Please tell us about your work

Palaeo is a bit of a buzzword these days, thanks largely to the recognition of the Cradle of Mankind archaeological sites at Sterkfontein and Maropeng in recent years. The cradle has popularised human evolution in palaeontology, the study of prehistoric life, but there is more to South African palaeontology than human history. Palaeobiology is a more specialised area of palaeontology research, where scientists look at reconstructing the biology of extinct animals or other prehistoric life forms.

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To understand the differences, Anusuya says a palaeontologist is mainly interested in removing fossils from the ground and identifying them. But as a palaeobiologist, her primary research interest is not in the excavation of fossils – that’s a side story – but rather in reconstructing these animals as they once lived, by studying sections of their bones under a microscope. Within those ancient bones there are records of an animal’s life history. “Once the bones are excavated from the surrounding rock and prepared, then scientists like me work out what we can say about the biology of these animals. Examining thin bone sections under a microscope to see their microstructure, we can make deductions about the animal’s age, any possible diseases, the effect of its environment, and how it functioned and grew,” she explains.

As a vertebrate palaeobiologist, meaning she works on animals that have an internal body skeleton, Anusuya has published extensive research on dinosaurs, and also on their relationship to early birds. “Most palaeontologists consider dinosaurs to be ancestors of modern birds, so I’ve studied early birds, and tried to work out how the transition from non-avian dinosaurs to birds evolved,” she says. Anusuya has also studied the fossilised bone microstructure of flying reptiles called pterosaurs.

The common thread in all her research is in trying to unravel the biological signals recorded in fossil bones. Age and environment aside, these bones can provide information about whether a bird was moulting, laying eggs or diseased, before it died millions of years ago.

What did you study?

Anusuya studied a science degree at University of the Witwatersrand, with the intention of doing a postgraduate Diploma in Education to become a teacher. But in the final year of her science degree she discovered palaeontology – and continued with an honours degree that included a palaeontology module.

“I liked the idea that there was no animal sacrifice, that I was working with animals that were long dead, and that with my knowledge of biology I was able to reconstruct animals we know so little about,”

She continued with a Masters and PhD degree in Science, specialising in palaeontologyand a Post-Doc in PaleoBiology.

Normally any academic has both a research and teaching component in their work. Anusuya loves both aspects of the job (she completed a Higher Diploma in Education to qualify as a teacher too, but it isn’t a requirement). “Of course, as head of department I have extra admin responsibilities,” she says. “But being able to lecture and to do the research is really wonderful. I thoroughly enjoy engaging with my students and being able to give them cutting-edge information. So when I teach it’s not only from a textbook but also from our lab research, or from a new published paper.”

Palaeobiology is a career that involves both laboratory and field work, so if you don’t like lab work it isn’t a sensible career choice. The amount of field work usually depends on an individual palaeobiologist’s scientific specialisation. But all fieldwork samples have to be collected and laboriously prepped for further study, and that only ever happens in a lab itself.

How does Paleobiology benefit the community?

It all matters though. Without Anusuya’s palaeontology studies, we wouldn’t know about the existence of many African dinosaurs. She was part of a group that discovered the Nqwebasaurus dinosaur in the mid-90s, for instance. “My colleague studied the fossils to discover the identity of the bones. I provided the information about how old the dinosaur was. We put that together and wrote up a description of the animal,” recalls Anusuya. “We now know it’s a small-bodied sub-adult or adult. From the red-grey mudstone rocks in the Kirkwood area of the Algoa Basin where we found this dinosaur, we know these animals were about 130 million years old. The Karoo basin was home to earlier-aged dinosaurs of about 190 million years old.”

Advice to students?

“Science is so important; it impacts on every aspect of our lives,” she says. “There is enormous scope for scientific research in the world.  So when I’m talking to the public it’s about science, and not just about dinosaurs. Of course it’s often through dinosaurs that kids get excited about science. Yet even with dinosaurs, kids are learning about classification, age or geological time, or about interactions between different organisms, so unwittingly they’re learning about science and to think in a scientific way.”Science is something people should talk about more around the dinner table, if Anusuya has her way, and she recognises the need for scientists to communicate their research better.

Anusuya is married to a materials engineer and their two sons also love science (one is completing matric, the other is 15). Avid readers, both sons also enjoy music and play a few instruments. Anusuya is encouraging her matric son to make his own career choices – her only advice is that he should study something he enjoys. “I’m originally from Pretoria, from a family of three girls. We’re all well-educated professionals,” she says. “Growing up, my parents saw education as a stepping stone to overcome the barriers that apartheid imposed on us as black women. It was a way for us to become self-reliant.”

Anusuya’s Top Tips

❖ Young people should access information online and research science subjects. You can reach out much further and become part of a global network that isn’t restricted to South Africa.

❖ Our Biological Sciences department often hosts school groups for workshops (a teacher usually contacts us). We’ve also had school learners doing job shadows in our department to understand the working life of an academic.

❖ If you love science, follow your passion. In the end it’s not about how much money you make, it’s about doing what you love. Academics have a comfortable life. The best thing is that we get paid for what we love doing.

❖ When presenting your work – even as a student – make sure it’s the best you can do. You never know who might be listening. When I finished my PhD I travelled to Oslo, Norway. After I presented two papers from my PhD research, I was offered two postdoctoral fellowships. I accepted one at the University of Pennsylvania in USA.