I was born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, although my mind is lost somewhere in the Jurassic. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a passion and interest for all things palaeontological. All I ever wanted to be was a palaeontologist and although I had encouragement from my family, living in a town where there were very few opportunities for would-be palaeontologists to gain experience of any sort, a career within this science seemed something so far away as to be unobtainable. I had always hoped to make a career in this field despite numerous individuals dismissing it as a ‘pipe dream’ and an ‘unachievable career’.
As a youngster, to gain what experience and knowledge I could, at every opportunity I collected and identified fossils, visited museums, attended fossil-related events and so on, which resulted in a wealth of experience and contacts. During my early-mid teen years, I began to look seriously at a career in palaeontology, but rapidly discovered that it was not going to be easy. There are only two options for would-be palaeontologists: either study for an undergraduate degree at university, and perhaps further undertake a postgraduate degree; or gain hands-on experience with museums/organisations and so on. Either way, I discovered that palaeontology is a very competitive field with far more palaeontologists than there are available jobs.
Between the ages of 16 and 18, I continued to read about the subject, collect fossils, and visit museums and societies. I had considered taking Science and Geology at A-level, but was told my grades were not good enough to be accepted. It was during this time that I decided to see if palaeontology was truly the subject I wanted to commit my entire life to. Unsure what to do, I initially completed a short course (Fossils and the History of Life) at the Open University, which my nan kindly paid for. However, after taking advice from various professionals and friends, I chose to hold off attending university to gain more detailed experience first and then decide whether palaeontology was a realistic career option. Therefore, I could, theoretically, attend university when I felt it necessary to progress my career further with a degree, and then perhaps undertake a PhD. This was a massive decision and something I did not take lightly. The first couple of years were particularly difficult, largely because I was trying to get my foot on the ladder.
I worked several jobs that I did not particularly like, and had to make numerous (and very real) sacrifices, including selling my Star Wars collection to fund my dreams! After saving enough funds, in order to further my professional experience in palaeontology, during the summer of 2008, at the age of 18, I travelled to Wyoming, USA. This was part of an almost four-month trip working with palaeontologists at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. This trip was to form the backbone of my career. It helped me to realise my future goals and aspirations to succeed in palaeontology. It changed my life.
I am an internationally recognised palaeontologist, and a world expert on early Jurassic ichthyosaurs (extinct sea-going reptiles). My works have included conducting research, doing fieldwork (managing quarries, excavating dinosaurs and other fossils), preparing and identifying fossils, and undertaking curatorial museum projects and much more. All this work has been fascinating and enjoyable in its own right, but it has also resulted in the publication of numerous peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals, presentations at conferences, articles for popular magazines, and the publication of books (with more planned).
Incidentally, I’ve had an increasingly prominent role as an ambassador for palaeontology, communicating this amazing and inclusive science to the public through a variety of means (public talks, special events, working with schools etc.). Perhaps most importantly, communicating science at the biggest scale, I appear frequently on TV and radio as an expert presenter, including as the series advisor and on-screen expert presenter for ITV's Dinosaur Britain – a two part series based largely on one of my books.
Since January 2013, I have been affiliated with The University of Manchester as a Visiting Scientist (academic), which includes mentoring students as a specialist advisor. Despite initially holding off attending university, I now have an MPhil in palaeontology from The University of Manchester (an ‘MPhil’ is a Master of Philosophy degree, a postgraduate research degree that lies between an MSc and a PhD in the hierarchy of academic qualifications), which I obtained without having an undergraduate degree. This is rare, but the opportunity to study was based on my previous contribution to palaeontology. My PhD research is ongoing.
The route I have taken in palaeontology has followed a more practical, hands-on approach, and has enabled me to work with some of the most incredible fossils in the world. As a result, I now have significantly more professional (research and practical) experience – and have published more academic papers than would be expected of anybody my age. Although my specialism is ichthyosaurs, which has included the description of new species (e.g. Ichthyosaurus anningae) and the discovery of one of the largest animals that ever lived (giant ichthyosaurs from the UK), my research interests are broad, which has resulted in publishing papers on other fossil groups. I have been given various prestigious awards for my contribution to palaeontology and science communication. This included winning a gold medal (G. J. Mendel Award) for excellence in science communication at the Houses of Parliament, London.
All of this now means I have an excellent network of professional contacts and a solid standing within the palaeontological community – without taking the traditional route through university to obtain an undergraduate degree. Thus, I thoroughly stand by my decision to take an alternative route into this science, to find my niche, because I feel I have greatly benefited from doing so. We need to find our own way in life and I feel that my passion and drive have brought me to where I currently am.
To forge a career in something so specialist as palaeontology takes considerable effort, with or without a degree. Therefore, I believe that – no matter what your background is, how you got to where you are, or where you’re going – it is passion, enthusiasm, dedication and exceptionally hard work that stand the test of time and get results. I am very grateful to all of my family (especially my nan and mum), and friends and colleagues who have helped me along the way. I hope that this inspires you to follow your dream.
"Follow your passion"