FORCE11 Scholarly Communication Institute

Sunset on the UCLA campus

Rose here-

This summer I attended the FORCE11 Scholarly Communication Institute. This was a cool opportunity because I have been to many research-focused conferences and workshops, but I’ve not yet been to one that focused on scholarly communications. Scholarly communications refers to the process of publishing and communicating research, from arts and sciences to humanities. FSCI is unique because it brings together students, researchers, librarians, and publishers. Some of the sessions during the week were about new methods for making your research reproducible, from research methods to repositories for code and data. Others were on aspects of the publishing industry and how we can make research more accessible across the divides of language barriers and paywalls (when a paper is only accessible if you or your institution has a subscription to the journal it is in).

Exploring the botanical gardens at UCLA

The workshop was set up so that each participant would choose three courses throughout the week, one in the mornings and two in the afternoons. The course that I enjoyed the most and felt gave me the most practical knowledge to bring back was called “The Scientific Paper of the Future”. This course talked about various aspects of the research and publishing process in the context of open science. I was familiar with data management plans and depositing data in repositories, but there were some aspects that were new to me. For example, there is now a trend of also depositing code and software packages developed as part of research in repositories, and also writing journal articles to document and describe them. Another is documenting your workflow. There are a few websites to do this now, which involves writing up a plan for who on your team is going to do which aspects of research, and then documenting this as you go. Workflow documenting also includes writing down every detail of your method and even the experiments and workflows that did not work, to help people avoid repeating your mistakes and instead building on your work.

Exploring the botanical gardens at UCLA

This was a new type of workshop for me, but it was really great to get out of my comfort zone of interacting mostly with fellow scientists to meet librarians and publishing experts who are also interested in open science for everyone.

Riley Black, Science Writer & Paleontologist

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

Science thrives on curiosity. Even though we can talk about Science as an apparatus of journals, schools, and theories, basic questions like “What’s that?” are what draw us into a richer understanding of nature. For myself, dinosaurs were my introduction to science. I wanted to know everything I could about them from the time I was little. I wanted to know how they moved, what they ate, why they dominated the world for so long, and more. And while a career as an academic paleontologist wasn’t in the cards for me, I’m glad that writing about the past gave me an alternate route to engage with paleontology and contribute to the field in my own way.

What do you do?

I’m a writer! My career is centered around writing about paleontology and the animals the science studies, which means I freelance for publications such as Smithsonian, Slate, and Nature when there’s something neat to say about prehistoric life. I’ve also written several books. Written in Stone, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Skeleton Keys are fossil-based books for adults, while Prehistoric Predators is a children’s book about ancient carnivores. And I’m just starting a new adult-audience book about the mass extinction that ended the Cretaceous. The flexibility in my career also lets me go out on fossil expeditions, and I’ve been going out every summer since 2011 to join different museums and universities all across the American west to help them find and excavate fossils. I never expected to become a writer, but searching for old bones is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.

A Brachychirotherium track Riley found!

What methods do you use to engage your audience and community? 

There’s no single way to best communicate science. The methods that work in a museum, a podcast, Twitter, a book, or a talk are all different. And that’s what’s wonderful. There are so many ways to tell stories about science, who engages in the quest, and what questions we most want to know. My biggest bit of advice would be to think about your format and audience. Who are you trying to reach? What stories do you want to tell? Connection can take many forms, and simply keeping that goal in mind can have a huge difference. Science isn’t an Answer or a dictate. It is, and should be, a conversation.

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

We often think of the past almost as an alien world. We focus on the strange and unusual. But the fact of the matter is that the world around us today evolved from times of the past, and we can trace everything around us through Deep Time. Every species alive today has connections through the fossil record, for example, and we can look at how organisms in the past reacted to issues we face today – from forest fires to sweeping climate change. I see my role as an interpreter of these stories. I want to remind people that we have an inextricable connection to our favorite extinct species and that a richer view of the past helps us appreciate the world we’re now in. I also try to comment on how science gets done and changes through time. Science is done by people, after all, and that means the history of paleontology and how the science is conducted is just as important as its results.

Riley pointing to Permian aged (~280 million years ago) Walchia fronds (fossil plants).

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Ask questions. Not only of what you want to know, but about the paleo pathways you might travel. There’s a common misconception that becoming a professor or curator is the pinnacle of paleontology and what everyone aspires to. This isn’t true at all. Some of the happiest paleos I know are collections managers, preparators, mitigation paleontologists, or have taken positions outside the tenure track lane. And paleontology offers many opportunities to stay involved even if studying fossils isn’t your career. The field thrives on amateur expertise and assistance, from searching for new fossil localities to assisting in museum collections. Whatever you do, don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that there’s only one way to be a paleontologist or that you need to give up your identity to fit a certain mold. There are so many ways to engage your wonder about ancient life, and the greater the diversity of voices in the field the stronger our understanding will become.

Comparison of Meetings: GSA vs. NAPC

Jen and Adriane here – 

Recently, we were able to participate in the 11th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC), held in Riverside California. This meeting is hosted every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. In comparison, we are usually able to attend the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) Meeting. These meetings have many differences and here, we explain the importance and differences of each meeting. 

Geological Society of America 

The GSA 2019 logo.

The Geological Society of America meeting is held every year in a major city, with smaller regional meetings held each year as well. For example, I (Adriane) am currently in New York, so I am part of the Northeast Section of GSA. The Northeast Section includes Washington D.C., Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont in the United States, as well as the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and parts of Ontario in Canada. Find what section you are in by clicking here.

But here, we’ll just focus on the larger national GSA meetings that are held yearly. The mission of GSA is to “advance geoscience research and discovery, service to society, stewardship of Earth, and the geoscience profession”. The vision of the society is to “be the premier geological society supporting the global community in scientific discovery, communication, and application of geoscience knowledge”. The GSA meetings embody the vision and mission of the society by bringing geoscientists together from all subfields to share their recent research, discuss new initiatives and goals for their specific fields, and to support students. These meetings are also a wonderful place to network, catch up with friends and colleagues, and make new friends and colleagues. 

Solveig (works with Adriane), Adriane, Jen, Sam (works with Jen), and Sarah posing for one last picture together at GSA 2019!

Generally, GSA is held in a large convention center in a well-known city. This year (2019), the meeting was held in Phoenix, Arizona. The year before that (2018), it was held in Indianapolis, Indiana. Next year (2020), the meeting will be held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The meeting location changes every year (except for every 2-3 years, the meeting is held back in Denver, Colorado) to be close to the society’s headquarters. 

When registering for GSA, the only thing that our registration covers is access to the meeting and an evening beverage (soft drinks, wine, or beer) during the poster sessions. GSA has different ‘tiers’ for membership, so not everyone pays the same registration costs. For K-12 teachers, registration is only $50; however for professionals (such as professors) the cost is $430. There are additional activities we can sign up for, such as breakfasts, dinners, workshops, and even field trips to check out the local geology. Many of these additional events are at a fee. For example, this year I (Jen) attended the Paleontological Society Business Meeting ($45 for professionals; $15 for students), Association for Women Geoscientists breakfast ($42 for professionals; $15 for students), and the GSA Education Division Awards Luncheon ($54 for everyone). Separately, they aren’t a big deal but they really add up quickly. Click here to read about all the add-ons for this year’s conference.

GSA is structured with a day that is full of talks. These talks are split into different subsections, which are held in different rooms. We call each room with themed talks a session. There are usually tens of sessions going on at any one time, usually scheduled from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm. Poster presentations are hung up in the poster hall all day long for people to view at their leisure, but the poster presenters do not have to be there all day, just for about 2 hours in the evening. The poster presentations overlap with beer, wine, and soda offerings at GSA every afternoon. After about 6:30, the poster hall shuts down and folks go off to other evening events and meetings, to dinner, or sometimes just call it a day and go back to their hotels to rest. I, Adriane, generally try to get back to the hotel early (I’m an introvert and get pretty tired quickly), but that usually never happens as I always run into friends or have plans and just have too much fun to go home early. 

North American Paleontological Convention

The NAPC 2019 logo.

The North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) is held every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. This year it was held in Riverside, California. The previous event was held in 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. Unlike GSA, NAPC is not a proper organization or society – those in charge rotate out and there are not set staff that are continually helping plan and execute these events. In other words, we cannot become a member of NAPC like we can GSA, as NAPC just refers to the name of a conference and not an entire structured organization.

Similar to GSA, the NAPC meetings have a few goals for the meetings. Namely, the purpose of NAPC is “to exchange research findings, define future directions, and be a forum for extended and relaxed interactions between professionals and early career scientists, most particularly graduate and undergraduate students.Since NAPC was sponsored by the Paleontological Society (the major society for American paleontologists) the convention embodied many aspects of that society, including their recently revised code of conduct: 

Adriane and Jen (against the left limb of the R) with fellow science communicators. The great thing about NAPC was that it not only brought together scientists, but those of us who love to conduct educational outreach activities!

This is PS. The Paleontological Society is committed to safe and inclusive events and meetings for all attendees. The Code of Conduct applies to all members of the Society and to all participants of NAPC2019. The Paleontological Society is implementing “This IS PS” (Inclusive and Safe Paleontological Society) to help ensure adherence to the Code of Conduct at Society-sponsored events, including NAPC.

Registration for NAPC allowed you to stay at on campus dorms that were a convenient walk to and from the conference center. They also provided golf cart transportation to those that needed it. The dorms were four single rooms with two shared bathrooms, a living space, and a kitchen. This could be purchased alongside your conference registration and was $360 for five days, a steal in terms of lodging expenses (for reference, a hotel close to the convention center at GSA cost about $150 per night in Phoenix, Arizona). Those staying in these dorms were also offered breakfast in the nearby cafeteria. 

Jen, our friend Wesley, and Adriane at the NAPC banquet!

Every day there was a catered lunch in a large open area outside where you could grab a sandwich and chat with new or old friends during a break. This meant everyone was on a break during this time so you weren’t rushing to eat between sessions and everyone was in a unified space. This was one of my (Jen’s) favorite parts of the event. There was always someone new to sit with and catch up with. The conference also offered dinner almost every evening, some in the same location as lunch, another more formal banquet, and a more casual finger food event. 

There is something that inherently feels like bonding when you are sharing meals with collaborators and friends. I (Jen) think this was a really meaningful and well thought out aspect of the conference. Usually at large conferences such as GSA, everyone is scrambling to find food nearby and you don’t get to really have meaningful discussions. One thing that also really differs from GSA is that NAPC holds a banquet for everyone at the meeting. At this year’s banquet, there were string lights hung in trees, music playing, and very nice tables set up for us all. Later in the evening, we had a dance party which was a ton of fun! There was also a night where we had a raffle, with beer, wine, and food. It was great fun as well!

NAPC is structured similar to GSA, in that there are several talks that are going on in different sessions simultaneously throughout the day. However because NAPC is generally smaller than GSA, the number of sessions going on at any one time was on the range of 4 to 8. Also similar to GSA was the poster hall and session. At NAPC, the poster hall is much smaller, but the posters are left up all day, and presenters are required to be at them during the afternoon hours. Jen and I also chatted with folks at our NAPC posters throughout the day, as they are great places to talk about your research, tell friends what you’ve been up to, and get ideas about research you may want to conduct in the future. The poster sessions and daily meeting ended when it was time for dinner. 

GSA and NAPC by the Numbers

Item NAPC 2019 GSA 2019
Attendees ~700 from 34 countries ~6,000
Topics Paleontology Geoscience
Duration* 5 full days 5 full days
Registration Cost $350-425* $50-$430*
Included Meals Almost all meals included Several optional  luncheons & evening mixers
Included Lodging Yes, optional. $60/night No

*excluding optional pre and post field trips

Madison Elsaadi, Neuroscientist

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

I’ve basically been a scientist since I was a kid, it wasn’t until college that I began to consider science as a career path.  I’ve always been curious about the world, and even today my favorite part about being a neuroscientist is knowing that I’m at the forefront of human knowledge, it’s a powerful thought that has always attracted me to the field.  Neuroscience is essentially one of the only fields of science that lacks a foundational principle.  In other words, we know so little about the brain.  We know far more about galaxies light years away!

What do you do?

My research focuses on DNA damage and repair in adult neurons.  Every cell of your body, except neurons, can copy its genome in case the original suffers damage.  Because neurons don’t divide, your neurons are stuck with the same copy of DNA your entire life!  My work aims to better understand how neurons handle DNA damage, and how a lifetime of this damage can accumulate and manifest as a disease like depression, schizophrenia, and especially age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

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

To test DNA-instability in neurons, we use genetic engineering tools like CRISPR/Cas9 to modify genes involved in DNA damage repair.  I then measure structural changes in individual neurons.  Working with brain tissue, I can label proteins of interest using fluorescent dyes, and visualize them in 3D space using a confocal microscope, followed by 3D reconstruction of individual neurons.  Confocal microscopes emit a high-powered laser that shows nanometer structures…it’s like peeking inside a single neuron!

(Left) Flourescent 3D image of a single labeled neuron from the striatum of the mouse brain, captured using a Nikon Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope. (Right) Image is magnified and partially reconstructed using commercial software. Reconstructions permit detailed analyses of neuronal morphology.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?

The world is rapidly aging, and as of date no disease modifying therapeutics exist to combat neurodegenerative diseases.   Unlike other diseases, patients with neurodegeneration never recover and family members are exhausted from caring for them.  This means no one advocates for these patients or these diseases and often funding lags behind other fields like cancer research.  This has led many experts to sound the alarm and warn of a coming neurodegenerative epidemic [1].  My research suggests DNA-instability underlies neurodegeneration, and I hope the technology we’re developing can expedite drug discovery for these diseases and thereby lessen the burden families and society will face.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

For anyone considering a career in science, particularly entering into a life science PhD program, you should know it will be the most exciting, rewarding, stressful and frightful time of your life, so you should be ok with all those emotions!  I recommend thinking about potential career paths after graduate school – go perform the self-assessment [2] at the link below (it’s designed specifically for life science graduate students).  Secondly, I would join a research lab ASAP.  Cold call professors at local institutions and tell them your plans.  Many undergraduate professors will be eager to take you in.

1)  Petsko, Gregory A. “The next epidemic.” Genome biology vol. 7,5 (2006): 108. doi:10.1186/gb- 2006-7-5-108

2) https://myidp.sciencecareers.org/

Learn more about Madison through his LinkedIn and Instagram pages!

How much ice does Antarctica lose during warm times in Earth’s history?

Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials
David J. Wilson, Rachel A. Bertram, Emma F. Needham, Tina van de Flierdt, Kevin J. Welsh, Robert M. McKay, Anannya Mazumder, Christina R. Riesselman, Francisco J. Jiminez-Espejo, Carlota Escutia
Summarized by Time Scavengers collaborator Adriane Lam

Figure 1. An elevation map of Antarctica with a) the major regions labeled and b) a zoomed-in view of East Antarctica. The location of the sediment core (named U1361A) is denoted by the pale yellow dot. Image from Wilson et al. (2019).

Brief Summary: Today, sea level rise due to increasing global average temperatures is a huge threat to low-lying, coastal, and island communities. Sea level is rising, in part, from ice that is melting on Antarctica and Greenland. To understand how much sea level may rise in the near future, scientists look to the geologic past, when global temperatures were much warmer than today or close to the temperatures predicted for the coming decades. In this study, scientists looked at how much ice was lost from the Wilkes Subglacial Basin of East Antarctica during a time when global average temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial values. They find that during these warmer periods, called interglacials, there was significant ice that melted from East Antarctica, and contributed to sea level rises. Thus, in the future, the ice melting from East Antarctica will contribute more to sea level rise than we previously thought.

Data used and Methods: Sediment from a deep-sea core drilled from the continental margin of East Antarctica was used in this study (Figure 1). From this sediment core, the authors analyzed the different types of sediment contained within the core through time. From the changes in sediments, the scientists could tell how much erosion was occurring. They also looked at the neodymium (Nd) isotopes from the sediments. Nd isotopes are a good way to also trace where the sediments in the core were coming from, so the scientists could determine not only how much erosion was taking place within East Antarctica, but where the eroded sediment was coming from. Increased erosion and a shift in the Nd isotope records indicate increased glacial melt and ice retreat on East Antarctica, thus the authors could tell through geologic time when and approximately how much the ice melted.

Results: Over the past 800,000 years, Earth’s climate has oscillated between cooler (glacial) and warmer (interglacial) periods (read more about this on our CO2 page). During some interglacial periods (times when the climate was warmer), the scientists found that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet began to erode the rock on which it sits and melted significantly. This led to increased sea levels within a world that was less warm than today.

Why is this study important? This study places new approximations on how much melting from East Antarctica could occur in a warming world, and how much that could raise sea level. Climate scientists think that if all the ice on East Antarctica were to melt, it would lead to approximately 53 meters of sea level rise globally! With the data from this study, it will provide new constraints on melting ice in a warming world, which will be incorporated into climate models of the future climate. This data will be given to policymakers to help us best prepare and mitigate the consequences of climate change.

Citation: Wilson, D. J., Bertram, R. A., Needham, E. F., van de Flierdt, T., Welsh, K. J., McKay, R. M., Mazumder, A., Riesselman, C. R., Jimenez-Espejo, F. J., and Escutia, C., 2019. Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials. Nature 561, 383-386.

 

Ian Forsythe, Invertebrate Paleontologist and Undergraduate Researcher

Ian with a  brachiopod shell.

I study ways we can tell species apart based on their morphology (the structure and shapes of their hard parts).  For my research, I use the fossils of brachiopods (marine animals that resemble clams) from the Upper Ordovician period (around 450 million years ago). I collect the majority of my data from fossils in museum collections but collect fossils in the field when I can’t find what I need in an existing collection. While the applications of my research may not be readily apparent it is actually applicable to a variety of things.

 Species are the fundamental unit we use to classify organisms and being able to tell them apart is an important skill. Being able to identify species based on morphology is a necessary step in many studies of evolutionary processes, climate change, ecology, and patterns of biodiversity (the numbers of species present on the Earth through time). This is even true for biologists studying modern animals! While modern biologists define species as members of a population that can actually or potentially interbreed in nature it isn’t reasonable or even possible to conduct breeding experiments for every animal on Earth. Therefore, from a practical standpoint morphology is the best way to identify species whether you study fossils or living organisms.

Images of Rafinesquina brachiopods, which Ian works on. Here, the specific shell features of this brachiopod are highlighted and labeled. These features are part of the brachiopod’s morphology, or shell shape and structure. Image from OrdovicianAtlas.org.

When I was five, I started collecting marine fossils from rocks near my home. The fact that where I lived used to be under the sea was amazing to me. Although I had an interest in science at a very young age, I didn’t consider it as a career until much later. It was a book I read my freshman year of college (Wonderful Life by Stephen J. Gould) that inspired me to pursue paleontology professionally. It is a story about the bizarre creatures that lived in the sea over 500 million years ago and the scientific struggle to understand them. My experience with science has been fascinating and rewarding in more ways than I can describe, but I have to say that my favorite thing about being a scientist is learning new and exciting things every day.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring scientists, it would be that it is never too late to pursue a career in science. All kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds become scientists and many of them start out pursuing other things (I started college thinking I would be a writer). If you are getting ready to start college and unsure what degree you want to pursue, try taking some courses at a community college. There are so many fascinating fields in science it can be hard to know which one is right for you and community college is a wonderful place to get a feel for what you may want to pursue.

The Climate is Changing, and it’s Getting Personal

Megan here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glaciology Lab Work

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

Megan here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Speir, Paleoclimatologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On being non-binary in science

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

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

Applying to Grad School IV: Interviews

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


Adriane and Jen here-

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

Interviews

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

In-Person

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

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

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

On-Campus

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

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

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

Online

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

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

Phone Interviews

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

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

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

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

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

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