Aaron Olsen defends his dissertation proposal

One exciting and rewarding part of our jobs as curators at The Field Museum is having the opportunity to advise graduate students.  I’ve been a member of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago for more than 14 years.  All doctoral students need an advisor and then he/she has to form a committee of additional professors/curators who will advise on the dissertation/thesis.  Last Thurday, I went down to the U of C campus to hear Aaron Olsen defend is doctoral dissertation proposal having been asked to be a member of his committee. 

            Aaron did a public defense, which means an announcement was made to all the Biology related departments at the University of Chicago and to members of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology.  At 1:00 in a meeting room filled with professors and fellow graduate students, Aaron’s major advisor, Field Museum Curator of Fishes, Mark Westneat, introduced him and Aaron presented on how for his dissertation he plans to study the physics associated with the operation of bird bills, focusing on the multiple joints where the maxilla and mandible articulate with other bones of the skull.  Aaron had already sent a digital copy of his proposal to all his committee and what he did in his 45 minute talk was present this proposal to those in the room after which people were able to ask questions and then we had a closed meeting with just Aaron and his committee.  The other members of the committee include Mark, Melina Hale, and Callum Ross, Melina and Callum are in the U of C department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy.  The reason for a graduate student’s committee is to provide a spectrum of opinions and experience to help the student design the best possible dissertation.  Ultimately, it will be the committee who signs off on the dissertation for the University, so this is an important responsibility.  I can’t claim to be an expert fully on the details associated with the phyisical and mechanical interactions of the muscles and bones in bird’s bill, but the other three committee members study such questions in a variety of ways on their study groups.  One thing I love about being on a committee is getting the opportunity to learn myself.  I am the only ornithologist, so I can help with insight based on what I know of the avian literature and through my experiences of studying birds around the world and in our collections. 

            Aaron has designed a project that will take extensive advantage of the skeleton collection in the Bird Division (one of the largest and best in the world).  He wants to use cutting edge techniques, some of which he is developing himself, to gather the data to better understand how the morphology of bills and heads of birds with very different foraging behaviors, from seed-eating finches, to insectivorous warblers, probing shorebirds, and fish-eating herons operate.  Coupled with studies like the Early Bird Tree of Life project, Aaron’s studies will provide new insight into avian evolution and ecology.  They also can be compared and conrasted with similar suveys of other groups like Fish, which Mark Westneat has undertaken to tell us more about evolution in general.

Some images of skulls Aaron has taken along with the Phylogenetic tree based on Early Bird data (Image by A. Olsen).


            Aaron did a great job with his presentation, his proposal, and in his meeting with his committee afterward, so the committee has communicated this to the university and Aaron will now get on to the hard (and fun) stuff, gathering and analyzing all the data he needs to test various hypotheses about how the bills of birds really operate.   Along the way he’ll teach everyone around him about what he learns, including me.  Some things won’t work out like he wanted and new questions will undoubtedly appear, but having the honor and responsibility of helping develop future generations of scientists studying our collections in new ways is something that never gets old.