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!

Coffee in a Changing Climate

Climate change and coffee: assessing vulnerability by modeling future climate suitability in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico

Stephen J. Fain, Maya  Quiñones, Nora L. Álvarez-Berríos, Isabel K. Parés-Ramos, William A. Gould

What data were used?

This study investigated the effects of climate change on coffee production in Puerto Rico. Although coffee is grown in several countries around the world, by 1899 the country was the sixth largest producer of coffee, with over 40% of its cultivated area dedicated to coffee production. Coffee was grown in great numbers into the 1990’s, when harvests were more than 12 million kilograms per year. Coffee plants are mostly grown in mountainous regions on land that is owned by independent farmers. Two species of coffee, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, are plants that are shade-loving and thrive within a narrow range of climatic conditions. In other words, the plants cannot tolerate huge changes in temperature, moisture, and precipitation. Increased temperature has caused the plants to decrease quality, have stunted growth, and exhibit growth abnormalities. With reduced crops and quality, Puerto Rican farmers will have reduced yields, reduced income, and thus will not be able to hold as many employees to care for the plants and pick the coffee beans.

The authors of this study wanted to investigate how these two species of coffee plants will fair under climate change scenarios projected for the future. The scientists first gathered data about what temperature, moisture content, and precipitation amounts were favorable for the coffee plants. Then, the authors used a climate model with three different emissions scenarios (amount of CO2 that is projected to be released into the atmosphere in the future): A2 Scenario, which is the highest emissions scenario; A1B Scenario, which is the mid to low emissions model; and the B1 Scenario, which is the lowest CO2 emissions scenario. They modeled how climatic variables  (such as temperature and precipitation) will change over time under these three emissions scenarios for five time periods: 1960-1990; 2011-2040; 2041-2070; and 2071-2099.

The authors came up with an index to for each time period to assess how well coffee will fare under climate change. The index ranged from 0 to 5, with 0 being unfavorable conditions, and 5 indicating favorable coffee growth conditions.

Results

The model for 1991-2010 was used as a baseline for which to compare the other four models to. In this model, the amount of land that is most suitable for coffee growth (suitability index of 5) is confined to the mountainous regions of Puerto Rico.

The 1991-2019 coffee sustainability model, with the lightest areas least suitable for coffee growth, and the darkest areas most suitable for plant growth.

Other models for future years under the high, mid-low, and low CO2 emissions scenarios all indicate that as climate change induces increased warming over Puerto Rico, less and less land will be suitable for coffee growth.

Under the high emissions scenario (A2), the top ten coffee-producing areas in Puerto Rico are expected to lose 47% of their high-quality coffee producing range by 2040! Under the low emissions scenario (B1), this loss is reduced to 21% by 2040. After the year 2040 in both scenarios, the amount of land that will be lost for coffee production greatly increases. Under the low emissions scenario (B1), the island’s top ten producing municipalities may face a 60% decline in prime coffee-growing habitat. Under the high-emissions scenario, this number increases to 84%.

The models for high CO2 emissions scenario (A2), mid-low CO2 emissions scenario (A1B), and low CO2 emissions scenario (B1) for the five time slices studied. Notice that in all models, the amount of suitable land for coffee growth decreases dramatically (less and less dark brown area) through time.

In the A2 (high emissions) scenario, the island only retains 289 km2 of highly suitable growth space (index of 5 in figures) from 2041-2070, which declines to only 24 km2 by 2071-2099! For comparison, under the low emissions (B1) scenario, Puerto Rico retains 680 km2 of highly sustainable coffee growth space by 2041, which is reduced to an area of 329 km2 by 2071-2099.

Why is this study important?

As less land is available to grow high-quality coffee, the island of Puerto Rico will lose money from reduced exports. In effect, the people of the island who rely on the coffee industry will suffer financially, as the growth of the plants provides thousands of residents with income and financial stability. This study highlights just one way in which climate change will negatively affect a country’s economy and people.

The big picture

Climate change will lead to increased warming in tropical and sub-tropical areas, such as Puerto Rico. With increased warming comes a change in climate and weather regimes, most of which will have a negative impact on the region and the people who live there.

Citation

Fain, S. J., Quiñones, M., Álvarez-Berríos, N. L., Parés-Ramos, I. K., and Gould, W. A., 2018. Climate change and coffee: Assessing vulnerability by modeling future climate suitability in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Climatic Change 146, 175-186.

 

 

Advice for Graduate Students, Part II

Adriane here-

In a previous post, Sarah outlined some excellent advice for graduate students (read it here). This is a continuation of that post with additional advice for surviving graduate school and growing into a successful, happy, independent scientist.

Guard your time. There’s a saying I’ve heard that I really love: your MS degree is a sprint, but your PhD is a marathon. This is the best metaphor for graduate school I’ve heard, mostly because of the truth it holds. My MS degree was only 18 months long, so I had to be very careful of how I spent my time. I am funded for 4 years for my PhD, which is quite a bit of time, but I also have more responsibilities and obligations. Research should be your second priority during your degree, with extracurricular activities (including but not limited to teaching assistantship responsibilities and outreach and mentoring events) coming in third. But wait, you might be saying, what is your first responsibility during grad school?!? That’s next:

Take care of yourself. Undoubtedly, your first and most important responsibility during grad school is to take care of your mental and physical health. There are piles of studies that show increased mental health is linked to physical health and activity, and vice versa (e.g., Bize et al., 2007). There will be times when you feel like you won’t have time to exercise, go to the doctor and dentist, or even have time to plan and shop for healthy meals. You should prioritize these tasks, and don’t feel bad or guilty for doing so.

Coffee makes me feel crazy, so I’ve almost completely switched to tea as a source of caffeine and as a mid-day pick-me-up. Here’s my vast collection of teas that I keep on hand, all with varying amounts of caffeine (and made locally!)

Eat well.  When I was doing my MS degree at Ohio University, I made sure that I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. There were often times I felt I had no time to cook, so I came up with some ways to meal plan. For breakfast, I made breakfast burritos, and would pre-cook the rice, black beans, and scramble eggs twice a week and keep them in containers. This way, I could throw all of the ingredients in a bowl, heat it up in the microwave, and have a wholesome breakfast ready in less than 5 minutes. For dinner, I would pick one afternoon a week to cook a crock-pot meal. I would then split the food into Mason jars and freeze them for later. In this way, I could come home late and heat up dinner (I would often have at least 4 different dinners frozen at any given time for variety).

While we’re on the subject, another piece of food-related advice: Beer/alcoholic drinks and coffee ARE NOT your best friends in graduate school. Alcohol is especially hard on your body, and can severely affect your energy and ability to function at your best.  Studies have shown that students are particularly susceptible to abusing alcohol in college (e.g., Weitzman, 2004), especially students that are women, people of color, and/or  from low socioeconomic statuses. When graduate school gets stressful, several people turn to drinking to cope. Instead, schedule time for yoga, running, or some other physical activity that is stress-reducing and healthy for you. Coffee and other caffeinated drinks are fine in moderation, but too much can cause your body to feel jittery, increase feelings of stress and anxiety, and cause you to crash after the effects wear off. When in graduate school, there is a culture of coffee-drinking that is rampant; walk down any hall at any time of the day and you’re almost guaranteed to smell a fresh pot being brewed. But coffee doesn’t work for everyone’s body, as it can be hard on your digestive system and cause upset stomach. Instead, try tea, some of which has lower amounts of caffeine per cup and doesn’t cause a huge crash like coffee can. Personally, tea works better for me, as I am especially prone to blood sugar crashes after a coffee caffeine spike and feelings of increased anxiety and stress.

Jen’s cat, Madeline, taking one of her infamous cat-naps. Take a page out of a cat’s playbook and get plenty of rest!

Get plenty of sleep every night. You might have heard of your friends in undergrad or even in grad school pulling all-nighters and working at weird times of the day. Chances are you’ve even done this yourself. STOP IT. While in grad school, you will need your brain to work at maximum efficiency everyday (some days that’s not possible and that’s okay). But one way to make sure your brain is functional is to get a good night’s sleep, whatever that means for you and your body. Some people operate well on 6 hours of sleep, others on 8 hours, etc.

You might feel like you don’t have time to sleep while doing your degree, but this is absolute BS. You will thank yourself at the end of your degree for sleeping, and realize that it is a crucial component of your success as a scientist. Of my cohort of grad students that I started my degree with in Ohio, I was the only one to finish my MS degree on time. I also published two papers from my thesis, one during my first year as an MS student. I’m quite certain I was also the only one who made sure I got at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Don’t underestimate the power of a well-rested brain.

When the weather is beautiful, I go hiking with my husband to clear my head and keep stress at bay. This is a photo I took from a mountain overlooking the Connecticut River Valley, western MA.

Don’t ignore stress. There are several ways to reduce stress in graduate school, with several students opting to swim, run, or do yoga. These are all good options, as physical activity is linked to reduced stress and increased mental health (e.g., Penedo and Dahn, 2005). I would often run in the afternoons, especially when I was writing my thesis. Running helped me clear my mind, and I would often have awesome ideas regarding how to write my thesis or how to make figures while I was running (showers are also great places to come up with great research ideas). There are also non-physical ways in which to reduce stress. Netflix was my best friend in grad school (and it’s still a guilty pleasure during my PhD), as I enjoyed nothing more than coming home from a day in the lab and tuning out to a favorite movie or episode in a series. I also read fiction novels voraciously when I’m writing up my science, which helps me clear my mind and zone out when my brain is too tired to keep writing any given day. This brings me to my third piece of advice:

READ. As a graduate student, you can’t read enough. Specifically, you should be reading studies from the published literature that relate to your thesis or dissertation. When I was in Ohio, I read at least 6 papers a week. I’ve slowed down reading this much during the later phase of my PhD, but will probably start reading more as I begin writing more dissertation chapters. The point is, there are times in your degree where you’ll need to commit more time to reading, and times when you may need to dedicate more time to analyses, field work, etc. Regardless, never stop reading. Also read studies that interest you but may not be directly related to your project. Reading publications for fun is a great way to expand your knowledge and relate to other students in your department and their research.

An example of how I read a journal article. Major points are written at the top, and important information is highlighted with additional notes written in the margins.

When I began my MS degree in Ohio, I also didn’t know the correct way to read publications. It’s okay to ask your advisor and colleagues how they read and interpret papers. When I go through a publication, I always have a highlighter and pen at hand. Important points get highlighted, and I almost always write a quick comment beside what I highlight so I can quickly know its significance when I look back at the paper a year later. When I’m finished reading a paper, I write at least 3 main points or the most important information related to my studies on the front page of the paper. I’m also old-fashioned in the sense that I can only read printed papers. But there are some good programs that allow you to comment and highlight PDFs on your laptop or desktop computer (I am particularly fond of Adobe Acrobat DC).

Another way I keep myself motivated was to form a reading club this past summer. The club is composed of myself and five other graduate students (MS and PhD) who meet once a week for about an hour. We focus on newer studies related to Antarctica and the Miocene, but we have also focused on paleoclimate concepts (such as the effect of shifting Westerlies on upwelling around Antarctica and current strength) and phenomenon that we don’t quite understand. Forming a group where you feel comfortable to ask questions and admit that you don’t understand something, then finding papers to better your understanding, is a great way to tackle the published literature. Meeting with friends once a week is also a great way to bond, form friendships, and commiserate with other graduate students.

Write. Like reading, writing is another crucial part of your survival as a graduate student. Writing is hard, and often boring, but the more you do it, the better you will become at it! When you first get to graduate school, likely some of the first documents you’ll have to write are grants. Your first draft will be absolute garbage, just accept that. But also understand that your advisor’s job is to help you recycle garbage into a shiny, awesome document. It’s also a good idea to reach out to friends and colleagues to ask for writing help, tips, and edits. I often reach out to Sarah and Jen for advice on writing and to ask them to edit my documents. I have also begun to apply for jobs this year, and I’ve reached out to other professors in my department as well as my MS thesis advisor at Ohio for advice on writing job application documents. These same people have also edited my documents, which has improved them tenfold at least.

Writing grants isn’t the only writing practice you should be getting. While taking classes, it may help you to re-type your notes, or even re-word written notes to make more sense. If you have a blog, practice your science communication writing there!  As soon as you begin reading publications related to your thesis or dissertation, begin writing down the major concepts and ideas that you come across. Later, this text can be reworked into a grant or your thesis. Likewise, as soon as you begin doing research, begin writing your methods section! It’s much easier to write your methods as you do them rather than trying to remember what you did a year later (trust me, I know this one from personal experience).

A selfie I took of my students and I at one of the outcrops we visited during the class I built Fall of 2016.

Get outside of your comfort zone. This should be obvious, but graduate school is a time for your to grow as a researcher, scientist, and teacher. You will do things that make you nervous, anxious, or just plain scared, such as giving a presentation at a conference, attending an overseas conference, doing field work for the first time, or teaching a class. These feelings are totally normal, and for me, they usually mean I’m outside of my comfort zone and learning to navigate new spaces and experiences.

I have two main examples of times I’ve been completely shoved out of my comfort zone (by my own doing and choices), but grew as a scientist and teacher. The first is when I was given the opportunity by my department to build and teach my own upper-level undergraduate course. I was scared to death, but ended up loving my class and had a great time! And, I now have more teaching experience than most, something that will give me an edge when applying for jobs. I have no doubt that I’ll be able to build and teach any class I want in the future, and this feeling is priceless.

Me goofing off during our last days sailing in the Tasman Sea. Here, one of the last cores we drilled is being brought on deck. At the beginning of the expedition, I cried because I was so scared to leave! By the time the expedition was over, I cried because I didn’t want to leave my new friends.

The second time I went way outside of my comfort zone is when I sailed on a two-month long expedition in the Tasman Sea. I was selected as on of the shipboard paleontologists, and thus it was part of my responsibility to let the other scientists know where we were in time as we drilled through seafloor sediments. This was a huge responsibility, and I had never been away from home for two months with people I didn’t even know. But the experience was awesome, I learned a ton, and I’m a much stronger researcher and scientist because I participated in the expedition. And I also have several new colleagues and collaborators all over the world!

I would like to add a cautionary note to this section. You shouldn’t participate in anything in graduate school that can cause you physical or mental harm, and don’t let yourself be bullied into doing something you’re not comfortable doing by your peers, advisor, or others. Remember that your physical and mental health should always come first, and that you need to guard your time. So don’t partake in activities that put these factors in jeopardy (although teaching my own course and sailing did take up huge amounts of my time, I felt those activities would benefit me in the long-term).

I hope this advice is helpful to some, as some of these tips were never told to me but rather learned through experience. If you have additional tips for surviving grad school, leave a comment below!

FUTURES: European Researchers Night

Andy here-

A few weeks ago I took part in FUTURES: European Researchers Night (@FUTURES_ERN). FUTURES occurs all over the EU (300 cities, 24 countries), but locally was put on by several universities (University of Bristol, University of Bath, Bath Spa University) to highlight the contributions of the European Union to science in the area. There were storytelling functions, programs where you could walk to different locations with scientists talking about their research, and even the wonderfully British “Tea with a Researcher”. One of the odd things about science is that in a few key ways I count as a quasi-European researcher now that I’m affiliated with (work for) a European University. I’m also funded by the UK government through the Natural Environment Research Council. This is all despite being American. I originally wasn’t going to take part in this because I was supposed to be at a meeting, but a family circumstance required me to stay in town. Luckily, a local children’s museum was close enough and a few folks from the School of Earth Sciences had organized a display already. Because I was supposed to be in London, I had no part in the planning or creation of anything. As somebody who knows how much time can go into those, it was very nice to just come in and talk to folks.

Photo from Dr Vittoria Lauretano (@vit_lau). Only part of the 1 Kg of CO2 balloon collection is visible. I tend to dress down at events like this, my shirt says “Life uh finds a way” and has two Jurassic Park-style Velociraptors on it, and I lean into informality and humor. I find that helps me combat some stereotypes of scientists (stuffy, humorless dudes in white coats), and can defuse some of the tension while I’m describing how drastic climate change is for coral bleaching, hurricanes (which is what I was talking about here), human health, droughts, and on.

There were several different parts to the display. We had three jars with different levels of CO2 and lamps demonstrating the greenhouse effect. The jar and lamp setup worked surprisingly well, considering the numerous other variables, but by the end of the evening I think the seals gave out and the pure-CO2 temperature jar had equalized with the others. There were also several banners we could use in the background to talk about the different effects that climate change has on the Earth and us, including one that described the different fluxes of CO2 into the atmosphere (~28% from power, ~28% from transportation, etc.). Lastly, and the most conversation-starting, was a collection of food with a representation of how much carbon goes into the air. The best part was that there was a set of balloons each representing 1 kg of carbon. For each item then, there was a sheet of paper with how much carbon is emitted during production, then graphically represented as a bunch of balloons. So, if 3 kg of carbon is emitted, there were 3 clutches of balloons. It led to discussions of how much meat production emits, if it’s better to eat local or in season, and how much CO2 different modes of transportation emit. The balloons were key for many people, as they took a difficult problem to represent (atmospheric gas) and made it visual.

The entire display worked better for adults than it did for kids. In part, it’s tough to communicate climate change to kids… that’s not accurate. It feels really bad to talk about climate change to children. They’re too young to do anything about it; they can’t vote, they have little control over  their eating habits, they can’t control how they get around, but mostly because it’s not their fault. Climate change is a problem that we and our parents and their parents have caused, and it sucks to be the one to tell kids about what’s going to happen when they’re adults. Also, we were across the aisle from a virtual reality blood vein, so tough for jars of gas to compete. Bringing climate science to kids relies on props: cores, fossils, etc.; bringing it to adults can use that, but you can also talk about the real and very scary challenges that we will face due to climate change.

 

Teaching Controversial Subjects in a Conservative Area

Andy here-

Political polarization, the ever-widening divide between Right and Left in the US, is an obvious problem. We have lost our ability to communicate with one another: using different sets of ‘facts’ to back up our arguments, with the ‘facts’ depending on our side of the political spectrum. The internet has in large part facilitated this fracturing. One can spend 10 minutes on Google to find support for anything that they believe. For example, Youtube videos link to increasingly conspiratorial videos, pushing us farther apart. This loss to our collective conversation is damaging in most arenas, even in the classroom or lecture halls. When a collection of outright lies masquerading as facts meets science, it causes problems. When a student population has firmly-held beliefs in concepts that are simply not true, as a facet of their personal values or beliefs, this presents a difficult and unique challenge for an instructor. I was a visiting assistant professor in a conservative area, dealt with these issues, and hope to provide some help for those who are walking into a similar task in this post.

I loved teaching at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), enjoyed my time with both my students and colleagues. Some of this is going to read as if I was combative the entire time I was at SHSU. I wasn’t. I truly enjoyed interacting with my students (and most liked interacting with me, from reading my evaluations), especially the ones who thought about topics differently than I do. College is supposed to be about exposure to new ideas, after all. I find it difficult to let people believe in materially incorrect things however, especially when they’re detrimental to their lives, and to my own or my family’s lives. SHSU is in a very conservative area in East Texas, and my introductory, general education course covered both climate change and evolution. Covering these subjects meant that the students signing up for “Historical Geology” as an easy science credit got a more ‘controversial’ course than they expected.

To say that climate change or evolution is controversial is imprecise. Both subjects, scientifically, are not controversial, especially at the introductory level. Evolution is a multifaceted theory that is accepted by scientists and there are no competing arguments; this has been understood for 150 years. Scientists also agree that the climate has been changing for decades, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a potent greenhouse gas since Svante Arrhenius calculated the extent to which increases in CO2 can cause heating in the atmosphere (he was alive in 1859-1927). Both subjects, unfortunately, are controversial in the public’s eye. Today, 29% of the American public believe scientists do not agree that humans have evolved over timeand 32% reject the scientific fact that is human-caused climate change (and 24% are uncertain!). Walker County, TX, which SHSU is in, has 7% lower acceptance rate than the national average. When I asked my students if scientists agree or do not agree that evolution is a fundamental process describing change through time, ~20% said scientists did not agree. To say that my classes were comprised of more conservative students, with strong personal beliefs, than an average introductory science course in the US is probably accurate.

Teaching these particular students about climate change isn’t simply because it’s course material–it’s vital for them specifically. My second week of teaching was canceled entirely by the university because of the impact to the region by Hurricane Harvey. SHSU is a 45 minute drive from Houston, and areas of the town were closed. Many students were commuting from the south, and some had to miss additional classroom time. One individual had to miss many Fridays that semester because he was working on fixing his mother’s house. Climate change has a direct impact on that region, will continue to have a direct impact, and these students should be fully cognizant of their choices when acting as consumers or citizens. There is an irony to a region economically-driven by oil production reaping the consequences of climate change. That, however, doesn’t mean that the population should suffer

Flooding in Houston, Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The hurricane caused unprecedented flooding which displaced 30,000 people from their homes, causing more than $125 billion in damages. Image by urban.houstonian

Educating a student population with strongly held personal beliefs counter to course material doesn’t work well with traditional teaching methods. We not only have to teach students the material that they need them to understand for the course (past greenhouse gas changes, radiative forcing, proxy data, feedback mechanisms, etc.) but we also have to convince them of barefaced reality. We have to convince them that, no, scientists aren’t lying to them or the public. We have to convince them that we’re not in the pocket of ‘big-environment’, reaping the benefits of ‘big’ grants. We have to recover their idea that there can be legitimacy of the scientific process. If you say the words ‘climate change’ to someone of a Right ideology, they are likely to not listen to what you say afterwards because you’ve been written off as ‘far-Left’. How do you teach when your students might react that way?

A Hybrid Teaching Approach

Instructors, professors, and educators have to engage in science communication rather than teaching. Not entirely, but to a degree that can be uncomfortable. To explain: Science communication is sharing scientific results with the non-expert public. It relies heavily on a ‘values-based’ model, which is empirically more effective than the older ‘information-deficit’ model. The information-deficit model said that “People just don’t know enough, so if I explain what I know, they’ll agree with me.” That’s standard teaching. The professor explains the subject, the students take notes, everybody agrees the professor is telling the truth and that the professor has the most thorough understanding and information. The information-deficit model assumes that facts win, which simply isn’t the case.  We resist facts that don’t conform to our strongly held beliefs. It doesn’t work if everyone does not agrees that the professor has authority in the subject. If a large enough number of the class think the professor is a member of a global conspiracy of attempted wealth redistribution, then the information deficit model falls completely apart. If the information-deficit model worked, then no one walking out of a (properly taught) high school biology course would believe intelligent design or creationism. That’s simply not the case.

The values-model says that the communicator (professor, instructor, educator) establishes shared values with their audience and communicates with them in a back-and-forth exchange.  They then explain why a scientific concept is important to them, and why it should also be important for those who share the same values. That’s not teaching, in the purest sense, because it’s broader than just pure information conveying. That’s also not possible in the lectures we frequently find ourselves teaching.

Let’s assume that our goal is to take students who are uncertain about climate change, or don’t believe that evolution has occurred through time, and get them to accept scientific truths. Information-deficit isn’t going to get us to students accepting the truth, if we’re dealing with a resistant population. While not all of my students were resistant, I like to ‘swing for the fences’ and get everybody to understand concepts. Past students said they liked the ‘nobody left behind’ classroom ethos I set out. The values-model is uncomfortable for scientists, in particular. A scientific-upbringing, like one has while you get a Ph.D., prizes the ultra-rational and eschews ‘values’ for data (click here for a discussion about science being inherently political). 

Blending both the values-based and information-deficit models of teaching might be the right approach. We need to communicate information, but if we demonstrate to students why the subject matters, how it fits with their previously held ideas, or even provide space for them to blend their faith with known biology, then we move them away from irrational, ill-placed skepticism.

I had these concepts gnawing at the back of my head while I was teaching my introductory course (Historical Geology). There was one particular moment that help me see a blending as the correct way forward. In class I occasionally asked students to submit anonymous questions to me on note cards about either impending or just-covered subject material. I’m one of the only research-centric scientists these students might ever meet, and I know from conversations with students that they have questions that weren’t covered in the course. Sometimes I answered the note card questions in lecture alongside the regular material, like in my climate lectures. Other times they exchanged cards with 5 other people, then the last person decided if they wanted to ask that now-anonymous question right then. At the end of my evolution section I got the question “What are your values?” from a student. I used my answer to that question as my first slide when discussing climate change.

That’s me sharing a value that most folks should share: that truth is important, something that we should respect. I used it to set the stage for a series of lectures on climate change that talks primarily about the mechanism and past examples, but also talked about climate models, future projections, and why we’re still arguing about it.

The following are my suggestions for how to teach a subject that folks in your classes think is controversial.

Basic Structure

I opted for an overt structure to the roughly two weeks that I discussed climate change. I went methodically through a series of questions, going from “What can change climate?” to “Has climate changed in the past?” and “Why might it matter?”. Touching back to the objections that folks have to climate change and systematically explaining why they are wrong is useful, and makes a really compelling way to organize your lectures. Just be sure not to reinforce the incorrect material by stating it as a statement, rather phrase them as questions. So, you shouldn’t say things like “‘Climate changes all the time, so it doesn’t matter if it does now’ is wrong”, instead it should be “Has climate changed in the past? Yes, but here’s why that’s important”.

Spend Time with Contrarian ‘Evidence’

I had a student bring up a conspiracy theory: the Rothschilds were funding research in climate change and if the research came up counter to human-caused climate change they’d bury it. The student then brought up a ‘fact’ which I’d never encountered before, which they said had been buried by the Rothschilds company. The fact was counter to a huge amount of real research. All I was able to do in the moment was to explain the way things really are, but if the student has decided that the underlying data is falsified it’s difficult to counter. Since then, all I’ve been able to find is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory from the Napoleonic Wars and a Democratic DC Council member talking about how the Rothschilds control the weather. I still do not know where the student got their ‘fact’. I feel like I was under prepared to handle that interaction.

The index card activity that I mentioned above allowed me time to prep for these kinds of questions from my students, when I ask them for questions for the next lecture. I prompt them with “What’s a question that you’ve always wanted to ask a climate scientist? Something you heard about that sounds wrong or is confusing?”. On the spot, it’s difficult to do the due-diligence of tracking down the source of the student’s misconception. A student in another class wrote a question about Al Gore’s prediction of a sea-ice free Arctic Ocean by a certain deadline. The student missed several key points; it was about Arctic summer ice, Gore is not a scientist, the actual analysis Gore got that from was correct, Gore just used the most pessimistic number rather than the scientists preferred value, etc. Those aren’t facts I keep in my head, but I was able to collate them and present them one-after-the-other as a way to dismantle that piece of misinformation.

One way to view the interactions is as an accidental “Gish Gallop”. Dwayne T. Gish was a debater of evolutionary biologists. He was infamous for his rapid-fire objections to evolutionary science. He would place a simple objection, “There are no transitional forms,” and then another and another, then the scientist would need to explain why that’s clearly not true. The explanation requires a great deal more time. Any unanswered objection is then assumed by the audience to be correct. Such is the way in these classes. If you don’t clarify or correct a student’s point, that point is assumed to be correct, at least by the students you’re trying to reach the most, the ones that don’t accept the legitimacy of climate or evolutionary science.

In an ideal world a student would say, “Did you know crazy-thing-X?” and you respond, “I saw that somewhere, but that’s completely wrong because of A-B-C-D, and have you considered that person-backing-X does so because of E-F-G?”. It’s easier to catch something out of left field if you have some knowledge of the outfield.

Consider Your Approach

Telling somebody to their face that they’re an idiot for voting for somebody might be both cathartic and true sometimes, but it’s not that effective. Changing minds doesn’t involve hurling epithets, even if the president and his supporters are doing it (please see section My Perspective below for an important caveat). Scientists have facts on our side. Proving your point without literally cursing the name of the current president during a lecture in class is more effective than adding “*&@^ Trump”. Are you just venting your own frustration or are you trying to actively convince these folks who are wrong to join the correct side? By all means, force your students to grapple with the underlying long-term consequences of their voting choices, if they voted for him, but do it in the most effective way possible. Yelling at them is just going to stop them from listening.

An example: three students and I are having a conversation that explicitly turns to voting for Trump*. One student voted for Trump because Trump was going to redistribute wealth to the little guy, the other voted for Trump because Trump was going to engage in trickle-down economics (a failed style of economic policy that gives taxes breaks to the ultra-wealthy that then increases economic benefit down the class structure [it fundamentally does not work]). I tried to make sure they realized that they voted for him for polar opposite reasons, and that at least one of them had to be wrong about what Trump would do in office. Just like we try to do in education: making them walk down the path themselves, providing a guiding hand when necessary, and not just telling them, is more effective than yelling it at them (I’ll admit I laughed at the idea that trickle-down economics would actually be effective, but it took me by surprise).

I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the students perceived me as the messenger. I am originally from the Northern Midwest, where “hey guys” is a gender-nonspecific greeting for a group. In Texas it’s “y’all”, which is actually gender-nonspecific, unlike guys which is just used as nonspecific while being male. It’s very easy to adopt regionalisms accidentally or when it appeals to you for good reason. I’m living in the UK now and I’ve no reason to start saying trousers but I have. I fought the “y’all” change because it felt like the students would perceive me trying to co-opt their language to be more like them, which if you add me trying to push them away from strongly held viewpoints, would lead to resentment.

*This happened without me trying to get the conversation there. I try to discuss the political issues with my students, not the individuals involved in politics, when possible.

Talk Politics

One of the questions that stuck out in my mind most from the folks who already accepted and had seemed like they might have a solid understanding of climate change was “Why do some people not believe in climate change?”.

Besides the word ‘believe’ in there, it’s a really astute question. Why is it? The physical basis is solid and fairly simple. The question ends up being more of a social science question. Leaving that unanswered though, falls into a serious trap. If you’re presenting the physical science of climate change you leave questions in your students’ minds. They know there’s another side to the ‘debate’. While the ‘there are two sides to every story’ journalism trope has plenty of faults, we’re conditioned to expect to hear the other side’s opinions. So cover it! Without it you seem like you’re trying to obfuscate.

Explain how the Pope, the U.S. Department of Defense, and all oil companies have statements affirming that climate change is real. Go to Open Secrets and show them where the lobbying money goes (mostly Republicans, with the occasional Democrat from an Oil state like North Dakota). Talk about the fight to remove lead from gasoline (which has a great connection to the age of the Earth), or talk about cancer and tobacco litigation.  I also try to explain to students about the Dunning-Kruger effect and how confident non-experts can be when discussing topics (which explains the bulk of the internet). Explain how you can simply say the words “Climate change” to someone on the right and they erect a mental wall, not hearing anything after. Explain that the divide on climate change acceptance can be attributed strongly to political party. It is scientifically shown that climate change is a a political issue . By ducking the question you’re doing a disservice to your students.

Judging Pseudo-scientific crap (fact checking?)

A basic understanding of how to engage in sniffing out pseudoscience is useful these days. There are folks peddling all sorts of incorrect information, and students should be inoculated to that. It’s certainly relevant to climate change, where on social media stories about how climate change is all faked go viral very quickly. Giving students a primer on how to suss out lies, misinformation, and disinformation is important in your class and literally every other!

Individual Actions vs. Community Actions

Lastly, while this might lose your conservative students, it’s important to discuss with your students the actions that can be taken. While individual actions are useful and important, we all have our roles to play in conservation, those individual actions aren’t going to solve anything by themselves. The issue in climate change isn’t solved by one, two, or a hundred people starting to recycle (though that is a good end), it’s systemic change that is required to fix this problem. The end goal of doing this is to motivate the students to vote or to engage with their policy makers in some fashion. Them driving less is important, but the impact is not of the magnitude that we need.

I’m deeply uncomfortable with advocating for individual solutions. As a physical scientist teaching a physical science course at a public institution, it’s not really my purview to go into what solutions are politically feasible, unless asked. I explain the situation, I go through some of the solutions we have, and the implication is that the most effective one is to get involved politically. Because it is. That’s the solution to the community action; to involve the community in solving the problem.

My perspective

All of this has been from my individual perspective. I’m a straight white dude in my thirties. I look, and probably outwardly project, a more traditional set of values than I actually hold. That affords me a whole lot of privilege in certain situations. Particularly in conservative areas there’s a baseline respect that comes with students having to call you ‘Sir’, ‘Doctor’, or ‘Professor’. It works, I think, really well to act as a Trojan horse for these students as someone who is not immediately othered within their views. For example, I don’t appear as and am not queer, so there aren’t quick barriers thrown up that my views or perspective is from ‘one of them’, similar to how when the words “climate change” are used, conservative individuals ignore the rest of the argument made.

So your mileage may vary. This advice may not work, some might actually be horribly counter productive for somebody who doesn’t have a similar background or the assumed respect that goes with being a white, male professor. I chose to keep my preferred pronouns out of my email signature while at SHSU, because that’s a clear sign I’m a lefty. Part of my privilege is that it’s not a life-and-death or job-or-no-job situation for me to fight for those rights. I don’t have the level of righteous anger of someone marginalized, targeted, or worse by our government, which allows me the privilege to not having to worry about getting into many possible unsafe situations. I opted to not engage on some issues in my first semester teaching, and to only deal with very specific battles. Making sure that I taught my course material, including those viewed as political, as effectively as possible seemed like a good first step.

 

 

Picking Foraminifera for Stable Isotope Analyses

Adriane here-

I am beginning to finish one of my dissertation chapters, which means I am starting on a new research project! But first, let me explain (for those who may not know) what a dissertation is: A dissertation is a compilation of three papers, or as we in academia call them, chapters. Each chapter is meant to eventually be published in a scientific journal, as each one is a separate research project or study. Some PhD programs may be different, but at my university, we usually have 3 chapters in our dissertations; in other words, in order to gain a PhD, we have to conduct 3 separate research projects.

Sea surface temperature map of the northwest Pacific Ocean (see inset map at top left). Here, the major ocean currents are labeled by white arrows. The Kuroshio Current flows along the eastern coast of Japan, where it meets the cold-water Oyashio Current. Around 35 degrees north, the Kuroshio Current flows into the Pacific Ocean, where it becomes the Kuroshio Current Extension. The three sites I’m working with are plotted on the map (Sites 1207, 1208, and 1209).

The new project that I am beginning is to reconstruct the ‘behavior’ of the Kuroshio Current Extension. This current, which I’ll call the KCE, is a western boundary current. Western boundary currents flow along the western edge of ocean basins. The KCE flows along the east coast of Japan, on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. Western boundary currents are quite important because they transport really warm waters from the equator northward to higher latitudes. This warm water that is transported towards the poles provides water vapor to the atmosphere. Thus, these currents, to some extent, control weather patterns (such as rain). But western boundary currents, and especially the KCE, are very important areas for wildlife as well. Where the KCE is forms what is called an ecotone. An ecotone is a region where two biological regions come into contact. Here, within the KCE, species that live in warm waters are able to mix with species that live in cooler waters. This makes for a very diverse (a lot of different species) area within the KCE. Even corals, who can only tolerate warmer waters, are found at their furthest poleward extent in the KCE region. And associated with corals and coral reefs are fish and their predators. So, the KCE region is an important region to local Japanese fisheries.

By now you might be wondering why all this background on the KCE matters. Because the area within the KCE is so important from a climate, biological, and economical perspective, it’s important to understand how the current will behave (shift to the north or south, increase or decrease transport capacity) under climate change. Right now, we have direct measurements of the KCE that indicate the current is beginning to slowly shift northward. But how much will the current shift? How will this affect the food chain in this region? To begin answering these questions, geoscientists often go back in time to investigate these systems during times of elevated global warmth. Thus, I will be reconstructing the sea surface temperature at three sites that cross the KCE during a more recent warm period in Earth’s history, called the mid-Pliocene Warm Period.

In 2001, there were three sites in the ocean that scientists collected sediment cores from. These three cores were collected to the north of, directly under, and to the south of the modern-day position of the KCE. I’m using sediment taken from the cores collected at these three sites to reconstruct the position of the current from 5 to 2.5 million years ago. But how will I do this?

When a specimen of Globigerinoides ruber or Globigerinoides obliquus is found from a sediment sample, it’s picked out with a paintbrush and some water and plopped into this labeled slide. The numbers at the top are the sample number.

To reconstruct sea surface temperatures, we need to measure stable isotopes of carbon and oxygen (read more about these two proxies on our ‘Isotopes’ page). Namely, oxygen is the most commonly used proxies to reconstruct temperature, and carbon is more commonly used to determine how productivity (or, more simply, how many nutrients were in the water column) through time. We measure isotopes of carbon and oxygen from the shells of planktic foraminifera.

This is one of the small weighing trays I use to weigh the specimens that are picked from the sediment samples. Each tray has a number associated with it (see sticker at bottom right).

The first step in this study is to ‘pick’ planktic foraminifera. This means that within each sediment sample within my 5-2.5 million year time interval, I sprinkle sediment into a tray and, with a paintbrush, literally pick out a certain species of foraminifera. The species that I’m using in this study is called Globigerinoides ruber. I just call them ‘rubers’ for short. This species of foraminifera is useful because it is still alive (extant) in today’s oceans, and because of that, scientists know exactly where this species likes to hang out in the water column. Rubers live in the upper part of the surface ocean, so they effectively record the conditions of the ocean’s surface, which is great!

Once I have picked out enough specimens from a sample (which ranges from 10 to 20), I weigh the specimens in an aluminum tray on a very sensitive scale. I need about 150 micro grams of rubers per sample for a good isotopic measurement.

After I have weighed the specimens, I then take my paintbrush and put them, one at a time, into a small plastic vial that is numbered. I also have a spreadsheet where I record all of the information, such as the number of specimens picked per sample, the empty weight of the aluminum tray, the weight of the tray and specimens (so that I can then calculate the weight of just the specimens), and the vial number that corresponds to each sample.

Plastic snap-top vials that each have a number. After the specimens are weighed in the aluminum trays, I then transfer them to these vials. I’ll mail these to another university, where the specimens will be analyzed.

I put the specimens in a vial with a very tight snap-cap because I will send all my samples to another university for isotopic measurements. We could do the measurements at my university, but the machine that we use to do this is not properly calibrated to make measurements off of foraminifera. But lucky for me, I have some awesome collaborators that do have machines that are finely tuned to take isotopic measurements from foraminifera!

Once vialed, the samples will be mailed off to the University of Missouri for isotopic measurements. It usually takes anywhere from 1-3 months for my collaborator there to run all my samples. When he is finished, I’ll receive a spreadsheet with the measurements. I’ll plot these data through time. Then, the fun part: I get to make interpretations about my data! I’ll use these data to track changes in the KCE through time, and also to correlate evolution and extinction events of planktic foraminifera to changes in sea surface temperature through time!

Creating a High-Resolution Biostratigraphy

Adriane here-

A sea surface temperature map of the northwest Pacific Ocean, with warmer colors representing warm waters, and cooler colors representing cooler waters. The white lines with arrows are the major ocean currents , with the Kuroshio Current flowing along the coast of Japan. The three deep sea sites I’m using in my research are plotted on the map (black dots).

For the past two years, I’ve been conducting research into planktic foraminifera (‘foram’) evolutionary events in the northwest Pacific Ocean, specifically across the western boundary current known as the Kuroshio Current Extension (which I’ll call the KCE from now on). This is a dynamic area of the ocean, and is unique in that forams from warm waters are able to mix and mingle with cold water forams. This mixing of warm and cool species may lead to evolution of new species, but this process is poorly understood. So, part of my dissertation is to determine how important these western boundary currents, specifically the Kuroshio Current Extension, is in the creation of new plankton species. In doing this study, I am also creating a way to tell time using planktic foraminiferal biostratigraphy. OK, those were a lot of big words, so let me explain:

Biostratigraphy is composed of two primary words: bio, meaning life, and stratigraphy, which is a branch of geology concerned with the relative order of rocks and putting time into the rock record. So in short, biostratigraphy is using life to put time into the rock record, or using fossils to tell time. In my case, I use planktic foraminifera to tell time (read more about how I do that here). Commonly in biostratigraphy, we (paleontologists) create zones, which are blocks of time that are constrained by the evolution and extinction events of animals or, in my case, plankton. In the northwest Pacific, there are currently no detailed planktic foram biostratigraphies. Part of my research is to fix this problem!

To conduct a biostratigraphy and thus look at plankton evolution and extinction events, I’m working with sediment that was taken from three sediment cores. These cores were drilled from the north, directly under, and to the south of the modern-day position of the KCE in the northwest Pacific Ocean. The sites go back in time to ~15 million years ago, which is quite young compared to the rest of Earth’s history (4.6 billion years!). Each site contains minerals that aligned to the Earth’s magnetic pole when they were deposited on the seafloor. The direction in which these minerals align were measured by other scientists when the cores were drilled. It turns out that each core records almost all of the Earth’s changes in its magnetic pole. This is important because other scientists through the decades have worked hard to date each of these magnetic reversals. Thus, I can use these ages to construct an age model for each of my sites (an age model is where I assign an age to a certain depth in the core where a magnetic reversal happened; what I end up with is a plot where I can calculate the age at any depth in the core). This age model is important because I can then use it to determine precisely when a foram species evolved or went extinct at any of my three sites.

One of my cardboard slides. Each box contains a different species of foraminifera. On the side of the cardboard box, in purple ink, is the identifying code that tells me where exactly in the world and in the sediment core this sample is located. Currently, I have 414 of these!

The first step was to determine at what resolution I wanted to look at foram evolutionary events. I went with 30,000 years, on average. This means that every extinction or evolutionary event has an error of plus or minus 30,000 years. This seems like a lot, but in reality, it’s pretty good! After determining the resolution I wanted, I then used my age model to determine where within each core I wanted to request sediment samples from. All of the cores I use are stored in a facility in College Station, TX (read more about it here), and any scientist can order samples from the facility for free (it’s awesome!). The samples arrived within 2 months after I ordered them.

After I had sorted, sieved, and dried each sample to obtain foraminifera, my samples were ready to be used! I started at the warmest site, the one located to the south of the KCE, in the youngest sample. I sprinkled sediment from the sample onto a tray, looked at the sample under the microscope, and picked out with a small paintbrush every species I could identify. These specimens were placed on a specimen slide (a rectangular cardboard slide with 60 boxes) that had a thin layer of glue over it. In this way, the specimens from each sample stay on the slide, and can be looked at by researchers for years to come. I also have slide maps, or pieces of paper with 60 boxes printed on it where I label what species is in each box on the glued specimen slide. Picking one sample takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how many species are present in the sample.

This is a figure with all of the evolution and extinction events that happen at my three sites. Site 1207 is on the left; 1208 in the middle; and 1209 on the right. In the middle is the Geologic Time Scale, representing the last 15 million years of earth’s history. The other two sites (1207 and 1209) are also plotted along time, with oldest at the bottom and youngest at the top. The species names that are in red are extinctions; the names in blue are evolution events.

It’s important to note that I did not look at all the samples that I ordered from College Station, TX. Instead, I did a ‘preliminary pass’ through every 10th or so sample. When I found a sample where a species evolved or went extinct, I then looked at the sample between that one and the next, and repeated that process over and over until I had constrained the event to +/- 30,000 years. I then repeated this process for the other two sites.

Once I had all the data, I plotted it up into several figures and spreadsheets to see where all the evolution and extinction events are taking place. Then, I looked at when several species that are commonly used to define zones among sites (these species are used because they are resistant to dissolution when ocean waters become acidic, they are large and easy to identify, and they occur in high numbers in each sample) evolved or went extinct. It turns out that although the three sites I’m using are close together (they span about 5 degrees of latitude), an evolution or extinction event in one species happened at different times across cores! This is a really cool result, as it means changes in the position of the Kuroshio Current Extension could have caused a species to migrate away or not able to live in the area anymore!

In addition to constraining plankton evolutionary events, I was also able to create zones for use in biostratigraphy bound by these evolutionary events. This is the first study that will have constrained plankton evolutionary events in the northwest Pacific Ocean at a high resolution, and the first time mid-latitude planktic foraminifera zones are calibrated (directly plugged into) the Earth’s magnetic record! I hope to publish these results later this summer in a scientific journal!

Ruthie Halberstadt, Glaciologist

 

Ruthie doing field work in the Dry Valleys, Antarctica, helping to collect a permafrost core that records ice sheet dynamics during the mid-Miocene (a very warm time period ~14 million years ago, the last time that atmospheric CO2 levels were similar to today).

What do you do, and how does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

I study ice sheet dynamics in Antarctica, which means that I am interested in the processes that influence how ice mass gets moved off the continent and into the ocean, in either solid (iceberg) or liquid form. The term ‘ice-sheet dynamics’ may be confusing if you think of Antarctica as a giant frozen ice cube. Instead, think of the Antarctic ice sheet as a giant cone of sand – when you pour dry sand on the top of a sand pile with steep edges, rivulets of sand start to form. These ‘streams’ move sand from the top of the pile out to the edges. In Antarctica, the same process (gravity) creates fast-moving corridors of ice – we even call them ‘ice streams’.

OK, so what about the ‘dynamics’ part? Now imagine that your pesky little sister takes a shovel, and removes a chunk of sand at the edge of the pile. Sand will flow into the newly-created hole, right? The same thing happens when warm ocean temperatures melt ice at the edges of the Antarctic continent: ice streams speed up and move more ice off the continent and into the ocean. Warm air temperatures can also increase surface meltwater production which can drain into crevasses and promote iceberg calving, also causing ice streams to drain more ice into the ocean.

These processes add to the total volume of water in the ocean. Therefore, what happens to the Antarctic ice sheet in the future will determine the rate and amount of global sea level rise.

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

I use computer models that simplify the interactions between ice sheet and the climate, in order to reconstruct ice-sheet dynamics. We need to be confident that these models can adequately represent past time periods, though, before we can trust the computer model predictions of future Antarctic mass loss and sea level rise. Therefore, we validate these computer models by comparing them to geologic records of ice sheet behavior. My previous research project interpreted ice sheet dynamics and retreat patterns by mapping features that fast-moving ice-streams carved into the ground throughout the last glacial cycle. This information is used to calibrate the ice sheet model, ensuring that the model is physically realistic and reconstructs the same ice sheet retreat pattern as I interpret from the geologic record.

The  animation below shows a computer model projection for future sea level rise up to the year 2500. Here, the model assumes business-as-usual carbon emissions until the year 2100 (following ‘Representative Carbon Pathway’ RCP8.5). Even though the model’s carbon emissions are held constant after the year 2100, it takes the Antarctic ice sheet decades to centuries to fully respond to the high-CO2 forcing, leading to a huge amount of sea level rise. You can see the ice sheet (blue) get thinner and retreat, exposing the land (brown) of the continent underneath. I made this animation as part of a project to predict future sea level for the city of Boston; you can learn more about this project here, and see the full video I made here.  This is an example of how ice sheet computer models are used to predict future impacts of our modern decisions about carbon emissions.

 

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

One of my favorite parts about being a scientist is the international community. When I go to conferences, or participate in field work, I am always in the company of international colleagues who become friends. I learn so much about science, but also about culture and history I would not be exposed to otherwise. Another favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to travel to amazing places, like Antarctica!

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

My biggest piece of advice to young scientists (and to everyone) is: ASK STUPID QUESTIONS. Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question, but no, it doesn’t mean that you are stupid. It means that you care more about understanding a concept and broadening your mind than what the people around you think. It’s hard – I still struggle with this, especially in a public setting like a class or lecture – but it’s so important. Asking stupid questions is by far the #1 easiest way to learn anything new, and often leads to the best conversations you’ll ever have. If you have a stupid question but feel embarrassed, just remember that there is a 99% chance that someone around you is wondering the same thing but is too shy to ask.