No, there is no boy

The person(s) who this post is directed at know themselves.

Since I returned to university, I get asked this annoying question too frequently, “Who is the boy?”, often prefixed by, “Nawa o, where have you been?” or “Why aren’t you answering you phone?” and “Answer your WhatsApp messages!”. Somehow my elusiveness could only be down to one thing: “She finally has a boyfriend”.

First of all, I feel offended that you think the only possible reason that I, a woman, could be preoccupied is some male individual of our species.  As a matter of fact, I am busy doing the thing I said I was coming here to do. I am immersed in dead, fossilised fish. I see and smell them everywhere I go. They are consuming my life and I haven’t even started doing any real work on them yet. I have just been trying to figure out what exactly fish are.

Clearly, I underestimated them. How hard can studying fish be? They swim, some fly. They taste nice when put on a grill with garlic, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. That was painfully naïve thinking. These things are swallowing me whole.

I am discovering that fish are probably the most complex animals ever to have existed. Their skull anatomy alone supersedes that of humans. The myriad of tiny bones and structures (oh my goodness, their dentition!) in their heads is driving me to constant migraines and stress eating. Not to talk of their diversity. When I think of how many different types of fish there are, I want to bury myself under a blanket and never come out. They make up half of all vertebrates today; but how many and what sort of fish there were is my interest as a palaeontologist in training.

I have spent the last four months staring at fish teeth, particularly that of pycnodonts which originated about 228 million years ago and went extinct between 56 to 33.9 million years ago. Although there are a number of full skeletons, most of the fossils we have are of their robust grinding teeth. So I’ve been attempting to learn how to identify different pycnodont species just by looking at their dentition. It’s been hard but certainly not boring. And I’m not just saying that because my supervisor reads this blog sometimes. I am really enjoying my work.

Examples of pycnodont fossils showing a near-complete skeleton and different types of teeth .  All images from Kriwet (2005). Scale bars = 10 mm.

So, there is no boy. For now, pycnodonts with their freaky teeth and pachycormids – giant fish that went extinct about 66 million years ago –  have my heart. And if I don’t pick your calls or answer your messages, I sincerely apologise. I am probably nursing a headache or so engrossed in work that I didn’t hear the phone ring.

Image|Leedsichthys, a giant pachycormid that reached up to 9 metres in length.

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My faith and my science

I often get asked this question when I tell people what I study, “How does that affect your faith? The Big Bang, evolution and all”. That’s a very valid question and I will probably flesh out answers some other time. I know for sure that my work and my Christian beliefs are not mutually exclusive. To what extent they mingle and interact with one another, I don’t know. However, seeing that Christ is the most solid rock in my life, it is difficult to see how anything could bulldozer its way through (but that doesn’t mean I don’t doubt sometimes).

I tend to ask myself a different question, one that is very important for the success of my future career: Does my faith affect my science? Does the fact that I am a Christian somehow slow down my scientific reasoning? Maybe not hampered mental faculties but do I see things from a different angle to other palaeontologists? Does my faith stop me from digging deep and asking critical questions on life, its origins and diversity, or do I ask a different variety of questions?

My unprocessed, impulsive answer is: Yes, of course beliefs play a role in my work. Sometimes when I reach a difficult concept, instead of trying to work my way through the issue, my brain just stops, stares at the complexity and praises God for His intricate beauty. At those times, just knowing that God designed it all is answer enough for me and I don’t give much thought to the how and the why.

Does this mean I am incapable of critical thinking? Surely not. Many revolutionary scientists in the western world were devout theists. Think of Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel and Isaac Newton. Moreover, for Faraday, his Christian faith was the driving force behind his science. He was fixated on the relationship between nature and God. Then again, a lot has changed since Michael Faraday’s day with the rise of the works of Darwin, Hubble and others. And perhaps his beliefs weren’t exactly as ‘conservative’ as mine.

So, I ask another question: Does my belief in Biblical inerrancy affect my studies? Should it affect my studies? It should and it definitely does; but not to the extent that one would presume because my subconscious is permanently engage in extreme compartmentalisation. From news from Nigeria to my love of British desserts to my friendships, everything gets its own mental box. These chests are only opened one at time. Never will you find two of them uncovered simultaneously. My Christianity doesn’t get a box. It is the very atmosphere that I exist in. When the science box is open and there are ideas and notions that are struggling to exist under the atmosphere of faith, I take them out real quick and dump them into a bin that’s always unlidded – the ignore it wastebasket. I don’t ignore the theory itself, just the controversy.  That’s how I deal with issues between science and Christianity. I know that this is not the best method. Not only because it makes me a coward but as I dump things into the wastebasket, I am also throwing away some associated critical thoughts (which are not necessarily controversial) that could help my work greatly – unavoidable collateral damage. This method also makes me guilty of faith that is blind and untested, and that’s not right

Well, I throw this question out to you. What do you think? Can I really be a Christian palaeontologist? Not the kind you see on TBN that are just out to prove people wrong with their extremely questionable research methods. As a person of faith, could I really work with my fossils and operate under the constraints of scientific theories?

Seaweed, Dinosaurs and More Seaweed

Image| The beach before we cleared it. Buried beneath the buffet of seaweed are dinosaur footprints.

So, I have just returned from the Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland, where we spent hours standing on a rocky beach in the cold, windy rain trying to study dinosaur footprints. I have a confession to make: I hate fieldwork. I  don’t like the climbing and falling and having to spend ages outdoors, especially in the winter. I am quite sure that I was next to useless to the team. Yet, in spite of the horrid weather, this trip wasn’t half bad. I enjoyed it.

It was a crash course on dinosaurs and ichnology. People think that as a palaeontologist I work mostly with dinosaurs. In reality, I know very little about them. They simply don’t turn me on. I am more interested in  mammals; although, at the moment, I am working on Jurassic fish (a story for another time). Ichnology is the branch of palaeontology that studies traces of organisms. So rather than looking at actual skeletal remains or anatomical imprints, the focus is on things like burrows, coprolites (fossilised poo; and yes, there are scientists who dedicate their time to studying this) and in this instance, footprints. From a dinosaur’s footprints, you can tell what sort of creature it was, its size, its manner of walking and whether or not it lived in a herd like elephants or was solitary like a tiger.

The footprints are fossilised on rock outcrops next to the sea. We had to clear tons of seaweed to actually see the tracks and work quickly to avoid being covered and drowned by incoming tide. I am still trying to get that fishy seaweed smell out of my life. Working in variable weather, we saw more than enough rainbows for a lifetime, and for the first time, I saw the end of one. Sorry, there was no pot of gold.

Anyhow, enjoy this picture of beautiful Skye!

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Prehistoric Forensics

I’m always afraid to write about science because I don’t think I am any good at communicating it.  I sometimes can be like that dreary secondary school Integrated Science teacher that has the gift of sending people to sleep just by opening her mouth.  Plus, I tend to get the impression that people (well, Nigerians) are generally uninterested.  But it’s my blog, so deal with it.

Palaeontology is the study of old dead things.  It is not a construct of the creators of the television series, Friends.  Scientists actually do this for a living, and I am studying to become one of them.  When I look at the fossil remains, examine their intricate detail and try to figure out what exactly the creature in my hand is, sometimes I feel like a detective.  I suppose I am one – well, a trainee.  Studying palaeontology is like being on CSI, but the fatalities you study are not people who were stabbed to death a mere few hours ago.  You investigate individuals that met their fate millions and hundreds of millions of years ago, before humans dreamed of existing.  In fact, I find my studies to be rather humbling.  I can’t help but be in awe of the scale and diversity of life that has ever existed before me and will ever exist after me.  These fossils have a way of putting me in my place, making me understand that I am tinier than a speck of dust in the grand scale of things.

On arrival at the scene, you get your notebook out and record what you see and what the present surroundings are like.  Then you search, take loads of photos and collect samples.  You do exactly the same things police investigators would do – brushing and scraping, microscopy, x-ray scans, modelling, and so much more.  You compare your findings with similar cases and the conclusions those investigators made.  You try to figure out what the remains are and what kind of life the creatures might have had.  Where did they live?  How did they live?  What did they like to eat?  What was their last meal before death?  When you answer these questions about your fossilised fatalities, then you can somehow work out what the surrounding environment used to be like when they were alive.  From fossils and the rocks they are found in, you discover that the UK used to be a hot tropical paradise, or that Africa, India, South America, Australia and Antarctica all used to be one big continent.

Why would anyone want to study things that are long gone?  Well, for one, without palaeontology there would be no Jurassic Park.  But what’s even more important, without understanding the past – where we came from – we will never appreciate where we are now and know where life will be.  At least, that’s what’s in it for me.

Image| Archaeopteryx