Tell us a bit about yourself. Hello, my name is Kaleb Smallwood, and I am an undergraduate geology student at the University of South Florida. My main geological interest is in paleobiology, but I am also interested in sedimentology, volcanic processes, and igneous rocks and processes within the field. Outside of academics, I enjoy role-playing games, both table-top games and video games, with a few favorites being Dungeons and Dragons and Persona 4. I play other types of both forms of game, but RPGs are by far my favorite genre with which to pass the time. On top of my love for video and table-top games, I am a massive anime fan. So, in summary, I am a gargantuan nerd.
What kind of scientist are you, what do you do, and how will it benefit society? As I mentioned previously, my focus in college is on paleobiology, and while I am not yet a fully-fledged scientist, my goal is to enter the field conducting research on dinosaurs and paleoecology after I obtain my PhD. Ecology is the study of the interactions of both biotic and abiotic factors with their individual ecosystems, and paleoecology simply focuses on ancient organisms. I hope to perform research on dinosaur paleoecology, studying their interactions with the environment to better understand their modes of life. In so doing, I plan to draw links between the ways in which these ancient animals lived and how modern analogs survive. In the process, I will be providing scientists and the public with a better idea of how dinosaurs lived, and, by extension, how modern animals live. Paleontology plays a crucial and often overlooked role in our knowledge, as understanding the past helps us better comprehend the present and predict future trends. For example, knowing how climate change affected the world and how it proceeded in the past allows us to understand what a large issue it is today and how it will impact our ecosystems. By the same token, understanding ancient ecological interactions has implications for current ones. Knowing how an apex predator such as Tyrannosaurus rex interacted with its environment, prey, and the carrying capacity of its ecosystem helps us understand how modern apex predators do the same today, for example.
How did you get interested in science? I have always had an interest in science, likely because I aspired to be like the odd and often socially awkward geniuses portrayed on television and in books in my youth. However, my interest in geology and paleontology specifically began in very simple ways. I have collected rocks since starting elementary school and identifying the rocks in my collection (which was very easy since I only ever picked up sandstone, quartz crystals, and limestone) brought me extreme joy. It felt like a unique form of science that only I could do, since I was the only weirdo in my classes interested in objects like rocks. As for paleontology, I was hooked the moment I read my first book about dinosaurs in 3rd grade. Seeing the pictures and reading about the interesting and distinct ways in which these animals of wildly ranging sizes went about their lives was enthralling, and that childlike whimsy never truly faded away.
What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My advice, especially for scientists coming from minority racial groups, is to believe in your own capabilities and understand your own worth without needing acknowledgement from others. While praise is always nice, alternatively, sometimes people will immediately assume you to be inferior just by how you look. Challenge those biased expectations indirectly through your own brilliance and show that you are just as capable as those around you if not more so. Finally, remember that if you were truly inferior, you would not be in the position you are in.