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Careering off Course: Euan Clarkson (Academic Professor)

Note: this article (dating from 2002) featured on the previous Palaeontological Association website but was not part of the Careering off Course! Newsletter series; however it is now included within the series for consistency.

Professor Euan Clarkson studied geology at the University of Cambridge and had a long career as a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His most notable research occurred in the study of trilobites (especially visual systems), Paleozoic stratigraphy and the discovery of the Conodont.


How did you come to be a palaeontologist?

I was always interested in fossils, ever since I saw two giant Titanites specimens in a museum in my native Newcastle-upon-Tyne when I was eight years old. At school I was hopeless at mathematics, but good at geometry and drawing. I wanted to be a scientist, and I struggled with physics and chemistry, but I had two really inspiring biology teachers, who got me interested in animal and plant anatomy and embryology, and who first introduced me to the geological time scale. After National Service I read Botany, Zoology, and Geology at Cambridge. Although most of the teaching wasn't especially good, Oliver Bulman and Bertie Brighton were really magnificent. Meanwhile, living in Cheltenham at that time, I explored the geology and palaeontology of the Cotswold Hills by bicycle. By this stage I was thoroughly hooked on palaeontology. So I stayed on in Cambridge, completed a Ph.D. on trilobite functional morphology under Martin Rudwick, and looked for employment. Fortunately there was a job in Edinburgh

Have you spent all your professional life in Edinburgh?

Yes, it will be 39 years when I retire next year. It has been immensely hard work, but fully rewarding. In addition to teaching and administration I was twelve years as Director of Studies and three as Associate Dean. I have always believed that you have to put your students first, and that research is what you do in your spare time. But with the increased numbers of students, the pressure to bring in huge research grants, and to publish more and more, I fear that such a philosophy will be hard to maintain, and that the universities will become less student-friendly. Perhaps what has kept me in Edinburgh has been the quality of our undergraduate students here in Scotland. Most have been delightful people, hardworking and fun; many remain good friends. Secondly the local area has such marvellous geology, and I have not had to go far for research projects.

So what have been the highlights of your research in Scotland?

The Lower Palaeozoic of the Midland Valley of Scotland, especially the Silurian of the Pentland Hills, has not only been a wonderful area to research in, but also has been an excellent training ground for students. Field training is essential for any geologist. For me, research and teaching must go hand in hand, and the stimulation of student participation is by no means all in one direction. We have the Pentland palaeoenvironments worked out now, and the taxonomy is catching up. The Southern Uplands too have proved of great interest - debris flows with shelly fossils, graptolite shales, the overall tectonic setting. We also have Carboniferous Fossil-Lagerstätten in the Edinburgh district, with exquisite crustaceans, which Derek Briggs and I studied in detail, and this led to the discovery of the first conodont animal.

That seems to have been an inspired collaboration. Who else have you worked with over the years? 

I already mentioned the Southern Scottish work, with such excellent collaborators as Dave Harper, Alan Owen, Colin Scrutton, and Howard Armstrong, linking the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Durham and Galway and bringing in colleagues from the British Geological Survey. In France, a vigorous collaboration on trilobites with Jean-Louis Henry and Raimund Feist encouraged me in the French language, and helped me to become fluent. Even though English seems ubiquitous these days, this is not necessarily so, and I would encourage any young scientist to persevere with language skills. At present my main work is in Sweden, with Per Ahlberg and colleagues in the University of Lund, which seems like my second academic home, and in which I spent my only sabbatical (three months) in 1993. Such external dimensions are essential to balance a career in one department. Most importantly, I have had the assistance of my magnificent friend Cecilia Taylor over the last 16 years. In the Swedish work, and back home in Edinburgh she has given an innovative input into every level of teaching and research. We built up together an effective Invertebrate Palaeontology course, which is open also to biologists as well as geologists. We also set up and supervised extended projects for final year zoologists on fossil topics. Several of these students have gone on to do higher degrees in palaeontology.

As you approach retirement, what do you regard as your main legacy to palaeontology?

Probably the textbook. But it took a lot of time, nearly three years for the first edition, a year for each of the following editions. Obviously the conodont animal study had quite an impact. I have already alluded to research in south and central Scotland, which triggered developments in other Earth Science disciplines. The early trilobite eye work was pioneering and still continues. My main interest now, which will see me out, is the ontogeny and evolution of the olenid trilobites in Scandinavia, with Cecilia and Swedish colleagues. Our emphasis has been on meticulous observation and recording which is already acting as a springboard for evolutionary theoreticians, and also geochemists and sedimentologists, working on the wider implications of the black shale environment.

You retire after 39 years in September 2002. What will you miss?

My students, emphatically. Definitely not the politics! I'm not being replaced (or rather, my official 'replacement' is a structural geophysicist). Palaeontology will continue in Edinburgh, but on a much reduced scale. There will be no more day excursions, no more Zoology students. All rather sad

How do you see the future of palaeontology generally?

At the present time, more students than ever before, and the general public too, seem turned on by palaeontology as a science. The Palaeontological Association shows tremendous vigour as witness the Annual Meetings, Progressive Palaeontology, the Newsletter and all the other things. We know the value of our subject. Yet as Earth Science becomes increasingly technical, we have less influence than we should. We have to stand up and be counted, and make our voice heard. This will be the role of the next generation.

So what further advice would you give to prospective professional palaeontologists?

You will not have to be afraid of hard work! Teaching and research is only part of the job in a university, something not appreciated by outsiders, perhaps until the currrent fashion for TV fly-on-the-wall documentaries catches up with us! So much time is taken up with editorial matters, and that is only part of the important involvement with learned societies and allied institutions. Within the Department you have to pull your weight. In my second term as Director of Studies, which brings its own, not initially expected, workload - I last year wrote no less than 147 testimonials for students. If I was starting my career over again I would relish the increasing involvement with people in other disciplines, whilst enjoying the intimacy of the immediate palaeontological community. Unlike some of the 'big sciences', we all still know each other. Above all, you have to be student-friendly, for they will be your future. It is a career for the dedicated, but if you are then the rewards are immense.

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