Anatomy · Degree Talk

Skull scans and snazzy science.

The lab is small, and dark – convenient for my sensory preferences, as well as the other goings-on in the room; there’s a box of bones behind me containing a buttload of skulls and I am EXCITED. If you told 16 year old me that my future was in science I would lean back, cross my arms, raise my right eyebrow, and say – with the most disbelieving voice I could muster – “riiiiiight”. Throughout secondary school, I did not find science an accessible subject. I was in the lowest set; worn down teachers tried in vain to battle against the attitudes of my teenage peers, apparently unable to create a supportive learning environment rather than one which made me anxious and frustrated. So I grew to hate science by the time my GCSE’s came around. I didn’t even consider taking it as an a-level. Now, at almost 26 years old, I am sat in a laboratory scanning Cheetah skulls for my MSc thesis, which I now think is pretty darn cool.

Very broadly speaking, I am researching the cranial morphology of cheetahs, and investigating whether it differs between captive and wild populations. Bones essentially grow to what the muscles require of them – the bulkier your muscles are, the more muscle attachment points you need, so the bigger the bones get. So we might expect captive animals, who don’t capturing, dispatch, and consume prey in the same way as wild conspecifics, to have a different skull morphology to that of free-living individuals.  I could babble on for ages about it, but that’s the short version so you don’t have to get too bored with me. Anyhow, it’s a pretty neat idea, and I’m excited to see the outcome.

Using various museum collections from around Europe, I’m doing something called “geometric morphometrics”. I’ll be creating 3D image surface models unique to each cranium by scanning every skull from multiple angles. I then have to stitch bits together, align them, and clean any noise up on t’ computer. It’s pretty hard going, in terms of time, but I am a nerd and therefore find it ridonkulously therapeutic and kinda fun.The daunting bit starts once the models are constructed. There’s a lot of seriously snazzy science I’ve got to get to grips with…and oh! the dreaded data analysis! I’m keeping a level-head about it, thus far. It will be hard but I’m determined to do exceptionally well, so am already preparing myself for post-data collection struggles. Besides, every good scientist should be prepared for things to go squiffy at any moment, as is the nature of working with animals – even dead ones.

So, back to it! It’s only a fleeting visit to the blog today, but feel free to leave questions or -alternatively – post me delicious goodies for to combat science-brain fatigue!

Laters, gang!


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