Kevin Jiménez-Lara, Paleomammalogist and Paleobiogeographer

Kevin taking photographs of a fossil anteater skull deposited at the fossil mammal collections at the Field Museum in Chicago, IL.

First, let me introduce myself. I am a Colombian PhD student at the National University of La Plata, Argentina. My research is focused on the evolution of xenartrans, mammals that include armadillos, sloths, and anteaters.

Since I was a child, I have had a strong fascination to learn about nature. For that reason, I loved (and I still do love) reading a lot and watching documentaries about science, wildlife, meteorological phenomena, the history of the Earth, the history of the Universe, astrophysical theories and hypotheses, and other similar topics. Science has an amazing explanatory power, and that has always been what I like most about it. Science allows us to know our place in the Universe.

Following my vocation, I studied biology in college. Although during my undergrad there were many disciplines that caught my attention, the only one that enamored me was the study of extinct life forms, i.e. paleobiology. At first glance, it is not easy to explain why I wanted to be a paleobiologist, since there are very few Colombian paleobiologists and institutions that teach paleobiology and/or develop paleobiological research in my home country. However, studying the unique history of evolution of living beings seemed not only a noble, respectable activity, but it also became a passion that I believe will always accompany me as long as I live. Paleobiology has formed the basis of my life in the professional field, and also in a personal, philosophical sense.

Kevin doing paleontological prospecting and fossil collection in the La Venta area of southwestern Colombia. In this area some of the most important fossil assemblages of tropical continental vertebrates can be found.

To perform research in paleobiology in a country located in the intertropical belt of the planet (near the equator) and characterized as one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth poses great challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, there is little or no state support to study paleobiology as a consequence of socio-historical development. In addition, there are limitations related to logistics in regions that are difficult to access due their geographic location and/or security features. We also face scarcity of continuous outcrops of sedimentary rocks where fossils can be found. Often, as a result of climatic factors and abundant vegetation (plant life), fossils are poorly preserved (however, sometimes, they are exquisitely preserved!). But these limitations are largely compensated by huge opportunities. Fossils from the tropics are exceptionally valuable. They document innumerable evolutionary stories that can help explain one of the most disturbing questions for many biologists: why is there a tendency in different groups of living organisms to present greater diversity in the intertropical zone compared to other regions on Earth, such as in higher latitudes?

Paleobiology in the tropics is very necessary because of the generalized geographic bias in research of many extinct organisms and periods of Earth’s history. Namely, most research on these topics has been conducted in Europe and North America. In Colombia, paleontological field expeditions and studies have yielded surprising findings, including, of course, our flagship fossil organism (in my opinion): Titanoboa (Titanoboa cerrejonensis). For all those who do not know it, this snake lived approximately 60 million years ago in the extreme north of Colombia (Guajira peninsula), and its most surprising feature is its size and body mass. Titanoboa measured about 13 meters in length and could exceed one metric ton in weight. That makes it the largest known snake of all time!

Artists’ rendition of Titanoboa in its natural habitat, a very warm and humid tropical forest in La Guajira, northern Colombia, around 60 million years ago. Other reptiles of this time period were also giants, such as crocodiles and turtles.  Image by Jason Bourque.

I contribute to tropical paleobiology by studying fossil xenartrans (armadillos, sloths, and anteaters), particularly those that lived in northern South America and southern Central America. I seek to clarify questions on evolutionary/phylogenetic relationships between extinct representatives of these charismatic mammals and, at the same time, to reconstruct historic changes in their geographical distributions (where they lived through time).

Why is it important to study extinct armadillos, sloths, and anteaters? There are many reasons, but my favorite is that they are animals whose origin and evolution are closely related to great-magnitude abiotic (non-biological) events and processes (such as climate changes and tectonic events). Through tens of millions of years, abiotic factors shaped their biology and ecology to configure the xenartrans in one of the most peculiar mammals that existed during the Cenozoic (the last 65 million years). Have you seen how strange some armadillos look when they roll into a ball, or the very slow movements of a three-toed sloth, or the long tubular snout of a giant anteater? If you have not seen this, you should check out the videos linked in the previous sentence. But in the fossil record we know even more bizarre features of xenartrans than we see in living species. For example, several species of giant sloths used to swim (yes, you read it right, ‘swim’) in littoral zones (areas close to the beach) of western South America around 5 million years ago! Is that not mind-bending?

Several species of the giant sloth genus Thalassocnus could swim in shallow marine habitats off the west coast of South America (Peru and Chile) during the late Miocene-Pliocene (7-4 million years ago). Paleobiologists know this primarily from studies on anatomical adaptations to swimming indicated from the animal’s bone structure. Image by Roman Uchytel.

Xenartrans constitute an outstanding study model on how Earth and life evolve together, from their evolutionary differentiation ~98 million years ago, possibly triggered by the geographic separation of Africa and South America, until their colonization of North America during the last 9 million years in the environmental framework of the Panama Isthmus uplift and the Last Great Glaciation. This makes xenartrans interesting organisms to study evolutionary patterns and processes of high complexity in the tropics.

I am particularly interested on the evolutionary implications (diversification) of dispersal (or movement) events of xenartrans from northern South America to North America (including its ancient Central American peninsula) during geologic intervals which immediately precede the definitive formation of the Isthmus of Panama. Long distance dispersal through a shallow sea, like that which existed between southern Central America and northwestern South America before the complete isthmus emergence, is one of the least understood biogeographic phenomena. The explanatory mechanism of long-distance dispersal allows for disjunct distributions and for us to more comprehensively understand the subtle interaction between distinctive faunas of contiguous areas.

In order to fulfill my general research objective, it is necessary to work hard in determining identities and affinities of Middle-Miocene to Pliocene (15-2 million years old) xenartrans of the aforementioned regions, including not only previously collected fossils, but also new findings. In a complementary way, it is required to put identifications in geographic context through faunal similarity/dissimilarity methods. I also use probabilistic biogeographic models (models that use statistics) to infer major distributional patterns and processes of several subgroups of xenartrans, so that we could understand in an analytic, non-strictly traditional narrative way, the changes of their occurrences in space. Finally, long distance dispersal events through poorly suitable environments for most xenartrans, like shallow seas, are approached through locomotive reconstructions to estimate dispersal capacity (vagility).

I want to end this post by giving an important advice to all those who aspire to be scientists. The path to work in science may be, to a greater or lesser extent, long and complex. However, if you remain true to your convictions and strive under a regime of self-discipline, you will not only be a scientist, but also one of the most prominent researchers in your field. Question everything, do not firmly hold onto hypothesis that have little associated evidence. And, above all, write, write to clarify in your mind many issues related to your research.

To learn more about Kevin and his research, check out his blog called ‘Caribe Prehistorico’

Dipa Desai, Paleoclimatologist & Educator

Dipa working in Colorado with the National Park Service.

What do you do?

I am a paleoclimatologist, and I study the ecological and environmental effects of climate change using the fossil record. Specifically, I research how the Ross Ice Shelf in West Antarctica responded to temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations slightly higher than what Earth will experience in the next several decades. The Ross Ice Shelf is currently the largest mass of floating ice in the world, and West Antarctica is currently melting faster than the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet–what’s going to happen when this much ice melts into the ocean? How will melting affect regional plankton communities, the base of marine food webs? When that much freshwater is added to the ocean, what happens to ocean currents and circulation? I’m interested in answering these questions and using research outcomes to improve environmental policies and climate change mitigation strategies.

I’m also an educator! I spent the last two years in the classroom teaching 5th and 6th grade STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) classes, and I informally teach when I participate in STEM outreach events and programs. I plan to use my research as a model to teach the next generation of voters and environmental stewards about their planet’s historical and future climate change, and inspire the next generations of diverse, innovative STEM professionals. As an educator, I have seen how disparities in access to educational opportunities disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants and non-native English speakers, and other traditionally oppressed and disadvantaged groups. As a member of these communities, I see a lack of representation and inclusion in STEM professions, and a gap in scientific literacy in our policymakers, so I want to use STEM education to affect greater social and political change.

What do you love about being a scientist?

I love learning about the Earth’s past–being the first person ever to see a fossil since its deposition, using clues in the fossil record to understand and imagine what the Earth looked like millions of years ago, and making connections to predict what our world will look like in the future. However, my favorite part of the job is telling other people about what I do! I can see folks light up when I mention I study fossils, and it’s cool to see how many people grew up wanting to become a paleontologist, just like me! I think most people believe paleontology doesn’t have any real-world applications but in reality, paleontology offers a unique perspective to understanding the modern environment. When I tell students, I see them get excited about science and all its possibilities: I remember when I judged the MA State Middle School Science Fair once year, a participant was amazed that you can use fossils to study climate change, and she asked what else can we study using fossils? It is exciting to share my career with youths, especially those who look like me, because their idea of what a paleontologist looks like and does changes when they meet me.

Describe your path to becoming a scientist. 

As a kid I loved dinosaurs and exploring outside, so I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist from an early age, but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get here. Growing up as a child of undocumented immigrants, our family faced housing, food, and financial insecurities, so college seemed beyond our means. However, I received the Carolina Covenant Scholarship to become the first person in my family to attend college, and I studied Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Fun Fact: Time Scavengers Collaborator Sarah Sheffield was my teaching assistant for Prehistoric Life class!). I completed a B.S. in Biology, and minors in Geological Science, Archaeology, and Chemistry.

While I was an undergraduate at a large research institution, I didn’t have a dedicated mentor or the cultural capital to know I should pursue undergraduate research as a stepping-stone to getting into graduate school. After graduation, I pursued research opportunities with the National Park Service in Colorado and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where I got the chance to conduct independent research projects, help excavate and catalog fossils, and teach local people about their community’s paleontological history. While in Panama, I became fluent in Spanish and wondered how I could use my new experiences and skills to communicate complex STEM concepts to broader audiences. I transitioned to teaching middle school for the next two years; I taught hands-on STEM classes to 5th and 6th graders in the largely immigrant community of Chelsea, Massachusetts. I enjoyed giving my students educational opportunities that will help them in the future, and the challenges my family faced in my childhood prepared me as an educator to understand how my students’ personal lives affected their learning in my classroom.

The experiences I pursued after my undergraduate career gave me the skills and clarity needed to develop and pursue a graduate research degree. I’m currently working on my Master’s/Doctoral joint degree in Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

How do you communicate science? How does your science contribute to understanding climate change?

For my graduate research, I’m studying how warmer-than-present paleoclimates affected Antarctic ice cover and the paleoecology of the surrounding ocean. Specifically, I study the Miocene Climatic Optimum, when global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were slightly higher than they are today, and close to what we expect to see at the end of the century. Studying the deep sea records of this time period reveals how microfaunal communities (i.e. foraminifera) reacted to a rapidly warming global climate, and how changes in Antarctic ice cover impacted sea level and ocean circulation; this can be applied to improve climate models and future environmental policies.

I want to bring my research to public audiences through in-person, multilingual outreach at museums, schools, and other educational institutions, and through online media to make climate science accessible and improve scientific literacy. Using multimedia, interactive, and open-access platforms to communicate science not only reaches more people, but also fits the needs of many different learning populations; this is why I believe STEM disciplines need to move away from the traditional format of communicating findings in paid science journals and articles.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Mistakes are the first steps to being awesome at something.

Try as many new experiences as possible.

Identify what skills you need to do the job you want, then identify opportunities that will give you those skills.

Find a career that you enjoy, you are good at, that helps others, and hopefully makes you some money along the way.

How Much Did Antarctic Ice Melt 8 Million Years Ago?

Minimal East Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat onto land during the past eight million years

Jeremy D. Shakun, Lee B. Corbett, Paul R. Bierman, Kristen Underwood, Donna M. Rizzo, Susan R. Zimmerman, Mark W. Caffee, Tim Naish, Nicholas R. Golledge, & Carling C. Hay

The problem: There has been debate among scientists if the East Antarctic Ice Sheet melted substantially during the Pliocene (~5.3-2.6 million years ago) and Miocene (23-5.3 million years ago) when the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was higher (and thus the global average temperatures were much warmer). Some scientists think that as the Earth was warmer during this time, the ice melted back substantially, thus exposing some land surface on East Antarctica. Other scientists think this is not possible based on other lines of evidence. This study set out to investigate whether or not the ice sheet melted back and exposed land by measuring the amount of cosmogenic nuclides, Beryllium 10 and Aluminum 26 (written as 10Be and 26Al). Both 10Be and 26Al occur in rocks that have been exposed to the sun (to read more about cosmogenic nuclides, click here).

A figure from the Shakun et al. paper. Panel A represents a map of Antarctica, with the Transantarctic Mountains represented as triangles. The location of the core used in the study is denoted by a black star. Panel B is a zoomed-in area of East Antarctica (the box in Panel A) showing the directions that ice flows from the continent. Panel C shows what East Antarctica would look like if the ice melted back enough for the location of the drill core to be exposed to sunlight.

Methods: First, the researchers of the study needed to obtain rocks and sediment that was underneath East Antarctica. Lucky for them, there was already drilled cores from this area! In 2006-2007, a team of scientists went to Antarctica for the purpose of recovering sediment cores from beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. The team ended up with two cores that were more than 1,200 meters (0.75 miles) in length. The project was called ANDRILL, and you can read more about it here. The cores are stored in a special facility, and any scientist that wants material (rocks and sediment) from the cores can request it.

Once the scientists in this study had the sediment and rocks, they cleaned the rocks of the very fine sediment until they had a good amount of rocks, which were mostly quartz. They then used a certain method to extract and measure the amounts of 10Be and 26Al in the rocks. The idea is that with long-term exposure to sunlight, the rocks would contain high amounts of 10Be and 26Al. This would indicate that at the time the rocks were deposited millions of years ago, the ice on East Antarctica would have to be melted away, and the land surface exposed.

Results: The scientists found little, if any, of 10Be and 26Al in their samples. This indicates that the rocks were not exposed to sunlight, and thus the glacier that covers East Antarctica did not melt back and expose the land surface millions of years ago.

Why is this study important? This study used a novel approach and really cool method to investigate a problem that scientists didn’t agree upon. It also indicates, to some degree, how much the glacier on East Antarctica melted during interglacial (warm periods within an ice age) times over the last millions of years.

Citation:  Shakun, J. D., Corbett, L. B.,  Bierman, P. R., Underwood, K., Rizzo, D. M.,  Zimmerman, S. R., Caffee, M. W., Naish, T., Golledge, N. R., Hay, C. C. 2018. Minimal East Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat onto land  during the past eight million years. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0155-6

Ron Fine, Citizen Scientist

The picture that appeared on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer in April, 2012, presenting “Godzillus” to the public with Prof. Carlton Brett (center) and Prof. David Meyer (right).

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

From my earliest memories I have always had an interest in dinosaurs and fossils. I grew up in Bellbrook, Ohio, where I spent many a day playing in the creeks in Magee Park and the Sugarcreek Reserve. Both were loaded with fossils from the famous Cincinnatian series of the Ordovician. While collecting fossils is my absolute favorite, I’ve always been fascinated by science and nature in general, with interests in biology, geology, minerals, astronomy, engineering and physics, as well as art, cooking and photography.

What do you do?

I have a degree in Landscape Architecture, but I work as a mechanical designer in the aerospace industry. Currently, I design tools that are used to build jet engines. I create the 3D models and drawings, which are used to make the tools.

While I haven’t as yet spent much time doing my own research, I’ve been blessed to help the professionals with numerous papers based on specimens I collected. I love and collect all fossils, so I’ve not concentrated on any particular group or type. I feel this has been advantageous, as it gives me more opportunities to work with the various scientists who do have areas of specialty. Lately, I’ve been working with Dr. Alycia Stigall on brachiopods. In the past I worked with Dr. Roger Cuffey on bryozoans, and Dr.’s Carlton Brett and David Meyer on Godzillus. As a member of the Dry Dredgers, the oldest fossil club in North America, I get to contribute regularly. I take meeting photos for the website, bring in specimens for others to examine, and occasionally write something for the newsletter or website. I also volunteer, and am an exhibitor, at Geofair every year, and occasionally play fossil tour guide at local parks or give presentations with my portable fossil display.

Playing fossil field guide to teacher Brian Dempsey and fifteen students from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, in Acton, MA, at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio in May, 2017.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?

I have a talent for finding rare, unusual or exceptional fossils. I bring these specimens to the attention of the professionals so that they can be properly studied, and sometimes, they are used to write a scientific paper and are deposited in a museum or university collection for future scientists to study. Godzillus has been my best effort so far. It actually became very famous! I collect everything prodigiously. The quality specimens are made available to professionals for research projects, and the rest is given to the Dry Dredgers to make the fossil kits that fund club activities, or given to school kids.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Your life will be far richer if you pursue your interests. Find others who share your passions, join a club, volunteer. You won’t regret it!

Geological Society of America Meeting 2018

Adriane here-

The first slide of Jen’s GSA talk.

In early November, some of the Time Scavengers team (myself, Jen, Sarah, Maggie, and Kyle) attended the annual Geological Society of America Meeting. This year, the meeting was held in Indianapolis, Indiana; a nice midwestern city that was very walkable with lots of restaurant options (yes, I judge cities based on the quality of their food). In previous posts, we’ve talked about these annual (some being in Canada) and regional conferences and their importance. Here, I want to provide an update on some of the scientific and educational aspects of Time Scavengers that we presented at the meeting. As some of you may know, our site isn’t just an educational website; Jen and I are also using the site as a sort of experiment. Specifically, we want to know how we can best reach a broad audience using social media and social media advertising tools. I’ll tell you about our presentations, and the major findings from each one!

First, Jen gave a wonderful overview talk about the Time Scavengers site. She gave her talk in an educational session, which are not as well-attended as the science sessions in general. Her talk included the story as to how Time Scavengers began and the motivation behind the site, the reason for inviting collaborators to join us on the project, and the purpose of each part of the site (blogs and static informational pages). Since we were at a conference full of other geologists and avocational scientists, we also put out a call for anyone interested to contact us for collaboration (such as writing a blog post). Jen’s talk was well-attended and well-received! The room was packed, and several people took a picture of the contact information slide during Jen’s talk. We also received good feedback from people regarding the talk throughout the conference. The last part of the talk included to images of our posters that Sarah and I were to present later in the week. So having the overview talk first, before the posters were presented, set Sarah and I up quite well.

Sarah presenting her poster on image heavy vs. non-image heavy blogs that she has written.

Sarah was the first to present a poster on her blogs, in which she has used several large and high-quality images to explain the geology of a particular region (see her posts about Acadia National Park and the Bay of Fundy). She compared how these posts engaged readers compared to some of her other posts that were not so image-heavy. To compare these posts (lots of images vs. not so many images), she looked at the number of visitors to the site on the day each blog post was released, as well as the engagement rate of each post (engagement rate= number of interactions/number of people who see the post). Sarah concluded that over time, her image-heavy posts would gain more views and interactions than her posts with less images.

I was the next to present a poster later in the week. The data I presented was related to six advertisement campaigns Jen and I set up on Facebook. The purpose of paid advertisements are to gain a larger following on social media and to reach a wider audience. There are two main types of ads on Facebook: a paid ad, where you create an ad in the Facebook Business Manager site, and a boosted post. A boosted post is a post that is already on social media (that shows up on a page’s timeline), but you pay money for that post to be ‘broadcast’ to a larger audience outside of the page’s followers. Jen and I have experimented with both types of ads, and we have also experimented with using both static images in the ad and short slideshows.

Me and my poster, in which I presented data relating to the success of our social media ad campaigns.

To compare which ads did best, I looked at the number of engagements each ad received (clicks, reactions, shares) and the number of visitors to the site for the period for which the ads ran. I also calculated the engagement rate for each ad. It turns out that the ad with the highest engagement rate was the first ad (boosted post, static image), although this ad did not have the highest number of engagements. What was different about the first ad is that Jen and I shared it into several groups on Facebook (Women in Paleontology, etc.). The ad that gained the most engagements was a 6-second slideshow with images from the site (it was a paid ad). However, this ad had one of the lowest engagement rates, meaning although it was seen by a large number of people, not many of those who saw it interacted with the ad.

I then compared the number of new visitors to the site, the percentage of women and men, and percentage of site visitors by age group during the ad campaigns to the same variables for the entire site. The number of site visitors during ad campaigns didn’t increase substantially, and the percentage of women, men, and site visitors by age group remained relatively the same from the site total. This indicates that our ad campaigns aren’t doing a great job getting new people to visit the site. Instead, the site attracts an audience by releasing new blog posts and content. In our site user data (which shows us the number of visitors to the site on any given day), peaks in users occurs on days where we release new blog posts. So for the Time Scavengers site, maybe paid advertisements aren’t the way for us to build a larger community and reach more people.

To recap, all three of us who presented on Time Scavengers (Jen, Sarah, and I) had great conversations with other people who are also making educational content and work in the realm of science communication. All in all, GSA 2018 was a huge success in terms of sharing science, meeting new people, forming new collaborations, and learning about the cool new things our friends and colleagues have been working on!

 

Advice on Academic Publishing & Coauthorship

Adriane, Jen, and Andy here-

Often one of the biggest challenges academics and scientists face is writing- namely, getting our research written up as a manuscript and published in an academic journal. We, as scientists, always commiserate about how hard writing is, and how we loath doing it, but I want to talk about a different aspect of writing and publishing that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: collaborating with other scientists and working together as a team to get research published.

In the early years of academic publishing, it was very common for scientists to publish articles by themselves, or what is called a single-author manuscript. Today, however, the tide has changed, and it’s rare to find a published article with just one author! In fact, it’s not uncommon to find papers with more than 30 authors (such as those published that include an entire science tea, like a International Ocean Discovery Program expedition teams). Finding, working, and publishing with collaborators can be tricky, and at times seem daunting. However, if you know how to work as a team and navigate the collaborative waters, these partnerships will give back tenfold! In this post is some advice from some of the Time Scavengers collaborators on how to find, work with, and publish with scientific collaborators.

On Finding Project Collaborators

Jen: Start with people you know that are excited about similar ideas; these can be old lab members, peers or colleagues you have met along your career. For example, Adriane and I were in the same masters program and even though they parted ways to begin new paths as PhD students we kept in contact. So, starting this website was a simple task with two people in different fields who are passionate about educating the public. This connection has fostered further collaborations with Adriane and Sarah, who I found during her PhD program. We worked to create a web of scientists with similar drives but different technical toolkits. If you are new to a field, attending a large conference where you can be exposed to new people and ideas is a brilliant way to find new collaborators.

Adriane: Think of a collaboration with a colleague as you would any friendship: you want trust, clear and constant communication, and you want to have fun and be yourself with your friend! A collaborator is no different. When choosing who to collaborate with, make sure you get along with the person, and are able to have open and honest conversations with them. For example, Jen and I are great friends, and had a ton of fun together in graduate school at Ohio University. We have similar career goals, interests, and hobbies, and we can be totally goofy and honest with one another. For this reason, I knew we would make excellent collaborators building this website together.

If you are a graduate student, you are likely doing your projects on a tight timeline. For this reason, you need to be sure that your collaborator is someone who is willing to put time into the project so that it is finished on time. When collaborating with more senior scientists, make sure this person is invested in your success as a scientist. One of my dissertation chapters involves collaborating with a professor at another university across the country. I have worked all summer to pick foraminifera for stable isotope analyses, and when I have enough, I mail them to  my collaborator who will analyze the samples in his lab. Some of my samples weigh almost nothing, which means they will be tricky to analyze. However, I communicated my concern to my collaborator, and he has been wonderful in working his geochemical superpowers to ensure most of my samples are analyzed correctly (of the ~300 samples I sent him, only ~15 were unable to be analyzed!). Most importantly, he has gotten my results to me within weeks of me mailing my samples to him, which has put me ahead of schedule to complete all of my analyses (this is a rare occurrence in graduate school). So, I have excellent results from my samples, and I’m ahead of my research schedule for this project because my collaborator is invested in my success and the success of my research.

Andy: I have two sets of collaborators, basically. As a graduate student I started collaborating mostly within my lab. My work with Chris Lowery (@CLowery806) has produced one paper, another in review, and a third building on the second, with an additional collaborator. We’ve also done a workshop together, and gotten each other talks, etc. Even though we’re directly competing for jobs at this stage in our career, it doesn’t affect our working relationship. That’s the kind of collaboration you should look for, one that makes both people better candidates for future jobs.

The second is with a couple of people. I was sitting at a wedding celebration for my then-supervisor, and another scientist and I started talking about work (as happens whenever you put two of us in a room together). She and I continued emailing, she brought in a friend who’d also been thinking about the same problem. These people have no connection to my lab, we’re just friends who are now working on grants and doing workshops together. We all bring different skills to the table, but most importantly we actually like each other. That makes working on projects easier. Working with people you don’t like sucks (this is also good advice for picking graduate advisors & postdoc supervisors).

On Working with Collaborators

Adriane: I can’t stress communication enough; this is THE MOST important factor when it comes to working with with collaborators. Bad communication can lead to assumptions, and well, you know what they say about assumptions. It can also lead to projects not being completed on time or people not understanding their role or responsibility within the project.

When you begin a new project with a collaborator or bring a collaborator on board to work with you, the first thing you should do is talk with them about your timeline, goals, and what everyone’s responsibility will be in regards to work done to complete the project. When I develop a new project with a collaborator, I like to outline the main hypothesis (or hypotheses) of the project, the methods, and the deadline for when each goal or analysis should be completed, and who will complete each goal or analysis. It is also a good idea to talk with your collaborator about how they prefer to share documents. Google Drive is my preferred method of sharing documents and writing papers with collaborators, but there are other options out there as well (e.g., Dropbox, Box, and Slack).

If I haven’t heard from my collaborator in a while regarding a project, I like to send them an email with the progress I’ve made on my part and check in with them. Like I stated earlier, it is very easy for all of us (students, postdocs, professors), to ignore one project for another. Sending an email to your collaborator and staying in touch is a good way to keep them motivated to compete their part of the project.

Andy: Skype or Google Hangouts are worth many emails when starting out and finishing. Depending on what you’re doing (workshops are very different than publications) but having every few month Skype meetings is well worth carving out the time for.

Adriane is correct, in the above, but optimistic. Best laid plans are wonderful, but all of the deadlines will fall apart. Don’t let that be discouraging. If you’re working with folks above the graduate level they’re managing students, writing papers and grants, teaching classes, and usually working on several other collaborative projects at once.

Jen: I agree with both Adriane and Andy and would like to add that you should maintain reasonable expectations. Somethings will go very quickly when you and other collaborators are really excited but you can’t shirk all other personal and professional responsibilities for a single project, that is unreasonable. Give yourself a flexible timeline but if you have set deadlines work within those confines.

Also, if something bothers you and you aren’t the PI or lead author say something anyway. You wouldn’t be on the project if the team didn’t value your input. Often times people get too close to their work and either lose sight of something or they implicitly understand the meaning but it may not always be clear to others.

On Publishing with Collaborators

Publishing with collaborators can be a tricky arena to navigate; Who will be the first author? How will the authorship list read? Does your collaborator even deserve co authorship on your paper? Does anyone else deserve co authorship? Different scientists may have different ‘rules’ pertaining to these questions, but here are some of our guidelines:

Who will be the first author of a study?

Adriane: Usually, the person that conceives the study and develops the hypothesis is the first author on a publication. There are exceptions to this, especially when a graduate student’s advisor helps the student conceive the study and leads them to develop the hypotheses. Outside of graduate school, the lead author of the study is the person who develops the project, invites collaborators, and does the majority of the writing and figure making.

Andy: When it’s a pair or group that works together frequently, then the first authorship can rotate. Sometimes there’s a handshake agreement that if the first authorship goes to one person on paper A, then it’ll go to the second person on paper B. This can lock you into a certain number of publications.

Jen: I agree with both Andy and Adriane and have used both techniques to determine authorship. Who is graduating first and in most dire need for publications can dictates authorship with rotations in the future as Andy said. Generally, it should be the person who conducted the most work on the project.

How will the co-authorship list read?

Adriane: This is a situation where communication is key. In a few of my projects, I have stated up front where my collaborator will fall in the authorship list. In other cases, the person that does the most work (after the first author of the study) receives second authorship, and so on. On other publications where everyone has contributed equally to the project, the authorship list is alphabetical by last name after the first author. However, this can cause issues if one (or more) of your collaborators feel like they have contributed more to the study, as alphabetical authorship allows nothing to be inferred about the contribution of the scientist to the study. Again, having open and honest conversations about authorship and how the authorship list will read early in the process is a great starting point.

Jen: This is also quite variable and field dependent. Sometimes names are all alphabetical, many times the PI of the lab is last indicating seniority, etc. I think there are effective and convoluted ways to describe and detail contributions per individual that lead to appropriate authorship lists. I generally tend to think in decreasing order of work contributed with the lab PI at the end unless there was no umbrella PI.

Who deserves co-authorship on your publication?

Adriane: My rule of thumb when it comes to co authorship is that whoever has contributed significantly to the study, i.e., you couldn’t have completed the project without them, deserves to be included as a co author on your publication. For example, I am currently developing a stable isotope record for the Tasman Sea in collaboration with my collaborator who is in California. Our geochemist at UMass who manages our stable isotope lab has been an essential part of making sure my analyses have ran properly in the lab. Therefore, he is being included as a co author on the study, even though he hasn’t helped to develop the hypotheses of the study or the methods. Without him, I wouldn’t have the data to even write a paper in the first place. Co authorship can also be offered to researchers who significantly contribute to the paper’s conclusions through discussions and suggestions of the data. However, this varies on a case-by-case basis. In these situations, I suggest using your intuition as to whether you think the study has been greatly enhanced through discussions.

I also have rules about who does not deserve co authorship on a study. If a person offers you off-handed advice, or you ask an outside researcher about a question pertaining to your study, this does not warrant co authorship on a paper. Scientists who have previously published data that you use in your study, whether that be in the form of a published thesis, dissertation, or journal publication, also does not deserve co authorship on your study. However, if you do use unpublished data from another researcher, you must absolutely include that researcher on your paper as a coauthor.

Jen: I wholeheartedly agree with Adriane. Significant efforts including but not limited to: data gathering, prepping, or analyzing and writing portions of the paper. Also, do not let people bully you into giving them co-authorship. If a related researcher wants to contribute to your body of work, fine. But just because they have strong ideas or opinions does not mean they get to commandeer your work.

The Value of Optional Field Trips

Adriane here-

Glacial potholes in the Shelburne Falls rocks. Image from Atlas Obscura.

This semester, I am one of our Introduction to Geology course teaching assistants (or TA for short). This class is offered through the Geosciences department at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and this semester, includes over 150 students! The course is designed to introduce our students, who are mostly freshmen and sophomores, to some fundamental principles of geology and important Earth system processes (such as volcanoes, plate tectonics, and earthquakes). Every time the class is taught, which is once a semester, we offer an optional field trip for the students. This trip is held on a Saturday, and we take the students all around the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts to show them the major rock formations and tell them the geologic history of the area. In this post, I’ll talk a bit about what we did with the students and why field trips such as these, although optional, are of value.

We began the day at 8:30 am on a rainy October morning. For the trip, about 85 students had signed up. The class TAs, of which there were five on this trip, had decided to each share the responsibility of leading the field trip. We were going to 6 stops altogether, so we each chose a stop at which to talk. Because of the rain, cold, and early start, a large majority of our students didn’t show up. So we left the university with about 65 students in tow!

Three of the TAs using compasses to find magnetic minerals, called magnetite, in the rocks. At this location atop a mountain, the rocks contain a lot of magnetite, which will make compasses go squirrelly when in close proximity.

The first place we stopped was in a nearby town, which is sort of famous. Shelburne Falls was the filming site of the movie ‘The Judge’ starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. But the other (and more important, in my opinion) reason the town is famous is because it contains features called potholes, which were first created when the glaciers glaciers that once covered the area about 20,000 years ago began melting. Potholes are round impressions in the rocks, made by small rocks and pebbles swirling around in a depression in a large rock body. Over time, the small rocks, pebbles, and cobbles carve out a larger and deeper depression. Potholes usually form in or near rivers, as the swirling and moving water is key to their creation.

After we marveled at the Shelburne Falls potholes, we loaded up the vans and took the students into the Berkshire mountains. We stopped at several places in the mountains to talk about the tectonic history of the region, and marvel at the views. Generally, the rocks in the Berkshires have a very long and complex tectonic history. Most of the rocks are a billion to 450 million years old. These rocks are severely faulted (or broken) and folded from orogenies, or times when volcanic island arcs or other continents slammed into North America. The east coast of North America has experienced three different orogenies over the past ~450 million years. From these, the Appalachian Mountain chain was built, which stretches from southeastern Canada south into Alabama. We explained this tectonic history of mountain-building to the students.

Talking to students at the site of the 2011 landslide caused by Hurricane Irene. Here, rip rap, or large cobbles, were placed between the river and road to stabilize the soil. You can see we’re standing on the rip rap in this image.

But we didn’t just talk about really old rocks on the field trip. We also showed our students more recent geological phenomenon, such as the effects of hurricanes on local river systems. In 2011, Hurricane Irene tracked across western Massachusetts, bringing with it torrential rainfall within just a few days. The weeks before the hurricane hit, several inches of rainfall had already fallen in the area, making the ground saturated. The mixed effects of already-soaked ground, plus additional rainfall, led to landslides in the area. One landslide took out half a road. The damage was so extensive and severe the road was closed for 3.5 months!

The second to last stop we made with the students was to an old marble quarry. The quarry was in operation during the 1800’s into the early 1900’s. However, the mining came to a halt one day when a fire broke out in the barn where the dynamite was kept. This fire, and the subsequent explosions, rocked the town. From then on, the quarry was taken over by the state and made into a state park. And I’m really glad it was: the park is lovely, with a huge marble amphitheater and a river that runs through a carved canyon. The park claims to have the largest natural bridge in the U.S., perhaps the world. I’m not certain if this is true, but the park is lovely. Because the age of the marble is Ordovician (~450 million years old), and I studied this time period during my masters degree, I happily chatted to the students at this stop. I even went full nerd and brought brachiopod and trilobite fossils with me to show the students what types of organisms probably lived in this region hundreds of millions of years ago.

Me, center, joyously chatting to our class about the Ordovician and lovely shallow seas that existed here ~450 million years ago. We’re standing in the marble amphitheater that used to be a quarry.

Our last stop was to a local graveyard just down the road from the quarry. Here, the gravestones are all leaning in different directions. They weren’t originally like that, so what caused them to move? It turns out that the graveyard is built on a drumlin. A drumlin is a small hill that was created by the glaciers that covered Massachusetts 20,000 year ago. Because the drumlin is made of sediments that aren’t well consolidated (or packed down), the earth ‘creeps’, or moves. Another way to think of this is the ground is still settling, much like a new house will settle over time on its foundation. After this stop, we packed up the students and headed back to UMass.

Lara talking about creep and why the gravestones have moved over time. Some headstones here date back to the late 1800’s, and it is those that exhibit the most movement. We know the headstones have moved because they are no longer lined up with the newer ones nearby or are no longer straight.

Geology is a tricky subject to teach, as a lot of the concepts involve thinking in 3D and sometimes 4D. Learning to think like this takes great practice, patience, and repetition. Field trips such as these expose the students to new concepts and ideas, and we get to teach them these concepts while on the outcrop, looking at the rocks. For example, when talking about the rock formations being smashed together and all pushed towards the west, we can do this while standing in front of a rock with folds and breaks. Using a compass, we can show the students that the folds are pushed, or tilted, to the west from orogenies that I mentioned above. Our students also get more face time with each other, with the TAs, and with the professor. Field trips often create a more relaxed and casual atmosphere than the classroom, so these are great opportunities for students to chat with us (and vice versa) and ask questions they wouldn’t necessarily ask in the class. Having large all-day field trips such as these are also wonderful for students who already are or are thinking about becoming geology majors. These students get a bit more experience with the major and a taste of what’s to come during their degree.

One of the problems in geology is lack of accessibility for students who are hearing, visually, or physically impaired. Because our science takes us outdoors much of the time, this isn’t attractive for students who may be wheel-chair bound or have a disability of any sort. In addition, the geosciences are losing students who did not grow up loving the outdoors, and who may not be comfortable going on day-long field trips. One way to make the class more accessible is to have an alternative option for students who cannot or don’t feel comfortable going outdoors for long periods of time. In our class, we also give the students the option to do the field trip virtually. One of our professors at UMass built a program with images, text, and figures that lets students ‘visit’ local rocks and formations of interest to learn about the geology of the region.

But the all-day optional field trip isn’t just great for our students, it’s also great for the teaching assistants. Because we all took turns talking at different stops, we each got practice talking to a large group of students and explaining geologic concepts. Most of the time, graduate students talk with each other and use science jargon that is not appropriate for undergraduates or the public (they just don’t understand the words we use). Talking with students who have no prior experience with geology makes us think about how we can explain things more thoroughly and simply. Leading the trip together also gives us experience in leadership and teamwork: we all have to work together to make the trip fun, informative, and safe for everyone involved!

 

Dr. Page Quinton, Paleoclimatologist

Dr. Page Quinton (left) and student Samantha McComb (right), completing field work on the Madison Group Carbonates in Montana.

What do you love about being a scientist?

My favorite part of being a scientist is the systematic approach we employ to answer questions. Yeah, we can use a variety of techniques to get at our answers, but the process of collecting and interpreting the data must follow the same basic rules! I’d also add, that I am particularly fond of being a geoscientist because of the combination of lab and field work (the best of both worlds)!

What do you do?

I could be classified as a Paleontologist, Geochemist, and/or Paleoclimatologist. Which I choose to call myself depends on who I am talking to (obviously, I go for Paleontologist when talking to young kids for the instant cool-points)! The reason for the multitude of possible names is that I apply a variety of techniques to answer questions about the climate. In particular, my research focuses on the timing and nature of climatic changes in Earth’s history and their relationship to how carbon is stored and distributed on the Earth (e.g. in the atmosphere as CO2 or stored in rocks as fossil fuels).

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

I use fossils and their geochemical signals to understand the climate in the geologic past. The fossils I work with most are conodont elements (small tooth-like structures that make up the feeding apparatus of a marine eel-like organism). These fossils are composed of the mineral apatite which acts as a good record for the geochemistry of the water in which the conodont animal lived. From these tooth-like structures, I measure the oxygen isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 18O relative to 16O). The oxygen isotopic ratio is dependent (in part) on the temperature of the water. By documenting changes in the oxygen isotopic ratio through time, I can infer changes in water temperature through time.

I also work with carbon isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 13C to 12C) in marine limestones. These values can be used to reconstruct the distribution of carbon on the Earth’s surface. By looking at changes in the carbon isotopic value through time, I can infer changes in the global carbon cycle and therefore atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

Late Ordovician (~450 million years ago) conodont elements from northern Kentucky.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change or to the betterment of society in general?

In addition to my scientific research I also teach undergraduate students at SUNY Potsdam. I always make sure my research informs how and what I teach. This is especially true for the Climate Change course I teach. That course focuses on how scientists know what they know and what types of evidence informs our understanding about climate. My hope for students completing that course is that they will come out of it with the knowledge and background to understand climate change.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Make sure you do what you love. Your job should be fun. That doesn’t mean every aspect of it will be a blast, many of the things I do can be tedious, but there is something very satisfying about setting out to solve a problem, collecting the data, and interpreting the data. For students interested in pursuing graduate education, the most important advice I can give is to make sure you can work with your advisor. I had a great advisor and it made graduate school a great experience.

Learn more about Page and her research on her website!

 

Cooking with Foraminifera Part I

Adriane here-

Stirring a solution of tap water and Miramine for use in our experiment.

A lot of the research my lab and I do is related to understanding how the oceans worked in the past, the ocean’s response to climate perturbations, and understanding plankton evolution. Every now and then, we find the need to do a different type of research: testing a new or old method. This fall, my lab mate Serena, my advisor, Mark, and myself have developed a little experiment to see if boiling foraminifera in different solutions has any effect on their shells. Specifically, we’re interested to see if boiling affects the isotopic measurements of the shells. This has not been tested thoroughly before, which is surprising. In this post, I’ll talk about the first part of the experiment, and I’ll elaborate on the other part of this experiment in a subsequent post.

Our samples split into three different solutions. Notice how different the contents of each beaker look! This is because the sediment types we chose have very different colors.

You may be thinking ‘why on Earth would you boil foraminifera in the first place?” When we, scientists, get in sediment samples from deep sea sediment cores, sometimes the sediment is very hard or full of fine-grained sediments. These hard and/or fine-grained sediments have a tendency to not want to break down and release the foraminifera shells contained inside. To aid in breaking down tough sediments, we often turn to boiling the sediment in tap water or other solutions.

To begin the experiment, Serena and I chose four different sediment samples from different places around the world and of varying ages. We split each sample into quarters to be tested in our boiling experiment. We then chose three different solutions in which to boil our samples: tap water, Sparkleen (a mild detergent) mixed with tap water, and Miramine (an oily substance used as a emulsifier and corrosion inhibitor, but also good for breaking down rocks) mixed with tap water. Each quarter of the samples we chose were placed in these solutions in a beaker, which were then placed on a hot plate. The samples were brought to a slow boil and left for an hour.

Eight of our samples boiling on the hot plate. We place a piece of venting over the hot plate and beakers to keep the beakers from falling off the plates.

The fourth quarter from each sample was used as a control for which to compare everything else against (from here out I’ll call these the ‘control quarters’). The control quarters were simply rinsed over a screen using tap water. Doing this removes the small sediment particles, but holds back the foraminifera shells.

This is what one of samples that was boiled in Miramine looked like under the microscope! It’s hard to see here, but the rounded bits of sediment are actually foraminifera. The large chunk to the right is a piece of sediment.

After the samples were finished boiling, we then washed each one over a screen in our sink, just like we did with the control quarters. These were placed in an oven overnight at a very low temperature to dry. Once the samples were dried, Serena and I picked out three different species of foraminifera from each sample: a species that lived at the very top of the water column, a species that lived deeper in the water column, and a benthic foraminifera species that lived on the seafloor.

The last step was to put the species we had picked from each sample into a vial for further analysis. The next step will be to put these vials in our mass spectrometer, a device used to measure the isotopic signature from each sample. We’ll then compare the measurements from the boiled samples to the control quarter samples to determine if the isotopic measurements from foraminifera shells are affected by boiling!

William Heimbrock, Amateur Paleontologist

Webmaster Bill Heimbrock at a Dry Dredgers meeting at the University of Cincinnati (Photo by Ron Fine).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? How did you become interested in science?

I’m an amateur paleontologist. That makes me a time traveler. I like traveling through time.

I see sequences of stratigraphic layers that represent ancient sea floors all in about the same place, but in different instances of time. Sometimes I’ll pull over at a road cut in Northern Kentucky and see the remains of animals and plants that lived 450 million years ago. And yet, I can easily picture myself in the late Ordovician Period. These animals were alive and swimming in a warm shallow sea.

As I climb the road cut, ascending through the rock layers, I am going forward in Ordovician time at a rate of thousands of years per second. I stop on a ledge. Time freezes. I see meter-length ripple marks in the bedrock that extend across the ledge as if I’m standing on a sea floor with wave action winnowing the silty bottom.  I’m astonished with the variety of fossilized animals still resting in exactly the same spot where they once lived.

The event of these creatures’ death is also recorded beneath my feet. I’m compelled to learn more. How did they die? Was it something they ate? I feel I can answer those questions using scientific methods.

Bill Heimbrock checking the strata on a popular road cut in southeastern Indiana before a Dry Dredgers field trip.

We have such power now as amateurs in many areas of science. Human beings are naturally curious. Even as a young child I conducted experiments and recorded my results. My neighbor told me that when I was young, she saw me conduct an experiment to verity the speed of sound. I stood at one end of our cul-de-sac, shouted, and ran super-fast (a technical term), stopped abruptly with unprecedented precision and listened for my shout. You can guess that I didn’t succeed in verifying the speed of sound that day, but it’s the spirit of trying that counts. I was inquisitive at an early age. I knew that science facts are verifiable and ready to be revised and improved by all of us. We are all amateur scientists!

What do you do?

Dr. Carlton Brett at the University of Cincinnati Geology Department shares his knowledge with Bill Heimbrock and other aspiring paleontologists. Collaboration between professors and members of the Dry Dredgers enhance both amateur and professional paleontology projects. Everyone benefits.

Professionally, I program large-scale computer systems. But at home I collect fossils as a hobby. This hobby has become my way to contribute to the field of Paleontology and to education.

I started out in the late 1980’s just collecting fossils for recreation in my local streams and fields. I love getting out there and listening to the birds and finding evidence of our ancient past. It’s a great pastime I highly recommend.

It wasn’t long before I wanted my efforts to be worth more than just recreation. So I joined the Dry Dredgers fossil club based at the University of Cincinnati. I met knowledgeable educators and other amateur and professional paleontologists who could use my fossils for teaching and research. They taught me a great deal, which made my daily fossil collecting much more enjoyable.

Bill Heimbrock has headed the production of the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits since 1992. These kits educate the public, provide teachers with a much needed resource and help fund the advancement of paleontology.

I was also able to give my extra fossils to the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits and benefit both the club and education. They sell bags of 12 Ordovician fossils “From the Hills of Cincinnati” at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science gift shop. The money goes into the club’s general fund which feeds paleontological research grants and projects while the kits help schools and fellow fossil enthusiasts.

I quickly became chair of the fossil kit committee. Now 27 years later, Kimberly Cox and I sell the Dry Dredgers fossil kits in park and museum gift shops around the area and donate some kits and loose fossils to teachers, schools and outreach facilitators.  Fossils used in our fossil kits are currently screened for scientific importance so that each fossil is put to the best use. Some may be deposited into a museum collection. I want collectors who give Cincinnati fossils to the Dry Dredgers to know their donation will benefit educational outreach and/or the science of paleontology.

An extra-large road cut in Maysville Kentucky exposes countless “instance in time” sea floors. Fossil sites like this are a time traveler’s dream – and an exciting reality for fossil hunters.

Another big part of my educational outreach efforts is the Dry Dredgers website, which I designed and have updated since 1998. We are fortunate to have a number of Dry Dredgers who have contributed all types of information about our late Ordovician fossils for the website. You will see me at all local Dry Dredgers field trips taking photographs of the fossils people find and helping identify the specimens. See my field trip reports here.

How does your  research and outreach contribute to the understanding of paleontology?

I’ve always hoped that in this short life I could make a dent in the advancement of mankind. We pop into this world, have just enough time to look around and figure a few things out, pass on what we’ve learned and then pop out of existence.

For the last 20+ years, I have been gathering information and fossils from dozens of fossil sites in the Cincinnati area in the hope that it will advance our body of knowledge on Earth’s ancient past. In addition to educating the public with our  Dry Dredgers website and building classroom fossil kits, my collection of Ordovician sediment and microfossils are helping professional paleontologists advance our knowledge of the evolution of nacre (mother-of-pearl) in mollusks and our understanding of the deposition of phosphate, an essential mineral for our existence.

Bill Heimbrock identifying fossils on a Dry Dredgers field trip. He takes photos and includes the identifications on his field trip reports.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Ask questions. Our society often discourages “questioning” accepted wisdom. Don’t let that stop you. Questions are how new knowledge is obtained. Be inquisitive and find out more than what others know. Discover things for yourself. Be an amateur scientist!

You can learn more about Bill Heimbrock’s amateur paleontology adventures on myfossil.org!