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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Katherine Williams PhD in Engineering and Physical Sciences, First Year, 2019

PhD student

Katherine Williams's Photo

Visualising the microstructure of avian bones: implications for the palaeobiology of birds

Before starting my PhD, I worked on several quite disparate research projects, which has helped me to see the value of bringing different fields together. I am really excited by the idea of using new technologies and advances in other fields to inform the way we study palaeobiology and evolution. Interdisciplinary research can be challenging at times since researchers in different fields can have very different approaches, but it is in the synthesis of these different approaches that I think we can make real and exciting progress.

My background is in evolutionary biology (BA Biological Sciences, University of Oxford, then MSc Biological Anthropology, Bournemouth University).

I have worked on research projects in a range of fields, taking lab-based, field-based and computational approaches. My undergraduate project looked at developmental cell biology in plants, using 3D visualisation and molecular techniques. I then spent two months in the field, based at Perm State University, Russia, and three months working on a molecular biology project at Aix-Marseille University, France, looking at genetic control of development in fruit flies. My MSc project used a statistical approach to model interactions between climate and primate distributions across Africa.

Although disparate, elements of all of these projects have informed my current research. My undergraduate project showed me how powerful a visual, 3D approach can be and my field research reminded me of the importance of placing research into a broader context. My MSc project encouraged me to learn valuable coding and statistical skills, which will be crucial for the rigorous, quantitative approach I am taking in my current project.

These disparate research areas helped me to see the value of bringing different fields together and got me really excited by the idea of using new technologies and advances in other fields to inform the way we study evolution. I am also fascinated by the way that researching the past can inform our understanding of current biology and vice versa.

For my PhD, I am combining my interests in 3D imaging, interdisciplinary work and evolutionary biology. I am aiming to develop a non-destructive method of estimating developmental age and growth rate in fossil birds, using information from x-ray computed tomography (CT) down to the cellular level. This could help us to better understand the biology, evolution and taxonomy of fossil birds as well as aiding modern ecological studies of living bird populations.

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