|My Experience - Mark Puttick|
Some people have known they will be a palaeobiologist since they picked-up a toy dinosaur, found their first ammonite at the beach, or watched Jurassic Park. Others, like me, came to palaeobiology after discovering a passion for evolution by way of an undergraduate biology degree and a life-long interest in natural history. Whatever the motivation for wanting to study palaeobiology, the brilliance of the Bristol MSc program is this passion is maintained alongside training in the state-of-the-art analytical techniques that are essential in modern science.
Before starting the MSc my main concern was my lack of geological knowledge and total inexperience in describing fossils during my undergraduate study at the University of Exeter. After the first week it was clear I had no cause to worry: on the practical side there is an introduction to geology for biologists (there is also an introductory to evolutionary biology for geologists), but more importantly the MSc teaches an analytical approach to science that is transferable to any area of study.
Most of the teaching was done in the first term - this was probably the most intensive part of the course with a combination of traditional teaching, student presentations, and coursework. The taught courses gave me a full introduction into the full range of palaeobiological research from the histology of 400 million-year-old fish to large-scale macroevolutionary patterns in dinosaurs. Additionally, there is the weekly Palaeobiology Discussion Group meetings with research talks from an impressive variety of evolutionary biologists based in other universities. During this part of the course I discovered an interest in phylogenetics that became my main research interest during the MSc and afterwards.
Focal to the MSc is the independent research project that commences in the second term after Christmas. Again these projects offer a full range of research topics on a diversity of organisms, but these projects are not just a facsimile of scientific research. The research is novel and often publishable in top scientific journals. My research into the macroevolution of ducks (not a group I would have thought I'd be studying) gave me training in modern scientific statistical techniques and writing, and I was given the opportunity to take control of the direction of the project. And like everyone in the world, I like ducks. In the course of the research I felt a true part of the research group as I attended and presented at research meetings, and spoke to the friendly faculty members about research.
Since completing the MSc I have completed a PhD with the Palaeobiology group at Bristol, and am now a research fellow at the University of Bath. The skills and approach I developed during the MSc continue to be invaluable to my research career. In short, I would recommend the MSc to anyone with an interest in evolution whether they want a career inside research or elsewhere.
Mark Puttick, January 2018
Since completing the MSc, Mark has extended his interests in large-scale patterns of macroevolution. His main research focus is in combining information from the fossil record with extant species to obtain a clearer understanding of the diversification of life. He completed his PhD on 'Comparative phylogenetic methods and selectivity at mass extinctions' in 2016, and won a University of Bristol prize for the best PhD thesis in the Faculty of Science in 2017. He then worked on a postdoc on the project 'The origin of plants: genomes, rocks, and biogeochemical cycles' and his role in this was to estimate the divergence times of early land plants. He then moved to the University of Bath in 2018 to begin his Committee of the Exhibition of 1851 Fellowship on 'Biodiversity and the sixth mass extinction: lessons from the past'.