How to Train Your Postdoc

Adriane here-

In this post, I want to talk a bit about the excellent transition I had from a PhD candidate to a Postdoctoral Fellow. There are far too many horror stories of postdocs not being comfortable in their position, with their advisor, or at their university. Here, I’ll outline some of the things that my mentor and the faculty at Binghamton University have done that are stellar. I hope this post will serve as a short guide for postdoctoral advisors.

My office door leading into my lab. My office is in the back through another door.

First, some background. I met my current postdoc mentor while I was a PhD student at UMass Amherst. She was doing her postdoc there, and we overlapped by a year. She was then hired at Binghamton as a professor. Binghamton University, which is part of the SUNY (State University of New York) system, is located in the Southern Tier of New York, and is home to a large majority of first generation undergraduate students (students whose parents did not pursue higher education). Recently, Binghamton implemented a new postdoctoral fellowship program to retain and hire more women and folks from marginalized backgrounds into faculty positions, called the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship (PDPF).

When the applications for 2019’s PDPF were open, my now-mentor contacted me to see if I would be interested in applying. She and I overlap in several research areas, and not only that, Binghamton has been without a paleontologist on campus for over 20 years! So it made sense that I apply: I could collaborate with my mentor, but I would also fill a much-needed research and teaching gap at the university. There were several applicants that applied for the position through the Geology department, but mine was the one chosen to be put into the final pool of applicants from many departments on campus. I was one of 82 applicants at the university level, and was awarded one of the two coveted PDPF positions.

My office, where I finished writing the large majority of my dissertation and where I live part-time (I’m kidding, sort of). My windows overlook the campus garden, so in my opinion, I have the best office on campus!

OK enough background. Onto what you came here to really read. The PDPF is an excellent postdoc by itself, as it provides me with a stipend (living expense, it’s more money than I’ve ever made in my life), as well as an additional $13,000 per year for travel and research expenses.  The position is for 2 years, with (hopefully) the option to transition to a tenure-track professor position.  But during my postdoc, I’ll also have access to health insurance for myself  and my husband, as well as retirement options, etc. In short, the PDPF allows me the money to succeed and pursue the research that I’m interested in. That alone is stellar!

But the way the faculty and entire department have treated me has been even better. When I arrived at Binghamton a full 4 months before my position began (so my spouse could find work sooner), they already had an office and lab set aside for me (and my name was already on the door)! Having my own space allowed me the room to really dig into and finish my dissertation, and now that I’m officially a postdoc, I have the space set up to have students work with me.

As soon as I arrived at Binghamton, I was made to feel like one of the faculty (remember, I was still a graduate student still when I arrived, still working on my dissertation). I was invited to and attended faculty meetings, which have really allowed me to grasp onto the inner workings of the department and university. During one meeting, our department head asked me what my opinion was on a matter of importance. It was strange, being the only woman in a room full of men, being asked what my opinion was and being listened to. But it was AMAZING! Being valued as a contributing member of the faculty has really helped me feel at ease and valued here.

From the start of my postdoc, I have also been given advice by the faculty on how to succeed and become competitive for a tenure-track position. Part of the PDPF is that the postdocs are trained to be competitive for tenture-track professor jobs, and will hopefully be hired into the SUNY system. My department head has given me a ton of advice already, and we have talked several times about ways in which I can stay on as a professor after my postdoc position ends. Tenure-track jobs are competitive, especially in STEM fields, but knowing that the faculty here are rooting for my position to turn permanent and coaching me along the way has been amazing. Especially since I am no longer considered a student, I feel hesitant about the future and unsure of what I should do, so having this tutelage and mentoring from my peers is incredible.

Brachiopod fossils from the fossil collections stored in my lab. All of the specimens have detailed location information and labels, which will make digitally cataloging them later much easier!

One thing I can’t help but mention is that Binghamton also has a very well-kept secret: they have a superb fossil collection that is not cataloged. And guess where this collection is? That’s right; IN MY LAB! When I arrived, I was told the eight wooden cabinets that lined one wall of my lab contained old specimens, and they were planning to be donated. One weekend, I looked through every drawer, and realized how amazing the collections were! Brachiopods, trilobites, eurypterids, mollusks, microfossils, they were all there and untouched for likely decades. I asked if I could keep them, and our department head said ‘Sure!’. So I’m also now a curator of the Binghamton University Fossil Collection (it’s not an official research museum collection yet, but I plan to get it to that point one day with the help of students).

My mentor is also especially amazing. She has been nothing but supportive since I arrived, and I hear from her at least once a week that she’s so glad I’m here. She has also included me on research meetings with her PhD student, and will add me as a coauthor on their publications (I have expertise on their project and have given input). Likewise, I will include her and her PhD student on my projects. We are in total agreement that science should be collaborative, and we will help our students succeed in whatever way we can.

These are just the major examples of how I’ve been included into the Binghamton University campus community. But I can’t help but think how STEM fields would be different if all postdocs, and graduate students, were treated the way I have been. Would we have higher retention of marginalized folks? Would more students pursue STEM degrees if the pay was more competitive and they had access to health insurance? What if all universities created postdoctoral fellowship programs like Binghamton? If they did, within a few years how many more women and people from marginalized groups would be in professor positions? Imagine.

My hope is that more postdoctoral fellowships like mine are adopted by other universities in the near future, and that a more sound and secure structure is created for graduate students as well.

Links to learn more about Binghamton’s program & other similar programs:

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Cretaceous Fossils of Mississippi

An Exogyra oyster from the Ripley Formation.

Cam here-

On June 3rd and June 4th of 2019 I traveled to Tupelo, Mississippi with another fellow fossil collector to collect Cretaceous marine fossils. This was the first time I have collected fossils dating back to the Mesozoic Era. The first location we visited was part of the Ripley Formation in Blue Springs, Mississippi. The Ripley Formation was deposited a few million years before the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs about 71 million years ago. During this time, Mississippi was submerged under a shallow sea, and North America was cut by a large inland seaway known as the Western Interior Seaway. Mississippi’s Cretaceous oceans were teeming with life. The most common fossils found were oysters and clams that were plentiful in those ancient seas.

A view of the Ripley Formation field site.

The largest oyster found in the Ripley Formation was Exogyra costata. Other fossils found in that rock unit were marine snails called Turritella vertebroides, which were the most well preserved fossils from the Ripley Formation. Another common fossil unearthed as we dug under the Ripley Formation and approached the Coon Creek Formation were crab carapaces. One species of crab that I found reach to about 5 inches in length. I was nearly in shock as I was excavating it from its silty tomb. After we spent a few hours collecting, we began to wrap up our fragile finds in tin foil and put them in crates for safe transportation back home. Our last site we visited was an open field with exposures of the Demopolis Chalk Formation. This rock unit is a few million years older than the Ripley Formation. Nevertheless, this rock unit is rich in marine fossils.

It was in the beginning of summer and it was about 90 degrees, but what we were out looking for were shark teeth. In order to search for them we had to get on our hands and knees and crawl on the white hot ground. As uncomfortable as it may seem, this is how some of the best fossils are found. When collecting fossils the best thing you need to have is patience. After about 4 minutes of searching I saw something brown and shiny glinting in the sun. It was my very first Late Cretaceous shark tooth! The tooth belonged to the genus Squalicorax. This was about a 7 foot shark that swam the seas of Mississippi about 75 million years ago. It wasn’t long before I came across my second shark tooth, but it wasn’t as complete. Besides fossils we both found beautiful iridescent crystals of the sulfide mineral marcasite. After we spent an hour searching for shark teeth and other marine fossils in the Demopolis Chalk we decided to call it a day and head back to Huntsville, Alabama to start the next day of adventures.

A large crab collected from the lower Ripley Formation.
A Squalicorax tooth found in the Demopolis Chalk Formation.
All of the Cretaceous marine fossils I collected from Mississippi.

Plankton Photo Shoot Part III: Creating Plates

Adriane here-

This post is the third and final in a series I’ve written about taking scanning electron microscope images of my fossil plankton (‘Plankton Photo Shoot‘) and how I process those images in photo editing software (‘Plankton Photo Shoot II: Creating the Perfect Image‘). Here, I will show you all the purpose of these images and the editing process, and how these are useful to other scientists in my field!

Now that all my SEM images are cleaned up (meaning, the background is removed, the edges of every images are cleaned up, and each file is saved as a high-quality PNG file), it’s time to create plates! I’m not talking about dinner plates that you would eat off of; rather, when we talk about plates in paleontology, we mean a page of high-quality fossil images that showcase the features of our fossils.

A plate of vertebrate fossils, specifically those from an ancient penguin species. This is the plate caption: “FIGURE A5. Undescribed vertebrae and ribs referred to Kupoupou stilwelli n. gen. et sp. 1-7, vertebrae, NMNZ S.47339; and 9 and 10, ribs, NMNZ S.47339. 8, an incomplete vertebra, is part of NMNZ S.47302, associated with the larger Chatham Island form. Scale bar is equal to 10 mm.” This plate has a white background, as do most plates that showcase bones (the darker bone colors stand out better against white backgrounds). Image from Blokland et al. 2019.

Plates are published in scientific journals as part of journal articles, and usually include a scale bar (so others know how large or small the fossil is), a number or letter beside each image on each plate, and a description underneath the plate with each image’s genus and species name. Plates can also contain other important features to help other scientists identify the specimens, such as arrows and labels pointing out specific parts of the fossil. For my dissertation, I had to create plates of my fossil plankton to show other scientists how I was identifying each species, and they will be used as a reference for others so they too can identify species. In total, I created 29 plates of fossil foraminifera for my dissertation!

The first thing I do when I create a new plate is to create the template. I create all my plates in Adobe Illustrator, and I always give my plates a black background. I also go ahead and add a bit of white space below the plate, and a text box within the white bit, so I can create the plate caption as I add images. Below is an image of the template, with the black background and white space for the caption.

A screenshot of Adobe Illustrator with my blank plate template.

Next, I add in numbers where the fossil images will go. I like to create plates that have 5 rows and 5 columns, so a total of 25 images. Putting in the numbers before the images helps me align everything on the template, and it makes creating the caption that will go under the plate much easier. For example, when I add the image next to 1, I then add in the fossil information right in the caption.

Screenshot of the template with numbers added.

Now for the fun part: adding in the fossil images! All of my images are stored in separate file folders on my desktop, and each are labeled with the species name and the section from where it came within a drilled sediment cores. I just open the folder, grab the cropped image that I want, and plop in onto my template. I also plop in the original image file along with the cropped images. I do this because the original image has a scale bar, the information that tells people how large (or in my case, small) the fossil is.

The template in the background, with the cropped fossil image (left) and the original SEM image (right). Notice the scale bar in the original image at the bottom (100 microns, or um).

Because the original image and cropped images are the same size, all I need to do is trace the scale bar with a white line, delete the original images, then place the scale bar underneath the cropped image.

I trace the scale bar from the original image so it is just a white bar, and place that under the cropped fossil image. I also rotate the cropped image.

Once I have the cropped image and scale bar on the template, I then re-scale them (or just make them smaller) to fit beside the appropriate number on the template. I then go ahead and add in the image’s genus and species, and location information below in the white space.

The cropped image and scale bar are re-sized together to keep them at the same proportion. The image is then placed beside the appropriate number, and the location information is added into the caption at the bottom of the template.

I do this 24 more times to create a full plate of foraminifera images!

A screenshot of the final plate, with the complete caption underneath. I can then save just the template and fossil images as a PNG file, insert them into a document, then copy and paste the caption underneath of the image.

This process is tedious, and it is very detail-oriented, but it was one of my favorite things to create during my dissertation! There’s nothing I love more than flipping through pages and pages of my printed plates containing foraminifera images to admire the diversity of shapes and sizes. The beauty of the foraminifera are on full display, and it’s sometimes still hard to believe that all the wonderful shells are created by single-celled protists!

 

The Benefits of Community College: Personal Stories and Examples

Adriane, Rose, Shaina, and Jen here-

Here in the United States, community colleges are two-year institutions that cater to students in or just out of high school and people who are returning to college for a degree. In some areas, local high schools partner with community colleges for students to participate in special technical classes to expand their skill sets. This can include mechanical courses, film and editing, and much more. In short, community colleges are higher-education institutions that can provide workforce training and which offer several classes that are considered ‘core courses’ at four-year institutes and universities. Core classes include such topics as history, math, art, and science, with electives and options within each of these topics. Students who attend community colleges often transfer to a four-year university to complete their undergraduate degree, which takes another 2+ years depending on their degree. In some states, community colleges have agreements with universities that allow students a guaranteed transfer if the student meets certain requirements. 

Community college provides a fantastic option for students who finish high school and don’t quite know what their career path will be, for working folks who need flexibility in choosing courses and schedules, and for others in the community who might just want to take a course or two on something they are interested or passionate about. The very attractive aspect of community college is that class sizes are often smaller, the professors and teachers have more time to dedicate to students, several classes are available as online courses, and the on-campus classes may have several different times to fit the schedules of working students and adults. And bonus, similar to large four-year universities, many community colleges offer athletic and recreational teams for you to join! 

Regardless of all the pros to community colleges, there is still a perceived stigma surrounding them. 

The purpose of this post is to share some of our experiences with community college to break down the stigmas and negative perceptions surrounding community colleges by highlighting our own experiences in community college. We argue that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the structured training, guidance, and mentorship we received at our respective community colleges. 

TL;DR: Benefits of Attending a Community College

  • Attain a higher GPA after high school
  • Increase knowledge in certain subjects that were not taught sufficiently by a high school
  • Increase self-esteem in an academic setting
  • Build a support network of professors, teachers, and other students
  • Flexible schedule
  • Ability to take as few or as many (with limits) courses as you feel necessary
  • Opportunity to explore different career paths and options through diverse course offerings
  • Determine if a career is right for you
  • Affordable compared to a 4-year institution
  • Local students can live at home and save money on living expenses that would be incurred at a 4-year university
  • Take courses while simultaneously attending a 4-year university and have those credits transfer
  • Federal and state grants often cover the full cost of tuition (in and out of state)
  • Most professors also teach at a 4-year university or have in the past, and can offer advice to students pursuing a BS/BA degree and higher
  • Some professors may have worked in industry or in a non-academic position, and can offer advice to students pursuing these career paths
  • Some states offer a guaranteed admission program from community college to 4-year universities 
  • Some community colleges have exchange programs, offering students international experiences 
  • Because so many adults go back to school, the range of ages and life experiences in a classroom is very enriching and diverse

Adriane 

I started in community college the fall after I graduated from high school. I knew after graduating that my grades were not competitive enough for a 4-year college, and that I would likely do terrible on the GRE exams. My high school education was also not the best. I didn’t learn algebra as well I should have, and I was often bullied and had low self-esteem, which fed into doing poorly in my high school classes. I would often skip high school to go to the movies with my friend, or went riding my horse by myself (both were likely bad ideas). So attending my local community college was the best option for me. In addition, I also did not know what I wanted to do for a career. I thought that perhaps I wanted to be an artist (graphic art and design), or go into the medical field (even though medical stuff grosses me out), or even be a machinist like my dad (which would have been a really fun career, to be honest). 

Around the time I graduated high school, my mom was going through a divorce and was raising my little sister. I got a job in a retail store, and helped my mom with my sister, getting her on and off the bus everyday, and I was also able to help pay bills and help with groceries. Attending community college was great because I was able to work, help out around my home, and still take courses. My local community college, called J Sargeant Reynolds in Richmond, Virginia, had very flexible class schedules which worked great with my work and home schedule.

It was also at J Sarge that I found the career that I am currently in. I had to take science electives, so I took Geology. I figured I always loved rocks and fossils, so why not? During the first semester, our instructor took us to a local creek, where we collected fossils from ~15 million years ago! I was totally hooked. So I took another geology course, and it was during this course that I knew I wanted to become a geologist. Community colleges in Virginia have a guaranteed acceptance program with several state 4-year universities: if your GPA is high enough after graduating with an associate’s degree from a community college, you are guaranteed admission into a 4-year university. My grades were above a 3.5 at the time I graduated, so I was automatically accepted into James Madison University. Most of my credits transferred, so I was able to finish my geology bachelor’s degree in 3 years. 

Rose

I started at Green River Community College after graduating high school. I was primarily homeschooled through high school, but took a few electives at my local public high school (choir, Shakespeare, a cooking class). One of these classes was an education class. I loved kids but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a classroom teacher, so my teacher at the high school suggested I start at the community college first. Our local CC has a well-respected education program, so if I did decide to go on to get a teaching degree I shouldn’t have any problems transferring and would be well-prepared. If I decided I didn’t want to pursue a teaching degree, I would have an associate’s degree in education, which would allow me to work as a paraeducator. Other advantages of this option were that I could live at home and save money. Because tuition was lower here than other colleges, I was also able to get Pell grants and state need grants that covered my full tuition.

I loved my classes because there were always a variety of people in them. There were students like me straight out of high school, high schoolers in the Running Start program, people coming back to school after many years to finish college or find a new career, and folks from the community who were just interested and taking the class for fun. My CC also had a large and well-known international exchange program. Students from many East Asian and European countries came for a year to study abroad in the US. For example, my chemistry lab partner one quarter was from China and my class partner was from Belgium! My lab partner in geology was Dutch, and while he didn’t go on to get a degree in geology we both decided it was our favorite class ever and still keep in touch via social media today.

Shaina

I started attending Manchester Community College the fall after graduating from high school. Growing up I knew I wanted to be an astronomer, but unfortunately my high school had very few options for math and science courses and most of the ones they did have were taught by sports coaches and not particularly beneficial so I ended up taking the excellent history and social science classes offered instead. This, combined with my prevalence for skipping school, meant that I was not prepared to apply to a four year institution after graduating, especially in the field I wanted to study. 

I ended up signing up for community college almost on a whim and was instantly thrilled with the options for classes I could take— I was able to take astronomy, could finally start learning math for real, and even had a wide variety of fun and useful classes like photography, women’s health, and even Philosophy of Lord of the Rings! I made a ton of friends, got straight A’s, and built the foundation for transitioning to a four year school. When the time came to apply to schools during my second year I had a great support network of professors who wrote me letters and helped me get into the astrophysics program I had dreamed of. I never could have done it without my experience at MCC to help set me on the right path.

Jen

Unlike Rose and Adriane, I didn’t start out at a community college. I went to a 4-year university straight from high school, I grew up in an area with a lot of state universities and picked one close to home. My high school had close ties with our local community college, the College of DuPage (COD). I had friends that would take classes there when they had moved passed what my high school offered or to get more technical training. There was a program where students could be at our high school for half the day and the other half would be spent at COD in a special program. 

I attended community college through a summer course – calculus. I was trying to stay ahead of my studies, to remain on track to graduate on time but couldn’t afford (time and money) to go to a summer class at my 4-year institution while working. The class was something wild like 3 hours every day starting at 7 am. The class size was incredibly intimate, maybe 25 students in the room for a month long course. At my 4-year institution all general courses were over 100 students during the lectures. The smaller course setting enabled me to meet new people, feel comfortable asking questions, and really foster a strong relationship with my peers and the material. I struggled with precalculus my first year of undergraduate — when I excelled at it in high school. This was incredibly frustrating and really made me feel like I would fail calculus. Community college helped me realize where I learn best — small settings where I feel comfortable. 

Not long ago, my mom returned to college by starting a program at COD. She had been a stay at home mom for almost 20 years and needed to get back into the workforce. She took courses over several years to become a medical biller and coder. 

If you are interested in going back to school, taking courses, or beginning at a community college, click the link below to find a community college near you in the continental U.S.: Community College Finder

Mason Hintermeister, Aspiring Paleontologist

August 2018: Mason in Red Hill, PA searching for Late Devonian vertebrates.

What do you do?

I’m an aspiring paleontologist. I take trips by myself or with fellow fossil hunters to various sites and collect ancient remains. The best of these fossils are always made available to the Calvert Marine Museum where they can be stored and studied in perpetuity. I also spend a lot of time communicating paleontology both online and in person. I manage a page of Facebook called “Pedantic Palaeontology” where I talk about what I’m following in the world of paleontology. I frequent Facebook groups and The Fossil Forum, offering identification of fossils and answers to paleontological questions whenever they arise. I attend many paleontological clubs and meetings in my area, where I interact with both those new to the field and those who have been in it far longer than I. I’m lucky to be located in Maryland, which has an astonishingly rich paleontological record, so I have the opportunity to introduce people to a wide range of spectacular fossils. Recently, I had the opportunity to give a presentation to the Natural History Society of Maryland on the topic of Giant Threshers and their evolutionary significance.

What methods do you use to engage your community and audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?

All sciences face a constant struggle to communicate their importance and their findings to a general audience. The emergence of social media provides an invaluable platform for the dissemination of all sciences, including paleontology. Everyday hundreds of people go to a Facebook group to ask a question about paleontology or to get something they have found identified. Giving them a concise but informative answer can be all it takes to get them excited about the subject. Likewise, taking the time to have a conversation with a child, with an interested adult, or with a group of people can make all the difference. The more people who understand the relevance and the wonders of our natural world, the better humanity can progress as a whole.

January 2019: Mason prior to giving a talk on Giant threshers at the Natural History Society of Maryland

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

I cannot remember a time when science failed to captivate me. Fortunately, my parents were keen enough to realize this and fed my passion from a young age. While other small children were begging their parents to put on another cartoon, mine were slipping another documentary into the DVD player. However, it wasn’t until middle school when I figured out what science I wanted to pursue. An earth science teacher decided to take interested students on a fossil hunting trip. After that, I was hooked. That summer, I took an online course in paleoanthropology, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. There are few feelings in this world that compare to being the first person to lay eyes on an organism which hasn’t seen daylight for millions upon millions of years. It’s like reading ancient drama. The players may have perished long ago, but the stories persist in stone.

What advice do you have for other aspiring paleontologists?

Being an aspiring scientist myself, I have realized the true importance of cooperation in science. In order to progress in this field, I have had to build the confidence necessary to ask for help from those already in the field. Every expert was once an aspiring scientist, and the vast majority are happy to help budding scientists, interested amateurs, or anyone with a curious mind. So go ask that question, strike up that conversation, and feed your curiosity.

Check out Mason’s Facebook page ‘Pedantic Palaeontology‘ here!

Fossil Collecting In Maryland

The beach at Matoaka Cabins, near low tide. The waves were brutal as a storm was overhead, with high wind gusts.

Adriane here-

It’s no secret that one of my favorite hobbies and past-time outside of researching fossils is fossil collecting for fun. So when I went home over Thanksgiving 2019, of course I took it as an opportunity to visit one of my favorite fossil localities, Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. I dragged my mom and two siblings with me on this overnight adventure, and it was a blast!

These cliffs are exposed along the east coast of the US, and are a part of Westmoreland State Park which I’ve written about previously. They contain beautiful fossil of late Neogene age (Miocene to Pleistocene, about 23-0.01 million years ago). The cliffs in Maryland contain the same age fossils, and the rocks and sediments are part of the Chesapeake Group (the name given to the group of layers that the fossils are contained in). There are several beaches in the area that member of the public can hunt at, but I’ll just go over a few sites we visited.

The first place we visited was Calvert Cliffs State Park. The park has a moderate entrance fee ($5 in state, $7 out of state), but it’s totally worth it. There are bathrooms here, along with a playground for kids (although, we all had a blast on the merry-go-round, to the point of almost puking). It’s a great place for families to visit with nice facilities. The trail to the beach is about 1.8 miles down a gentle slope, and towards the end of the trail there is a low-lying land where we saw several species of ducks and aquatic plants. At the mouth of the trail, there is a wooden bin with a variety of sifters for visitors to use to find fossils. The beach is flanked by the cliffs on either side, which are roped off. The cliffs are an excellent place to collect, however, they are and can quickly become wildly unstable, with huge blocks falling with enough velocity to seriously injure someone standing below. We found a few small shark’s teeth here, and some gastropod (snail) molds in the rocks. Nothing phenomenal.

Some of the shells at Matoaka Beach. Most are broken and battered, but hiding amongst them are undoubtedly tons of smaller shark teeth and other treasures!

The next place we visited was called Brownies Beach. Here, the beach is much longer, and at low tide, you can probably walk the beach for quite a while. Be warned, though, because like Calvert Cliffs, this stretch of beach is also prone to falling blocks. We spent quite a while here, and again, all we found were a few small shark teeth (scroll down for a video of my brother finding an incomplete tooth). There wasn’t a fee during the winter, but it did seem the beach has a fee during the summer.

One of the tanks at Calvert Marine Museum., with horseshoe crabs and a turtle. The tank next to it contained crabs, starfish, and sharks, all species that are native to the Chesapeake Bay.

The next day, I took everyone to Matoaka Beach Cabins. This was a really cool spot! The beach is privately owned, with the owners charging folks a mere $5 to access the beach all day. In addition, you can rent cabins here steps from the beach! The beaches are long and are not underneath the cliffs. We had a blast here, but at this point, we were in the midst of a huge rain storm that was hitting the east coast. We were drenched within the hour, and had to give up hunting for the rest of the day. We found another few shark teeth, some smaller pectens (clam) shells, and a dead pelican that I refused to let my siblings take back to my car. This beach is somewhere I’d love to revisit, especially at low tide. The shell line was wide, with several larger shells visible in the waves (the heavier teeth and fossils tend to be found with the same weight rocks, so finding larger rocks indicates the potential of finding larger fossils).

After leaving Matoaka, we then visited the Calvert Marine Museum. Being a paleontologist, I’ve visited a lot of museums, but this little museum remains one of my top five favorites. It combines the history of the region with paleontology and biology. For that reason, I’d recommend visiting the museum first. They have amazing display cases of the fossils found along the cliffs, so you can have an idea of what you’re looking for. You will also gain an appreciation of the rich wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay, and the native peoples that used to live here. Bonus, the museum also has three otters that are incredibly entertaining, as well as tanks of live horseshoe crabs, turtles, crabs, and fish species that are common in the bay.

For a list of fossils you can find in this region, information on the rock layers, and a list of all the beaches and their admission prices, check out the Fossil Guy’s website.

If you are on Facebook, I recommend joining the Fossils of Calvert Cliffs Maryland group. They share collecting advice, recommendations for beaches, and favorite restaurants. I consulted with the group before planning my trip, and several members gave me great food and beach recommendations!

Mark Yu, Paleoceanographer, Isotope Geochemist, and Marine Geologist

Mark in front of the R/V JOIDES Resolution in Punta Arenas, Chile. The JOIDES Resolution brings together Earth scientists from around the globe to investigate processes underneath the marine sediments. This cruise, JR100 Chilean Margin, was focused on Patagonia climate and ocean circulation in the last ~150 Ka.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

The field I am specializing in, paleoceanography/paleoclimatology and biogeochemistry, represents the complex interplay between the lithosphere (Earth), hydrosphere (oceans), biosphere (life), and atmosphere. These immense variables pose great challenges in interpreting our geologic record and requires us to form interdisciplinary collaborations throughout departments. As I progressed in my studies from undergraduate work at the University of Rochester to graduate research at the Rutgers University, my mind is slowly teasing out the meaning of these variables as I attempt to decipher changes to ocean chemistry for my dissertation. In short, my love affair for science is grounded on the ability to form intellectual bridges across all fields and geographic locations while unraveling Earth history.

What do you do?

As a paleoceanographer, my goal is to decipher changes in ocean chemistry/circulation through isotopic and elemental ratios of calcareous organisms known as foraminifera that inhabit various depths of the water column. My dissertation is focused on the tropical thermocline, the upper part of the water column that is defined by a massive decrease in temperature from the mixed layer and where much of the productivity in the ocean occurs.

A scanning electron microscope image of planktonic foraminifera, Gs. ruber, used by Mark in his research. This sand sized calcareous protist inhabited the surface layer of the water column thousands of years ago

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

The geochemical data I analyze are trapped within the calcareous shells of foraminifera that are preserved in the sediment record at the bottom of ocean basins. Marine geologists undertake global expeditions on the drill boat, namely the R/V JOIDES Resolution, and other vessels to survey and core deep into the sediments. Once I have identified and picked the desired foraminiferal species, I analyze them on mass spectrometers where isotopic and elemental ratios are measured. In turn, each isotopic and elemental ratio provide us with variables in the ocean such as temperature, ice volume, productivity, ventilation, etc.

How does your research contribute to understanding climate change?

As the Earth changes with anthropogenic warming, the oceans serve as the largest buffer in dampening its effects. However, understanding how ocean circulation, ventilation, and productivity responds to temperature and carbon dioxide fluctuations is vital for our model predictions. My dissertation extends to Marine Isotope Stage 5e (MIS 5e) in the Indian Ocean. This was the last warm period (or interglacial period, as scientists call warm times within a time that is generally cool) similar to today around ~125 Ka and elucidating oceanographic properties in the sediment record will allow us to parametrize monsoon dynamics for societal and ecological implications.

Mark onboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson in the Argentina Margin with a multicore drilling apparatus. This cruise was focused on seismic surveying and shallow coring operations to decipher water mass geometry and erosional processes in the underwater canyons.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Be curious, observant and ask questions. No question is a dumb question. Likewise, remain skeptical and challenge assumptions. Not every answer is set in stone. The dogma written in textbooks are continuously being challenged and reworked by scientists. Find a few great mentors – people who you aspire to be and will provide you with the time and expertise to show you the ropes. Lastly, find your passion in life and run off with it.

Follow Marks updates on his website, LinkedIn, or Instagram!

Dr. Karena Nguyen, Disease Ecologist

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.

The life cycle of a parasite. Image credited to @kes_shaw

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

Relationship between Climate Change and Cannibalistic Gastropod Behavior

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.

Figure showing Seymour Island in Antarctica (image A) where the study took place along with (image B) a sample with a perfectly drilled hole and a sample with an incomplete drill hole from another Falsilunatia gastropod. Image C shows one of the cannibalistic snails from multiple angles.

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

Geology Tour of Washington, D.C.

Image 1: A marble sample with a black stylolite in the right-hand corner, caused by metamorphic stress to the rock. This sample was found in a bathroom in a café in D.C. Finger for scale.

Sarah here-

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.

Image 2: This is a staircase in the Union Station in D.C.! This is another type of marble, but clearly a very different type of marble than the one we saw earlier.

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!

Image 3: Here’s a granite sample I found on the wall of a building outside. The large crystals indicate that the sample cooled slowly. What I found interesting about this sample is the large presence of the darker colored mineral (amphibole) in the sample! Finger for scale.

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.

Image 4: Here we can see phyllite, a low-grade metamorphic rock as a decorative feature of a wall. Phyllite is easily recognizable by its slight banding (which looks more like waviness when you’re looking at this particular rock) and the glittery sheen to it, given by the muscovite mica which develops during the metamorphic process.

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!

Image 5: A fountain on the University of Maryland’s campus made of unpolished granite. You can tell its granite by the types of minerals in the rock (quartz, K-spar, and amphibole) and the larger crystal grains that make up the fountain!

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.

Image 6: Marble being used as the wall around the elevator shaft in the Ronald Reagan Airport. This marble shows large veins and dissolution features that we didn’t see as much in images 1 and 2!