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School of Geography

Meet the researcher - Dr Karen Bacon

Karen joined the School in September 2013. Her research spans palaeobotany to present day plant ecology and incorporates elements of plant biology, geology and geochemistry. karen is interested in how plants respond to changes in atmospheric composition and how these responses can be tracked in the fossil record. 

1.   Why did you become interested in research?

I have always been interested in the natural world, biology in particular. When I was a child, I loved helping my mum in the garden and was really interested in plants and animals. Once I started studying science in school I was hooked, and as an undergraduate student, I became fascinated with plants and how they could adapt and survive in so many different environments. I also became interested in how geology and the fossil record preserve information on environments from Earth’s past. These two interests led me to undertaking a PhD in palaeobotany, and my research now focuses on tracking plant responses to environmental change in the fossil record.

2.    What are you currently working on?

My current research is focused on plant responses to changes in atmospheric composition. I conduct experiments on modern “living fossil” plants, such as Ginkgo biloba, to try to understand how both leaf function and leaf shape change with variations in CO2, SO2, temperature and other environmental variables. I then attempt to use the results of the experiments to interpret observed changes in plant fossils. 

3.   What is the most important finding from your research to date?

I led a study, published earlier this year that found that leaves of modern plants change their shape when they are exposed to SO2. We were then able to identify and track this rounding of leaves in fossil plants from 200 million years ago, which suggests that the plants of this time were exposed to high levels of SO2. This period, 200 million years ago, marks one of the largest ever mass extinction events in Earth history, and although SO2 and volcanic activity are thought to have played a major role in extinctions at this time, this has been difficult to show because identifying the effects of SO2 on plants in the fossil record has previously proven difficult.

4.   What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Having my first paper awarded best paper in the journal in which it was published.

5.   What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a research career in your field?

Research can be an all-consuming path and is seldom just 9-5, so to succeed you need to be totally committed to what you are doing. I think it’s really important to pick an area that you are passionate about because then the long working hours don’t matter so much as you are enjoying what you do. I also think that it is really important to try to get some research experience, such as summer lab or field work, before you commit to undertaking a research career so that you know what it’s really like. I loved working in the lab as an undergraduate during the summer, and it really helped me to decide that I wanted a career in research.

6.   What is the most common question you are asked by non-researchers?

What’s the point of this [palaeobotany]? As a palaeobotanist, I try to explain how the fossil record can be used as a sort of natural experiment to determine how plants and animals respond to environmental upheavals – from volcanism and asteroid impact to climate change and changes to rainfall patterns – over long timescales. The fossil record is the only really long-term (tens of thousands to millions of years) record that exists to try to test theories about how plants and animals respond to such changes. This is particularly important because in order to understand what is happening to the world’s ecosystems today, we need to understand how they have responded in the past, particularly in relation to climate change. The information that we gain from studying the fossil record, although not a perfect representation of the past, is of tremendous benefit to understanding global environmental change today – something that is affecting and will continue to affect everyone on the planet.

7.   What is your favourite hobby?

That tends to vary depending on how busy I am. I love horse-riding and walking, and I have recently taken up scuba-diving. I also enjoy reading and drinking tea when I’m feeling less energetic. 

For more on Karen's research and publications visit her homepage

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