“Her research in the last ten years has helped pave the way for the study of biomechanics and functional morphology of both fossil and extant animals.” – Dr. Stephan Lautenschlager, Vertebrate Palaeontologist
Professor Emily Rayfield is an internationally renowned palaeontologist who has pioneered the use of engineering principles in palaeontology, particularly finite element analysis (FEA). Her meticulous work spans many areas of palaeontology, from dinosaurs to Mesozoic mammals. Most importantly, she stresses the importance of proofing models of how extinct animals function by carefully comparing them to living forms. As well as carrying out her own research, she now passes this care in scientific methodology to the many students and researchers in her classroom and research laboratory.
Born in the Yorkshire town of Northallerton, Emily did her degree in Biological Sciences at Oxford University, followed by a PhD at Cambridge. She became a Junior Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, before working at the Natural History Museum in London as a postdoctoral researcher.
Her high impact research career began with a publication on the biomechanics of Allosaurus fragilis, alongside an international team of colleagues. While others had attempted to use engineering principles to understand the properties of living structures (predominantly in human medicine), Emily was the first to create complex and complete models. The rise of accessible CT-scanning allowed her to use finite element analysis to understand how the Allosaurus fragilis skull reacted to the forces involved in biting. This kind of model allows palaeontologists to make predictions about the kind of food an animal would have been able to eat, and how it would have eaten.
One of Emily’s unique research focuses is her emphasis on generating models of living animals and using these to understand extinct forms. Known as validation, this rigor in her methodology sets her work apart from many others. It also allows her to span from the palaeo-sciences to modern biology, ecology and functional anatomy.
Emily took up a position as Lecturer in Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol in 2005, where she subsequently became a Senior Lecturer and then Reader in Palaeobiology. She is now a Professor and leads the Rayfield Lab. She won the Palaeontological Association’s Hodson Fund for exceptional early-career achievement in 2009, and The Geological Society Lyell Fund in 2011.
While an initial focus on dinosaurs means much of Emily’s work has been on reptiles and increasingly on birds – the closest living relatives of dinosaurs – she has also worked on mammal functional anatomy, particularly Mesozoic mammals. As an expert in methodology, Emily has even co-authored papers using biomechanics in unexpected areas of research, such as the study of fossil plankton. She is well known for her work on crocodile and gharial skulls, comparing bending and torsion along the length of the skull and using these findings to inform research into dinosaurs, notably in the much-loved Spinosaurus, the “crocodile-mimic”.
Emily’s review of using finite element analysis in the understanding of extinct organisms has become a seminal text on the subject, tackling not only the applications and strength of the method, but future directions in this area of palaeontology. Emily provides a great role model for women in science-she has even lent support to the Fossil Hunter Lottie campaign.
By Elsa Panciroli (@gsciencelady)
Image courtesy Emily Rayfield.
Gill, P.G.; Purnell, M. A.; Crumpton, N.; Robson-Brown, K.; Gostling, N. J.; Stampanoni, M.; Rayfield, E. J. 2014 Dietary specializations and diversity in feeding ecology of the earliest stem mammals. Nature 512, 303–305 doi: 10.1038/nature13622
Rayfield E. J. 2007 Finite Element Analysis and Understanding the Biomechanics and Evolution of Living and Fossil Organisms. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 35, 541-576
Rayfield E. J.; Norman, D. B.; Horner, C. C.; Horner, J. R.; Smith, P. M.; Thomason, J. J.; Upchurch, P. 2001 Cranial design and function in a large theropod dinosaur. Nature 409, 1033-1037 doi: 10.1038/35059070