Cariad Williams joined the Prairie Research Institute Center for Paleontology as a graduate student in August 2019. She's pursuing a PhD in the entomology at the University of Illinois and is advised by Sam Heads.
How did you first become interested in paleontology? How old were you and was there a defining moment that sparked your interest?
I became interested in paleontology at 4 years old when my parents and I vacationed in Florida. We went to Animal Kingdom and they have a dinosaur dig pit. I spent most of my time digging up the bones. When we arrived home, my parents and I went fossil collecting at Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK and it was there that I found my first fossil—an ammonite. Being the first person to ever see this ammonite excited me and sparked my scientific interest in paleontology.
What is your academic background? What kind of formal paleontological training have you had, and what degrees do you hold?
I have a First Class Honours in BSc Paleontology and a distinction in MRes Paleontology. I have volunteered at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center (August 2018) and at the Lyme Regis Museum, Dorset, UK (July 2018). Both of these experiences have developed my skills in paleontology, both in the field and in research. Additionally, the museum work allowed me to develop my skills to prepare fossils in the laboratory and putting fossils into collections. I have been trained to use 3D manipulation softwares, such as GeoMagic DESIGN X and MeVis Lab. I am also confident in using the SEM to take excellent photographs.
What attracted you to working with fossil arthropods and with amber insects in particular?
During my undergraduate studies we were taught the different types of exceptional preservation, such as amber preservation and this led me to asking questions about the taphonomic processes in amber preservation of different places. I think the preservation of insects in amber is fascinating. I’ve never had any training in insects, so I don’t know exactly which group of insects that I would like to work on.
Taking on a Ph.D. can be a daunting task. What made you decide to pursue a doctorate and what is your ultimate career goal?
I love research. I completed two research projects back in the UK and I enjoy taking on the challenge of answering the unanswered paleontological questions. My ultimate career goal is to be an academic researcher. I really want to share my knowledge of paleontology with generations to come.
How does it feel to travel across the ocean to attend graduate school in another country?
It was a terrifying, but also an exhilarating experience. I have always wanted to study and work in the USA because paleontology is more appreciated here and I was told to never give up on my dreams. So, I didn’t. I have been very welcomed into the university and everyone has been extremely friendly and helpful. I’ve had a few bumps along the way, but I’ve had the support I’ve needed and now, I’m extremely happy!
What is the best part about attending the U of I and working in Dr. Heads' lab here at the Center for Paleontology?
Everyone is very friendly, supportive and helpful. I know that if I have any problems with my research, classes or in my personal life, I have Dr. Sam Heads to turn to. The U of I is also one of the best universities to study at for paleoentomology and Dr. Sam Heads is an expert in his field!
What do you wish more people understood about paleontological work?
Most people think palaeontology is just dinosaurs and it’s not. It’s about all life that has occured on Earth from millions of years ago. It’s the study of fossils. I wish people understood the importance of paleontology and wouldn’t look at it as a science that isn’t useful in today’s and future environments, life processes and evolution.
What advice would you give to future science graduate students, particularly those wishing to study paleontology?
I would tell them to never give up! It’s a science that people will tell you is useless and you won’t get anywhere with a career in paleontology. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are so many branches of paleontology. Just work hard because it’s a competitive field, go to as many conferences as you can to make connections to give you more opportunities and don’t be afraid to get things wrong! As the research continues, you’ll find things that disprove or prove your theories. Just don’t give up!