Dr Mark Wilkinson

Mark is currently a researcher with the Natural History Museum in London. 

Why did you choose biology at Oxford?

I wanted to study Biology and given Oxford’s reputation the choice was natural. 

What did you enjoy most about your degree?

I enjoyed the combination of critical thinking with a breadth of coverage of diverse fields and the synthesis that allows.

What was your final project on?

I studied the diversity of form in the pelvic girdle of frogs. Some frogs are great jumpers, the more toady species jump less and walk more, and some species such as the laboratory favourite Xenopus are aquatic and more adapted to swimming than to terrestrial locomotion.  I did comparative morphology – comparing especially the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones of the pelvic girdle of a very good sample of the whole range of frogs (there were more than 2,500 species recognized then – and more than 5000 today!). I tried to understand the differences in terms of ecology, biomechanics, function and degrees of evolutionary relatedness. 

What skill sets did you gain during your degree that have equipped you for where you are today?

I think that my time at Oxford helped me develop as a critical thinker through exposure to many ideas, and the opportunity to discuss the ideas and an encouragement to do so. 

What did you do after Oxford?

I carried on with an Academic career but with a slightly tortuous path that saw me do postgraduate studies at the Universities of Michigan and Bristol and at King’s College, London in Departments of Ecology and Evolution, of Earth Science and of Philosophy of Science.  After finally getting my PhD I had a short postdoctoral research position working in a great team at the Natural History Museum doing DNA sequencing work before becoming a Lecturer in Taxonomy at the University of Glasgow.  I benefitted from there having been a recent review of Taxonomy in the UK which led to some investment intended to boost a subject seen as important but under threat. The competition for this funding led to the establishment of the lectureship in taxonomy (the only one in the country).  I got lucky with the timing of the review and you do seem to need a combination of perseverance and luck if you wish to pursue an Academic career.  After working in Universities I moved back to the Natural History Museum, initially in a combined research and management role as a Deputy Head of the Department of Zoology.  Later I was able to give up the managerial and administrative parts of my job through an Individual Merit Promotion which allows me to concentrate on research. 

What do you currently do, and what do you enjoy most about it?

My research has two main components.  I do some theoretical work in phylogenetics, contributing to the development and evaluation of the methods we use to infer how different species are interrelated in the Tree of Life.  I also study the biology of probably the least known major group of terrestrial vertebrates, the caecilians - snake like, mostly burrowing and mostly tropical amphibians.  Because they are poorly known much of my work involves working out what species of caecilians there are, how they differ in morphology, genetics and ecology and where they are found.  This work can involve substantial remote and challenging fieldwork. I particularly enjoy that.  Its great to find caecilians in the wild. I also enjoy having fantastic colleagues at the Museum and incredible expertise about the great diversity of the Natural World, and I am thrilled everytime I get to work with the collections, which are a unique and priceless scientific resource.

What advice do you have for prospective students looking to apply for biology at Oxford?

I would advise that if you do get the chance to study at Oxford then make the most of the opportunity. I recognise now that I could have got even more from my time at Oxford if I had put a bit more in myself.

Get in touch with Mark:

Museum profile