Case study: Dr Victoria McCoy

Dr Victoria McCoy, Newton International Fellowship
2015-2017, University of Leicester
Soft tissue preservation in amber

An ancient world trapped in amber

‘I was inspired to go into the research by the movie Jurassic Park and the idea of getting dinosaur biomolecules out of fossils in amber.’ As a palaeontologist, Dr Victoria McCoy’s research aims to uncover the secrets of the ancient fossils trapped in amber by using international renowned experimental fossilisation, organic chemistry and ancient proteins labs at the University of Leicester and University of York. The Newton International Fellowship allowed Dr McCoy to utilise the facilities and expert knowledge available at these institutions and to gain sufficient funds to cover her research and travel expenses. The support of the fellowship meant that Dr McCoy was free to focus on her research rather than spending valuable research time on writing grants. Dr McCoy’s research aims to purify and identify proteins from fossils preserved in amber in order to fully understand the elusive biology of extinct animals. 

The funding and support available as a result of the fellowship allowed Dr McCoy to develop a number of fascinating research questions with a wide scope which involve the study of extinct animals from a biological perspective by studying ancient DNA and proteins, rather than from a purely palaeontological perspective which typically exclusively studies fossils. By utilising the unique facilities available at the two UK institutions, Dr McCoy intends to understand the variables with control the decay and preservation of proteins and soft tissue of the fossils in amber. Additionally she aims to determine if particular specimens are likely to have preserved ancient proteins and to be able to extract the proteins from specimens which are considered to be the gold standard representing specific extinct animals. The success of Dr McCoy’s work could lead to a lifetime of research projects involving the sequencing of ancient proteins leading towards a revolutionary improvement in the understanding of many extinct animals. By improving the understanding of extinct animals, Dr McCoy’s work will assist in the understanding of evolutionary traits through the fossil record up to current living organisms and develop a thorough comprehension of the history of life on Earth.

In addition to the funding received by Dr McCoy, she also took part in many training courses offered by the Royal Society. Dr McCoy’s attendance at the media skills training course has allowed her to improve her skills in conveying her research to those inside and outside of the world of academia, skills which are essential for today’s scientists in the democratisation of information. By relocating to the UK, Dr McCoy has been able to build a global collaborative network aiding both her research and future career pathways by connecting to academic institutions worldwide.