Commendation for Dr Jennie Bright - School of Earth Sciences
* Faculty of Science Prize for Best PhD Thesis 2011/12 *
Supervisor: Dr Emily Rayfield
Funding: NERC Studentship
PhD project: Validation of finite element models and the implications for palaeontology
Dr Jen Bright’s thesis sought to test the effect that estimation of complex biological parameters have on the results of finite element models, a technique increasingly used by biologists and palaeontologists to understand how functional loads influence the mechanical performance and hence the evolutionary morphology of complex geometric structures, such as bones and teeth. Focusing on pigs as a model system, Jen achieved this through a combination of approaches – using experimental strain analysis and novel digital speckle pattern interferometry (DSPI) techniques to record craniofacial bone strain, and then to compare this data to strains generated by FE-models experiencing identical computational loading regimes.
Jen showed that overall FE-models could replicate experimental strain patterns and orientations in the skull, but that the computational models were strongly influenced by material property input variables, and tended to be less compliant than actual bony geometries. She found that craniofacial sutures also influence strain patterns, although more so in the rostrum than the braincase. These results have important implications for how scientists use FEA to deduce skeletal form and function, what questions are appropriate to ask of the technique, (especially in extinct animals where the elasticity of bone is unknown), and the degree of modelling complexity required . She also provided a methodological framework for how to conduct appropriate convergence tests for model robusticity, and using DSPI, the most appropriate way to model the complex biological reality of craniofacial sutures.
Her thesis has resulted in four published papers, one for every chapter of results. During her PhD she presented at a number of international conferences, including twice as an invited symposium speaker.
I grew up in Thame, Oxfordshire, and went to Lord Williams's School - proud supporter of the controversial use of apostrophes. Even though I wasn't able to do Geology at school, it looked like a great subject covering all branches of science, so I decided to study that for my first degree. I went to the University of Leeds, where I also got to study abroad for a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There are lots of opportunities in the US for undergraduates to get involved in research projects, and that was where I started to think about applying for PhDs in Palaeontology. I was initially drawn to Bristol because of the reputation of the Palaeontology Research Group, and was really pleased to be offered a NERC-funded PhD place. There's so much interesting research going on here, and there's a really good community in the Earth Sciences department, which is a great place to work. And I love the city too! Since finishing my PhD I've started working in a 3-year BBSRC funded postdoc here in Bristol, looking at the links between skeletal function and form in modern birds. I'm very excited about it, and am looking forward to getting the first results. In the long term, I'd like to understand the constraints that various factors, like mechanical function and genetic history, place on skeletal form and how these have affected evolutionary trends. Hopefully, the project I'm working on now will start to address some of topics.