Ian Forsythe, Invertebrate Paleontologist and Undergraduate Researcher

Ian with a  brachiopod shell.

I study ways we can tell species apart based on their morphology (the structure and shapes of their hard parts).  For my research, I use the fossils of brachiopods (marine animals that resemble clams) from the Upper Ordovician period (around 450 million years ago). I collect the majority of my data from fossils in museum collections but collect fossils in the field when I can’t find what I need in an existing collection. While the applications of my research may not be readily apparent it is actually applicable to a variety of things.

 Species are the fundamental unit we use to classify organisms and being able to tell them apart is an important skill. Being able to identify species based on morphology is a necessary step in many studies of evolutionary processes, climate change, ecology, and patterns of biodiversity (the numbers of species present on the Earth through time). This is even true for biologists studying modern animals! While modern biologists define species as members of a population that can actually or potentially interbreed in nature it isn’t reasonable or even possible to conduct breeding experiments for every animal on Earth. Therefore, from a practical standpoint morphology is the best way to identify species whether you study fossils or living organisms.

Images of Rafinesquina brachiopods, which Ian works on. Here, the specific shell features of this brachiopod are highlighted and labeled. These features are part of the brachiopod’s morphology, or shell shape and structure. Image from OrdovicianAtlas.org.

When I was five, I started collecting marine fossils from rocks near my home. The fact that where I lived used to be under the sea was amazing to me. Although I had an interest in science at a very young age, I didn’t consider it as a career until much later. It was a book I read my freshman year of college (Wonderful Life by Stephen J. Gould) that inspired me to pursue paleontology professionally. It is a story about the bizarre creatures that lived in the sea over 500 million years ago and the scientific struggle to understand them. My experience with science has been fascinating and rewarding in more ways than I can describe, but I have to say that my favorite thing about being a scientist is learning new and exciting things every day.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring scientists, it would be that it is never too late to pursue a career in science. All kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds become scientists and many of them start out pursuing other things (I started college thinking I would be a writer). If you are getting ready to start college and unsure what degree you want to pursue, try taking some courses at a community college. There are so many fascinating fields in science it can be hard to know which one is right for you and community college is a wonderful place to get a feel for what you may want to pursue.

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