Think no one will read your thesis?

They say that no one will read your thesis except you, your supervisors, your examiners, and your mother. That is, only you and your mother will read your entire thesis. But that doesn’t mean your thesis is insignificant. Each thesis, honours, masters, or PhD, contributes something to science. Even if it is repeating a previous study, or to put in other words, to validate a previous study or test a hypothesis. I’m sure every grad student had looked through another thesis, from the same lab group or another at one point during their own journey.

Even if your thesis is stored in a library archive somewhere and no-one sees it, it is atill there to be found. There is a chance that someone will dust off the covers and have a look. And that is exactly what I did with a collection of theses from the 1970s, and I was not disappointed.

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A matchstick grasshopper (Warramaba virgo)

For my PhD I work on morabine grasshoppers (Morabidae, Orthoptera), a subfamily endemic to Australasia and New Guinea. Between the 1960s and 1980s, these grasshoppers were closely studied by the late Professor Michael J. D. White and colleagues at the University of Melbourne. They were interested in the cytogenetics and evolution of these grasshoppers. White came up with his theory of stasipatric speciation based on his studies on the genus Vandiemenella. The late Dr Ken L. H. Key of CSIRO described the sub-family down to genus and a few type species in 1976, but most of those approximately 240 species identified remain undescribed, including three of the five species in the genus Warramaba, which I work on. Work on morabine grasshoppers died out after White’s passing in the early 1980s, until the Vandiemenella and Warramaba systems were picked up again by us at the University of Melbourne, and others at the University of Adelaide.

Reviving a study system is a challenging task, particularly from a time before the internet and digital archives. Library archives, printed journals, talking to old colleagues or any other media become important sources of information. Following a handwritten side note referring to the late Professor Graham Webb’s PhD thesis, which he did at the University of Melbourne under Prof White, we thought it would be a good idea to check the thesis for relevant material. A copy is kept at the University of Melbourne archives but I decided to check the locked cabinet of bound theses in the former Department of Genetics. Lo and behold, there was a copy of Webb’s thesis, along with several other titles related to morabine grasshoppers by names that were unpublished in the literature. All except one were not digitised and available through the University’s digital repository.

After scanning through them, here are five things I learnt:

  1. They are valuable snapshots of the literature at the time of writing.
    These theses were written between 1973 and 1977, just before or after Key’s classification of the sub-family. Thus, they contain outdated taxonomic nomenclature and species relationships, and even editorial changes to the text as additional information arrived. For example, in Webb’s thesis (written 1973, work conducted in 1972 and prior) there is a footnote of a new, yet unnamed, parthenogenetic species discovered in January 1973. We know this would be the Boulder-Zanthus phylad of Warramaba virgo as identified in subsequent publications. The same footnote announces the discovery of Warramaba P196 in January 1972.
  2. Everyone should put photographs in their thesis.
    The original photographs, with rounded corners and no filter needed, are of experimental set ups, animal husbandry set ups or collection sites. As such they are great visual records of how things were done, or the habitat at a location.
  3. Detailed methods.
    In many published papers, the methods section is often truncated, especially the type literature of the time. Much to the chagrin of grad students of today. The theses contain detailed methods, down to recipes of insect Ringers solution. Which is amazing because now I don’t have to adapt methods optimised for a distantly related family of grasshoppers.
  4. The typist’s job must have been very important.
  1. All work is significant, even if it is not directly related to the thesis question.
    A thesis about gel electrophoresis of enzymes in Warramana virgo also contained a small section about egg development. Although this is not directly related to the thesis question, it is the only known description of this data, and it’s unpublished (not to mention, directly related to my own experiments on temperature-dependent egg development).

Another thing that was exciting for me was a morphological characterisation of embryonic development. This work was done by someone during Honours and added as an Appendix in their Masters thesis. During the early stages of my PhD I had tried to come up with one myself based on superficial examination, my complete lack of knowledge about histology and developmental biology, and characterisations done in distantly related species. Yet 40 years ago, someone with a lot more experience than me did a much better job of it. If only I had known of this two years ago…
A third thing that was exciting was a thesis on the cytotaxonomy of two genera, extending the work started by Key. This included drawings of the genitalia, distributions, and descriptions of the habitat. All this information would be useful when and if someone updates the taxonomy of the Morabines.

In the end, thank you to all the previous students who did the work. Wherever you are, take some comfort and pride that something you did as a university graduate student has extended our knowledge on the ecology and evolution of morabine grasshoppers. Hopefully my own work will be useful to some future student, even if it takes another 40 years.

Acknowledgements:

Ann Verona Wilks, MSc 1973

Edgars J. M. Krumins, MSc 1977

Margaret Joan Mrongovius, PhD 1975 (also published)

Alan Geoffery Rainer, MSc 1975

Graham Charles Webb, PhD 1973 (also published)

  1. G. Fontana MSc 1971

P.S.

I found an antique paper tram ticket (unused as far as I can tell) from the now defunct Melbourne & Metropolitan Tram Board between the pages of one of the theses. Date? Who knows exactly.

 

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