Sam Ocon, Invertebrate Paleontology Graduate Student

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science? There is something so magical about being the first person in the world to know something. Even more magical, at least to me, is talking about that thing to others so they can share in the excitement! One of the major appeals of being a scientist, to me, besides adding to the general knowledge of the human race, is also learning to see the world in a different light; for example, long drives have become so much more exciting since I’ve been trained as a geologist. I loved watching the geology change as we traveled from my home state of Florida to my new state of West Virginia! 

I’ve been interested in science since I was very small. I come from a family with no formally trained scientists; however, several members of my family are fascinated by different aspects of the natural world. My dad is an amateur ichthyologist, my grandpa, a self-taught horticulturist, and my grandma is a nurse with a fascination for human biology. Growing up surrounded by people fascinated by science and nature (and watching Jurassic Park every single day) lead me to find science at a very young age.

What do you do? I am currently looking at horseshoe crabs, both fossil and modern, to figure out if they are really “living fossils” or not. More specifically, I’m looking at how fast their shape actually changes through time and if it is really as slow and steady as we commonly think it is.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of  evolution? I am hoping to use what I discover to inform horseshoe crab conservation around the world! For example, knowing how horseshoe crabs adapted to past mass extinctions (they’ve survived all 5!) will tell us how they may react to modern climate change. This will also help us understand more about other groups considered to be “living fossils” and teach us more about long term trends in evolution. 

What are your data and how do you obtain them?  Some of my data is from previous work done by my advisor, Dr. James Lamsdell, but I will also be collecting more data this spring and summer from 3D scans and photographs of fossil horseshoe crabs.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? If you are passionate about science, embrace that! Science takes a lot of hard work, but passion makes the hard work worth it. You can do this!

Ordovician paleontology in Australia and its global significance

Ordovician strata in the Cliefden Caves area, New South Wales: a case study in the preservation of a globally significant paleontological site

By I. G. Percival, B. D. Webby, and H. D. T. Burkitt

Summarized by Joseph Stump. Joseph Stump is an undergraduate geology major at the University of South Florida. After graduating high school in Sebring, Florida in 2004, Joseph was unsure about which career he wanted to pursue, making college difficult without an end goal to strive towards. In 2006 he enlisted in the United States Army as an airborne Satellite Communications Operator and Maintainer. Staff Sergeant Stump received an honorable discharge from the Army in 2016 and has been using the Post 9/11 GI Bill to earn his degree since then. Thus far, he has completed an Associates in Arts in Engineering from Hillsborough Community College and is currently in his final year of obtaining his B.S. in Geology, with a minor in Geographical Information System Technology. Joseph is set to graduate in Summer 2020. Upon graduation, he would like to pursue a career studying/monitoring/managing Florida’s water resources and coastal habitats.

Methods: The article utilized data gathered from at least 60 published scientific papers and nearly 300 species of fossils (including calcisponge stromatoporoids, sponges, corals, trilobites, nautiloids, conodonts, brachiopods, radiolarians, and cyanobacteria (‘algae’)) within the Cliefden Caves area of New South Wales, Australia, with several of these being endemic (localized) to this area, to support its significance for preservation of global significance. The main threat to this area, and the need for the preservation, is the proposed construction of a dam, which would result in the flooding and destruction of valuable scientific lands and the fossils within it. 

Results: The fossils contained within the rocks of this area include the world’s oldest known brachiopod shell beds. Brachiopod shells are excellent zone fossils, meaning they can help reconstruct the environment by the shape of their shells. Brachiopods are generally zoned by sediment grain size relationships of their shell shapes; meaning, certain species of brachiopods seem to correlate with different sizes of grains (i.e., different environments). Also present are the earliest indisputable rugose corals found anywhere on Earth, an extinct type of coral. If the proposed dam construction is approved in this area, one of the most diverse deep-water sponge faunas ever recorded is in jeopardy of being destroyed and lost from the fossil record forever. The authors of this article all agree that, despite the significant research already done on the area by scientists, there is more to be discovered in the area that holds truths to the history of life on Earth.

A Belubula shell bed from Cliefden Caves; this specific type only occurs in this locality, so far as scientists know. These brachiopods are preserved mostly articulated (both shells together) and in situ (in place where they originally lived on the sediment). Scale bar is a Australian 50 cent coin (32mm diameter)

Why is this study important? This area is important to study due to its ability to better understand the Earth’s geologic and paleontological history. During the Ordovician, the oldest complete vertebrate fossils can be found, and this is where plant life began to migrate onto land, with animals soon to follow. It is also important to understand the climate of Earth during this time frame, as it exploded with diversity (i.e., the Ordovician Radiation), but it ended with what some consider the second largest extinction in Earth’s biological record. Some argue that this extinction was not ecologically major; however, the best way to understand these events and uncover the facts is to study the geologic and paleontological evidence left behind (where available). The issue with studying the geology/paleontology of the Ordovician is the lack of availability of fossil evidence relative to other periods. The end of the Ordovician is marked by glaciation. When a glaciation occurs, oceanic water regresses (moves away from land) and when the glaciers melt, the ocean transgresses (moves towards land). The problem is that these dynamic ocean conditions causes major erosion of any sediments/fossils deposited and often deletes them from the geologic record as an unconformity (“missing time” in a sample of sediments). The flooding that will result from constructing a dam in the region will have the same history erasing effects on the paleo environment as the ancient sea-level changes.

The Big Picture: Human population growth requires a higher demand on water and electricity; however, the current plans of placing a dam in the Cliefden Caves area of New South Wales will have significant negative impacts on the availability of current geologic and paleontological important rocks. A universal fact of life is that if history is not learned from, it is doomed to be repeated. Current global conditions are trending towards a climate that is uninhabitable by the human species. The significance of understanding these events is that measures could possibly be put into effect to mitigate or prevent global cataclysm of anthropogenic causation. Although geological and paleontological research does not often go synonymous with saving lives, the discoveries from their research can potentially impact the longevity of our species and others’.

Citation: Percival, I.G., Webby, B.D., and Burkitt, H. D. T. “Ordovician strata in the Cliefden Caves area, New South Wales: a case study in the preservation of a globally significant paleontological site.” Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1080/08120099.2019.1574271

 

Climate Change and Encephalitis

The potential impact of climate change on the transmission risk of tick-borne encephalitis in Hungary

Kyeongah Nah, Ákos Bede-Fazekas, Attila János Trájer, and Jianhong Wu

Summarized by Kailey McCain

What data were used? The data collected for this study includes the monthly average temperature values in Hungary from the years 1961-1990. Specifically, for the past climate data,researchers used the CarpatClim-Hu database. For future climate predictions, the researchers used two distinct climate models: ALADIN-Climate 4.5 and RegCM 3.1. Additionally, previously established models for Tick-borne Encephalitis virus (i.e., a human viral infectious disease) transmission was used. Models help us hypothesize how different scenarios will look, by allowing us to input a lot of different types of data to understand large future patterns, like the one in this article! 

Methodology: By using the previous climate data for the years 1961-1990, the researchers established a predictive warming model for the years 2021-2050 and 2071-2100 in Hungary. This data was then compared to the tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) transmission model to establish correlations between the data sets. This model broke down the transmission into various factors: reproduction numbers, duration of infestation, and density. The dynamics of transmission can be visualized in figure 1.

Figure 1: This figure shows an extensive diagram of how an infected tick spreads the disease to humans, livestock, and other animals. The inner circle represents the stages from larva, to nymph, to mature tick; then it branches to external transmission.

Results: The predictive climate model showed a steady increase in temperature for the age ranges 2021-2050 and 2071-2100, and the TBEV model resulted in an increase in tick population and transmission. These increases can be positively correlated (linked) to warming climate because previous data shows that a higher temperature speeds up the rate of sexual maturity in ticks; meaning, this allows the tick to reproduce at an increased rate. Moreover, research has shown that a warming climate leads to the elongation of tick questing season; which increases the chance for transmission. When a tick is questing (shown in figure 2), it is strategically placed on vegetation in order to grab a hold of by passers. 

Figure 2: This image represents a questing tick sitting on the edge of a lead with their legs spread out, and ready for attachment.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it shows the dynamic effects climate change has on global health. It also conveys an important message that the prevention of climate change is not only a biological and geological problem, but a public health problem, too. This means that solutions for reducing the impacts of climate change have to be creative and have to be from a lot of different types of researchers! 

The big picture: This study helps us understand the ways in which infectious diseases, (e.g., Tick-Borne Encephalitis Virus) are affected by climate change. As well as giving a glimpse into the future of what disease transmission will look like if prevention protocols are not put in place.

Citation: Kyeongah Nah, Ákos Bede-Fazekas, Attila János Trájer, & Jianhong Wu. (2020). The potential impact of climate change on the transmission risk of tick-borne encephalitis in Hungary. BMC Infectious Diseases, 20(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12879-019-4734-4

Dr. Fatin Izzati Minhat, Micropaleontologist

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 that you get to meet people and go places. My interest in becoming a scientist started with my curiosity about the stars and moon when I was ten years old. Back then, I wished to be an astronaut so that I can travel the universe and look at the stars and planets. I learned a lot by reading and going through atlas. However, since both of my parents were not from a scientific background, many of my questions were unanswered. Later during my high school years, I met a cool biology teacher that seems to know-it-all. I admired her so much that I aim that one day I would like to teach students and do research at the same time. This is when I made up my mind to become a scientist. During my university years, I was very curious about life in the oceans which led me to take a major degree in aquatic life. The fun part about science is, the more you know, the more questions you have. These questions are the one that drives and motivated me each year to be a better scientist.

What do you do?
My work focuses mostly on the tiny (microscopic) sea creature called foraminifera. Foraminifera are single cell organisms, closely related to amoeba, that own a shell-like structure to cover their cell. As a micropaleontologist, I document the different foraminifera species found around Malaysian waters and sometimes use their distribution pattern to understand the environment they live in. The best part about foraminifera is that when they are living, they represent the surrounding environment and archive chemical signals around them within their shell (test). Once the foraminifera died, most of them were preserved in the sediment and became a good environmental archive. I can then use their distribution as well as the chemistry signal in their shell (test) to indicate changes in the environment. 

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? 
One of my research goals is to understand the past climate change around Southeast Asia during the Quaternary period. I had been using foraminifera to infer the changes of sea level and the implication towards coastal areas around Malaysia. Scientists have agreed that sea level rise due to global warming is currently inevitable but the sea level rise is far from uniform. Which means, different regions will experience different timing and magnitude of the sea level rise. Local factors may either amplify or reduce the impact of local sea level rise. Hence we must be well prepared with mitigation plans that protect the economy and livelihood of the coastal community. Since all states in Malaysia are coastal states, the country must understand the future impact of sea level rise towards the coastal ecosystem and community. Through the understanding of sea level patterns in the past, I hope that I can educate the community and advise the stake holder for future mitigation plans. 

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
I collected data on foraminifera assemblages, sediment type data and environmental data (i.e., water depth, salinity, temperature, ph). These data is used to understand the foraminifera assemblages and their response towards the changes in their surrounding environment. Most of my early work uses benthic foraminifera assemblages to monitor the health of marine environment. My recent interest is to use both benthic and planktonic foraminifera as a proxy for sea level and temperature changes. With the help of colleagues in National Taiwan University, I aim to reconstruct the sea-level and temperature changes during the Holocene. Hopefully the reconstruction and validate the physical earth model and future sea level projection around South China Sea and Malacca Straits.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
My advice would be for them to continue pursuing their dream in their field of interest. It may be difficult at the beginning especially for countries with limited resources but with motivation, great research teams, collaborations between world laboratories, one can carry out world class science sooner or later.

Follow Fatin’s updates on their website by clicking here.

The Scientific Process: What is “Peer-Review”?

Kristina here –

Today, humans have access to more information than at any other time in human history, all at the tips of our fingers with a quick Google search, or a “Hey, [insert AI name here]”. While equal access to the internet and information technology is beyond the scope of this post, cell phones, tablets, and laptops, have made it easier than ever to quickly look up information. Yet with this technology has come a huge surge in wide-spread misinformation, making it difficult to know whether you can trust the information you find. Pretty much anyone can post whatever they want, and pass it off as “fact”. How then can the average person determine whether what they’re reading is actually credible and factual? Furthermore, if you see something that says “scientists disagree on X topic”, who should you believe? Contrary to what you might think, not all viewpoints are created equal, and both scientists and the average person can be guilty of confusing “opinion” and “fact”. This is where the “peer-review” process comes in to help.

So what is “peer-reviewing”?

Most people hearing “peer-review” assume it is a good thing (and this is certainly true) but what does “peer-review” mean? Essentially, peer-review is an integral part of the scientific process, and what helps separate “opinion” and “fact”. It is what scientists use to make sure that their research is as thorough, accurate, and factual as possible. In general, scientists do not consider something trustworthy or credible unless it has gone through some kind of peer-review process.

How does peer-review work?

A scientist or group of scientists will first go about conducting research. They will ideally do background reading to make sure they understand what is already known about the topic, and where there might be gaps in our knowledge. They will then design an experiment or test, collect data, and analyse that data. The ultimate goal of science is to try and refute a null hypothesis (e.g., all apples are red). We must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that something is different from the null (what has been previously determined) (e.g., some apples are green). If we can’t prove otherwise, and/or the more scientists that run their own tests and come to the same conclusion, the stronger our hypothesis is, or the closer it is to “the truth” (e.g., apples can be different colours).

Once scientists are finished collecting and analysing the data, and have come to a conclusion (e.g., refuted, or failed to refute a hypothesis), they will write a paper reporting their findings. See Sarah’s post on how to write a scientific paper here. The authors then submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal, usually one that has been selected based on the topic or audience of the journal. The submitted paper is sent to an editor at that journal, who then decides if the paper is appropriate for their journal. If the paper “passes” this first test, the editor will then send it out to at least two experts in that topic.

How are the peer-reviewers selected?

Usually, journals request that authors include anywhere from 2 – 10 names of experts that know enough about the topic to provide sufficiently thorough critiques of the paper. Authors cannot include close colleagues or collaborators, as this could create bias (e.g., your friend is more likely to give you a pass, even if you don’t deserve it). Editors can opt to choose as many or as few people as they want from the authors’ list. Ideally, editors will also find at least one person not on the authors’ list that is an expert on the topic. Authors may also include a list of people they don’t want to review their papers, but they must have a good reason (e.g., “this person doesn’t agree with me” is not an acceptable reason as critical reviews are important to ensure scientific rigor. But, “this person has been openly hostile towards me” would be – some people can be jerks and block good science in peer-review). If you have too many people that you don’t want to review your paper, that sends up red flags to editors, however, so including people on a “no-review” list shouldn’t be taken lightly by authors, and should only be done when absolutely necessary.

The editor then sends the paper to at least two of these reviewers. If the reviewers accept, they then have about 2 – 4 weeks to evaluate the paper. It’s important to note that editors do not usually review the papers themselves (unless they happen to be an expert in that topic), because, especially for larger journals, the editor is unlikely to know enough about the topic to give sufficiently thorough feedback (e.g., a vertebrate palaeontologist won’t review an invertebrate palaeontology paper, and vice versa). 

Peer-reviewing a scientific paper

If you are the reviewer, your job is to go through the paper and evaluate the science independently. Your comments should stick to the science and presentation of the science, and you must refrain from unnecessary criticism of the authors. For example, “this is a poorly written paragraph” is not helpful or appropriate. Instead, you should point out where you didn’t understand what was written, and why. Reviewers typically read the paper over several times to make sure they understand what the authors are trying to test, then evaluate whether the experimental design, methods, and analyses of the data were sufficient to test the hypothesis. Often, reviewers will analyse the data themselves to make sure they find the same things as the authors. Sometimes, if the reviewer feels that the methods or analyses were insufficient, they will suggest that the authors try other analyses that will more accurately test their hypothesis. This is one of the most common types of reviewer feedback. 

If the methods and analyses all hold up to scrutiny, the reviewer will then make sure that the interpretation of the data (included in a paper’s “Discussion” and “Conclusions” sections) matches the results of the analyses. Another common type of feedback from reviewers occurs when authors overstate (or sometimes understate) their conclusions (e.g., the authors may claim their paper proves x, but their results might only be applicable under very specific circumstances). A good reviewer will make sure that all of the claims made by the authors are supported by the tests they perform, and should watch for speculation (speculation may be acceptable, so long as it is clearly stated that it is such).

Reviewers then provide a thorough report back to the editor, including specific comments/suggested edits from throughout the paper. Reviewers will provide a recommendation to the editor indicating whether they think the paper is in need of revisions (“major” or “minor” revisions), or if the paper should be rejected or accepted. Major and minor revisions are the most common reviewer recommendations – major often means further analyses are needed before the hypotheses have been sufficiently tested, minor usually means that the methods and results are sound, but the authors need to tweak a few paragraphs, interpretations, or graphs throughout the paper. Papers that are considered “accepted” are exceptionally well done, and the reviewer may only have small comments that need to be addressed, or possibly none. Papers that reviewers “reject” usually have insufficient evidence to accurately test the hypotheses proposed, may have critically flawed methods or analyses, or would require very extensive revisions that would take a long time to complete, or would end up testing a different hypothesis. Rejections do not always mean that the authors should abandon the paper – it could just mean that there is more work to do before the paper can be fully evaluated. Some journals even have a “reject and resubmit” option, which means that the paper is rejected for now, but that the authors are welcome to resubmit in the future if they are able to address the reviewer’s concerns. It is sort of like “very major revisions” and gives the authors a bit more time/flexibility to complete the revisions.

Revisions

Once the editor has received reviews back from all of the reviewers, they will go through all of them to see if the reviewers have picked out common flaws in the paper, and to make sure the reviews were sufficient. If the reviewers clearly disagreed on something, the editor will often send out the paper to at least one other reviewer for another opinion (this is helpful if a reviewer was unnecessarily harsh or lax). Based on all of the reviewer evaluations, the editor will provide the final recommendation for the paper (accept, reject, reject and resubmit, major/minor revisions). The editor then sends their recommendation and summary of the reviews, along with all of the reviewer comments, back to the authors. 

The authors must then revise the paper based on the reviewer feedback, and address every single comment made by the reviewers. It is the job of the authors to not be defensive about the comments (which can be hard when someone is criticizing your work), but it is important to remember that the reviewer’s job is to make your science better. Depending on the amount of revisions requested (major or minor), the authors are usually given at least 2 weeks (and sometimes several months) to provide their revisions, as addressing every single comment thoroughly takes time. The authors then resubmit their revised paper, as well as a list of their responses to all of the reviewer comments and the actions taken to address each comment. The editor uses both documents to determine if the authors have done due diligence with the reviewer’s feedback, or if further revisions are needed.

If necessary, the editor will send the paper back to the original reviewers or to new reviewers. The process will repeat until the paper becomes acceptable to reviewers, or the paper is rejected. Once the paper is considered acceptable by the reviewers and editor, the peer-review process is complete and the paper is ready to be formatted and published in the journal! It can take anywhere from weeks to years for a paper to become accepted! 

Responsibilities of reviewers

It is important to note that neither authors, nor reviewers are paid (editors at larger journals are sometimes paid positions). Instead, peer-reviewing is considered an “academic service” and authors should expect to review 1 – 2 papers for every paper they publish (i.e., for each review of your paper, you should return the favour by reviewing that many papers). While some people have strong opinions on monetary compensation for reviewers and editors, the current justification is that reviewing is a service and the lack of compensation should keep reviewers impartial. The peer-review process is a lot of work for everyone involved, but is the best way to ensure we have a system that produces sound, thorough, and accurate science.

Peer-review doesn’t just happen in journals, either. Scientific books, text books, theses, and government reports may also be considered peer-reviewed, as they are usually thoroughly reviewed by several experts, or scientific review panels. But the most common form, and the most acceptable form of citations or sources, are peer-reviewed journal articles. Peer-review also occurs for articles in other fields in academia, such as history and the arts.

So, how do you tell if what you’re reading (or what you’ve heard) is credible?

Has it been peer-reviewed?

Is the information coming from a reputable peer-reviewed journal?

Do they cite their sources when stating information/presenting facts?

Even if the information isn’t presented in a journal (e.g., a governmental report, book, or blog post), do they use citations to support their arguments? Are these sources credible (i.e., from peer-review sources, not some random internet link)?

Do the majority of scientists/experts in the topic agree with this opinion?

If you come across a “fact” that a scientist has stated, remember that not all “opinions” are created equal. If the majority of experts have come to a conclusion, yet one person disagrees, that person has most likely failed to properly refute a hypothesis (their conclusions do not match the majority of the evidence). This usually happens when a scientist fails to include all of the appropriate variables in their methods, meaning that the test they used to refute the hypothesis was flawed, even if their work has been published. For example, those that claim global warming has happened before and that therefore the global warming we are experiencing today is just natural variation are failing to include an important variable: the rate of change (which is much faster than any past “background” variation). 

Is the author an expert on the subject?

It takes several years to gain expertise in a topic, mostly by reading all of the peer-reviewed papers on that topic (hundreds or even thousands of papers), staying up-to-date on new research, conducting experiments, and going through the peer-review process. Google searches don’t cut it. Even if they are a scientist, if they normally work in a different topic, there is a greater chance that they might be missing something that is common knowledge to experts in that field. For example, I as a palaeontologist am not about to try and write a paper on black holes, even though I think they’re fascinating and have read lots about them. 

An imperfect system

The peer-review system is not infallible. Nowadays, scientists will often “publish” their work online outside or ahead of the peer-review process with things called pre-prints. Pre-prints allow scientists to share their work, especially large datasets, ahead of peer-review so that they can share their work more quickly and potentially get feedback from other researchers. Often, the data included in pre-prints will end up going through the peer-review process, but as the peer-review process can take a long time, pre-prints allow researchers to get their data out there and get feedback faster. While it may not seem as rigorous because it hasn’t gone through the peer-review process, it can actually end up being more transparent because it potentially allows more people to review the research. Essentially, pre-prints still go through “peer-review” in the actual sense of the word, just not necessarily through the traditional channels of journals.

Journal reviewers can also sometimes act inappropriately. For example, reviewers might make unhelpful comments that are not constructive or based on the science, or may even be downright abusive or derogatory – e.g., criticizing the author, not the work, or saying something unnecessarily rude. While these kinds of comments are not permissible in the peer-review process, and it is usually the responsibility of the editor to reject reviews that include inappropriate content, these kinds of things regularly slip through. It is then within the author’s right to ask the editor to step in and find an alternative reviewer or to ignore the comments when making their final decision. These kinds of checks and balances are what help the peer-review process to remain as impartial as possible – comments must be limited to the science and the presentation of material, and cannot include opinions or feelings about the work, even if it disagrees with your own.

Finally, just because something gets published doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There are lots of bad papers out there that slip through the peer-review process. Editors and reviewers are people too. That is why scientists must always evaluate previous work for themselves. It is an inherent part of the scientific process – trying to independently reject that null hypothesis to see if you come to the same conclusion.

Building and Establishing the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant

Linda, Adriane, Kristina, Andy, and Jen here-

Dr. Otilie “Tilly” Edinger, Unknown author, sourced from trowelblazers.

Over the past year, members of the Time Scavengers team created a new travel grant for students and avocational/amateur scientists. These groups often lack funding to attend conferences, which are valuable experiences. Conferences not only provide the opportunity for students to receive feedback by experts other than their advisor or supervisor. Conferences are important networking opportunities as such many fruitful scientific collaborations started with two cups of coffee and a chat next to a student’s poster in a crowded conference venue. We hope that by sharing our motivation and structure, other organizations will consider funding opportunities similar to ours.

The travel grant is named after Dr. Otilie “Tilly” Edinger, a female, Jewish, deaf paleontologist. Dr. Edinger’s work started an entire subdiscipline: paleoneurology, a discipline that focuses on understand ancient brains. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s history, work, and more head to the Time Scavengers page: Who is Dr. Tilly Edinger

The Motivation for a Grant

Studies show that the Geosciences are among the least diverse scientific disciplines in the US (Bernard & Cooperdock, 2018). In addition, we, as geoscientists, still don’t have a complete picture of how lacking we are with respect to diversity, as major surveys (e.g., through the National Science Foundation and Natural Environmental Research Council) do not capture LGBTQIA+, disability, neurodiversity, and other identities. Previous studies have shown that retention rate from student to professional membership in societies is quite low in terms of gender diversity (Plotnick et al. 2014), this likely spans across historically excluded groups. People with such underrepresented identities are less likely to participate in events, such as professional meetings, that require time and especially money, as financial strains can limit such participation. This inability to attend professional events thus hinders those students in the long-term. The motivation for establishing the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant was to support and encourage the participation of historically excluded individuals by helping to reduce the financial burden of conferences.

The current reimbursement system used by universities around the world is ill-suited to the situation faced by real students. There are currently several travel grants for geoscience students available through different societies, foundations, and organizations. However, the problem arises in that students are asked to pay for such conference costs up-front, and then are reimbursed at a later date for the conference travel. More often than not, reimbursement for conference expenses can take months to process, meaning if students paid for expenses on their credit card, they are accruing interest on those expenses. This reimbursement system greatly disadvantages students, especially those who are low-income and/or first generation, and do not have a steady stream of income. 

Avocational/amateur scientists are valuable contributors to science, but currently there are very few places where they can seek financial help to attend professional meetings and conferences, places where they too can share their science and meet new collaborators. Additionally, some of these scientists are retired or self employed, and just like students, may have a limited or unstable source of income to spend on such expensive networking opportunities. 

We therefore decided that all students and avocational scientists working in a relevant discipline are eligible to apply for the travel grant. Additionally, we would provide people who hold underrepresented identities priority. 

Establishing a Committee

The TETG committee in a virtual meeting. Clockwise from top left: Linda, Adriane, Jen, Kristina, Andy

Once we knew we wanted to create a new travel grant, the Time Scavengers team established the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant Committee. The job of the committee was to hammer out details related to the grant itself, who is eligible, who would get priority, creating a system for choosing awardees, fundraising for the grant, and creating impactful social media posts (on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to garner support for the grant. As you can likely tell from that long list, there was a lot for us to do!

Jen and Adriane had already created an outline for the grant before the committee was formed, early in 2020. Therefore the first thing the committee did was refine this grant text, refine the grant example document, and create web pages on the Time Scavengers site for the grant and about Dr. Edinger. 

We held biweekly meetings to work through various aspects of the grant — primarily the application and rubric. Each meeting was about 1 hour in duration and coordinated across 4 time zones. We were really mindful to make a simple application that gathered the data we needed to properly evaluate and fund those that needed the support. We came up with a ranking system that does not rank people based on their prior scientific experience and success. Instead, this ranking system is based on the applicant’s need for financial support to a conference and historically excluded identities that they hold. 

The grant committee also discussed award amounts, as most grants provide a static monetary value (e.g. $500). However, no two conferences possess the same fee structure and a static amount is not equitable. We decided that the award amount will be flexible and we will support as many individuals as we can per application cycle. The first year we fundraised enough to support 3–5 individuals, depending on the conference expenses. As this is the first year of this grant, we decided that the goal would be to support only conference registration and abstract fees, with the hope to expand to broader support in the future.

Data Regarding the Impact of Conferences

Did attending your first conference spark any collaborations or extensions of your network?

Before we began a targeted campaign to raise funds we wanted to survey the community about the impact of attending conferences on their careers. This informal anonymous survey was disseminated via social media. In total, 64 people responded and 56.3% said that associated fees and lack of funding prevented conference attendance and a similar percentage paid for some amount of their first conference out of their own pocket. 57.8% of respondents suggested that there are not enough ample funding opportunities for students to help attend conferences. 64.1% of respondents indicated that being reimbursed for conference fees had a negative impact on their financial situation. Regardless of these hardships, 65.6% of respondents said that attending their first scientific conference extended their scientific network and/or led to collaborations. This clearly indicates conferences are both a financial burden and critical to progressing your career. 

You can read the full results and quotes from respondents here: Impact of Attending Conferences.

Crowdsourcing Funding for the Grant

We outlined a two week marketing campaign to promote and encourage donations to the travel fund. Each day we would release a social media post on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with facts about Dr. Edinger, the grant details, why folks should donate, and data from the survey mentioned above. Our goal was to be as transparent as possible with our motivations behind the grant, while also demonstrating the need for such a grant to our potential donors with the survey data we had just collected. Committee members helped create graphics and text for the marketing campaign. 

Example graphics from our social media fundraising campaign.

Once we had a solid marketing outline, we started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to gather the financial resources needed to start the grant. An advantage of crowdsourcing is that small donations from the community can add up quickly. Our average donation was $51.48 USD, with individual donations ranging from $1 – $200, with 55 separate donors. We surpassed our goal within just two weeks’ time! See all of our Tilly Edinger Grant Donations. The grant committee is blown away by the support and encouragement we received from the scientific community. We therefore launched the grant in November and have already received the first applications. The travel grant committee will meet again in February to assess the applications and announce the awardees shortly after.

Requirements of Awardees

Most grant awardees have some small requirements from the granting organization. We will ask all people who receive the travel grant to write a short blog post about their conference experience and a Meet the Scientist post so stay tuned for their reports! We will collect them all under the tag TravelWithTilly on the Time Scavengers website. 

Reflection

As this was our first round of fundraising, we expected that some adjustments might be needed for future fundraising cycles. Our initial focus of this pilot year was to cover the costs of registration and abstract fees for conferences. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, all conferences switched to a virtual format for the foreseeable future. We hope to continue to grow our fundraising capabilities so we are able to fund as many people as possible when in-person conferences resume. Other areas of growth including improving our application, such as asking applicants for cost breakdowns of the conference they plan to attend, and incorporating community feedback. In the future, we hope to expand to cover airfare and other travel expenses.

References

Bernard, R. E., and Cooperdock, E. H. G. 2018. No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geosciences , 11, 292–295. 

Plotnick, R. E., Stigall, A. L., & Stefanescu, I. 2014. Evolution of paleontology: Long-term gender trends in an earth-science discipline. GSA Today, 24(11).

 

How Climate Change in Serbia is Impacting the Rate of Cancer and Infectious Diseases

Assessment of climate change impact on the malaria vector Anopheles hyrcanus, West Nile disease, and incidence of melanoma in the Vojvodina Province (Serbia) using data from a regional climate model 

By: Dragutin T. Mihailović, Dusan Petrić, Tamas Petrović, Ivana Hrnjaković- Cvjetković, Vladimir Djurdjevic, Emilija Nikolić-Đoric, Ilija Arsenić, Mina PetrićID, Gordan Mimić, Aleksandra Ignjatović-Cupina 

Summarized by: Kailey McCain

What data were used? Researchers assessed climate change and UV radiation (UVR) and compared it to data collected over ten years from mosquito field collections at over 166 sites across Serbia. Additionally, public health records for the circulation of vector-borne disease (I.e., illnesses spread by mosquitoes and ticks), specifically the West Nile Virus, and the incidence of melanoma (i.e., a serious form of skin cancer) were collected and compared.

Methods: The climate change and UVR doses were collected by using EBU-POM model (a type of regional climate model) for the time periods: 1961-2000 and 2001-2030. As for the collection of the mosquito data, two different dry-ice baited traps (dry-ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide, which is a natural attractive substance for mosquitos) were used. The various sites were chosen by entomologists (i.e., scientists who study insects) to obtain a diverse data set. The mosquitoes collected were then anesthetised, separated by location, species, sex, and then tested for a specific RNA (I.e., a single stranded molecule) strand that would indicate the mosquito was carrying the West Nile Virus.

Furthermore, the researchers measured the rate of melanoma incidences in Serbia by using two different indicators: new number of cases versus time and number of new cases versus population size. The defined time period for data collection was 10 years (1995-2004). With this data, the researchers compared the rate of incidence to the climate data previously collected.

Fig 1: This diagram shows the linear trend in annual temperature fluctuations throughout Serbia from the time period 1990-2030; as well as depicts the mosquito prevalence found at the various collection sites.

Results: From the data collected via the regional climate model, a linear upwards trend in temperature in Serbia was recorded. The prevalence of mosquitoes was also found to increase linearly throughout the time period. The culmination of these results can be seen in figure 1.

As for the melanoma data, the researchers found a linear increase in UVR doses for the time period. This data was found to be correlated to an increase in melanoma incidences throughout Serbia and this data can be visualized in figure 2.

Why is this study important? Disease prevalence and distribution have always been difficult to predict due to the varying ecological factors that play important roles. Research like this is especially important because it allows scientists to simulate future spreads of vector-borne diseases within European countries. This can eventually lead to the development of public health surveillance technology and overall prevention.

Fig 2: Diagram (a) depicts the increased temperature rates throughout Serbia, and diagram (b) depicts the UV radiation doses on the various provinces throughout Serbia. Diagram (c) shows the linear relationship of UV doses versus the time period 1990-2030. The data shows a clear increase in “hot days” (HD) and “warm days” (WD) through time. Diagram (d) shows a linear relationship between UVR dose versus melanoma incidence rate from 1995-2004.

The big picture: This study aimed to correlate changes in temperature and UV radiation to the spread of diseases and cancer. With vector-borne diseases being the most sensitive to ecological conditions, researchers chose the West Nile Virus to act as a proxy to all mosquito transmitted diseases. As expected, the data supports the claim that increased temperatures trigger an enhanced risk for not only infectious diseases, but certain cancers as well.

Citation: Mihailović, D. T., Petrić, D., Petrović, T., Hrnjaković-Cvjetković, I., Djurdjevic, V., Nikolić-Đorić, E., Arsenić, I., Petrić, M., Mimić, G., & Ignjatović-Ćupina, A. (2020). Assessment of climate change impact on the malaria vector Anopheles hyrcanus, West Nile disease, and incidence of melanoma in the Vojvodina Province (Serbia) using data from a regional climate model. PLoS ONE, 15(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0227679

Molly Elizabeth Hunt, Paleontologist, Science Educator

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 sharing my science with others! Whether it’s creating educational activities, writing blog or social media posts, visiting classrooms, designing museum exhibits or just talking to people I am always happiest when I get to be a part of someone’s scientific journey. 

I was first introduced to geology when I was 5 years old and my great grandmother gave me a box of rocks and minerals. From there I began to read and collect more and more. It was then in high school, that I decided I wanted to focus on paleontology because of the great role model I had in my teacher Mr. Mike Koenig who took me fossil hunting. These two events and many others in-between sparked a passionate for earth sciences that has put me on to a track to a professional career as a geologist and paleontologist. 

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? 

As an undergraduate student in the Calede Lab at Ohio State, I study body size evolution or change over time. By looking at the teeth preserved as fossil from Gophers that lived around 30-11 million years ago, we can determine what the size of those creatures and then compare them to gophers that are alive today. 

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

By observing changes to the size of animals during different times we can understand how climate, and environment affect mammal groups. This is especial critical now as we are facing global climate change. Paleontology can use the past to plan and prepare for the future. 

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

I am use measurements of the teeth (toothrow length) of fossil gophers as well as calculations developed from living rodent training sets to estimate the body mass of these extinct species. I take photos of the toothrows and skulls of specimens in museum collections, which are input into a software to calculate lengths then I determine means and standard deviations for each species studied. For modern species we use weight in grams that has been published in scientific literature. This data is also put through computer analyzes with the incredible help of my advisor Dr. Jonathan Calede that can evaluate the evolution of body size over time, over geographic location, and within the phylogenetic tree. 

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Never give up. Even if someone tells you that you will not make it, even if you have a bad day, even if you make a big mistake, even if you get a bad grade….YOU can do it. Believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who will always support you and work hard! 

Learn more about Molly on her website or follow her updates on Twitter and Instagram!

A palaeontologist’s guide to modern marine ecology

Kristina here – 

Interdisciplinary experiences are a great way to learn new things and broaden your perspectives as a scientist. I’m a palaeontologist who studies the effects of climate change on predation and biotic interactions in marine invertebrates, but over the course of my research career, I’ve spent more time working with modern animals and ecosystems than I have with fossil ones. It may sound strange, but I believe it’s made me a better palaeontologist. I’ve learned a lot from working with modern ecologists, and I’d highly recommend it to any aspiring or established palaeontologists.

Why work with modern systems?

Predation in action – a giant seastar eating a giant clam (Bamfield Inlet, B.C.)

Observing animals helps you understand the mechanisms of what you might observe in the fossil record. You also really gain an appreciation for the things that don’t fossilize, like animal behaviour (I’ve been outsmarted by crabs, and maybe a snail or two, on more than one occasion). I study predation and biotic interactions, which are not possible to observe in real time in the fossil record because those animals have been dead for a very long time. Instead, we as palaeontologists must rely on other clues, like predation scars, as evidence that organisms interacted. But interpreting how or why organisms interacted in the fossil record can still be tricky. For example, crab predation on molluscs has been common since the Mesozoic, but as crabs crush their prey into oblivion to eat, the only evidence of crab predation we can observe in the fossil record are failed attacks where the prey survived and a scar formed on its shell. A big question in palaeontology has therefore been: do these failed attacks we observe in the fossil record actually tell us anything about predation? Conducting live experiments and modern field work where we observe how crabs prey upon animals like snails helps us understand what we are seeing in the fossil record and why. For example, one thing we’ve learned is that the number of crab scars on snails reflects the abundance of crabs at a locality rather than changes in how successful crabs are at killing snails between sites (Molinaro et al. 2014; Stafford et al. 2015).

Collecting snails for lab experiments (Bodega Marine Lab)

We can use modern experiments as baselines that can “calibrate” our interpretations of patterns in the fossil record. Part of my Ph.D. research involved conducting a long-term ocean acidification experiment on two species of snails at Bodega Marine Laboratory. I wanted to know how ocean acidification and predation affected snail shell growth and strength, and what this might mean for both past and future predator-prey interactions between crabs and snails. I found that some shell materials are more vulnerable to ocean acidification because they grow less and become weaker, and are therefore more susceptible to predation (Barclay et al. 2019). Not only does this mean that some mollusc species might become more vulnerable to predation with continued climate change, but it means that we can use clues like this to help identify periods of ocean acidification in the fossil record, and then watch how it plays out in ecosystems over time.

Metrhom Robo-titrator (determines water alkalinity) and Instron (measured the force required to crush my shells – very stressful after 6 months of growing them) (Bodega Marine Lab)
My study species – the red rock crab (Cancer productus) and black turban snail (Tegula funebralis) – Notice the crab predation scar on the top right snail)

Comparing modern and fossil systems is important for conservation efforts. There is an entire field of palaeontology called conservation palaeobiology where we try to use deep time perspectives to answer questions related to modern climate change and conservation issues. For another part of my Ph.D. research, I compared crab predation on snails in the same modern and fossil systems to try and understand what has happened to these systems over time. Some of my results have been a little scary, and suggest that human activity has already had major consequences on crab populations in places like southern California.

And, if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s just plain fun to work in modern marine biology! I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many beautiful field sites along the west coast of Canada and the U.S. to conduct research on rocky-intertidal invertebrates. My favourite field sites I’ve been to are on Vancouver Island (near Bamfield, B.C.) and the north-central Oregon coast. I’ve also had the great privilege to conduct research and take classes at three marine labs: Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the west side of Vancouver Island, Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island, Washington, and Bodega Marine Laboratory in northern California. If you ever have the opportunity to conduct research or take classes at any of these places, I’d highly recommend it, and would happily provide some connections and potential funding sources. There’s nothing like some salty sea air, observing live critters in their natural habitats, and the occasional curious seal or whale sighting to inspire your curiosity and love of the natural world. 

Bamfield Sunset at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.

What I’ve learned?

Shelfie with a red abalone (Bodega Marine Lab)

Working with modern ecologists has been such a rewarding experience. I’ve learned so much about animal behaviour, chemistry, and physiology (fun fact: crabs are ridiculously stubborn and will spend hours trying to break into a snail before admitting defeat and throwing the snail across the tank in a tantrum). I’ve also learned a lot of about the world of larvae and plankton (I even got to participate in an experiment with larvae of an endangered species, the white abalone), and seaweeds (which is not something that we often get to see in the fossil record). I also learned a lot of lab, statistical, and experimental design techniques, such as how to analyse water samples for alkalinity and pH. The level of detail and complexity available in live systems can really help you tease apart how such things might influence your interpretations of the fossil record. One of the most interesting things I learned from a lab mate at Bodega Marine Lab was just how much night/day variation there is in tidepool water chemistry, with pH swings of several orders of magnitude in a 24 hour cycle (Jellison et al. 2016)! I also learned that some snails can tow several hundred times their body weight, possibly placing them as one of the strongest animals on earth!

Tidepools at Yaquina Head, Oregon

What can geoscientists offer?

Even though I’ve learned so many new things about modern marine ecology, there are several unique perspectives I’ve been able to offer to my modern marine colleagues as a geoscientist. First, as palaeontologists, our perspective of time and evolution is often completely different than an ecologist’s. One isn’t inherently better or worse, but a geological understanding of time can help you ask big picture questions and allow you to fit modern research into a larger context. For example, a long-term study in the modern is usually on the order of years or decades, whereas palaeontological studies span thousands to millions of years. We understand how things like storms, taphonomy, and time averaging might influence our results in a broader way. We also understand just how fleeting today’s conditions are. One other unique perspective is our geological field training – we think in three dimensions, especially when we are out in the field looking at outcrops. When I see a mussel bed, I’m not just thinking about the biology of individual mussels, I’m thinking about how it accumulated, how water conditions change across it, and what might cause it to change over time. I’m not saying ecologists don’t do that, because they do, but it’s just second nature to geoscientists. 

The important thing here is that one field isn’t better than the other, but rather, we all have different strengths or emphases we’ve learned and by combining both modern and fossil perspectives, you can ask really interesting, important questions!

References

Barclay, K., B. Gaylord, B. Jellison, P. Shukla, E. Sanford, and L. Leighton. 2019: Variation in the effects of ocean acidification on shell growth and strength in two intertidal gastropods. Marine Ecology Progress Series 626:109–121.

Jellison, B. M., A. T. Ninokawa, T. M. Hill, E. Sanford, and B. Gaylord. 2016: Ocean acidification alters the response of intertidal snails to a key sea star predator. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283:20160890.

Molinaro, D. J., E. S. Stafford, B. M. J. Collins, K. M. Barclay, C. L. Tyler, and L. R. Leighton. 2014: Peeling out predation intensity in the fossil record: A test of repair scar frequency as a suitable proxy for predation pressure along a modern predation gradient. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 412:141–147.

Stafford, E. S., C. L. Tyler, and L. R. Leighton. 2015: Gastropod shell repair tracks predator abundance. Marine Ecology 36:1176–1184.

How coastal wetlands can help reduce property damage from storm surge and sea level rise

Valuing natural habitats for enhancing coastal resilience: Wetlands reduce property damage from storm surge and sea level rise

by: Ali Mohammad Rezaie, Jarrod Loerzel, Celso M. Ferreira

Summarized by: Mckenna Dyjak

What data were used?: This study used coastal storm surge modeling and an economic analysis to estimate the monetary value of wetland ecosystem services (positive benefits of natural communities to people). One of the ecosystem services provided by wetlands is that  they are great at controlling flooding; their flood protection value was estimated using the protected coastal wetlands and marshes near the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve (JCNERR) in New Jersey. 

Methods: Storm surge flooding was determined for historical storms (e.g., Hurricane Sandy in 2012) and future storms that account for habitat migration and sea level rise. Each storm had modelled flooding scenarios for both the presence and absence of the coastal wetland/marsh. The model also incorporated ways to account for monetary value of physical damage by using property values.

Results:  This study found that coastal wetlands and marshes can reduce flood depth/damage by 14% which can save up to $13.1 to $32.1 million in property damage costs. The results suggest that one square kilometer (~0.4 square miles) of natural coastal wetland habitats have a flood protection value of $7,000 to $138,000 under future conditions (Figure 1).

Figure 1. This graph shows the estimated monetary value of coastal marshes flood protection in different storm scenarios per square kilometer. A “25 year Storm” or “50 year Storm” is a storm event that occurs once on average in the time span given.

Why is this study important?: Natural coastal wetlands and marshes contribute many vital ecosystem services such as providing habitats for wildlife, helping protect against coastal erosion, and purifying water. Assigning a monetary value to these natural habitats for their flood protection can highlight another aspect of their importance and urge people to protect these important coastal communities. The results from this study can allow the public and private sectors to develop and practice sustainable methods to preserve the ecosystems.

The bigger picture: Storm events, such as hurricanes, are predicted to become more frequent and more severe due to climate change. As the oceans continue to warm (an estimated increase of 1-4 degrees Celsius in mean global temperatures by 2100) hurricanes are predicted to intensify in wind speed and precipitation. Storm surge is known to be the most dangerous aspect of hurricanes and causes deadly flooding. As sea levels rise and ocean water expands due to warming, storm surges will become more severe during major storm events. This study has shown that coastal wetlands and marshes are considered our “first line of defense” in these circumstances. We must take care of and protect our natural habitats because they provide us with many services that we are unaware and likely unappreciative of.

Citation: Rezaie AM, Loerzel J, Ferreira CM (2020) Valuing natural habitats for enhancing coastal resilience: Wetlands reduce property damage from storm surge and sea level rise.