NAME: Alfio Alessandro Chiarenza
CURRENT TITLE: I’m a PhD student in Palaeontology at the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, focusing on North American dinosaur palaeoecology.
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Dinosaur Palaeontology/Palaeoecology
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: I started doing fieldwork since my undergraduate years, both in Italy and abroad. Most importantly, under a bachelor internship in 2010, I worked on Upper Cretaceous sites in Northern Spain with the crew from the Catalan Institute of Palaeontology, and in 2011, I had the honor of working for two months in the badlands of Montana with the Museum of the Rockies crew, under the supervision of the legendary Jack Horner.
EDUCATION: I got my MSc in Evolutionary Biology in 2014 at the University of Bologna (Italy) with a dissertation on sauropod caudal morphometrics and functional morphology. My BSc (2012) was in Natural Science at the University of Catania (Italy) and for my Bachelor dissertation, I described a Stenopterygius specimen (an ichthyosaur genus from the Early Jurassic of Germany), its comparative anatomy, phylogeney and palaeoecological implications. I have published so far on ichthyosaurs (both from my Bachelor thesis and from new specimens found in the Upper Triassic of Sicily), the youngest evidence of a Metriorhynchids (marine crocodiles from the Early Cretaceous of Sicily), and Late Cretaceous theropods from Northern Africa.
What’s your job like?
As a PhD student, my main focus right now is on producing new original research. In particular, I’m looking into new computational methods to incorporate both geological and paleontological data in order to get a new picture of dinosaur palaeocology, especially in the Late Cretaceous of North America. This was a timeframe that we know had a pivotal role in the History of the Earth. It was a predominant greenhouse world and the emergence and decline of many important taxonomic groups led to one of the most radical biological crisis that the planet ever had.
What’s a typical day like?
Being based in London, my working day starts with the messy and crowded tube to the beautiful South Kensington area, where I walk by the magnificent Natural History Museum building and reach my department (5 minute walk from the Museum/Tube station). There, I sit at my desk. I usually check emails and search to see if something cool or relevant was published in the morning (new specimens or relevant new methods). Then I start working on my PhD project (or other side projects if there are any). I particularly enjoy my work, so I usually get only two breaks a day including one around 11:00 a.m. for coffee with other PhD students or postdocs from my department, and one around 1:00 p.m. for lunch. I usually leave around 7:00 p.m., but it may vary depending on the amount of work that I need to do. This routine, of course, can change if I have meetings (either with supervisors in the department or away from the university) or if there are lectures where demonstrators are required (usually during the spring term, where most paleontology courses are run at Imperial).
Everything can be quite exciting in palaeontology, if you really love it. After all, you have been dreaming for this kind of life since you were 4 years old, maybe. From reading on the discovery of a new species just published by a colleague, to trying to figure out mathematical solutions to a palaeobiological problem, to doing fieldwork, to passing on your passion and enthusiasm to younger students on the subject…you could not ask for more.
Research is always challenging, especially when you are a doctoral student. People have high expectations of you and the quality of the research is required to be original and insightful. This is something that sometimes scares you and keeps you awake at night, but it can also provide positive essential energy. Deadlines can also be quite stressful, but part of being a PhD student is probably learning to deal with these things.
What’s your advice to students?
Dream big and do not give up if things seem to be too difficult or even impossible. This is a time in your life where you will encounter countless difficulties. Only going through this struggle can teach you how to know yourself, master your own skills, and use this knowledge and understanding to succeed. Also, don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Experience what you enjoy most but don’t neglect harsh subjects that may seem too far from paleontology. Master maths, physics, and informatics, even though they may take more time than you wished they would. These are essential skills for a scientist, which will make you also develop the patience you need in order to become a great and successful palaeontologist (which I am not, but these are the advice I would give to myself and that I am trying to follow right now!). Be a sceptic on anyone‘s ideas, maybe trying to work out new approaches to look at the same problems from different perspectives. Also, even though science nowadays seem to be more shifted toward more computational/modelling approaches, do not neglect life in the field. This is an important aspect of a geoscientist’s background that can provide a broad, more complete overview on your topic.