Andy Fraass, Paleoceanographer and Paleobiologist

I got into science because of Jurassic Park. I’ve always been fascinated by dinosaurs, but something about reading the novel, then watching that movie opening night just grabbed my brain and has never let go. When I got to college I realized that dinosaurs aren’t really the best way to ask the big questions that I’m interested in, like how evolution works, or how the possible shapes that an organism can have is shaped by evolution, or how past climate changes alter the course of evolution.

I study foraminifera because we (scientists) can find thousands – millions – in a single sample. We’re also not studying just a bone or two, we can find the entire shell. Having so many fossils to look at lets us be more sure of our findings. It’s so much cooler than dinosaurs. I know, I’ve yet to be able to convince anybody else of that.

I, as a micropaleontologist, also study past climates because it’s more important for society. Understanding evolution is important, but understanding the changes that our society, my daughter, and her kids (if she wants them) will experience is a more important use of my talents as a researcher and educator. I also use stable isotopes, the number of different fossil foraminifera with certain ecologies, and even just the sediments themselves to try and understand what controls past climate. One of the main findings of this field (called paleoceanography) is that our current changes in climate are unprecedented in well over 65 million years, with some research that concludes this is the most extreme climate change in about 400 million years (click here to read more about climate change and the geologic history of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere).

The left part of the graph is a measure of diversity, or the number of different species or genera of planktic foraminifera. Geologic time is plotted along the top of the graph, measured in millions of years (Ma). The number of species (purple) and genera (gold) of planktic  foraminifera through time are plotted on the chart. The grey shapes in the background are the number of sites in the ocean that have rocks of that age. This graphic shows a clear large extinction at the end of the Cretaceous (~65 million years ago with a huge, sharp drop in diversity) and a more gradual change at the Eocene/Oligocene boundary (~34 million years ago).

My favorite part of science – bar none – are the people with whom I work. Figuring out questions and discovering things is wonderful, but the best part is doing it with people who are as enthused with science as I am. Science can be hard, and it can be very frustrating. I have the amazingly good fortune of having friends whose skills complement mine and who help get me through the frustration. There is nothing better than sitting around a table plotting out a three-year project with a couple of folks who are as excited about the scientific possibilities as I am.

Leave a Reply