What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general? My name is Stephen Hill and I am a graduate student at the University of South Florida in the department of Geosciences. Initially I had absolutely no intention of going into any field of science as an undergraduate(Majoring in history) but about midway through I was required to take an environmental science course. The instructor from that course was very encouraging when I came to her asking questions about what it took to go into biology or environmental science and invited me to join her and some other students on a visit to her husband’s research lab at the University of South Florida. That visit changed the trajectory of my life, on my drive home that day I was so excited about science, the feeling of chasing the unknown, and expanding knowledge. I left that lab that day and decided to change my major.
I eventually settled on majoring in geology over biology but as time went on I was slowly drawn towards the field of paleontology which blends aspects of both fields. I was initially drawn to geology because I was interested in the amount of fieldwork opportunities. Fieldwork and research opportunities have taken me all over, from using ground penetrating radar on grave sites in Florida to mapping the mountains of Idaho and quite a few places in between.
In laymen’s terms, what do you do? How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, or to the betterment of society in general? I am interested in how the morphology of Paleozoic echinoderms might relate to the environment in which they lived and how that environment influences the evolution of their respiratory structures. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors well preserved fossils of this time and type are quite rare. This is primarily due to the fact that many parts of echinoderm anatomy are quite delicate and have only been preserved in unique circumstances. Work like this can offer insights into the evolutionary history of marine species as they experienced mass extinction events in the Paleozoic and could serve as an analog for understanding how marine species of today might react to manmade climate change.
In the future I would like to dedicate more time to fieldwork and the collection of either known or unknown Paleozoic echinoderms. Even today there are still many parts of the world that are not known to science. Seeking out these areas could provide new insights in the form of new fossil species or provide samples of known species of uncommon preservation which would further our understanding of them.
If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? Using scan data acquired from a 3D scanner, CT scanner, or a synchrotron I build a 3D computer model of a fossil. The type of scan data dictates the way the model is built, for instance when using CT or synchrotron data the model is built by combining thousands of individual slices. Because of the poor preservation building models can sometimes feel like building a puzzle or doing reconstructive surgery. Once a model is satisfactory there are many directions that can be taken ranging from being used strictly as a visual model or for finite element analysis. Finite element analysis is a broad term for quantitative methods such as structural analysis, fluid flow, or heat transfer it requires building a mesh (i.e. a model) which divides a larger more complicated object to many small triangles. These small triangles are the “finite elements” which when considered allow the larger object to be solved for more easily. Of these finite element methods I am most interested in the application of computational fluid dynamics(CFD). Using CFD software the 3D model is put in a virtual environment where varying scenarios of water flow are simulated. As this virtual water flow occurs the software collects data relating to the drag force and coefficients created as the fluid flows around the model. From the CFD data you can theorize if one body plan would be favorable over another in a specific current setting.
What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? When you are coming up as an undergraduate the course work for STEM majors can be pretty daunting. Do not be afraid to ask questions and seek out resources that are available to you through your university academic or otherwise. For much of my early college experience I was hesitant to ask questions in class and I did not take advantage of resources like tutoring labs on campus. Once I became more comfortable with asking questions in class and discovered the campus tutoring lab it made things a lot less stressful.