Niklas Hohmann, Master student in Paleobiology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? The best part are the findings that completely contradict your intuition! Discussing these findings with other scientist and finding out where and why the intuitions failed are the moments where I learn most. I always loved these learning moments that spark curiosity, so aiming for a career in science was a natural thing to do.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?  I study how parts of dead animals such as mussel shells are turned into fossils. This sub-discipline of paleontology is called “taphonomy”, which is Greek and roughly translates as “the science of burial”. The focus of my research to find out how much information about past environments is lost when fossils form. Some shells might for example be very fragile, so finding few fossils of them is not necessarily evidence that they did not play an important role in the past ecosystem.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Before 1950, very little information about ecosystems was collected. This makes it difficult to assess the impact humans had on nature simply we do not really know how nature looked like 500 or 1000 years ago. By developing tools to reconstruct these ecosystems from fossils, I hope to contribute to the understanding how nature looked like in the past so we can better protect it for future generations.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? All data I use was previously published by someone else and I compile it from the literature for specific questions I am working on. Typically this would be information about shells that were found in a drillcore, their material properties that were determined in a lab experiment, and the environmental conditions where the core was taken.

Aside this empirical data, I borrow concepts from chemistry, physics, and different branches of mathematics for modeling. This can lead to interesting analogies: The way shells are distributed in the sediment is similar to the way heat is migrates through a solid medium, which is in turn tightly connected to particle movement.

The effect of sediment input on shell abundance in the sea floor. When sediment input is low, many old shells will be found at the sediment surface. Typically the ages of shells found at the same place differ by hundreds of years, a phenomenon called time-averaging. When sediment input is high, shells are buried quickly, which protects them from destructive processes close to the surface.

How has your research have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? A lot of scientists that depend on access to labs were having troubles getting their work done due to the social distancing measures. Also many of the side jobs that are crucial for students were not available anymore, which put a lot of financial pressure on them.

My research has not been affected much, but all the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 have strengthened my belief that science communication should be a central part of scientific practice.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? If you’re already in academia: Don’t specialize too early and look for a mentor you get along with. In general: stay curious and ask all the questions. Especially the ones you think are stupid.

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