This year, I attended my first National Geological Society of America meeting, now called GSA Connects. It ran several days from October 10th — 13th, and over 3,000 people attended, representing many different subsets of geology and related fields. There was a virtual option, but I attended the in-person conference hosted in Portland, Oregon, at the Oregon Convention Center. There were talks, posters, and a plethora of booths from different schools and organizations, along with many different networking opportunities provided by the Geological Society itself.
My poster was accepted and assigned to the advances in paleontology session on Wednesday the 13th, but I did attend the whole duration of the conference. Although I am a Montana State University undergraduate student, the research I presented was in association with the Western Science Center (WSC) in Hemet, California. The WSC had a booth at the conference, which I helped out at. They were speaking on their broader impacts initiative, where they give researchers the ability to do outreach about their own research by having an exhibit at the WSC.
I was also attending the conference as a student ambassador for the Paleontological Society. I worked at the society’s booth during the conference, speaking with professionals and students about the journals, scholarships, and conference opportunities available through society memberships. At the booth, I was able to speak to Paleo Society mentors and other student ambassadors about my plans and struggles within the field and was able to get feedback and suggestions on how to continue to successfully move forward within the field.
As I mentioned, there were also professional resources provided by the Geological Society— one of the resources that I took advantage of was the CV and resume reviews. I am a junior in college at the moment and am starting to look at summer internships. Many applications require a CV, so I brought mine in for a review. I got some very helpful feedback on how to improve the formatting, have worked on it some more, and am quite happy with how it’s been turning out.
Many schools also had booths at the conference. I plan on going to grad school, so being able to speak to school representatives and current students was extremely helpful. I am still working out if I want to do a master’s or apply straight to Ph.D. programs after finishing my bachelor’s, so seeing what is available and having those conversations makes me feel like I’ll be able to make a more informed choice.
I was also able to attend talks related to the research I’m doing at Montana State University, which focuses on dromaeosaurid dinosaurs. Due to the pandemic, in-person conferences and museum visits were largely put on hold, and I was not able to meet with other people working on the same family of animals. The conference finally provided that opportunity, and I was able to discuss my research in detail and receive constructive feedback. The feedback I received allowed me to ask questions about my own project that I otherwise may not have thought of and has given me many ideas on how to evaluate and strengthen my claims.
As I stated earlier, however, the work I was presenting at the conference was not my university research, but rather the work I’ve done in association with the Western Science Center. The focus of my presentation was the disappearance of megafaunal animals in Southern California during the end Pleistocene (Ice Age) extinctions with a focus on horses. Horses disappeared from California at or near the end of the Pleistocene, along with most other large mammals— but the order of disappearance of the large mammals in the Southern California region isn’t well documented. Lake Elsinore is a naturally occurring lake in Riverside County, California. During the 2017-2019 excavations of a housing development in Lake Elsinore, numerous fossils were exposed by mitigation company VCS Environmental. These finds included large mammals, small animals, invertebrates, and wood. The site dates to around 14,600 — 14,800 years before present. The fossils are consistent with other Late Pleistocene fossil assemblages from Southern California, with the large mammal bones belonging to camels, bison, and mastodons— but no horses! This is extremely odd— Its absence is likely not due to habitat preference, as horse fossils are found in abundance across many different Southern California sites, from the Mojave desert to the famous La Brea Tar Pits. Its absence from Lake Elsinore is likely not due to a sampling bias because of the number of well-preserved fossils recovered from the site. My co-author Dr. Alton Dooley and I suggest that the absence of horses could be perhaps attributed to the start of their disappearance happening before the extinction of mastodons and camels and the disappearance of bison from Southern California.
I was grateful for all the people that stopped by and listened, and I had multiple constructive conversations with other scientists. I was able to speak to other paleontologists, several geologists, and even a geoarchaeologist. These conversations allowed me to discuss multiple aspects of the site, which I found incredibly helpful.
This was by far the largest conference I had ever been to, and although all the people and interactions could be a bit overwhelming at times, I learned so much about possible paths in the field, made good connections, and am excited to continue working on my research both at the university, the museum, and in the future in general.