What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
The best perks about being a scientist are sparking wonder and creativity in others (especially the general public!), hearing about ongoing research in other fields, and conducting interdisciplinary research to integrate knowledge across disciplines.
During my time as a Ph.D. student, I did a variety of volunteer projects to engage members of the Tampa community. Science is for everyone, and the best scientists can and do communicate their work to the general public!
I stumbled into science the way most scientists do (I think) – completely by accident. I was set on being pre-med, but when I took Biology II my second semester freshman year, I fell in love with ecology. While everyone else was griping about the topic, the interactions between species and the environment made sense to me. The professor teaching the class noticed and took me under his wing. I started doing undergraduate research in his lab and took General Ecology a couple years later. There was one lecture on disease ecology and I still remember how it sparked these additional questions in my mind, e.g. how does the environment influence the spread of infectious diseases? I was totally hooked from then on and decided to pursue graduate school to answer these questions.
What do you do?
I am mainly interested in how environmental factors, especially temperature, influence interactions between parasites and their hosts. For my dissertation, I studied a human parasite, Schistosoma mansoni, and its intermediate snail host, Biomphalaria glabrata. The parasite must infect a snail before it can infect humans, and I examined how temperature influenced the parasite at various points of its life cycle, in addition to how temperature affected infected snails over time (see figure). I combined published data and laboratory experiments with mathematical models to predict how disease transmission may shift in response to changing temperatures under global climate change conditions.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
For my dissertation, I used a combination of published data and data from laboratory experiments to simulate how changes in temperature influence the parasite and its intermediate snail host.
How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?
Infectious diseases of humans and wildlife are increasing due to complex interactions between human population growth, changes in agricultural supply and demand, and global climate change. For example, human population growth is driving increases in agricultural development and accelerating global climate change. As more habitats are cleared for farmland, the likelihood of humans encountering wildlife that carry infectious diseases will likely increase. Global climate change may also influence how easily these diseases are spread between humans and wildlife. Thus, the broader goal of my research is to improve predictions of disease spread so that the public health sector can improve the timing and application of intervention methods. By examining how one part of the puzzle affects disease transmission, we can disentangle what to expect in the future as interactions between humans, animals, and environment continue to change.
Dr. Nguyen is now a postdoctoral scholar at Emory University. Learn more about Karena’s research on her website and by following her on Twitter @Nguyen_4Science
Indirect effects of climate change altered the cannibalistic behaviour of shell-drilling gastropods in Antarctica during the Eocene
Gregory P. Dietl, Judith Nagel-Myers, and Richard B. Aronson
Summarized by Joseph Ferreira. Joey is a senior at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Joey is pursuing his B. S in geology and is planning on finding a job either in the hydrology or seismology field. He has aspirations of owning his own business one day providing geo surveying services to companies in need of them. In his free time, Joey enjoys playing guitar and hanging out with his friends and family.
What data were used? The samples in this study included nearly 2,000 Naticidae Falsilunatia gastropod (snail) shells that were preserved well enough to show bore holes made from the cannibal snails. These samples were from a time frame in the Eocene that experienced mass cooling event. These samples came from 108 different localities in Seymour Island, Antarctica.
Methods: The prediction made during the start of this study suggested that the cooling temperatures would result in a decrease in the cannibalistic behaviors of these gastropods; meaning, the colder temperatures would make it more difficult for the mollusk to maintain a productive activity level. To test their hypothesis, each drill hole found on the gastropods (complete or incomplete) was counted and the frequency of cannibalism was found by dividing the number of drilled samples by the total number of specimens in the group. The scientists looked at how frequent the drilled holes were in the specimens and also the body size of each specimen. They connected these specimens to a time either before, during, or after the known cooling event. They then looked to see if there were any significant changes in the frequency of these cannibalistic drill holes.
Results: When comparing the number of attacked specimens from before, during, and after the cooling event that occurred nearly 41 million years ago, the frequency of cannibalistic tendencies did not decrease or increase, but they remained stagnant. There was a very slight increase in frequency, but this increase was not statistically significant, meaning the increase was not big enough to cause concern or to blame the temperature change. This result came was a surprise because the way that these naticids drill holes into their prey’s shell involves a chemical reaction to dissolve the carbonate shell. The cooling temperatures were thought to slow down this chemical reaction hence slowing down the rates of cannibalistic tendencies between these creatures. However, this was not the case, the rates of cannibal attacks remained steady during the cooling event.
Why is this study important? This study is important because it gives us a better understanding of how climate change can potentially affect species’ behaviors and tendencies. Even though the Falsilunatia’s cannibalistic behaviors were not affected by the cooling temperatures, it still shows some insight on how not all creatures are drastically affected by cooling events. Understanding the correlation between climate change and species behavior can help us gauge what we will expect to see in different animals’ behaviors as today’s climate change is in full effect.
The big picture: This study was set out to find the relationship between an Eocene cooling event and the cannibalistic behaviors of Falsilunatia gastropods. Although finding no direct effect from the cooling temperatures, this is still an excellent example of how we can use the behaviors of ancient creatures and their response to global climate alterations to predict how today’s animals will respond to more recent climate change.
Citation: Dietl G.P., Nagel-Myers J., Aronson R.B., 2018 Indirect effects of climate change altered the cannibalistic behaviour of shell-drilling gastropods in Antarctica during the Eocene: Royal Society Open Science, v. 5, 181446. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.181446
Recently, I went to the Washington D.C. area to visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (which you can read about here) and to attend a workshop on best practices for new faculty members. But while I was there, I spied some excellent geology right in the city! I already showed you some of those while I was in the museum itself, so I’ll show you some of the other amazing pieces of Earth history that I saw!
I want to remind you that looking at amazing geology doesn’t have to wait for you to be on vacation or in a faraway destination-you can see these sites anywhere, if you’re paying attention! If you want to read more of these types of posts, check out my post from last year on the geology of bathrooms.
This first image is of a beautiful stylolite in a marble countertop in the bathroom of a café in the center of Washington D.C. A stylolite is caused when rock, most commonly carbonate rocks like limestone (which we call marble when they are metamorphosed), are put under extreme pressure and the individual grains will compress and leak fluid, leaving behind a squiggly line, like what you see in image 1. Just beautiful!
Our next stop brings us to Union Station in Washington D.C., where I found this magnificent staircase completely by accident (image 2). I was visiting Gallaudet University and the first signing Starbucks, when I got turned around and ended up at a different Metro station than I had originally intended. Well, serendipitously, I found this absolute beauty, making the detour more than worth it. This rock, just like the image before, is a type of marble, though it has very different colors. The red color in this marble can be attributed to chemical impurities- red is typically what we’d see if iron and feldspar was present in the marble sample. You can also see veins filled with calcite and look like quartz all throughout the staircase! I was intrigued about where this marble came from, so I did a little research. There wasn’t a lot of information, but it seems that this marble likely came from Vermont (See this blog here: https://blogs.agu.org/magmacumlaude/2014/06/13/building-dc-union-station-just-the-floors/), which was created over 400 million years ago, when limestone produced from a shallow sea collided with a volcanic arc and metamorphosed in an orogeny, or a tectonic collision. This is a fairly common scenario with how we get a lot of our marble from the Paleozoic in North America.
Our tour continues to just outside of Washington D.C., to Arlington, VA, where I was visiting a friend in the area. As we were walking to breakfast, I was treated to a spectacular number of rocks featured in the buildings’ walls along the way. First, is a beautiful granite (image 3). The pink mineral is potassium feldspar (K-spar, for short), intermixed with the milky white mineral (quartz) and a lot of amphibole, the black colored mineral that’s heavily present on the left side of the block. Granite also usually contains biotite, a black mica. If you take a look at this granite, you’ll see that the individual crystals are quite large, which tells us a lot about its formation. It’s telling us that it was formed intrusively; meaning, it was formed in an area not exposed to Earth’s surface and it cooled slowly, giving the crystals time to grow. I stopped to take a photo of this because the amphibole (there are many varieties of amphibole-hornblende is the most common in granite) because the heavy presence of the swirling amphibole isn’t something I usually see in most granite samples. Second, I saw these gorgeous phyllite samples on the outer wall of a building (image 4). Phyllite is a low-grade metamorphic rock, which means it’s not exposed to extremely high amounts of heat and pressure, but it has undergone significant changes from its protolith (otherwise known as its parent rock). In the case of phyllite, its protolith was a shale (compacted mud). You can recognize phyllite by a few different characteristics. During the metamorphic process, muscovite (a soft mineral in the mica family) develops, giving phyllite a really lovely shiny appearance (you can think of mica as being like nature’s glitter; just like glitter, mica is nearly impossible to completely get rid of if you accidentally get it everywhere!). You can also recognize phyllite by the gentle bands that form. Many metamorphic rocks are foliated, which we can think of as banding across a rock. The more pronounced the banding usually indicates a higher amount of metamorphism applied to the rock. Phyllite has subtle banding, which indicates that lower amount of metamorphism.
So, this next image (image 5) isn’t in D.C., but it was found during this trip in College Park, Maryland on the University of Maryland’s campus. It’s another gorgeous example of granite, this time in a fountain. Sometimes it can be really hard to recognize rocks when you’re used to seeing them beautifully polished and sealed (like the granite in image 3, but you can definitely do it with practice!) Just like in image 3, if you look closely at this fountain, you’ll see large crystals, because it’s an intrusive rock, and the same types of minerals- our pink K-spar, milky quartz, and black amphiboles. An intrusive magmatic event from millions of years ago had to form and cool, and then that granite had to be exhumed (brought to the surface) for someone to make that fountain. So cool!
Last, but certainly not least, let’s look at the marble here in the Ronald Reagan airport (image 6). This gorgeous marble makes up part of a seafood restaurant right near the entrance to the airport, before you go through the security line. Sorry that the image is kind of far away, but this was the closest I was able to get before having to get through the security line! One of my favorite things about marble is how different it can look from sample to sample. This marble shows completely different features than the ones I showed in images 1 and 2-remember, the color of marble is driven by chemical impurities. You can see large scale veins of what is likely calcite all over the rock itself as well as some dissolution features on the left side.
Recently, I went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for a few days for some research (image 1)! This was an especially exciting trip because I got to see the BRAND-NEW Fossil Hall exhibits that the curators and staff have been working on for years (image 2)!!
My main goal for going to the collections was to make a personal database of the specimens present at the Smithsonian that belong to the groups I’m currently working on, echinoderms called Diploporita and Rhombifera and make notes of my own for future projects I’d like to start. For example, many of the specimens at the Smithsonian had unusual preservation, so I was thinking about possible projects for myself and for future research students to look into why these fossils were preserved the way that they were. I took photos of many of the specimens so that I’d have a good reference for later, too (image 3).
My main goal for writing this post, however, is to show you what it’s like to work at a museum! Museums are amazing places to go and learn and have fun, but it’s a totally different experience to go to a museum to look at its exhibits, as opposed to going to look at the collections. The exhibits at the Smithsonian, the halls filled to the brim with amazing rocks, fossils, and artifacts, only make up a teeny tiny percentage of what’s actually stored in the museum. So, without further ago, here’s the behind the scenes tour!
So, while the exhibits are absolutely beautiful and show off magnificent tales of Earth’s history, the collections areas show off something completely different but equally beautiful: the rows and rows of cabinets that are chock full of fossils just waiting to be studied (Image 4)! Every time a scientist publishes a paper on a fossil, that fossil has to be put in a public museum so that it can be studied by other people in the future (this isn’t always true, but almost all journals require that you put your fossils in a public museum). Some of the fossils in those collection rooms are absolutely beautiful and totally worthy of being put in an exhibit (image 5), but so many more, while they aren’t as “perfect”, give us insight into scientifically interesting questions.
Now, I want to show you a little bit about the Smithsonian’s exhibits! I want to show you my favorite new exhibit. You guessed it-it’s about echinoderms! This new exhibit shows the changing body types we see in these fossils throughout geologic time (image 6). They also did some really great work on an Ice Age exhibit and the megafauna that lived there (like mammoths, the Irish Elk, large sloths). It was tied in really well with learning about how climate change has affected life on Earth in the past and life on Earth now!
Finally, I want to show you around the exhibits you might not have noticed at the Smithsonian- the floors and bathroom counters! Since this is the nation’s most famous natural history museum, you know they have to have some good geology in their building materials! The main staircases that run through the museum are marble (metamorphosed (meaning, it was put under a lot of heat and pressure) limestone). Marble often leaves us clues about how it was metamorphosed by leaving behind stylolites. Stylolites are deformation features-meaning, the marks that rocks leave behind when they’re being squished by geologic processes. They often look like little squiggly lines! Check out the epic stylolites in the marble staircases of the Smithsonian (image 8)! Finally, here is a column that is made out of a rock called a metaconglomerate, which is a metamorphosed conglomerate (image 9). To put that into normal words, a conglomerate is a sedimentary rock that’s made up of large pieces of material (like pebbles or larger) all jumbled together. A metaconglomerate is simply one that has been deformed from heat and pressure! You can tell that this column been metamorphosed by how the large pieces of rock look like they’ve been stretched out and bent in weird directions.
This summer I attended the FORCE11 Scholarly Communication Institute. This was a cool opportunity because I have been to many research-focused conferences and workshops, but I’ve not yet been to one that focused on scholarly communications. Scholarly communications refers to the process of publishing and communicating research, from arts and sciences to humanities. FSCI is unique because it brings together students, researchers, librarians, and publishers. Some of the sessions during the week were about new methods for making your research reproducible, from research methods to repositories for code and data. Others were on aspects of the publishing industry and how we can make research more accessible across the divides of language barriers and paywalls (when a paper is only accessible if you or your institution has a subscription to the journal it is in).
The workshop was set up so that each participant would choose three courses throughout the week, one in the mornings and two in the afternoons. The course that I enjoyed the most and felt gave me the most practical knowledge to bring back was called “The Scientific Paper of the Future”. This course talked about various aspects of the research and publishing process in the context of open science. I was familiar with data management plans and depositing data in repositories, but there were some aspects that were new to me. For example, there is now a trend of also depositing code and software packages developed as part of research in repositories, and also writing journal articles to document and describe them. Another is documenting your workflow. There are a few websites to do this now, which involves writing up a plan for who on your team is going to do which aspects of research, and then documenting this as you go. Workflow documenting also includes writing down every detail of your method and even the experiments and workflows that did not work, to help people avoid repeating your mistakes and instead building on your work.
This was a new type of workshop for me, but it was really great to get out of my comfort zone of interacting mostly with fellow scientists to meet librarians and publishing experts who are also interested in open science for everyone.
What is your favorite aspect of being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
Science thrives on curiosity. Even though we can talk about Science as an apparatus of journals, schools, and theories, basic questions like “What’s that?” are what draw us into a richer understanding of nature. For myself, dinosaurs were my introduction to science. I wanted to know everything I could about them from the time I was little. I wanted to know how they moved, what they ate, why they dominated the world for so long, and more. And while a career as an academic paleontologist wasn’t in the cards for me, I’m glad that writing about the past gave me an alternate route to engage with paleontology and contribute to the field in my own way.
What do you do?
I’m a writer! My career is centered around writing about paleontology and the animals the science studies, which means I freelance for publications such as Smithsonian, Slate, and Nature when there’s something neat to say about prehistoric life. I’ve also written several books. Written in Stone, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Skeleton Keys are fossil-based books for adults, while Prehistoric Predators is a children’s book about ancient carnivores. And I’m just starting a new adult-audience book about the mass extinction that ended the Cretaceous. The flexibility in my career also lets me go out on fossil expeditions, and I’ve been going out every summer since 2011 to join different museums and universities all across the American west to help them find and excavate fossils. I never expected to become a writer, but searching for old bones is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.
What methods do you use to engage your audience and community?
There’s no single way to best communicate science. The methods that work in a museum, a podcast, Twitter, a book, or a talk are all different. And that’s what’s wonderful. There are so many ways to tell stories about science, who engages in the quest, and what questions we most want to know. My biggest bit of advice would be to think about your format and audience. Who are you trying to reach? What stories do you want to tell? Connection can take many forms, and simply keeping that goal in mind can have a huge difference. Science isn’t an Answer or a dictate. It is, and should be, a conversation.
How does your research and writing contribute to the understanding of paleontology?
We often think of the past almost as an alien world. We focus on the strange and unusual. But the fact of the matter is that the world around us today evolved from times of the past, and we can trace everything around us through Deep Time. Every species alive today has connections through the fossil record, for example, and we can look at how organisms in the past reacted to issues we face today – from forest fires to sweeping climate change. I see my role as an interpreter of these stories. I want to remind people that we have an inextricable connection to our favorite extinct species and that a richer view of the past helps us appreciate the world we’re now in. I also try to comment on how science gets done and changes through time. Science is done by people, after all, and that means the history of paleontology and how the science is conducted is just as important as its results.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Ask questions. Not only of what you want to know, but about the paleo pathways you might travel. There’s a common misconception that becoming a professor or curator is the pinnacle of paleontology and what everyone aspires to. This isn’t true at all. Some of the happiest paleos I know are collections managers, preparators, mitigation paleontologists, or have taken positions outside the tenure track lane. And paleontology offers many opportunities to stay involved even if studying fossils isn’t your career. The field thrives on amateur expertise and assistance, from searching for new fossil localities to assisting in museum collections. Whatever you do, don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that there’s only one way to be a paleontologist or that you need to give up your identity to fit a certain mold. There are so many ways to engage your wonder about ancient life, and the greater the diversity of voices in the field the stronger our understanding will become.
Recently, we were able to participate in the 11th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC), held in Riverside California. This meeting is hosted every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. In comparison, we are usually able to attend the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) Meeting. These meetings have many differences and here, we explain the importance and differences of each meeting.
Geological Society of America
The Geological Society of America meeting is held every year in a major city, with smaller regional meetings held each year as well. For example, I (Adriane) am currently in New York, so I am part of the Northeast Section of GSA. The Northeast Section includes Washington D.C., Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont in the United States, as well as the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and parts of Ontario in Canada. Find what section you are in by clicking here.
But here, we’ll just focus on the larger national GSA meetings that are held yearly. The mission of GSA is to “advance geoscience research and discovery, service to society, stewardship of Earth, and the geoscience profession”. The vision of the society is to “be the premier geological society supporting the global community in scientific discovery, communication, and application of geoscience knowledge”. The GSA meetings embody the vision and mission of the society by bringing geoscientists together from all subfields to share their recent research, discuss new initiatives and goals for their specific fields, and to support students. These meetings are also a wonderful place to network, catch up with friends and colleagues, and make new friends and colleagues.
Generally, GSA is held in a large convention center in a well-known city. This year (2019), the meeting was held in Phoenix, Arizona. The year before that (2018), it was held in Indianapolis, Indiana. Next year (2020), the meeting will be held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The meeting location changes every year (except for every 2-3 years, the meeting is held back in Denver, Colorado) to be close to the society’s headquarters.
When registering for GSA, the only thing that our registration covers is access to the meeting and an evening beverage (soft drinks, wine, or beer) during the poster sessions. GSA has different ‘tiers’ for membership, so not everyone pays the same registration costs. For K-12 teachers, registration is only $50; however for professionals (such as professors) the cost is $430. There are additional activities we can sign up for, such as breakfasts, dinners, workshops, and even field trips to check out the local geology. Many of these additional events are at a fee. For example, this year I (Jen) attended the Paleontological Society Business Meeting ($45 for professionals; $15 for students), Association for Women Geoscientists breakfast ($42 for professionals; $15 for students), and the GSA Education Division Awards Luncheon ($54 for everyone). Separately, they aren’t a big deal but they really add up quickly. Click here to read about all the add-ons for this year’s conference.
GSA is structured with a day that is full of talks. These talks are split into different subsections, which are held in different rooms. We call each room with themed talks a session. There are usually tens of sessions going on at any one time, usually scheduled from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm. Poster presentations are hung up in the poster hall all day long for people to view at their leisure, but the poster presenters do not have to be there all day, just for about 2 hours in the evening. The poster presentations overlap with beer, wine, and soda offerings at GSA every afternoon. After about 6:30, the poster hall shuts down and folks go off to other evening events and meetings, to dinner, or sometimes just call it a day and go back to their hotels to rest. I, Adriane, generally try to get back to the hotel early (I’m an introvert and get pretty tired quickly), but that usually never happens as I always run into friends or have plans and just have too much fun to go home early.
North American Paleontological Convention
The North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) is held every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. This year it was held in Riverside, California. The previous event was held in 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. Unlike GSA, NAPC is not a proper organization or society – those in charge rotate out and there are not set staff that are continually helping plan and execute these events. In other words, we cannot become a member of NAPC like we can GSA, as NAPC just refers to the name of a conference and not an entire structured organization.
Similar to GSA, the NAPC meetings have a few goals for the meetings. Namely, the purpose of NAPC is “to exchange research findings, define future directions, and be a forum for extended and relaxed interactions between professionals and early career scientists, most particularly graduate and undergraduate students.” Since NAPC was sponsored by the Paleontological Society (the major society for American paleontologists) the convention embodied many aspects of that society, including their recently revised code of conduct:
This is PS. The Paleontological Society is committed to safe and inclusive events and meetings for all attendees. The Code of Conduct applies to all members of the Society and to all participants of NAPC2019. The Paleontological Society is implementing “This IS PS” (Inclusive and Safe Paleontological Society) to help ensure adherence to the Code of Conduct at Society-sponsored events, including NAPC.
Registration for NAPC allowed you to stay at on campus dorms that were a convenient walk to and from the conference center. They also provided golf cart transportation to those that needed it. The dorms were four single rooms with two shared bathrooms, a living space, and a kitchen. This could be purchased alongside your conference registration and was $360 for five days, a steal in terms of lodging expenses (for reference, a hotel close to the convention center at GSA cost about $150 per night in Phoenix, Arizona). Those staying in these dorms were also offered breakfast in the nearby cafeteria.
Every day there was a catered lunch in a large open area outside where you could grab a sandwich and chat with new or old friends during a break. This meant everyone was on a break during this time so you weren’t rushing to eat between sessions and everyone was in a unified space. This was one of my (Jen’s) favorite parts of the event. There was always someone new to sit with and catch up with. The conference also offered dinner almost every evening, some in the same location as lunch, another more formal banquet, and a more casual finger food event.
There is something that inherently feels like bonding when you are sharing meals with collaborators and friends. I (Jen) think this was a really meaningful and well thought out aspect of the conference. Usually at large conferences such as GSA, everyone is scrambling to find food nearby and you don’t get to really have meaningful discussions. One thing that also really differs from GSA is that NAPC holds a banquet for everyone at the meeting. At this year’s banquet, there were string lights hung in trees, music playing, and very nice tables set up for us all. Later in the evening, we had a dance party which was a ton of fun! There was also a night where we had a raffle, with beer, wine, and food. It was great fun as well!
NAPC is structured similar to GSA, in that there are several talks that are going on in different sessions simultaneously throughout the day. However because NAPC is generally smaller than GSA, the number of sessions going on at any one time was on the range of 4 to 8. Also similar to GSA was the poster hall and session. At NAPC, the poster hall is much smaller, but the posters are left up all day, and presenters are required to be at them during the afternoon hours. Jen and I also chatted with folks at our NAPC posters throughout the day, as they are great places to talk about your research, tell friends what you’ve been up to, and get ideas about research you may want to conduct in the future. The poster sessions and daily meeting ended when it was time for dinner.
What is your favorite aspect of being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
I’ve basically been a scientist since I was a kid, it wasn’t until college that I began to consider science as a career path. I’ve always been curious about the world, and even today my favorite part about being a neuroscientist is knowing that I’m at the forefront of human knowledge, it’s a powerful thought that has always attracted me to the field. Neuroscience is essentially one of the only fields of science that lacks a foundational principle. In other words, we know so little about the brain. We know far more about galaxies light years away!
What do you do?
My research focuses on DNA damage and repair in adult neurons. Every cell of your body, except neurons, can copy its genome in case the original suffers damage. Because neurons don’t divide, your neurons are stuck with the same copy of DNA your entire life! My work aims to better understand how neurons handle DNA damage, and how a lifetime of this damage can accumulate and manifest as a disease like depression, schizophrenia, and especially age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
To test DNA-instability in neurons, we use genetic engineering tools like CRISPR/Cas9 to modify genes involved in DNA damage repair. I then measure structural changes in individual neurons. Working with brain tissue, I can label proteins of interest using fluorescent dyes, and visualize them in 3D space using a confocal microscope, followed by 3D reconstruction of individual neurons. Confocal microscopes emit a high-powered laser that shows nanometer structures…it’s like peeking inside a single neuron!
How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?
The world is rapidly aging, and as of date no disease modifying therapeutics exist to combat neurodegenerative diseases. Unlike other diseases, patients with neurodegeneration never recover and family members are exhausted from caring for them. This means no one advocates for these patients or these diseases and often funding lags behind other fields like cancer research. This has led many experts to sound the alarm and warn of a coming neurodegenerative epidemic . My research suggests DNA-instability underlies neurodegeneration, and I hope the technology we’re developing can expedite drug discovery for these diseases and thereby lessen the burden families and society will face.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
For anyone considering a career in science, particularly entering into a life science PhD program, you should know it will be the most exciting, rewarding, stressful and frightful time of your life, so you should be ok with all those emotions! I recommend thinking about potential career paths after graduate school – go perform the self-assessment  at the link below (it’s designed specifically for life science graduate students). Secondly, I would join a research lab ASAP. Cold call professors at local institutions and tell them your plans. Many undergraduate professors will be eager to take you in.
1) Petsko, Gregory A. “The next epidemic.” Genome biology vol. 7,5 (2006): 108. doi:10.1186/gb- 2006-7-5-108
Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials David J. Wilson, Rachel A. Bertram, Emma F. Needham, Tina van de Flierdt, Kevin J. Welsh, Robert M. McKay, Anannya Mazumder, Christina R. Riesselman, Francisco J. Jiminez-Espejo, Carlota Escutia Summarized by Time Scavengers collaborator Adriane Lam
Brief Summary: Today, sea level rise due to increasing global average temperatures is a huge threat to low-lying, coastal, and island communities. Sea level is rising, in part, from ice that is melting on Antarctica and Greenland. To understand how much sea level may rise in the near future, scientists look to the geologic past, when global temperatures were much warmer than today or close to the temperatures predicted for the coming decades. In this study, scientists looked at how much ice was lost from the Wilkes Subglacial Basin of East Antarctica during a time when global average temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial values. They find that during these warmer periods, called interglacials, there was significant ice that melted from East Antarctica, and contributed to sea level rises. Thus, in the future, the ice melting from East Antarctica will contribute more to sea level rise than we previously thought.
Data used and Methods: Sediment from a deep-sea core drilled from the continental margin of East Antarctica was used in this study (Figure 1). From this sediment core, the authors analyzed the different types of sediment contained within the core through time. From the changes in sediments, the scientists could tell how much erosion was occurring. They also looked at the neodymium (Nd) isotopes from the sediments. Nd isotopes are a good way to also trace where the sediments in the core were coming from, so the scientists could determine not only how much erosion was taking place within East Antarctica, but where the eroded sediment was coming from. Increased erosion and a shift in the Nd isotope records indicate increased glacial melt and ice retreat on East Antarctica, thus the authors could tell through geologic time when and approximately how much the ice melted.
Results: Over the past 800,000 years, Earth’s climate has oscillated between cooler (glacial) and warmer (interglacial) periods (read more about this on our CO2 page). During some interglacial periods (times when the climate was warmer), the scientists found that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet began to erode the rock on which it sits and melted significantly. This led to increased sea levels within a world that was less warm than today.
Why is this study important? This study places new approximations on how much melting from East Antarctica could occur in a warming world, and how much that could raise sea level. Climate scientists think that if all the ice on East Antarctica were to melt, it would lead to approximately 53 meters of sea level rise globally! With the data from this study, it will provide new constraints on melting ice in a warming world, which will be incorporated into climate models of the future climate. This data will be given to policymakers to help us best prepare and mitigate the consequences of climate change.
Citation: Wilson, D. J., Bertram, R. A., Needham, E. F., van de Flierdt, T., Welsh, K. J., McKay, R. M., Mazumder, A., Riesselman, C. R., Jimenez-Espejo, F. J., and Escutia, C., 2019. Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials. Nature 561, 383-386.
I study ways we can tell species apart based on their morphology (the structure and shapes of their hard parts). For my research, I use the fossils of brachiopods (marine animals that resemble clams) from the Upper Ordovician period (around 450 million years ago). I collect the majority of my data from fossils in museum collections but collect fossils in the field when I can’t find what I need in an existing collection. While the applications of my research may not be readily apparent it is actually applicable to a variety of things.
Species are the fundamental unit we use to classify organisms and being able to tell them apart is an important skill. Being able to identify species based on morphology is a necessary step in many studies of evolutionary processes, climate change, ecology, and patterns of biodiversity (the numbers of species present on the Earth through time). This is even true for biologists studying modern animals! While modern biologists define species as members of a population that can actually or potentially interbreed in nature it isn’t reasonable or even possible to conduct breeding experiments for every animal on Earth. Therefore, from a practical standpoint morphology is the best way to identify species whether you study fossils or living organisms.
When I was five, I started collecting marine fossils from rocks near my home. The fact that where I lived used to be under the sea was amazing to me. Although I had an interest in science at a very young age, I didn’t consider it as a career until much later. It was a book I read my freshman year of college (Wonderful Life by Stephen J. Gould) that inspired me to pursue paleontology professionally. It is a story about the bizarre creatures that lived in the sea over 500 million years ago and the scientific struggle to understand them. My experience with science has been fascinating and rewarding in more ways than I can describe, but I have to say that my favorite thing about being a scientist is learning new and exciting things every day.
If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring scientists, it would be that it is never too late to pursue a career in science. All kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds become scientists and many of them start out pursuing other things (I started college thinking I would be a writer). If you are getting ready to start college and unsure what degree you want to pursue, try taking some courses at a community college. There are so many fascinating fields in science it can be hard to know which one is right for you and community college is a wonderful place to get a feel for what you may want to pursue.