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Geek of the Week: Paleontology Postdoc Alison Moyer

This week, Geekadelphia caught up with Alison to chat about the implications of her research and the evolution of her career so far.

Postdoctoral student Alison Moyer

November 30, 2016

By Alex G.

Original article published in Geekadelphia.  

Postdoctoral Research Fellow Alison Moyer understands the power of the passage of time. In the years since her undergraduate studies at Drexel University, Alison has worked on a dig in Patagonia to uncover the world’s most massive dinosaur, earned a PhD from NC State in molecular paleontology, and, most recently, returned to her alma mater as a researcher and STEM educator herself.

Alison’s newest research focuses on a specimen of Citipati osmolskae (that’s an oviraptorid dinosaur to all you non-paleontologists out there) recovered from a famous geological formation in the Mongolian section of the Gobi Desert that dates back to the Late Cretaceous Period. Alison’s work with the 75-million-year-old specimen, fossilized while in the act of brooding its eggs, has revealed the presence of an original beta-keratinous sheath (a functional, fingernail-like coating) on the oviraptor’s claw hidden beneath a calcium build up.

This week, Geekadelphia caught up with Alison to chat about the implications of her research and the evolution of her career so far.

In what ways do your recent findings affect what we currently know about fossil preservation and calcium’s role in that process?

I would say molecular paleo in general (i.e. preservation of biomolecules over time) has spawned a lot more questions than answers, because it means that what most of us were taught, that dinosaur bones (and other fossils) are essentially rocks, is not accurate. We don’t know a lot of details regarding the role of calcium in the preservation process. It is likely the incorporation of calcium aided in preservation of the Citipati claw (but this remains to be further tested).

How might your field of research shed light on issues concerning modern species and our environment today?

These data showing similarities between the oviraptor claw and modern bird claws, add to the large body of evidence that demonstrates the evolutionary llnk between dinosaurs and birds. Additional studies with more specific reagents and methods will be able to hone in on this evolution at the protein level. If you think about individuals within a species, their genetic makeup is >99.99% identical. However, individuals can vary greatly in appearance (think about how you differ from your mom and dad or siblings) which affect how they function in their environment. Much of that variation is a result of differences in protein expression. Therefore, we can learn a lot about how an animal behaves and reacts to its changing environment by analyzing proteins. And one thing we know is that our environment is changing and rapidly. 

You’ve noted previously that your childhood vacations spent digging in the dirt at your family’s shore house on the Delaware Bay were an early indication of your passion for science. What were some of your most treasured finds?

Members of my family have been finding artefacts from the Delaware Bay Indians (e.g. arrowheads, jewelry, pipes) for decades. I love walking the beach searching for relics of past life. Much to my parents’ dismay, this also includes bones and partial skeletons (sometimes carcasses) of dead animals as well. I keep adding to my collection.

Any expert tips for readers interested in exploring more about paleontology in the Philadelphia area?  

Some of my first exposures to paleontology happened at the Academy of Natural Sciences where there are not only great exhibits but also great paleontologists. Additionally, if anyone wants to be part of a local dig, they can sign up to partake in volunteer dig day at the Edelman Fossil Park (previously the Rowan Fossil Quarry), which is where I actually participated in my first dig back as a freshmen undergrad before heading down to Patagonia.

For fun (and debate?): Thoughts on the new Jurassic World exhibit coming to the Franklin Institute later this month?

To be honest, despite Jack Horner being my academic grandfather (my PhD advisor’s PhD advisor), I don’t actually know that much about the exhibit! I’m only going if the raptors have feathers…But in all seriousness, I think it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate paleontology as a science. Jurassic World is a movie, so there is a lot of Hollywood magic, but there is also a lot that is said and done that is based on real science. And some of that science has happened in our lab.