About Dr. Matt Bonnan

Dr. Matt Bonnan is a vertebrate paleobiologist who specializes in understanding the evolutionary anatomy of dinosaurs.

A hopeful message for those pursuing basic science careers

Giving advice often comes out sounding hollow or self-serving, but if I may be so bold, I’d like to give some hope to young people considering a career in the basic sciences.  My message is simple: you have choices.  That is what I feel needs to be said after reading several recent articles about the pitfalls and difficulties of landing science jobs in the academe.

Take, for example, the article posted by John Skyler at Talebearing about pursuing a science career. Everything this article discusses, from the crushing debt that can be incurred, to the delays in life transitions, to the difficulties in procuring grants, is all, sadly, very real.  And yet, this article, like so many, gives a somewhat skewed vision of what success is in the sciences: becoming a PI (Principal Investigator, the scientific team leader) at an R1 (a large, research-focused university).  There is an often unspoken assumption that success in science = a research heavy / team-leading position in a coveted and highly competitive corner of the market (medicine, bioengineering, etc.).

One way to think of this is by analogy to the music industry.  How many people long to be rock stars, living years in poverty hoping for a shot in a very competitive and harsh business, and often never succeeding in achieving that goal?  Of the few that do make it into stardom, many face almost inhuman pressures to keep producing hits, keep touring, and keep current.  A lot of burn out happens at all levels.  But, of course, there are other avenues to pursuing a career in music.  Perhaps not always so glamorous, sure, but there are many more job opportunities for sound engineers, writers, teachers, studio musicians, and so forth, all with music creation at their heart.  If you work a job in music that you love, you are a success — not just the rock stars.

The same is true for science careers.  If you are interested in basic science, there are several paths you can follow and there are more opportunities outside of the handful of very competitive jobs at the top rungs of the R1 universities.  I speak from experience and from honesty — there are choices.

Yes, we need intense basic research and our federal dollars need to increase to support the motivated souls who push the frontiers of knowledge in R1s day in and day out. But science also needs a lot of people who can juggle research and teaching both effectively, bringing research knowledge to undergraduates and laypeople, conveying the body of knowledge we generate to the public at large.  Being a good science teacher at a college or university is not a booby prize — there is a lot of skill and dedication required to reach the next generation of scientists and, dare I say, politicians.  You can derive a great deal of satisfaction and joy by turning new minds on to science.

And, once and for all, let’s end the myth that says that those of us who teach larger course loads cannot produce quality research.  We can and we do, often involving undergraduates in their first research experiences.  So if you love teaching as well as doing quality research, don’t be dissuaded from pursuing a career in the sciences — know that it can be done.

Be flexible.  Be willing to consider alternate paths to your career.  If you can teach certain subjects, your probability of landing a tenure-track job improves.  For example, for those of us in vertebrate paleontology, knowing your anatomy and being willing and able to teach it can open many more doors than if you only search for dedicated paleontology positions.  Remember that science is not one size fits all — just because you might not get a particular type of position does not mean there is nothing else to do and that your life is a failure.  Science benefits from a diversity of perspectives and approaches that cannot all occur in one setting.

Please don’t take this post to mean I think it will all go swimmingly.  I recognize that I am fortunate to have a tenure-track job, and that many equally or better-qualified individuals currently do not.  I am in no way trying to paint an overly rosy picture — pursuing a science career can be difficult.  It is also true that a Ph.D. is not enough — preparedness, networking, luck, timing, and tenacity all play large roles in how and where we land our jobs.  On top of all of this, there are also still, unfortunately, barriers related to gender and race that make a difficult career even more difficult for many talented individuals.

What I hope I can impart to those pursuing basic science careers is that whereas there are many difficulties you will face, there is not just one path to being successful.  Don’t measure your success by someone else’s standards.  You have enough obstacles as it is without also burdening yourself with one ideal of success.  It is possible to be happy and productive as a scientist in many different ways, and I wish you much luck and future success.

XROMM is coming to Stockton and the BFF Lab!

This has been working its way through the pipeline for quite awhile, but I can finally, confidently announce that the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey will house the first XROMM lab specifically focused on undergraduate research and teaching!

XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology) is a state-of-the-art technique, developed at Brown University, for visualizing rapid skeletal movement in vivo in three-dimensions.  Find out more here and here.

Harry, one of the rats in our trials, walking through the X-ray beams.

Harry, one of the rats in our trials, walking through the X-ray beams.

This tremendously exciting development resulted as part of a large state grant and is part of Stockton’s growing science infrastructure.  We have a second new science building on the way that will house a beautiful new vivarium and will have a custom-built XROMM lab.

The equipment we will be receiving will include hi-speed videofluoroscopes (layman’s terms: super science cool X-ray movie cameras) and a veterinary CT-scanner.

To say this is a dream come true is probably an understatement!  What it means is that we will soon have the ability to reconstruct three-dimensional moving skeletons of vertebrates for research that directly involves undergraduates.  Stay tuned to this blog and the BFF lab, and we’ll keep you posted on this exciting new development for our students and college.  My co-conspirator (eh, collaborator) Jason Shulman and I are ecstatic.

In the meantime, there are many, many people to thank.  First, Beth Brainerd, Stephen Gatesy, and the other XROMM gurus at Brown University granted me the opportunity to learn this technique through their NSF-sponsored short course.  Among the many people who have helped me understand and develop my familiarity with XROMM are David Baier and Ariel Camp, who have answered a myriad of questions.  Beth Brainerd was instrumental in this process from helping me capture my first data for analysis with Stockton undergraduate Radha Varadharajan to her generous time and assistance in understanding the specs of such a lab.  Thank you, Beth!  Angela Horner (now at California State University San Bernardino) was also instrumental in collecting our initial rat data at Brown and helping us understand how rats “tick.”

For both Jason and I, we are grateful for the on-going support and encouragement of our peers and staff at Stockton.  During the past two years, lab director Justine Ciraolo and safety officer Bob Chitren have been incredibly helpful and encouraging, and it would have been impossible to get this done without their help.  Jason and I are grateful for the support of the school of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NAMS), to Dean Weiss, to Provost Kesselman, and President Saatkamp for supporting cutting-edge science at our college.  We are also thankful for the support and encouragement we have received from our programs, Biology and Physics, and from the generous support of the Provost and Grants Office for internal grants that have placed us in this exciting position.

We must make a special mention of John Rokita and the animal lab staff for keeping our animals happy and healthy, and the Institutional Animal Care and Usage Committee (IACUC) here at Stockton for overseeing our animal research.  Again, the NAMS laboratory staff are to be thanked for all of their continuing help in making such exciting STEM experiences possible for our students.

Finally, Jason and I are delighted that we can bring this caliber of research to our students at Stockton.  It will allow us to expand on our locomotion research using optical tracking, and give students pursuing a wide range of careers in the sciences a rare opportunity to learn about the living skeleton in action.  Most importantly, the XROMM lab will expand Stockton’s already strong history of producing New Jersey STEM majors.

We will blog and tweet about the progress of the XROMM lab setup and keep you informed about how it is all coming together over the next several months.  Stay tuned!

Leaping lizards and running rats

Given the positive feedback and interest in our POV of a ferret running on a treadmill, we’ve upped the ante here at the Best Feet Forward lab.  We proudly present two more GoPro POV movies of our magnificent animals running for science.  Would you like to see a running Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps) and lab rat (Rattus norvegicus)?  Of course you would.

Above you see Greenbeard running for science.  We’re shaking a tasty bucket of crickets off-camera to get him to run.

Above you see one of our lab rats, Frank, also running for science.  If you look closely you can see the reflective beads attached to him that we follow with the infrared OptiTrack camera system.

Bridget Kuhlman is once again thanked for her brilliant camera work.

Why do we do what we do?

The BFF Lab Students and Faculty in the Spotlight!

Black Beard the Bearded dragon,

Black Beard the Bearded dragon. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

I am excited to report that the Best Feet Forward (BFF) Lab has had its first local news story! Susan Allen at the Office of News & Media Relations at Stockton College has written a wonderful article that was distributed to the associated press today.  We thank Susan for this wonderful story, which we reproduce here in this post (see below).  All photos are copyright Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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Stockton College Researchers Analyze Locomotion of Modern Day Reptiles, Mammals to Understand How Dinosaurs Moved

By Susan Allen, Office of News & Media Relations, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Galloway Township, NJ- Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major, cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes, a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major (left), cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes (right), a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major (left), cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes (right), a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm. Photo (c) Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Black Beard, as the lizard is nicknamed, is one of three juvenile bearded dragons at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey taking part in an animal locomotion research project aimed at better understanding how dinosaurs once moved across our planet.

After body measurements were recorded, Black Beard was placed on a treadmill surrounded by a system of three infrared cameras and plastic containers that serve as safety nets in case a reptile runner strays off course.

As soon as Bayewu shook a clear jar of jumping crickets, Black Beard sprang into action. Alex Lauffer, a junior Biology major, flipped the conveyor belt switch, the treadmill kicked on and the cameras began transmitting data to Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, shakes a jar of jumping crickets to motivate a beaded dragon to run on the treadmill. From the left, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, and Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major from Seaville in Cape May County, stand by.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, shakes a jar of jumping crickets to motivate a beaded dragon to run on the treadmill. From the left, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, and Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major from Seaville in Cape May County, stand by.  Photo (c) Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Sophomore Biology majors Kieran Tracey and Alex Hilbmann stood close by, making sure Black Beard stayed on the treadmill.

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major from Sea Isle City in Cape May County, guides a beaded dragon to the treadmill as Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, holds a jar of crickets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major from Sea Isle City in Cape May County, guides a beaded dragon to the treadmill as Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, holds a jar of crickets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

While Black Beard ran in place, the cameras captured the motion of each reflective bead sending real experimental data at the overwhelming rate of 120 frames-per-second to a computer program that can read and display the data as moving dots.

From behind their monitor, Bonnan, of Hammonton, and Shulman, of Egg Harbor Township, watched each step on their screen.

Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics, are working together with students to model dinosaur movement by studying modern day reptiles and mammals. “Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan. Shulman has been instrumental in analyzing the data, which is captured at 120 frames-per-second by a system of infrared cameras. “He is a big part of why we're able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan. (c) Photo: Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics, are working together with students to model dinosaur movement by studying modern day reptiles and mammals. “Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan. Shulman has been instrumental in analyzing the data, which is captured at 120 frames-per-second by a system of infrared cameras. “He is a big part of why we’re able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Stepping Back in Time

“Without a time machine, we can’t put dinosaurs on a treadmill,” said Bonnan, who has been fascinated with dinosaurs since he was 5 years old. Instead, bearded dragons, ferrets, rats and a Savannah monitor are “standing in for their ancestors” at the Best Foot Forward (BFF) Laboratory on the main Galloway, NJ campus.

Bridget Kuhlman, a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, left, and Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, were in the Best Foot Forward Laboratory to gather data on ferret movement patterns. Kuhlman, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Bridget Kuhlman (left), a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, left, and Kelsey Gamble (right), a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, were in the Best Foot Forward Laboratory to gather data on ferret movement patterns. Kuhlman, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

“Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan.

The fossil record offers scientists a motionless slice of history. Bonnan and his team have turned to optical tracking technology to tell more of the story.

“Our ultimate goal is to realistically model and place constraints on how fossil vertebrates, such as dinosaurs and early mammals, moved their forelimbs,” Bonnan explained.

The team is quantitatively illustrating the motion of modern day reptiles and mammals and using bone shape as a common denominator to make comparisons between their laboratory stand-ins and dinosaurs.

Bonnan’s lifelong desire has been to “reconstruct long-dead animals and breathe life into old bones.”

Step-by-step, his vision is coming to life with the support of colleagues, student researchers and staff within the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Blending Physics and Biology

To model motion, math and physics come into play. Bonnan’s friend and colleague, Dr. Jason Shulman, joined the team lending his numerical analysis expertise. “Jason Shulman is a big part of why we’re able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan.

Early in the Physics curriculum, students learn to calculate angles and speed, which means that undergraduates are prepared to take part in real research outside of textbook exercises Shulman said.

Sometimes Physics majors wonder why they need to study Biology and vice versa. The animal locomotion research is an example of how the sciences work together. “It’s important for students to understand concepts outside of their field—that’s an important lesson I hope we convey.

The interdisciplinary collaboration is perfect for Physics students,” said Shulman.

Campus-wide Support

The bearded dragons were donated to Bonnan by student Kiersten Stukowski, of Gloucester in Camden County. Scientists rarely have the opportunity to work on a long-term project with the same specimens as they mature explained Bonnan.

Justine Ciraolo, director of Academic Laboratories and Field Facilities, connected Bonnan with her sister, who is loaning her ferrets to the team.

One of our ferrets, "Mocha."

One of our ferrets, “Mocha.” Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

When the reptiles and mammals aren’t in the lab, they are cared for by John Rokita, principal animal health lab technician, who has been instrumental in acquiring specimens for Bonnan.

“None of this would have been possible without the support of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Stockton’s Institutional Animal Care and Usage Committee. It is rare for undergraduates to get this experience. On every level this is teamwork and everyone has been incredibly helpful,” said Bonnan.

The Student Researchers

Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major, of West Deptford in Gloucester County, says he’s learned all about lizards while building a foundation to better understand the kinematics (or science of motion) during his independent study. “It wasn’t always easy to get them to run,” he admitted. Hilbmann plans to go on to medical school after Stockton.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major who’s from Maywood in Bergen County, started out working with rats on the treadmill, but “they didn’t always want to move.” Since he joined the team, he’s witnessed the differences in movement among different species.

Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major, of Seaville in Cape May County, took Comparative Anatomy with Dr. Bonnan, which he says opened up his interest along the evolutionary tree. The research has really illustrated “how different their walking habits are.” Barnes is a veterinary technician at Beach Buddies Animal Hospital in Marmora and hopes to attend veterinary school.

Alex Lauffer, a junior Biology major, of Point Pleasant in Ocean County, has always had an interest in dinosaurs and reptiles. The research project was “right up my alley,” he said. The aspiring veterinary assistant has three snakes, one tarantula, one dog and a pond of koi fish. However, it was in the BFF Lab that he held his first bearded dragon. They are surprisingly calm, he said.

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major, of Sea Isle City in Cape May County, said, “I’m having a lot of fun working with lizards and watching them run,” and added that the experience is giving him important exposure to research in preparation for medical school. He looks forward to “analyzing how [the data] relates to dinosaurs.”

Bridget Kuhlman, a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets.

Bridget Kuhlman (left) and Kelsey Gamble (right) attach tracking beads to the ferret nick-named, "Mocha" as Drs. Bonnan and Shulman look on.

Bridget Kuhlman (left) and Kelsey Gamble (right) attach tracking beads to the ferret nick-named, “Mocha” as Drs. Bonnan and Shulman look on. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests.

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests. Pictured, she holds a ferret that is taking part in the animal locomotion research project at Stockton College. Photo (c)

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests. Pictured, she holds a ferret that is taking part in the animal locomotion research project at Stockton College. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Contact:         Susan Allen
                        Office of News & Media Relations
                        Galloway Township, NJ 08205
                        Susan.Allen@stockton.edu
                        (609) 652-4790

Ferret on a treadmill — you read that correctly

When you’re interested in documenting forelimb locomotion to help you infer what was going on extinct reptiles and mammals, it pays not to be picky.  So when the opportunity came to analyze the gaits of two ferrets materialized, how could the BFF lab say no?  Ferrets have a unique body morphology and certainly have a much more upright forelimb than the rats and reptiles we typically work with, so they help form a nice point of contrast and comparison.

What happens when you place a GoPro camera at the end of the treadmill?  Success, that’s what.  BFF student Bridget Kuhlman did just that the other week in our lab during our data capture sessions, and she got this brilliant bit of POV video.  You don’t see Bridget directly in the video, although you do see her finger which has a tasty smear of FerretVite which we use to coax the ferrets to walk in the line of the infrared cameras.  In the background, modulating the treadmill, is BFF student Kelsey Gamble.

You will notice that this Ferret, nick-named “Latte,” walks and then rides the treadmill backwards, then walks again.  Science is messy — no animal is going to walk in perfect rhythm with the treadmill from start to stop.  What we do is capture all the data, and then find the motion capture portions where “Latte” and our other animals are keeping pace with the treadmill.  Incidentally, we measure various body dimensions on the animals each session (in case they grow or put on/lose weight) and we note the treadmill speed so we can calculate how fast they are moving.

“Latte,” and his room-mate “Mocha,” have been temporarily loaned to us thanks to the generosity of Jen Ciraolo.

News from the BFF Locomotion Lab

Just a brief post to point out we’ve updated our main lab page and that we have many new student members.  We’ve also seen our first lab alumni graduate or move on to other projects.

Just a reminder that you can follow us on Twitter: @BFFLocomotion and Facebook.

 

Why I love bearded dragons -or- Putting lizards through their paces in the BFF Lab

This has been an exciting week for my students and I in the BFF locomotion lab.  We have finally worked out multiple bugs in our system and have a bunch of very peppy and cooperative bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) lizards.  Corey Barnes, one of the BFF undergraduate seniors and PreVet Biology major, captured one of our trials on a young beardie we affectionately named Greenbeard.  As you can see in the video below, we entice the lizards to walk and run by tempting them with their favorite treats – crickets!  Although the lizards cannot get the treats immediately (we need the incentive), they each get a tasty cricket after each trial to reward them for a job well done.

Yes — these are juveniles … adult bearded dragons will be filmed as well.

The data we are collecting will form the basis of a comparative study of the relative movements of lizard forearms relative to the body across several species.  Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards (in some respects, lizards have “held on to” the ancestral forelimb posture and anatomy of early reptiles and mammals), they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures.

The treadmill was custom made for us by JogADog, and we’re capturing data from reflective markers using the OptiTrack V120 Trio system for motion capture.

The "Bonnan Beardies" crew with our treadmill (center) and motion capture system (left).  From left to right, Alex Lauffer, Kieran Tracey, Alex Hilbmann, and Corey Barnes.

The “Bonnan Beardies” crew with our treadmill (center) and motion capture system (left). From left to right, Alex Lauffer, Kieran Tracey, Alex Hilbmann, and Corey Barnes.