Duncan Murdock

Favourite Thing: Looking down a microscope at a fossil that no-one else in the world has ever seen before.

Me and my work

I currently study tiny fossils, 300 million years older than the dinosaurs, to work out how the earliest skeletons grew. I am a PhD student at the University of Bristol.

I am a PhD student at the University of Bristol, in my second year. My current research concerns the origin of the animal skeleton by examining the ‘small shelly fossils’.  They are fossil remains of tiny armour-plated slugs, worms with grasping teeth and what may be the first jawless fish. The fossils date from one of the most crucial periods of animal evolution – the ‘Cambrian explosion’.  At 540 million years old (over 300 million years before the first dinosaurs) they pre-date the more famous Burgess Shale and mark the sudden origin of complex animals after more than 2 billion years of little more than prehistoric pond scum. I am using pioneering x-ray techniques (at a particle accelerator near Zurich, Switzerland) to look inside these tiny fossils (they’re about the size of a full stop) and work out how they grew.

My Typical Day

Looking at tiny fossils of the oldest animals with skeletons, either down a microscope or as 3d models on a computer screen.

Not many of my days are the same!  I spend much of my time building and analysing 3d models of the fossils I work with.  But to get to that point I have to dissolve some rocks in acid, sieve out all the tiny fragments and pick out the fossils with a fine paintbrush.  Then I can look at them in detail with a microscope and chose the best ones.  Then I get to fly to Switzerland and x-ray the fossils in a particle accelerator, called the Swiss Light Source, to get the images to build the 3d models.  I also have to do a lot of reading to find out all the work that other people have done before me on these fossils.

What I'd do with the money

Build up a set of rock and fossil resource packs for school outreach programmes.

I am involved in a number of school outreach programmes to encourage enthusiasm for Earth Sciences in schools.  The best way to do this is with hands on activities with real rock and fossil samples.  I would use the money to build up a range of sample sets for different activities and abilities of students.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Quirky, beardy bookworm

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I like a whole load of pretty eclectic stuff and don’t really follow any particular bands, but one of my favourite bands at the moment is Mumford and Sons.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I spent a month in Borneo and we climbed the highest mountain in SE Asia, oh, and getting married last year was pretty amazing!

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

A successful research career, with a good publication record. Take five wickets and score a century for England in an Ashes test at Lords. A lifetime supply of jam and custard filled doughnuts.

What did you want to be after you left school?

I’ve always wanted to be a palaeontologist, since before I could spell it!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

I was pretty much a teacher’s pet, I’m afraid. I suppose the most trouble I got into was falling out with my PE teacher, he didn’t agree that my rounders fielding position, a rugby pitch away from everyone else, was very helpful.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I get to use a particle accelerator in the middle of nowhere in Switzerland to scan my fossils. When you’re walking through the facility in the middle of the night with guards in grey jump suits it’s like being in a Bond film!

Tell us a joke.

What exactly did cured ham have?