Montana State University

MSU doctoral student awarded National Science Foundation fellowship to research in China

April 19, 2017 -- By Evelyn Boswell for MSU News Service

Jacob Gardner, a graduate student in MSU's Department of Earth Sciences, received a National Science Foundation fellowship to research the evolution of dinosaur locomotion and paleogenomics in Beijing, China this summer. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezJacob Gardner, a graduate student in MSU's Department of Earth Sciences, has received a National Science Foundation fellowship to research the evolution of dinosaur locomotion and paleogenomics in Beijing, China this summer. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Jacob Gardner, a graduate student in MSU's Department of Earth Sciences, received a National Science Foundation fellowship to research the evolution of dinosaur locomotion and paleogenomics in Beijing, China this summer. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN -- Montana State University graduate student Jacob Gardner has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation that will allow him to foster future international scientific collaborations while conducting research in China.

Gardner, a student in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Letters and Science, will spend the summer in Beijing, researching how dinosaur and mammal locomotion has evolved. Gardner will be supervised by prominent Chinese paleontologist Xu Xing at the world-class Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

Xu is famous for naming more dinosaurs than any other living paleontologist and for his theories about feathered dinosaurs, among other achievements. Between 1999 and 2005 alone, researchers at the Beijing institute published 45 scientific articles in the prestigious journals Nature and Science.

"It's going to be thrilling to work with Dr. Xu Xing," Gardner said. "It is a rare opportunity."

The NSF fellowship program, called the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes, or EAPSI, introduces graduate students to East Asia and Pacific science and engineering in the context of a research setting to help students initiate scientific relationships that will better enable future collaboration with foreign counterparts.

Those opportunities and the fact that China has remarkably complete and well-preserved fossils make the country the ideal place for this fellowship, Gardner said. EAPSI also sends U.S. graduate students to Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.

For his research project, Gardner will take a broad look at various forms of dinosaur and mammal locomotion and how they evolved. Dinosaurs and mammals evolved to move in similar ways, making them two of the best groups to study the evolution of locomotion, Gardner said.

For example, some dinosaurs were small-bodied meat eaters that ran around on two legs, he said. Others, like Tyrannosaurus rex, were large meat eaters that walked on two legs. Other dinosaurs, like Triceratops and Stegosaurus, were large-bodied herbivores that walked on four legs. Then there were birds— the living descendants of a group of small-bodied, meat-eating dinosaurs — that evolved powered flight, which is a special form of locomotion.

"We are interested in how all of these forms of locomotion evolved," Gardner said.

Gardner, in his project, will analyze patterns of evolution and the rate at which these forms of locomotion evolved, considering questions such as whether walking on two legs or four legs impacts the rate and pattern of evolution. For example, quadrupedality, or walking on four legs, may constrain the rate of evolution in both of the limbs, he said. He will also factor in such things as the effects of geography and changing environments. Previous research has shown that locomotion is closely tied to the environment in which an animal resides in and a change in environment, therefore, may drive the evolution of new forms of locomotion.

Gardner's project may sound complex, too much work for a summer, but he said he will continue working on it as he earns his doctorate. He added that much of what he does involves computer modeling and builds on the findings of others. One paleontologist, for example, might know everything about the mechanics of a dinosaur arm. Another might focus on the muscles of a particular species based on the comparative anatomy of living species that are closely-related, such as birds and crocodilians. Additionally, the evolutionary models rely on the known species discovered by paleontologists conducting field work around the world.

"We really benefit from the paleontologists going out and making these discoveries," Gardner said, adding that the tools used for the locomotion project are also relevant in other fields.

"The same analytical tools that we use to study the evolution of locomotion in dinosaurs have been applied to the evolution of viruses, such as HIV and Ebola, as well as the evolution of language and civilization," Gardner said.

"These tools are widely used in many fields; basically, anything that evolves," he added. "So I am also interested in using these analytical tools to solve many of the issues that we face today. How do viruses evolve? How do governments rise and fall? These are really important issues that are very relevant in the modern world. I believe that it's vital to tackle these issues with an interdisciplinary approach, and I am very fortunate to have learned these tools from our research on dinosaur evolution."

In addition to his research project on dinosaur locomotion, Gardner will also work with Qiaomei Fu—a prominent scientist who studies the genomes and genetic evolution of extinct hominins and ancient human populations—to further his education in genetics and computational biology, which he studies under his adviser, Chris Organ, assistant research professor in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Organ is also director of Directed Interdisciplinary Studies in the MSU Honors College.

"Jacob's application stood out because, while conducting research on ancient mammals and dinosaurs in China, he will also work as a computational biologist in one of the world's premier paleogenomics labs,” Organ said. "Few applicants have the integration and background to range across these disciplines."

Gardner said he has been interested in dinosaurs since he was a boy. Along the way, he also became fascinated by evolution and the joy of discovery.

"I had a big passion for discovering new things and understanding how these fascinating creatures evolved over time, how they lived, how they became extinct, and how biodiversity in the ecosystem shaped the way things are now," Gardner said.

Gardner, from Nipomo, California, said he left the West Coast where he and his family were avid surfers to study dinosaurs at MSU. He knew MSU's reputation in paleontology and knew the university was home to renowned paleontologist Jack Horner and MSU's Museum of the Rockies. He was impressed by the large number of paleontology courses available to MSU undergraduates.

"I talked to other students in other schools," Gardner said. "They are baffled at how many classes we have."

MSU also provided opportunities outside of the classroom that helped him make it into graduate school, Gardner said.

During his undergraduate years at MSU, he joined dinosaur digs, presented his findings at local and national conferences, and spoke to many groups about undergraduate research. A program offered through the Smithsonian Institution and MSU’s Undergraduate Scholars Program sent him to Glacier National Park for fieldwork and then to Washington, D.C., to analyze their specimens.

Gardner earned his bachelor's degree in 2015, then enrolled in MSU’s graduate school. He is the first doctoral student in MSU's Macroevolution Lab, which is headed by Organ.

Last year, Gardner co-authored his first scientific paper, which was published in the journal PloS One. The paper, "Vertebral adaptations to large body size in theropod dinosaurs," was published with Organ and Horner and relates to his current work.

"Jacob has a rare combination of drive, good nature and professionalism, but more importantly, a love for scholarship in general," Organ said. "Jacob's scientific interests, for example, range from paleontology to cancer genetics, and this breadth is allowing him to explore topics in novel ways.

"Jacob is also actively engaged in the culture of science, organizing reading groups, volunteering at conferences and applying for grants. These attributes are rare in a graduate student," Organ said.

Gardner said he may someday become a professor or a paleontologist in a museum. But he is interested, too, in gaining experience in industry and government.

"If I were to secure a job through the National Institutes of Health, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Department of Defense doing that sort of research, I would be very happy," Gardner said.

Contact: Jacob Gardner, jacob.gardner2@msu.montana.edu