Detroit Mercy student co-authors groundbreaking Spinosaurus paper

May 21, 2020
University of Detroit Mercy junior Juliana Jakubczak (left) gives a presentation.

University of Detroit Mercy junior Juliana Jakubczak didn’t know what she was getting into when she joined Associate Professor of Biology Nizar Ibrahim’s student research team. All she knew was that Ibrahim was a paleontologist and studying fossils was something she had been interested in since she was a child.

Fast forward two years and Jakubczak is a co-author on Ibrahim’s groundbreaking article in the prestigious journal Nature, which showed Spinosaurus was aquatic and used tail-propelled swimming locomotion to hunt for prey. It’s the first time such an adaptation has been reported in a dinosaur.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Jakubczak said. “It’s kind of crazy to say I was a part of this and I helped out. I’m just kind of in shock.

“Dr. Ibrahim is such an amazing professor and amazing research advisor,” Jakubczak added. “It’s just been a pleasure to be a part of this team and all the amazing people who worked on this. He’s really like the modern day Indiana Jones. He totally embodies that, but is way, way more knowledgeable than Indiana Jones.”

Jakubczak knew Ibrahim was working on something big when she joined the team, but she didn’t have any idea the research would trend worldwide on Twitter when it was released in April and be covered by major media outlets like CNN, The New York Times, FOX News, ABC News, Popular Science and NPR, just to name a few. 

University of Detroit Mercy junior Juliana Jakubczak poses for a photo.“I had no idea how huge this was going to be,” Jakubczak said. “It’s still kind of shocking. It was a childhood dream because when I was really young I wanted to be a paleontologist. He definitely made it clear when I first joined team that this is big and I couldn’t talk about it at all. I took that very seriously.”

Now that the paper has been published, Jakubczak is enjoying telling her family and friends about her work.

“I’m sure I’ve talked my family’s ear off because we’re all stuck together in quarantine,” Jakubczak said. “They’re getting the full presentation here. They just thought I was looking at bones. They think it’s really cool. They’re happy for me because it’s kind of me living out my childhood dream.”

Jakubczak’s job was to do detailed literature research trying to find out how animals move through water with their tails.

“It’s a pretty daunting task to go through the technical literature in a field that you’re not necessarily very familiar with,” Ibrahim said. “But I had a constant supply of new interesting papers coming in so we assembled a pretty good set of background papers and possible approaches. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be for someone to do who has little exposure to paleontology. She fully met our expectations.”

Ibrahim said Jakubczak showed an interest in dinosaurs right away so that’s why he chose her for this task.

“She was interested in doing something on dinosaurs and I said, ‘Most of the really interesting dinosaur material is actually not here, it’s in Morocco.’ But there’s certainly opportunity to do some detailed literature research, so that’s how it kind of started off,” Ibrahim said. “Of course, at the time it was impossible to predict this would be published in the world’s top scientific journal.”

Jakubczak admitted there were some long days going through literature, but she also had a great time seeing the research progress over time.

“I loved seeing the tail get developed because we had so many theories of what it might look like,” Jakubczak said. “It was really, really exciting once we got all the bones scanned in digitally. Over time the bones deform and kind of bend, Dr. Ibrahim had a colleague scan them all and reshape them to what they would have been like when they were living and before all the distortion. That was my favorite part.”

Jakubczak will be a senior at Detroit Mercy in the fall and hopes to attend dental school after she earns her bachelor’s degree. But she also hopes to continue doing work with fossils.

“I hope to have my own dental practice, but on the side I want to work with dinosaur teeth,” Jakubczak said. “It’s something I’m interested in. Dr. Ibrahim would bring in not just the Spinosaurus, but other teeth. I would look at them and try to figure out what species it came from, what it ate and things of that nature.”

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.