Professor Mihai Emilian Popa
Also: Curriculum Vitae
My primary research focus is Mesozoic vegetational history. The Mesozoic holds the foundation of current world vegetation and yet there are few specialists in the area. It is important to have a broad concept of the origins and radiation of conifers, gnetales, ferns, cycads, ginkgoes and of the extinct lineage of seed ferns and the rise and dominance of angiosperms. My interests are Mesozoic plant systematics, taxonomy, evolution, paleoecology, paleophytogeography and stratigraphy.
Fossil plants can be approached in a multitude of ways, directly or indirectly, but I was always dedicated to a direct approach for the fossil plants. Nothing should interfere in the beginning between the fossil material and the researcher, although the latter can use sophisticated techniques for investigating a sample. I consider that providing and recording correct primary data on the fossil material is central for my research. This primary information I consider as belonging to the following categories:
1. the correct assignment of the fossil material to taxa that are valid from nomenclatural points of view;
2. precise stratigraphic position and occurrence within the sedimentary context of the fossil, when collecting fossil plants;
3. correct assessment of the morphological and anatomical characters of the fossils, using correct and modern anatomical and morphological concepts.
I consider that interpreting in the correct manner the fossil record, implying that I am always in control for the validity of the primary data, is also essential for addressing major questions in Paleobotany. Without clean, trustful, honest and controllable primary data, nothing can be addressed furthermore and science is poorly done without them.
In my studies in Paleobotany and Palynology, I address several major questions in Mesozoic vegetational history:
1. Floristic changes across the world through the Mesozoic times, mainly during the Triassic/Jurassic boundaries, the mode and tempo of these floral changes. I could develop detailed research on Early Jurassic floral changes in the South Carpathians, on the Triassic/Jurassic boundary floral dynamics in Greenland, a project in full development now. In the South Carpathians, I could document in detail a Hettangian - Sinemurian (Early Jurassic) floral change, these studies changing radically the current paleobotanical views in Eastern Europe. I addressed this floral change in high detail by three dimensional studies within Lower Jurassic deposits of the South Carpathians, a study which is unique in Europe and a continuous theme of research for me;
2. Regional and local phytocenotic dynamics during the Mesozoic times. This implies the correlation between plant assemblages and depositional environments and climates, as they are reflected by taphocenoses and sedimentary structures;
3. The lycopod, fern and sphenopsid evolution, paleoecology, stratigraphy and distribution during the Mesozoic times. I have developed detailed systematics and taxonomy, of many genera, including Late Paleozoic Marattiales, Sphenopsids and Triassic/Jurassic Matoniaceae, Dipteridaceae, Marattiales and Dicksoniaceae. I could describe a series of new Jurassic genera (e.g. Aninopteris) and species.
4. The gymnosperm evolution, stratigraphy, evolution and distribution during Mesozoic times. I undertook studies on seed ferns such as Corystospermales, Peltaspermales, other seed ferns with uncertain affinities, on Cycadales, Cycadeoidales, and during the last years on reproductive strategies of Mesozoic conifers, such as Palissyaceae, Cupressaceae, Pinaceae, and conifers of uncertain affinities.
5. The phylogenetic relation between Mesozoic seed ferns or bennettites and basal angiosperms. I addressed in detail this question, focusing on important Mesozoic seed ferns;
6. Evolution of conifer genera during Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Neozoic times. I currently address this major topic by detailed systematics, anatomy and phytostratigraphic studies of Romanian, North American, Greenlandic and Swedish material of all geological ages.
As methods of research, I use various field methods (field collecting and mapping) and laboratory methods (cuticle analysis, in situ pollen and spores extraction, acetate peels, thin sections, disperse palynomorphs extraction, image processing and different types of photography, TEM and SEM techniques, databases in systematics that I develop and maintain myself).
For the future, my plans include continuing my studies in Mesozoic vegetational history by the following means:
1. Continuing and developing my research in systematics, taxonomy, phytostratigraphy, paleoecology, floristic dynamics across various boundaries, on pteridophytes, bryophytes and gymnosperms of Triassic and Jurassic age in Greenland, Romania, Serbia, Sweden, USA, and possibly Iran and Afghanistan. In this way, I seek to obtain a new, synthetic view on the low and high latitude Triassic and Jurassic boreal floras of Europe, northern America and central-south Asia, on the northern and western frame of the Tethys realm. Based in University of Bucharest, I will continue my collaboration with the University College Dublin, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Universite Claude Bernard in Lyon, the University of Florida, the Utrecht University and the Leiden University;
2. Developing a strong research on systematics, taxonomy, paleoecology, phytostratigraphy and evolution of Mesozoic and Neozoic conifers (Coniferales and Taxales);
3. Developing a strong research on Mesozoic boreal pteridosperms (systematics, taxonomy, paleoecology, phytostratigraphy, phylogeny), mainly for Peltaspermales, Corystospermales and Caytoniales, and to assess the pteridosperm-angiosperm phylogeny. I will continue my research on countries such as Romania, Sweden, Greenland, and United States.
My teaching philosophy is centered on two main, very important aspects. The first is the students need for clear, new and comprehensive information in Paleobotany and Palynology, as well as generally in Earth and Life Sciences. The second aspect is the students’ need for a human example. Since I began teaching to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Bucharest, I think that students will need not only a top notch scientific education, but also a direct, positive human example.
For the first aspect, I am very interested in giving to my students the best possible educational response, providing in the simplest way detailed, clear and up to date information with regard to fossil plants evolution and systematics, paleoecology, stratigraphy and historical geology. I consider that educating students is not only a matter of the lecture room, laboratory or field activity, but a matter of involving them in extra curricular research themes in a variety of aspects. I try to attract students to study various research themes, involving Mesozoic and Paleozoic fossil plants. Team work is always of great value in my opinion, and I think that team work is valuable not only for achieving good results in research, but also important for a better education of my students.
For the second aspect, I think that simply being yourself, not only when teaching, is the best way of giving an example to students. As a Geologist, and a Biologist, I have had the opportunity to educate my students not only in the lecture room, but also in the field, sometimes for long periods of time in the wilderness, where your skills and a “being yourself attitude” is the only solution to succeed in quality teaching. Distant attitudes or opaque behavior have nothing to do with education, and I consider that treating positively, firmly and fairly is the best way to teach. My attitude with regard to this aspect was always put under the sign of “nothing to hide”. Evaluating the students is a constant matter of concern for me. I have the idea that a student must be evaluated not only during theoretical and practical exams, but continuously, during each laboratory work or field course. In this way, students efforts of working constantly, motivated and with seriousness have better chances to be recorded and rewarded, avoiding as much as possible last minute learning or simple luck during an exam. I think that a University educator must fill two roles, that of being a good educator and a talented researcher. This is why I always develop with full energy both fields of activity. I consider that teaching students should be a product of your research experience.
I consider plant evolution and systematics, paleoecology, paleoclimates, paleophytogeography, origin of major groups of plants, modern techniques in Paleobotany as my primary fields of teaching. As a tenured, Associate Professor at the University of Bucharest, my teaching is centered on Paleobotany and Palynology (in the lecture room, the laboratory and the field) and secondary on Paleoecology, Stratigraphy and Historical Geology. I am very interested in teaching Paleobotany and Palynology, as they are also my primary fields of research. I have more than eight years of experience in teaching fossil microbial structures, fossil algae and microbiofacies, fossil bryophytes, fossil cryptogams and phanerogams and fossil fungi.
I am interested in teaching Paleobotany using an evolutionary and phylogenetic approach, emphasizing the defining features of each group of plants in relation with its origins, with its sister groups or outgroups, detailing its stratigraphical range and its paleoenvironmental response reflected in the morphology, anatomy or habitat of its representatives. I exemplify groups of plants with a series of representative genera, and these genera I detail during laboratory work, first describing them and then letting the students to study the same fossil material.
In the lab, I am teaching fossil plants using original material collected and prepared especially for educational aims, involving description of the material, genus by genus, prior to the students’ survey of the fossil material during the same laboratory session. I teach microbialites (e.g. generated by Cyanobacteria), fossil algae (Rhodophyta, Dinophyta, Chlorophyta, Chrysophyta, Phaeophyta) using rock samples, thin sections or biological slides, that students study with dissecting microscopes or transmitted light microscopes. For fossil cryptogams (Pteridophyta) or seed plants (Gymnospermophyta, Magnoliophyta) and bryophytes (Hepaticae, Muscinea), I teach using rock samples, peels, thin sections or biological slides that students study with the same tools. Among my teaching material can also be found a herbarium, containing the most illustrative extant plants. Both for course and for laboratory work I use fossil plant images, diagrams, drawings, maps and charts. I have developed an extensive educational image database that helps me constructing transparencies or Powerpoint presentations on almost any paleobotanical or palynological topic. Educational material, both fossil material and plant images, is for me an area of active interest. For the future, I would like to involve more internet tools in education. In Palynology, my teaching interest is with the palynomorph (acritarchs, dinoflagellates, spores, pollen, chitinozoans) morphology, structure, stratigraphic range, paleobotanical correspondent and environmental significance.