PeerJ Award winners at the Natural History Museum Student Conference 2022

 

PeerJ is delighted to continue our partnership with the Natural History Museum Student’s Association to again support their annual student conference with PeerJ Awards for Best Poster and Best Presentation.

The NHM Student Conference is a two-day annual event held at the Natural History Museum in London, UK. Each year, graduate students affiliated with the NHM gather to share their latest research, focused across a diverse range of topics related to life and earth science. This year, it was possible for the event to be held in person following previous cancelations and hybrid meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We recently talked to the winners Thea Mainprize and Matt Dempsey (a previous recipient of a PeerJ Award) to learn more about their research.

 

 

Thea Mainprize MRes Biosystematics student at Imperial College and the Natural History Museum, London. 

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

My background has ended up being quite multidisciplinary after forays into studying sport and exercise science and animal management, but I quickly found my passions lie in the world of zoology and taxonomy. I completed my BSc in zoology last year and progressed to my MRes in Biosystematics, which I am currently two-thirds of the way through. While my BSc was quite broad, I can certainly say it has shaped my research interests, especially after I explored speciation, phylogenetics and ‘omics approaches in a species complex of marine intertidal isopod (Jaera albifrons) for my final year project.

I have managed to delve into these interests a bit further in my masters, though the organisms I currently work on are much bigger (bovids and cervids). In addition to molecular methods, I have also added a passion for morphology to my research, alongside an enthusiasm for disentangling the evolutionary histories of taxonomically confused animal groups.

What first interested you in this field of research?

I think my interest in animal systematics and speciation has always been there. I used to love looking at animal books as a child, and was drawn to ones with large, colourful phylogenetic trees. My family will also attest that it was always (and continues to be, if my studying at the NHM is anything to go by) difficult to peel me away from natural history and living collections in museums and zoos.

I continued to read about animal taxonomy throughout my zoology degree, though (largely) swapped out the books of my childhood for academic journals. Though I appreciate the full diversity of animal life, I felt particularly drawn to mammals and was surprised to learn that despite their status as charismatic megafauna, there are many we either know very little about, or have not yet elucidated their evolutionary history. The taxonomic confusion that is ongoing in many mammal groups is a puzzle that I am very interested in solving and has important implications for conservation.

You won the Best Poster award at the conference, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

The research I presented at the NHM student conference was a culmination of my first two research projects, both aiming to disentangle the evolutionary relationships of the gazelles. Gazelles are notoriously taxonomically confused, and while progress has been made in understanding the species arrangement in the largest genus (Gazella), other genera (in particular, Eudorcas) have largely been left unexplored from a taxonomic perspective. My research utilised a combination of morphological and molecular data, working at lower taxonomic ranks (i.e. subspecies) to assess whether any of these populations should be elevated to species level, or perhaps placed with other species. I also investigated the phylogenetic position of the blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), which has previously been suggested to be the sister taxon to Gazella.

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

My priority for this research is to combine the results of my two projects together, as the second focused solely on molecular systematics of the genus Eudorcas, for which genetic data was quite sparse at the time of my first project. I am also in the process of collecting even more morphological data, so in the end I am hoping to take it in the direction of a robust taxonomic review of the gazelle group. Despite all this, my curiosity is far from sated. I still have many questions about the gazelles and would be extremely keen to answer them. However, I have received an offer for a PhD position dealing with the phylogenetics of another taxonomically confused, but considerably scalier group so unfortunately the remaining secrets hidden within gazelle systematics will just have to wait.

 

Matt Dempsey PhD student at the University of Liverpool and the Natural History Museum London. 

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

I’m a PhD student at the University of Liverpool and the NHM London, where I’m supervised by Dr. Karl Bates and Dr. Susie Maidment. My research centres on the musculoskeletal biology and functional morphology of dinosaurs and other reptiles. I’m particularly interested in how we can use information about form and function in modern day animals to help illuminate form and function in extinct animals, especially those with large body sizes and bizarre anatomical proportions. Essentially, I’m interested in how dinosaurs worked. During the Mesozoic era, dinosaurs warped into a wide array of body shapes and sizes, and I find deciphering these morphological transitions to be a particularly fascinating challenge.

You won the Best Presentation award at the conference, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

At this year’s Natural History Museum student conference, I spoke about my ongoing research on limb mechanics in convergently quadrupedal ornithischian dinosaurs. Ornithischians were an ancestrally bipedal group that gave rise to multiple convergent lineages of large quadrupedal dinosaurs, including famous favourites such as the plated stegosaurs, the duck-billed hadrosaurs, and the horned ceratopsians.

You have previously won a PeerJ award at the ProgPal 2021 Meeting – Is this an expansion on what you presented there, or do you have a different focus at the moment?

At previous conferences I’ve spoken about the workflow that goes into constructing 3D models of dinosaur limbs for biomechanical analysis, but this was the first time that I’ve been able to talk about some of our findings and interpretations more comprehensively. The conference was a great experience, as the NHM student cohort is taking part in a broad array of captivating research, and I very much enjoyed being able to share my current work with everyone present. Presenting and communicating science is one of my favourite parts of working through a PhD.

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

It won’t be long before I start the fourth and final year of my PhD, and there’s still a lot of interesting work to be done, functional and evolutionary questions to be answered, and cool animals to study. I’m excited to see what the next stages of my research journey entail!

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