Sophie Edwards

  • Sophie Edwards Sophie Edwards is from Buckinghamshire and joined Oxford Brookes in January 2014. Her thesis title is ‘A comparison of craniomandibular ontogeny between hominoids of the Late Miocene and Early Pliocene in relation to contemporary climate change and paleoecological shifts’.

    How did you hear about Oxford Brookes University?

    When I was conducting research for my undergraduate dissertation with the University of Leicester, Dr Simon Underdown allowed me access to the hominin fossil casts at Oxford Brookes. I was impressed by the palaeoanthropological aspects of the Social Sciences department and so I visited the postgraduate fair and consequently decided to apply for a doctoral studentship here.  

    What attracted you to Oxford Brookes University to conduct your research?

    The laboratory and osteological collections are what attracted me to research at Oxford Brookes. Also, as a PhD student I was welcomed into the HOPE research group (Human Origins and Palaeo Environments). The potential learning benefits and opportunity to work alongside prominent researchers in the same field was a significant advantage of applying to study at Brookes.

    What were you doing before?

    Before I started my PhD here, I had just completed my BA (Hons) in Archaeology at the University of Leicester. I was also archiving archaeological material at a local museum in Buckinghamshire.

    How easy did you find it to settle into the research environment?

    Coming from undergraduate life straight into a PhD project was quite daunting but I have had wonderful support from my supervisors and the Research Degrees Team in particular, and I soon felt very comfortable researching here. However, I still get lost in the Gibbs building.

    Tell us about your research.

    The hominoids of the late Miocene and early Pliocene have been studied in relatively little detail in relation to the tumultuous climate change within which they inhabited. A more thorough account of how shifting paleo-environments affected the evolution of contemporary hominoids can be achieved by studying the shape variation of the craniomandibular morphology of relevant fossil specimens.

    My interdisciplinary research examines extant hominoid morphology and how they relate to their contemporary habitats with the aim of elucidating the impact environment has on the selective pressures that shape evolutionary trajectories. Data regarding how extant clades react and adapt to varying selective pressures have been extrapolated through a geometric morphometric study of extant hominid morphological variation and ecological contexts. The aim of my research is to use this data to explore the patterning of extinct Great Ape and Hominin responses to environmental variation across difference biomes through a comparative study. Analysis and modelling should provide data to address the following questions:

    - In which habitat does encephalisation seem to occur most rapidly?

    - Did the Great Apes of these periods undergo similar adaptations in similar environments?

    - Why, if found in similar biomes did early Great Apes and Hominins diverge along very different evolutionary pathways?

    Using a desktop 3D laser scanner, I have collected numerous 3D images of crania and mandibles belonging to 5 extant primate species. Subsequently, I uploaded, cleaned and formatted these scans in the program RStudio, which uses programming language as a way to statistically retrieve and manipulate quantified shape data from the 3D images. Landmarks were placed on biologically homologous areas of the skulls and carefully chosen algorithms were used to estimate missing landmarks on any incomplete skull specimens that exist in the sample. A General Procrustes analysis was then preformed on these landmarked specimens. This method rotates, scales and translates the landmark data in order to retrieve pure, quantified shape data. The morphological data is then compared and displayed graphically so that we can visually see the variation in skull shape, thus demonstrating a quantification of morphological evolution.

    The advantage of using extant species in this study is their known habitats. We can use this environmental data coupled with geometric morphometric analyses of skull morphology in living primates and compare this knowledge to extinct hominins living in similar biomes. Ultimately, this research will provide a better foundation for understanding the evolution of the hominid skull. Understanding the extent to which variation in cranial morphology occurs between species is a vital component for understanding how environmental factors contributed to manipulating our evolutionary pathways. The visual aesthetics of the data is a huge advantage of this study as the complex statistical information can easily be disseminated to a wider general audience.

    What do you enjoy about being a research student?

    When I first started my PhD, public speaking was such a frightening thought to me. Now that I am in my final year, I can tentatively say that I have overcome this and all it took was lots of practice. I really enjoy preparing posters and giving presentations at conferences now, as this is what really gave me the arena to practice public speaking and engagement. Also, researching at Oxford Brookes afforded me the opportunity to become an Associate Lecturer and teach the undergraduate module, Deep History. If presenting an hour long lecture on a stage in front of 100+ undergraduates doesn’t cure your performance anxiety, I don’t know what will.

    What do you think about the research training offered at Oxford Brookes?

    There are always workshops and training days going on at Brookes that are specifically aimed at postgraduates; from time management and viva preparation to writing an academic CV and nailing a job interview. Attending these events is always encouraging and reassures you that you are on the right track with your studies and that you will continue to do so in a positive manner.

    What are your future plans?

    I hope to be awarded my PhD in 2018 and then possibly become a Postdoctoral Fellow continuing to research in the field of Palaeoanthopology.