Biography

I was brought up on the outskirts of Manchester, UK, and attended Bolton School (Girls' Division). I took my first degree at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. In my final year at Newcastle I took the Vertebrate Palaeontology option offered by Dr Alec L. Panchen. Here I furthered an interest in palaeontology that had begun in childhood.

When I finished my degree there was no postgraduate funding available and I decided to pursue a career in museums. I had spent several previous vacations working in Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, so took the Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies offered by Leicester University. After my year at Leicester, I took up a post as Display Technician in the Natural History Department of Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. I spent three and a half years in this post before moving to the Museum Education Department where I was officer in charge of Natural History education.

My Head of Department at that time, Anna Meredith, encouraged me to do some part time research to offset the ties of 'Saturday Club'. I approached Alec Panchen for ideas. He said "What about trying to get hold of the holotype of Pholiderpeton scutigerum from Bradford Museum? It's the last remaining embolomere specimen undescribed in this century, and I've never been able to borrow it to work on." I approached Bradford Museums, who, in the intervening years, had changed their policy on loans of material. They recommended that the specimen be transferred to Newcastle to be worked on in Alec's lab, and I took three weeks' study leave from Birmingham to work on it. That was the beginning of my good luck in palaeontology, which seems to have been with me ever since.

I began to prepare the material, and almost at once, discovered it was more complete than had been previously realised. Having uncovered a curious-looking lump on the previously hidden side of the specimen, I showed it to Alec, who paused and then said "Well I'm damned - it's a braincase!" and then later "There is probably a PhD in this. If you'd be interested, I'll try and get a grant." Was I interested? Thoughts of bears and woods...

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne

I took up the grant in 1978, giving up my 'safe' job in museums for the precarious life of a graduate student, with the encouragement of my then new boyfriend (now husband) Rob Clack. He made a career change himself at that time, from a teacher, to a computer programmer (by way of railway guard), and his marketable computing skills have stood us both in good stead ever since.

Towards the end of the first year at Newcastle, I prepared out another little nubblet of bone preserved at one end of the specimen of Pholiderpeton. It turned out to be my next lucky break. It was a Friday evening, and I was working at the airbrasive, engrossed. This small bone had a flat end at one side, a fan-shaped plate at the other, and a hole in the middle. I could only think of one kind of small bone with a big hole through it, but I could hardly believe it. Could it really be the long sought after anthracosaur stapes? Alec had gone home for the weekend, and I had to stew on it till Monday.

To précis somewhat, it was indeed a stapes, but was only confirmed as such with the description by Bob Carroll and Alec's other student at the time, my colleague Tim Smithson, of the stapes of the primitive tetrapod Greererpeton. Those two discoveries, contemporary with a number of studies on ears by Wever and Lombard and Bolt, have served to overturn old ideas of otic evolution in early tetrapods, an interest that I have continued in my studies of Acanthostega and Ichthyostega.

The University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

In 1981, to my immense surprise, I was successful in my application for the post of Assistant Curator in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. The combination of museum qualifications and a research interest in early tetrapods was apparently just what they were looking for. I'd honestly expected to go back into provincial museums as a curator after my PhD, and was somewhat overawed by the thoughts of Cambridge to begin with. I still can't quite believe someone pays me to play with wonderful fossils in such a prestigious institution!

After finishing my PhD in 1984, casting around for material to work on next, I uncovered the material of Acanthostega in the Department of Earth Sciences, whose story is told on the Expeditions page.

As Curator, I have several different strands to my work: curation, teaching, administration and research. Each of these is supposed to take about one third of my time (!).

I am a tenured member of staff of the Department of Zoology - the University Museum of Zoology is an integral part of the Department of Zoology, and its Director is a Professor in the Department. (See the web site for the Department and Museum: www.cam.ac.uk etc..) I am responsible for planning and in part executing displays of vertebrates - mainly fish, amphibians and reptiles, both extant and fossil - in the museum, for students and the general public. I liaise with the Collections Manager and advise on specimen care, loans, storage, exhibits, and the needs of academic visitors to the collections.

Teaching duties include courses for second and final year students in the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge. In their second year (known as Part IB), these students can take a variety of options including 'Animal Biology'. I teach a series of six lectures and practicals in the Vertebrate Biology section of the course (the whole course is not modular, but is assessed on an end-of-year exam and continuously assessed practicals through the year).

In the third year (Part II), those taking Part II Zoology can choose between seven modules in the Michaelmas Term (October to December) and seven in the Lent Term (January to March). I run a module known as 'Topic in Vertebrate Evolution' in the Michaelmas term. It is essentially systematic, concentrating on phylogeny and diversity of jawless fishes, ray-finned and lobe-finned fishes, early tetrapods, and amniotes excluding mammals.

About 20 students take this course, and one of its key features is the accompanying demonstrations of original fossil and extant material to illustrate the lecture course, using the collections of the Museum of Zoology.

Last updated 6th October, 2009 by Rob Clack