Talking with… Han Hu

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

Our most recent interview sees us chat with Doctor Han Hu about her astonishing research on the dinosaur-bird transition. Read on to discover how a foray into forams became her gateway to palaeontology, what it means to get up close and personal with the famous Archaeopteryx, and her time across three continents.

Han scanning specimens using neutron CT in ANSTO, Sydney.

Hi, Han. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us. Firstly, could you tell us about yourself?

“Thank you very much for inviting me to be involved! I am currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford. My research area is the origin and early evolution of birds, mostly based on the amazing fossils of early birds and feathered non-avian dinosaurs discovered from the Jehol Biota in China. After being awarded my PhD with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, I moved to Australia for several years for my first postdoctoral fellowship and then to Oxford after that. Actually, as a typical young vertebrate palaeontologist who finds this area so interesting, my down-time is mixed up with my research to some extent. I passionately visit museums with my friends, especially natural history ones. I may work in their collections, but their public exhibitions always attract me as well – fine, let’s admit that I want to take a photo of those super star fossils to show off. Although I have “formal” field trips, I am also more than happy to go out to dig with my friends just for fun – we are planning to go to Mary Anning’s hometown soon, with our hammers of course. Bird watching is another good option for my weekends, and it’s quite interesting to move around the world to see the different birds: the Australian ones are so different from the British ones, just like the difference between their weather conditions. Apart from this, I am also interested in running (terrible marathon runner who always arrived in the last minute), and tennis (started learning it during the pandemic).”

When did you decide you wanted to be a palaeontologist?

“Many of my colleagues have loved palaeontology since childhood and became palaeontologists when they grew up. However, I have to say this is not my story. I was learning geology during my undergraduate period, and my undergraduate thesis was about foraminifera – kind of tiny invertebrate fossils which can be used to estimate ancient sea temperatures. I was introduced to palaeontology then and found out that vertebrate palaeontology is my true love. I deeply appreciate the beauty of those fossils every time I see them and feel very happy to stay with them – maybe this is the simplest way to test if you really like your job. Through them, I could discover and tell the world the story of the history of life on earth, which is really a cool thing for me to enjoy.”

As you’ve mentioned, you’ve extensively worked on early birds, stretching back all the way to 2012. What initially drew you to this area of expertise?

“My research became centred around the origin and early evolution of birds during my PhD period. This is quite a hot area even within vertebrate palaeontology, and it attracts a lot of public attention. Everyone loves dinosaurs, and the feathered ones are even cuter! Once I entered this area, I felt it was so fascinating to explore all the mysteries during the dinosaur-bird transition, which is one of the most remarkable transitions in the evolutionary history of vertebrates. My early career in this area is also initially inspired by my PhD supervisors – Prof. Zhonghe Zhou in the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IVPP), and Prof. Jingmai O’Connor previously in the IVPP and now in the Field Museum, USA. Prof. Zhonghe Zhou is one of the most famous palaeontologists in the world in the dinosaurian origin and early evolution of birds. He, Jingmai, and their colleagues have discovered and studied numerous exceptionally preserved feathered dinosaurs, primitive birds, and other vertebrate fossils from the Jehol biota, China. Their passion in this area and their sincere encouragements inspired me, as well as many other young researchers, to try to make our dreams to be a scientist true, and to be able to contribute to the discipline we love.”

What are some of the things you’ve found over the years through your research?

“I started my research in this area from a more traditional aspect: describe specimens, explore their phylogenetic positions, and discuss the evolution of some characters of early birds, especially for my PhD period. I clarified some character evolution like the sternum and named several new species of early birds at that time. When I progressed into the postdoctoral period, I started to use more modern and advanced technologies such as 3D scanning and reconstruction, as well as 3D geometric morphometric and finite element analyses, which involve large datasets of modern birds. My previous project in UNE, Australia, was using those methods to explore the cranial evolution and function of early birds, and now my Marie Skłodowska-Curie project in Oxford is more about the limb ecomorphology – trying to explore the relationship between the limb morphology and ecological habits in modern tetrapods, then apply the results to reveal the habits of early birds and non-avian dinosaurs during the dinosaur-bird transition. Those methods have rarely been applied to early birds before, but the exquisite new Early Cretaceous bird fossils from China and new CT facilities allow me to explore this now.”

Speaking of UNE, on a personal note what was it like moving to Australia, and what spurred this change of scenery?

“I selected two labs to apply for my first postdoc, one is in UNE and the other is in Oxford (so eventually I joined both of them one by one), since I am very interested in the 3D and quantitative analysis technologies they are good at. I found my interests in those technologies in the end of my PhD and thought that it was perfect timing for me to learn them in these labs and combine them with my previous knowledge of early birds, so that I could build my own lab in the future. However, UNE’s offer came first, so that’s why I went to Australia first, an easy answer… I was a little nervous about moving to Australia from China since I had never been there before. However, I felt more excited since UNE is in a remote area in Australia, so I would definitely experience a period of time which was different from all my previous life – and the result came out to be just like I imagined. I still now and then miss the campus of UNE and the surrounding national parks, as well as my friends there including both human beings and wild animals. Kangaroos bounce around the office building, sometimes you will get an email from the department calling everyone to watch a koala passing by the building, and I even experienced holding an echidna in my hands! Beautiful (but a little noisy) parrots fly around, and Australian magpies attack you from the back… fine, this may not be very nice since they are really aggressive, and the one who built a nest on the tree in front of my place really hated me, I know it very well. However, I love that burned continent!”

Bird watching in an Australian forest, looking for lyrebirds.

What would you say was your most impressive academic or palaeo moment?
“The most impressive or striking palaeo moment for me might be the moment I met Archaeopteryx in person in Germany. As a palaeornithologist, Archeopteryx is a superstar for us, and even more iconic than T. rex. When I finally held it in my hand and checked it under the microscope, especially when I saw the very first feather, I felt like a dream had finally shone into reality.”

Viewing Archaeopteryx in Jura Museum, Germany.

You’ve recently started reviewing for several journals, but what’s it like on the other side of this curtain? What advice would you give to newer authors sending off publications for the first time?

“The review work is part of a researcher’s job I think, and it’s quite important. I think the editors will filter first if the manuscript fits their journals, so my major responsibility as a reviewer is to check through the work to make sure there are no faults or extremely unsolid results. I will point out anything that needs to be clarified, or conflicts with my knowledge, and I will also tell the editors which part is not my area so they may need comments from another direction. For advice, I think maybe 1) make your experiments repeatable; 2) describe your results clearly and make the figures very easy to read; 3) emphasise the major points in the discussion so the reviewers could easily get it.”

What about fieldwork, what would you say has been your best fieldwork experience?

“I have to say that it’s a pity I actually don’t have a lot of field experience… Of course, I hope I could have more in the future. My current work is mostly scanning the specimens that have been collected and housed in museums, and it’s also quite nice to check the specimens in the collections anyway. For my previous limited fieldwork experience, maybe one of the funnier things is the suggestion that you don’t order fish for team supper, order chicken or duck instead – your supervisor may ask you to identify all the bones during supper, and fish will be a nightmare to you, especially when you don’t work on fish at all!”

Han on a short field trip following SVP in the USA.

Do you have any helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists?

“I would say just be brave and chase your palaeo-dream. Keep on asking yourself what things you really like and enjoy. I would suggest opening your mind to absorb knowledge from other disciplines and not only focus on traditional palaeontology, although it is no doubt very interesting. One day you may find that your skill or knowledge in other areas like biology, mathematics, computer science, etc will help you open a new window for palaeontological research. Another thing I want to say is that some people will enjoy the academic life, but some people actually won’t. However, it’s a good point for palaeontological study that you can always choose the jobs which engage more closely with the public. Academia is not the only way for you to enjoy this discipline, the world is diversified so just make the choice to follow your heart.”

A newly translated bird book, of which Han was the leading translator for the Chinese version.

Finally, what’s a weird palaeo fact you think people should know?

“Emmmm…. Maybe people should notice that not every palaeontologist works on T. rex, and yes, I have the same work as Ross (although he got tenured, but I haven’t yet).”

I’d like to finish by wishing a massive thank you to Han for taking the time to shine a light on her remarkable life and cutting-edge research. For more information about Han, or to find out how to contact her directly, visit her Instagram.