Scientist of the Week

Sarah here-

I took a geoscience education class as an elective my senior year of college. One of our first assignments was to draw a picture of a scientist. That was all the direction we received from the professor. And yet, even with this vague assignment, all of the students (yes, including me) drew the exact same thing: a white man with messy hair and a lab coat. Why?

Science has had a long history of discrimination and exclusion. This shouldn’t be a surprise: since science is done by humans, and humans have shaped how we view scientists through centuries. Because of this, many of us have shaped in our minds the image of a scientist- the one I described above. And that’s something I want to change.

My geology classes are primarily taken by introductory students-I teach hundreds of students every year, from every conceivable life experience. And many of these scientists that we talk about in class-Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, James Hutton, Alfred Wegener- look very similar. And while all of these scientists made incredible contributions to science, we often overlook equally incredible contributions by scientists that didn’t fit the mold of the ‘typical’ scientist. I wanted to change that. So, in my classes, we started a “Scientist of the Week” segment to highlight the achievements of all kinds of scientists. I began making a list for myself- this list started with the scientists that I have heard of- famous scientists that lived long ago or scientists that I’ve read about recently and even scientists just starting out their careers. My list was subdivided into many categories-women in STEM, Native/Indigenous in STEM, Black in STEM, military veterans in STEM, Deaf/hard of hearing in STEM, LGBTQ+ in STEM, etc. So far, I have over one hundred scientists on my list and I’m adding more daily.

This is an image of Dr. Wangari Maathai (Photo Credit: Patrick Wallet), one of our past scientists (and one of my personal heroes) of the week. Dr. Maathai was born and raised in Kenya; in the 1970s, she became the first woman from east and central Africa to earn a PhD. She is the founder of the “Green Belt Movement”, which paid women in Kenya to plant trees. This program had extreme success, both at lifting vulnerable populations of women out of poverty and at rebuilding forests across her country. She had so much success in this project, that it was modeled in other nations. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in 2004, becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and she remains one of the only environmentalists to have won this prestigious award. To learn more about Dr. Maathai’s work, read this biography.
I show a photo of the scientist to my students and tell them a little bit about their story during lecture and provide a written blurb of their achievements for my students to read later. One of our recent scientists was Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced, an astronomer from Puerto Rico (who now works in South Africa). She lost her eyesight during her undergraduate education; after she lost her sight, she developed programs to transfer her data into audible sound so that she could continue to analyze her research in a method that best suited her. Another recent example was a friend of mine, Dr. Rene Shroat-Lewis, who is a paleontologist. She is also a veteran and served in the US Navy-she gave good advice to veterans returning to college on how to find their future path. Many of the scientists I highlight, I also highlight how discrimination shaped their experiences in the sciences and how discrimination has shaped how some of these scientists are remembered in history. For example, we recently talked about Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who took the first image of DNA’s structure. Her work was famously shown to James Watson and Francis Crick, who used her data to finish their analysis of DNA. They later collected the Nobel Prize for their work, while Franklin’s work was left largely ignored. James Watson later wrote in an autobiography about Franklin, insinuating she wasn’t bright enough to understand her scientific data. James Watson has been recently featured in the news for asserting racist views. My class and I discussed how the science community for many decades chose to ignore Watson’s racism and sexism, to the detriment of the career’s and safety of traditionally discriminated groups of people in science.

I want to share these stories because they mirror the experiences of many of my students. My university, The University of South Florida, serves a broad diversity of students. I want students to see scientists that share their backgrounds-science doesn’t belong to men, to able-bodied people, to white people, to heterosexual people, to cis people, to people with Phds., to any religion or lack of religion, or to any economic class. Science belongs to everyone. However, I don’t feel that it is right to only highlight the awesome stories of scientists in underrepresented groups without also highlighting how discriminatory attitudes have shaped our history of science. Scientists must reflect on this history to always make sure that we are working towards building an inclusive community.

I have only been doing this for a few months, so I haven’t been able to compile data on how my students are engaging with the material. I have had a few students tell me their feelings, so I do have some anecdotal evidence. One student told me that she felt more confident to apply to medical school, after seeing scientists that looked like her and shared many of her experiences. Another student told me she had never seen a Native scientist highlighted in a classroom before-she sent the Scientist of the Week to members of her community and started learning about other Native scientists. I’m not naïve enough to believe that this Scientist of the Week exercise is enough to “fix” the significant challenges the science community faces in terms of diversity and inclusion. Changing the science community to reflect the diversity we have in the world will require much more work. But this is an effective way to introduce large groups of students to a history of science that isn’t nearly as often told.

If you’re interested in doing a similar project with your classes or if you have suggestions for scientists to highlight (self-nominations encouraged!), come talk to me! You can find me on twitter @sarahlsheffield

The Life of a Graduate Student

Megan here-

Heading home for the holidays always provides a nice break from being a graduate student–no classes, no grading, no lab work. But being home around family and friends still involves at least thinking about graduate school and answering the many questions concerning what I study, or what I do every day, or most frustrating: when I plan to finish school. Thus, I give you this introduction to life as a graduate student in which I address the most common questions I’ve received. Of course, this is just one student’s experience and every graduate experience varies based on the school, the program, the advisor, etc. Regardless, I hope this provides a small gleam of insight into the simultaneously exciting and boring life of a graduate student.

“What kind of classes do you take?”

My corner of the office where I have a desk, a monitor to connect with my laptop, and piles of work to complete. The majority of my day is spent either in here or in class.
Every graduate student’s course load varies depending on their area of focus, their university’s available classes, and their advisor. I study glaciology, which means that a strong understanding of math and physics are key to my research. Thus far, I’ve taken three math courses as a graduate student, on top of the required calculus at my undergraduate university. Aside from those, I’ve taken a handful of courses in my own Department of Geology & Geophysics, which range from Paleoclimates to Advanced Data Analysis. I’ve found that choosing classes has required an interdisciplinary approach that extends beyond pure glaciology.

“What do you actually do every day?”

I love this question because it makes me pause and consider what I do and accomplish on a daily basis. I even tried to track my daily habits and activities in order to better explain what I do. Turns out I’m not very good at tracking as I quit writing things down on the second day. However, here is what a typical Monday looked like during the Fall 2018 semester:


    08:45 – Bike to campus
    09:00 – Differential Equations
    10:00 – Do homework while holding office hours
    11:00 – Meet with professor who teaches the class I TA
    11:30 – Homework and read paper for weekly reading group on Tuesday
    15:00 – Work on research (write code, organize and look at data)
    17:00 – Bike home
    18:00 – Pottery class
    20:00 – Finish any remaining homework

Every day is a bit different depending on classes, homework, and meetings. Sometimes I have a nice, normal, 8-hour day and sometimes I’m in my office and working in the lab for 12 hours. Classes and homework, teaching labs, and working on my own research project comprise the majority of my time each day. I often have to work at least one day of the weekend, if not both. However, finding some degree of personal time is important to me. An occasional pottery class, ski trip, or yoga class keeps me happy and balanced.

“You must enjoy your long winter and summer breaks; what plans do you have?”

Sure, my winter break is six weeks long and the summer is two to three months without classes. Unfortunately that does not mean no research or lab work or reading papers. Those long breaks are often the times when my research productivity is highest because my schedule is void of classes and homework. The summer is also an excellent time for field work in Greenland, which means that a full month of my summer is spent abroad. I even spent an extra two weeks of my summer doing field with in California with a fellow graduate student. Breaks tend to be very busy and productive times with the occasional vacation mixed in.

“When will you finish your master’s?”

I don’t know. And many other students are also unsure. In my particular department, a master’s project usually takes two to three years and is thesis-based. This means that there are a required number of course credits a student must take; but ultimately, finishing a degree is contingent upon completing an adequate research project, writing a thesis, and defending that thesis. Research projects are not always straightforward, and often require learning new computer programs or lab techniques. The data I work with is collected and processed, so now I’m in the analysis stage. Assuming the analysis goes well, the next step will be writing my thesis and finally defending it. The potential for issues to arise or things to simply take longer than expected makes setting an actual end date nearly impossible. I usually have a basic timeline in my head, but I’m far too uncertain to divulge should it change.

“What are you going to do with your degree? Are you going to get a PhD next?”

Geoscience industries where graduating students in 2017 have accepted a job related to their field of study. The largest chosen industry for Bachelor’s students is environmental science; for Master’s students, the federal government and oil and gas industry are the largest; and for PhD students, over half of the graduates choose to work at a 4-year university. Source: Wilson, C. Status of Recent Geosciences Graduates, 2017. American Geosciences Industry.
Again, I’m not really sure. Thinking too far ahead tends to make me anxious about the present day. Until I know when I’ll finish, I’m not too keen on looking for jobs or applying to future programs. That said, I always have some rudimentary idea of what I hope to do upon finishing my master’s. Getting a job in geology or a related field is likely my next big goal. I enjoyed my internship with the National Park Service, which offers a variety of education and geosciences jobs. Environmental consulting is a popular path among geoscientists, as is environmental education. Any of these types of jobs could be a good fit for me, but ultimately I do want to pursue a PhD and stay in academia–just not quite yet. A year or two of not being in school could be an excellent opportunity to explore other paths or options. I went straight from high school to college, and straight from that to my master’s. That means I’ve been in school for two straight decades–a terrifying yet remarkable thought. I think that I could benefit from an academic break and see what else the world can offer to a geoscientist.

Searching for Cambrian Trilobites in Georgia

Cam here-

Figure 1. Asa and Jess searching for trilobite fossils near the edge of the Conasauga River.

On May 7th I lead two fossil hunters to an accessible fossil locality in Murray County, Georgia. The locality is part of the Conasauga Shale Formation. This rock unit runs through Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. It is made of shales and mudstones that were deposited during the Cambrian Period (~541-485 million years ago). During this time, Northeast Georgia was under a shallow sea known as the Iapetus Ocean. This ancient sea was located deep in the Southern Hemisphere. Animals living in these waters included sponges, brachiopods, hyoliths, and the famous trilobites.

Figure 2. Aphelaspis brachyphasis trilobite that Jess found.

The most abundant fossils in this portion of the Conasauga Formation are the shed exoskeletons of trilobites. Trilobites are arthropods that were very common animals during the Paleozoic Era (~550-250 million years ago). The trilobites found in Murray County, Georgia died from rapid mudflows that came from a deep marine basin and anoxic (lacked oxygen) environment. Because of this, the trilobite fossils from this site are preserved very well and occur in body clusters with halos of iron oxide surrounding their bodies.

We began to plunge down a hill under a bridge where the outcrops are exposed to the surface. The exposures lie right near the Conasauga River (where the rock unit received its name). It didn’t take long to split the mudstone and come across the remnants of ancient Georgia’s inhabitants. The most common species of trilobite found in the outcroppings is Aphelaspis brachyphasis. They are so common that this locality has been referred to as the Aphelaspis Biozone. There are other species that were found such as agnostids like Glyptagnostus reticulatus which serves as an index fossil for the middle Cambrian and Agnostus inexpectans.

Figure 3. The best specimen of A. brachyphasis that I found!
Figure 4. The Index Fossil for the Middle Cambrian Period Glyptagnostus reticulatus

Agnostids are very small and only occur in rocks from the Cambrian and Ordovician period. Paleontologists have debated whether agnostids are even part of the class Trilobita at all. Agnostids had a head and a tail body parts with two or three thoracic segments. They also have have no eyes which suggest they lived in deeper waters where light did not penetrate the ocean. A lot of the trilobites that we found were disarticulated but some specimens recovered were complete molts. We all came back with well-preserved and numerous specimens.

Luke Varner, Geologist

San Andreas Overlook en route to White Sands, NM

What do you do?
As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida I am in the process of undergoing the absorption of the necessary geologic common knowledge about Earth processes to become a geologist. In addition, I’m also learning the approaches and disciplines necessary to perform scientific observations and investigations that are required to do research and field work for my future endeavors in geology.

What is your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.?

I haven’t yet been afforded the opportunity to plan my own research or collect my own data. I have, however, taken a deep interest into volcanology, geochemistry, and petrology while assisting a graduate student and a research volcanologist with their investigations of the evolution of magma bodies. This has allowed me to use their geochemical analysis data retrieved from rock samples. During this time, I have applied calculus and statistics to the geochemical analysis data to form a geochemical model that describe the degree of crystallization that would result in those rock formations. The data sets for these rock samples were collected via electron microscopy.

How does your research contribute to climate change, our understanding of evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?
The research I have assisted with could help in both economical and societal benefits by helping understand how and where mineral deposits may form. In addition, it helps describe the geologic history (via rock formation) of an area or region which is of benefit to all.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My favorite part about being a scientist is the opportunity that it provides to get out and question the how and why of things in the natural world. There are so many stories to be told about time (both deep and recent) that haven’t been told yet. Being a scientist offers the opportunity to contribute to both the scientific and non-scientific community by offering the possibility to help spread more understanding of the Earth’s natural processes. In my opinion, this is part of what helps keep alive the awe-inspiring wonder and “magic” about the Earth.

Investigating Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks in NM

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
Even though I am 36 I would still be considered a “young” scientist myself in the sense that I am new to the field of geology. However, I can give the advice that if you have the desire to seek out to become a geologist, or any discipline for that matter, don’t hesitate to go for it. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance from your peers and fellows. The amount of support and guidance I have been given so far in my journey by professors and fellow students has helped guide and inspire me. In my experience, most individuals in the wide umbrella of geoscience are more than willing to help if they are capable.

What are your  experiences with returning to school at a later age and what were the driving forces behind this decision?
My reasons for returning to school were quite simple. I made some foolish life choices as young student graduating high school and ultimately lacked direction in my life for many years. After spending more than a decade in the landscaping industry I couldn’t escape the feeling of being wholly unsatisfied with my career. I finally reached a point where I was not excited about what my career path was. Three years ago, I set out to seek a new direction. I asked myself the question, “What is the thing that I enjoy doing the most in life?” and followed that question with another; “Is it possible to find a career that would place you directly in that activity or surroundings. My answers were, without a doubt, that I felt most at home while being out in the natural world as I am a hiker and backpacker who has always loved exploring the beautiful environments and monoliths you can find across the globe; and that as a geologist I could choose a focus that would provide me an opportunity to both be placed in the outdoors and to help expand knowledge and understanding of these places I loved so much. So, the choice was clear. Three years ago, I re-enrolled into community college and finished AA before transferring to USF to seek my BS in geology. The experience has extremely gratifying while also very challenging. Being a now 36-year-old adult meant that I had a many more personal responsibilities and bills than most of my fellow students. It can be a challenge to find enough time to fit in all my duties as an employee, as a son, and as friend while continuing to uphold my studies. Regardless, I always try to keep the end goal in mind and remind myself that this is all a part of the process. The greatest benefit I have received from returning to school is the gift of being able to stay focused on my goals. Since I have already experienced the oft confusing timespan of young adulthood, it is much easier for me to not get off course due to the perceived necessity of over indulgence in social gatherings in which I see many young students struggle with. I’m here to trust the process and enjoy the ride.

Follow Luke’s geology experiences by checking out his blog: click here!

I’m just bad at science

Sarah here-

If I had a dime for every time I heard this sentence…well, let’s just say I’d probably be free of student loans by this point! I teach hundreds of introductory geology and the large majority (95% or so) are not science majors. So, suffice to say, I teach students with a range in interest and self-assumed ability in science. But after three semesters of teaching full time and nearly 1,000 students, I’m putting a ban on this phrase in my classes and I’ll tell you why.

I want to talk about what it does to your ability to learn when you come into a classroom with the idea that you’re bad at something. You come in with a mental block that will stay with you for the duration of the class. If you struggle with the material, you’ll only give yourself a confirmation bias (see? I don’t get this stuff. I must be bad at science/math/French/whatever it is). How are you supposed to learn with that attitude? You can’t! And before you say “it’s easy for you to say-you’re a scientist with a Ph.D. You weren’t bad at science”. This simply isn’t true.

I found this ad in an Astronomy magazine when I was in college. I saved so that I could look at it and remind myself to expand what I can do and not tell myself what I can’t do (this ad was for Shell (JWT London) from the 2000s).
I struggled with learning math and science through middle school, high school, and through college. I’d sit down to study-I’d feel overwhelmed instantly. I’d tell myself “you’re not good at this stuff” so much that no matter how hard I’d study, I’d second guess myself on just about every problem, leading to even worse self esteem (and not surprisingly, worse grades on assignments). By the time I got to classes like Calculus and Physics in college, I had only made this even worse for myself. I told my professors when I went for help “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at chemistry”. Finally, a professor looked at me in my final math class (Calculus II) and said, “Sarah, you know you’re actually quite good at math. You just need to give yourself a little more time to learn it. And you need to be kind to yourself”. That idea stayed with me for a very long time- it freed me to be patient with myself. And to let me love learning without the fear of grades a little bit more. I made my highest grade on a college math exam that semester (a B-!) and you know what-I was (and still am) proud of myself for that exam grade-I even hung it on my apartment fridge for the entire rest of the semester so I could celebrate it every day. Achievement isn’t always measured by A’s!

Many of us (myself included) automatically assume that what we’re good at and what comes easily to us is one in the same. On the flip side, we assume that we’re bad at things we’re not automatically good at, especially in the world of academics. This simply isn’t true. To take an easy example, one that you’re familiar with if you’re reading this blog, is learning to read. Learning to read is incredibly complex! It took you months to years just to master your alphabet- learning to recognize each individual letter. Then, it took you even longer to figure out how to string bizarre patterns of these letters together to form words, sentences, and paragraphs. No became good at reading overnight-it’s a skill that you worked on for years. And, just like reading, none of us were born to learn science instantly! It takes time to learn how to learn science, just like you learn anything else.

So how can you boost your confidence in science? I’m glad you asked! If you’re taking a high school or college course, ask for help. Visit your professors and ask them to help you! We can explain concepts to you in different ways, help you relate the knowledge to something you’re more familiar with, or just assure you that you’re on the right track. Many times, my students have asked questions that have forced me to learn how to make a concept clearer (so professors actually really appreciate it when you tell us what you’re struggling with). Also, seek out cool articles or blogs or even popular science books in the subject you’re learning about! It can really help to boost your enthusiasm about a concept, which can help your confidence, too.

So give yourself permission to be patient with yourself. Science may not come easily you to-it’s never come easily to me. I worked hard to pass chemistry and even geology classes (looking at you, structure and tectonics!). It’s OK to love something that takes you more time to learn. And it’s also OK to pick a major or to take classes in something that you might need a little more help with. Science is a wide and complex field that takes dedication to master. It can take years to learn how to learn science to the point where you feel confident enough to proclaim, “I’m good at science!”- so why do so many of us automatically label ourselves bad at science? Just like learning to read, learning science isn’t easy! It takes time!

So here’s my warning to my students starting this semester-I’m no longer going to let you say that you’re bad at science in my class (and I don’t want to hear it from people reading this blog, either!). Your science education is a work in progress- and we’re going to work together to help you love science.

Jaws International

Jen here –

Not long ago I was invited to visit Dr. Gordon Hubbell’s personal collection and museum of modern and fossil sharks. Dr. Hubbell is a retired veterinarian who is a renowned shark expert. He has been on fossil collecting expeditions across the world. I’ve been fortunate to know many collectors with vast personal collections but Dr. Hubbell’s was on another level. He had a special room that was devoted to his specimens, preparation, and photography.

Wide shot of the main exhibit and specimen area.

There are curated specimens in display cases, that were designed specifically for Gordon’s fossil collection. The display cases each hold miniature exhibits on different aspects of sharks. For a non-shark expert, or even enthusiast, this was absolutely overwhelming. I like sharks, I think they are fascinating but I haven’t spent much time learning about them or exploring their fossil record.

Exhibit on shark vertebrae including detailed anatomy but with clear easy-to-understand diagrams and labels.
Biogeography of megalodon teeth. All regions of the globe were included but not able to be captured in a single photo.
Schematic representation of how shark teeth get replaced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comparison of fossil and modern sets of teeth. Notice the specific way the teeth curve.
The group that I visited the museum with included a graduate student researching some of the fossil specimens in Gordon’s collection. Another phenomenal aspect about Gordon – he understands the utility of his collection in active scientific research. In this case, the student and his assistant were photographic a complete set of shark teeth – by complete I mean a set from the top and lower jaw of the animal. Gordon had many complete sets of fossil teeth, which is incredibly rare.

Souvenir shark tooth from Dr. Hubbell’s museum.
I learned an incredible amount about sharks from their morphology (whole and just teeth), sexual dimorphism, geographic distribution, and some of the weird mutations that can occur in their teeth. But I think what was the largest takeaway is that Gordon wanted his visitors to learn and be excited about sharks. He didn’t have to make all of these incredible displays, he could have just pulled out specimens and I still would have learned a lot. But allowing the visitor to learn and ask questions about the content is much more effective and kept me engaged for a long time.

In addition to having one of the largest collection of shark remains, Gordon is also an artist. He sculpts animal life – modern and ancient. Some of these models were present in his collection and were so fun and lifelike that they really added to both my exploration of sharks and the exhibits. He even offers souvenirs on your way out – I got to take home an extinct mackerel shark tooth from Morocco that lived about 60 million years ago.

Take a virtual tour of his collection and museum here. Read more in the news about Gordon’s expertise and collection here.

Set of shark vertebrae sitting in under some of the displayed fossils. That is a six foot table.
Fossil shark called Helicoprion that had a spiral of teeth coming of the front end of the face.
Model created by Gordon of a complete Helicoprion whorl of teeth.
Carcharodon hubbelli from Peru. Specimen was found by Dr. Hubbell and he subsequently donated it to the Florida Museum of Natural History, specimen number 226255.

Learning New Methods

Maggie here-

One of my favorite parts of being a scientist is constantly learning about new ways to answer research questions that I have. I am a paleontologist, but in recent years, I have become very interested in how I can use geochemistry (looking at stable isotopes and trace elements) to address paleontological questions. Since this is a relatively new interest of mine, I have been taking classes in geochemistry, and this past semester I took an analytical geochemistry class to learn different methods that I can use to answer my own research questions. I want to share some of what that class was like because WOW, I’m still processing how awesome it was!

The Lab
Two years ago now, my department (Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of Tennessee) moved into a new building that has not only lab space for faculty and graduate students, but has a research lab designated for undergraduate research. This lab has many different instruments (ion chromatograph, gas chromatograph, inductively-coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer) as well as equipment for bench experiments that is intended to provide undergraduates with research experience through classes and working with faculty members and graduate students. The class that I was a part of did consist of graduate students, but we got to be a part of the process of launching the use of this lab and continued to prepare this space for use by undergraduates. This lab space in and of itself is a unique space for undergraduates to explore the geosciences, but my experience using the lab and learning the methodology of the instrumentation available in the lab was very beneficial.

A gas chromotographer. These instruments are designed to separate and analyze compounds (substances with two or more elements).

Class Set Up
My favorite part of this class was how it was set up because it was so interactive. We spent the first half of the semester getting acquainted with the lab itself and learning the processes that are involved with setting up a lab like this and preparing for a safety inspection. We completed a chemical inventory, worked on developing a chemical hygiene plan, and discussed budgeting (everything from how much DI water costs to the basics of how much each standard is). While this seems pretty mundane, it was an interesting process to complete and to see how detailed the process of setting up a lab is.

Photo by Dr. Annette Engel.

The second half of the semester, each student in the class chose a method to research and teach the class to use. This was a two day lesson that we were each in charge of, the first day spent teaching the theory behind the method and how the equipment works, the second day was spent using that method to look at a quick in class experiment. This meant that not only did we each become the in-class expert on a method, but we had to be able to think about timing to stage each step of the process to using that method. Some of the methods we learned about include gas chromatography, ion chromatography, and inductively-coupled plasma optical emission spectrometry (ICP-OES).

Photo by Dr. Annette Engel.
In addition to learning the process of setting up a lab and learning all different methods, budgeting was also emphasized in this class. Our professor was very transparent with us about how much money was spent to set up the lab as well as how much our science cost to do. With every method, every student leader included a question for us to figure out how much it would cost to run a certain number of samples using that method. This really impressed upon all of us in the class that science does cost money and more importantly, time, and how that all needs to be thought about well before wanting to do any analyses.

The set up of this class ensured that not only did we learn how to use different methods, but that we learned how to run our own labs and understand the work that goes into the different analyses that we write about wanting to complete. Not only did I walk out of the lab this semester being able to complete many different geochemical analyses on my own, but with some idea of the complexities of running a lab!

Class Projects

Photo by Dr. Annette Engel.
I mentioned above that part of this class was to see the breadth of projects that could be completed using the equipment that already exists in the lab. The four other people who took this class with me and myself all have VERY different areas of research and our class projects reflected that. One person was looking at fluid inclusions in granites, someone else was looking at toxins in microbes, and I was looking at trace elements in different skeletal elements of sea urchins. Almost all of us used the ICP-OES because we were interested in trace elements, but for several of us, our samples required other methods that we discussed in class to prepare the samples to be run through the ICP-OES.

All of us in the class completed all of the prep work and ran our own samples regardless of the method that we chose. Yes, we had guidance from our professor and lab manager, but the project work was all very hands on and completed by us. This gave us each a chance to apply what we had learned in class, see just how long some of these methods take, and gave us an appreciation for juggling multiple people’s lab schedules! At the end of the day though, all of us walked out of the lab with useable data to complete our chosen research projects. And, for several of us, the work done for this class project either directly helps with the completion of analyses for our theses and dissertations or helped inform us if the method we used is useful for the question we want to address.

Personal Takeaways

This is the first time in Maggie’s science journey that she has had to wear a traditional white lab coat. Photo by Dr. Annette Engel.
I am going to be really honest here, at points this class was incredibly overwhelming to me-I don’t have a strong geochemistry background and I really didn’t know what I was expecting to see in the results of my research project. But I’m really glad that I took a chance on it because I did learn so much more than I thought I would. I feel more confident in my abilities to complete geochemical analyses on my own, I learned the capabilities of several different instruments and have ideas of how to use them in future research projects, and overcame some personal lab fears-using acid to break down solids into liquids is a little scary the first time you do it! But beyond the methods, this class really emphasized the process of setting up a lab for the first time and understanding how time and monetary budgets fit in to building labs and getting analyses run. I am glad that I challenged myself to learn new methods this semester and I encourage you all to step outside your comfort zone to see where you can stretch your research to!

Revising echinoderm relationships based on new fossil interpretations

A re-interpretation of the ambulacral system of Eumorphocystis (Blastozoa, Echinodermata) and its bearing on the evolution of early crinoids

by: Sarah L. Sheffield and Colin D. Sumrall
Summarized by Sarah Sheffield

What data were used? New echinoderm fossils found in Oklahoma, USA, along with other fossil species of echinoderms. The new fossils had unusual features preserved.

Methods: This study used an evolutionary (phylogenetic) analysis of a range of echinoderm species, to determine evolutionary relationships of large groups of echinoderms.

The arms of Eumorphocystis. A. This is an up close image of the arms that branch off the body. B. The arms of Eumorphocystis have three separate pieces comprising them: these three pieces are highlighted in yellow, blue, and green. This arm structure is nearly identical to early crinoid arms, indicating that crinoids might be more closely related to creatures like Eumorphocystis than we previously thought.
Results: Eumorphocystis is a fossil echinoderm (the group that contains sea stars) that belongs to the Blastozoa group within Echinodermata. However, it has unusual features that make it unlike any other known blastozoan: it has arms that extend off of the body, which is something we see in another group of echinoderms, called crinoids. Further, these arms have a very similar type of arrangement to the crinoids: the arms have three distinct pieces to them (see figure). Researchers placed data concerning the features of these arms, and the rest of the fossils’ features, into computer programs and determined likely evolutionary relationships from the data. The results indicate that Eumorphocystis is closely related to crinoids and could indicate that crinoids share common ancestry with blastozoans.

Why is this study important? This study indicates that our understanding of the big relationships within Echinodermata need to be revised. Without an accurate understanding of these evolutionary relationships, we can’t begin to understand how these organisms actually changed through time-what patterns they showed moving across the world, how these organisms responded to climate change through time, or even why these organisms eventually went extinct.

The big picture: This study shows that crinoids could actually belong within Blastozoa, which could change a lot of what we currently understand about the echinoderm tree of life. Overall, this study could help us understand how different body plan evolved in Echinodermata and how these large groups within Echinodermata are actually related to one another. Data from this study can be used in the future to start to understand evolutionary trends in echinoderms.

Citation: Sheffield, S.L., Sumrall, C.D., 2018, A re-interpretation of the ambulacral system of Eumorphocystis (Blastozoa, Echinodermata) and its bearing on the evolution of early crinoids: Palaeontology, p. 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1111/pala.12396

To read more about Diploporitans please click here to read a recent post by Sarah on Palaeontology[online].

Can you dig it?

Rose here –

In the geology gallery at the museum, scientists explore their own research and help visitors better understand the process of fossilization. Photo from @EPS_UTK on Twitter.

At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, we have a natural history museum on campus called the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. Every year they do a family fun day event called Can You Dig It? where scientists from different departments on campus come and set up various activities to engage families. The Earth and Planetary Sciences department always shows up with several fun activities for families and kids of all ages. This year we had quite a few things going on.

Outside we had two tables of planetary activities. One table was talking about volcanoes and how to tell the difference between rocks formed by volcanic eruptions and rocks formed by meteorite impacts. We had real meteorites and impact deposits, as well as some volcanic rocks, so the kids could hold them all and really see the difference.

Other graduate students outside with experiments dealing with impact craters for visitors to explore!

I was at the other planetary table, where we had some more meteorites and 3D-printed models of actual impact craters on the moon and Mars. We used these to explain how the shape of impact craters change depending on the size of a meteorite and the speed at which it impacts. We also had a tub of flour with a thin layer of cocoa powder on top. There were several marbles and small balls, and kids could hold one above the tub and drop it to make their very own impact crater. The layering using cocoa powder allowed us to show them how ejecta blankets work at real impact craters. An ejecta blanket is made of rocks from the impact site being blown up and out of the crater and landing to form a “blanket” surrounding the crater. In the tub, you could see flour on top of the cocoa powder after the impact, showing how buried layers get exposed at the surface surrounding impact craters.

Graduate students have a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) for students and visitors to get more information about a variety of topics. Photo from @EPS_UTK on Twitter.

Inside the museum, we had a table where people could bring in rocks or fossils they had collected and geologists or paleontologists would help identify them. This is a really popular thing, and some people bring loads of rocks they’ve been collecting all year.
If you have a local museum, make sure to go check them out. Local museums are often cheap or free and also host fun events like this one!

Last minute opportunities

Jen here –

Recently I was provided with an opportunity to travel across the world, from Tennessee, USA to Nagoya, Japan for the 16th International Echinoderm Conference. When presented with a fully funded trip to an international conference your first answer would normally be, “Yes, of course!” I had not originally planned to go on this trip because I had recently graduated and no longer had access to apply for departmental funds. I had planned other adventures for that weekend, a bit more localized and affordable.

Kōtoku-in in Kamakura where we spent a day exploring temples.

Unfortunately, my mentor and collaborator fell terribly ill the week that he was to travel to Japan and was no longer able to present our most recent work on understanding the taxonomy of blastoids. Being the only other co-author I was faced with a serious question – three days before I would have to leave the country. I am not an impulsive traveler. I like to spend time researching hotels, places to visit, and local historical sites. I like to spend time thinking and processing the whole thing. Having time to conceptualize the trip makes me so much more comfortable traveling.

The first slide of the conference.

I had to quickly weigh the pros and cons and make sure that I still had a valid passport! My initial thought was – no way can I go on this trip. I am one of those people that hates surprises and the thought of having to cancel plans, leave the country, and more in only a few days made me absolutely sick with anxiety. I told Colin, my advisor, that I would need one night to think about it and check to make sure I had valid travel documents. The next morning I decided that this opportunity to network with a global echinoderm community was too precious to not take the trip. I would be able to make new collaborations and rekindle my connection with old friends and colleagues. So, three days after the offer, I was off on a plane to Japan.

Scrumptious echinoid gonads! (the orange stuff)

To say the trip was last minute is an understatement. I was incredibly overwhelmed, had to fix up a talk that I had not prepared, and be away from my family for 10 days. That being said, I am beyond grateful for this last-minute opportunity, especially as a junior scientist that is looking to make new collaborations and network with peers. Also, who doesn’t want to eat echinoid gonads with a bunch of echinoderm workers?! It was an unforgettable experience.

I think the moral of this story is to take these opportunities, no matter how fast and unprepared you may feel. It was a whirlwind of a trip but not only did I learn a lot, I made valuable connections within the echinoderm community that I would otherwise have not made.

Group photo of most of the conference participants.