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My Experience - Laura Säilä

As a child I loved fossils and dinosaurs, but it had never occurred to me that I could actually study fossils as a profession until, during my degree in biology at Helsinki University, I attended a lecture on human evolution. After that lecture, I attended all possible palaeontology lectures and workshops I could at Helsinki University, and seriously considered switching my major to palaeontology. However, my palaeontology professor instead recommended that I do a year abroad to expand my knowledge on the subject, and that is exactly what I did when I applied for, and got accepted into, the esteemed palaeobiology MSc program at University of Bristol.

Right: Laura stands beside her prize-winning poster based on her MSc project at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology at Mesa, Arizona in October 2005. Read more here.

In comparison to my studies in Helsinki, the taught modules of the MSc were very demanding and we were given much more responsibility. This thought me to do proper literature based research, whereas during my MSc thesis project, for which I studied the osteology and relationships of late Triassic reptiles from South Wales, I learned how to conduct independent primary research. Apart from learning so many things, the best part about the course for me was that I was able to work with local fossils (fossil record is very poor in Finland) and the wonderful people attending the course, and the staff at the department, that I got to work, and socialise, with. In fact, I enjoyed my time in Bristol so much that I decided that I would like to pursue a PhD there as well, and thus, two years after finishing the MSc course, and having finished my biology studies in Helsinki, I returned to the department to begin a PhD on the osteology, phylogenetic relationships and Permo-Triassic extinction event survival of the parareptile group Procolophonoidea. Again I was able to work with British fossils, as one of the main chapters of my thesis focused on the Scottish procolophonid Leptopleuron lacertinum, but in addition I got to travel the world (Africa, America, Russia, Europe) as I attended international conferences, studied procolophonoids in various museum collections, and even dug out procolophonids from the Permo-Triassic layers of the South African Karoo! I also continued to enjoy illustrating the fossils I was studying by detailed anatomical drawings and reconstructive interpretations, as I have always had a passion for drawing and painting.

I have now returned back to Helsinki, and have secured a four-year postdoc in the Department of Geosciences and Geography, working on the phylogenetic relationships of Neogene mammals in the palaeontology research group headed by Prof. Mikael Fortelius, who is also the person who encouraged me to apply for the Bristol MSc course.

Laura Säilä, May 2010

Laura's first published paper, based on her MSc thesis, was in Palaeontology in 2005, and it included some of the main results of her palaeobiology MSc thesis. She also won the Colbert Prize with a poster about her MSc results at the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology annual meeting in 2005. Visit Laura's research web site here, and find a full list of her published papers and see some of her palaeontological illustrations.

Säilä, L. K. 2005. A new species of the sphenodontian reptile Clevosaurus from the Lower Jurassic of South Wales. Palaeontology, 48: 817-831

School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building, Queen's Road, Bristol, UK BS8 1RJ
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