I love paleontology. I’ve been active in many aspects of the science, from describing new fossil species to analyzing ancient parasites, but the topic I enjoy the most is the ecology and evolution of marine communities that lived on hard surfaces like rocks and shells. When you pick up a shell on the beach, chances are there are numerous tiny organisms that have encrusted its surface or bored holes into it. These hard substrate dwellers, called sclerobionts, represent a community type that dates back more than half a billion years. They are easy to find in the fossil record, so they can be studied to address deep questions about how communities evolve over long intervals. With this research I have traveled the world with my students examining fossil sclerobiont communities throughout the fossil record. Another advantage of the project is that I’ve gotten to know well a diverse set of fossil groups, especially echinoderms, bryozoans, and the dozens of animal types that drill holes in rocks and shells.
My type of paleontology, called evolutionary paleoecology, makes important contributions to understanding our dynamic world today. Long-term studies from the fossil record show how ecosystems respond to environmental perturbations, enabling us to predict the ecological patterns that will result from contemporary climate change. This work also gives us a rich ecological context for the epic story of life’s evolution.
Science was my destiny from childhood because I was fascinated with nature and the questions we can ask about it. Sharing these ideas with others in a community of inquiry is a great joy, so I became a college professor. Watching generations of students grow intellectually while addressing questions about the history of Life has been immensely satisfying. I have been very fortunate to have a career in which doing science has been inextricable from teaching science.
My advice to a young scientist is to think of the world around you in a series of questions, and then make sure your education is rich and diverse so you learn what questions are most interesting and useful. The successful scientists I know are always asking how things work like they do, and then they test for themselves answers that don’t seem to fit the evidence they see. Paleontology is ideal for this kind of science because we have the long and diverse record of nature over billions of years. Endless intriguing questions!