Richard Howard, PeerJ Award winner at ProgPal, discusses his research on Ecdysozoans, evolution and biodiversity

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Richard Howard presenting his research at ProgPal.

Well deserved congratulations go to Richard Howard, winner of the PeerJ Award for Best Talk at Progressive Palaeontology. ProgPal is an annual conference for postgraduate research students who wish to present their results at any stage of their research. The meeting is run by students with the support of The Palaeontological Association. This year’s conference was held at the University of Birmingham and Lapworth Museum of Geology in June. The PeerJ Award, aimed at benefitting students and early career researchers, includes a free publication in PeerJ (upon submission and acceptance through our normal peer review system). Learn more about Richard’s research and award-winning talk in our interview below:

  • Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I’m a 2nd year PhD student, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) GW4+ scheme. I did my undergrad in geology at University of Leicester and my MSc in palaeobiology at University of Bristol. I’m now based at University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus where I am supervised by Xiaoya Ma, who is well known for her work on the Cambrian Chengjiang Biota of Yunnan Province, China.

I’m interested in the evolution of biodiversity, and how it interacts with and influences our planet. The focus of my PhD is the evolution of a megadiverse group of invertebrates called the Ecdysozoa – the moulting animals such as arthropods, nematodes, tardigrades, and others.  I’m using an integrated approach combining the fossil record with molecular systematics to try and give a summary of where we are at with regard to our understanding of where these animals came from and how they are interrelated.

Award-winner Richard Howard at The Lapworth Museum of Geology.

  • Can you briefly explain the research you presented at ProgPal?

At ProgPal I presented a new interpretation of a bit of a cryptic Cambrian fossil animal from Chengjiang. I’ve been working on this with Xiaoya, as well as another supervisor at the Natural History Museum, Greg Edgecombe. I won’t give away the name, because Cambrian fossils can be a bit political and this isn’t submitted yet! But I can tell you that we argue that this oddball of a prehistoric worm belongs to the Ecdysozoa, and shows a unique anatomy and ecology that is not seen in any of its closest living relatives. From these analyses, we worked with a palaeoartist to produce a new life reconstruction of the animal. I would be very happy to share this artwork and more info on the fossils once the paper is published (hopefully) a few months down the line!

  • What are your next steps? How will you continue to build on this research?

Next, I’m looking at the bigger picture of the Ecdysozoa Tree of Life. From this study, I’ve started to build a large anatomical dataset for fossil ecdysozoans, and my next goal is to conduct an integrated evolutionary analysis of this anatomical data with genomic data from living ecdysozoans to get a more holistic summary of the evolutionary history of the group. Hopefully, that’s coming later this year or next year!


View related PeerJ research in Paleontology and Evolutionary Science and Biodiversity.

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By teaming up with a number of conferences to offer these awards, we are making it as easy as possible for organizers to reward excellence in science, support students and early career researchers, and signal to the wider research community that open science is better science. Learn more here and get in touch if you are a conference organizer and are looking to offer a ‘Best Contribution’ award for open science – sierra.williams@peerj.com