Name: Dr Howard Falcon-Lang
Research institution: Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London
Research career length: 17 years
Research Council: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Location: London, England
Brief summary of research: Plant fossils and ancient climate change.
A-levels: Geology, Biology, Chemistry
BSc in Geology First Class Honours University of Leeds
PhD in Geology Royal Holloway University of London
Postdoctoral Research Assistant, British Antarctic Survey
Various independent Research Fellowships
Freelance science reporter for the BBC
From 2009, a Senior Lectureship
Over recent decades, one of the most important scientific questions has been to identify the causes of climate change. Much valuable information about climate patterns over millions of years, is to be found in the long-dead fossilised remains of plants. As a fossil fanatic, Howard Falcon-Lang’s research and childhood passion, uncovers the Earth’s past history to help predict the future for our planet and humanity.
We know that 100 million years ago Antarctica was covered in forest, and if global warming continues the continent may become green again in less than 500 years. The past is the key to the future, and I'm interested in studying how forests responded to climate change in the ancient past, to discover what lies in store for the human species.
I’m a palaeontologist which means that I study fossils, especially fossilised plants, since these present many clues about changes in climate over the history of our planet. My research takes me to five continents. Currently, I divide my time hacking through the jungle of Panama, crawling through dark coal mines in the USA and exploring the icy wastes of Antarctica. Typically I’m overseas about two months each year.
My work involves managing a team of PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and Undergraduate interns, and going out and securing funding for projects. I also teach undergraduate field classes and lectures, engage with young people, and work with the media.
I've always been passionate about fossils since the age of five and it’s been an honour to take that childhood interest through to a permanent job. At school I was told that being a palaeontologist was an unrealistic goal since I wasn't clever enough and, anyway, it wasn't a proper job. But my love of the subject kept me going. When I recruit PhD students, what I look for most is that spark of passion and creativity. Academic qualifications are important too, but as Albert Einstein said: "Imagination is more important than intelligence".
Research can be a solitary activity and you do need to develop self-discipline to drive your work forward, since unlike in many other jobs, no-one else is going to push you. However, it’s also very social. I lead small teams of international scientists in different projects, and feel that I'm part of a larger family of researchers who meet regularly at conferences. I am also fortunate to be able to extend my reach further still, through broadcast and other media work, which means I can communicate a passion for my research to the public.
I’m now 37, so approaching the middle part of my career! Although I’ve worked a lot in the media, one ambition is to take it further and write popular science books and perhaps, present TV or radio science programmes.