. 106, 9333-9338.

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