Tell us a bit about yourself
I’m a vertebrate paleontologist currently living in Johnson City, Tennessee. I graduated from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) with my master’s degree in paleontology in May 2020. While I was a student at ETSU, I had a graduate assistantship position in the fossil collections at the Gray Fossil Site & Museum (GFS), which I’ve fortunately been able to continue since November 2020 thanks to a position serving at GFS through AmeriCorps. Prior to coming to ETSU for graduate school, I earned my bachelor’s degree in geology from Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2018. As a student at Amherst, I worked all four years as a docent in the Beneski Museum of Natural History — as you can probably tell, I really love natural history museums and want museum work to be a core component of my future.
How did you get interested in science?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been very interested in animals, and from about the age of four that interest grew to include fossil animals. Through reading lots of books and watching science shows as a little kid, I became increasingly fascinated by animals, in particular dinosaurs. Even as a young kid, I was always pretty interested not just in the animals themselves (e.g., which dinosaur was the biggest or coolest-looking) but in how they lived and what their world was like, and how they evolved with changing ecosystems, which are definitely interests that have only continued to grow as I’ve studied paleontology professionally.
I should also point out that in addition to reading books and watching television programs about nature and paleontology, some of the most critical sources for fueling my interest in science were family trips to zoos, aquariums, and museums. There really isn’t anything as fascinating as getting to see live animals or real fossils in person — now just as much as when I was an elementary schooler — and these places gave me a real-life look at research and conservation in action. If I can hop on a little soapbox for a moment, I just want to say that over the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, places like these — which are generally operating on tight budgets anyway — took a serious financial hit, and if you’re in a position where you are able to support zoos, aquariums, museums, or similar science education venues in your area, please do! These are the places that not only push forward our knowledge of life on Earth and our ability to conserve it, but also can inspire people to become scientists themselves or to be more supportive of science-based causes and issues, and as such represent something really valuable in our society.
What kind of work do you do?
My research as a graduate student and since has focused on prehistoric elephants, in particular on mastodons — an extinct family similar to but only distantly related to the living elephants, and characterized most recognizably by the conical cusps on their teeth. Mastodons evolved in Africa and spread to Eurasia and eventually, about 16 million years ago, to North America where they survived until about 12,600 years ago and were an important part of large mammal communities across the continent. I am interested in the taxonomy, evolution, and lifestyles of mastodons in North America, particularly in the southeastern US. My thesis focused on (re)describing five mastodons from the Pleistocene (ice age) of coastal South Carolina, including the two individuals used to make the skeletal mount on display at the Beneski Museum. These mastodons showed some features like relatively large tusks in their lower jaws and really broad molars that are toward the extreme end of the spectrum for their species. I’m currently involved in some other projects along similar lines, looking to quantify variability in mastodon molars and particularly in the presence/absence of tusks in the lower jaw.
My position at the GFS is in collections, which I think is a really wonderful way to experience the museum world. Basically, this is a position that involves the storage, cataloguing, accessioning, and upkeep of fossils once they’ve been excavated and prepared, and assisting researchers and students with access to the specimens. I’ve had to learn a lot about archival materials and practices to ensure long-term stability of specimens, as well as how to document specimen information, loans, research access requests, and other important information. I find it an especially exciting career path because of the opportunity to look at all the fossils in the collection up close (it’s done wonders for my osteological knowledge), and the fact that the Gray Fossil Site, which unsurprisingly dominates our collection, is both incredibly rich and the only site of its age (Early Pliocene, about 4.8 million years ago) in Appalachia means that many of the fossils I get to handle and house represent species new to science!
How does your research contribute to understanding paleontology?
Mastodons were a long-lived group that entered North America about 16 million years ago and survived here until about 12,600 years ago at the end of the last ice age; in that time they were found across the whole continent and were important parts of large mammal communities, so understanding their natural history helps paleontologists form a better picture of what was going on in North America more broadly. Even though mastodons are really common ice age fossils in most of North America, the first 15 million years or so of their history on the continent is not well-understood, and even comparatively well-studied ice age mastodons have lots of unanswered questions. I’ve focused especially on mastodons in the Southeast because it’s an area where they are common but generally not as well-studied as other places like the Midwest and Great Lakes region, and only by describing and studying more specimens from comparatively understudied time intervals and places can paleontologists begin to piece together what variation exists in mastodons and what it might mean. It’s important to tease apart what kinds of variability indicate differences between mastodon species (and when and how different species might’ve separated from each other), versus adaptations to particular environmental conditions over time, versus the individual variation present in any species. The environmental aspect is interesting given the ongoing investigation into the (probably very substantial) role rapid climate change at the end of the ice age had in the extinction of mastodons and other large mammals; understanding how mastodons themselves changed in response to earlier climate changes might help us better understand why they went extinct at the end of the ice age, and perhaps what that might mean for their modern elephant relatives.
Compared to research, working in natural history collections might not seem like it contributes as much to answering questions or spreading knowledge about paleontology, but I think that it is actually a great way to do both of those. Without well-maintained collections, conducting research becomes much more difficult, so by making sure that materials in collections at GFS are well-housed and well-maintained, catalogued, accessioned, properly labelled and documented, and accessible to researchers (who have filled out their research access request paperwork beforehand!) I’m playing my part to further scientific progress at this remarkable site and in the field as a whole. The institution outlives the individual, and so I hope that by always adhering to best practices in collections and treating the tasks with care, our specimens will have a better chance of surviving in perpetuity. Additionally, it’s not only research that is benefitted by a well-maintained fossil collection; public outreach can be as well. When it comes to choosing fossils for display and interpretation, collections staff are often going to be indispensable resources when it comes to considerations both aesthetic (e.g., what specimens are the most striking?) and functional (e.g., how stable will this fossil be out of collections in a display case, and is predisposed to fragility due to its curation history?). As I got my start in museums as an educator, I try to keep things like this in mind at GFS, which may be coming in handy soon as we begin the process of revamping our exhibits.
What are your data and what do you study?
My research is on mastodons, and there are a few areas I’m particularly interested in: mastodon from the Southeastern US, the variability in the form and presence of lower tusks in some mastodons, and patterns in variability in tooth form as a proxy for species differences in mastodons. Despite being one of the most common, charismatic, and well-known groups of fossil animals in North America, there are a lot of things about mastodon evolution we don’t really understand. While there’s a lot of exciting research going on in the genetics of ice age mammals, including mastodons, my own research uses the good ol’ dry bones approach of looking at morphology: not all fossils preserve good genetic material, even if they’re geologically recent enough to (this seems like it’s a particular problem in the Southeast), and a lot of the areas where we have the biggest questions about mastodon history (when did certain lineages/species split from each other and how? what might have driven certain adaptations?) involve fossils too old for genetic work to be done. Documenting, measuring, and describing specimens — especially teeth, the most durable part of the vertebrate skeleton and (in most mammals) among the most taxonomically informative, and especially especially the 3rd molars (in elephants and their relatives, the largest, longest-lasting, and most distinctive tooth) — provides a basis for large-scale studies of patterns and gives us a morphological framework on which we can place the results of isotopic and genetic studies. I also have a great fondness for “historic paleontology,” investigating and revisiting work done many decades ago to see how older scholarship can fit in with newer interpretations, and to try and solve long-standing questions where information may have slipped through the cracks of history. This kind of investigation laid the groundwork for my master’s thesis, which was anchored on the redescription of the mastodon skeleton on display at Amherst College, collected in 1868, published on briefly in 1918, and little remarked-upon since — which is a shame, because some of that material is really remarkable; the lower tusks on that mount, for example, are the largest I’ve come across for this species of mastodon, and the teeth are proportionally wider than in any other specimen yet measured.
What methods do you use to communicate science?
As I noted above, I started out as a museum docent, and I still think talking to people face-to-face at a museum is the finest, most engaging way to share the excitement of paleontology. That’s not really something I’ve gotten to do with a lot of regularity since I came to ETSU, but through collections I’ve gotten opportunities to be involved with another really great branch of museum education and outreach: exhibits! There is a lot of work that goes into making a museum exhibit — even a temporary one. Specimens have to be assessed and have condition reports filled out, and adequate supports have to be made for them; theme, tone, and content have to be decided on for the text, and illustrations and graphics have to be made; and the exhibit has to be prepared with visibility and accessibility for as many museum-goers as possible in mind. Earlier this year, I was able to complete a small temporary fossil exhibit that my colleagues and I began back in early 2020, before the pandemic, and I found the whole process fascinating. There are so many things that I just hadn’t considered about the process beforehand, and I think getting to have that experience is really informative. It’s certainly a different feeling to chatting with visitors and educating on the fly out on the museum floor.
What is your favorite part of being a scientist?
One of the things I find most exciting about being a scientist — and particularly a paleontologist — is just the connection you get to have with the natural world. In doing paleontology, in any capacity, you’re connecting yourself with everything that came before you in some small way. A lot of people like to approach paleontological research with the idea that it should be striving to answer Big Questions with major, serious implications for the modern world (often with particular emphasis, on climate change and its ecological effects), and that research is wonderful and critically important, but I personally don’t agree with the notion that it should necessarily be a driving factor in all paleontological research. Sorry to expound my own weird philosophy on the subject, but… humans are the only species we know of that has ever had the capability to look back and to study what the world was like in own past and before we even existed; I think that we almost owe it to the organisms that came before us to study and understand them and their lives and their worlds. There’s something primal and fascinating about getting to hold in your hands, to see and seek to understand, some part of a living thing that has been hidden away for millions of years. I don’t think it’ll ever stop being an amazing thrill.
What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
For someone who wants to be a scientist, I’d say it’s good practice to get into to learn to change your mind about things with new information, and try not to make knee-jerk decisions or reactions — which are not things that come naturally to (probably) anyone, but learning to adapt your interpretations and opinions with more data and more reflection is critical in science. Also, though this is cliché, you should definitely always have an excitement for the natural world and an inquiring mind about it. For someone interested in paleontology particularly, I would say (though I expect most people who are seriously interested about paleontology would already be doing this) to take a real interest in living fauna and flora for their own sake, because you’ll learn a lot about how organisms work and it really will help you think about what fossil organisms and ecosystems must have been like, and of course because the species we share the planet with now are totally fascinating in their own right. Another paleontology topic I feel is important to clarify is that to be a paleontologist, you don’t have to be good at all aspects of paleontology: fieldwork is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; being skilled at preparing fossils is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; having the often-methodical skills for collections or curation is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; teaching classes is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; having a doctorate is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist. Knowing and respecting the value of — and potential stumbling blocks in — each of these areas will serve you well, and help you carve out a niche for yourself where you feel you fit in, and have a job that matches your skills. Don’t be afraid to realize that you maybe aren’t cut out for some parts of paleontology — maybe you hate being out in the dirt, or dread the idea of spending years working toward a PhD. There’s still room for you to contribute great, important work to the field.