Talking with… Thomas Clements

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

Our next interview features Doctor Thomas Clements, who takes us on a tour of taphonomy. Learn how school children made him a national winner; the link between gaming and palaeontology; and the ethical issues and mental wellbeing that are important to discuss in every field.

“Undertaking decay experiments is a smelly job and sometimes requires a gasmask! Doesn’t stop the smell getting in your hair though 🙁 ”

Hi Thomas, thank you for getting involved with the series. As usual, could you start by letting us know about yourself?

“Hello! Professionally, I am a taphonomist – someone who studies how animals turn into fossils (more on that later).
On the personal side, I am the worst jack of all trades, master of none. I’m a very ‘outdoorsy’ person. I enjoy hiking, camping and love playing sports – particularly hockey, cycling, cricket, and football. Unfortunately, I am nursing a torn ACL at the moment and awaiting surgery, so these things are kind of on hold at the moment (not to mention lockdown anyway). I also love the sea. I love nothing more than being in/on/near/around/within viewing distance of the ocean. I was born near the coast and I think saltwater runs through my veins. I really enjoy swimming, snorkelling, and I’m desperate to do more diving.  Other things I enjoy are photography (although I’m distinctly average at it), making and editing videos, and digital drawing. I suppose that I spend most of my free time at the moment playing video games. I am a sucker for losing myself in a good game.”

All sounds very active, and we hope you get that surgery as soon as possible. So, when did you decide you wanted to be a palaeontologist? Did you always know it was where you’d end up when starting your Geology BSc in Brighton?

“As a kid growing up on the south coast, I had spent some weekends fossil hunting, but I had never considered you could have a career as a palaeontologist. I didn’t do very well at school, leaving school with practically no A-levels. I ended up doing several disparate jobs, while all my friends went off to university. I was not very happy, so I decided to retake my exams.
It was around this time that I went to London with some friends for the first time and we ended up going to the Natural History Museum. I bumped into a chap carrying a slab of trilobites and I asked him how I could get a job there working on fossils. He told me to go to university and study Geology.  So I did. I actually wanted to work on dinosaurs (shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone) and the idea of studying ancient diseases and injuries really captured my imagination.
I didn’t really have any idea about where I wanted to go to university. I visited several universities around the country. Last on my list of universities was Brighton and when I visited it instantly felt right – the university was pretty chill and had a really broad geoscience course which appealed to me. Also, I really wanted to live somewhere busy, fun, and near the ocean – Brighton ticked all those boxes for me! I had a great experience, and the course was brilliant. I’m particularly thankful about the people I met there, who are still my best friends, and they helped me have three of the best years of my life. But, it wasn’t until my master’s in Bristol that I learnt about taphonomy and decided that I wanted to specialise in this field.”

As you mentioned, you study taphonomic processes, but what does that mean?

“The simplest way of explaining taphonomy is that it is the study of what happens to an organism after it dies and the processes that allow it (or don’t!) to become rock – what we would call a fossil.  It’s a really fascinating subject and it underpins all of palaeontology…
Once living material dies, it is recycled by other organisms – either by scavenging or decay (eaten by bacteria). This process continues until all the organics, everything from skin, to hair to bones, are completely obliterated. This is the normal state of things and 99.99% of all organisms undergo this process after they die.
Sometimes, very rarely, special environmental factors can disrupt the recycling of organics. It could be as simple as an organism dying and being buried in sediment that is cold and has a very low oxygen content (i.e. at the bottom of a deep lake). These environments may slow decay down just enough to allow geological processes to act. Decay will still happen, but the parts of the animal that take the longest to decay – the ‘hard’ parts of the animal (bones, teeth, and shells) – are the most likely to survive and turn into rock. This is why most of the fossils we see in museums are skeletons and shells.
My research focuses on even rarer fossils still! Some ancient environments were very special, because a unique combination of factors disrupted the natural recycling of organics to an even greater extent. For whatever reason, not only the hard parts of animals become rock, but also the soft-tissues (like muscles, skin and organs) can become preserved. Normally, this happens because the soft-tissues are overgrown and replaced by geological minerals in a process we call ‘mineralisation’. These minerals are amazing because they can preserve tissues with exceptional fidelity – in some fossils you can even see the individual cells of muscle fibres under a microscope! These fossils are spectacular and really important to palaeontologists for 2 reasons: 1) they tell us much more about the animals, allowing us to better reconstruct them – they can even allow us to ascertain the colour of the ancient animal! 2) Not all animals have skeletons – think of a worm or an octopus. Normally, we would know very little about the evolution of these animals, but these special ancient environments had the right conditions to allow these squishy animals to become fossils.
My job is to try to understand a) what ancient environmental conditions are required for these types of fossils to form, and b) how the minerals actually replace the soft-tissues. It’s incredibly complex but fascinating. It involves understanding the interactions between geology, biology, and chemistry. My work is also different from what people consider to be traditional palaeontology, because I don’t have to work on one type of animal and much of my work is experimental. I spend a fair amount of time  in the lab, where we observe organisms decaying. The experiments are smelly and gross, but it is very interesting!”

“Teaching dissections and setting up a decay experiment investigating the controls on phosphatic preservation, with Yujing Li (Yunnan University).”

You’ve moved around a lot with your studies and career, Brighton, Bristol, Leicester, now Birmingham. Is travelling around the country something you’ve enjoyed, and where was your favourite place to live?

“To be honest, I have pretty mixed feelings about moving around so much. When I was younger, it was amazing because you get to explore new places and that is fun. Living in different cities and different countries (my first post-doc was in the Republic of Ireland) introduces you to new people, cultures, traditions, and ideas, and really expands your character.
The downside of moving around constantly is that it is very expensive and can take a toll on your mental health. We (academics) all know that the financial aspect is a massive barrier to staying in science and this is something we should talk about more, because I would not have been able to financially survive without the support of my mother, and that is a massive privilege that not everyone has.
I spent a fair amount of time trying to think about which place was my favourite, and each city/town has its own charm so I couldn’t choose. To be honest, my goal is to live anywhere in proximity to the sea or a forest. Preferably with a good internet connection. That’s the dream!”

Sticking with travel, over the last five years you’ve spoken at many global conferences. How do you find these experiences, both personally and professionally? Meeting new people and seeing new places all the time must be one of the perks?

“I love giving talks – its probably my favourite part of the job. Most people who know me probably think that I am a very outgoing, confident person. That is all true – but, behind my cocky bravado, I have to admit that I suffer from terrible anxiety. I get tremendously nervous and will often not be able to eat or sit still before a talk. I am very hypercritical of myself and my work, and am definitely my own worst enemy. But when it’s time to stand up in front of people it just kind of clicks. Normally, I focus really hard on getting through the first sentence or two and then the adrenaline rush kicks in and carries me through. Sometimes, I have had talks and job interviews where the fear gets the better of me, and I turn into an incoherent gibbering wreck. I have learnt from lots of practice that pausing, taking a deep breath and starting over is absolutely okay. The thing I try to tell myself is that the audience are human beings and, unless they are psychopaths, they want to hear what you are saying and want you to do well.
In answer to the second part of the question – yes, meeting new people is absolutely ace and I have made many long lasting friendships all over the world from events I have attended. Travelling definitely is one of the perks of the job!”

“I was asked to participate at a press conference at EGU on my PhD work. I talked about my experiments investigating the controls on phosphatic preservation and tbh it was a bit of a car crash…”
“Presenting research on the affinity of Tullimonstrum during FossilFest at the Burpee Museum, Illinois, USA. Being invited as a key note was probably one of the highlights of my PhD.”

You’ve won quite a few prizes because of your work, but which do you think you were most proud of winning and why?

“I think I am most proud of my ‘I’m a Scientist, Get me Out of Here’ prize. It’s a national competition that runs over two weeks where you compete against four other scientists to answer questions from school kids from all across the UK who ask you anything (and everything!) over virtual hangouts. I got questions ranging from ‘how do volcanoes work?’ to ‘how do sharks smell?’, to ‘why is the Milky Way named after a chocolate bar?’ Every few days the kids vote one of the scientists off until there is only one left. It was great fun and chatting with the kids was at times utterly hilarious. It was also a really great way of getting the students enthusiastic about science. If you ever get a chance to take part, I would highly recommend it.
Academically, my favourite is the talk prize at Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy. As a taphonomist, I work on both vertebrates and invertebrates, but I’m most well known (especially on social media) for my love of invertebrates, especially cephalopods. I think most people think I am an invertebrate worker, so I like to remind them that I am an award winning vertebrate palaeontologist. It’s the little things in life, you know?”

That sounds brilliant, well done on both of those victories. Continuing, what has been your best fieldwork experience?

“I’m very fortunate to have done fieldwork in many amazing places. The obvious choice of the best fieldwork was the work I did in rural Illinois during my PhD. Visiting the area of the Mazon Creek to look for concretions with my supervisor, Prof. Sarah Gabbott (University of Leicester) was brilliant. The weather was great, I lost my passport, we road tripped in a very fancy BMW, we got to experience lots of Americana (such as the vast amount of firearms at every house we visited), and I got to eat my bodyweight in pancakes… oh, and we collected great data and found lots of fossils!”

“Collecting in situ concretions is very difficult in the Mazon area due to the lack of exposure. One method is using a garden hoe to scoop them out of the river bed. Despite being called a creek, the river is very powerful and utterly freezing.”

You’re a frequent reviewer of publications, and recently you’ve run in the PalAss election for the role of Book Editor. How come you’ve decided to take on these responsibilities alongside your work and how do you find fitting them into your no-doubt busy schedule?

“Reviewing papers is a really important part of science. All our work is peer reviewed, so an important part of our job is using our expertise to critically assess others’ work. It’s quite nerve-wracking having that responsibility, but it is a privilege to be asked and be part of the scientific community.
The book editor role with the Palaeontological Association came about because the current book editor was on sabbatical so I volunteered to help out in the role (I was already a council member). I really enjoyed the role, and there are lots of things that I think could modernise the role and incorporate less traditional media that the PalAss hasn’t embraced yet. I just got elected to the role, so now I need to make good on my manifesto…
Fitting these things in is difficult. Becoming overwhelmed is very easy and can cause a lot of anxiety. I have really suffered from this in the past, but learning to say no to things is the first step, but that can be difficult. I do struggle with this a lot, but I’ve become very good at making lists everyday and surrounding myself with supportive friends and allies.”

Congratulations again, you must be really proud. So, our next topic is science communication. Outreach seems to be a big part of your life, from the aforementioned ‘I’m a Scientist, Get me Out of Here’ to your organisation of TaphCon 2020. What initially inspired your interest in outreach, and is teaching something you would like to pursue more?

“Most people know what fossils are, but very few have seen them outside of a museum or on TV. The simplest activity, like going out into the world with a box of fossils that people can run their fingers over and feel, brings these inanimate objects to life, millions of years after they died. There are few things as rewarding in our line of work than watching a smile creep across someone’s face when they hold an ammonite shell, fossil dinosaur claw, or a giant fossil poop. Fossils are wondrous things, and they are a gateway into science – look at how I got into this field! You don’t need to be super smart, or great at maths, you just have to be curious. And to me, that is why public engagement is so important. When I was at school, no one really talked to us about jobs. We had career fairs, but mostly we were told to go to university to become a lawyer or doctor or teacher. I had no real idea about earth science in general, and I think this is the case for most students in the UK. Any way of introducing and enthusing people to the subject is a win in my book.”

Another form of SciComm is educational video, and along with YouTube, you’ve recently started the Palaeoparty! podcast with Emma Dunne and Christopher Dean. Have you been enjoying these exploits, and are they something you’re looking to continue in the future?

“I have always enjoyed filmmaking. Recently, during lockdown, I started making some mini-documentaries which was really fun. I’m also part of a team leading a project called Palaeocast Gaming Network, where we get palaeontologists to play computer games and talk about the science behind them. That’s been really fun and it’s surprisingly popular – although it is really tricky to talk about science while playing some of the more intense games!
My most recent endeavour, alongside Emma and Chris, has been the creation of Palaeoparty! I’ve always wanted to do a podcast, because I really enjoy listening to them and I think they are a great medium. There are quite a few well established palaeontology podcasts, and we really wanted to do something different that incorporated the science in a fun and accessible way. After doing an event in support of Black Lives Matter, we came up with the idea of live streaming each episode, so the audience can interact and ask questions to us and the guests we invite on the show in real time. We thought this would be the major attraction of the show, because while fossils are very popular, it’s not often that the public has direct access to palaeontologists. It’s been a lot of fun, we have had some great chats and the feedback we are getting is very positive. We are at the end of our first season now and all the podcasts are available online, but we have some crazy schemes we want to try out in the future so stay tuned!”

“Good taphonomic work involves combining laboratory experiments with real world observations, which often necessitates fieldwork. Recently, I undertook fieldwork in China while investigating the taphonomy of the Jehol biota.”

We’ll be sure to keep watching that space, can’t wait to see what you’ve got up your sleeves. So, do you have any helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists?

“Read. As much as you can. Don’t focus on the one thing you are interested in (I’m looking at you dinosaur fans). Read about new methods, the techniques and sub-disciplines. Read about the history of palaeontology. Read about the issues within the field and the ethics. Having a broad knowledge will set you in really good stead for a career in this field.”

Finally, our staple last question. What’s a weird palaeo fact you think people should know?

“One of my favourite palaeo-facts is that we have names for fossil poo (coprolite), fossil vomit (regurgitite), and the last meal found inside a fossilised animal (comsumalite). In fact, any fossil that pertains to the digestive system of an animal is called a bromalite.”

I’d like to finish with a big thank you to Thomas for giving us his time and his brilliant answers about such a variety of topics. For more information about Thomas, or to find out how to contact him, click these links to see his personal website, Twitter, and Instagram. Likewise, be sure to catch up on the first series of Palaeoparty! and visit the Palaeocast Gaming Network.