Talking with… Emma Dunne

Interview by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Harry T. Jones

This time, our virtual catch-up was with Irish palaeontologist Doctor Emma Dunne. Join us as we discover what it was like for her to dive into prehistory; her experience co-hosting a stream; fulfilling a childhood dream; and which biscuits make the perfect straw.

Emma wearing her papier mache doctoral hat (Dimetrodon) made by her colleagues on her viva day.

Hi Emma, thanks for getting involved with the series. Could you let us know a little about yourself?

“Hi! *waves* I’m a palaeobiologist currently based at the University of Birmingham. I grew up in a very rural and boggy part of Ireland, which I suspect has something to do with why I love being out in nature so much. I’m also a massive fan of dogs, and consider myself a professional Dog Spotter. When I’m not sciencing, exploring the outdoors, or bothering dogs (or other pets), you might find me reading books that have sat on my to-read pile for too long, plane spotting, or binging on documentaries.”

When did you decide you wanted to be a palaeontologist, since you started with zoology in Dublin?

“Yep, you caught me, I never planned on being a palaeontologist! To be honest, I actually never really planned a particular career path at all, I just kind of went with the flow. Growing up, I really enjoyed both science and languages, so I figured I’d try to combine them in some way. A science degree seemed like the right thing to do when your country is experiencing a recession, so off I toddled to read Natural Sciences. Each year we had to specialise a little further, and I just got drawn towards biology and geology, then zoology, then evolutionary biology and ultimately ended up in palaeontology! I didn’t learn what a PhD was until my first year of university, and then I wasn’t able to get it out of my head. I decided that would be my ‘interm career goal’, and now that I’ve achieved that, I’m not quite sure yet where the flow will take me next! Along the way, through research collaborations, literature searches, fieldwork, and general travel, I’ve been inspired to add a fourth language, and even the beginnings of a fifth, to my repertoire. So, all in all, I’m rather pleased that I’ve ended up in palaeontology as it has definitely combined all of my interests!”

When we first met, you were completing your PhD, Quantifying patterns of diversity during the rise of tetrapods. How did you first come across this topic, and what did it involve?

“I actually came across this project by chance (you’re probably noticing a trend in how I make life decisions here…). At the time, palaeontology wasn’t really on my radar, as I was still in the world of the fluffy rather than the fossilised, but this project was so intriguing. Also, being a non-UK student, my funding options were limited and as a consequence I could only apply to a small number of projects advertised that year.
For my PhD project, I investigated patterns of tetrapod (four-limbed terrestrial beasties) diversity and biogeography during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic (approx. 350-200 million years ago), and how these patterns were influenced by environmental changes. I also examined the various biases that underpin the tetrapod fossil record at this time, which, spoiler-alert, was a huge contributing factor to observed diversity patterns! Over the course of the broader project, I was able to cover a lot of different topics from early tetrapod evolution and ecological neutral theory, to latitudinal diversity gradients and even dinosaur evolution!”

How did you find this huge chapter of your life, both professionally and personally? Was it draining, exciting, challenging, etc?

“It was definitely all of the above! A PhD really brings on the extremes of every emotion: the highs of exciting results, visiting places all over the world, meeting new people, and conjuring up fun ideas for analyses. But also, the lows of self-doubt, frustration when things aren’t working the way they should, and navigating everyday life on top of this. I certainly have a lot more grey hairs because of it, but I wouldn’t change a thing!”

The Dinosaur Gallery in the Museum of Natural History, Vienna. Emma’s favourite museum.

You’ve recently started your post doctorate with the Leverhulme Trust. What are you looking at with this project and what would you say was your ultimate goal with this?

“Yes, I had the lovely experience of starting this project during the UK lockdown, which was a rather strange experience! This project will look at the influence of climate on the diversity and evolution of dinosaurs and their archosaur acquaintances during the Mesozoic, by using cool quantitative methods to test some ideas that have been hypothesised in the past. Right now, I’m looking at how climate may or may not have played a role in the dinosaurs’ rise to dominance during the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic. This project stems from work I started during my PhD, but with this project, I’m branching out a bit more into palaeoclimatology and evolutionary biology, which has been really exciting so far!”

We’re very excited to see where that research leads, you’ll have to keep us informed. So, in terms of fieldwork, what has been your best experience?

“While most of my time is actually spent working at my desk, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to take part in a fair few fieldtrips, of which the best part has undoubtedly been the people. There is nothing better than sharing a cold drink with great friends over a wood fire after a disgustingly hard day’s fossil hunting or excavating. When I first read this question, I messaged my old lab mates to ask what their favourite memories were and it wasn’t long before tears of laughter were streaming down my face! I couldn’t possibly pick out just one instance, but standout memories include the vividness of the Milky Way in the night sky in South Africa, starting snowball fights on a mountain in Wales, and having our Hilux half-swallowed by an aardvark burrow.”

The incredible views over the fieldsite in South Africa.

Featuring in Stellar Magazine must’ve been a huge personal accomplishment, since you grew up in Ireland. Do you remember what it was like when they first contacted you and how you felt?

“Never in a million years did I think I’d see my face printed in the pages of a magazine that I read as a teenager. The editor didn’t actually ever confirm with me that they would be publishing my interview, so I found out that it had gone to print when a distant family member, who had bought the issue for their daughter, recognised my photo and contacted me!”

You’re a self-proclaimed tea addict, but what would you say was your favourite tea and the perfect biscuit to pair it with?

“My daily schedule is definitely not structured around tea breaks *looks ashamed*. I am a die-hard Barry’s tea fan. Barry’s is an Irish brand that is surprisingly hard to buy in England, so when I go home to visit my family, I always leave room in my suitcase for several boxes to bring back with me. I also take my biscuit pairings very seriously. I most frequently reach for a handful of fruit shortcake biscuits (or ‘squashed fly biscuits’ as my partner calls them), but they are far too precarious to dunk. So, if I want a biscuit to dunk I’ll always go for Rich Tea. However, my all-time favourite thing to do is get a KitKat, break off a single stick, nibble off both of its chocolatey ends, use it as a straw to suck up some of the tea and then enjoy the resultant gooeyness. It must be tried to be believed.”

You’ve recently started the first series of the Palaeoparty! podcast with Thomas Clements and Christopher Dean, which has been great to tune into biweekly. When did you all first have this idea and what encouraged you to start?

“This is another case of just going with the flow and one thing leading to another! Chris Dean was asked to contribute to a live-streamed event in aid of Black Lives Matter, and asked for someone to join him. Thomas and I both happened to be free so we jumped on the video call and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to try to do it regularly! We’re almost half way through our first set of guests and it been so fun, especially during the pandemic when we haven’t been able to see our peers as often.”

You work with The Brilliant Club and with younger students as a tutor. How did you first get involved with this and what inspired you to take on this role? Is teaching something you think you’d pursue full time?

“Working with the Brillant Club has been the best part of my research career. I can’t remember how I first came across it, but I remember applying to be a tutor in the very first week of my PhD. Working as a Brilliant Club tutor involves designing a series of tutorials and assignments around the topic of your PhD, and delivering these tutorials over the course of 6-8 weeks to small groups of students in local state schools that have low progression rates to high-tariff universities. Alongside getting students interested in scientific research and palaeontology, I am also able to introduce them to what university might be like if they decide to pursue a degree themselves. As I grew up in a rural area where not many people progressed to university, it was really important to me that any engagement and outreach work that I undertook has a strong thread of social justice running through it. I’ve always enjoyed teaching in one form or another, but I’m not quite sure yet if it’s the right career for me – I guess we’ll see where the flow takes me!”

You must have some helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists, so what would they be?

“I’m not quite sure that I’m the best person to be giving advice on this, especially seeing as I never planned on being a palaeontologist! But if I had to give one nugget of advice for budding palaeontologists it would definitely be: learn to code! I promise you won’t regret it.”

Finally, we like to finish with this, what’s a weird palaeo fact you think people should know?

“I absolutely love the etymology of species names, particularly fossil species (again combining my love of science and languages!). I have lots of favourites, but the one I need everyone to know about is the Ordovician trilobite H. solo, which is the only member of the Hans genus. There are so many more complex binomial names, but the beauty of this one certainly lies in its simplicity!”
Click Here for more about Hans solo.

I’d like to wish a huge thank you to Emma for taking part this week, its been fantastic to catch up and find out what your adventures have been like. For more information about Emma, or to find out how to contact her directly, check out her Twitter and Instagram. Likewise, be sure to check out the Palaeoparty!, or catch up on any you may have missed.