Building a Research Poster

Jen here –

Creating a poster for class, a workshop, or a professional conference can be a daunting task. No matter what I’m creating the poster for, I try to stick with a simple and clean background and then once the organizational structure is in place, start to fill it in. This usually results in huge changes as I progress through the content but that’s okay!

Before getting started on your poster there are a few major things you should think about:

  • What program do I want to make my poster in? Google Slides integrates well with Google Sheets (free), Microsoft Powerpoint is pretty easy to manipulate (not free), and Adobe Illustrator is excellent for really detailed work (not free). There are many other programs, such as Canva (free), that offer lots of integration for images, line drawings, and more.
  • Who is in your audience? This will help you tailor language, depth of content, and figure detail on your poster.
  • Are there poster requirements? Size can be dramatically different and it’s always easiest to start with the biggest poster allowed and cut it down if you don’t need the space.
Here is what I mean by ‘boxes’! A template I made in Google Slides to help guide students in poster making. The boxes shapes may change as the poster develops but you have to start somewhere!

Generally, I like to work with boxes. Boxes help keep the organization of the poster nice and tidy. A major title box at the top that includes your poster title, authors, affiliations, and abstract number (if relevant). I usually aim to have the title in 72 point font and then everything else is a bit less. Having your regular text between 18-24 point font is a pretty good range and headers somewhere in the 40s-50s.

The rest of the poster is subdivided into larger boxes for each part of your project. These generally include but are not limited to: Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusions, and Acknowledgments. Obviously, science and other projects don’t fit neatly into these categories but it’s a good starting place and titles can always be changed! It often helps just to get something on the page and then you can modify things later.

It’s always good to make sure your poster can stand alone when you aren’t there to walk viewers through the content. This means I usually include introductory or background text to help set the stage for the reader and reduce the text throughout the rest of the poster. This means shorter text, phrases, or bullets through the methods and results to concisely walk the reader through your content. Full sentences can be useful for discussion, conclusions, and/or broad implications of your work but sometimes bullets are plenty! Once you get to creating, it should be clear how much or how little you need to say.

Don’t forget to include references and people who have helped you out in your acknowledgments section. If people are interested in how you phrased something they may want to look up a reference that dives more deeply into the content. You can use regular in-text citations on your poster or superscripts to keep it neat and tidy. It’s good to include funding, departmental (internal or external) equipment that helped with analyses, and anyone who helped you run the machines or gain access to specimens!

Here is a non-research based poster I recently presented. I made this in Canva and really used their graphics to build the poster. The colors and font also align with the FOSSIL Project’s brand guidelines.

The other major thing about posters is color schemes. Sometimes your supervisor or department may urge you to use school colors, this is fine but make sure you are following brand/logo policies (because they are confusing and there are a lot of rules). I like to throw in a lot of color wherever I can. It may be because I work on fossils and they are gray and often dreary-looking but I do believe that if your poster is visually appealing at first glance it will draw people over to you!

Quick Tips and Tricks

  • Make sure to include your affiliation (organization or institution)
  • Include logos of institutions or funding that helped support your project
  • Use colors that you like but that also help draw people to your poster
  • Send it to your friends and co-authors to edit before finalizing it
  • Always save it as a pdf when you send it off to be printed
  • Sometimes printing can take long, make sure you have enough time
  • Have fun, posters are an excellent networking opportunity

If you click here you can go to a template Sarah and I made when we were teaching a summer course. You can save a copy of this template to your Google Drive to play around with the different elements.

Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections

Jen here –

Walking from the Field Museum to the Hilton to get my registration set up.

I recently attended the annual meeting for the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). This meeting is where museum staff from around the world come together–mainly those that work in some regard with natural history collections. This can be zoological collections, herbaria, paleontological, or geological and there are many different aspects of collections care. Some attendees were curators, others collections managers, and many faculty that had smaller collections that they were working to organize and make available.

Paul Mayer of the Field Museum introducing the conference.

I was attending as representative of the FOSSIL Project. Over the past year I have been working with web-developers to modify the current upload process on the myFOSSIL web-platform. Anyone can upload their fossil collections to this site but we want to make the data that are really high quality available for anyone to see – this is done by sending the data to data aggregators like iDigBio and GBIF. These are portals that anyone can use to search for organism data. iDigBio is primarily the home for museum collections data and is a great tool for finding where specimens are located that you may want to do research on.

These aggregators are very powerful. Are you interested in when and where a certain animal lived? This is something you can easily determine with the data input into the portal. In many cases the data are not complete, but it is an excellent way to start thinking about really big questions about biogeography, ecology, evolutionary history, and biodiversity through time.

So, this conference was an opportunity for me to present the work that we have been doing to make the myFOSSIL platform set up in a way to easily send the data to these aggregators. I participated in a full day workshop on the Natural History Collections Club Network, a relatively recent project to create a network of student led organizations associated with natural history collections. This was a lot of fun getting to learn about how people had set up these clubs at their universities and to listen to what worked and didn’t work as they aged.

The second day of the conference was rather short and focused on the keynote speakers of the event. For the majority of the day we were all in one large room listening to these talks. The first was by someone at GBIF and he spoke about all of the available data and how things operate on their end. It was really interesting, especially since I am so interested in data mobilization (through making specimen data available online). The next talk was by the in-house artist at the Field Museum. She spoke about how she goes about her work and the different processes and timelines that go into large projects. It was incredibly fun to listen to her talk about art, natural history, and all of the connections. The third and final talk was by the author of The Feather Thief, a book about a young man stealing exotic birds from the Natural History Museum in London to sell to people to make fishing flies. Read more about the plenary talks by clicking here.

Kyle Copas on GBIF!
Peggy Macnamara on collections and creation.
Kirk Johnson on Lessons of the Feather Thief and the Tring Heist.

Although we sat in the same room for most of the day, I was able to connect with some really interesting people from all over the country. I tend to not be incredibly social, I’m a quiet introverted person for the most part. But when things got too loud, I would simply walk off and find a quiet spot – often, it wasn’t just me doing this, so I was able to chat with other introverts as well =]

The third and fourth days of the conference were filled with 15-minute talks by many different people. These talks were organized by themes, so you had to decide what sort of theme you were most interested at each point in the day. There was also a special session called ‘Specimen Spotlight”. Where you had 5 minutes and 1 slide to discuss an important and impactful specimen from your collection. I did not participate in this session but did sit in for almost an hour of specimens! It was really fun and an exciting way to learn about lots of different things very quickly. Check out a few that I was able to tweet about by clicking here.

I gave a talk on the fourth afternoon about our work and it was pretty well attended considering it was 4 PM!!! Everyone gets pretty tired that late in the day. I had a few good questions and then stayed for the group discussion at the end of the session. It was really productive and exciting hearing about how we can better serve and support small collections. I also participated in an education share fair on Friday morning. This was two 30-minute sessions where presenters shared information on an activity, lesson, or resource that may be of interest to others in the community. I walked through the myFOSSIL website and asked questions to the group about involving amateur paleontologists in the collections, how they could use the platform in their classrooms, or even when training their volunteers as a database management example before setting people loose on their own system.

Standing with a Quetzalcoatl reconstruction! Very impressive!
SUE’s new home in the Field Museum!

Overall this was a hugely fun and rewarding experience. I learned an immense amount about museum collections and networked with many different people. I never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome and everyone was very kind to me. As my first SPNHC meeting I say it was a huge success!!!

Check out #SPNHC2019 on Twitter for all the updates!

Robert Ulrich, Biogeochemist

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 is being able to pursue the questions that pop up in my mind about how the world works and having the ability to share what I learn with others.

I got into science because I was always curious: I always wanted to know what everything was, how everything worked, and why everything is the way it is.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
Currently, for my first project, I study the different ways that marine animals make their shells/skeletons affect how they record their growth conditions. My second project will be looking at how a widely-used crystallization method affects this in a lab setting.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general?

Research: My research will help us better understand how the proxies people like paleoclimatologists use are recorded in biominerals. My research will also help us to better understand the different ways that these animals are forming their biominerals.

Goals/Outreach: My life experiences and activism thus far have motivated me to cultivate a career in academia. Growing up biracial and needing to navigate the boundary between my two backgrounds and growing up queer in a catholic household have taught me the lesson that I need to create my own space if I want to truly feel comfortable. As a graduate student, I have created spaces for myself as well as others from marginalized groups (i.e., Queers in STEM, The Center for Diverse Leadership in Science). I want to continue advocating for diversity and inclusion in STEM by challenging stereotypes of who is successful, and I believe that becoming a tenured professor would put me in an influential position to not just create spaces, but a position to effect the current culture at all levels: classrooms, departments, universities, academia, and policy.

Rob in the lab!

What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
My lab specializes is carbonate “clumped” isotopes. Measuring clumped isotopes measures the abundance of carbon-13 and oxygen-18 bonded to each other throughout the crystal lattice of the calcium carbonate shells. Ideally, this proxy correlates with and only with the growth temperature of the crystal and does not require knowing the isotopic composition of the growth medium. We are also able to measure the abundance of carbon-13 and oxygen-18 isotopes in the samples, which can also be used as proxies.

For my research, the samples for my first project are crushed shells/skeletons of a range of marine organisms that were grown in culture at the same conditions. This was additionally done at a range of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to simulate the effects of ocean acidification. For my second project, we have synthesized amorphous calcium carbonate in the lab. This is typically done via flux (mixing two solutions to achieve saturation). We are then measuring the carbon-13, oxygen-18, and clumped isotope values of the samples while they are amorphous as well as at different points through the transformation. I believe may also test different ways of transforming the material!

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
My advice to young scientists would be to not be okay with how things are or just “deal with it.” If you are the only person like you in your classes or program, that is not okay. I don’t say that to discourage, but to motivate effecting change.

Follow Rob’s updates on his website, Twitter, and Instagram! Also, in addition to Rob’s amazing research he is an active advocate for underrepresented groups in STEM.

Southeastern Geological Society of America Meeting

Jen and Cam here –

Cam ready to present his poster!

This past March we attended the Southeastern Geological Society of America Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Adriane and Jen set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money to support Cam’s travel to the event. This endeavor resulted in a fully funded conference for Cam – and his first professional geology conference experience. If you are interested in reading the abstract we submitted click here.

Cam presented a poster on our use of the #FossilFriday hash tag on social media. His poster was on Thursday morning and he was constantly busy! The data we collected to assess the success of the hash tag was from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Analytics. We looked at how many people the Fossil Friday posts reach and then how many people interacted with the posts – this includes shares, reactions, comments, and clicks on the post. The metrics are slightly different for each social media platform. We also wanted to see if these posts were increasing traffic to the site or if the engagement was mostly constrained to the social media platforms.

These posts are often our highest performing posts – meaning they reach a large amount of people and many of these people interact with the content. So we gathered all of the social media data, calculated a rate of engagement for each post on each platform, and then compared this to our overall site traffic data from Google Analytics. We found that this hashtag did not bring more traffic to our website, even though they are reaching many people outside of our normal community.

This was the very first scientific conference I (Cam) was able to have the pleasure of attending. It was also the first time I did a poster presentation. At the beginning I was quite nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from SE GSA. It wasn’t until I met Jen Bauer that I become comfortable. I did practice sessions with Adriane and Jen many times via Google Hangouts, but I still had a difficult time explaining the information on the poster. When the day for me to present my poster came, I was excited and yet still nervous. I did a practice session with Jen early in the morning and I finally felt confident and motivated. While at GSA I met so many paleontologists. Many of the paleontologists I met already knew me from my constant activity on social media. This just shows how many positives outcomes can come from social media and networking. I didn’t feel out of place at GSA either. Everyone was so nice and welcoming. It was like a big family. There was also a good amount of diversity as well. There was a great amount of scientists with so many different research backgrounds. I received many encouraging words and advice as well.

Crocodile lower jaw (Galvialosuchus) from the collections at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History.
Crocodile lower jaw (Galvialosuchus) from the collections at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History.

On the last day at SE GSA I was invited by my good friends and paleontologists Bobby and Sarah Boessenecker to the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History which is part of the Charleston College to check out the fossil preparation lab and the vertebrate fossil collections. The cetacean (whale, dolphin, and porpoises) fossils were absolutely stunning. I was able to see Dr. Boessenecker clean a whale skull still encased in matrix (rock or sediment that the fossil was found in) that has not yet been published. I was told that the whale was not only a new species but it probably belonged to a new group as well. It’s not everyday you get to see a new species of fossil organism being cleaned right in front of you. Overall, my first GSA trip was great and I can’t wait to embark on other scientific conferences in the future.

Check out Cam talking more about his experience here:

We (Jen and Adriane) hope that one day we can provide more opportunities like this for up-and-coming geologists and paleontologists through Time Scavengers! It was a whirlwind of a few days but Cam greatly benefited from the experience of engaging and networking with so many professionals. He has a wide network of friends on Facebook and many people were very excited to see him in person! One Facebook friend even brought him supplies for his outreach work.

Jen recorded herself describing the poster, check it out here:

I, Jen, also brought several students up from the FOSSIL project to talk about work they have been doing analyzing social media as a tool for reaching audiences online. The two project interns spoke about their work with Instagram. Sam Ocon examined how we can evaluate Instagram stories for their success (abstract here). So thinking about how many people watch a story through to completion and if users interact with the different engagement tools. Mary Jane looked at what sort of Instagram content performs best in terms of posts (abstract here). This has been worked on by our colleagues for some time on Facebook and Twitter so we used their work as a baseline and determined that posts that have informational content and opportunities to visit a museum, apply for job, etc. do the best in terms of users stop to interact with the post, share the post, and so on. MacKenzie spoke about his work with creating YouTube videos and if there was a type of video that performed better in the first 30 days (abstract here). His data was a little all over the place but in general the shift in creating shorter more information filled videos has been beneficial for the channel.

A few of our shark friends came up with us too from the department you can read their abstracts here and here.

It was really great getting to see some old friends from the University of Tennessee at the meeting. I got to catch up with a lot of close geology friends. These small meetings are so excellent and I really enjoy helping prepare students for their first academic conference!

MacKenzie presenting his talk on the FOSSIL YouTube channel!
Sam presenting her poster on Instagram stories!
Mary Jane presenting her poster on Instagram post content!

Studying Paleontology Communities on Social Media

Jen here –

A good portion of the FOSSIL Project team are in the UF College of Education and I’ve been trying to learn all that I can about studying learning in digital spaces. A recent grad, Dr. Lisa Lundgren, worked to determine who were the members of the myFOSSIL online community. She developed a taxonomic system to describe who was interacting on myFOSSIL. I’ve been a participant within the community since 2014 when it began so I have been really interested in her work. One of the primary goals of the project is to connect professional and amateur paleontologists. I wrote about her defense on my personal blog, which you can find by clicking here.

So, now that Lisa has produced a framework (Paleontological Identity Taxonomy (PIT), read more here) to begin examining and analyzing the community the education team is really diving into it. I was asked to join one of the projects they are working on to analyze a year’s worth of Twitter data. The idea being to explore who major contributors are on Twitter in relation to FOSSIL. Are there certain people that may catalyze interactions? How do these people fit into the taxonomic framework that has been previously established?

This project is using both qualitative and quantitative methods. In my normal work, I primarily use quantitative work to assess various things in my chosen fossil group. Diving into the qualitative work was a bit challenging at first but really interesting once I fully understood what I was doing. We were working to classify users within the FOSSIL Project’s Twitter community. This involved going through each person’s Twitter biography to determine how they fit into the PIT. Such as, in their bio do they identify as a scientist? What type of scientist? Or are they a member of the public? If they are a member of the public do they have an interest in fossils? I haven’t had much exposure to how different scientists study learning or communication so I’m really excited to be part of this project. Lisa will be presenting results at the upcoming 10th International Conference on Social Media & Society Conference in Toronto this summer.

As Time Scavengers continues to grow as a community, we need to make sure we understand how to analyze all of the data we have been collecting and if there are best practices for different types of questions we are asking! I have made valuable connections within the education team that have already shown to be beneficial as Adriane and I are teaming up with Lisa on a manuscript right now!

Meet the Museum: McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture

Jen here –

Outside the McClung Museum with Monty, the Edmontosaurus!
The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture is located in Knoxville, Tennessee on the University of Tennessee campus. The museum is open from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Monday through Saturday and 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm on Sunday. The museum is free to the public with special paid events. There are a variety of education opportunities from pre-K to lifelong learners, click here to find out more. Inviting you into the museum facilities is large metal Edmontosaurus, a delightful hadrosaur (duck billed dinosaur) named Monty. The museum has regular ‘Family Fun Days’ and an annual ‘Can you dig it?’ event to celebrate geology and archaeology. Read about the most recent Can you dig it? event by clicking here and check out the McClung’s event page by clicking here.

The McClung Museum has several permanent exhibits and one rotating exhibit. Please look through their exhibit archive by clicking here to see the upcoming, special, permanent, and past exhibitions!

Jen in the Geology Gallery with the fossil summer camp group!
On the main level you can explore the Geology & Fossil History of Tennessee from 500 million years ago until the most recent Ice Age all while a mosasaur hangs from the ceiling above you. Around the corner you can explore Archaeology & the Native Peoples of Tennessee through a variety of artifacts and interactive displays based on more than 65 years of research done at UT. By entering through a pyramid doorway you are transported to Ancient Egypt: The Eternal Voice where you can explore the interested culture of the ancient people of the Nile valley. The last exhibit on the main level is the Decorative Experience that explores art as one of the unifying elements of human culture.

Heading to the lower level there are several more excellent exhibits. Tennessee Freshwater Mussels showcases the biology and diversity of these creatures and this provides and excellent look into the impressive malacology exhibits the McClung houses. This exhibit is almost hidden around a corner but is a must see! The Civil War in Knoxville: The Battle of Fort Sanders follows along a main hall way and details the aspects of the war that took place in Eastern Tennessee. Many of these sites are historical markers and are easily accessible around town. The last permanent exhibit is Human Origins: Searching for our Fossil Ancestors. This exhibit is compact and filled with valuable information and specimens. Difficult concepts are easily explained through engaging diagrams and exhibits.

Follow them on social media for updates and upcoming event details: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Read our other posts that mention the McClung Museum:

Meetings and Management

Jen here –

I started my postdoc position at the Florida Museum of Natural History this past August and my time is split between two projects. One is with the FOSSIL project, a social paleontology project with the goal of connecting all levels of paleontologists (enthusiasts to professionals and all of those in between), and the other is with the Thompson Earth Systems Institute where I do a whole variety of different things from coordinating events, researching collaborators, and helping grow the team and institute.

Something many of us are not taught during our graduate programs is best practices for project management. I think of myself as a highly organized person. I use Google Calendar, Todoist, and other organizational tools to keep me on task. But it is still incredibly hard to separate my two projects, and it’s made more confusing since our teams have significant overlap. I’m on more projects than just these two, other research projects that also take up some time. So my weeks usually have several two hour meetings and many one hour meetings. A few weeks ago was particularly bad with each day having a two hour meeting with several one hour meetings surrounding them. I usually stay at work from about 8:30-4:00 pm, so about 7.5 hours. It doesn’t leave a lot of spare time to get work done when I spend time in meetings. I’ve been learning a lot about how to use 30 minute blocks for power productivity.

Each week, I organize my to-do list for all of my various projects and try to prioritize what I can get done quickly or efficiently compared to other tasks. I do my best to get these tasks done around my meetings and save the longer or more intense work tasks for when I have much longer. If I have a lot of things that require intense concentration, i’ll stay home and work on it for an entire day. Obviously, this is not ideal for many people but I am most comfortable at home so can be highly productive.

Is this something we should be trained for in graduate school? It is something I think of often and have had several conversations on Twitter about this exact issue. Some said they sought out courses at local community colleges to augment their formal training. Others went to workshops in different colleges during their graduate program. Since I’m working full time and doing several other projects in my ‘free’ time, I haven’t been able to find something that will fit into my schedule. It is also hard as my position is not permanent, so I have flexibility but different flexibility from permanent positions.

Tools that I use for productivity and management:

  • Google Suites: Content and project document organization, calendar
  • Hootsuite: Social media organization
  • Slack: Team and project communication
  • Todoist: Personal to do lists

Fossil Collecting at Caesar’s Creek Spillway

Mike here –

The Caesar Creek Lake Visitor Center

When the students were on spring break a few weeks ago, I decided to take a few days off to go fossil collecting. The first site I went to was the spillway for the reservoir in Caesar Creek State Park. This is a special place for me: it’s the first site we went to collect fossils from during my paleontology course when I was a junior in college. I’ve been going back to this site for about 14 years, but I hadn’t been since 2013, when Jen, Adriane, our friend Wes, and I all went on a long weekend. During this time, Adriane and Jen were helping Alycia Stigall build the Ordovician Atlas. If you are interested in learning more about the organisms found, rock outcrops, and more head to that website!

Jen, Mike, and Adriane out collecting in the spillway in 2013. Wesley is taking the photo. An excellent weekend trip.

This site is exposed Ordovician limestone and shales (click here to learn more about types of rocks), representing warm, shallow marine environments. Three rock formations are exposed: Waynesville, Liberty, and Whitewater. If you are interested in learning more about rock formations, click this link which will go into detail on formations! Because collecting is restricted to the base of the spillway, all of the rocks are mixed together and it is difficult to tell which formation the specimens come from. When collecting from Caesar Creek, one must obtain a pass from the Visitor’s Center—run by the Army Corps of Engineers—and agree to follow their rules. Probably the most frustrating rule is that one can’t use tools to extract specimens, not even another rock! But, regardless of these rules, this location is safe for individuals and families to come collect.

The walls of the spillway. Filled with fossils!

I was excited to see what would be exposed in the spillway. This was the first warm weekend of the year, and it had rained the day before. I figured fossils would have washed out from the wall and would not be picked over yet. Usually after a good rain you get lots of new fossils coming out of the rock due to the increased erosion of the outcrop. So it may be wet and gloomy but good for fossil collecting! It sure paid off because today was one of the best fossil collecting I’ve ever had at Caesar Creek!

Crinoid calyx. Sadly, I could not extract this!
Cephalopod shell cast in the rock.
Brachiopods, bryozoans, and fragments of Isotelus.

This was the best haul I’ve had from Caesar Creek in a long time. I was not able to collect many of the really cool specimens I found. They were either way too big and/or stuck in a rock and I couldn’t use tools to remove them. I’m glad I got to see so many amazing specimens and take some home!

Read more about the Caesar’s Creek Spillway on the Dry Dredgers site by clicking here or the FossilGuy’s site by clicking here.

A huge burrow!
Trace fossil slab!
Fossil assemblage
Crinoid
Slab of trace fossils!

 

Fossil assemblage
Bryozoan and other shellies.
I found this fragment of an Isotelus, which is the largest fragment I’ve ever found. I believe this is the posterior end.
Clockwise from top: Flexicalymene trilobite, cephalopod, and various gastropod species.

New Evolutionary Understanding of Horseshoe Crabs

A Critical Appraisal of the Placement of Xiphosura (Chelicerata) with Account of Known Sources of Phylogenetic Error
Jesús A. Ballesteros and Prashant P. Sharma
Summarized by Maggie Limbeck

What data were used? Data were collected from whole genome sequence projects and RNA sequence libraries for all 53 organisms included in this study. Because there are four living species of horseshoe crabs and many living representatives of arachnids (spiders, scorpions, ticks) genetic data was able to be used as opposed to morphologic (shape and form) data. Organisms from Pancrustacea (crabs, lobsters, etc.) and Myriapoda (centipedes and millipedes) were used as outgroup organisms, organisms that are included in the analysis because they are part of the larger group that all of these animals fit into (Arthropoda) but have been determined to not be closely related to the organisms that they cared about in this study.

Methods: Several different methods were used in this study to estimate the evolutionary relationships between horseshoe crabs and arachnids. By using multiple different phylogenetic methods (different calculations and models to estimate relationships between organisms) these researchers had several different results to compare and determine what relationships always showed up in the analyses. In addition to all of these different methods that were used, two different scenarios were tested in each method. The researchers wanted to be able to run their data and see what results they got, but also test the existing hypothesis that horseshoe crabs are sister taxa to land-based arachnids.

One of the trees that was reported from one of the many phylogenetic analyses that were completed using this data set. The orange color represents the horseshoe crabs in this study and you can see that the orange is surrounded by green branches which represent arachnids. The boxes that are present on the branches of the trees are representative of different analyses and data sets that were used to return this particular tree and support that these relationships have in other analyses that were run. The stars on the tree show relationships that were well supported in all analyses.
Results: The vast majority of the phylogenetic trees that were produced in these different analyses showed that horseshoe crabs are “nested” or included in the group Arachnida and are sister taxa to Ricinulei (hooded tick spiders). The only analyses that returned results different from this, were those that were forced to keep horseshoe crabs as sister taxa to the land-based arachnids, but those trees had very low statistical support of being accurate.

Why is this study important? This study is particularly cool because it highlights interesting problems associated with using genetic data versus morphologic data and problems with understanding evolution in groups that diversified quickly. Chelicerates (the group of Arthropods that have pincers like spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs) diversified quickly, live in both aquatic and terrestrial settings, and have many features like venom, that all appeared in a short time frame geologically. By gaining a better understanding of the relationships between the members of Chelicerata and Arachnida researchers can start to look at the rates at which these features developed and the timing of becoming a largely land-based group. This is also an important study because it has demonstrated that relationships we thought were true for horseshoe crabs and arachnids for a long time may not actually be the case.

The big picture: The research done in this study really highlights the major differences in relationships that can be demonstrated depending on whether you are using morphological data or genetic data. This study found that by using genetic data for 53 different, but related organisms, that horseshoe crabs belong within the group Arachnida rather than a sister taxa to the group. It’s also really cool that this study was able to demonstrate evolutionary relationships that are contrary to what have long been believed to be true.

Citation:
Jesús A Ballesteros, Prashant P Sharma; A Critical Appraisal of the Placement of Xiphosura (Chelicerata) with Account of Known Sources of Phylogenetic Error, Systematic Biology, syz011, https://doi.org/10.1093/sysbio/syz011

How do you become a paleontologist?

Jen here –

The idea to write this post spurred from conversations with colleagues (thanks, David!). A commonly asked question is ‘What do I need to do to become a paleontologist’? or ‘How did you become a paleontologist?’. Rather than write up a post on my experiences as an individual, I sent around a survey to collect data from as many paleontologists as I could. I requested information (via Twitter) from individuals that are professional paleontologists, meaning they are in some regard paid for the knowledge and expertise as it relates to paleontology. I ended up with 125 responses, including my own. I’ll provide the initial questions as headers with the data or comments represented below it.

TLDR: The responses provides evidence that there is not a single way of navigating your educational and professional life to becoming a paleontologist. It is by no means a linear path for all of us, but in many cases a twisting, winding road.

Did you always want to be a paleontologist?

Responses from the question of ‘Did you always want to be a paleontologist?’ Total responders = 125.

Along my own paleontological journey I have asked friends, mentors, and colleagues how they have found paleontology. It is most often not a clear path. The options to select for this question included: (1) always; (2) discovered along my educational journey and; (3) much later in life.

50.4% of responders (n=125) said they had always wanted to be a paleontologist. This was unsurprising to me as many people I have met actually collected fossils from a young age. 43.2% of responders said that paleontology was not their original educational goal but that’s where they ended up. This indicates that although may responders knew their career path early in life, just as many did not.

What level of education have you received?

Results to the question of ‘What level of education have you received?’ Total responders = 125.

The options to select for this question include: high school, some undergraduate, undergraduate degree, some graduate level work, masters, PhD, or an ‘other’ box where people could write in their answer.

The majority of responders (56.8%) hold a Ph.D., followed by 26.4% holding an MS degree. The remainder includes ‘some undergraduate’, ‘undergraduate degree’, and ‘some graduate level work’. An important takeaway from this plot, that many people often forget, is that anyone with questions about the natural world can be a scientist. People with a variety of backgrounds hold careers or jobs as paleontologists. Additional degrees and fancy diplomas are not what define paleontologists, or scientists in general.

Did you start at a community college or return to one?

Response results for the question of ‘Did you start at a community college or return to one?’ Total responders = 122.
Other countries do not have a community college option or similar educational structure, paleontologists outside of the US were included in the ‘NA’ category. Largely, responders did not attend a community college as part of their educational path (71.3%), but 24.6% of responders did attend a community college. This category includes paleontologists that went back to restart their educational journey, those who took summer courses, those that took community college credits in high school, and those who attended a community college to begin their undergraduate degree. In general, there is still stigma in the academic community about the value of community colleges. These data show otherwise: Community colleges are wildly under-appreciated institutes that are often the catalyst for sparking an interest in STEM fields, including paleontology.

What was your undergraduate degree focused on?

Responses to the question, ‘What was your undergraduate degree focused on?’ Total responders = 123.

Responders had the option of selecting multiple options or writing in their own. The options included: biology, geology, earth science, chemistry, environmental science, or paleontology. This question was intended to reflect a major or focus of the graduation but the results may include other specialties as well.

Clearly shown from this diagram is that over 50% of users studied biology, geology, or a combination of both. Which rings true with my experiences and anecdotal evidence I have gathered over the years. This diagram clearly indicates that although more than 50% of paleontologists studied the aforementioned subjects, these are simply not the only routes to entering the field of paleontology.

A word cloud with everything that had been listed on the response forms. Large words indicate more occurrences of the word.

Did you do research as an undergraduate or high school student?

Responses to the question, ‘Did you do research as an undergraduate student?’ Total responders = 125.

Research is an integral part of higher education and often can provide the learner with information on their path forward. Not everyone has the opportunities or time to pursue research during undergraduate programs. Especially when paid positions are not always readily available.

The results of this survey question show that the large majority of responders (85.6%) did conduct research as an undergraduate or high school student. This indicates that research at an early stage is common among professional paleontologists, but not necessary.

If you said yes to the above question on research, was this research related to paleontology?

If you did conduct research as an undergraduate or high school student , was it directly related to paleontology? Total responders = 108.

Undergraduate or high school research can come in many forms. I was interested in determining if everyone that had conducting research early in their academic career was in a paleo-related lab group or not. This plot had a lower total response than the previous question, at 108 responders. 81.5% of responders said that the research they conducted was directly related to paleontology whereas 18.5% replied that their research was not directly related to paleontology.

This indicates that conducting paleontological research at an early stage in your career is not vital to becoming a paleontologist, but many professional paleontologists were exposed to paleontological research at an early stage in their career.

Where are you currently employed as a paleontologist?

Where are you currently employed as a paleontologist? Total responders = 121.
The three largest portions of the pie chart include those in academia, specifically faculty members and students working toward their graduate degree. The next highest value corresponds to people working in the museum sector – either education or research related roles.

Not everything could appear on the pie chart so here is what was included with response amount in parenthesis:

    Faculty member (39); Graduate school (28); Museum staff (research or education; 17); Postdoctoral researcher (8); Research specialist/scientist (5);Paleontological resource mitigation consulting (4); Museum staff & high school educator (3); Museum staff (research or education) & Faculty member (3); Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (2); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education; 2); Non-profit (2); Government (1); Higher education staff (1); Biology education staff (1); Cultural Resource Management: Field and lab technician (1); National Parks (1); High school educator (1); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (1); Freelance paleontologist, author, science communicator (1).

If you discovered paleontology later, what was your original career path?

If you discovered paleontology later, what was your original career path? Total responders = 18. Word size corresponds to the frequency at which words appeared in the responses.
In the first question of this survey, many people responded that paleontology was something that came to them later in their lives. I was interested in what these people’s original career paths were. Many had different original aims in terms of field of study. I would also like to include a few quotes to showcase how variable career paths can be.

“Minored in geology while getting a BA in Spanish, paleontology was my favorite class in my minor. Worked in sales, but the science of the products I worked with reminded me of my childhood love of science leading to my return to school for a bachelor’s degree in Geology.”

“Geology undergrad, then police officer for >30 years, then Geoscience MSc (masters degree), now PhD”

“I started taking graphic design classes at the local community college at 27 and took historical geology as a general education requirement. That introduced me to the idea of being a paleontologist.”

What experiences outside of formal education helped you maintain interest in paleontology?

Total responders to this question were 115 individuals, with a lot of overlap among responses.  I’ve sprinkle some quotes throughout to bring light to several specific examples. Something that struck me is that many people included aspects of their research, but many more included information on informal learning settings such as public lectures, museums, fossil collecting, and joining clubs and groups in the area. Many responders indicated that they were volunteers at museums, and some had even mentioned this experience had provided them an avenue into their current positions. Others had led summer camps to engage young scientists in paleontology, and this helped them stay excited about fossils.

“There was an older fellow around town who was an amateur fossil hunter and knew a lot about the local history, archaeological, and paleontological record of the area. He’d take my dad and I out to fossil and archaeological sites. Also, definitely fossil activities at museums! I was always the kid chipping away at rocks. “

Other responses included aspects of various media: books, TV shows and series, documentaries, and internet resources. People of influence that came up by name include: Neil Shubin (with specific mention of Your Inner Fish), Stephen Jay Gould, David Attenborough, and Ned Colbert. Topics mentioned included: geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology.

“Lots of museum visits, as well as books on dinosaurs, paleontology, and evolution. I also got involved doing fossil preparation for a commercial paleontology company which allowed me to experience the non-academic side of the field.“

Another major theme involved communication. Respondents indicated they would reach out  to paleontologists, members of the USGS, museum staff, and educators with their questions. To me, this indicates that communication helped these now-paleontologists foster passion and commitment to a subject or topic. Taking the time to respond to questions from those interested in the field can really change lives. The paleontology community on Twitter was mentioned as a way to find like-minded people and get a peek into their science lives. Another responder explained that their interest was maintained by the supportive and friendly community they had found in paleontology. Much of this indicates that maintaining interest in a topic relates to strong connections made with others through communication and shared interests.

“I have watched many paleontology documentaries and love visiting natural history museums. Those two mainly are what shaped my interest in paleontology. I later volunteered at a paleontology research center, in which I was able to get my foot in the door.”

“I volunteered at the San Diego Natural History Museum while I attended school at University of California San Diego. Books are also very helpful, especially if you want to maintain a sense of familiarity with topics that you’re not directly interfacing with (example: I worked mainly with invertebrate specimens, so I had to feed my hunger for vertebrate work with lots of mammal/dinosaur texts). Social media is a huge source for feeding my general curiosity. Follow as many paleontologists as you can and reach out!”

“Museum visits, reading, and the classic -David Attenborough. Having said that, I have never been nuts for dinosaurs, or so very interested in palaeontology growing up. It wasn’t until college (Geology A-Level) that I discovered how much more there is to Palaeontology, and its applications in different industries. I loved being outdoors and I wanted to travel, and palaeontology is great for that -there is fieldwork travelling season, and then there’s conference travelling season.”

What advice do you have for students interested in becoming a paleontologist?

This was an open answer question that had 114 responses. I did my best to synthesize them. There was considerable overlap so I’ve attempted to summarize a few key aspects. I’ll also include lots of quotes throughout this section. Some may be abbreviated from their original version.

Reach for the stars. And take math.

First, there were a lot of actions that I could easily pick out: explore, read, get involved, collaborate, communicate, learn, get experience, volunteer, engage, share, be flexible, apply for everything, ask questions, network, go to class, and find a supportive mentor. Other skills and subjects that were mentioned include: data science, programming, and 3D modeling.

Network and start gathering research experiences early! Don’t be shy to just cold call/email researchers (and follow up if you don’t get a response after a while). The worst they can say is no! Also, it’s great to make friends and talk to researchers outside your field, particularly biologists and ecologists. You’ll learn a lot just by being around them, naturally develop your communication skills, and might even find that it can lead to awesome collaborations! It’s also so important to protect your hobbies outside of school.

Networking, collaboration, and communication are another three answers that came up often. This could be in regards to attending conferences, engaging others on Twitter, or asking questions about jobs/research/etc. Responders indicated that science is not an isolated endeavor but is more enjoyable when you can collaborate with others that share your interests on the material or questions. Others noted about how their supportive mentors and supervisors helped them pursue their passions. Often mentors outside your department or exact field can really help you grow and see past any difficulties that may be occurring.

Don’t drop the humanities. Being good at maths is great, but learn to write properly and construct an argument. The most important skill any scientist can have is the ability to write concisely and well.

Find a mentor who supports you. I had several professors along the way try to talk me out of a career in paleontology, but it only took one professor to spark my interest and kept me interested by mentoring me through independent studies and undergraduate research. I should mention that this professor was not in my own department, but went out of her way to help me!

Be flexible – many responders indicated that their path had been altered along the way and being flexible allowed them more freedom and the ability to shift focus. Someone event went from studying dinosaurs to crinoids! That’s a huge shift but remember that the organism you study is not just because they are super cool but because they allow you to ask specific questions that you are interested in answering. It is also okay to change your mind. You should not stay in a program or field that you are uncomfortable in or that you are no longer passionate about.

Always keep your goal in mind. It’s not always an easy journey but the subject and its community are just wonderful. And also stay educated on related topics like geology, ecology, or evolution. Even if you won’t find a job in paleontology, you are likely also qualified for several other jobs. Keep on rockin’.

Share your passion and seek out colleagues and mentors. Science is not done alone. Your ideas will improve as you talk with people in and outside your field of interest. When I think about my journey I think most about the people that guided my path with their suggestions and encouragement.

There were a few other terms that came up regularly in responses: enthusiasm, perseverance, persistence, patience, and dedication. There is no correct path into paleontology and many paths are challenging. There were several responders that suggested they would not recommend you/young scientists go into the field of paleontology and that the field is highly competitive, and that you need to be aware of this before entering it. This is not limited to paleontology.

Every experience in life is relevant to helping you pursue a career in paleontology. As a high school student, I had a part-time job cleaning toilets, typing news articles, and developing film at my local newspaper. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t science, but I learned people skills, teamwork, and how to stick to a deadline as part of this–all skills that I use now. Also, learn how to communicate. This is just as important if not more important than proficiency with science. An effective paleontologist, no matter what they do (field collector, preparator, educator, researcher, student) needs to be able to communicate effectively in multiple media. Practice writing, and practice writing a lot. Good writing takes work.

If you are interested in becoming a paleontologist, these folks left their information so you could check them out line to see what they are investigating or doing at this time.

These paleontologists have left their handles so you can follow them on Twitter/Facebook/social media. A lot of these scientists also have their personal websites linked in their profile if you want to learn more about what they do and the research they’re involved with. Feel free to reach out to them if you have questions about being or becoming a paleontologist!

@clowery806, @Petra_S_Dekens, @pminton3, @AndrejSpiridon4, @slothgirlmel, @Dave_Hone, @spissatella, @jfabrombacher, @alsadekov, @boydpaleo, @Emiliagnathus, @CGoisMarques, @Dracoverde, @andyfarke, @KevinMaxMadalen, @ranjeevepa, @palaeojoe, @DMos150, @ladynaturalist, @DeadGators, @NHM_FossilFish, @DrNeurosaurus, @swarmofthought, @HollyEmilyT, @CrocBlob, @delta18O, @_gondwannabe_, @Dhiegocs, @mg_powell, @foradamifera, @coolacanth, @PaleoFeathers, @ActinoLove, @palaeojamesrule, @paleoparadox, @cosplayforscience, @Dianasaura, @Warriorfeather, @DrDanaEhret, @PolishPaleo, @reptile_f, @Thuat_Squared Twitter and Instagram, Lee Hall Twitter and Instagram, @Paleowin, @joshuarlively, @brittandbone, @sarahlsheffield, @Formorphology, @paleozoek, Nathan Van Vranken Facebook, Peter Falkingham @peterfalkingham and http://peterfalkingham.com, Kristina Barclay @barnaclebarclay and kristinabarclay.wordpress.com, David F. Wright @Davey_F_Wright and https://daveyfwright.wordpress.com/, Kaustubh Thirumalai @holy_kau and www.kaustubh.info, @ashleymorhardt www.paleoneurology.com www.pasttime.org, James Lamsdell www.jameslamsdell.com and @FossilDetective, @Dean_R_Lomax and www.deanrlomax.co.uk, Will Gearty @willgearty and https://wgearty.people.stanford.edu/, Kallie Moore @fossil_librarian and www.youtube.com/eons, Steven R. Clawson, Mitigation Paleontologist LinkedIn, Michelle Tabencki www.boneclones.com, Roger Burkhalter Sam Noble Museum, Archosaur musings