Jarrett McDowell, Fossil Enthusiast

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general?

I have almost always been interested in science, ever since I was a little kid. I used to like to do “magic” science tricks at home like putting a bar of soap and pepper in a bowl and showing how I could make the pepper float away from the soap. Science for me was always good at explaining the reason behind why certain things happened the way they did. To be honest, that is my favorite part of being a scientist. I am able to help people know why something is the way it is or at least come up with hypotheses as to why.

What do you do?

I am a teacher and an amateur paleobotanist, a person who likes to study fossil plants. The field of paleobotany is like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle except you don’t know how many pieces your puzzle has, you don’t know if all your current pieces belong to the same puzzle or different puzzles, and some of your pieces have been torn, bitten, or smudged. You seldom find a plant that has been fossilized in its entirety. You usually find a leaf here, a stem there, maybe some roots over there, and a sporangium over here. Chances are each part has also been given its own genus name or species name because the person who found the part did not know if it belonged to one of the other parts. Over time paleobotanists work together to try to link all these parts together and show that they belonged to one plant or multiple plants.

The sporangium of a prehistoric lycopod that was used in reproduction in the Carboniferous.

What methods do you use to engage your audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science? 

I think the best way to teach science is you have to make it relevant to whomever is listening. Children like science because they are naturally curious about the world around them. The question is, how you can you make it relevant to their lives? I loved my soap and black pepper magic experiment because it involved two things I had in my house and I regularly saw. With fossil plants, it’s a bit more difficult but I can still show kids a fossil and then show them the nearest living relative of that ancient plant. The Ginkgo tree is a great example of this because it is a living fossil and many of its ancient relatives have similar leaves that are easily identifiable.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution? 

I have not done any research as of late, but my previous research aimed to clarify evolution of lycopods in North America. Essentially I was trying to show that multiple species and genera of lycopods were all the same plant. This would help in the study of plant evolution and prehistoric ecology because it would help us learn more about the biodiversity that lived in these Carboniferous swamps. From a societal perspective, it’s important because I think it is always good for people to know about the natural history of the land they live on.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

My advice to any aspiring scientist is know that setbacks will happen. Things won’t always go the way you want them to go and that’s perfectly okay. I thought I would go into college, get perfect science grades, and be on to the next stage of my life. I was wrong. I found science classes to be very challenging and my undergraduate GPA showed it, although I was a great researcher and I loved the classes. Because of my not-so-stellar grades, I graduated with my Bachelor’s and tried out other careers because I thought I was not fit for paleontology. I worked as a pharmaceutical auditor for a while then seven years as an ESL/EFL teacher abroad (ESL/EFL- English as a second/first language). I was good at both jobs but I felt unfulfilled because these weren’t careers that I wanted but jobs that I was just good at. This led me to start pondering what I really wanted in life for several months until I realized that I wanted to return to the field of paleontology. After asking around and researching different graduate programs, I settled on one that I wanted to attend. To sum up, my advice is to know that setbacks will happen. You can plan as much as you want but things may not go accordingly.

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