Sarah Sheffield, Invertebrate Paleobiologist

Sarah exploring the Devonian Spanish echinoderms on a beautiful beach.

As an invertebrate paleobiologist, I work on group of extinct echinoderms (the group including sea lilies and sea stars): the diploporitans. These fossils, which admittedly look like weird potatoes, are not well understood. Their evolutionary relationships to other echinoderms, biogeography, or even why the diploporitans went extinct are big questions that don’t have answers. This is important because the diploporitans lived at a time of very dramatic climate change, the Ordovician. During this time, the diploporitans changed their body plans a lot, likely in response to this climate change. If we are able to learn more about how this group of echinoderms responded, we might be able to better understand how modern organisms will also respond to rising ocean levels, warmer waters, and higher acidification. To learn more about this puzzling group, I have done fieldwork in rural Spain, the western coast of Sardinia, and southern Indiana to uncover new diploporitan fossils. I have also traveled to museums in the Czech Republic, Estonia, and all over the U.S. to restudy diploporitan collections. I study the fossils I find in the field or that I see in museums for morphological differences between the specimens; these differences are used in analyses so that I can understand the evolutionary tree of diploporitan echinoderms.

Eumorphocystis multiporata (SUI 97597), an Ordovician-age diploporitan that shows unusual features. This fossil has features that are similar to early crinoid fossils, which might help us understand early echinoderm evolutionary relationships.

My favorite part of being a scientist is getting to learn something new every single day. I work with scientists across the world that specialize in all kinds of different scientific fields-I get to learn something every time I talk to them. My second favorite part of being a scientist is getting to do something new all the time-my work takes me to places I’d never have imagined getting to visit, meet new people from all over the world, and research new questions. My job is so much fun-I couldn’t imagine doing something different!

My advice to young scientists is to find what you are really, really passionate about. This isn’t easy at all! I tried a lot of things before I discovered that I loved invertebrate paleobiology, and that’s ok! Try new things, learn stuff along the way, and discover what it is that makes you absolutely love going to work each day. We need your passion about whatever branch of science you choose if we want to keep making scientific progress. And never give up-science can be very frustrating some times, if your experiment doesn’t give you the result it wants, or your classes are tougher than you expected. By trying your hardest, I promise you’re more than halfway there!

Read more about Sarah’s work on her website here or on her Twitter here.

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