Rattlesnake Creek Fossil Collecting

Jen here – 

Action shot of folks collecting in the creek. Taken by Victor Perez of the Florida Museum.

I recently went on a fossil collecting trip associated with a FOSSIL Project workshop on digitization and imaging of fossils. To preface this, whenever you are looking to go fossil collecting you should make sure to be aware of the laws and rules in place in your town. The spot we were heading to abuts private land so one of the coordinators made sure to reach out to them ahead of time to request permission and explain what we were doing. To give back to the community, we also cleaned up the creek while we were looking for fossils. There is always trash or debris and this is an easy way to give back to the community you are hunting in! 

In Florida, you have to prepare to be out in the heat. Surprisingly the creek was pleasant and we were pretty shaded for most of the day. I wore a UV protectant shirt, shorts, sandals, and a hat. Insects can really get you, so it’s also best to know what to prepare for and use lotion or bug spray to prevent any spread of disease.

I was mostly observing and helping facilitate this trip but I was excited to see others getting really into the fossil collection. This location is in the Coosawhatchie Formation which is Miocene (~23-5.3 million years ago) in age. It overlies the Eocene (~56-33.9 million years old) Ocala Limestone. The Ocala Limestone fossils are very different from the Coosawhatchie so they are pretty easy to distinguish from one another. Most folks were finding shark teeth, ray plates, clams, snails from the Coosawhatchie Formation and things like small echinoids and large benthic foraminifera from the Ocala Limestone. Specimens from the Ocala Limestone were often a white-cream color whereas specimens from the Coosawhatchie were very dark.

Hemipristis serra specimen collected by Corinne Daycross. Check out her specimens on myFOSSIL.

 

We also spent some time observing the local insects and sharing education apps for identifying fossils and modern life! Workshop participants were from all over the country so there was some regular chit chat and getting to know one another. I had known several participants for some time from various online platforms so it was really great getting to meet them in person! If you want to check out what the group was up to here is the myFOSSIL group that everyone was posting in: Imaging and Digitization for Avocational Paleontologists Workshop

Eagle ray plate found by Corinne Daycross. Check out her specimens on myFOSSIL.

I was also helping my friend and collaborator, Rich, with a study. He was interested in thinking about participant dynamics at workshops and field trips. So we had a matrix and were recording interactions between participants at the workshop and facilitators (/people running the workshop). He then also gave everyone a survey to see how people’s perception of who they interacted with matched what we observed. They were pretty close but perceived interactions were higher, which could be due to a variety of things. It has been really fun getting into some of these observational studies!

Check out the summary blog post on myFOSSIL about the event: Imagining and Digitization Workshop

Group photo of everyone after we had been hunting in the creek. By Jeff Gage at the Florida Museum.

Research Experience for Undergraduates Program

Please welcome our guest blogger Colby!

Colby here- 

This was the day that we helped the Audubon Society research horseshoe crabs. WIth me are my mentors, Ricardo and Stephanie. The beach we were on had an amazing view, and Stephanie told me that not far away was a ferry for whale watching. Though the location was lovely, the beach was really dirty. There were many fishermen, so we had to walk carefully as to not run into their lines, step on a dead fish, or step on the trash littering the beach. To research the crabs, we counted the number of them present in the white box. We placed the box in the shallow water every ten steps. The society uses this information to maintain population surveys.

Last spring, I was accepted into an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program titled, “Systematics and Evolution of Arachnids” hosted by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). In January, I had gone to my advisor and asked if there were any internships available at museums. At first it did not seem very promising, but I soon found out about REU programs. These are internships available to students that are hosted at all types of institutions (universities, museums, etc.) in a variety of subjects. After filling out the online application for the REU at the AMNH, I waited weeks with anxiety for any response back. I am currently a geology student, and though this was advertised a biology project, I was able to use my undergrad research in paleontology to highlight that I had experience in both fields. I wrote my application with the intent to appear willing to learn, enthusiastic, and hard-working to compensate for my lack of biological research experience. I had never worked with molecules, and was nervous this would hurt my chances, but in the end this was not the case, and I feel lucky that it was not. After a couple of phone interviews, I was lucky enough to be offered the position, and for ten weeks of the summer I was housed at Columbia University on the upper west side of Manhattan while conducting research at the museum. I really love museums, so the chance to work for one, even temporarily, was a lot of fun.

This is me at the main entrance to the museum. I really love that entrance, because when you go through the rotating doors, the tall ceiling gives you the feeling you’re in a special place. Inside is a long necked dinosaur standing up, with a smaller version of itself following close behind. On the other side of the room is some kind of meat eating dinosaur, posed for an attack. A scene is implied: the mother herbivore is protecting her baby from danger. However, I heard from people this scene was highly inaccurate. I don’t mind the inaccuracies, though, because from the stairs where I’m sitting one can look into the very top windows and see the head of the sauropod, even at night. The sheer size always made me smile!

During the majority of my time in New York, I undertook a research project focusing on a mysterious order of arachnid called, “Ricinulei”, or, “Hooded-tick spiders”. These animals are very rare in collections and very understudied. There are currently less than 100 documented species worldwide, with only three genera or groups. Many of the specimens are either old, broken, or females which are not useful in identifying new species. Ricinulei are highly sexually dimorphic, meaning some features are only visible in males. There are certain characters that only appear in the males of the species, while all females look the same. For example, one character is the bulkiness of Leg II, in females this leg is the same width and length as the others. Luckily, the AMNH has a large collection, so this project is possible. My project was split into two parts: the first was to undertake a taxonomic revision of a monophyletic group belonging to the genus Ricinoides, including describing several new species. The second project focused on creating a phylogenetic analysis of Ricinulei using molecular data (DNA). The resulting phylogenetic tree I produced is the most comprehensive so far for this group of arachnids. This research will be published with me as an author through the museum’s own journal. 

This was taken at the bug eating event I attended in Queens. In addition to sampling all kinds of insect themed foods, there was a table set up with an “insect petting zoo”. This tarantula is housed in the museum usually, but she was brought along with other office pets to interact with guests. In addition to holding and kissing her, I held grasshoppers, caterpillars, millipedes, a scorpion, and an amblypygin. My favorite was this spider, because it had been my goal to hold one all summer. I admit I was nervous at first, but as soon as she climbed on my hand I got over my fear. At the end of a tarantula’s feet are two small, retractable claws used for traction. On your hand, it feels like a little tickle and makes them a lot less threatening.

Knowing the research I did was meaningful made this summer very rewarding. It has left me with more confidence in regards to my professional skills. I feel that I contributed real science to the museum and after surviving the schedule and work-load, I feel more able to complete homework and projects on time. I also gained a new perspective on what is expected of me from my professors and someday my boss. I now know what a real taxonomic paper should look like, and during my time in undergrad I hope to publish a paper of my own. The trust my mentor instilled in me is really encouraging, even though the work was hard. I was expected to participate in writing the paper that my mentor intends to publish, and I took all of the pictures that will be used in paper. I was also expected to give a final presentation during a symposium attended by many members of the museum staff. 

In addition to the research project, I went to events outside of work that will leave me with fond memories forever. One day, I traveled to a small island off the shore of Manhattan in order to document horseshoe crab mating habits with the Audubon society. Once, I attended an event at the Explorer’s Club, a group dedicated to actually exploring to the ends of the earth. I even spent one evening eating bugs prepared by a Brooklyn chef. I got to meet museum staff, including Neil Degrasse Tyson and Mark Norell. I made connections with my mentors and many other people that I will carry with me as I head into the future. I got to meet the other students in the program, friends I hope to have for years to come. We spent much of our free time in our neighborhood or exploring the city. Our badges allowed us free admission to almost every museum in New York and I spent a relaxing day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, I found the original William: a hippopotamus statue of which there is a replica at McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee’s campus where I am a student. Our dorm was located one block from the St. John’s Cathedral of the Divine. This is one of the oldest churches in New York and is very beautiful. I spent many nights sitting on the stairs watching the sky and the people. There was small, Hungarian pastry shop I miss dearly- they had the best salted caramel cake. 

I encourage other students to apply to REU programs or any other internships like it. This summer has given me a lot of encouragement as I finish my undergrad classes as well as provided guidance as I plan for grad school. Though REUs are often times very selective, institutions that host the programs are plentiful and applying to multiple programs will increase the chances of finding the right fit. I had a lot of fun this summer and hope that more students can have their own experiences.

This is me working in the Microscopy lab. This is the room I become most familiar with during my summer, the Nikon camera room. The camera is able to take a series of pictures going from top to bottom, layers the images over each other, and puts the finished product into focus. With this camera, I took many pictures comparing the differences in species and showing unique characteristics. To image a Ricinulei, we filled a petri dish with glass beads and then poured in ethanol. The ethanol keeps the animal preserved, and the beads keep it steady. Under the dish we laid a piece of paper to make the background white. Later, the beads will be photoshopped out of the pictures and they will be ready for publication.

Traveling Fossil Exhibit at the Fernbank Science Center

Cam here –

I love to educate the public on how important geology and paleontology are. Two Saturdays every month I volunteering my time at my local science center to set up of table of samples of fossils and other geological. I started volunteering for the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia back in 2016. Rick Spears who is a paleoartist and the designer for the science center invited me to give a talk for Earth Science Week.

Half a billion years laid out on a single table by the use of various fossil specimens from my personal collection.
Fossils and rock specimens on display from the Mesozoic Era.
The Cenozoic era with mostly mammalian fossils on display
The Censozoic era with mostly mammalian fossils on display.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I gave two main talks, one on trilobites and the other on crinoids. Everyone seemed to really enjoy looking at specimens. I find it very important that everyone has a chance to touch and pick up a fossil. Some fossils in museum are behind glass and in storage tucked away. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make sure that children and even adults have the chance to touch and hold fossil specimens. Children are natural born scientists; they love to touch and interact with things in their environment. For example, that could be a child picking up a rock off the ground or catching and freeing lizards.

Rock and Mineral Specimens on display.

I switch up my exhibits a lot. I love to teach about deep time and how vast the fossil record is. I do this by setting my fossil specimens in chronological order. Each specimen has its own label card and the period in which that fossil is from. This is gives visitors a perspective of old our planet is and the various geological events that happened during that time the fossil plants and animals were alive at the time. People are blown away when they learn that a stromatolite fossil that I have on display is 3.4 billion years old! Not a lot of people have the opportunity to hold the oldest fossil on earth. Each Saturday I switch from the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. I could also lay out the entire 4 billion years of earth on the same table at once as well!

I don’t just feature fossils as well. I exhibit rock and mineral specimens as well. In fact, that will be my next exhibit coming up in a few weeks! Adults and parents learn about the various rocks and minerals that are found in Georgia. They get to touch the oldest rock in Georgia which is 1.2 billion years old! Again, not a lot of people have the opportunity to interact with the oldest rock in Georgia. They even get to hold the oldest crustal rock on earth which is the Acasta Gneiss. This rock is 4.2 billion years old. It is always a pleasure to see a person walk away with a smile knowing that were able to hold the oldest rock on earth. It makes me feel that I am making a difference with 1 fossil or rock sample at a time.

Ashley Ramsey, Staff Geologist for Geosyntec Consultants, Inc.

Professional Headshot.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist, why I chose science, and particularly why I decided to be an environmental consultant, is that the field is constantly changing, and there is always something new to learn, discover, or develop. Through my obtaining my undergraduate geology degree at Baylor University and my masters geology degree at The University of Tennessee, I was never sure what career path to take, but I knew that I liked to learn and do so at a very quick pace. Since beginning my consulting career just over one year ago, I have had the opportunity to study a multitude of contaminant impacts and remediation techniques for groundwater, porewater, soil, and sediment. Not only this, but every day I am fortunate to collaborate with scientists across the United States on a daily basis.

Step 1, wear proper PPE😊 Work can be a bit messy sometimes, but that’s half of the fun, right?!

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
As a consultant at Geosyntec I conduct environmental contaminant investigations and remediations concerning chlorinated solvents, petroleum, metals, pesticides, and/or emerging contaminants. These contaminants are sourced from many historic and modern day industrial activities like dry cleaning and petroleum storage and sales among many others. My work over the last year and a half has been on sites located across state of Florida and have involved in soil, sediment, porewater and groundwater monitoring and sampling; contractor oversight; permitting; and the development and execution of proposals, remedial designs, and reports.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
My work provides knowledge to clients and the public about the state of their environment and what steps we can actively take to better it. As environmental consultants we conduct investigations to ensure environmental contaminants are not migrating away from their source and that concentrations are not increasing. This work is extremely important as it ensures no harm is coming to the members of our community from the investigated contaminants as they go about their day to day lives.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Keep at it! Sometimes you will have no idea which path to take and may become overwhelmed by those around you who already have their path determined. Take on a new project, study a new field, take that random class or field trip. By exploring every possible avenue, you will find your niche.

Measuring surface and pore water temperatures to provide a line of evidence for groundwater upwelling in a Jacksonville Creek.

Hobbies are important!

Sarah, Jen, and Adriane here-

Ever wondered what a scientist does for fun? Many people are surprised to find out that people who do science are into just about every single hobby that can be done! I think shows like the Big Bang Theory, that paint scientists as really nerdy and incapable of doing non-science related things, can make people think that scientists are really like that in real life (some of us are! Definitely nothing wrong with that- but scientists are a pretty diverse group of people). Why are hobbies important, though? Well, hobbies keep me sane. They give me a chance to take a break, completely, from work and do something challenging and fun. They give me a chance to make new friends outside of science and give me things to look forward to, when work gets tough.

So what kind of hobbies are scientists into? Well, we here at Time Scavengers wrote a group post so you could see the the types of stuff we get up to in our spare time.

Sarah

The three trilobites I’ve cross stitched so far! (This is my very first attempt at any form of embroidery-I’m pretty proud of them!

My favorite thing to do is read! I have a challenge with myself–I read at least 50 books a year. I don’t have a favorite genre, really. I’ll read just about anything: fiction, classics, memoirs, young adult–I just like reading stories of other people’s lives, whether they’re real or fictional. I read every night before I go to sleep and I always have an audiobook that I listen to while I’m vacuuming, walking to class, or driving in the car. Right now, as this post is being written, I’m rereading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and listening to Tara Westover’s Educated (both super good–highly recommend!). I’ve read books for fun for as long as I can remember. Little known fact about me- I was on a competitive reading team in middle school aka I was super cool and not at all nerdy.

I’m also really into crafts. My mom is an art teacher, so she taught me how to do a lot of different crafty things (even if I inherited none of her skill). I love to paint, decoupage, and create all kinds of things. Recently, I decided to take up learning how to embroider. So far, I’ve cross stitched a few different trilobites to hang up in my office! Around my house are the relics of old craft projects that I’ve made and am probably way too proud of.

Another project of mine that I’ve taken up is learning American Sign Language. I’ve always wanted to learn and I recently decided that there was no time like the present. So, for the past year, I’ve been taking online classes through my local community college and spending time on weekends with the Tampa Deaf community to learn how to communicate via sign. It’s been a total blast and I’m hoping to keep learning!

Photo: the three trilobites I’ve cross stitched so far! (This is my very first attempt at any form of embroidery. I’m pretty proud of them!)

Jen

Jen at Graham Swamp Conservation Area where she was biking and checking out dredged sediment from the beach. Fossils galore!!

My favorite thing to do is be outside. After working for any amount of time the only thing that really refreshes me is getting some sunlight and air. Most of my work involves sitting at my computer so I constantly get burned out from staring at my screen. These days I do a lot of biking both on long greenways on my road bike and on trails on my mountain bike. Jeb even made some nice trails on our property in Gainesville – almost two miles! I used to do a lot of trail running when we lived in Knoxville but would have to take long breaks to offset my shin splints, which would get really painful at times. I also like to examine the wildlife – what’s around me and do I know what it is? iNaturalist allows me to figure out what the things are that I’m unfamiliar with. They have a more ‘fun’ app called Seek that has monthly challenges and can identify organisms as you sort of pan over them with your camera! It’s a lot of fun to explore and learn and the same time.

I also knit scarves, I don’t do fancy patterns or anything besides scarves because the point of knitting, to me, is to clear my mind and keep my hands busy while we are watching TV or just relaxing. I choose to knit Harry Potter scarves because I love the series!! I first started knitting them almost a decade ago and have a little Etsy shop where people can purchase them if they want to. They are also really warm, I started making them when I lived in Chicago and it’s just a funny joke that I keep moving south and keep making them.

I have many other hobbies but those are the two that I really enjoy the most. I read books but not as avidly as I once did and it’s much harder for me than it used to be, I suppose it’s because my mind wanders more easily to get all of my other tasks done. I do yoga a lot, play with my cats, garden, play Pokemon Go, blog, and chat with old friends.

Adriane

Adriane and Scimmitar!

As I’m in the last year of my PhD and frantically trying to finish my dissertation, I don’t have as many hobbies as I should. Much like Sarah and Jen, I do enjoy reading novels (mostly fiction to balance out the serious-ness of sciencing), playing Pokemon Go, blogging, and hanging out with my cats and husband. When the weather is nice, I also enjoy hiking around western Massachusetts (there’s no shortage of awesome views here!). My husband and I have also taken up biking, which has been great incentive to get us out of the house and doing something physical! Often in the summer and fall, we bike down to a market down the road a bit for ice cream.

Honestly, my most guilty pleasure right now is Netflix and HBO, and cooking. There is nothing I love more than to come home after a long day at work (I’m currently averaging about 9-10 hour days in the lab, so when I come home, I don’t feel like doing much) and plopping onto the couch with my kitties and husband. I love to cook and experiment with different recipes, so I usually cook about 5-6 days a week. After that, my husband and I watch the latest TV obsession, which is usually a series (yes, we’re sad Game of Thrones is over, but hey, that leaves more time for re-watching other beloved series like Dexter!).

The aforementioned hobbies (if you call watching TV a hobby) are not always my ideal ways to pass the time, so I’ll let you all in on a little secret: I LOVE old cars! Before I left home for graduate school, my dad and I would work on my 1971 Mercury Comet, which my husband wittily named ‘Halley’ (like Halley’s Comet, get it?). My dad bought the car for me as my high school graduation gift, and we’ve been working on it ever since. My dad is a huge car nerd as well. He’s a machinist by trade, but I’ve never met anyone who knows as much about cars as him. He has rebuilt several engines, installed exhaust systems, rebuilt carburetors, you name it. Since I’ve had Halley, we’ve put in a new engine (a 306 cubic inch compared to the 289 that was in it), new rims, and lockers on the rear (lockers make both back tires spin at the same time). Eventually, I’d like to make the car a 4-speed, install bucket seats, and give Halley a paint job, as currently she is 3 different colors. As you can imagine, antique car restorations are expensive, so this is not an ideal hobby to have whilst one is in graduate school on a limited budget.

Adriane and her mom having an archery competition.

My other hobbies that I absolutely love to do but cannot in this phase of my life are gardening, horseback riding, tending chickens, and shooting (rifles and recurve bows). After that last sentence, you probably now realize that I was raised in the country and am a bit of a redneck. Currently, my mom takes care of my horse, Scimmitar, who I have had and ridden since I was in grade school. Scimmi is a 31-year-old Egyptian Arabian who has more spunk than any older horse I’ve seen. When I go back home to Virginia, I still take him on trail rides through the woods with my mom, my sister, and our other horses. My sister and mom love chickens as much as I do, and still have 8 as pets. The chickens are all different breeds, and are mostly used for bug control in the yard and a source of eggs. Recently, my mom did teach her hen how to play the xylophone! My mom is the one who actually got my husband and I hooked on shooting recurve bows. She learned from her friend, and actually taught a few classes at her local sporting goods store. Archery is great because it forces you to clear your mind and focus on your body. It’s a great stress reliever, way to build muscle, and learn to focus your attention. I enjoy shooting rifles with my dad and brother, but those are pretty noisy and not quite as good for centering yourself like archery 🙂

Carmi Milagros Thompson, Invertebrate Paleontologist

Fun in the sun at Haile Quarry – fossil collecting tools at hand.

I have always been interested in science – when I was young, my mom would take us on the Metro to go visit all of the Smithsonian museums. My favorite was always the Natural History Museum (and I was lucky to go back as a research intern after I finished my undergraduate degree- but I digress). Growing up, I felt a lot of pressure to have a good career that paid well (doctor, engineer, lawyer, as the refrain goes)…so I was miserably going through a pre-med track, until I took a geology class…partially by accident, partially just to take all the sciences. I knew that I had to become a geologist from the first lab session where we scrambled down a hill to look at some Coastal Plain outcrop. Paleontology was also a mistake, but a happy one – a long story for another time! .

I think of my work as being similar to that of a librarian. Instead of books, I work with things that have been dead for (usually) millions of years. My job, as a collections manager, is (broadly) to organize and maintain holdings of fossil invertebrates (aforementioned dead things), so that people who are asking all kinds of questions about past life on Earth can quickly and easily access material. In addition to that, I supervise a rotating cast of interns and volunteers. When I’m lucky, I get to do field work (looking at fossils in the wild) with the rest of our research group – usually in Florida, but sometimes all over the country. No two days are ever the same – there are long stretches of identification and reorganization, of course, but most weeks are packed with visitors, curation, and more.

Behind the scenes at the Natural Museum of Natural History

In my “free time,” I guest contribute to the Neogene Atlas of Ancient Life (working on the scaphopods gap right now), coordinate and participate in outreach events at the museum and around the state, manage affairs for the Florida Paleontological Society as the secretary, maintain the invert paleontology collection website, and work with the Paleontological Society Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I am also working on a few personal research projects: a virtual collection tour (release date early fall), systematics and paleoecology of fossil cephalopods from Florida, and paleoecology of offshore molluscan fauna from the mid-Atlantic United States in sediment cores collected for beach nourishment. 

I was once described as “active on Twitter,” so I’ll plug that too  (see link at end of article) – my goal there is to promote our museum specimens and highlight different activities in which I participate – say hi if you’d like! 

ADVICE (as a young person who gets a lot of advice – here’s a brief summary!)

Digging for oysters in the Florida Panhandle.

In terms of paleontology specific advice, keep your options as open as possible – paleontology is certainly a competitive field, but there are many ways to pursue it as a career (there is a good blog post here about it!). For general career advice, find your support team – mentors, classmates, other professionals…people who will cheer you on throughout your successes and support you when things aren’t so great. And, this is such a geologist thing to say, but keep it all in perspective – there are going to be really tough times and problems that seem like they are impossible in the moment (everyone struggles), but think of the long term. Things usually have a way of working themselves out, often in surprising ways. I find that success usually outweighs the many, often-invisible failures along the way. 

If you want to keep up with Carmi check out the Florida Museum’s Invertebrate Paleo or Twitter @bibibivalve.

Meet the Museum: La Brea Tar Pits

Please welcome Ryan, a new guest blogger here at Time Scavengers!

Ryan here –

This June I attended the North American Paleontological Conference in Riverside, California. In the middle of the conference we had a field trip day and I opted for the museum trip with guided tours of collections and work areas. It was nice to have someone else deal with the traffic for us on our way into Los Angeles to see the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.

The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum is open daily from 9:30 AM – 5 PM. Admission is $14/adult, $6/child (3-12), $11/senior (62+), and $11/student (with ID). Follow the museum on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) for updates, news, and events!

Scene on the exterior of the museum.

At the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum (one of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County) there is plenty to take in. The museum sits within a city park and even before you go inside the building there is plenty to see. The pond in an old mined out asphalt pit at the main entrance bubbles with gases and looks dark enough to be actual tar. Here an ancient scene is set at the edge of the pond as a statue of a mammoth appears to be trapped and what could be its mate and offspring call from the edge of the shore. The sense of desperation is real.

Walking around the park leaf littered tar seeps are fenced off, and whiffs of volatile gases took my mind between memories of a road construction site, recent roof repair efforts back at home, and imagined scenes of natural history that produced all of the fossils I was about to see. It is clear how deceiving the tar pits would have been to animals, and I felt a rising anxiety as I imagined getting stuck in the viscous material.

Active excavation site at the museum.

We saw where museum volunteers, interns, and researchers cleaned out fossils from a pit where the asphalt has been – and continues to be – pumped out. The workers were focused within a squared section of the grid laid out in the pit, and were busy measuring the location of items they were removing. Lower in the pit tar-bathed fossils lay partially exposed awaiting their turn to be collected. Near the open pit, crates of material collected during a nearby parking garage construction project were being processed by another group of interns. This material has hardened and required some chemical processing to be cleaned off and release the bones. In both the pits and the covered work spaces of the crates, plenty of fresh air was fanned in and foul air vented out.

Processing of material.

 

Inside the museum I was privy to one of many storage areas for the enormous quantity of material that has been collected from the tar pits. I walked down a few hundred feet of cabinet lined corridors with slide out trays from floor to ceiling and shelves with padded boxes that were only interrupted by an occasional workstation and computer. Our guide pointed down one row and indicated it would all be herbivores, then another that would be all carnivores.

Fishbowl lab where visitors can look in on active research and work.

Later we were led to the “Fish Bowl Lab” where as many as a dozen volunteers clean and repair specimens and gather microfossils from the tar that coats other fossils. The entire work space curves out into the main display area of the museum and affords museum patrons the opportunity to observe their work. This is a site common at many museums today, but was new and novel when put in place at this museum, and is still one of the best executions of such a space that I have seen.

There are so many fossils (well over three million at this point) that when I finally made my way out to the public display my favorite turned out to be the wall that was covered in hundreds of dire wolf skulls. It gives a sense of how much information is being discovered at La Brea. The exhibits showcase the fauna both in fossil form and in fleshed out full size models. The history of the museum itself is shown through photos and documents, and one of the prettiest murals depicting deep time graces a wall near the 3D theater. The interactive activity with metal rods and tar was informative, and while straining to lift the thick rod from the tar I more fully appreciated the the terrible, repeated events that made all of these fossils and the amount of effort currently being done at La Brea to uncover so many fossils.

With a scale this time, large specimens on the left and drawer space on the right.

 

Example of specimens in the shelf space.
Oversized specimens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was bad about writing down the names of everyone who gave us the behind the scenes tour, but they were so gracious in taking time out of their day to show us around and allow our group to take up an entire 3D movie time slot.

After a picnic at the park around La Brea I went to the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at the Webb School in Claremont. I’ll share about that part of the NAPC museum field trip in my next installment.

 

Iconic wall of dire wolves.
Beautifully done display wall

Academic Job Interviews

Jen and Adriane here –

Academic job interview season is always upon us and we wanted to give some perspective from our experiences. We have done phone interviews, Skype interviews, and in person interviews. More recently I, Jen, have had the opportunity to be on the other side of the table and do the interviewing. All of these experiences have given us a lot to think about and we would like to reflect on some of it for you all. 

Prepping for an interview

Jen: To prepare for interviews I had a series of steps. First, I would do some research on the university/museum/organization to figure out what their mission, goals, and vision are. I could use this information to figure out if I was a good fit and what about my own career goals align with theirs. I then go to the department/group website to get a sense of who might be interviewing me, in many cases you will get a list of people ahead of time. I would think about questions they may ask and answer them on a note sheet and then come up with a list of questions to ask them. 

Adriane: I was interviewed for two postdoctoral positions, and one tenure-track job. For the job, I did basically what Jen outlined above. I did research on each person in the department, such as where they went for graduate school, their most current and previous research interests, and any major on and off campus activities they were involved in. I then created a document with all of this information, with each page dedicated to that person. On that same sheet of paper, I also wrote down specific questions for each person. This way, I had everything I needed for talking to one person on one page, and I could also take notes. This method sounds like a lot of work (it really wasn’t), but it paid off immensely. Often, these on-site/campus interviews are tiring and you’ll be extremely nervous; do anything and everything ahead of time that will make the experience easier for yourself!

Below are some questions we encountered during job interviews (these were asked of us specifically for visiting or tenure-track professor positions):

Some questions you should prepare to answer:

  • Why do you want to work here? 
  • How would you/your research contribute to this department/job?
  • What do you need (such as equipment) to do research in this department?
  • What courses could you teach in our department?
  • How could you involved our students in your research program?
  • How could you collaborate with our faculty in this department?
  • Provide an example of an effective teaching method you use in the classroom. 
  • Describe your research. 
  • Describe how you teach/your teaching strategies. 
  • Outline a syllabus for a class you would teach (or they might ask you to do this for a specific class). 

Questions you should prepare to ask*:

  • How does the department support you (grad, faculty, staff) in your role?
  • What would the ideal candidate for this position bring to the department?
  • What sort of funds are available for students to engage with research or projects?
  • Are students encouraged to travel to conferences? Are there funds to help them?
  • Am I encouraged to travel to conferences?
  • What sort of internal funding support is available for my research?
  • Are there departmental service requirements and what would they be for my first year?
  • Do faculty support each other’s work? Is this a collaborative environment?
  • A good one to end on: Do you love living and teaching here, and why?

* It is always good to ask these questions to multiple people to see how answers vary within the department.

Phone Interviews

Jen: These are the most awkward for me. I take a lot of queues from facial expressions to keep conversations moving, so trying to figure this out without seeing is tricky. It also is harder for me to listen closely and take notes without the visual queues of someone speaking to me. My suggestion would be to wear headphones so you don’t have to hold up your phone, this will allow you to quickly take notes as people are speaking to you. Since you can’t tie names to faces, it’s best to have a list of people who will be speaking to you ahead of time so you can refer back to their speciality or position during the call. 

It may be worthwhile to use an online transcription feature like in Google Docs you can use Voice Typing. You’ll have to have the call on speaker but then you will get all of the questions people ask relayed in front of you. This is the other thing I struggle with – recalling multipart questions when on a call. Often you can’t write them down quick enough so you forget! But having a way to visualize the question again would be greatly beneficial and keep things moving. 

Skype/Video Call Interviews

Jen: I prefer these setups because having a visual of the interviewers really helps me. They can also be very awkward though – depending on the set up. Often, you will be projected onto a larger monitor and be interviewed by a conference room full of people. I have been interviewed by 1 to 6 people. This is tricky because if there is not a separate microphone it can be incredibly hard to hear the people interviewing you. That is okay, just be sure to notify them – they will likely ask if you can hear them and include something like, ‘you are a little faint’ or ‘could you speak up some’. These people will have a set of questions to ask you and often they will go around the room as certain people may have specific questions they are posed to ask each candidate. 

This can make it hard to identify who is who. I usually make a drawing of names or initials around a table so I can refer back to my cheat sheet of notes about the people interviewing me. This then helps place the people in the context of their role at the institution – which is super easy to forget when you are quickly being introduced to five people sitting around a table who are only ½ an inch high.

Be sure to have a quiet area to do the interview. Wearing headphones with a microphone ensures that they can hear you and hopefully you can hear them. I would also recommend a plain background or something simple so that the people interviewing you don’t get distracted and you are the main focus. I would try to have your face centered on the screen as much as possible without being cut off at the top or bottom of the screen. 

Similar to the phone interview, I would have a notebook adjacent to you so you could quickly take down some notes during the interview. Also, you can more easily use the ‘take a drink of water’ trick when they can see you drinking – unlike on the phone. If you need a second to ponder an answer to a question- take a sip of water and reflect then respond.

Adriane: In addition to what Jen said above, you should also find out ahead of time the format for the interview. For example, one of my postdoctoral interviews over Skype was in the format of about 10 minutes for a presentation and 20 minutes of questions and talking. This was helpful to know in advance, as I could prepare what I wanted to talk about and use slides to do so through screen sharing. Another important step you should take is to test your equipment before the actual interview with trusted friends or colleagues. I tested my Skype and screen sharing capabilities twice with friends. I’m really glad I did because the second time, my sound went out! Luckily I figured out the problem and was able to fix it far in advance. 

Because I work in a lab with several other people and I needed to be at my computer for the interview, I sent around an email to my lab mates to let them know the date and time of my interview.  I also put a sign on our lab door that read ‘Interview in Progress’ so people wouldn’t run into our office during that time. 

In-person Interviews

Jen: On campus interviews for faculty or staff positions can be much more involved. I’ve done two two-day campus visits and one one-day visit. Depending on the type of position you will likely be invited to give a talk – or two! These can be about a specific aspect of your research, your proposed research program to bring to the institution, your teaching experience and course offerings, or teach a course so they can observe you at the head of the classroom.

Prepare your mind: These are marathons. You will likely have a packed schedule of 30 minute meetings with all sorts of people. It is perfectly within reason to ask similar questions to a variety of people – in fact, you absolutely should! It will give you an idea of who is maybe talking up the department versus the reality of the situation depending on the answers you receive. 

Prepare your talks: Before starting, know your audience – meaning who are you speaking to? A room full of people who will understand exactly everything you say? That’s highly unlikely. Prepare background information to catch people up to speed. I have a set of background slides I constantly use to help people understand phylogenetic trees and how to read them. It’s best to set up your audience to understand your talk rather than to just spew information at them. 

Ask your colleagues, peers, friends, supervisors, anyone who recently went through the job interview life to send you their slides to see a structure or to set up a time to chat with you. I was advised to include citations for as many of my publications as possible on the slides. Showcase work done with undergraduate researchers to show the audience your commitment to their student body. 

Extra things to bring: For my first on campus interview I tired to be really prepared. I often don’t travel well so I made sure to bring aspirin and tums. I also tend to not sleep well or get cramps from sitting funny on the airplane so I always carry Icy Hot or similar muscle relaxer when I travel. Bring things that you need to be comfortable because you are likely to experience some discomfort. 

I always had a water bottle with me, I get really dehydrated so I figured this would help. None of the interviews I have done allowed flex time for bathroom breaks. This means you often have to request to use the bathroom or get a refill of water – you definitely should request these breaks!! It helps to just be quiet for a few minutes in a cold place before jumping back into conversations.

Adriane: For my on-campus interview, I did basically what Jen outlined above. I did research on each person in the department, such as where they went for graduate school, their most current and previous research interests, and any major on and off campus activities they were involved in. I then created a document with all of this information, with each page dedicated to that person. On that same sheet of paper, I also wrote down specific questions for each person. This way, I had everything I needed for talking to one person on one page, and I could also take notes. This method sounds like a lot of work (it really wasn’t), but it paid off immensely. Often, these on-site/campus interviews are tiring and you’ll be extremely nervous; do anything and everything ahead of time that will make the experience easier for yourself!

Second, I took the time to really get to know the department through news articles, their website, and through colleagues (our department head and one of my friends did their undergrad at the college I interviewed at, so they were great resources!). I did this while watching TV at night, and it became kind of fun. It also paid off, as I was able to ask questions about events and initiatives at the college which got people talking more. 

Third, I’ll emphasize what Jen said above about knowing your audience and preparing for your talks. When I did my on-campus interview, I was asked to do a teaching demonstration and a research talk. The college where I interviewed was undergraduate-only, so I knew I had to tone down the complexity of my research. I’ve taught a ton of undergraduates, so the teaching demonstration was fun and easy. I spent the most time on my job talk, which involved modifying figures that I had previously made, culling out very jargony words specific to my field of research, and providing enough background information for a general audience. I also used graphics to explain my science. I create a lot of geochemical data, which are basically just squiggly lines plotted against geologic time. To make the interpretations from these squiggles more appealing and contextual, I created models of my interpretations. These models likely won’t become published in a paper because I don’t have enough data to support them, but they were perfectly fine to illustrate my science and communicate that to a more general audience. After my talk, even the biologists who sat in said they understood everything and thought my research was really cool! So taking the extra time and effort to readily and easily communicate your science in well worth it!

A figure from my paper showing increased evolution correlates to cooling global temperatures and tectonic activity, but this was created for other scientists.
The modified version of the above figure that I made for my job talk, which was to a room full of undergraduate students. Here, I’ve cut out some data and added in colored bars and gradients to help guide people’s eye to better see the trends.

 

Fourth, be prepared for your schedule to get shifted around. My on-campus interview was during the Deep Freeze of early 2019, when temperatures in Michigan got into the -40’s with windchill. This led to the college closing, which rarely happened. This also meant that my two talks, instead of being on two separate days, were 30 minutes apart. I was totally fine with this, as I had practiced both talk to the point of almost boredom, and I had practiced them back-to-back (just by chance). 

Lastly, just be yourself and have fun! I’ve received A TON of interview advice over the years, but this has to be the best one. For every interview I’ve had, I just go in being myself and bring my full enthusiasm for my science. For the talks I gave during my interview, I made them fun not just for my audience but for myself as well.

An example of images from my teaching demonstration, where I got some laughs. Who doesn’t like cake and pictures of kids with cake on their faces?!?

As far as packing for the interview, I packed several different outfits (I tend to change my mind a lot, so I wanted to give myself some flexibility and freedom on wardrobe choices). I have curly hair, and have to use mousse otherwise I look like a Chia pet. I didn’t want to check my bags in the airport for fear they’d get lost, which meant I couldn’t take my beloved mousse brand. So I spent a few hours tracking down a travel-sized mousse I could take with me the week before I left. I even tested it out beforehand to make sure I was happy with it. So, don’t be afraid to take the extra time and initiative to pack what you want and what will make you comfortable. I’m so glad I didn’t try any new hair products while I was interviewing, that would have just added to the stress. I also bought myself a new leather bag that made me feel like a professional and adult. Just having this helped my self-confidence, and it allowed me to be more organized (I tend to just throw everything into my bookbag).  

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself during your interview. It just so happened that while I was traveling to the interview, I started my period. For me, this means ibuprofen every 6 hours or else I feel dead. So I made sure to tell folks that I needed to use the restroom when I had to, and also when I needed to get back into the department head’s office to grab more Advil from my bag. There’s no reason to pretend your not a human with basic needs during these interviews, so don’t be afraid to ask for bathroom breaks, water, or whatever else you need!

Evaluating candidates

Jen: While I was at the University of Florida, I helped with the hiring process for two positions. The first was a staff position with over 50 applicants apply to join our core team. Our core team is really small, there are only five of us and three of us were part time. So we all evaluated each of the 50+ candidates, this means we looked through the submitted materials and online form. We had requested each applicant include a resume, cover letter, and list of references. Since there were so many candidates, those that did not follow instructions (such that they missed one of the required documents), we excluded  their application. We used the original job advertisement to look for specific aspects that the candidates could help us with and ranked them but this was only part of how we determined best fit. We also took into account education versus experience, how well laid out the resume was, and how well written the cover letter was. 

From this we pulled out just over a handful of candidates to investigate further. First, we re-read application packets and then we called their listed references to ask them a series of questions. We decided upon the questions we would ask ahead of time so that each of us got the same information – or close to it – for each candidate. We then hosted Zoom interviews with all the candidates that passed our reference check. This was usually about 45 minutes on our end 30 minutes on the candidates end. Something that is hard to avoid were technical issues. The first candidate we couldn’t get projected up onto the big TV so we all had to strain our eyes to see them on a laptop – we had to do this with the remaining candidates as well to be fair.

Ignoring my strange face and poor quality image, notice the background of the image. Your eye immediately wanders from me, the focus of the interview, to the miscellaneous things around my office.
Okay, again ignoring my strange face you see there are much less distractions in this image with the plain background. So your focus remains on my strange expression.

But it brought up some key things – be front and center with a plain background behind you. This will help the interviewers be able to see you very clearly. Use a microphone outside of the one in your computer, this greatly cuts down on background noise and the interviewers are likely in an echo-y room so anything you can do to reduce it will be easier on them. Speak slowly and deliberately, there is not a rush and when you speak fast (not always avoidable) sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Mostly because there are a few people in a large room trying to focus on a small screen – it’s a bad situation. 

We then had a meeting to decide upon the top candidates to bring to campus for an in-person interview. We spent half a day with each candidate working to get to know them better. We had a group discussion where other members of the museum staff could come mingle and ask questions and then a more formal interview with the core team. These were more conversation led with a few major points we wanted to make sure to hit along the way. These points could be items from the candidates resume or cover letter that we wanted more information on or from something in the first interview that we needed clarification on.

Hopefully these hints are helpful and best of luck on the job market!

What do academics do in the summer?

Sarah here-

Do you have vacation for three months?” “Do you even work when classes aren’t in session?” These questions get asked an awful lot to people who are in academia.

Sometimes, it can seem like that! Academia, for all of its unusualness, is a great place to work if you value schedule flexibility, especially when classes aren’t in session. As a matter of fact, as I type this on a Tuesday morning, I’m working from home in my pajamas!

There is a misconception that a professor’s job ends when the semester ends-this couldn’t be further from the truth! So, what do we do during the summer? It varies, depending on our specific positions, but my experience so far has been from someone with a high teaching load (3 lecture courses/semester)

Catch up on scientific literature! During the semester, it can be hard to block off time to read new scientific papers to see what new ideas have been published and to develop ideas on my research further.

Update lectures for next semester! Science changes quickly-this means that professors have to continuously update material to teach students. This summer, I’ll be updating material from my lectures that reflects new understanding of different topics. For example, new research about dinosaur evolutionary relationships that has been published in the past year or two means I need to update my slides on that material!

This is an image of me collecting data from the National Museum in Prague, Czech Republic. Summers are a great time to make trips that might not be possible while teaching classes during the fall and spring semesters.

I also take time during the summer to edit assignments, exams, and lecture material that didn’t quite work the way I wanted it to. I take notes during the semester of the parts of lectures that weren’t engaging enough, or exam questions that may not have been entirely clear. This way, I can be much more prepared for the classes I teach every semester! Many professors also develop new courses during the summer, if they’ll be teaching new courses.

Catch up on service projects! This depends very much from person to person, but academic service is a big part of our jobs that often goes unseen by the public. Many of us serve on committees for professional organizations (e.g., The Paleontological Society). I serve on a grant committee that does the bulk of the work in early summer each year, so I spend a week or so reading grant proposals for researchers undertaking new paleontological research.

Conduct research and field work! During the summer, I have a lot of unscheduled time, which means I can take trips to museums or out to the field without too many scheduling difficulties. Some academics take their entire summer to travel, others only a little bit of time. It really depends. This summer, I won’t be traveling too much-probably only one or two short trips to collect data.

Write papers and grant proposals! The summer is a great time to write and submit papers, as well as grant proposals, both of which are required of  a lot of academics. It’s easier to block off time to write when classes aren’t in session. During the summer, I like to write in different places than I do during the semester-instead of my office, I’ll write in coffee shops or at my house for a change of scenery.

Catch up on training! This summer, I’m taking a four-part course through the university to learn how to become a better ally for my LGBTQ+ students, as well as a course in learning how to be an ally for undocumented students. Personally, I like being able to do this during the summer so I have more free time to reflect on what I have learned and think about how to incorporate what I have learned in my classes for the upcoming semester.

Take a break! My schedule during the semester is often jam packed with classes, student appointments, and more. During the summer, I take a little more time to catch up on “life”- go to dentist appointments, run errands, and take some more time to play with my dogs and enjoy my hobbies.

This list is by no means complete, I’m sure, but hopefully you can get a sense as to what academics work on when they aren’t teaching classes! Hope all of you academics out there are having a productive and relaxing summer!

NAPC Teacher’s Workshop in Digital Paleontology Resources

FOSSIL’s newsletter article: https://www.myfossil.org/digital-resources-in-paleontology-professional-development-workshop-napc2019/


 Jen and Adriane here – 

As part of the North American Paleontological Convention, there was a teacher workshop all about sharing digital resources in paleontology. This was hosted by the FOSSIL Project (which employs Jen) and iDigBio with many participating partners. We advertised the workshop about two months in advance and had a webpage with information for the applicants – we were targeting local California teachers. The primary goals were to (1) Raise awareness of resources available for teachers associated with digitized paleontological collections; (2) Connect teachers with a network of professionals, to help them develop and implement collections-based curricula; and (3) Increase confidence in teaching about global change and evolution using fossils.

Jen (front left) and Adriane (front right) teaching teachers about the wonderful world of foraminifera.

The day was structured in seven hour blocks. Each presenter had ~20-30 minutes to introduce the platform, provide background content, and explain the utility of the resource. This was then followed by a ~30 minute activity using the resource. We wanted the workshop to allow educators to immediately take content back to their classroom to employ but it’s always best to do a test run so the educators and facilitators can brainstorm modifications or limitations within their own classrooms. You can see a full agenda for the day by clicking here.

We were specifically involved with the presentation on the Digital Atlases of Ancient Life. When we were working on our MS degrees with Alycia Stigall we were both employed as an RA on this project for one year. Jon Hendricks led off our hour block with a presentation explaining the atlases that are available, the Digital Encyclopedia of Life (DEAL, a free online textbook), and the Virtual Teaching Collection. Alycia followed with a short presentation on Paleozoic life and assessing ancient ecosystems. And then we used the Virtual Teaching Collection to work to identify some of the major animal groups that were around during the Paleozoic. We helped facilitate the lesson and answered any questions the educators had. 

We also led our own presentation later on using myFOSSIL tools in the classroom. Sadie Mills led off with an overview of myFOSSIL and all of the capabilities of the website and mobile app. Adriane followed with a presentation on how foraminifera are the most awesome creatures to ever float on Earth. And then we walked through a lesson on using foraminifera as a tool to think about morphological shape and how they may have lived in different environments, and we provided other lessons for the teachers to think about forams as a tool for understanding climate change. 

Overall, the workshop was a huge success and the participants really learned a lot and got to have lots of in depth conversations with facilitators! All the materials from the workshop can be found on the myFOSSIL website.