In the planet’s coolest jobs this month, we chat to Dr Susannah Maidment, who works as a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of Brighton. She spends her days studying the fossils and remains of some of the earth’s most well-known dinosaurs, trying to understand how and where they lived, what they ate, and how they existed with each other, as well as giving lectures to students. From the Stegosaurus to the T-rex, Susannah is an expert on all things dino – let’s find out how she does it!
What exactly is a vertebrate palaeontologist?
Vertebrate palaeontology is the study of all fossils with a backbone. I particularly focus on dinosaurs, and trying to discover more about them!
Tell us a little about your typical day at work
As well as a palaeontologist, I am also a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton where I teach students about geology and fossils, so my days are very varied. I usually have a lecture to give, and then the other half of my job is research based. I have a number of projects I’m working on, trying to answer questions about the way dinosaurs lived, where they lived and their distribution in time.
What is the coolest thing about your job?
Being able to travel all over the world doing field work! At the moment I’m often in the Western USA – Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, looking at the rocks in which the fossils of the most famous dinosaurs are found, like the Brontosaurus, Allosaurus and Stegosaurus. I also travel a lot in Europe, China and Canada to different museums, looking at specimens that have already been found.
Did you always want to work with dinosaurs?
Yes. When I was six my grandpa said to me ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I said I wanted to be a scientist. Because I was so young, I didn’t know there were different types of scientists, but of course, being six, I really loved dinosaurs. My grandpa said ‘what about a dinosaur scientist?’ So that’s what I became. I studied geology at university, and then did a PhD in vertebrate palaeontology.
Is there still a lot more to learn about dinosaurs?
Definitely. Dinosaurs ruled the world for 170 million years, and during that period every animal on land bigger than a metre was a dinosaur. Everything we find animals doing today, they did then – there were burrowing dinosaurs, flying dinosaurs…
There are discoveries being made all the time, and there’s still so much to learn. We still don’t know a lot about their behaviour, and every time we find a new track-way or clutch of eggs, we learn a little more. Also, the types of dinosaurs changed so much throughout their time on earth – Stegosaurus was already a fossil before the T-rex lived, the two were actually separated by more time than humans are to the T-rex!
You specialise in Stegosaurian dinosaurs – why is that?
The Stegosaurus was my favourite dinosaur as a kid! I was then lucky enough to successfully apply to do a PhD on Stegosaurian dinosaurs, so I know them very well.
In 2015 you and a colleague discovered red blood cells in the collarbone of a 75-million-year-old dinosaur – tell us about that.
My colleague was working on understanding the properties of bone by looking at it through a hugely powerful microscope. At the time, I was trying to understand how bone was arranged in dinosaurs, so I was interested in using his microscope to look at dinosaur bones. He wanted to know what happens to soft bone tissue in fossils, and I didn’t know the answer. So we decided to have a look. I borrowed a tiny specimen of claw bone from the Natural History Museum and put it under his microscope. I came into work the next day to loads of messages from him saying ‘I need to talk to you’. The last message said ‘has anyone ever found blood in dinosaur bones?’ And as far as I knew, no one had.
He showed me images of what he thought were red blood cells in the bone. I checked with colleagues and they all agreed, but we needed to be sure. We compared them to blood cells in emu bones, as emus – and birds in general – are very closely related to dinosaurs. We analysed them and found they had a very similar chemistry, so we concluded that they were preserved red blood cells. We’re now trying to understand how!
Do you find that more women are working in palaeontology?
A lot more women are doing geology at university for sure, and many are also doing PhDs in both geology and palaeontology, so hopefully we’ll be seeing more and more female palaeontologists and geologists.
What is the best advice you could give to someone wanting to work with dinosaurs one day?
You have to work hard and get good marks in science! It’s a competitive field, so my best advice would be to really concentrate on prioritising your science subjects at school, and that will lead you down the right path.
Devoted to dinos? Learn more about the earth’s most fascinating ancient creatures with our new title Dinosaur Atlas.