Thursday, January 10, 2013

Interview with Paleontologist: Dr. Heinrich Mallison

Hello again!  Sorry for the delay.  Speaking for myself there has been a lot of stuff going on with the holidays.  That's over now though so how about we kick off the new year with meeting another great paleontologist?

Dr. Heinrich Mallison is a vertebrate paleontologist and research assistant at the Museum
r Naturkunde- Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.  He mainly works with computer aided design and engineering modeling of dinosaurs.  In other words he studies the range of motion, posture, center of mass positions, and locomotion of dinosaurs with the help of modern technology.  I think we should hear what he has to say though.  On to the biography!

HM: Even as a small child I wanted to study „old stuff“. Archaeology, palaeontology – as long as there was a story to discover I was fascinated. And there had to be something to see, to touch, and not just a machine that goes „bing“ or some old texts to read – although I am an avid reader. Thus, my interests lie with experimental archaeology rather than book-history, palaeontology rather than microbiology or genetics. Additionally, animals and plants fascinate me – shapes and how they change through ontogeny (growth of an individual) and phylogeny (evolution through time). A short while I considered a career in ethology (the study of animal behaviour), but found the treatment of animals by humans too depressing. Thus, it was only logical to study either archaeology, palaeontology, or some aspect of biology.
When it was time for me to decide which subject to study at university, two things came together that decided matters for me: German reunification had triggered a new vogue, the excavation of medieval garbage dumps in the towns of the East, where practically no deep digging during construction had taken place and thus had left the garbage undisturbed. That’s not what I wanted to dig. And my parents sent me on a dinosaur dig, in the hope it would deter me from an unprofitable profession. That plan backfired spectacularly! I love being in the field, even if it meant the summer heat of Montana, I loved crawling around hillsides with my nose centimetres from the ground, looking for tiny fossils, and I even loved the repetitive and taxing task of sorting through screenwashed material to find tiny bones, teeth, eggshell fragments and so on. And I became even more fascinated with dinosaurs than before: our understanding of them had been revolutionised over the previous two decades, but continued to change rapidly. Thus, the remaining choice was between zoology and geology, as both subjects lead to vertebrate palaeontology.
However, my career was not straightforward at all. My diploma thesis dealt with fossil conifer cones, beautifully preserved in barite concretions from the Mainz Basin. Then, I worked on a doctorate project looking at the differences in skeletal proportions of psittacosaurs from China, and on the taphonomy (how did they become fossilized?), a project that fell apart when it became clear that most fossils in China were “improved” or “embellished”, if not outright fakes. Only after this did I turn to biomechanics and sauropodomorph dinosaurs, as a PhD student in the German Science Foundation’s Research Unit 533 ‘Sauropod Biology’. Led by Professor Martin Sander of Bonn University, this interdisciplinary group of researchers set out to investigate why sauropod dinosaurs were so huge – ten times larger than all other terrestrial animals. I have stayed a member of, and later associated with, the research group ever since, even while I am now pursuing only distantly related research subjects.

Question 1: Who did you admire growing up?

HM: Oh my, I have no memory at all! Certainly not any geeky science types, but in fact I was never really a fan of any one specific person. Never had any singer or football player poster up on my wall either.

determining air exchange volume. Top: dorsal vertebrae with axes of rotation of ribs indicated by green cylinders. note change of angle from front to back.

Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

HM: Hm, dunno – 3? 4? I always joke that there are two types of little boys. When they learn to stand and walk, half will point up and yell “Airpane! Airpane!” The other half bends down to pick up a nice pebble…. I just never got around to growing up, I guess.
Seriously, I do remember getting a present from my Dad at the shop of the Stuttgart zoo when I was barely old enough to read. Six years old I’d guess. A book on dinosaurs – no idea why I picked dinosaurs from the assorted books at a zoo shop, but there you go! I must have been tremendously interested back then already.

Question 3: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  What dinosaur is your favorite now?

HM: Brachiosaurus (rather, Giraffatitan as it should now be called), later Deinonychus. Today, I am still mostly a Saurischia fan, simply because most ornithischians are half-mammal in my eyes (no pneumatic foramina, can you believe it?), but any erect-limbed archosaur is fine by me. Oh, and then there is my personal, absolutely favorite guinea pig: Plateosaurus engelhardti von Meyer, 1837 from the Feuerletten of Bavaria and the Knollenmergel of Trossingen and… you get the drift I guess.

Plateosaurus life restoration by Christopher DiPiazza.  It was Dr. Mallison reviewed and approved for accuracy too!  (with a few small tweaks). 

Question 4: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines.  What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

HM: Don’t! At least don’t if you ever want to have a family. The competition for funding and jobs is so fierce and the outlook is so dire that you can never hope to provide a stable income.
If that doesn’t scare you away, the best advice is to make sure you get around. Nothing is as helpful as seeing things with your own eyes, touching them with your own hands.
Also, study geosciences, not biology, but make sure you can attend a shedload of biological courses, preferentially anatomy. Check out engineering, check out chemistry, check out physics! Yeah, physics – don’t get me started on how only 20% of people doing palaeo-biomechanics understand Newton.
Lastly, don’t set your eyes on one group of organisms and ignore everything else. The scarcity of jobs means that you may end up in paleobotany or whatever, and all paleontology is a captivating field. Similarly, don’t narrow the methods you use down to something that can leave you stranded. Broad knowledge and the ability to work in many fields – better, between them! – will be the best qualities you can bring.

Question 5: Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a daunting task.  Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make it to the finish line.  The rewards are great, but what would you say to someone pursuing professional studies after college?
See above!

HM: Do get those stupid letters after (US, UK) or in front of (EU) your name! Many funding agencies make life very, very hard for someone who can’t call her- or himself  “Doctor”.

motion range analysis of the left forelimb.

Question 6: What was or is your favorite research project?  What are some of your current projects?

HM: Favorite – tough question. Doing the range of motion analysis of Plateosaurus, I guess. See my papers in APP and PE (links below). I am currently working on musculoskeletal computer models of sauropod limbs, comparing them to mammals. That’s pretty high up on my scale.

Question 7: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs.  What was your most memorable movie, book or TV program that inspired you with regards to paleontology?

HM: As I mentioned, there was this children’s book on dinosaurs. Aside from that I guess GEO magazine played a big role, as it was on GEO’s pages that I first encountered the Dinosaur Revolution. Jurassic Park was, surprisingly, a no-show for me. I didn’t see it in a theater, I saw it years later on the TV. In fact, my parents owned the last b&w TV in all of Germany, I guess, and it certainly didn’t see much use in the Mallison household. Dinosaurs on TV? Nah……..

SMNS F 33 from Trossingen, excllently preserved articulated skeleton of Plateosaurus. unusually, the anterior body is not rotated to the side, but crushed dorsoventrally.

Question 8: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist.  Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met?  Were you a nervous wreck? 

HM: <draws a total blank> I guess the first time I consciously met a paleontologist was my first lecture on exogene dynamics. Prof. Luterbacher managed to make me fall asleep in about 15 seconds (which, I guess, was his aim; he hated lecturing to first semesters. Today I agree with him).

Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures.  Why do you feel they continue to fascinate us?

HM: I can’t really speak for the vast majority of lay people. For me, they are into dinosaurs for all the wrong reasons. To me, what’s really cool is that dinosaurs paralleled so much of the evolution of mammals – but most of the way they were ahead in time and in performance. An avian lung beats the living hell out of a mammalian one, for example.

Plateosaurus mounts in the Tübingen Institute for Geoscinces. Left is "GPIT skeleton 2", right is GPIT/RE/7288, my guinea pig, both from Trossingen

Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

HM: Next week – the current development in digital methods makes paleontology so much more fun that I can barely wait for next week (this is true every week).

Thank you Dr. Mallison!  Interested in asking him your own question(s)?  Well as a matter of fact you are in great luck!  Dr. Mallison is one of the many friendly scientists ready to answer inquiries from the public on one of my favorite websites, Ask a Biologist or just comment at his blog.

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