Winding back the clock with palaeontology: Meet Caitlin Syme

CaitlinSyme_Headshot_01Caitlin Syme is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland.

Her area of research is palaeontology, but more specifically, taphonomy – the science of death, decay, and how animal remains turn in to fossils. She thinks of taphonomy as part palaeontology ‘detective’ work and part forensic science.

Here, Caitlin explains how she has always been fascinated by ancient life on Earth and the fossils they leave behind.



SS: Caitlin, how did you get to your current position?

CS: I always knew I wanted to be a palaeontologist, so I wrote to my local museum palaeontology curator when I was in high school and asked what subjects I should study at university. They suggested I do a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Geology, as there wasn’t a specific palaeontology degree at my local university or any other Australian university at the time. So that’s exactly what I did! After I finished my BSc, I wanted take a break before I went straight in to a PhD, so I worked as an Environmental Consultant for about three-and-a-half years. During that time I volunteered for various fossil digs around the country, and went to palaeontology conferences to stay in the loop. I started searching online for Australian-based palaeontology labs, wrote to various lab leaders, and applied for a PhD at the University of Queensland. And now here I am!


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

CS: The sheer strangeness of ancient life on this planet fascinates me. As a child, I remember playing with dinosaur toys and thinking to myself, “These are like monsters, but they’re not made up. They really existed!” From that point I knew I wanted to study palaeontology. I was also really interested in archaeology. Is it something I was born with, the desire to study the past, or something contextual in my upbringing? I’m not entirely sure.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

CS: The amount of information you can gather from just one fossil is wonderful. The way that bones are positioned, whether they have any scratches, scrapes, or breaks, what’s missing, what colour they are, are all clues to how an animal died and ended up being buried and turned into a fossil. It’s almost like I can wind the clock backwards, starting with the final product (the fossil) and mentally undoing all the bone breaks, decay, and so on, until you end up back at the start with a living, breathing creature.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

CS: I love the idea that I can talk to people other than academics about my research. I can share what I love about science, and palaeontology specifically, with lots of other people. It’s also a great chance to hear what people find most interesting, and what they think is important to study, and to be thrown the odd curveball question that really makes me think!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

CS: Excitement!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

CS: If I can only choose one thing to change, it would be the inherent bias against women as competent scientists. That people judge you if your gender is implied by your name – if they see the same resume by ‘Mary’ versus ‘Mark’, that they automatically think that ‘Mark’ is a better scientist. Women shouldn’t have to work so much harder than their male counterparts just to be seen as equally successful and intelligent. A temporary solution is to block out names on resumes or from paper authorship, or to use first name initials only, but my name is part of my identity and I don’t want to lose that.



SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

CS: Make as many connections as you can through different platforms – whether it’s through social media (Twitter is particularly good for scientists), or by attending conferences, or going to local talks and presentations. It will also help you to see that you’re not alone, and other people might be struggling through the same issues you are. And then you get to join in when they celebrate successes, and you can use that energy to power your own work and future success!


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