Q&A with Current Biology

Jingmai O’Connor is a Professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IVPP), where she studies the origin and early evolution of birds. She became interested in evolution through her first mentor Donald Prothero at Occidental College, where she finished her BA in 2004. As a Graduate Student in Residence at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum she studied Mesozoic birds with Luis Chiappe, receiving a PhD in Geological Sciences from the University of Southern California in 2009. Since graduating, she has been employed by the IVPP, where she also conducted research during both undergraduate and graduate studies. Although her background is in geology, she seeks to understand feathered dinosaurs and early birds beyond their skeletons, utilizing the incredible preservation of soft tissues in Chinese Jehol fossils to try to understand the developmental and molecular mechanisms that underlie this major evolutionary transition.

What turned you on to biology in the first place? I actually started out as a geologist — my mother is a geochemist and she would take me out in the field with her. Growing up, she gave me a deep appreciation for mineralogy in particular. I was the only kid declared as a geology major entering Oxy in 2001 and thanks to my mom I entered College as a sophomore ready to jump into major level geology classes. That first year I took historical geology taught by Donald Prothero, which covered everything from the big bang right up to present day earth. I got hooked on the study of evolution and decided to study paleontology. Recognizing that this field is really more biology than geology these days, I set about trying to take as many biology classes as possible in my free time — sadly only a few. Because my formal education is in geology, I’ve had to spend a lot of time in the ornithology collections at the LACM or dissecting birds bought in Chinese supermarkets to bolster my understanding of the group that I study!

As a young scientist, did you find it difficult to carve out a niche for yourself? In my case, not at all — there is a lot of research to be done on early birds. The number of Cretaceous bird fossils uncovered in China is unprecedented — we recently published on the largest dataset of fossils from a single dinosaurian taxon, 224 Anchiornis from the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature! Someone could work on these fossils alone for the rest of their life. I consider myself very lucky to have been mentored by two of the top experts in the field of avian evolution, Luis Chiappe and Zhonghe Zhou (IVPP), who are responsible for introducing me to many of the people I now collaborate with and, of course, granting me access to incredible specimens. I’m really passionate about my research — or so I’m told — so it made sense to move to China to have unlimited access to incredible feathered dinosaur and bird fossils and be able to immerse myself in research entirely.

Is it difficult to be an expat scientist in China? Although there are challenges related to language and cultural barriers, this mostly just leads to amusing anecdotes about eating fried insects or drinking half a liter of Chinese spirits with some rural government official. With English as the scientific language communication, this is not an issue at the expert level. That being said I have still given two [terrible] talks in Chinese not only to assimilate but also to empathize with a majority of the world’s scientists for whom English is a second language. Overall I find being a scientist in China very pleasant! There is much less competition for grant money, allowing us to pursue any line of scientific inquiry we can imagine, travel to collections and conferences, and access cutting-edge technology and hardware. My position is entirely dedicated to research and advising graduate students, allowing me to entirely focus on publishing papers. I really appreciate this freedom and it’s allowed me to be very productive.

Are there many challenges that young scientists face? Of course, some social stereotypes regarding youth and inexperience remain, but the study of paleontology is being rapidly transformed through the application of cutting edge technology, and this gives the younger generation a competitive edge. The results of this transformation have been truly amazing and I think it has inspired a lot of respect in the older generation for the younger generation.

What is your favourite conference? Since I study avian evolution, my favorite conference is — hands down — the meeting of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution (SAPE). It’s a very small meeting (∼40 participants) that’s held every four years. With such a narrow research focus (avian evolution), there is something to learn from everyone and the small group means you really get to exchange ideas with all participants.

Do you think there is an increased need for scientists to market themselves and their science as a brand? I think the idea that scientists need to operate more like a business is becoming a major problem in science recently. There is science and there is business — they are different and should be fundamentally driven by different goals: one, the pure and unadulterated desire for greater knowledge and the other, monetary gain. Branding science puts focus on making your research appealing, which is extremely limiting, and — dare I say? — corrupts the scientific process. There is a lot of fundamental research that needs to be conducted that is not ‘sexy’. Such ‘science branding’ has not yet affected the Chinese Academy of Sciences and for that I’m grateful.

Do you believe there is a need for more crosstalk between biological disciplines? There actually is a lot of it going on, at least in paleontology, but more is always better! For example, I work with several labs that study the evolution of development, but I also collaborate with biomechanical engineers. I love collaborating — there is no way individuals can be experts in every field, and by working with other disciplines you not only expedite the progress of your research, but you also often gain new insights and perspectives that often lead to new ideas.

What’s your view on social media and science? For example, the role of science blogs in critiquing published papers? Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog. I understand that blogs can be useful in affording the general public insights into current science, but it often seems those who criticize or spend large amounts of time blogging are also those who don’t generate much publications themselves. If there were any valid criticisms to be made, the correct venue for these comments would be in a similar, peer-reviewed and citable published form. The internet is unchecked and the public often forgets that. They forget or are unaware that a published paper passed rigorous review by experts, which carries more validity than the opinion of some disgruntled scientist or amateur on the internet. Thus, I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.