Student experience

Our graduates have gone on to a range of successful careers in academia, museums, media, education and commerce. Here we have asked some of them to write about their experience of studying in Bristol and how it prepared them for their future careers.

Melisa Morales Garcia – class of 2016

Melisa graduated from the MSc in 2016 and is now a PhD student in Bristol. In August 2016, she won the prize for best poster at the 64th Symposium for Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy for a poster on her MSc research project. She was competing with PhD students and established researchers, so this is a great achievement for a Masters student. She has since gone on to win further prizes for posters based on her PhD work, in 2017 and 2018.

“I am from Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico. I have a BSc in Biology from the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Hidalgo (Mexico), which I completed with honours. My undergraduate thesis was mainly related to the taxonomic characterisation of several specimens of mastodons (Mammut americanum) from the Late Cenozoic of central Mexico. This was achieved by an extensive and thorough description of cranial and postcranial elements, and by the comparison of the skeletal elements with those of gomphotheres and mammoths. Additionally, several palaeoecological aspects of the individuals, such as body size, diet, and habitat, were determined by means of morphometric and isotopic analyses. I have also worked with mammalian coprolites from the Late Pleistocene of central Mexico.

My MSc project was on the ecomorphology of ungulates from Miocene savannahs of North America. This has usually been compared to those in present-day East Africa; however, no one had attempted to prove this quantitatively. A correspondence analysis revealed that the Miocene ruminants and grazing equids constitute similar ecomorphs to those seen in the Serengeti, while the diversity of camelids is divergent from the modern African fauna, and is suggestive of habitat differences.

Before coming to Bristol, I had research experience on two projects. First was my undergraduate thesis, on ‘Taxonomic characterisation of the mastodons at the Paleontology Museum of the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Hidalgo’, supervised by Dr Victor Manuel Bravo Cuevas. I was also project assistant on a research topic concerning ‘The record of terrestrial ungulates during the Pleistocene of Hidalgo, Puebla and Tlaxcala, central Mexico: Interpretation of dietary habits and characterisation of terrestrial paleocommunities’ (January-July 2014), sponsored by CONACyT, the Mexican scientific research funding agency.

I think the Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology is an outstanding programme that gives you strong theoretical and methodological bases for the study of palaeobiology. This MSc program has provided me with the necessary tools to be a successful researcher and science communicator.

After graduating from the MSc I started a PhD here in Bristol in September 2016, under the supervision of Emily Rayfield, Christine Janis, and Pam Gill. My research will be focused on the study of the functional and ecological diversity of several faunas of Mesozoic mammals by using a biomechanical approach.”

Mark Puttick – class of 2012

Since completing the MSc in 2012, 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 in Bristol and won a prize for the best PhD thesis in the Faculty of Science in 2017. He then worked on a postdoc in Bristol before he 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’.

“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.”

Steve Brusatte – class of 2007

Steve is now a Reader at the University of Edinburgh, where he runs a very active research and teaching programme.  His MSc thesis was published as two papers, one in the journal Science. He recently published the best-selling book  ‘The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs‘ (paperback, 2019) in which he tells the story of his adventures, palaeontological and otherwise,  around the world. Read more about Steve’s wide range of palaeontological activities on his personal web site here. This is what Steve wrote about his time in Bristol back in 2010:

“A domino effect of good fortune brought me to Bristol and my experiences studying for the MSc, and living in England, will be carried with me for the rest of my life. It was unexpected that I even applied for the MSc, as I never thought about doing a Master’s or living abroad. I was fortunate enough to participate in many research projects and fieldwork expeditions while studying under Paul Sereno as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I could envision my whole career path: jump straight into a PhD, do some research on theropod dinosaurs, get a postdoc, then hopefully a job. Why even consider a Master’s, since I had already been involved in research and knew exactly what I wanted to study? A bit stubborn, perhaps. Maybe even haughty. But doing an MSc didn’t even cross my mind.

And then came one of those contingencies of life, a chance encounter that I now look back on as an unanticipated turning point. I had received a small scholarship for undergraduate science majors and stopped by the University’s scholarship office to fill out the necessary paperwork. Sensing my boredom with bureaucratic procedure, the scholarship director asked if I had ever considered applying for one of the so-called “British Scholarships”, the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, that allow Americans to pursue two years of graduate work in the UK. I laughed him off at first: these scholarships were tough to win and usually went to students building orphanages in Burma during their few spare moments between researching cancer vaccines and playing first chair oboe in the New York Symphony Orchestra. He didn’t flinch. No, he said, he was serious. He really thought that studying dinosaurs and evolution, a perpetually interesting but controversial subject in the US, could give me a leg up. So, what the heck, I said I would apply. Then one thing led to another and somehow, someway, I received a Marshall Scholarship.

And now, where would I study in the UK? The obvious choice was Bristol. Two of my professors at Chicago, Mike Coates and Mark Webster, hailed from England and gave a ringing endorsement. After studying dinosaurs for a few years I was very familiar with Mike Benton’s work, and I even remembered reading one or two of his several hundred dinosaur books as a child. And at conferences I had previously met a few Bristol students, including Graeme Lloyd, who would later become one of my advisors, a trusted research collaborator, and a good friend. All signs pointed towards Bristol: the program was respected, the professors were world-class, and the students there were happy, productive, and highly intelligent.

I ended up spending two years in Bristol, completing the MSc in Palaeobiology in 2006-2007 and then doing a research MSc during the second year of my scholarship tenure. Almost immediately Bristol felt like home to me. I jumped into an exciting research project on the higher-level phylogeny of archosaurs (dinosaurs, crocodiles, and their close relatives), which then morphed into a macroevolutionary study on the origin and early evolution of dinosaurs. I learned a lot from my fellow classmates, most of whom were from the UK and had very different research interests, and a very different academic background. I was able to attend a few conferences in Europe and make many good friendships and build invigorating research collaborators. Indeed, a few years after leaving England, some of my closest collaborators remain as Mike Benton, Marcello Ruta, and Graeme Lloyd (my Bristol advisors) and Roger Benson and Richard Butler, both young vertebrate paleontologists who did their PhDs at Cambridge.

Looking back, I appreciate two things in particular about the Bristol program. First, I was given great freedom to explore whatever subjects suited me, and I had the support of a helpful faculty with diverse research interests. I was able to work on many side projects, visit many museums, do some fieldwork, and write papers on many topics. Second, I learned to think big. When I came to Bristol I was interested almost entirely in the minutiae of dinosaur anatomy and phylogeny, but at Bristol I learned many new statistical methods and began to think like an evolutionary biologist rather than a theropod dinosaur anatomist. Why are some groups more successful than others, and how can we measure this success? How does a group, which must necessarily begin with a single species living at a certain time and place, blossom into a range of species with different body types and ecologies? Why did dinosaurs, my specialty, rise to prominence in the Triassic Period and other groups, including their close crocodilian cousins, succumb to great extinctions?

But, really, the most profound way that Bristol changed me was personally. It was in Bristol where I met my wonderful wife, Anne, a native Bristolean who was finishing her degree in history when we met only a month into my first year at Bristol. Like any self-respecting American, I did the imperialistic thing and brought Anne back with me to the US, where I am now in my second year of a PhD program at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I continue to work on theropod dinosaurs as my primary group of interest, as well as the basal archosaurs that I studied for my MSc, and bigger-picture questions about evolutionary radiations and morphological evolution over deep time are at the forefront of my research.”

Isla Gladstone – class of 2006

In 2009, Isla was appointed Curator of Natural Sciences at the Yorkshire Museum, in York, and moved to her current post as Curator of Natural History at the Bristol City Museum in 2013. Catch up with Isla’s current activities here. She is happy to talk more about her experiences, and about museum work in general: Contact.

“One of the main things that attracted me to the MSc in Palaeobiology at Bristol was its broad-based and open nature. The course not only covered a wide variety of subject matter, but everything I read seemed to emphasise the importance of developing a range of applied skills. Whilst I knew I wanted to study the subject to a deeper level and to pursue a career in a science-related field, I was unsure whether this would be research-based or within science communication. I hoped the MSc would help me to explore my options.

The course was all that I had hoped for, and more. It provided an excellent academic grounding, with modules taught by leading researchers in the field. A series of report submissions honed written and research skills, taken further during a self-led original research project. We were given the opportunity to take part in weekly departmental discussion groups, and to give presentations outlining our own research. The ability to communicate with and engage wider audiences in Palaeobiology was developed during exercises such as creation of a website, newspaper articles and a children’s activity sheet. All this took place within a supportive environment, where as an MSc student you are treated as an equal to all other research students and staff.

I had a series of jobs after I finished the MSc, first as Curatorial Assistant for the Natural History collections at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, then as Curator of Natural Sciences at the Yorkshire Museum in York, and now, back to Bristol, as Curator of Natural History, with several people working in my team. My work is very varied with respect both to the types of collection that I work with and roles that I undertake. The key element that runs through it, and what attracted me to museum work in the first place, is the goal of increasing access to our collections: enabling people of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy, be inspired by and learn from the fantastic resources that museums hold.

A brief outline of two contrasting pieces of recent work will hopefully give a bit of an idea of what a curatorial role in a regional museum involves, and the relevance of a course like the MSc to this work. On the ‘front of house’ side, when I was in Truro, I managed a project to create a series of displays to help interpret our very specialist mineral collection for an audience of families with younger children, working with external designers, curatorial and learning staff to develop and install content. ‘Behind the scenes’ I worked alongside our Conservator to inventory and stabilise our historic herbarium. Ongoing roles include facilitating volunteers, students and researchers, answering enquiries and identifying objects for members of the public. Now, in a larger museum, and with more staff, we are planning some lager-scale curatorial projects, including plans for major new displays and bids for millions of pounds of Heritage Lottery money.

I feel very lucky to work in a job that I love, and in large part owe this to the skills and knowledge that I gained at Bristol. Whilst I didn’t have a formal museum-based qualification when I applied for the role (I have since been sponsored to undertake one), the relevance of this background was recognised as an excellent basis. I would highly recommend the MSc to anyone with an interest in Palaeobiology, and also in pursuing a science-related career. The enthusiasm of the Department for its subject, and for sharing this with others, is hard to resist. Who knows where it might take you!”

Jessica Pollitt – class of 2002

After graduating from the MSc in 2002, Jessica completed a PhD on the evolution of trilobites at the University of Bath. She then worked as a production editor at the Geological Society of London Publishing House for 13 years before moving to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in 2018.

“I was attracted to the MSc in Palaeobiology both for its broad-based training in palaeontology and also for the wide range of transferable skills that it teaches.

While palaeontological training is, of course, by no means a requirement for a career in academic publishing, the skills required for each role are remarkably similar. An eye for detail is essential in both fields and the Scientific Communication unit gave me a detailed understanding of the process of publishing scientific work.

The research project was my favourite part of the MSc course as it gave me the chance to really get stuck into an original piece of research, to publish my first scientific paper and to travel to visit important museum specimens. During this part of the course I learnt the important skills of project and time management.

These skills are vital in my recent role as Production Editor at the Geological Society of London Publishing House: I am currently responsible for managing the publication of geological books and journals from the acceptance of the manuscripts to the printing of the finished volume. The breadth of technical knowledge I gained during the MSc also allows me to better understand the detail of the texts I work with.

In summary I would recommend the Palaeobiology MSc programme to anybody interested in palaeontology or the communication and dissemination of science as a whole.”