Drew Steen, Geomicrobiologist and Ocean Scientist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My job is to do interesting things. If I’m working on boring things, I’m not doing my job right! Plus, I really enjoy the teaching and mentoring ends – working with younger scientists (from middle school students up through Ph.D. students) is really a joy for me.

What do you do?
I figure out how stuff rots in the ocean. Microorganisms are naturally present everywhere on Earth, and most of them eat food and “breathe out” carbon dioxide, just like us. I try to figure out what kinds of food microorganisms in the ocean (and in lakes and streams) like to eat, and how they digest it.

How does your science contribute to the understanding of climate change or to the betterment of society in general?
Microorganisms have to “breathe in” some chemical to help them turn their food into energy. Some microorganisms breathe in oxygen like we do, while others breathe in some pretty weird chemicals like iron or even uranium. The balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals on Earth’s surface has a big effect on what life on Earth is like. We’re currently worried about too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for instance – but if there were zero carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Earth’s oceans would freeze solid! Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, so the activities of ocean microorganisms have a big effect on Earth’s environment as a whole.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
I like to combine data about the chemical composition of organic matter in the ocean (i.e., leftover phytoplankton and plant matter, aka the stuff that is rotting) with measurements of the activities of the microorganisms that cause the rotting. There have been tremendous advances in DNA sequencing technologies in the past few years, so even though my background is in chemistry I am beginning  to understand what kinds of reactions microorganisms are capable of carrying out.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Ask questions, and then read to learn the answers! For younger scientists, there is a journal called “Frontiers for Young Minds”. Just like any other respectable journal, the articles here are written by scientists and then peer-reviewed by other scientists. For more advanced folks, there are quite a few high-quality open-access (i.e., free) journals. Good ones include PLoS One, PeerJ, the Frontiers family of journals, Science Advances, and Nature Communications. These are the real deal – scientists writing for other scientists. You can use Google Scholar to find papers. Find a subject you’re interested in, and read everything you can about it! You won’t understand everything right away, but that’s OK – I find stuff in papers that I don’t understand all the time. The only way around that is to keep reading. This is learning science the hard way, but if you can spend some time reading and thinking about other people’s papers, you’re well on your way to becoming an expert.

Follow Drew’s updates on his website and/or Twitter!

Mosasaurs preying upon echinoids

Eggs for breakfast? Analysis of a probable mosasaur biting trace on the Cretaceous echinoid Echinocorys ovata Leske, 1778

Christian Neumann and Oliver Hampe

What data were used?

The authors examined over 7000 specimens of Echinocorys for this study. Echinocorys is an extinct (no longer living) group of echinoids, commonly known as sea urchins or sea biscuits! Specimens were obtained from field excursions by the authors as well as examination of multiple museum collections. From examining such a large number of specimens they were able to identify many different types of predation traces but focused on the extraordinary bite traces for this study.


Each of the tooth imprints was measured as well as careful measurements of the test (body) of Echinocorys. Images of the trace (tooth imprints) were taken at various angles to visualize the structures in greater detail. A bite experiment was conducted by creating resin models of possible predator skulls with movable jaws. The skull could then simulate biting into modeling clay versions of Echinocorys. The resulting traces were measured and compared to those found in the real samples of Echinocorys.

Results and Discussion

Figure containing the images of the bite marks on the echinoid. The top part of the echinoid was not preserved so we are seeing the bottom side only, note the anus has been labeled and is not one of the punctures! (c) shows us the fine detail of where the echinoid healed the puncture wounds!

The results of this study indicate that the biting trace pattern was produced by a predator with large cone-shaped teeth that were arranged in a forward pointing direction. This was interpreted from the strange pattern in the traces. Two bite punctures are smaller and oval in outline where as two others are circular and larger, this is likely due to the angle at which the teeth made contact with the echinoid test (body).

The fact that the bite did not destroy the echinoid skeleton is quite interesting and could be interpreted as the attacker’s skillful prey handling and biting mechanics. Also, echinoid tests are very well structured, built from a series of meshwork structures that help reinforce the skeleton. This makes echinoid tests more difficult to crush compared to other invertebrate organisms such as snails or clams. Even though this echinoid sustained large punctures, it was able to begin to heal as evidenced by the newly developed skeletal material within the punctures seen in the figure above. This is not uncommon in echinoderms and has been well documented through time, quite amazing creatures!

The authors compared the bite punctures to other known predation traces in echinoids and found that it was not similar to those previously documented. They made comparisons to teeth shape, size, and when specific animals lived to attempt to identify the maker of these traces. The authors then used experimental methods with their resin models and clay-modeled echinoids to better determine the probable trace maker and found that it is most likely a globidensine mosasaur. This is from the teeth shape, pattern, time period they lived in, and experimental method to indicate the angle of teeth as they penetrated the echinoid.

This figure shows us the detail of the forward facing teeth matching up with the punctures on the echinoid test (body). In (c) we see the part of the echinoid not preserved in the fossil record.

Why is this study important?

This study represents the first likely record of mosasaur predation on echinoids. Mosasaurs were apex predators but were also opportunistic predators, as evidenced by this study. They didn’t just eat the most filling prey but also nibbled on those smaller animals that were shelly and lived on the seafloor.

The big picture

Predator-prey interactions can be observed today in a variety of environments and habitats but in the fossil record we are limited by what ecosystem interactions are preserved through time. Trace fossils are particularly useful in gaining a better understanding of how organisms interacted with one another in the past! It’s often quite difficult to gain a full understanding of the organism that left the trace since all we have is evidence of the behavior but this work provided a thorough examination of possible trace makers and even provided an experimental test to further support their idea!


Neumann, C. and Hampe, O. 2018. Eggs for breakfast? Analysis of a probable mosasaur biting trace on the Cretaceous echinoid Echinocorys ovata Leske, 1778. Fossil Record, v. 21, p. 55-66, doi: 10.5194/fr-21-55-2018

A journey into geology

Rose here –

Howdy! Today I want to share with you some of my journey to get to where I am in grad school. I am currently finishing up a master’s degree in geology, but I didn’t always plan on going to grad school, or even going into science.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, some of my favorite books were the ones on earthquakes and volcanoes, which were both very real geologic hazards in the area I lived. Someone gave me a book on identifying rocks and minerals and I started a rock collection with rocks I found down by the river or in my parent’s driveway. My grandpa loved rocks and geology and taught me how to identify various rocks and minerals and even pan for gold with sand and gravel he brought back from the Mojave desert in California.

However, by the time I got to high school I was struggling with algebra and higher level science classes and didn’t think I had what it takes to be a scientist. There were no high school level geology classes offered at that time and I didn’t even know that “geologist” was an actual job title. I discovered that I was really passionate about education and helping folks with special needs so I decided to go into special education.

This is the group photo from the 2012 GEOL 210 course at CWU, an introductory field methods course. We took this photo standing in the White Mountains near Bishop, CA with the Sierra Nevada range in the background.

After high school, I started at nearby Green River Community College (GRCC) so I could save money by still living at home. In the spring of my second year I had to take a science elective and ended up in Geology 101. I could write a whole post on how important geology classes at community colleges are, but I’ll save that for next time. This class quickly became my favorite class from my time at GRCC. The professor focused on how geology can be useful in our daily lives by framing each unit in terms of local geologic hazards to consider when buying a house or how to know what geologic processes have occurred when looking at a landscape. This made geology seem very interesting and relevant.

Now that I knew what geology was all about and what geologists do, I started seriously considering a career as a geologist. I loved the idea of studying the earth and the processes that formed it and are still shaping the landscape today. I especially loved learning about different hazards that affect people’s lives in different places in the world and how geologists can help prepare for and mitigate after disasters. The accelerated pace of college classes seemed to be what I needed to finally figure out higher level math, and I was actually enjoying my algebra and chemistry classes. I started paying attention to geology stories in the news and was in my professor’s office almost every day to talk about a recent earthquake or a cool rock I had found, etc. I decided to pursue a BS degree in geology after finishing at community college and looked into quite a few undergrad programs from Alaska to Ohio. I settled on Central Washington University, about an hour and a half from my childhood home, but on the other side of the Cascade Mountains so I got to experience a totally different type of climate and landscape. In the CWU geology department, every class that could had at least one field trip, and often more. There were good examples of almost every type of geologic process within a couple of hours of our university. I loved every class I took there and it seemed like every day was constantly reaffirming that this was where I was supposed to be. Even the informally dubbed “weed-out classes” I loved, which I was assured was the whole point: if you loved even the classes with 4 hour labs and 25+ hours of work outside of class time, slogging through all kinds of geology problems, then you were in the right spot.

Here we are setting up a geodetic survey station during a geodesy field course at CWU. We were down near Three Sisters, OR and used the GPS data we gathered to study how the earth is deforming (moving up, down, or sideways) near these active volcanoes.

When I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree and pondering what was next, I thought that I wanted to go to grad school, but not just yet. I had been in college for 5 years at that point and felt like I needed a little break. But then I attended a national Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver, BC during the fall of my senior year. This is one of the biggest conferences for geologists every year, and there were scientists from all over the US and the world and from every branch of geology. I saw so many cool projects and was so inspired by all the interesting geology that I decided I wanted to be a part of that as soon as possible. When I got back I did some research and started sending e-mails to professors I was interested in working with. I didn’t get a single response to my first round of e-mails and was kind of discouraged. But I still really wanted to get in on some cool geology research so I sent out a second round of e-mails to completely different professors and heard back from all of them within a couple days! I was so excited to begin this journey and immediately started the application process, took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and waited eagerly for acceptance letters. I got in to two of the four schools I ended up applying to. I had a choice between living in Tennessee or Alabama, but decided I wanted to be closer to the Great Smoky Mountains (a dream destination since my childhood) so I went with Tennessee.

Here we are sitting next to the Borah Peak fault scarp in Idaho. This was during senior field camp and we had to map out the extent of the scarp and measure how much deformation had occurred.

I moved to Knoxville and started my master’s in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was prepared for an adventure, but even this one didn’t go the way I thought it would. My first project didn’t quite pan out the way I thought and I ended up switching projects and advisors toward the end of my first semester. This is way more common than you hear about…I have several other friends who switched advisors or projects as well. Sometimes it’s a personality or advising style issue, or sometimes the project itself is just not a good fit. The thing I had to keep reminding myself during this time was that it wasn’t a failure to change projects and not do what I thought I was going to, it just meant it wasn’t a good fit for me.

So I was on to my new project: contributing to a geologic map of a local area on Mars. Before starting this project, I didn’t know scientists even had the data to do geology on Mars! I was a little disappointed to not be doing field geology on Earth, but I thought this was a great opportunity to learn something new and expand my skills in geology and mapping. I discovered in undergrad that I loved mapping and structural geology (faults and earthquakes and how rocks move and deform). This project combined both by allowing me to map structural features on Mars and try to figure out a little about how they formed and contributed to the landscape in my study area. Throughout my time on this project I have come to appreciate the

I’ve been on this project for two and a half years now and I’m nearly done and thus began pondering again: what’s next? I applied to lots of jobs in geology or related fields and got only one phone interview. This is fairly common, but it’s still difficult not knowing what’s next. Then over Christmas break I remembered that in undergrad I had considered someday being a librarian. I am really passionate about reading and writing, about the community spaces libraries provide, about making information available and accessible to all. I had sort of pushed this idea to the side while pursuing my master’s in geology, as a “someday dream”. Now that I was almost done with my geology studies, I decided maybe “someday” was actually “now”. I did some research, talked to friends who were librarians, and sent more e-mails to professors. I ended up applying and being accepted to the Information Sciences program at UT to start in Fall 2018. I am so excited to explore the possibilities of combining my passion for geology and information: some potential jobs include positions at state geology libraries, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) library, national labs, or as a subject librarian at academic libraries.

Jessica Cost, Fossil Collector and Citizen Scientist

Greetings, Time Scavengers. When I was contacted to participate in this week’s Meet the Scientist blog my immediate thought was on my lack of qualifications. I hold no PhD, no Masters, and I am not currently employed in any science field. What I do have is a lifelong appreciation for science and an obsession for collecting fossils.

A windblown selfie at one of my favorite collecting locales in the Lower Bangor Limestone.

I collect fossils mainly around northern Alabama, a region rich in Lower Carboniferous aged limestone (~350 million years ago). This started innocently enough by helping a friend gather landscaping rocks several years ago. I found a rugose horn coral that day and have never stopped looking down. I attended a paleontology group meeting out of Birmingham, Alabama for some guidance in identifying some of my early finds and through that paleontology group, I met a mentor. Studying under and hunting with that mentor is where I discovered a love for fossil echinoderms.

Echinoderms are fascinating. One of the longest-lived group of invertebrates on this planet and they are still around. That sand dollar you find on the beach or that starfish you spy in a tidal pool has a looong history! And there is still so much research to be done. Debate lingers on the exact origins of the crinoid (my personal echinoderm favorite.) Research on starfish and brittle stars is underrepresented and there are so many undescribed species.

Amateurs like me depend on that research, in the form of scholarly articles to help us identify our fossils as much as the paleontologists depend on us amateurs to provide them with viable specimens to study. I have donated to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in the past and one day will donate my whole collection at large. I just haven’t finished the collection yet. Fossil collecting is like playing Pokemon, but with genera of crinoids.

I suppose the main point of my ramblings thus far is to challenge you guys to find your passion, find a mentor along the way to teach you, and take that passion even further than I have. I look forward to reading your future articles!

To follow Jess Cost’s collecting adventures on her Instagram account, click here!

Field Work on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Part 1

Part 1: Living in an Unlivable Place

Megan here-

The tent glows orange as the sun shines in, waking me up to a cold, crisp morning. Only, it’s not really morning yet. It’s 3:00 AM and far from breakfast time. The wind rattles the thin flaps of my tent, reminding me of the powerful cold outside of my warm haven. This is the Greenland Ice Sheet. This is the icy expanse where the summer sun barely sets, the temperatures are well below freezing, and the wind can numb your face. This is also where I work.

I recently returned from three weeks of field work on the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) where I helped collect data for the University of Wyoming and the University of Montana’s glaciology group. Our collaborative group consists of two lead professors (one at each university) and a handful of graduate students, postdocs, and associates. This year, six of us flew to Greenland to collect data for our ongoing study of ice sheet dynamics. This was my first field season on the GrIS, and it was like no other experience I have ever had.

Where did we go?

Nestled between the Arctic and the Atlantic Oceans lies an icy mecca for glaciologists: Greenland. Greenland is an island almost entirely covered by an ice sheet, which is a body of glacier ice that covers a very large area (greater than 50,000 square kilometers). Today, ice sheets blanket both Antarctica and Greenland (Figure 1; at left). If the GrIS were to melt it could raise sea level by an astounding 7.2 meters (Church and Gregory, 2001). With such potential for catastrophe in a warming climate, the GrIS has become the center of many studies investigating glaciology, climatology, oceanography, and much more.

Our group set off for the GrIS with the goal of better understanding meltwater flow in the accumulation zone. This is a region of the ice sheet where there is net accumulation of snow. We set up our field site on a snowy spot called Crawford Point (Figure 1, in black square). Aside from a weather station on the horizon, the views were the same in every direction: a flat white ground and a clear blue sky. Of course, that was on a “good weather day.” We had our fair share of days when ground blizzards prevented us from seeing more than a few feet ahead, or when clouds rolled in and the world around us became an empty whiteness.

Figure 1 (on the left) is of the sites of interest in Greenland. Kangerlussuaq (indicated by the yellow circle) is a small municipality of about 500 people. Located next to the ice sheet, Kanger (for short) occupies a flat region at the eastern end of a deep fjord. In fact, Kangerlussuaq translates to “big fjord” in Greenlandic. During WWII, it was founded by the U.S. and used as a U.S. airbase. Though no longer an active military base, Kanger is the site of Greenland’s largest airport and is almost entirely dependent on tourism. Our field site (Crawford Point) sits within the square on the ice sheet.

How did we get there?

Figure 2. (A) An Air National Guard C-130 plane flew us from Schenectady, New York to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. (B) A Twin Otter plane flew us from Kangerlussuaq to our field site, Crawford Point. Both this plane and the C-130 have skis so they can land on snow. (C) The view from the C-130 as we flew into Greenland showed a dynamic coastline with many mountains and glaciers. (D) Many outlet glaciers of the ice sheet could be seen as we flew from Kangerlussuaq to Crawford Point.

From the United States, the journey to the GrIS is rich with excitement and with boredom. Most of us flew into Albany, New York and then took a military flight to Greenland. The Stratton Air National Guard Base runs periodic flights from Schenectady, New York to Greenland with their C-130 planes (Figure 2). These are training flights, which means that the pilot and the on-board mechanics are practicing ensuring that these planes run perfectly. Because of that, successfully leaving the base took two days and a few attempts. At one point, we departed on the plane and flew for about an hour before turning around and landing. Finally, we arrived in Kangerlussuaq, which is a small town on the southwest coast of Greenland (Figure 1).

In Kangerlussuaq, we worked for a few days as we prepared our gear and instrumentation for a successful field season. A massive amount of planning and work goes into field preparation, because once we’re out on the ice sheet, there’s little chance of deliveries or spare parts. When our day to fly out to the site finally came, we were ready. A Twin Otter plane (Figure 2) flew us an hour and a half from Kangerlussuaq to Crawford Point. We needed four flights to bring ourselves and all of our gear to the field site, and three flights to leave.

What’s it like to live and work on an ice sheet?

Figure 3. Our camp consisted of one cook tent (orange dome), six personal tents (extending linearly from the cook tent to the right), and a work tent (not pictured). This photo was taken before the wind piled up many feet of snow around our tents.

Life on the ice sheet is thoroughly unusual. At Crawford Point, we set up six personal tents, a cook tent, and a work tent (Figure 3). We also dug out a latrine in the snow, which we covered with a tarp to keep out of the wind. The latrine experience was…interesting, to say the least. We actually used our core barrel, which is designed to extract cores of snow and ice, to create a toilet (Figure 4).

Figure 4. We used a core barrel to create the toilet in our dug-out latrine. After the toilet was complete, we covered the latrine with a tarp to block the wind and snow.

Each day we’d eat a modest breakfast and lunch together, and then we would take turns cooking dinner on our Coleman camp stove. The meals became somewhat repetitive, but I appreciated having a warm and filling dinner after a day’s work. However, by the ended of the trip I detested beef jerky, I couldn’t eat another bite of cheese (which is saying a lot, because I love cheese), and all I could think about was a fresh, green salad. Still, I was grateful to have sufficient food while living in a wildly unlivable place.

Aside from the hundreds to thousands of meters of ice and snow that cover Greenland, what really makes the ice sheet uninhabitable is the weather. The cold air and blistering wind demanded rather intense clothing and gear. Every day I wore gigantic triple-layer Baffin boots, wool socks, a thermal base layer, fleece-lined pants, snow pants, a pullover fleece, a heavy jacket, a neck warmer, a hat, thick gloves, and either polarized sunglasses or ski goggles. Getting ready in the morning was quite the feat. One of the many challenges was actually completing work while wearing so many clothes. I would often have to pull off a glove to tighten a small screw, or shed a few layers after I warmed up from shoveling.

Figure 5. Here I stand in front of the Russell Glacier, an outlet of the GrIS. Calving (a process by which glaciers shed icebergs) leaves behind clean faces of blue glacier ice. The river running along the glacier appears thick and milky due to the large quantity of sediment that it carries.

Luckily, after our three weeks on the ice sheet, our remaining time in Kangerlussuaq was warm and sunny. We took a day and drove out to the ice sheet margin (yes, you can do that), where we hiked to the Russell Glacier (Figure 5). Standing at the edge of the ice sheet was a humbling and breathtaking moment. The ice glowed blue, the milky river roared as it flowed next to the glacier, and an occasional crash could be heard as the glacier calved into the flowing river. This one moment shifted my perspective of so many things. Those three weeks of field work, the months of lab work, and these couple of years of my master’s finally fit in a bigger picture that I could see right before me. And in that moment, the struggling graduate student in me found the motivation and confidence I needed to keep working, learning, and progressing.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I discuss the scientific work we completed!


Church, J.A., Gregory, J.M., 2001. Changes in Sea Level, in: Houghton, J.T., Ding, Y., Griggs, D.J., Noguer, M., van der Linden, P.J., Dai, X., Maskell, K., Johnson, C.A. (Eds.), Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, pp. 639–694.

Preparing a Dissertation Defense

A dissertation defense can come in many forms but in essence the point is to showcase your research from the past several years of your career. Our department has a three chapter format for dissertations and, usually, these are each publications that have already been published, recently been submitted, or will soon be submitted. Even though you have completed a lot of difficult, complex scientific work, you still have to cater your defense to your audience.

If you don’t cater your talk to your audience, they will quickly lose interest and zone out. You want to make sure to engage and not talk over their heads. So my dissertation had a lengthy, jargon-rich title, “Respiratory Structure Morphology, Group Origins, and Phylogeny of Eublastoidea”. Rather than titling my defense talk with this ridiculous title, that would only excite a few people, I chose something simpler and more effective: “Phylogeny as a Tool in Paleobiology”. From this you can get an understanding that I am talking about paleobiology (=ancient life) and using phylogeny (=evolutionary histories) to test research questions.

Jen with her title slide, just before presenting her dissertation defense!

The paleontology group in our department is quite small, two faculty and a handful of students. There is a larger sedimentology group that understand fossils quite well but much of my department lacks an understanding of the fossil record (in great detail) and don’t necessarily understand how to read tree/branching diagrams. Knowing this, I started the talk with a few sentences on the overall importance of my talk, why anyone (even my mom) should care about the talk and then I spent time on background information. Information on the group I use to test questions, how we read tree diagrams, and what kind of patterns we look for within the trees.

I then split my talk into three sections that were similar to my dissertation chapters. Since I was focusing on using phylogeny as a tool in deep time, I left out some of the other complex methods that would have taken away from the overall theme of the presentation and focused on the evolutionary histories and what they could tell us about these animals in the past. I made sure each slide had enough text but not too much – viewers get invested in text and think they should read it, which often takes away from what you are actually saying. I also made sure to include visually appealing images – I still haven’t mastered color blind palettes so if you have suggestions please let me know. These images had to start simple and get more complex and I had to make sure to explain each of them thoroughly.

For all talks I give, I write up a corresponding script (thanks, Alycia!). Writing a script helps me organize my talk and gives me an idea of what I want to say during the presentation. I practice a lot – because I know that I won’t get nervous if I *know* what I’m going to say. The first several times I practice I read directly off the script, trying to get used to saying the words and using the slides to visually demonstrate what I am saying. I practice at least a handful of times and usually by myself, I get nervous with only a few people in the room so it throws me off! Everyone is different so I suggesting finding the best way for you to practice so you are confident, maybe it’s with a group of people or maybe it’s by yourself!

Hints for giving successful presentations:

  • Know your audience
  • Have someone look through your slides or watch your talk to make sure your organization of the talk makes sense
  • Use a laser pointer or animations but not like a crazy person, move the laser slowly, and don’t have things flying from all directions on your slides
  • Be confident, you are likely one of the experts in your field, discipline, topic, whatever and the audience wants to listen to you or else they wouldn’t have come

I recorded a version of my defense below!

Judging the Wyoming State Science Fair

Megan here-

There’s something unmistakable about science fairs. Rows of tri-fold poster boards sit atop long tables, students stand eagerly (or nervously) next to their projects, and judges meander through the maze of people and posters. In middle school, I associated the words “science fair” with outright fear. I loved science, but my shyness meant that having to talk to adults and be judged was simply miserable. Luckily, I’ve developed since the woeful days of middle school and I quite enjoy talking about science. So when the opportunity arose to be a judge for the Wyoming State Science Fair (WSSF), I didn’t hesitate to sign up.

What do you do as a judge?

In its simplest sense, judging at the WSSF is broken down into three components:

    Previewing projects and taking notes while the students are not present
    Interviewing students about their projects
    Discussing scoring and winning projects with your judging team

All of this happens in the span of one day (or two if you preview the day before). I was on a judging team with four other people from a variety of earth sciences backgrounds. Each team had a category and a division to judge, and would go through the three aforementioned steps to choose first, second, and third place for that category and division. Our team was assigned to the Junior Division (sixth through eighth grade) Earth & Environmental Science Category.

What’s it actually like being a judge?

The WSSF was held in the University of Wyoming Union in a large ballroom filled with rows and rows of tables. Walking in, I recognized that familiar sense of unease and nervousness, but this time it was not mine. Having already previewed the projects while the students were not present, it was time for the interviewing–the part I remember being the most terrifying as the student. As I began going from project to project talking with students, I was struck by the confidence and creativity of these middle schoolers. Many students had short presentations prepared, they were all excited to answer my questions, and most didn’t hesitate to share their accomplishments (and their obstacles) with a total stranger. I was wildly impressed.

What I found most interesting was the underlying theme of all of the projects. Every student chose to study an environmental problem that affected them or their communities. One student studied the soil vibration effects of windmills near their town, another examined the pollution from cars idling at their middle school, and a group of students developed a sponge for hydrocarbon remediation for nearby oil spills. These students looked at the world around them, recognized a problem, and then studied it or tried to fix it. The results of such efforts were utterly fascinating.

What was the hardest part?

The deliberation was certainly the most challenging component of science fair judging. A team of five people means five different opinions. Some of us were graduate students, some were educators, and some were professional geologists. At the end of the day, this group of five had to decide on three top projects, and it was nearly impossible. Luckily, discussion and compromise led us to a decision, but it was no easy feat. Hearing each other’s opinions was intriguing and helped me see projects in a different light. It was an opportunity to be more open and view things from a different perspective.

In the end, judging the science fair was a rewarding and meaningful experience. If there were any middle school students who were as nervous as I used to be, I hope that I gave them the confidence to speak up about their science. Communicating science is undoubtedly the most important component of science itself, and instilling confidence in the next generation of scientists is imperative for our future.

If you’d like to learn more about the WSSF, view the list of 2018 awardees, or see pictures of the winning projects, click here.

Brad Deline, Paleontologist

How did you get interested in science in general?

I am one of the rare people (not so rare in paleontology) that has always known what I wanted to do in life. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. When I got a bit older this expanded to paleontology in general as I was spending my summers in Northern Michigan collecting fossil corals (Petoskey Stones) along the shore of Lake Michigan and reading every book I could about fossils.

When I got to high school, I started to think about paleontology as a career and called the nearest Natural History Museum (University of Michigan) asking to talk to someone. I ended up speaking with Tom Baumiller who was very generous with his time and chatted with me on the phone, invited me to the museum, and got me working as a volunteer with the museum collections. I came to the University a year later and Tom had research projects waiting. I ended up conducting research for four years at the museum working with Tom on predation in the fossil record and Dan Fisher on stable isotopes in mastodons. This provided insight into the process of science as well as strong mentorship. I spent countless hours in Tom’s lab along with his graduate students (Forest Gahn, Asa Kaplan, and Mark Nabong), which helped to formulate my own interests and provided casual advice regarding graduate school and academia.

What, exactly, do you do?

The aspect of paleontology that really piques my interest is thinking about the weirdness of fossil organisms. Seeing the remains of animals in the past that look nothing like animals today, inspires wonder of these ancient environments and also provides a clear mystery to be solved. This is what originally interested me in dinosaurs, but as I delved deeper into paleontology it was clear that things got stranger when I looked further into the past.

Visualization of the distribution of echinoderm body forms based on their characteristics. Modified from Deline 2015 with images from Sumrall and Deline 2009 and Sumrall et al. 1997.

As far as weird goes, nothing beats echinoderms (relatives of sea urchins and sea stars). As you may know from previous Time Scavenger posts by the stellar young scientists that contribute to this blog (Maggie, Jen, and Sarah), early echinoderms are extraordinarily diverse and have many perplexing features. To explore this, I examine the diversity of features and forms (disparity). This method allows the visualization of evolutionary dynamics from the perspective of how different rather than how many. For my dissertation, I examined crinoid disparity during the Early Paleozoic focusing on a few key questions. What controls the diversity of features in a community of animals? What is the role of weird things in disparity patterns through time? And, are rare animals objectively weird? I compiled a large database of crinoid characteristics largely by studying museum collections and was able to address these questions. It turned out that rare animals weren’t all that objectively weird compared to common things. However, weird animals (outliers based on their characteristics) played a large role in understanding the evolution in form through time, especially during shifts in environmental conditions.

I have since expanded my research to examine trends in disparity in all echinoderms. This is a gargantuan project in that it requires some working knowledge of the many different groups of echinoderms. It has been one of the most rewarding tasks scientifically as it has given me the chance to sit down with many different echinodermologists and discuss the group they know best. From these discussions, I have compiled a huge character list that I along with my research students have used to examine trends in body plan evolution within echinoderms. This is still ongoing research, but I can start asking questions regarding the nature of the Cambrian Explosion and the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. We can explore patterns of disparity at the level of a phylum and how that parses out to the different groups within it. And, we can start to examine how different forms evolved and what limits the range of feature seen in echinoderms.

How does your job contribute to the understanding of evolution or climate change?

I work at the University of West Georgia, which is a regional comprehensive University. This means that a large portion of my time is devoted toward teaching our diverse student body. I teach a steady mix upper level geology courses and non-major introductory classes. I spend significant amounts of time in my upper level courses discussing evolutionary processes and the nature of science. I feel paleontology is a perfect place to discuss biases, uncertainty, and how scientists actually try to understand the world around them.

This is even more important in my introductory classes. I have a very casual lecture style that fosters student confidence to ask questions. I focus on discussing geologic time, evolution, and climate change. In addition, we talk about why these issues are important and explore the political implications. Politics are a tricky area in the current climate, but if I can get students to include a candidate’s scientific literacy into their decision making process when they are voting, I have done my job.

What methods do you use to engage your students?

Discussing the Mississippian rocks surrounding Lake Cumberland, Kentucky.

I find in my classes getting students out of the classroom and into the field is the most effective way to communicate. Students can make direct observations and see that the real world is much more complicated than what they see in the classroom. Field experiences foster bonds between the student and instructors that makes students more comfortable asking questions. In addition, field work creates more cohesive student groups that then are more likely to work together and elevate the entire class while they are back on campus.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

I think my advice varies depending on who I am addressing so I will list a few things:

Amateur Paleontologists

Take advantage of local fossil groups, they are a wealth of knowledge and experience! If you discover something that you don’t recognize when you are collecting fossil, they can help. Also, feel free to contact professional paleontologists regarding your questions. I have research projects collaborating with or using specimens collected by avocational paleontologists. Also, remember that professional paleontologists have tons of responsibilities such that it may take a while to reply, we can’t go out into the field as often as we would like, and publications based on your material may take a fair amount of time.

Aspiring Paleontologists

Learn as much as possible: read books and articles, go to meetings of local fossil groups (if there are any nearby), and visit museums. Contact professionals with your questions, but be respectful of their time (if you email during exam week that email might get lost!). Most paleontologists would be thrilled to meet an enthusiastic aspiring paleontologist, especially because we were also in that position.

Graduate Students

Publish your work, publish side projects, establish collaborations and publish them. Obviously, make sure the publications are high-quality science, but put yourself in the best position possible. Also, try to squash down the feelings of competition. I know students are all competing for the same grants and ultimately the same jobs. However, if you collaborate or help other students in your department or subfield, that elevates everyone. If one of your friends gets a grant, awesome. They will do more research and make your department/subfield look better. If they get a job that means you will have someone to collaborate with when you get a job! Being supportive and collaborative will make graduate school better. These friendships can also lead to exciting opportunities for you in the future. For instance, I am currently planning a joint trip with one of my graduate school buddies (Kate Bulinski) and recently received a box of Cambrian echinoderm plates form another (Jay Zambito).

Students on the Job Market

Apply to everything. I was aiming for a research position, but ended up at a teaching-focused school. I didn’t think it would make me happy, but I love it here. Don’t limit your options when you may not know what you really want. Also, take time to do the things that clear your head- meditate, jog, hike, etc. Make sure your application is the best possible and then the rest is out of your hands. Likely some of the things that a search committee is looking for are outside of your control so you might as well go for a walk with your dog.

Young Professionals

The first few years on the job are really exhausting, but a few things will make it easier. Maintain your contacts and collaborations. Pick projects that won’t be quite as time intensive. Establish mentors in your department and in your field that can give advice when you need it (thanks Bill Ausich and Tim Chowns). Avoid getting bogged down in things that are not considered in your job performance (mentors will help here). Finally, keep doing the things that clear your head. If you are busy these are often the first things that get left behind, but they are important so keep doing them.

Deline, B. 2015. Quantifying morphological diversity in early Paleozoic echinoderms. In Zamora, S. and Rábano, I. (eds.), Progress in Echinoderm Palaeobiology, Cuademos del Museo Geominero, 19. Instituto Geológico y Minero de España, Madrid, p. 45-48.

Sumrall, C.D. and Deline, B. 2009. A new species of the dual-mouthed paracrinoid Bistomiacystis and a redescription of the edrioasteroid Edrioaster priscus from the Upper Ordovician Curdsville Member of the Lexington Limestone. Journal of Paleontology, v. 83, no. 1, p. 135-139, doi: 10.1666/08-075R.1

Sumrall, C.D., Sprinkle, J. and Guensburg, T.E. 1997. Systematics and paleoecology of late Cambrian echinoderms from the western United States. v. 71, no. 6, p. 1091-1109.

Are corals adapting to keep up with changes in ocean temperature?

Potential and limits for rapid genetic adaptation to warming in a Great Barrier Reef coral

Mikhail V. Matz, Eric A. Treml, Galina V. Aglyamova, Line K. Bay

What data were used?

Researchers looked at genetic data for Acropora millepora (coral common in the Great Barrier Reef) to model (simulate) how corals will adapt to increasing temperatures, establish a direction of coral migration, and measure genetic diversity. These data were then used to predict the future survival of A. millepora in the Great Barrier Reef.


The corals used in this study were previously described in van Oppen et al. (2011) and several samples were collected from Orpheus and Keppel Islands. The coral samples were then genotyped (the genetic material was sequenced so that researchers could examine it) and that data was used to model all of the other experiments that were conducted. The coral genomes were used to look at divergence between populations (how genetically different are the populations that were sampled) and what are the demographics among populations. A biophysical model was used to examine the migration patterns between known coral habitats and the broader region surrounding the Great Barrier Reef. This model required data describing the seascape environment as well as coral-specific data relating to adult density (how many adults), reproductive output and larval spawning time, as well as how far do the larvae travel or disperse.


Figure 1. A. A map of the coast of Australia and the locations along the Great Barrier Reef that coral samples were taken from. A temperature gradient is also plotted on the map, with warmer colors indicating warmer temperatures and cooler colors indicating cooler temperatures. B. A plot of the different water conditions that were measured for each study site and where each study site plots in relation to those water conditions. C. A plot of how similar each coral population was to one another. The separation of the purple dots indicates that it is more genetically separated from the other coral populations that were sampled. D. This plot further shows that the population at Keppel is more genetically distinct from the other groups as the proportion of blue to yellow is drastically increased.

The results of this study indicate that the populations examined are demographically different from one another and that overall migration of these corals is moving in a southward direction (higher latitudes). The migration southwards is still largely driven by ocean currents, rather than preferential survival of warm-adapted corals migrating to cooler locations. It was also determined through the model that those corals that were pre-adapted to a warmer climate, were able to survive gradual warming for 20-50 generations which equates to 100-250 years. However, as the temperature increased, the overall fitness (the ability of a species to reproduce and survive) of these populations began to fluctuate with random thermal anomalies (e.g. El Nino Oscillations) and these fluctuations in fitness continue to increase as warming progressed, independent of the severity of the thermal anomalies. The good news in all of this is that much of the variation in the trait associated with the ability to adapt to warmer temperatures is due to the type of algal symbionts (algae that helps the coral to survive and reproduce) in the area. This means that coral larvae have very plastic (easily changed) phenotypes (genes that are visibly expressed) and can easily adapt to whatever algal symbionts are locally available.

Why is this study important?

This study is important because it has been projected that the global temperature is going to rise 0.1°C per decade for a total of 1°C in the next 100 years and as scientists we want to know how that global temperature change is going to affect organisms. Corals function as a “canary in the coal mine” because they and their algal symbionts are incredibly sensitive to temperature and light changes in the ocean. If we know how corals are going to respond to these changes in temperature, researchers and conservationists will have a better understanding of how to better protect the coral’s environment. This study has shown that corals are able to adapt to the changes in temperature and are migrating southward, but also demonstrated that the ability of mature corals to reproduce in rising temperatures is declining. To combat this, because of this study, conservationists know and may be able to release larval and juvenile corals that have been raised in labs into new environments to perpetuate the species.

The big picture

The big picture here is that climate change is very real and we can use evolution and models of evolution to understand how organisms are going to and are reacting to increasing temperatures. This research indicates that even with low levels of mutation, corals are able to adapt to warming oceans and can associate with different, local algal symbionts as they migrate. However, mature adult corals have increasingly less fitness as ocean temperatures rise which means that they are reproducing less, leading to overall decreased coral populations. There is hope for this particular coral though, if researchers and conservationists can find a way to successfully raise coral larvae and release them into their current and future habitats.

Matz, M. V., E. A. Treml, G.V. Aglyamova, L. K. Bay, 2018. Potential and limits for rapid genetic adaptation to warming in a Great Barrier Reef coral. PLOS Genetics, 14:4:1-19, doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1007220

The Black Hand Sandstone of Ohio

Kyle here –

Geology is the physical manifestation of time. The rocky foundations of our planet are the consequence of billions of years of natural processes, many of which continue today. The record of this extensive history is visible not only as layers of rock, but also in what is missing. Although often unnoticeable on human timescales, steady erosion by wind, water, and ice is a tremendous force over millennia. And across millions of years, entire mountain ranges can be uplifted, ground down to their roots, and the resulting sediments compacted into rock and uplifted into mountains anew.

By definition, gorges and canyons are among the best places to view the results of erosion, often combining exposed bedrock with more superficial—but no less interesting—features carved by running water. The bedrock may also record evidence for its own intriguing origin, adding more layers to the story (pun only half intended). The American West is well known for such exposures, the Grand Canyon foremost among them, but the East and Midwest also have their share, most cutting through Paleozoic strata: Letchworth Gorge and Niagara Gorge in New York, the Kentucky River Palisades and Red River Gorge in Kentucky, and many others.

Ash Cave, a spectacular rock shelter in Hocking Hills State Park. Unlike a true cave, rock shelters represent superficial erosion of a rock body. They typically form where stronger rock overlies softer rock. The softer rock erodes more readily than the overlying rock, forming an overhang.

Ohio has a number of notable gorges, many easily accessible to visitors within regional or national parks. Clifton Gorge, in John Bryan State Park near Dayton, cuts through Silurian strata that are age-equivalent to those at Niagara Falls. Numerous small gorges and valleys near Cleveland slice through Upper Devonian, Lower Mississippian, and Lower Pennsylvanian rocks, including the great Cuyahoga Valley (and its eponymous National Park). And south-central Ohio is home to the Hocking Hills, where great sandstone cliffs form ridges, gorges, and natural bridges within a lush, relatively undeveloped forest.

The Upper Falls at Hocking Hills State Park.

Situated near the western edge of the Allegheny Plateau, about 45 miles (~70 kilometers) southeast of Columbus, the Hocking Hills expose shales and sandstones of Late Paleozoic age. Unlike the northern and western regions of Ohio, this area was not beveled flat by glaciers during the Pleistocene and thus retains a rugged topography. Hocking Hills State Park, as well as a variety of other nearby nature preserves and local parks, is the iconic centerpiece of this scenic area, a popular destination for hikers and other nature enthusiasts. The park contains numerous gorges, waterfalls, “caves”, and cliffs, all worn out of a picturesque orange to tan sandstone.

This rock is the Black Hand Sandstone. Early Mississippian in age (roughly 355 million years old), the Black Hand is a coarse, sometimes conglomeratic quartz sandstone. It is massive in nature, without many discrete beds or major changes in its consistency. However, a number of features are visible at some localities, including cross-bedding, the angled bedding of ancient ripples or dunes, and graded beds, where layers of coarse pebbles transition upward into layers of smaller pebbles and then into sand, an indication of sorting by water.

Large scale cross-bedding in the canyon walls near Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park. Cross-beds indicate directional movement of sediment as ripples or dunes migrate over time.
Prominent liesegang banding in the Black Hand Sandstone at Clear Creek Metro Park, southeast of Lancaster and not far from the Hocking Hills.

Another common feature of the Black Hand is liesegang banding, concentric, sometimes twisty patterns of rusty staining. In contrast to cross-bedding and graded beds, which show evidence of what was going on at the time when the sand was deposited, liesegang banding formed much later, as groundwater percolated through the sandstone, carrying iron and other minerals with it. These minerals precipitated out of solution over time, forming the colorful bands. This can be seen as a form of weathering, rather than rock formation, though the distinction is rather blurred in this case as the bands can comprise lumps and stringers that are more resistant than the surrounding sandstone.

Cedar Falls at a trickle. Though deceptively calm in this photo, the falls rushes whenever there is rainfall, as evidenced by the smoothly carved sandstone channel.

A number of waterfalls that cascade through the local gorges, including the Upper and Lower Falls near Old Man’s Cave as well as the nearby Cedar Falls. These falls have cut smooth channels into the Black Hand.

A roadcut near US Highway 33 south of Lancaster, exposing the grey-ish shales, siltstones, and fine sandstones of the upper Fairfield Member of the Cuyahoga, capped by the orange basal Black Hand.

Geologists consider the Black Hand Sandstone a member of the Cuyahoga Formation. The sandstone’s lower contact is apparently erosional, with the sandstones of the Black Hand cutting down into the shales and siltstones of the Fairfield Member of the Cuyahoga Formation below. Meanwhile, the top of the Black Hand is capped by thin conglomerate, the Byrne Member of the Logan Formation. The Logan is also sandstone-rich, but less massive than the Black Hand below and may have been deposited in deeper water.

The tall cliffs downstream of Old Man’s Cave impose their shadows on the gorge below.

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the origin of the Black Hand. One suggests that it is a part of a great delta, deposited offshore in the shallow sea that blanketed the midcontinent during the Mississippian. Another proposes that the Black Hand is in fact a channel itself, formed in an estuary or river that carved its way through the underlying strata during a brief episode of low sea level. In either case, the relatively large and well-worn quartz pebbles and sand that make up the sandstone must have come from land to the east, near what are today the Appalachian Mountains. Research on this matter is ongoing at the Ohio Geological Survey and elsewhere.

Black Hand Sandstone in Black Hand Gorge, Licking County, Ohio. No swimming!

While Hocking Hills may be the most famous exposure of Black Hand Sandstone, it is by no means the only one. The name was coined for prominent exposures of the rock along Black Hand Gorge on the Licking River east of Newark, Ohio. (The Gorge itself is so-named for a Native American petroglyph featuring a large black hand that was once emblazoned on one of its sandstone walls; sadly, this rock art was destroyed by 19th century construction in the Gorge. The name may also be spelled Blackhand, but the split version is preferred herein.)

Thus Black Hand Gorge is the type locality of the Black Hand Sandstone, the primary place that geologists should refer to when determining what the Black Hand Sandstone is, what it correlates to, and other questions. Although the process of naming rock units is now codified by the rules of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, rock units were less rigorously defined in the 19th and early 20th century. Additionally, some localities that once provided excellent exposures are now gone, naturally weathered away, covered by vegetation, flooded, or destroyed by later human development.

The trail through Black Hand Gorge. This exposure is actually man-made, blasted in the 1800s for a railroad that once ran along the gorge. It is near a quarry complex adjacent to the natural gorge. The Black Hand Sandstone was once widely used as a building stone.

Fortunately, the Black Hand is still well exposed in its type area, easily accessible from a hike-bike trail that follows the Licking River through the gorge, passing sandstone cliffs, fallen boulders, and old quarries. In addition to the Gorge itself, nearby roadcuts afford excellent views of the sandstone cliffs to casual observers.

True Black Hand Sandstone is only exposed in Ohio. However, some other sandstones in nearby states are believed to be of a similar, perhaps even equivalent, age, including the Burgoon Sandstone of Pennsylvania and the Marshall Sandstone of Michigan. Elsewhere, such as in northern Kentucky, the same timespan is represented by shales and is much thinner. It is sobering to note that the time period that forms towering cliffs in central Ohio is elsewhere represented by just a meter or so of mud or, in others, by nothing at all.

An imposing cliff of Black Hand Sandstone along Ohio State Route 16 east of Newark, Ohio, not far from Black Hand Gorge itself.

Similarly scenic sandstone gorges are exposed throughout the Midwest, including the previously mentioned Red River Gorge in Kentucky and Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. However, these sandstones are typically younger in age than the Black Hand, often Pennsylvanian, deposited as the American midcontinent sea was shrinking into oblivion.

Massive section of Black Hand downstream of Cedar Falls in Hocking Hills State Park, probably tens of meters high. But this is nowhere to be seen when you leave the Black Hand outcrop area, perhaps evidence that its deposition was restricted to channels in a specific region.