This story was first published in Science Spin Magazine, Issue 43
“It’s exciting running experiments. I actually get to set fire to things in a laboratory for a living, and see what happens, and how they burn. Not many people can say that.”
So says, Dr Claire Belcher, a post-doctoral researcher based at UCD’s Palaeoecology and Palaeobiology Group, until recently when she took up a post in Edinburgh University. Claire has spent most of the past decade exploring the truth of the widely held theory that the dinosaurs died out because they were broiled alive, following a massive asteroid impact that caused a global firestorm to rage right across the surface of the Earth. It seems, however, from the studies of Claire and others, that the unfortunate dinosaurs were not broiled, but rather were frozen to death. The asteroid impact, which is not in dispute, happened, but it led to temperatures falling due to debris blocking out sunlight, rather than to a global firestorm.
Claire recalls first getting interested in science, at the age of five, and one of the early inspirations was a geology book her father had, called ‘Principles of Physical Geology’ by Arthur Holmes, which had lots of pictures of volcanoes. She found volcanoes really fascinating and wanted to learn more about them.
Later on in school, unsurprisingly, she loved her science and geography classes at school, although she ‘hated’ maths. Her science teachers, for the most part, were fairly young and enthusiastic about their job. In particular she enjoyed GCSE chemistry (the equivalent of our Junior Certificate) and A-level geography. The reason she enjoyed these particular classes was that the teachers had a fabulous sense of humour and this really helped to make the classes fun.
From secondary school level she always thought she’d do a degree in Geology, but, interestingly, she thought the best option might be to come back and do this as a mature student. The reason for this way of thinking was that Claire had wanted first to see if she had what it took to become a professional ballerina. She trained hard, four nights per week, from the age of nine to achieve this goal. However, one month after she was due to start full-time dance college, she had a change of heart, and began to ‘feel strange’ about the prospect of not learning science anymore. So, she decided, at the last minute, to apply for university. She was lucky in that there were still a few places left at Royal Holloway University, London, and she was accepted, and began studying for her B.Sc. in Geology in September 1997.
Claire immediately took to the university experience and enjoyed the learning thoroughly. She does remember thinking, however, that the new way of learning was quite hard, and almost overwhelming. The big change was in listening to a lecture as opposed to being taught in a more direct way in school. But, she soon adjusted and became drawn to palaeontology – the study of pre-historic life – a subject that she didn’t know much about before college.
She had always been attracted to the Earth Sciences, which encompasses the study of earthquakes, volcanoes, geological process, oceans, weather, and anything else that relates to the natural process on planet Earth. “I think my mind is fairly visually stimulated, so that I derive my ideas from being able to put them in a context of that which I can see around me,” Claire explained. “Earth science to me is like placing the pieces together of a jigsaw puzzle – you can collect fragments of information that you can see in the rocks and then piece them together using that which we can see in the world around us today.”
During her undergraduate studies, Claire became very interested in something called the ‘Cretaceous-Tertiary’ (K-T) geological boundary. This is the time in Earth’s history, about 65.5 million years ago, when, for reasons that are still in dispute, there were “mass extinctions” of many plant and animal species, including, most famously, the dinosaurs.
This mass extinction of species intrigued Claire, and she wanted to find out more. To this end, she began a PhD with the title: “Assessing the evidence for extensive wildfires at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary.” The dominant scientific theory to explain the extinctions was that a large asteroid hit the Earth, and this triggered huge forest fires around the globe, that, in turn, killed off much of the life that then existed on Earth. She wanted to test the theory.
She found evidence that indicated that wildfires could not have been as widespread at the K-T boundary as many scientists thought, and that there must, therefore, be some other explanation for what wiped out the dinosaurs. What the evidence now shows, according to Claire, is that there was indeed an asteroid impact that hit what is today the Yucatan Peninsula in modern Mexico, but that it did not cause forest fires. Because the asteroid hit an area that was under water at the time, huge amounts of seawater, dust and soot went up into the atmosphere, creating an ‘impact winter’ that cooled the Earth’s surface by 10C for decades and led to the extinction of ‘cold blooded’ dinosaurs that couldn’t keep warm.
In her relatively short career to date, Claire has had papers published in the world-famous science journals, Science and Nature. That brought recognition and it led to an appearance on a BBC Horizon programme entitled: What really killed the dinosaurs?
Claire puts her success at a young age down to hard work, and long hours in the lab, and at the computer. Unlike many scientists, she does not like to read scientific papers full of technical ‘jargon’ that have no real story to tell. This perhaps is something that underlies her excellent communication skills, and ability to tell a story that ordinary people will understand.
She is also highly motivated to solve puzzles, and gets excited when she manages to do so.
She felt fortunate to have worked as a post-doctoral student in the UCD laboratory of Dr Jennifer McElwain, a researcher who established a world’s first for the university, when she set up a €900,000 laboratory that could re-create ancient climate conditions, and test what plants would grow under particular circumstances.
Claire recently moved from UCD to Edinburgh where she will continue to study ancient fires as they impacted on the Earth, while based jointly between the departments of fire safety engineering and geo sciences. An ideal place for Claire to be, she says.
Claire’s average working day can vary. There are periods of time, perhaps months, where she would spend almost all her time in the laboratory, collecting data. The fun begins, however, she said, when the data is collected, and it is time to figure out what the data all means. Once an understanding of the data has been achieved, the next thing required is to communicate the results of that analysis to scientific colleagues, through scientific journals. A manuscript is drafted, and published by the journal, if it is considered sufficiently new and interesting.
There is also plenty of time spent travelling to national and international scientific conferences, presenting findings to other scientists and discussing ideas. The publication of research in leading journals, or speaking at important conferences, can be picked up by general media, who might decide it is something that the general public is interested in. This can sometimes lead to interviews with newspaper journalists and appearances on TV or radio shows.
She advises science students at secondary school, interested in becoming a scientist, to study hard first and foremost in science classes. However, she says that it is important to remember that being a university science researcher is not the only career path in science. “We can see science all around us,” said Claire. “It is what makes the world tick – from the internal combustion engine running your car, to the supports in your house holding up the roof. So science isn’t just about being in a lab and writing scientific papers. There are so many career opportunities the world over for people interested in science. Studying science can set you up for a career in some many exciting things”
That is not to say that like any job, there are things about being a scientist that Claire is not that happy about. The big one is the lack of job security these days for many university based scientists. Unlike decades past, when a job in a university was a job for life, with a great pension, and total security, these days, scientists typically work on short, three, or, if they are lucky, five year contracts. This can mean moving job every few years, and moving to difference countries. The downside here is that it can be hard to put down any roots in any particular place, or to maintain regular contact with family and friends.
“But this is also an exciting aspect as it gives you the opportunity to experience new places and people,” Claire said. “In terms of the science, I love being able to study things that I am interested in, to answer questions about the Earth in which we live.”
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