The Climate is Changing, and it’s Getting Personal

Megan here-

The Ilulissat Art Museum, which opened in 1995, was originally the colony governor’s residence that was built in 1923. Today, it’s home to around 50 works by Emanuel A. Petersen as well as rotating exhibits by local Greenlandic artists.

The Ilulissat Art Museum is a charming red house with robin’s egg blue trim nestled up against a grassy hillside in the town of Ilulissat, Greenland. Almost 5,000 people live in this seaside town, including the art museum’s cheerful and friendly curator. His face lights up at the prospect of new visitors, and he enthusiastically greets us as we enter. This kindly curator shows us around the museum, offering us a wealth of knowledge about the paintings and the artists. He tells us that the lower level is primarily for paintings by Emanuel A. Petersen, a Danish painter who spent time in Greenland in the early 20th century. His paintings depict tranquil yet breathtaking scenes of the landscape surrounding Ilulissat and other Greenlandic villages. Many show icebergs stoically floating in the fjord, and tall, snowy mountains colored pink from the alpenglow. Some paintings have boats and kayaks out at sea, while others depict sleds led by teams of thick-coated dogs. While each scene may be different, each of Petersen’s paintings is so uniquely Greenland. 

It’s no wonder Petersen produced enough paintings to fill an entire floor (not to mention the 150+ pieces of his artwork at the museum in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk). The landscape around Ilulissat is an alluring contrast of rounded green hills and blue-white icebergs. No more than 20 kilometers inland, the Greenland Ice Sheet spills out into channelized outlet glaciers like Jakobshavn Isbrae–the fast-flowing ice stream that produces the icebergs occupying Ilulissat’s fjord. Up and down the coast of Greenland, glaciers flow from the ice sheet and fill the valleys and fjords with ice.

Many local Greenlanders travel over this ice, including our friendly museum curator. He has a team of six sled dogs–which we’re told is a relatively small team–that pulls his sled across snow and ice. For years, he and his wife have been traveling with their sled dogs to a spot along the margin of the ice sheet. There, an outlet glacier flows into a water-filled valley with rocky hills forming the sides. Just a few years ago, the curator and his wife arrived at this spot and were met with a great surprise: a barren, rocky island protruded from the water in the middle of the channel. Had they never been there before, this would not have seemed odd. But this was a brand new island that was recently uncovered as the nearby glacier retreated up the fjord. Up until then, that spot had been covered with ice year-round, and no one had known that a small rocky protrusion lay beneath. 

I was fascinated by his story and as I listened, I mentioned the words “ice retreat.” At that, the curator’s eyes lit up and with both passion and relief, he said, “Exactly.” It was clear that he needed us to understand his personal relationship with climate change. This was the first time I had met someone who has been so directly affected by warming temperatures and melting glaciers.

The island hasn’t made it on all the local maps yet, but it now has a name that means something like “the bald one” in English. In fact, this isn’t the only new island that has been uncovered by retreating ice. In the past twenty years, Steenstrup Glacier in northwest Greenland has also revealed a handful of new islands (2014 article, 2017 article). The effects of climate change in Greenland are complex–both for the ice sheet, the people, and the wildlife. In some cases, melting ice actually benefits certain Greenlandic industries like mining, fishing, or tourism. But shifts in these industries pose new problems and controversy. This guide to climate change in Greenland discusses what a warming climate means for people and for animals, and what new challenges may arise. Whether you’re a museum curator in Greenland or you’re somewhere else in the world, the effects of climate change will become more complex, more personal, and more prevalent. The burden of our future climate may seem daunting, but there are some small, every-day changes we can make to lessen our negative impacts. Check out this BBC article, Ten simple ways to act on climate change, to see how you can make a difference.

Jakobshavn Isbrae is the large outlet glacier that produces a vast quantity of icebergs that fill the Ilulissat Icefjord. Here, icebergs large and small fill the deep fjord and slowly flow past the town of Ilulissat and into Disko Bay.

Glaciology Lab Work

In our cold room, we calibrate temperature sensors, perform deformation experiments on ice, and sometimes store permafrost samples for other lab groups.

Megan here-

On the counter sits a collection of wrenches, some small and others large enough that you need two hands to use them. Next to those, thin colored wires are twisted and curved in a seemingly random fashion. Long winding cables are strung out across the floor, and every meter a small electronic device protrudes from the smooth sheath. 

This is the glaciology lab. There are no bubbling beakers, or round-bottomed flasks, or venting chemical hoods here. Our common perception of a laboratory does not hold up in the glaciology lab. Instead, this space is where my advisor and his students build the intricate instruments that we use in the field. We build temperature sensors the size of a stick of gum, data loggers that record measurements throughout long winters on the Greenland Ice Sheet, and 3D printed objects to refine our products.

Working in this lab and learning to build devices that we use in the field has been both challenging and intriguing. Since my advisor is the real expert in electronics, my job is largely finicky and repetitive tasks–but tasks not without rewards. For instance, I may spend the entire day putting electrical tape over exposed wires on the long cables that we use to measure temperature in the ice sheet. Sure, the task becomes monotonous, but I know I’m working on a really exciting project and the small jobs I do end up helping us better understand the thermal structure of areas within the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Almost every instrument we use is custom-made in our lab. Because of that, we often need materials that are a specific size, shape, and flexibility. For that, we have the 3D printer.

Another of my duties is measuring out these long, winding cables that we eventually lower into a borehole (a drilled hole) in the ice sheet. This usually involves bringing a coil of cable into the hallway outside of the lab, and then stringing it out until it reaches 100 meters. As the hallway is only about 40 meters, there’s a bit of zig-zagging involved. I then have to mark it every one meter with tape and a Sharpie. Again, very monotonous. But I remind myself that the end of this very long cable will be 100 meters (that’s almost 330 feet!) below the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and to me, that’s very cool.

Before beginning my master’s degree, the only experience I had with building electronics was high school physics. Essentially I had a background in following my teacher’s directions for making a mousetrap-powered toy car. Believe me, nothing special. While I may not be able to completely design and build science-worthy instruments by myself yet, I have already learned so much about electronics and applied physics. I’ve also learned that being a scientist isn’t just being an expert in your field, but rather building a skill set in a variety of disciplines to help you succeed in your particular field. Much of my experience as a glaciologist has actually been learning how to be a physicist who just really likes working in cold places.

Laura Speir, Paleoclimatologist

Laura Speir sitting in front of the instrument they use to analyze oxygen isotope ratios to understand climatic changes. Much of the work Laura does involves lab work as opposed to field work.

I study changes in past climate using fossils, focusing on climate 500-450 million years ago during an event called the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (or GOBE). The GOBE represents one of the largest and longest diversification events (where a huge number of new species evolved) in earth history. Many scientists, including myself, are trying to understand the role of climate on the GOBE. Leading into the GOBE, the earth was very warm, warmer than we would expect for animal life. During the peak of the GOBE, the oceans appear to have cooled to temperatures slightly warmer than what we see today.

For my research, I use microfossils known as conodonts. Conodonts are extinct animals that are similar to hagfish or lampreys. We usually don’t find the whole conodont animal, but rather their “teeth” are left behind. We use these “teeth” (known as conodont elements) as a proxy for understanding climate. This is because conodont elements preserve the changes in different oxygen elements (known as isotopes) within the ocean. The ratio between these oxygen isotopes (16O and 18O) can be measured and a temperature can be calculated. While some scientists will collect rocks that contain conodont elements themselves, I receive conodont elements from paleontologists who have done previous research using conodont elements.

So, why do scientists like myself study past climates? By studying climates in the distant past, we can better understand how our climate is changing now. Scientists who create climate models use past climate data to better their models and studying periods of time when the earth was vastly different than our own allows climate modelers to test the limits of their models.

Outside of research, I am a teaching assistant for the University of Missouri geology field camp. Many geology programs require a field course where the students spend some amount of time learning how to recognize different rocks within the field and how to place them onto a map. The University of Missouri takes students to the Wind River Basin near Lander, Wyoming to learn these skills, as well as a fantastic trip to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I was a student at this field camp myself back in 2016 and have been a teaching assistant there for the past two field seasons. The geology in this region is absolutely stunning and makes a wonderful field area for our students to learn stratigraphy and mapping. Geology gave me the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Spain and Portugal, as well).

One of my favorite things about being a scientist is having the opportunity to share what I do with a variety of people. I participate in many outreach events and tell the general public about paleontology. Many students are not exposed to geology or paleontology in school, but these outreach events allow students (and their families) to learn about the earth. While I was never exposed to outreach events such as the ones I participate in now, I was fortunate enough to take earth science courses during high school, as well as an introductory geology course at my local community college. Looking back, however, I was always interested in the processes that governed the earth, from rocks to meteorology to biology.

There is no one true path to entering a science field. Many of us started out wanting to enter different field (I myself originally wanted to go into film). Community college is a great place to start your journey, particularly if you are unsure what field you want to major in. If you are in college, take a variety of courses. If you find a science course that you enjoy, don’t be afraid to take similar classes. Find a field that you enjoy doing and pursue it.

Laura Speir at Grand Teton National Park during the University of Missouri Geology Field Camp during the 2019 field season. Laura and other staff members take students to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park to learn about the regional geology of Wyoming.

On being non-binary in science

Recently, I came out as non-binary. I do not identify as male or female, but somewhere between the two. While there are a growing number of scientists who identify as LGBTQIA+, finding other scientists in your field can be quite difficult. However, there is a growing effort for science organizations to provide opportunities for LGBTQIA+ people and many organizations are adjusting their policies to protect against gender identity discrimination. This is a huge step forward, as some states and cities do not provide such protections. Some scholarships and awards that I had previously applied for or considered applying for are women-specific, as women are, generally, poorly represented in science. However, some of the organizations I have talked to are willing to open their applications for non-binary/agender/genderfluid people, as they are also poorly represented in science.

As a grad student, my peers are generally accepting of my gender identity. My professors (and most importantly, my advisor) have accepted my gender identity and have made every effort to adjust their language regarding my pronouns (they/them). The occasional slip up does happen (even by me!) and I do my best to correct people. My biggest worry is how my gender identity will affect my future career. Will the hiring committee be accepting or will they look the other way because I do not conform to their ideas of gender? As I continue my journey, my hope is to find more scientists like myself at different points in their careers and learn how they have overcome the obstacles they have faced.

Applying to Grad School IV: Interviews

Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional students), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to craft an email to a potential advisor, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the fourth post in the series on how to effectively interview with a potential graduate school advisor.


Adriane and Jen here-

This post is all about interviewing for and visiting potential graduate schools as an undergraduate student in your senior year or as someone deciding to go back to college. This can be a VERY scary process, as it involves talking with high-profile scientists in your field of study and answering questions about your science, education, and interests. Below is some advice from our own experiences, some things you should do to prepare for an interview and/or on-campus visit, and some questions we were asked by potential graduate school advisors. 

Interviews

First, there are several different types of interviews you may be asked to do as a student. In-person, online (usually through a video chat platform such as Google Hangouts,Skype, or Zoom), on-campus, or on the phone

In-Person

In-person interviews can be done through a visit to the potential advisor’s campus or at a meeting that you are both attending. You should request an in-person meeting at a conference during your first few email exchanges with a potential advisor (see our “Applying For Grad School Part III: Emailing Potential Advisors”). Simply, conference meetings are easiest when you set them up beforehand. When I, Jen, was looking for PhD programs, I requested to meet with three potential advisors at the large geology conference the fall I was applying to programs. This allowed me to also meet with other lab members – students and postdocs – so that I could ask them questions about their experiences with the advisor. 

I, Adriane, asked to meet with two potential advisors at a large geology conference I was presenting research at during my senior year of undergrad. I told each person when and where I was presenting, and asked them to come there to talk with me. I did this so they could get a clearer picture of what my research was, and so they could ask me questions about my goals and such. I had two potential advisors come by my poster (both also had excellent feedback), but one was busy during that time. Instead, she and I sat down together and chatted informally for a few minutes.

Some things I, Adriane, did to prepare for our sit-down meeting at the conference was print out a copy of my poster and my CV to give to my potential advisor. I also had a notebook with me and several pens to take notes (because if you only take one pen, it’s sure to die or be dead). I also dressed appropriately for each interview, meaning I wore something comfortable but also professional. 

On-Campus

In some cases, the institution or advisor will help support your visit to their university, most after you have had an in-person or phone interview first. Many universities have funding to bring out PhD students, but not MS students – this is entirely school dependent. It is within reason for you to ask if there are funds to help offset travel, especially if it is not easy (or cheap) for you to get to the university. Current students will often host you as their guest so you can have more in depth conversations with someone in the program. Just note that most schools will reimburse you for your travel- meaning you will, unfortunately, have to front the costs for travel. 

Once I, Jen, was accepted into a program – I requested a visit to the campus. My visit ended up being in February and I was close enough to drive the 5 hours. I stayed with a current student (Sarah) so there were no lodging expenses and was able to get my gas mileage reimbursed. Visiting the campus was eye opening, I got to see students working in their spaces, talk with all sorts of faculty, and get a general feel for the atmosphere of the department. For the on-campus visit, I came prepared with some questions for students, faculty, and my potential advisor and ideas about projects I may be interested in. Remember, you are interviewing the school and you should question everyone you come across about their experience. If you have specific needs, make sure the school will provide them for you.

I, Adriane, did two on-campus interviews for my MS degree. I was invited to visit after I did in-person interviews at the geology meeting, and had been accepted to one of the schools. Both visits were nerve-wracking, but I highly recommend, if possible, doing an on-campus interview with your potential advisor. Doing so made me realize which advisor was the best fit for me and my career goals, and which school and city I would be most comfortable in. 

Online

Online interviews are very similar to in-person interviews. There’s a few extra steps you should do to prepare for your online interview before the big day:

  • Test out your equipment. Make sure the microphone, camera, and software all work before the interview. In fact, do this at least a week prior, as this will give you time to troubleshoot any issues that may arise
  • Find a quiet space to interview. Noises in the background will distract yourself as well as the potential advisor
  • Make sure the background is clear. Excessive clutter behind you (posters, books, shelves, other humans, etc.) will cause a large distraction. You want your potential advisor to focus on you, not your cat swatting flies or something in the background

Phone Interviews

To me, Adriane, phone interviews are the worse. I like to be able to see the person I’m talking to, as I respond better to visual cues. When you’re doing a phone interview, just be sure to find a quiet spot where you have good service and won’t get interrupted. Also, be sure to listen closely, as you don’t want to cut off, talk over, or interrupt the person interviewing you. 

TL;DR: Preparing for an interview regardless of the format (online, phone, in person)

  • Start by exploring the faculty and student page of the institution you are interested in, write down people that are somehow related to your interested and include a bullet of their interests and any questions they may be able to help you with. Jen suggests asking the same question multiple times to see the variation in responses – it can be very telling! You can bring a folder, clipboard, portfolio, notebook – whatever you are able to best take notes on.
  • Ask faculty at your current institution if they know people there or have any suggestions on people to meet with that may not be on your list. 
  • Decide how you are most physically comfortable. Jen usually wears dark jeans and a nicer sweater or shirt but is uncomfortable dressing up so often chooses not to. 
  • If you are doing a visit, be sure to have a separate list of questions for grad students – you will likely be taken to lunch or have some alone time with a few students. This is an opportunity to request honest feedback about how they are supported by the department and university. I, Adriane, made my decision on which MS program to attend based mostly on answers and experience from graduate students. 
  • If you are doing a virtual meeting make sure to get to a quiet place, use headphones, and try to have as plain of a background as possible with minimal glare. It seems silly but it can distract the person on the other end and you want them to be fully tuned into you!

Interview questions we were asked (at conference meetings and during on-campus interviews):

  • What is the bedrock under (current undergrad institution), and what is its age? (These questions are meant to test your geologic skills and knowledge, so any variant of this could pop up) 
  • Why are your GRE scores so low? (This really is not an appropriate question, but some professors are bold enough to ask anyway – Jen was asked this during her visit to UTK and Adriane during her visit to a NC school)
  • What are some of your personal goals during your (MS/PhD) degree?
  • What are your research interests?
  • Describe your research experience. 
  • Would you be comfortable teaching in a lab or classroom setting? Do you have teaching experience?

One last note, it is hard to remember this but the department is trying to sell itself to you. They want excellent students to help increase their output numbers. At some points you’ll realize it sounds like an info-mercial. They want you to choose them, even if you don’t have other options (don’t tell them that) they will still try to recruit you.

Applying to Grad School III: Emailing Potential Advisors

Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional students), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to network with potential graduate advisors, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the third post in the series on how to email potential graduate school advisors.


Jen and Adriane here – 

Now that you have thought about funding opportunities and tailored your CV, it’s time to think about emailing potential advisors. Before any emails are sent you want to carefully consider your options. It is best to get recommendations based upon what you are interested in. Talk with faculty or graduate students in your department to see if they have any ideas of where you could start looking for advisors. Once you get a preliminary list, internet stalk the heck out of these people! Some ways to do this are to go to their faculty pages or personal websites, look at their Twitter and Instagram feeds (if they are on social media), and by asking people in your department or area of study about the potential advisor. 

Why should you stalk? It is important that you feel comfortable and supported in your future lab. You want to know things such as: can they house graduate students (some schools cannot)? Do they have current students? Do they have funding? What are their key research interests and how can you see yourself integrating into any of the projects? What skills or techniques do they use that you are interested in gaining? I, Adriane, also stalked as many of the potential grad school advisors’ past and current students that I could find. I was very interested in finding out what types of jobs and opportunities students gained after graduating from the lab. This task seems daunting, but start a spreadsheet and fill in the boxes! It can also be fun. 

Once you have identified persons as potential advisors, it’s time to craft an email to them! The first thing someone will notice about your message is your email address and the subject line of the email. Make sure your email is ‘professional’ – it can absolutely be a school or gmail account, but use one that is your name rather than something you are interested in (cats, dogs, astrology, etc. – Jen had one that was PiEcEsTwIn315). Having your name in your email also ensures they are more easily able to pull your email back up, even if they don’t save it to their contacts. 

The subject line should be something direct: Prospective graduate student is a short and direct. You want the reader to immediately know what the email is about. No point in reinventing the wheel – feel free to use that exact phrase or use it as a starting point to make it your own. Other ideas include adding in the semester you are looking to start: Prospective graduate student Fall 2020 — slightly longer and more specific. 

In your email you want to convey several things:

  1. You are looking for a graduate lab program and what semester you are looking to start. 
  2. Your research interests include x, y, z followed up by a line about your experience, see CV for more details
  3. Ask if they are accepting students and if they are, would they be able to chat more about it via email, phone, or Skype.
  4. Thank them and say you are looking forward to hearing from them. 

Here is an example email that I, Jen, sent out while I was looking for PhD programs.

Notice that this email is short, concise, and to the point. You don’t want your email to be too long or rambly. A lot of faculty are very busy juggling several different tasks, and may only have a few minutes to glance at email. So keeping your email polite and pointed will be very much appreciated!

The response Jen received:

This was one of the fastest and most considerate responses I (Jen) received when emailing faculty. For both Adriane and Jen’s emails to potential master’s thesis advisors, many faculty never responded, or said they had no funding. It’s okay to be persistent with emails, more often than not their inboxes are filling up and they may lose track of your email. 

One more thing to consider in your email: you may want to attach a copy of your CV or resume. There is the rare faculty member that we’ve heard that doesn’t like a CV attached on the first email exchange, but the majority of professors do appreciate having this information up front. It’s one more tool for which they, the professors, can use to determine if you might be a good fit in their lab!

John Doherty, Biogeochemist

John Doherty, PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong.

What is your favorite aspect of being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?

My favorite part about being a scientist is undoubtedly getting to do research for a living. While there are many stressful aspects associated with being a scientist, at the end of the day I get to spend most of my time learning about things that are deeply interesting to me. Science has also allowed me to travel the world and meet some of the most inspirational people I would have otherwise never crossed paths with.

What do you do?

When people hear the word “biogeochemistry” for the first time, the general response I get is “biogeo-what? Are you a biologist, geologist or chemist? Couldn’t you just pick one?” While this is a fair question, it is unfortunately not how the Earth system works.

I work specifically in the field of paleoceanography, the branch of science concerned with the ancient oceans and their role in climate. My research aims to understand the evolution of polar North Atlantic Ocean circulation over geological warm periods that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago. The ocean, however, is an interconnected mess of physical, chemical and biological phenomena. To thoroughly investigate oceanographic processes, it is therefore necessary for scientists to have a broad and multidisciplinary understanding of all aspects of marine science.

As a biogeochemist, I work mainly with organic matter preserved in microfossils called foraminifera. The composition of this organic matter reflects historic upper-ocean biochemistry recorded during the foraminifer’s lifetime, which allows me to make observations about the chemical conditions of the ancient surface waters. The surface-ocean chemistry of this particular region is subsequently controlled by waters mixing together, which makes foraminifera-bound organic matter a useful proxy to reconstruct physical mixing processes in the upper-ocean water column.

Foraminifera microfossils (left) and bacteria (right) used for the isotopic analysis of organic nitrogen.

But who cares about what the surface of the polar North Atlantic used to look like? Because this is where southern-sourced Atlantic waters sink and return to tropical latitudes (the so-called “ocean conveyor belt”), this one region actually governs the strength of the entire Atlantic circulation in addition to a variety of global climatic phenomena that we are just beginning to understand. Studying how Atlantic waters used to move during past warm periods therefore allows us to get an approximate idea of how the Atlantic may continue to change in the near future, and its greater effects on Earth’s climate.

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?

My data are mostly measurements of stable nitrogen isotopes of organic matter contained within foraminifera shells, which dominate sediment core samples from the polar North Atlantic region. This isotopic signature, or the ratio of heavy to light nitrogen atoms, is a proxy for surface nutrient processes affected by upper-ocean nutrient mixing. Because foraminifera contain only miniscule amounts of organic nitrogen, extracting this organic material and turning it into a measurable form requires intensive laboratory and chemical work. I therefore spend most of my time in the laboratory rather than on a boat, which is unfortunately slightly less scenic.

One of my field sites in the Polar North Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Dr. Benoit Thibodeau.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

There are now several lines of evidence which indicate that ocean circulation in the polar North Atlantic is slowing down, likely as a result of human-caused global warming. While today’s rate of warming is unique in the recent geological history of Earth, our planet has experienced intense warm events in the past. By investigating the behavior of the Atlantic circulation in the past, we are able to better understand the long-term climatic and oceanographic implications of our current warming. For example, we hope our research will shed light on the extent to which the modern ocean circulation will slow down, and what this slowing means for other aspects of Earth’s climate in the long term.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Stay curious and keep an open mind! I switched my major several times throughout my undergraduate career before I discovered my passion for science.

Don’t let previous failures detract from your goals. Often times, we see the finished product of science in the form of a published, peer-reviewed journal article. What we don’t see in that article is all of the failed experiments and misguided hypotheses leading to its production. Doing science means falling short many times, recognizing mistakes, learning from them and continuing to improve. The most important thing you can do is to not give up and to keep trying, because one day  this stuff will work out.

Follow John on Twitter @ocean_chemist, and read more about him and his research on his personal website

 

Antarctica School

School participants and instructors gathering to look over cores from Antarctic

Dipa here – 

This summer a few members of the UMass Micropaleo Lab traveled to Texas for the first ever International Ocean Discovery Program-Past Antarctic Ice Sheet (IODP-PAIS) Antarctic School at Texas A&M University! This program allows scientists from all over the globe who research Antarctica to come together to study the marine sediment cores stored at the IODP Core Repository. 

During our week at the repository, our mornings were filled with lectures and real-life activities led by geoscientists who have sailed on previous drilling cruises. We learned from them what shipboard life is like, how drill cores are taken, what problems can arise while drilling in Southern Ocean around Antarctica, and how to interpret the clues within the drill cores. To explore those clues, we were divided into mini-research teams and each given a core section from a prior expedition to analyze. Each afternoon we rotated among different core analysis stations: how to make and analyze microscopic smear slides, how to describe the macroscopic features of the core section, how to gather and interpret paleomagnetic and density data on the core sediment, how to scan core sections for key trace elements and improve your paleoenvironmental interpretations using element abundance data, and how to develop a timeframe for your core section (chronostratigraphy). Putting this all together, we were able to map a pattern of ice advance and retreat over where the drill core was taken. Since the core sections we were studying came from expeditions, we were able to double-check our data and interpretations against the published results and see how successful we were–my group was able to match the chronostratigraphy of the original study! 

Gathering the density profile of our core section.

I was excited to learn so much and gain so many new friends at the Antarctic School, but my excitement was tempered by being the only woman of color in the program. I was ashamed to learn that an international program participant could not attend because they were not granted a U.S. visa in time: the American visa process is extremely biased, and as an international organization the IODP should use their agency to help all invited participants attend, regardless of their countries of origin. It is not enough to non-racist in today’s society–we must be actively anti-racist. I think international STEM research programs such as this one should hold spots specifically for students of color, students with disabilities, and other folks who are traditionally marginalized and underrepresented in STEM to attend. Programs like this are critical for early-career scientists to network with each other and the leading scientists in the field, and without holding doors open for marginalized students, how else will diversity in STEM increase? 

The X-ray fluorescence scanner used to identify trace elements in the sediment cores
Group photo of IODP/PAIS Antarctic School participants and instructors

Microplastics Alter Plankton Poop

Microplastics alter feeding selectivity and faecal density in the copepod, Calanus helgolandicus

Rachel L. Coppock, Tamara S. Galloway, Matthew Cole, Elaine S. Fileman, Ana M. Queirós, & Penelope K. Lindeque

Summarized by Adriane Lam

The Problem: There is a growing body of research that shows that microplastics, tiny (1um-5 mm) pieces of plastics, have made their way into the deepest reaches of our oceans and are being ingested by marine life. Microplastics ingested by animals have been shown to cause adverse health effects to them, but as consumers of marine animals, these same microplastics are making their way into our diets. As yet, we do not know the exact ways in which microplastics can affect human health on longer time scales.

Zooplankton, which are small animals and protists that float in the water column and feed on primary-producing phytoplankton, are an important link between phytoplankton and other, larger animals. Zooplankton make up the base of the food chain, and are the main food source of marine mammals such as blue whales.

Different species of copepods.
Different species of copepods.

One type of zooplankton is especially common in our oceans today. Copepods are marine crustaceans that are found in nearly every freshwater and saltwater habitat. In addition to being an important food source, copepod poop is an important part of the biological pump. In other words, these animals’ poop transports atmospheric carbon dioxide (which is trapped in organic matter, or fixed carbon) to the seafloor, where it is stored in seafloor sediments.  The poop also provides important nutrients to other animals that live within or on top of these sediments. Copepods have been shown to ingest microplastics in the wild. The ingestion of microplastics by copepods may alter the way in which these animals select their food. And of course, if microplastics are being ingested, they are also being exported to the seafloor in fecal pellets. This study was designed to look at how microplastics alter how copepods choose their food and how the ingested plastic materials affect the sinking rate of copepod poop.

Methods: In this study, the scientists grew three species of microalgae (all that copepods like to feast on) in the lab and spiked it with different types of microplastics. The microplastics included things such as nylon, which is commonly found in clothing, especially active wear, and polyethylene, which is the most commonly-used plastic in the world (it is used to make shopping bags, shampoo bottles, and toys, to name a few uses).

The microalgae with microplastics was then fed to the copepods back in the lab, where the amount of microplastics ingested. The fecal pellets from the copepods were then collected and rinsed over a screen. To determine if microplastics contained in the poop affected the sinking rate of the pellets, the scientists dropped the pellets into cylinders filled with filtered seawater. They marked where the pellet was in the cylinder every 40 mm. To determine how different each pellet sank with microplastics, the scientists also measured the rate at which copepod poop without microplastics fell through the water column. When the poop reached the bottom of the cylinders, they were taken out and examined under a microscope. This way, the scientists could count the number of plastic pieces in each pellet.

Results: The scientists found that copepods preferentially liked to eat microplastics in a smaller size range (10-20 um), with a preference for the polyethylene over nylon fibers. When the copepods were exposed to microplastics, they preferentially did not eat as much algae. In addition, the copepods shifted their preference for one species of algae over others. Nylon fibers impeded ingestion of algae that was a similar size and shape to the microplastics. The scientists think the copepods associated algae of similar size and shape with microplastics, and thus avoided eating that algae species in an attempt to avoid plastic consumption.

Images of the contaminated copepod poop. Image a contains nylon fibers, image b contains polyethylene spheres, and image c contains polyethylene spheres.

The study confirmed that fecal pellets that contained both polyethylene and nylon particles were slower to sink through the water column. There was a difference in sinking rates between poop that contained more polyethylene, a denser microplastic, compared to nylon, a less dense material.

Why is this study important? This study is one of several that highlight the ways in which plastics are negatively affecting our food chain in the marine realm. The reduced sinking rate of fecal pellets may also affect the rate at which carbon dioxde, a major greenhouse gas, can be removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesizing algae who are then eaten by zooplankton. If fecal pellets are left to float for longer, there is also a higher potential of the microplastics being re-ingested by other zooplankton through coprophagy (ingestion of fecal pellets). On long and short timescales, the decreased export of poop and fixed carbon dioxide to the seafloor may have large consequences, as plastic within poop could keep more carbon from being exported and stored on the seafloor.

Citation: Coppock, R. L., Galloway, T. S., Cole, M., Fileman, E. S., Queirós, A. M., and Lindeque, P. K., 2019. Microplastics alter feeding selectivity and faecal density in the copepod, Calanus helgolandicus. Science of the Total Environment 687, 780-789. Online.

Climate Science Day on Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

Shaina here-

Have you ever wished there were more scientists involved with politics or politicians who were more informed about science? I certainly have. So when an opportunity to travel to Capitol Hill to get training on how to meet with legislators about climate science- and to actually meet with their offices- presented itself I jumped on it. Policy proposals that impact science are happening around us all the time and the best way for scientists to help ensure that policies are backed by science and support the scientific process is for us to get involved. There are many different programs through various scientific societies that provide training to student scientists and early career researchers on how to communicate their work to policy makers. The specific program I participated in is called Climate Science Day and is coordinated by 12 different scientific societies. The training took place at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in March 2019 and my participation was sponsored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The objective is to provide a non-partisan way for us to meet with congressional staff, begin building relationships with offices, and learn about some of the work that is currently being done on the Hill.

In total thirty five early career scientists participated and we were broken into teams of three based on geographic region. My teammates were Logan Brenner from Columbia University and Heather Sussman from SUNY-Albany, and our team leader was Lexi Shultz the Vice President of Public Affairs at AGU. Together we met with 7 congressional offices from Massachusetts and New York. To prepare us for the meetings we had a webinar and informational packet to go through in advance of the trip. These materials covered how Congress is structured, what the differences are between the Senate and the House of Representatives and how that impacts the work each side does, what the important committees relating to climate change are, and how to effectively communicate during meetings. They also emphasized the unified ask of “support, communicate, and use in policy discussions and decisions the scientific community’s consensus on climate science.” When we arrived in DC we had one day to attend a training at AAAS, meet our teammates, and prepare our materials for the next day’s congressional visits.

We had a limited time to prepare for our meetings. We all arrived the day before the meetings were to take place and attended a training at AAAS where we learned how to conduct a congressional visit, heard from a panel of staffers, and met our teammates and team leaders. To have a successful meeting you need to be knowledgeable about who you are talking to. Meetings rarely happen with the legislators themselves, instead they are usually with congressional staffers. The staffers are usually people with scientific backgrounds and occasionally they are themselves early career scientists interning as fellows sponsored by various professional organizations to learn more about the connections between science and policy. They are also very important to getting things done on Capitol Hill and are instrumental in carrying out the work that happens in the offices. Their time is extremely valuable and it is important to speak to them as though they are highly knowledgeable about these topics- because they are!- and to express your gratitude for their time. My three favorite staffers we met with were all fellows and had backgrounds in teaching, solar development, and marine biology!

The most valuable part of the training was the breakout sessions with our teams to decide what our specific asks were from each office and who would lead each meeting. Having a specific ask is very important as this is the action step you are hoping to convince your representative to take. The ask varies based on what you think your member of Congress is likely to want to do and what actions they have taken in the past. For members who are less engaged on climate issues asks should revolve around getting them to commit to becoming more involved. For us one of the offices we met with was of a Rep Katko (R-NY-24). We noticed in looking through the committees he was on that he was the only member of the New York delegation not on a specific environmental committee. We chose our ask for that office to be for him to join that committee. In the meeting at that office we spoke to his staffer about environmental issues that are a concern in his district, how climate change can exacerbate them, and how his work in joining this committee could benefit his constituents. For congressional members who are already active on climate issues we first thanked them for being leaders on such a pressing issue and then asked of them to go a bit farther, for instance by giving a floor speech on recent climate publications put out by government scientists such as the Fourth National Climate Assessment, or co-sponsoring a piece of upcoming environmental legislation. For members in our own local districts, we included in our asks invitations for them to come visit our research labs and perhaps do a public event with us to bring light to scientific work on global issues happening in their local districts and policy work they are doing to advance solutions.

Shaina (center right) and other CDI fellows outside of Senator Markey’s office.

On the day of the meetings we donned our business attire and convened on Capitol Hill. Logan and Heather each led two of the four meetings with the NY offices and I led the three meetings with MA offices. First up was Rep. Clark of MA’s 5th congressional district. It went very well and was the perfect meeting to ease us into the day. We met with a staffer who was a fellow with a background in education. She was eager to hear about our work and said Rep. Clark would likely be happy to complete our ask of giving a floor speech. One of the highlights of our day was meeting with Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-6) who we requested join SEEC, the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, chaired by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY-20) which is one of the most active and effective congressional committees on environmental matters. Later in the day we met with Rep. Tonko’s office and they mentioned that they had just received a call from Rep. Meng asking to join his committee! This was a huge win for us as it meant that Rep. Meng had already acted on our ask just an hour or so after meeting with her office. Another highlight of the day was meeting with the Legislative Assistant for Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY-13). He was very interested in connections between social justice and climate change and how to improve the health and wellbeing of the people in his community, while providing them with good jobs, and working to combat climate change all at once. We ended the day at MA Senator Markey’s office where we met with two staffers who were fellows just out of graduate school- one was a marine biologist and the other worked on solar development and sustainability. We had a great conversation on scientists and scientific data that are being used to craft legislation for the Green New Deal.

The two days on Capitol Hill were a whirlwind of meeting new people and learning how scientists and policy makers can work together to make substantive change. If you want to get involved in communicating with your legislators, check with the scientific societies you are a member of to see if they have trainings coming up. You can also reach out on your own to your local legislators and offer your expertise and knowledge for policy work they are currently doing. In addition if you ever find yourself in Washington DC you can also ask for a meeting yourself if you would like to share your science and find ways your work and expertise can benefit their offices. With so much work needed in developing concrete actions that will help implement a global transition to a climate friendly world we will need everyone getting involved and offering to help in any way they can. You have so much to offer, so get out there and start making it happen!

Dr. Laurie Brown, Geophysicist and Paleomagnetist

Dr. Laurie Brown getting ready to drill a 2.5 million year old lava flow in southern Patagonia, Argentina.

How did you become interested in science?

I always enjoyed the outdoors, growing up outside a small town in upstate New York.  Camping trips with my family took me to many national parks and the wonders of the Western US.  In 8th grade I had a great Earth Science course, which I loved, but I somehow did not connect it as a career path.  I went off the Middlebury College in Vermont to enjoy the mountains and skiing, but majored in Math because it was easy for me.  By Senior year I decided to take a Geology course as an elective (because I liked mountains) and by the second week I was hooked!  It was initially the idea of working outdoors in wild and scenic places that attracted me, but I soon learned there were wonderful scientific problems aplenty.  It was 1968 (yes, I am of that generation!) and the concept of Plate Tectonics was just emerging.  Luckily, I had a wonderful professor teaching the year sequence of Physical and Historical Geology and he brought into class the latest scientific discoveries and made the course exciting and provocative.  He also encouraged me to go to Grad School with my one year of Geology, but lots of Math, Physics, and Chemistry, and the rest is history!

What do you do?

I have been a University professor for 45 years, the last 5 as Emeritus.  Being a professor at a major research university means you do many things, all at the same time!  I taught courses in Geophysics at the undergrad and grad level, as well as other courses needed by my department including Oceanography, Field Methods, Field Mapping, Physical Geology, and Tectonophysics.  I mentored students at all levels, both those in my classes and those working in my lab.  I ran a research program including Masters and PhD students where we worked together both in the field and in my paleomagnetism laboratory.  And, as is common in academia, I did a considerable amount of service for my department, my university, and my profession.

Paleomagnetic cores from Patagonia, cut and labeled, and ready to be measured!

What is your research?

I study the Earth’s magnetic field as it is recorded in earth materials- the field of paleomagnetism.  When rocks form – igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic –they are able to retain a record of the current magnetic field within magnetic minerals (magnetite and hematite primarily) in the rock.  Samples can be collected from these rocks millions of years later and the original field measured for both direction and magnitude.

Field aspects of my research involve collecting oriented samples from in situ outcrops and locations.  Currently I work mostly with hard rocks, both young volcanic flows and ancient metamorphic rocks.  I drill samples from these units using an adapted chain saw with a 1 inch diamond bit, water-cooled to preserve the diamonds.  Usually 8-10 cores are drilled at each site (lava flow or outcrop) and all are oriented in place with a sun compass.  This produces many samples; my current project in southern Patagonia involves 120 separate lava flows, and over 1000 cores!  Paleomagnetic studies also can be done on sedimentary rocks, also drilled in the field, and on lake and ocean cores, where samples are collected from the sediment once the cores are split open.

Measuring basalt cores on the cryongenic magnetometer in the Paleomagnetic Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Laboratory measurements are performed on a cryogenic magnetometer in my Paleomagnetism Laboratory here at UMass.  It only takes a few minutes to measure the magnetization in a single sample, but a number of tests for stability and reproducibility are required before the data can be interpreted.  Samples are demagnetized in a step-wise fashion using either high temperatures (up to 700°C) or alternating magnetic fields.  We often measure other magnetic properties of the samples, including magnetic susceptibility (measured both in the field and on lab samples) and hysteresis properties.  Microscopic work or SEM studies help us to identify the carriers of the magnetization.

Current Projects.  I am working at both ends of Earth history as current projects include a major study of paleomagnetic directions from young (< 10 myrs) lava flows from southern South America.  These rocks are being used to investigate how the Earth ’s magnetic field varies in the Southern Hemisphere over the last 10 million years.  Other projects are looking at very old rocks in northern Canada where I study the variations in magnetization in a piece of ancient lower crust, now exposed at the surface, and studies of 900 million year old intrusive rocks in southern Norway that are helping us reconstruct the Earth at a time when all the continents were together in a supercontinent called Rodinia.

Magnetic susceptibility meter on a 1.8 billion year old dike intruding 2.2 billion year old metamorphic rocks, Athabasca Granulite Terrane, northern Canada.

How does your research contribute to climate change and evolution?

Paleomagnetism is able to contribute to studies of climate change, evolution, and the history of the Earth by providing additional methods to both correlate sequences and unconnected outcrops, and by providing additional information on geologic age.  The geomagnetic time scale of normal and reversed polarities is well established, and using this magnetostratigraphy enables us to date sedimentary sequences, and to identify similar sequences in other locations.  Measuring the paleomagnetism of deep-sea cores is so well established that the large drilling ships have on-board magnetic laboratories.  Although I am not doing this kind of magnetic work at present, many other labs are, providing important constraints on the timing and correlation of climatic proxies and many parts of the fossil record.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Persevere!  Find that special part of geoscience that intrigues you and work hard to be the best you can at it.  Take all the various opportunities that are available to you, and see where you go!  There will be ups and downs, but as a career the Geosciences provide many positive and productive possibilities.  With over 50 years of activity in the Geosciences, I can easily say I have never lost my joy of working with and on the Earth and the many interesting problems and challenges it provides.  You, alone, may not solve all the problems facing our planet, but you will greatly contribute to our knowledge of the Earth – its evolution, its history, and its constantly changing environment.  And, along the way, you will interact with a number of other awesome scientists, get to see much of the world, and provide a rewarding and enjoyable career for yourself.