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“I identify a problem that I think is interesting”

Susannah Maidment is a palaeontologist and Principal Researcher in the Fossil Reptiles, Amphibians and Birds section of the Natural History Museum, London, UK

24 May 2023

Pictured, above: Susannah Maidment working in the field (Image credit: Christopher Dean)

Tell us about your research

The first strand of my research focuses on the systematics and taxonomy of dinosaurs, which is the description and naming of new species and revision of existing species. It also involves analysing evolutionary relationships between dinosaurs to understand how and when they evolved. My work centres on the bird-hipped (ornithischian) dinosaurs, particularly the armoured dinosaurs, which includes taxa like Stegosaurus and Ankylosaurus.

For the second strand of my research, I study major dinosaur-bearing sequences to understand palaeoenvironments, the environments the dinosaurs lived in, and how fossil preservation impacts our understanding of evolution. This research focuses on the Middle Jurassic of the Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco, the Late Jurassic of the western USA, and the Early Cretaceous of southern England (the Wealden Group).

The final strand of my research looks at dinosaur locomotion. The first dinosaurs were two-legged, but they became four-legged on multiple occasions during their evolution; this is a very rare evolutionary transition. To understand the tempo of and causes behind this transition, I study the morphological changes that took place and the biomechanical consequences of those changes.

What’s a typical day for you?

There’s really no such thing. I work in the Museum three or four days a week, and at home one or two days. At home, I focus on research: writing grants and papers and carrying out computational analyses. At the Museum, my days are very diverse. Part of my job is to oversee the UK’s national dinosaur and fossil crocodile collections, and I facilitate external researchers who want to study our specimens.

A massive and ongoing job is cataloguing specimens on our online database. I ensure that all specimens are correctly labelled, housed in conservation-grade materials, and that the information we have about them is up to date. Our collections are used heavily for public engagement, so I spend quite a lot of time photographing specimens or scanning them in our 3D and computerised tomography (CT) visualisation labs.

I also supervise six PhD students, all of whom are working on various aspects of ornithischian dinosaur systematics, functional morphology, biomechanics, and even sedimentology. As a member of the editorial board for the Palaeontological Association’s journals Palaeontology and Papers in Palaeontology, I read and handle the peer review process for several papers a week.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to work in your field? 

Palaeontology is extremely competitive to get into. My best advice would be not to specialise too early as a student. I think a broad degree, in geology or biology, is a better bet than a degree in palaeontology, because it gives you more career options if palaeontology doesn’t work out. You’re just as likely to be able to get onto a master’s or PhD programme with a general degree – you can choose your specialism at that stage. 

What’s your favourite thing about your work?

I enjoy the diversity of tasks, but my favourite thing, from a research point of view, is that I essentially get to do what I want (within reason). I identify a problem that I think is interesting and come up with a way of testing or solving it. No one tells me what I have to do every day.

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