Talking with… Philip Donoghue

Interview by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Lauren Malin and Harry T. Jones

For the first entry in our virtual interview series, we got in touch with Welsh palaeontologist Professor Philip Donoghue for a chat about his extensive career, how he pioneered new research methods, how what happens in Swaledale may not stay there, and his lockdown garden.

Phil (left) with Peking University’s Professor Xiping Dong (right) on the hunt for fossilised embryos in the Cambrian strata of northern Hunan.

Hi Phil, so for starters, could you let us know a little about yourself? 

“Foremost, I’m a dad and husband – I was never a childhood fossil collector and I still don’t fondle fossils outside of work. My two boys keep me pretty busy, ferrying them around to sports activities and, increasingly, to and from late night parties. My poor wife, Mandy, is long-suffering, but it’s been some time since she’s had to help me collecting rock samples in dirty ditches; she remains terrified, however, whenever I drive through a road cutting, knowing that my eyes are anywhere other than on the road. I don’t have a tremendous amount of down-time and so the day-long cycle rides of my youth have given way to running, and run-commuting, allowing me to try and avoid becoming too lardy in a time-efficient way.”

When did you decide you wanted to be a geologist and later palaeontologist? Why these fields at all?

“Like many geologists, I migrated from physical geography to geology at A-Level. I was attracted by the way that geology made me see the natural world in a fundamentally new way – classic scales falling from eyes. I had to attend two schools simultaneously so that I could take geology at A-Level, but it was worth it for the inspiration that my geology teacher, Michael Merchant, provided. I vaguely recall wanting to be a coal geologist (well, I am Welsh!) but that was never going to work out, what with the contemporary closure of all the UK’s coal mines.
I didn’t get into palaeontology until I was some way through my undergraduate degree in geology at Leicester University. Dick Aldridge and David Siveter seduced me into the world of microfossils, once again revealing a teeny-tiny world previously unseen by me. I still remember being agog at what you can find in beach sand – at least when it comes from Dog’s Bay in Galway!”

You work across multiple disciplines to bring a more interconnected approach to your research. This has involved developing Molecular Palaeobiology. Could you please explain what this is?

“I have always exploited my research freedom as an excuse to learn about different organisms and different disciplines. You could accuse me of being a dilettante and I’d be banged to rights – but I’m having the most fun.
The idea behind Molecular Palaeobiology was that it is possible to address traditional problems in palaeontology using data and methods from molecular biology. We’re all quite familiar with the geological fossil record of evolutionary history, written in the form of fossils – but this same history is also written in the DNA of every cell in everybody. By comparing the same genes in a human and a chimp, we can infer the biology of our last ancestor; by comparison the same genes in a human and its gut bacteria, we can infer the biology of the last universal common ancestor of everything alive today. By combining fossils and genetic data, it’s even possible to estimate the ages of ancestors, ultimately estimating an evolutionary timescale – what could be more palaeontological than that?
But molecular biology is merely a complement to the fossil record; it is in no way superior. Some approaches in comparative molecular biology – like the inference of ancestors – are effectively untestable and therefore unscientific without the fossil record. Fossils and molecules are a winning combination and I wish more palaeontologists would adopt molecular approaches. To some extent, this has occurred through the embrace of phylogenetic comparative methods by palaeontologists, an approach that emerged from molecular phylogenetics, but most are embracing the methods without the molecular data! Horses and water!”

What has your work involved and what are a few things you’ve found out over the years?

“I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time over the past two decades working at the Swiss Light Source, a synchrotron facility near Zurich. There, we use monochromatic X-rays to characterise the structure of fossils and living creatures, studying fossil embryos, plants, skeletons, as well as developmental stages of their equivalents in living creatures. It’s an extraordinarily powerful technique that keeps me coming back for more, and it’s been the basis of a lot of research that I have been involved with over this period – trying to work out how conodonts and other early fish grew their teeth, attempting to solve the enigma of the Doushantuo ‘fossil embryos’ – whether they represent the earliest animals or something entirely different. We’ve also delved into the brain cavities of early vertebrates, and tried to uncover the evolutionary origin of the vertebrate skeleton. Synchrotrons run continuously, day and night, and so it can be exhausting work, but I still get a thrill from peering at fresh scans of fossils, seeing all their fine internal details, even though the fossils we study are usually so small that you cannot see them without a microscope.”

Vishruth Venkat, a then MSc Palaeobiology student, working at the TOMCAT beamlime of the Swiss Light Source, scanning tiny bits of old bone.

You’re the Director of Geology undergraduates at Bristol, as well previously lecturing here in Birmingham. Is teaching something you’ve always thought about pursuing?

“I think teaching is really important for practising scientists. Many academics try to keep their teaching and research lives separate, but that is so dull. Bristol has a ‘research-led teaching’ ethos but I have invariably taken the opposite approach, inspired to do research to fill gaps in knowledge discovered through teaching. For example, my geobiology course takes an integrative molecular palaeobiology approach to trying to understand the evolution of life in the Precambrian. I couldn’t find a credible evolutionary timescale for all of life and so we set up a project, led by PhD student Holly Betts, to produce one. Similarly, we have recently tried to gain new insight into the evolution of eukaryotes by studying how their organelles decay. The sequence of acquisition of eukaryote nuclei, mitochondria, and chloroplasts are the subject of great controversy and my undergraduate students pointed out that a bit of fossil data could really help. Emily Carlisle studied organelle decay in eukaryotic algae showing that organelles don’t decay quickly, as many have speculated, but hang around physically intact on timescales compatible with fossilization mechanisms.”

Was the announcement of Bifurderum donoghuei a surprise to you? Did you ever think you’d have something named after you?

“The first I knew of this was an email from my friend Chenyang Cai, with the published description attached. Chenyang’s message was ‘Hope you like Bifurderum donoghuei, a boring beetle entombed in Cretaceous amber. Haha’. I could read too much into why Chenyang was inspired to choose to bestow the honour of naming a boring beetle on me, but won’t. Jerzy Dzik also named a conodont after me a few years ago. I’m sure frenemies will start synonymising these species soon.”

You seem to be an avid gardener, but when did you first start this passion?

“I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of being a gardener, let alone an avid one! During lockdown, I decided that enough was enough and, after living in our Bristol home for 17 years, the time had come to actually turn the garden into something other than a very poor lawn. This is a rather embarrassing secret since I’ve been on the steering committee for the University Botanic Garden for about a decade, studiously avoiding inviting my fellow committee members to the house. Anyway, I’ve nerded-out and focussed on introducing plants into my garden that are of evolutionary significance. To my wife’s disappointment, this has not involved very much in the way of flowering plants, but I do have lots of lovely ferns, gymnosperms, lycophytes, as well as some carefully curated liverworts and mosses. The flowering plants I do have were bought because their pots included some very lovely liverworts!
In fact, I got a bit too excited during lockdown, buying a five metre long gabion (a wire cage planter that you line with rock) with the intention of reproducing a cross section through the geology of Bristol. To my wife’s relief (which may prove temporary), the gabion remains in the garage, forlorn.”

In your opinion, how could we all strive to make our world a little more green?

“Not by laying fake grass. Synthetic grass does my nut in.”

You’re currently an editor for the Journal of the Geological Society. How did you get involved with this and what does it entail?

“I was asked to become one of the editors for Journal of the Geological Society, serving as their specialist for palaeontology. I’ve been a member of the Geological Society since I was an undergraduate and I figured it was time to do my bit and try and promote palaeontology in the journal. I instituted the ‘fossil lagerstatten series’ – short reviews of key sites of exceptional fossil preservation, bringing together what we know of the biology and the geology of these most important archives of evolutionary history. The authors I’ve invited to contribute have certainly delivered with a series of cutting edge, beautifully illustrated synopses that I think are proving useful to the community.”

You’ve achieved many awards over your career, including the Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2004. Thinking back, do you remember your very first accolade and how did it feel when you were awarded it?

“I guess that my first accolade was the Sylvester-Bradley Prize in Leicester Geology. I don’t know whether they still do it, but they used to hold an annual competition for graduate students, the prize being the bank-rolling of attending and presenting at an international conference. The competition was always stiff and I was so pleased to win in my year, paying for my first conference – in Australia! It was also my first ever flight – quite the initiation!”

Phil teaching students in the field, in this case, Arran.

What would you say has been your best fieldwork experience?

“Being in the field is the best antidote to having spent long periods in the office. However, it’s the unplanned interaction with colleagues that can be the most entertaining. My first exposure to UK conodont community was the first of what became an annual feature of the weekend before the Palaeontological Association conferences. We arranged accommodation at a wonderful pub in Swaledale and spent the whole first night arguing about whether conodonts had a standard dentition of 15 or 17 teeth – it continued until the wee hours of the morning, long after the bar staff had retired and left us to run the bar. We met our local guide, John Varker, in the field the next day; he’d had the sense to drive up from Leeds rather than stay over. He was a little worried about one of my colleagues who he thought looked ‘a bit peeky’. Most importantly, I think we all now agree that conodonts had a standard dentition of 15 teeth.”

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

“So many students I meet already knew they wanted to palaeontologists from the age of 6 – even down to the type of beasties they want to spend their career studying. I find this quite scary. My advice would be to focus on learning new methods, not on the group to which they are applied. You can become excited about any fossil group if you study it deeply enough – perhaps excepting Ordovician brachiopods. If you focus on methods that have broad applicability, then you have the flexibility to apply them to any group and any time interval. Winning research funding is key to building a successful palaeontological career and the flexibility of being methods-, rather than taxon-, focused allows you to adapt to the whims of whatever the funding zeitgeist happens to be.”

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

“OMG! I don’t know any weird palaeo facts! I’ve wracked my brain for a week and cannot think of anything! I feel like a failure.”

I’d like to wish a massive thank you to Phil for being our very first interviewee and for giving entertaining insights into his life. For more information about Phil, or to find out how to contact him, follow these links to his Twitter, LinkedIn, and academic profile!