Isabella Leonhard received the Student Ally Award 2020 for the class of 2019-2021 for her support and engagement for our student community. You can find her on Twitter as @BellaLeonhard.
What is the topic of your research and makes you excited about it?
I am working with conodonts, the earliest vertebrates possessing a mineralized skeleton to give an insight into their ecology and feeding behavior by using 2D and 3D methods. Why do I like conodonts? Besides being the earliest vertebrates in the fossil record, they are very abundant and highly diverse microfossils, used a lot in biostratigraphy but nevertheless, very little is known about their ecology, specially about the ecology of the very early coniform ones (I am interested in). They play an important role in the evolution of dental tools in the vertebrate lineage! I am fascinated how controversial they are, how diverse and how much a small fossil (several microns in size) can tell us once you looked at it very closely.
My overall research interest is in the evolution and ecology of vertebrates in general!
How did you decide to become a palaeobiologist? What sparked your interest?
Since I was young, I was impressed by scientists I saw in TV shows, but my role model was definitely my biology teacher during my last years in school. She was always so excited when she talked about animal behavior and ecology and encouraged us students to think about biology concepts ourselves. She is definitely one of the main reasons why I wanted to become a scientist. I had to decide either studying pure biology or geology in my undergrade to get into the Paleobiology programme but since I am in conflict with myself about laboratory experiments with animals, it was a logical consequence to start studying earth sciences and I would not miss it!
Paleobiology is the perfect interface between geology and biology. The master program as we now it from Erlangen is quite unique in Germany and that’s why I decided to come for my bachelor and stayed for my master. I like how we combine field and laboratory work with analytical methods to explore what happened in the past to predict what might be going on in the future. Palaeobiology is not just one strict field, it combines geology and biology with chemistry, ecology and data science and so on.
What would you like to do next?
First of all I want to successfully finishing my current research project.
Since we had an introduction into phylogenetics, I am quite curious to learn more about tree building and phylogenetic modelling.
In terms of my scientific future plans, I would love to start a PhD after finishing the master and work several years abroad.
What in your perception are the main struggles faced by students in Palaeobiology? Are there any difficulties that are specific to this field?
The real struggle started already during undergraduate studies in form of math and physics!
Many students underestimate the importance of statistics and analytical data work but it is all manageable to learn. Palaeobiology is not about fossil hunting, we spend most of our hours in the lab and in front of our PC’s.
In terms of the master course, it is sometimes hard to find the right balance of not overworking yourself. The main goal is to let us students work on our own research projects, including all the ups and downs, conference participations and laboratory work, to prepare us for our scientific future. That can be a bit overwhelming, specially at the beginning but the work we put in is 100% worth it. I think there is no better way to teach us how science works.
How do you see the situation of international students in the programme? E.g. is it easy to find a support group and learn how to function in the German system?
In our department it is great for the incoming international students that everybody speaks English and you are not forced to learn German for lectures since the whole program is in English. My semester is a very international group (from Bangladesh, Oman, Egypt, Italy, Germany) and I am very grateful for that. I cannot speak for the international students who are coming to Germany, without speaking any German or having any idea about our culture but I like how we supported each other from the beginning on. I found friends for life from different continents and we learned so much from each other.
What can academic staff do to support good relationships among students and between students and the staff? Do you have ideas how to inspire teamwork and collaboration?
I am already very impressed how close staff and students are working together in our department, comparing to other departments. A good example for that is our Gotland Fieldtrip 2019, where no one distinguished who is a PhD Student, Master Student or even Professor. We all had fun and great evenings together.
Another great experience was the Waischenfeld Trip at the beginning of our semester. A regular meeting (maybe also for Dinner etc.) with everyone who is interested would be a good idea. We are already meeting on a small student picnic every second week, but each semester could also be active and support regular meetings. We should also organize for the next generation of students (1st semester 2020) a get together with everyone from the department so that they feel welcome. An Institute game night would be fun!
Collaborations with other universities are already quite good, but I would suggest to make clear from the beginning of the master course on that there are good funding opportunities for students to have a stay abroad (e.g. Erasmus+ for European countries).
I really appreciated that Rachel Warnock invited so many guest speakers to our Macroecology lectures (one good thing about zoom lectures!). With those events you as a very inexperienced student get an idea about other researchers and interesting ongoing projects.
What would you do if you could teach a Palaeobiology course for a day?
I would take students to the calcareous alps to Austria to show them how you can explore what happened millions of years in the past by looking at some meters of rocks/sediments and reading their fossil record. Afterwards we would have a lively discussion about how the alps and oceans were formed.