As a paleontologist I study the evolutionary relationships of ancient echinoderms (relatives of modern day sea urchins and sea stars). To accomplish this, I use morphological characters (shape and other data points measured on a fossil) to create a phylogenetic tree, or evolutionary hypothesis about the relationships and relatedness of groups of echinoderms. Currently I am working with a group of echinoderms called Paracrinoidea and I am trying to create a phylogenetic hypothesis for the group.
The paracrinoids missed the memo on how to be an echinoderm and are completely asymmetric (while other echinoderms exhibit some sort of symmetry) and have other unusual morphologies for their feeding structures. Because of these unusual characteristics paracrinoids have not been able to be placed into an evolutionary hypothesis and are therefore unable to be used to answer any other evolutionary questions that we may have. My research will allow this group of echinoderms to be better understood and eventually be used in other evolutionary studies. Additionally, because my research is based in understanding evolution I am able to use my organism as well as other organisms to help teach others about the concept of evolution and organisms and the environment changing through time.
My favorite part about being a scientist is getting to teach others science. I am very passionate about scientific education and outreach. I have always remembered sitting in my eighth grade science class and seeing my teacher be so excited to teach us about rocks and minerals and that excitement and wonder about the world around me has never changed. As I continue my education in geology I have come in contact with many professors who are just as excited about science as my 8th grade teacher was and their passion for teaching has impressed upon the importance of being excited about science education. I aim to be able to continue to teach and do science outreach throughout my career as a scientist to spark the same passion for science that my teachers have instilled in me.
For all of the young scientists out there, the best advice I can give you is to just go for it. If you are still in high school don’t be ashamed to like science, because science is really awesome! Take some time to get familiar with the basic concepts of whichever discipline you enjoy, search out articles that interest you, talk to your teachers about ways they can help you continue to learn more. If you are in college look for internships, talk to professors about doing an independent study on topics you are interested in, get involved in a research project with a professor. If someone tells you can’t do this or that it’s too hard of a field to get into, don’t listen to them if it is really what you want to be doing. Science is hard, I can’t lie about that, but it is also so rewarding if you are willing to work hard and just go for it.