I am a paleontologist who studies how and why species are distributed across the Earth’s surface (= biogeography), how new species arise (=speciation), and how the movement of species between places changes local communities and global diversity patterns. I typically focus my research on shallow marine ecosystems because these ecosystems have the most complete fossil record, and I use brachiopods as my focal taxon because these marine fossils are well-preserved and abundant in Paleozoic strata. Because my research focuses on a common group of fossils, I am able to use them to examine detailed temporal and spatial patterns. My data comes from both field collections (I’ve collected specimens on all seven continents) and museum collections.
In particular, I am very interested in working to better understand the long-term impacts of invasive species. In the modern world, invasive species cause tremendous damage to how ecosystems function, and these impacts cost billions of dollars per year in the US alone. Modern ecologists have conducted fantastic studies on the short-term (years to decades) impacts of species invasions, but we need to look deeper in time to the fossil record to quantifying the long-term (thousands to tens of thousands of years) impact of invasive species. Fortunately, the fossil record is replete with examples of species that evolved in one area but later invaded a previously isolated geographic region, which is what I study. By better characterizing the long-term impacts of invasive species, we can better understand and predict what impacts pervasive introduction of species will have on modern ecosystems over the next century. For example, my research has demonstrated that species invasions will suppress speciation, promote extinction of ecologically specialized species, and have limited or no impact on ecologically generalized species. This provides context and information to develop improved conservation strategies.
My favorite part of being a scientist is coming up with creative new ways to tackle interesting questions about Earth’s history. In particular, I love working with my students and colleagues to develop new datasets and apply innovative techniques that allow us to gain new insights—and new questions!—about how life and Earth co-evolved. I also love traveling to new places around the world to learn about new rocks and meet new colleagues. I also really enjoy teaching and working with the public to spread a greater understanding of science and appreciation for Earth’s history.
Beginning a career in science can feel arduous at times, there is so much to learn–which is exciting but can feel overwhelming–and the path through graduate school can be long. The most important piece of advice is to find a question that you are passionate about. Ask hypotheses that you personally really want to know the answer to. All aspects of scientific research involve some slow and, honestly, a bit boring phases, but that burning, intellectual curiosity to know the answer to YOUR question will carry you through those times into truly exciting phases when everything comes together—and you find your next burning question. Science is a group endeavor, but it is fueled by passionate individuals. Find what you are passionate about and do it!
To learn more about Alycia’s work visit her website or follow her on Twitter!