E4 Doctoral Training Partnership

Fred Bowyer

Triggering the Cambrian Explosion: Carbon Cycle reorganisation and the rise of Metazoans

 This PhD was hosted in the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, in partnership with the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds.   

Keeping up to date with the literature is extremely important if you want your PhD to end up contributing something novel.

Fred Bowyer on fieldwork in Namibia
Fred Bowyer on fieldwork in Namibia (Photo F.Bowyer)

What was your research about?

The focus of my PhD concerned the environmental conditions that accompanied evolution of the earliest putative animal fossils in the geological record. The origin and diversification of animals in the late Ediacaran Period (~570 – 540 million years ago) has long been proposed to reflect an increase in marine dissolved oxygen concentration necessary to fuel metabolically active ecologies. As such, the primary aim of my PhD was to help characterise the co-evolution of marine redox conditions and peculiar fossil forms represented in a variety of palaeoenvironments of this time interval. The majority of my research concerned terminal Ediacaran rocks and fossils from southern Namibia and I was very lucky to be invited along on field expeditions to Namibia three times during my PhD.

Why made you apply to the E3 DTP?

Four years ago I was undertaking a MEarthSci at the University of Edinburgh and already ankle-deep in a related field of study. When a PhD position was advertised that fitted my interests, the opportunity to continue research in this area was too perfect to pass by. Being funded by the E3 DTP was another extremely attractive factor as it would mean being part of a cohort and sharing the journey. I also really love Edinburgh and didn’t feel ready to leave it.

PhD Highlights

  • Carrying out fieldwork for me involved working with great scientists and great friends, surviving near-fatal car accidents, running full-pelt down enormous sand dunes whilst listening to M83, stumbling together across a significant and undescribed fossil ecology, having amazing wine around a campfire whilst drowning in the Milky Way and tying myself down to a disused railway line/Ostrich highway on the edge of the Namib Desert diamond mining area.
  • Laboratory work involved learning, employing and setting up chemical techniques to digest my rock samples, gazing for hours into a luminescent mosaic sliver of my sample to reconstruct cement stratigraphy on a micron-scale, integrating data collected by like-minded individuals from Ediacaran sections the world over and relinquishing my hard-earned sample solutions to the ionisation efficiency of a plasma as hot as the surface of the sun.
  • My final year included co-supervising a Masters student and attempting to teach him everything I’d learnt in 4 years of study. No small feat for either of us but there’s nothing like teaching somebody to test the depths of your knowledge. Suffice it to say, I’m proud of us both.
  • Attending a small conference in Newfoundland in June 2017, undertaking a professional internship at the BGS and spending the last two months before graduation at a research institution in Nanjing have given me the opportunity to meet some of the lead researchers in my study area and make great friends and, I hope, future research collaborators!

What did you find challenging in your PhD?

I think the majority of people would agree(?) that a PhD rarely follows a concrete path set out before you. During my PhD, I felt that the knowledge gain was exponential. My first year was spent getting up to speed with the (rapidly growing) literature and forcefully pushing it all down into my jack-in-the-box memory. Thankfully, the coiled spring in the jack-in-the-box metaphor of my mind eventually wore down sufficiently, enabling me to hold more information by my third year. I think that keeping up to date with the literature is extremely important if you want your PhD to end up contributing something novel.

One thing that I (arguably) did very badly at the beginning was balance out work with play. It’s important to give yourself a break regularly and refresh.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

If I went back and did the entire PhD again, I would make a more concerted effort to better organise my time. One thing that I (arguably) did very badly at the beginning was balance out work with play. It’s important to give yourself a break regularly and refresh.

Also, my best advice would be not to sit down for extremely prolonged periods. It isn’t good for you but it’s almost inevitable some days. Make sure to sit up straight and take short walks during the day, especially when it comes to writing up. This might seem trivial but… well, just trust me.

Which aspects of your PhD did you enjoy the most?

It was a real adventure helping to plan and carry out fieldwork each time. Going out there and making justified decisions on the selection of primary samples, which future analyses would eventually transform into data, was thrilling. Each field expedition really allowed me to take ownership of my project and I’m really grateful for being given that opportunity.

Secondly, attending conferences and meeting other researchers in your field is always very exciting and a lot of fun. At first, you inevitably come face to face with people who you only subsequently (if you’re me) realise have written some of the most important papers in your research field. Then, when you realise they aren’t up in the clouds somewhere, you can have extremely insightful conversations on things about which you’re mutually passionate. You might even go karaoke-ing.

Which skills did you gain during your PhD?

I learnt a number of geochemical solution techniques for targeted elemental extraction and bulk dissolution. Namely, a sequential iron leach procedure, a pyrite extraction in boiling chromous chloride and a full digestion method using bone-melting hydrofluoric acid. During a 3-month NERC DTP-funded professional internship, I also learnt the laboratory method and calculation for radiometric U-Pb zircon dating via chemical abrasion isotope dilution thermal ionisation mass spectrometry (CA-ID-TIMS). I learnt to use and interpret information gleaned through combined cathodoluminescence microscopy, electron microprobe and X-Ray diffraction analyses. More generally, I learnt how to interpret numerous geochemical systems relating to diagenetic vs primary signals of elemental enrichment and isotopic composition in sedimentary rocks. Finally, I learnt numerous field-related techniques for geochemical sampling and palaeoecological data collection.

General work skills I’ve learnt during my PhD include time management and management of a reasonable workload, how to write concisely (contrary to this description) and scientifically, and how to present complicated information to a broad audience, including leaders in a research field.

Each field expedition really allowed me to take ownership of my project and I’m really grateful for being given that opportunity.

What would not have been possible without the DTP?

I was funded by the E3 DTP to carry out a Professional Internship at the British Geological Survey (Keyworth) and work with a leader in the field of radiometric zircon dating. This would not have been possible without PIP funding and the experience I gained during my time at the BGS has given me a significant leg-up in both understanding and technical capability.

The DTP also provided me with an additional 3 month professional development scholarship (PDS) for the purpose of writing a Fellowship application. This has been extremely significant in helping me to prepare and plan the continuation of my academic career.

How has your PhD helped you to decide on a career path?

Though a PhD can, at times, be stressful (especially when deadlines loom) and academic careers are fraught with stepping stone funding applications, I find that my interest in the subject of my PhD is ongoing. As such, I would ideally like to continue research in this field by means of either a postdoc or a research fellowship.

And now?

I am currently undertaking a funded research placement at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology Academia Sinica (NIGPAS) prior to my graduation in November. The hunt for a postdoc continues but I am awaiting two interviews, which will take place over Skype in October.