Ph.D. Profile: Akinobu Watanabe

Research posts

On October 24, the fifth cohort of graduates from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School—the first Ph.D.-degree-granting program for any museum in the Western Hemisphere—received Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Comparative Biology at a commencement ceremony in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. We're profiling the newly minted Ph.D.s.

When Akinobu Watanabe was a young boy in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, his parents recorded a Discovery Channel–style documentary about the history of Earth.

“Back then you had VHS,” recalls Watanabe, “and I watched it so much that the tape kept getting damaged.”

But the story of the prehistory of the planet and evolution of life so riveted him that he would keep watching even as the tape begain to deteriorate. The documentary, after all, had much to say about the animals he was most interested in: dinosaurs.

After graduating from high school in Michigan, Watanabe studied in the lab of dinosaur paleontologist Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago, where he began to hone his passion and expertise in the subject. For his Master’s, he went to Florida State University to undertake research on modern alligators and crocodiles, close relatives of dinosaurs, allied together in a group called archosaurs (“ruling reptiles”).

 

Akino wears a hat and bandana and sits in the sand beside his tools (a pick and a brush).

Watanabe at work in the field.

© A. Watanabe


There, he learned new research methods like sophisticated statistical analyses of bone shapes and studies of bone histology—slicing thin slivers of the fossilized bones to learn about the age and growth of animals they came from. In addition, he became skilled in computer programming, to deal more effectively with the vast volume of data his research produced, a skill that he would continue to practice alongside his Museum advisor, RGGS Professor and Macaulay Curator of Paleontology Mark Norell, while publishing more than a half-dozen scientific papers and several new computer programs.

At RGGS, Watanabe, who received a prestigious 3-year U.S. National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship and doctoral dissertation improvement grant, as well as grants from ExxonMobil Geosciences, Sigma Xi, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and the Jurassic Foundation, found himself at the heart of dinosaur paleontology’s colorful past (and its vibrant present). He joined multiple Musuem expeditions to the famed fossil fields of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where Museum legend Roy Chapman Andrews had found the first nests of dinosaur eggs in the 1920s. 

While in the Gobi, Watanabe, too, discovered a dinosaur-egg nest, as well as filming one of his field expeditions to Mongolia with Google Glass technology. He also collected pterosaur and mammal bones as well as dinosaur egg shells with Norell in Romania, where the team slept in hotels and ate fine European food, a very different sort of trip from the rugged days camping under the stars in the Gobi Desert. 

 


Back in New York, Watanabe collaborated with a number of researchers from the Museum and partner institutions to study the evolution of specialized brains of modern birds from their dinosaur ancestors. To study the shape of dinosaur brains that do not get preserved directly as fossils, he used high-resolution x-ray CT scans of fossils to create 3-D reconstructions of the bony braincase that enclosed the brains. By comparing how this shape changes through development from embryo to adult, and evolutionary time, his research has shown that the origins of the unique developmental mechanisms required to assemble a “flight-ready” brain occurred in piecemeal fashion spanning non-flying dinosaurs to their modern bird relatives. He also built innovative computer programs to test existing methods that researchers use when creating evolutionary trees and collect data on the shape of bones.

 

3D X-ray CT scans comparing chicken and alligator skulls, showing how the skull encases the brain of each.

Watanabe’s work looked at the brains of archosaurs—modern birds and crocodiles, as well as ancient dinosaurs. 

© A. Watanabe


Now, Watanabe has expanded his view to include more lifeforms. After defending his RGGS dissertation, Watanabe has moved to a leading research lab at University College London, in the U.K., supported by European Union grant fellowship, where he and his colleagues are working to elucidate the evolution of the skulls and brains of all tetrapods—the group that includes not only dinosaurs and birds, but also mammals, reptiles, and amphibians— seeking to better understand the evolutionary origins every animal with a backbone and four limbs, living and extinct.