Neurodiverse Perspectives in Paleontology: An example of collaborative museum exhibit design and self-advocacy, crafted for and by neurodiverse people

Please welcome guest bloggers, Taormina (Tara) and Katrina Lepore. Tara, a paleontologist, writes about the work she and her sister did to develop an exhibit for neurodiverse folks at Katrina’s life skills workplace. 

My sister and I have always been different. What does ‘being different’ mean, in a big world with endless types of people? Sometimes, our differences are really apparent; other times, they’re much more subtle. Identifying as members of both the disabled and neurodiverse communities brings an awareness to how difference is ‘embodied’ in our societies. And, we think, the perspective that difference can bring makes for better science, and a better world all around. Disabled and neurodiverse people aren’t always under the spotlight in science, but my sister and I decided to work together and make our own museum space with the perspective and ingenuity of these communities.

We began this project in summer 2020, and collaborated with my sister, Katrina’s, life skills workplace, Communitas, Inc. in Woburn, Massachusetts. I’m also affiliated with the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) at UC Berkeley. Several of Katrina’s coworkers and colleagues participated in a hands-on paleontology day, with the opportunity to make plaster fossil molds, construct a model T. rex skeleton, and identify fossil trading cards with their definitions. The highlight of our paleontology day was the creation of a small fossil museum exhibit in a lobby jewelry case, where all visitors and employees could experience an exhibit crafted with neurodiverse perspectives. It was so fun and a valuable experience to work together on what works, and what doesn’t work, in museum exhibit design for disabled and/or neurodiverse people.

Some of the things we implemented included touchable fossil items, large print labels, and fossil organization by time period and by environment (ocean vs. land, etc.). We also created some augmented reality (AR) prompts where visitors could hold up their phone to a fossil in a specific app, Adobe Aero. The Aero app would recognize the fossil and pop up with a video narrating what the label said, as a way of providing accessibility to non-readers or non-verbal people. The exhibit designers shared that some of the things that are helpful at museums include touchable objects, quiet spaces to interact with exhibits, and more than one way of interacting — for example, videos plus text panels. Things that were challenging for the designers included loud and busy museum spaces, being unable to read or interact with the text panels, and the brightness of the overhead lights in some museum spaces. After the summer museum exhibit design project was completed, Katrina sat down for an interview on the design process and how her experience with museum paleontology felt.

A few online paleontology events also happened over the next year or so, and in summer 2021 we had another in-person paleontology day, focusing on touch tables and bringing museum topics to the same cohort of museum exhibit designers from summer 2020. We’re planning on presenting some of this collaborative work together at a symposium for community connections to natural history collections, this upcoming summer! It’s our hope that my sister and I can continue to learn about paleontology together, and inspire other life skills workplaces and museums to collaborate in including neurodiverse and disabled perspectives in exhibit design.

Life Decisions

Anieke here–

It took a while, but I finally no longer feel like an imposter. My postdoc is going well. I’m confident, I know what I’m doing and I’m loving it. But the project is coming to an end and I have to think about the next steps. I’ve been in my current institute for nearly nine years, a mind-bogglingly long time in Early Career Researcher world, so a new job likely means a new institution. Quite possibly in another country, given the tight job market. Career-wise, I really like the idea of moving around the world for a few more years, work in different labs and do cool research with cool people.

Life-wise, I want to settle down, buy a house, and figure out if I want kids.

I’ll be 33 this year. After the age of 35 a woman’s chances to get pregnant decrease rapidly. These next few years, that career-wise are best spent hopping across continents, are also my last chance to have a family.  

That is, if I want kids at all. Which right now I really don’t know. I’ve always liked kids but never thought of myself as a mum. The time constraints are making this topic an increasing source of stress but I’m no closer to an answer. So what do I do with my job? Rule out major career options in favour of life question that I’ve not figured out yet? Or just go ahead with the postdoc route, likely involving some long-distance relationships with my partner and hope that life will sort itself out eventually? If I went with option 2 and changed my mind, I could always quit the post early to move back to my partner and try and start a family. But it won’t look great on my cv to walk away from a fellowship half-way through. In the hyper-competitive academic world, the tiniest drawbacks can cost you grants and job interviews.

Alternatively, my partner and I could both move. He’s super kind and supportive and would be up for it if I asked. But it would mean dragging him away from his job and life here for a temporary stay abroad. Plus, moving country is hard. It’s enriching, exhilarating and fantastic, but also terrifying, draining and lonely. If that’s how I felt moving for a job I loved, moving country for no reason other than that your partner is going will be even harder. What it would be like while at the same time trying to start a family, I don’t even want to know.

Early-career researchers hoping to balance work and life have to jump through nearly impossible hoops. I’m fully sympathetic to anyone, with women being statistically more likely, ending up leaving academia for this reason. There just aren’t any good solutions. All we can do is figure out which one is the least bad for us.

 

Workshop Hosting & Planning: Considerations from an Early Career Researcher

Adriane here–

For the past year and a half, I have been a steering committee member, with the purpose of the committee to develop a series of workshops. In this post, I’ll give some background of the initiative, outline the purpose of the workshops, but mainly focus on factors to think about if you, the reader, are considering creating your own workshop or participating on a workshop committee. 

The International Ocean Discovery Program IMPACT Workshops

The steering committee of which I am a part was formed with significant support from the International Ocean Discovery Program, or IODP for short. IODP is a wonderful program in which scientists from participating countries in the program get to sail for two months at sea on a research vessel, which is currently the JOIDES Resolution (JR), and drill sediment cores from the seafloor (click here to learn more about the JR, where it has most recently sailed, where it currently is, and to read blogs written by scientists currently sailing on the ship). 

Every few decades, the scientific ocean drilling community (the general name used for the community of scientists, artists, science communicators, and others who make the program work) come together to write a science framework. The framework outlines the major approaches and important scientific frontiers for the next phase of scientific ocean drilling. Included in the framework are also some broader impact goals. The new science framework was recently published, which outlines such goals and aspirations through 2050; thus, it is aptly named the 2050 Science Framework. Within the broader impacts section of the 2050 Science Framework, sections are included such as ‘Inspiring Educators and the Public through Discovery’, ‘Training the Next Generation of Scientists’, ‘International Collaboration’, ‘Advancing Diversity and Inclusion’, ‘Knowledge Sharing’, and ‘Engaging with Other Fields’.  

My colleagues and I, who are all passionate about these topics, outlined in the 2050 Science Framework broader impacts section and decided to create a series of workshops to chart the future course of science communication and education outreach for scientific ocean drilling. Such efforts are in direct support of the goals outlined in the 2050 Science Framework. Our steering committee is composed of educators and scientists with various experiences and backgrounds in education, science, and policy, all of whom are passionate about education outreach and science communication. 

We decided to name the workshops the IMPACT Workshop Series, which comprises three workshops that ran this past summer 2021, and a larger workshop to (hopefully!) be held in person in June 2022. We decided to focus on three main topics from the 2050 Science Framework: Engaging the Public, Informing Policymakers, and Preparing the Next Generation. Our main steering committee split into three groups to function as smaller steering committees to create each workshop. Specifically, I was on the Preparing the Next Generation sub-committee with three other steering committee members. 

Factors to consider when hosting workshops

Currently, I am a postdoctoral fellow at a large research university. This means I have lots of responsibilities, the most important of which is to support the students working in my lab and keep doing activities that build my experiences as a researcher, scientist, advisor, and science communicator. In other words, I have a busy schedule with lots to do and keep up with! So, before taking on any tasks or saying ‘yes’ to any opportunities, I need to consider very carefully if such opportunity will be hurtful (take up too much of my time without leading to huge outcomes and do not help build up my experiences), or advantageous (take up my time but lead to very exciting opportunities and build my experiences). In addition, before saying yes to opportunities, I also consider if the opportunity is fulfilling to me and aligns with my passions, self-interests, and goals. This bit is likely true for most early career researchers who are currently looking for permanent employment, are pre-tenured faculty, and others who have limited time but want to be involved with their communities. Thus, the advice below is tailored to help folks who may want to create a workshop or join a workshop steering committee think through the benefits of such an endeavor. 

Carefully consider time commitment and workload

In my opinion, time is the most important factor to consider when thinking about creating a workshop. The IMPACT steering committee met about once a week over a year prior to our first workshop, which ran in June 2021. We met for approximately an hour during our meetings, and because we have members from the east coast of the continental U.S. to Hawai’i, these meeting times were outside of normal workday hours for some of us (e.g., 6 pm EST) — which is not uncommon for projects such as this.

As the Next Generation workshop date approached, our sub-committee began meeting sometimes twice a week, for 2–3 hours per meeting. Such longer meetings were essential to finish outlining, planning, and organizing the workshop. Often, all sub-committee members would walk away from the meeting with a ‘To-Do’ list to accomplish before a deadline we all agreed on. Such tasks outside of meetings included things like drafting and sending emails, writing text for the workshop web pages, gathering resources for our web pages, setting up Google Drive folders, and creating slide shows for the day of the workshops. We also set up meeting times with our speakers prior to our 2-day workshop. All of these small tasks and meetings really added up to a large amount of time. About two weeks prior to the Next Generation workshop, I was spending a good chunk of my time in the office dedicated to planning. 

So, careful consideration should be given to how much time you are willing to contribute to creating a workshop, as the time invested can be immense to make the workshop run as smoothly as possible. Looking back, my time and that of my colleagues’ was a good investment, as I am quite passionate about the topics the workshop touched on and know the information we have gathered will help shape the scientific ocean drilling community. 

Fostering a supportive environment for the team

From the above section regarding time commitments, it should be clear that workshop planning takes a lot of work! It is quite easy to join a committee, board, or group and just jump in without being mindful of our behaviors and simple ways in which we may be excluding others (or being excluded ourselves by others’ behaviors), and working and/or communicating in ways that are ineffective .Thus, it is imperative to consider how you can and will create an environment that is comfortable for everyone to talk, listen, and plan together as a team. 

Along those same lines, it is also important  that the team itself is efficient, mindful of others, and works well together. I feel very fortunate that the IMPACT Steering Committee is composed of folks who have previous leadership experience, and bring a lot of different perspectives to the table. These differing perspectives, experience working with groups, and leadership capabilities have created a space where every committee member’s opinion is heard, and it is a comfortable place to voice my own concerns and opinions. This isn’t to say we always agree with one another (we are human, after all), but having a team that knows how to communicate, compromise, and listen is very valuable. 

When building your own team or committee, it is important to have folks involved who have prior leadership experience and are highly organized. In this way, those who may not have had prior leadership experience can learn from this person, and begin to develop their own methods of and style of leadership. For example, one of our steering committee members has had extensive experience organizing and planning workshops. She suggested we have our speakers meet virtually prior to our workshop in order for them to meet one another, for us to more thoroughly explain the workshop goals, and walk them through the schedule. Even though I have leadership experience, this was a new method to me, and it worked wonderfully! I have also learned a ton of other leadership and organizational tips and tricks from the more experienced members on our committee. 

It is also imperative to build a team of people who represent different identities, life experiences, stages in their careers, and specialities. Our IMPACT workshop steering committee decided from the start that we would conduct the meetings and workshops within a JEDIA (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility) framework. Breaking down barriers within STEM, or anywhere, to create a more equitaqble, inclusive, and accessible environment for everyone, is a hard and persistent task, and one that is best done when folks from different identities and backgrounds come together and work hard. This is why it is of utmost importance to be sure you are including folks from different identities on your team. For example, I have had to advocate a few times to my group to please include more early career researchers. Other times, folks have pointed out that all of our speakers on our list of potential invitees were white folks. Every time someone on the team has pointed out an observation that does not align with our JEDIA principles, we have worked hard to correct our actions. Thus, when building your team, think about who is not in the room, and whose voices are being excluded. And it is not enough to simply include folks from different identities; ensure, as a leader, they are being heard and respected by all members of the committee. 

Be prepared to be an effective communicator and listener 

As touched on above, communication is key to any successful relationship of any nature. Working with your colleagues on a steering committee to plan a workshop is no different. Clear and concise communication is imperative to make workshop planning as smooth as possible, and can even translate to a more positive experience for your workshop speakers and attendees. Often, such workshop committees are composed of an array of folks from different backgrounds, life experiences, and ages. This means that everyone’s level of comfort with different means of communication will vary, and the best means of communication should be discussed and respected from the start. For example, the IMPACT committee uses email as our primary way of group communication, but we also set up a Slack channel. In addition, the Steering Committee chairs create an agenda for each meeting, and we take Minutes. In this way, if one of our team members is not able to make a meeting, they can easily see what we discussed and the major points of the meeting.

Good communication also includes speaking up when you don’t understand someone’s ideas or thoughts, or are uncomfortable with the direction in which an initiative is heading. But, good communication is more than talking- it also includes good listening skills. Personally, I am trying to teach myself to be a better active and mindful listener to really hear my friends, family, and colleagues. So, when thinking about planning a workshop or joining a workshop committee, get comfortable with good communication (easier said than done, I know), and be open to being more open with your colleagues. 

Acquiring funding for your workshop 

Often, workshops require some level of financial support. Other workshops, if held virtually, may not require funds. If your workshop does require funding, it is important to think about how much funding (approximately) your workshop will require, and how funding will be obtained prior to the initiation of the project. In my opinion, it is totally okay to reach out to other organizations, non-profits, societies, etc. whose missions align with the goals of your workshop and ask for financial support. In addition, there are pots of money available to support workshops, such as the U.S. Science Support Program and the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling’s MagellanPlus Workshop Series Programme (both to support endeavors related to scientific ocean drilling).

The Path to Becoming a Paleontologist: Hidden Struggles

This post is part of a series on Time Scavengers about Hidden Disabilities and how these affect scientists and researchers during graduate school, throughout our careers, and in the field and lab.  We welcome contributions from our community, friends, and colleagues to this impactful series.


TRIGGER WARNINGS: Domestic abuse, self harm, suicide attempts, eating disorders

I’ve always known I wanted to be a paleontologist. I was the dinosaur kid and I (kind of) stayed the dinosaur kid. I knew I didn’t look like a paleontologist – all the paleontologists I had seen on TV were white men living their cowboy fantasy, but that didn’t stop me. 

My childhood was spent watching VHS tapes of Walking with…  and Jurassic Park. I would drag my grandfather into the backyard of our tiny apartment complex to look for fossils – often just chunks of limestone with a few bivalves embedded in them. I spent hours at local book sales, looking for old paleontology tomes that I would parse for any bit of knowledge. I began volunteering in our local museum as early as possible and ended up tallying over 300+ hours by the time I finished high school. There was nothing I wanted more than being around the fossils I loved so much.

However, this is not to say there weren’t discouraging moments. During this time at the museum, I learned that museum guests didn’t take me as seriously with my hair down, or that wearing a skirt somehow meant that the facts I was sharing weren’t true. I watched parents shush their daughters and encourage their sons to get excited about the same thing. I heard my mom start repeating their words at home. 

“Stop it. They’ll think you’re weird.”

I started to hate myself, little by little. I couldn’t give up paleontology – it was the one thing I was sure of more than anything – but I hated myself for loving it. This was compounded by the fact that my mother, trying her best to protect me from society’s harsh expectations of women, told me that “boys won’t like [me]” if I kept up this “dinosaur thing”. I’d like to say that this didn’t stop me. I mean, it didn’t stop the paleontology, but I did develop an eating disorder.

There is a common misconception that eating disorders occur because of a desire to be conventionally attractive. That is often not the case. I just wanted to be smaller and have some semblance of control over my life. If you fade into the background, no one notices how you dress like a boy or that your nose is too big or that you can’t shut up about Dilophosaurus. I ended up being significantly smaller – dropping from 140 lbs to 85 lbs in approximately 3 months. Of course, this isn’t normal or healthy for most human bodies. My heart stopped working right. I was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa – a particular type of anorexia that develops in response to anxiety disorders – and missed the last quarter of 7th grade.

The weird thing about being eating-disorder-sick is that people actively encourage you to stay sick. Despite the fact that I couldn’t shower with the lights on or even run without having a heart attack, other students and parents alike told me I was finally “beautiful”. Suddenly, all these boys were paying attention to me. Girls that had bullied me were nice to me. I had my first boyfriend. He told me that when we first met, in 6th grade, he thought I was “fat and ugly” but now I was “gorgeous”. He constantly compared me to my friends. I broke up with him after 5 months. 

It is also important to mention that I was a band kid. Band kids, as the reputation goes, constantly date each other. One of my friends had an obsessive crush on this kid, C. C was quiet. In fact, I had never heard him say a single word during our entire 3 years in middle school band together. I didn’t even know what his last name was. Honestly, he didn’t even seem to have friends – he was always reading and avoiding people whenever we saw him.

Of course, due to middle school peer pressure, we ended up dating.

At first, things were really wonderful. I like to think of him as my first love; we ended up bonding over our mutual love of books and video games. He was the first boy that ever seemed to love me for who I was, and not what I looked like. Due to the large hit to my self-esteem I experienced during my eating disorder and a tumultuous home life, I became increasingly dependent on this relationship. He slowly began isolating me from my friends, insisting that they weren’t good for me or that he absolutely could not stand them. Clinging to him, I cut my friends out with no issue, hoping that it would quell the depression that I had been struggling with. Eventually, he would have anger flare-ups, pounding his hands on the dashboard of the car or throwing things. He began telling me things like, “Oh, I only love you sometimes – you’re not worth it other times.” Things began getting physical, like when he grabbed me hard enough to leave purple-yellow bruises on my shoulders or tried choking me when we got in an argument.

I didn’t leave, though. Not for 5 years. We stayed together through high school and into college, despite numerous suicide attempts on my part, which he encouraged. Somehow, I stuck through. Nothing changed my love of paleontology either; that was the only thing I kept clinging to through all of it. I funneled all that was left of my energy into volunteering at the museum or schoolwork. I knew that if I managed to get into an earth sciences program, I might finally find some sort of peace.

When I was accepted into university, the first thing I did was reach out to our collections manager and begin volunteering in the paleontology lab, months before my freshman year even started. I think I cried actually, when I first walked into the collections. Part of this was joy: it was the first light in a very, very long darkness. The other half was sadness: I had already resigned myself to being killed in a domestic dispute and had mentally given up on my future as my partner became more and more aggressive.

C began using drugs and drinking heavily; during this time, he also got much more erratic and violent. He began making threats towards me and my classmates.

During this time, though, I had managed to build a small, supportive friend group of other geoscience students. As I began opening up to them, I began to see how truly toxic my partner was. These were the first close friends I was allowed to have in years, as C didn’t go to the same college as me and thus, I could experience small tastes of freedom.

Bit by bit, I finally got the courage (and was forced by a mandated reporter) to go to the university police. This was ultimately a very dangerous decision. They notified him that someone at my university had reported him; he got kicked out of his program at his college for substance abuse. Additionally, considering that he was a loner and I was one of his only contacts, he immediately knew that it was me that had reported him. I was also told that none of his texts were immediate threats, so their hands were tied. I stayed with him another 4 months as he became even more erratic. I ended up losing my research position because I had to spend so many hours on the phone convincing him to not do something harmful and scary. I ended up with a reputation for being flaky, despite the fact that I would spend nights scanning fossils while crying into the phone. I couldn’t walk on campus alone anymore and refused to see him, even though we were still technically in a relationship. 

I was terrified that he would kill everyone I knew if I broke it off.

Eventually, I was so exhausted from living in fear that I just… never responded to another text. He responded by calling every member of my family and driving by my house. I ignored him. My family encouraged me to repair the relationship and keep the peace; I didn’t. 

He found new ways, year after year, to contact me and drag me back into his circle of influence. He kept driving by my house. He found new relatives to contact. He sent me letters. 

I found my solace in the museum. I poured every ounce of my soul into paleontology – it was my safe place. I made more friends with similar interests to mine. I became stronger and stronger. He never stopped bothering me, but he became more of a looming background presence than a main presence in my life. I had a home and a family outside of my biological family. I had research that I was immensely passionate about. No one was there to hold me back anymore; yes, C would sometimes send me threatening texts or appear around my house, but this was rare. I finally had freedom and it was amazing.

Eventually, I found my real way out: graduate school. I was able to change my location, and thus, he could no longer find my real position. I have never felt such peace of mind and I have never loved paleontology more. 

Thank you for reading.

Note: Leaving isn’t really an answer, for many people, as not everyone can uproot themselves and escape abusive situations. I urge everyone to find their own way out – my sway is not necessarily the best way to respond to a situation like this; as I said, this is *my* story, and how I managed to find (possibly momental) safety. There are also many details I left out to protect my safety.

If you or someone you love is in a domestic violence situation, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has a list of resources to begin getting help: https://www.thehotline.org/resources/victims-and-survivors/

You can also call them via:
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-7233
1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

If you would like to learn more about eating disorders, Anorexia nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD; anad.org) and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA; nationaleatingdisorders.org) have resources.

You should apply for that: 10 tips for scholarship applications

Kristina here –

Applying for funding, scholarships, fellowships, and awards can be a daunting task, but it is an important part of most research careers. Not only can funding help you complete new research projects and have more opportunities that will lead to your growth and success, but funding and awards also look good on your CV/resume, which can also contribute to your continued success. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that it truly never hurts to apply (within reason). Even if you are unsuccessful, there are still many potential benefits. Here are just a few reasons you should consider applying for that opportunity:

Why Apply?

  • The more you practice, the better your applications will become. Each time I apply for an opportunity, I learn something and find a way to make my application stronger. You also give yourself a framework that you can use for other future opportunities.
  • When I was in my last year of high-school, my dad said something that has always really stuck with me. He said, “It [the application] is the best hourly wage you’ll ever make”. If you think about the hours you put into each application, the potential financial benefit is huge.
  • For better or worse, sometimes funding begets funding. If you can show that you’ve had success in the past and used those opportunities to create tangible research products, such as posters, workshops, talks, publications, etc., you might be more likely to get further “buy-in” from potential funders. One notable exception would be funding opportunities where you are required to demonstrate financial need (being open and honest for those kinds of applications is very important, but don’t discount yourself automatically).
  • If you are successful, you might create opportunities for others. This might sound strange, and certainly is not always the case, but if you are able to fund yourself, you might allow your supervisor or lab to put more funds towards another person.
  • Don’t say no to yourself. Over the years, I’ve come to the realization that it’s hard to predict how an application will be received. There are applications that I felt good about that were rejected, and others where I didn’t think I stood a chance, yet was successful. It is unfair not to give yourself a chance.

Often, I’m asked for help or to review student applications, so I thought I would try to share some of the patterns I’ve noticed on successful applications. Most of this advice is geared toward funding opportunities for students, but I think the general patterns could be applied to many opportunities. Here are my top 10 suggestions:

Tips for applying

  1. Read the instructions and do your homework

While it sounds pretty basic, following the application instructions carefully is one of the most important things to make sure your application is well evaluated. There are going to be lots of good applications so failing to follow the instructions or not sticking to the guidelines is an easy way for the evaluators to toss or bump down your application.

Is there a rubric? Follow it! A lot of scholarships will have their rubrics or marking criteria laid out, so the best thing to do is follow that as carefully as possible. Make sure you are addressing each of the criteria given, and include the same terminology that they use. Essentially, you want to “tick” as many boxes as you can and use the same language they do.

Are there additional resources or guidelines available? Take advantages of them! For example, some funders may have a FAQ page, or might even have video resources with tips and tricks from those that are evaluating applications (see here for a YouTube series by NSERC). It might seem like overkill, but taking the time to search for those resources are often very informative and can help you avoid common mistakes, or find ways to make your application stand out. Attending info sessions is also a great idea.

Can you find examples of successful applications? Pay close attention to those! Asking someone you know for an example of their successful proposal, or looking for any that might be available online, is a great way to help you identify what makes an application successful. It can be scary to ask, but most people are happy to pay it forward. It’s also helpful to look at more than one application so you can start to identify common frameworks of successful applications.

  1. Ask for references early!

Asking people for references can be very stressful, especially when everyone is so busy and may have limited capacity. It is therefore crucial to ask early and make it as easy as possible for someone to give you a stellar reference. Choosing your referees can also be somewhat strategic, so make sure you give a lot of thought as to who would be able and willing to write or give you the best reference, which of your strengths or skills they can speak to, and how those references will be perceived (e.g., how well-rounded are your references in your application package and how well do your referees know you?).

Make it easy for your referees. There are several things they might ask of you, but it is just as important to be clear about what you need from your referees. Here are my top suggestions for helping ensure you get the best reference possible: 1) Supply each referee with detailed referee instructions and any rubrics they should follow, 2) Give your referees your proposal, an updated CV, and a list of things you’d like them to highlight, such as past successes, research, or other attributes that make you stand out for this specific application, 3) Make sure they know the deadline (I like to give myself at least one day of buffer room), and 4) Follow up about a week before the deadline to check in and see if they need anything (which also serves as a reminder).

  1. Know your audience

Again, this might seem obvious, but most of the time, the people reviewing your application are not experts in your field. It’s important to assume that most people do not have the background knowledge or passion that you have for the topic. Don’t assume people know what you do and use plain, accessible language. Even if a reviewer might be familiar with your topic, it’s always better to err on the side of caution, and will demonstrate your strong communication skills. If you use jargon or acronyms, be sure to explain them carefully. The example often used in communicating your research is to explain it to a family member. Communicating at that level can be tricky, but often helps you draw out the importance and novelty of your research. In fact, many research journals now ask authors to submit a plain-language summary, or a significance statement, that is used to identify potentially news or note-worthy research.

  1. Identify the research gap you are trying to fill

What do we know, and what do we need to know that we currently don’t understand? Not only is it important to place your research in the context of the field, but it is equally important to make sure reviewers understand the limitations of our current knowledge so they can see where you are going with your proposed project. Give some background on the basics of the problem and established research, and clearly state the gap in our current knowledge. Even if it is not a total gap in research, point out the limitations. For example, maybe your topic or question is understudied, poorly understood, or has received little funding or attention.

  1. Make your audience care

Why should the average person care? This is probably one of the most important aspects of your research in general, but it is often more challenging than you’d think to articulate clearly. Finding that balance of making your research appeal to a wide audience, while still being specific enough to your question, is not always an easy task. There are many ways to approach this, but the bottom line is that you must make people care. If you have clearly identified the research gap (see above), sometimes drawing out the importance is easier. Dedicate time to practice iterating these two points (i.e., write them out multiple times until you get the best wording down), and place them early in your proposal (usually the first paragraph). You want to “hook” the audience as soon as you can. Practicing this out loud with another person is another way to help hone your “elevator pitch” both for proposals, and for any applications that might require an interview.

  1. Value and support your worth

It can be challenging to talk about yourself and your work, especially if you suffer from impostor syndrome. In particular, I find that young/early career women often downplay their past success and the novelty of their work (here’s another post by Dr. Victoria Arbour on the subject: “You Project is Good Enough for a Talk”). I still make this mistake regularly and must remind myself that I have worked hard to earn my success (while also recognizing my privilege as a white, middle-class, cis, hetero woman). It can be overwhelming and hard to “own” your success. But making yourself and your research stand out is critical for any application.

Why are you the best person for the job? How are you uniquely positioned to do this research? Make it clear that you have the perfect skill set and background for the job. You might also want to highlight your support team and how they can help you succeed. For example, perhaps your advisor is a leading expert in the field, or has essential equipment or research skills to help you complete your project. Maybe there are also established research relationships, past work, or unique networking opportunities that will add value to your research, and help you become a leader in your field. Make sure you point out not only why the fit of yourself and/or your team is unique, but also try to indicate the potential future benefits. Often funders are looking to build and retain talent that reflects well on them, so you want to get across how this will make you successful, and how this could benefit the funders.

  1. Use clear, strong language

Again, this might seem straightforward, but it can be hard for researchers who are highly cognizant of the nuances and limitations of their fields. There is this tendency to add caveats that will protect us from potentially being wrong, or avoid overstating something, but adding too many clarifiers can weaken your argument. Instead, try to state things as simply as possible, even if you are not getting at all the minutia. Also avoid what my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Lindsey Leighton, calls “weasel words”, such as “appears to be” or “most likely”, where it looks like you’re trying to soften a statement, even if it is unintentional. From an outside perspective, it either matters, or it doesn’t. You don’t have room for all the details, so provide only what the reader needs to know.

Where possible, create a sense of urgency. Using words like “novel” or “critical” can seem buzz-wordy, but if you back it up with enough evidence (i.e., if you have set up the research gap and its importance, as described above), they can be powerful. This is why setting up your framework is really important. You don’t want to be disingenuous, but your urgency can also convey your passion for the research topic and will hopefully convince the reviewer as well.

  1. What are your hypotheses and expected outcomes?

Make it simple and spell it out. Some of the most effective application proposals I’ve seen are those that are very upfront and clearly lay out their questions and hypotheses. Usually, you can begin by saying “the goals are…”, and then follow it with “my hypotheses are…”. If you have more than one goal and hypothesis, you can number them. One thing I’ve picked up is to use bold font for things like the research question/goals, and/or hypotheses. You want to make it obvious that you understand your objectives and have thought about the expected outcomes. Don’t try to make it too eloquent – simple and straightforward is best.

  1. What will you do to answer your questions?

How will you get there? After you’ve set out your goals and hypotheses, try to take it one step further by explaining how you plan to complete your research. You don’t necessarily need to get into excruciating detail. The goal here is to convince the reviewers that you have clearly thought about what you need to do to complete the research in a timely fashion. You also want to get across that your project is feasible. Getting rejected because a reviewer didn’t think the project was feasible or realistic is unfortunate, but I have heard of it happening.

Lay out the basic steps required to complete your research and provide some overall methodology. You can even break it out for each of your research objectives or hypotheses. For example, something along the lines of: “Goal 1 is to answer x. I expect outcome y. To answer this question, I will do a, b, and then c.” These sentences can be rearranged as you see fit, but this basic framework can be quite effective. You can even follow that with a sentence that gets across the desirable outcome or potential benefits (i.e., link it back to the “why should we care”). Be brief, though, as the methods are not as important as the question and outcomes.

  1. Room for a figure?

Use a figure to highlight your expected outcomes. Like most of what I’ve mentioned, this is just a suggestion, and you may not have the space for one. But, a figure can help a reviewer visualize the potential outcomes of your research and convey that you’ve thought a lot about your questions and even the metrics you might use. Have you ever read a paper with a graphical abstract? It’s the same idea.

Consider presenting your hypotheses graphically. What would an idealized result look like? If there is more than one alternative hypothesis, what do those scenarios look like? What would each result indicate? A figure can help the reviewer anticipate your results, and understand the project’s feasibility. It also helps communicate that you understand the different variables that you will need to test. It may sound cliché, but a picture really can say a thousand words. I recommend trying it out for your own learning purposes, if nothing else.

These are just rough guidelines and suggestions, and may not apply in every instance. You will need to make sure you tailor your application to the opportunity. One final piece of advice is to ask someone to review your application for you. Getting feedback is always really helpful, and might be an expectation of your supervisor/advisor. Even having a peer or more advanced student look over your application can be useful. Don’t feel like you have to do everything entirely on your own.

Above all, remember that it never hurts to try, and don’t say no to yourself because you never know…

My Experience at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Ohav here–

Earlier in the spring, I got an email containing a flyer for an internship that grabbed my attention with a simple question: “Do you like dinosaurs and digging in the dirt?”. As an aspiring paleontologist, I thought, to no surprise, “I love both of those things!”, and I looked into the offer further. A few references and an interview later, I had managed to get a position! That May, I would be going to Thermopolis, Wyoming.

When I started my first day, I was surprised at how dense with information the museum was. I knew that being in a small town, the museum would be much smaller than its contemporaries. Even so, I was not prepared for the amount of stuff in that building! Still in awe of all the beautiful specimens in the main hall, the other interns and I began our orientation. There were a handful of programs and activities available which we would work together to lead, the following of which were the most common.

First, were the Museum Tours: the most basic of the activities, but by no means the least fun. It is exactly as it sounds: a tour of the museum. However, we interns were allowed and encouraged to put our own personal spins on them. This meant making our own scripts, deciding which exhibits to focus more on and which can be breezed through, cherry-picking the coolest fun facts to share with our groups, and even including pop culture references. For example, we would often describe the length of our Supersaurus, Jimbo, by using the metric of Jeff Goldblums. Since Jimbo is 120 feet long and Jeff Goldblum is 6’4’’, we estimated that Jimbo was about 19 Jeff Goldblums long. This went over particularly well with those familiar with his iconic role in Jurassic Park.

Second, were the Bus Tours. The Bus Tours were also simple: drive a van full of people up the mountains of the Morrison Formation to our most significant dig site, Something Interesting (SI), and give them a tour of the place. The tour, in short, was a look through a window to about 150 million years ago, and explored not only the dinosaurs found there, but also the geochemistry and even the seasonality of prehistoric Thermopolis.

Third, were the Shovel Readies, which involved taking group(s) up the mountain to one of our four active sites to dig for a few hours. These would occur either in the morning or the afternoon.

Fourth, and my favorite activity of all, was the Dig For a Day program, or DFD. DFDs were a combination of the previous activities plus an expedition to the Sundance Formation, which underlies the Morrison and yields marine fossils. A DFD day would start with an SI tour, followed by a few hours of digging at one of our sites, then lunch, then prospecting (looking for new fossil sites) at Sundance. Although most guests found dinosaurs more interesting than the marine invertebrates, the promise of being able to keep whatever invertebrate fossils they found sweetened the deal. Finally, after the Sundance, we would conclude the day with a museum tour, which included a sneak peek into our collections and prep lab.

Working with so many wonderful people, who themselves are amazing scientists, was an unforgettable experience. Living with them added to the overall experience too, as we all got to know each other quite well, making the group dynamics all the more interesting. Of course, this is expected from a group of people who love dinosaurs and other prehistoric life spending seven weeks together in the same house. More than anything, though, I loved being able to teach guests about the history of life. Because the museum exhibits were organized with a “tour through time” in mind, it was especially easy and fun to walk guests through the steps life took to get to where we are today. In addition to teaching, I was able to learn a lot. The other interns’ tours alone allowed me to gleam a significant amount of information and insight, since their versions always had things I didn’t know in them. Beyond the tours, I learned much from the museum staff who trained us, learning how to find pathologies and taphonomies in fossils from the head prep lab manager and how to find and map them in the field from the dig site manager. In the lab especially, I came to see some of the most interesting things which made me think more and more about the intricacies of dinosaur morphology and what pathologies that they may have developed.

My biggest take-away from my internship was being able to learn from so many people and being able to pass that knowledge on to others. I was extremely fortunate to work in such an amazing establishment and learn so much, as well as make so many good friends. Going up the mountains of the Morrison, nearly every day for seven weeks, was something I won’t forget. Walking where the dinosaurs walked and digging their remains, and being able to educate all the while, was a small taste of what I hope to do in the future. Now, I must say: if you ever find yourself on a road-trip to Yellowstone or otherwise find yourself in Wyoming, please take the time to stop by the Wyoming Dinosaur Museum in Thermopolis. This hidden gem has much to offer, and the town is charming too!

Student Veterans Research Network (SVRN)

Meet the organizers!

Logan Pearce (founder and co-organizer) is a PhD student at the University of Arizona studying the formation and evolution of planetary systems using a direct imaging technique with Dr. Jared Males. Logan is a US Navy veteran and specialized in nuclear power during her 5 years in the military.

Patty Standring (co-organizer) is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin studying the paleoceanography of the southern Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean using stable isotopes from benthic foraminifera. She is co-advised by Dr. Chris Lowery and Dr. Rowan Martindale. Patty is a US Air Force veteran and was a Dari Linguist during her 10 years in the military.

Rebecca Larson (co-organizer) is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin studying the formation and evolution of the universe’s first galaxies and is advised by Dr. Steve Finkelstein. Rebecca is a US Air Force veteran and was an Arabic Linguist during her 6 years in the military.

What is SVRN?

We want SVRN to be an informal peer mentorship community for veterans who are working in research or are interested in working in research. We would like it to be an inclusive environment where researchers from different disciplines can network with one another and help each other navigate higher education and establish research careers.

Why did you start the SVRN?

We started this network to aid veterans transitioning from their military career to one involving research and/or higher education. While there is some support for veterans transitioning from military to civilian life, and organizations focused on helping veterans get into higher education, there is a greater emphasis on resources to help veterans get jobs or start businesses. When we leave the military there is not a lot of information provided to us on how to go to graduate school, apply for grants, and get involved in undergraduate research. We wanted to establish a community where individuals from different STEM and non-STEM disciplines around the country can meet, connect, and give each other advice or recommendations on how to go about establishing their post-military careers. Transitioning from the military can be very challenging, especially the longer you served, so we want to present options for veterans that will help them be successful establishing their new career paths and support each other along the way.

What do you expect other student veterans to get out of participating in the SVRN?

We hope that SVRN can be a place of peer mentorship for student veterans to come to ask questions and get advice on how to establish successful research careers. Things like how to get involved in undergraduate research and apply to graduate school, how to build a CV versus writing a resume, best ways to promote their own accomplishments to advance their career goals, how their military skills translate to a research environment, and how to attend conferences to talk about their research. It is also designed to be a community of folks with similar backgrounds and goals, another professional network for making connections across institutions and disciplines. These are all things that you might be able to get from a really good mentor, but because it is coming from a veteran, they understand your past experiences better than a civilian would.

Many veterans join the military so that they can afford to go to college, especially if they are the first person in their family to go into higher education. They are already at a disadvantage because they may not know what types of resources are out there to support them in their journey; things like grants and fellowships that will cover the cost of a graduate education. We also don’t see this as a stagnate peer mentorship network. We would like to see it grow into what it needs to be for student veterans to succeed in research careers.

How can veterans get involved in the network?

Please go to svrn.org where you can sign up as a member and agree to our code of conduct. After that you will be invited to a Slack workspace where you can introduce yourself and meet other veterans in the network. In addition to that, members that agree will provide their contact information for veterans to reach out to them directly regarding a grant application or applying to a specific institution. Veterans can choose their level of involvement in the organization, but the more we are able to connect with each other, the stronger the network will be for everyone.

You can also follow SVRN on Twitter @SVRN_vets!

Field Camp: An Introduction & Personal Experiences

In geology, fieldwork includes the direct observation, description, and sampling (or additional analyses) of rock outcrops, rock exposures, other geological features, and landscapes in their natural environment. To prepare geoscientists for field work, undergraduate geoscience students are often required to take field camp. Field camp can be an important component of geological studies, offering opportunities for collecting data and fine – tuning observation and mapping skills that students may be introduced to in the lab. While some argue that field camp is a critical part of an undergraduate geology degree, field camp can be quite exclusionary and should not be a requirement for a degree. That being said, there are numerous advantages and challenges of partaking in field camp or conducting field work. Here, we share our perspectives on field camp and our experiences, as well as share some ideas about how you can win money to attend field camp. 

Basics of Attending Field Camp

Field camp provides an opportunity to get hands-on experiences in sample/specimen collection and develop mapping skills. Essentially, it is a practical application of all of the coursework you have taken as a geoscience student .

Some field programs connect with other institutional programs at a shared ‘base camp’. This promotes networking and relationships to be built outside of your field cohort. For example, Jen was based at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association and a field camp from Houston was also residing there during the summer. Although work was largely separate, we ate meals together and shared common facilities. Some field camp programs accept external applicants, which promotes meeting new peers and experiencing the field together.  

Field course requirements can vary greatly by program and in some cases, field courses are not a requirement of the program. Some programs require six credit hours in field work which may be held over a six week long field camp. Additionally, some field camps and courses have prerequisites, which could include more specialized courses such as sedimentology, stratigraphy, or structural geology. Another aspect to keep in mind is the cost of field camp. Some field courses are quite expensive and do not provide financial assistance. Some courses require you to get your own transportation to the base camp, which requires additional resources and logistical planning. As field courses are commonly six weeks, attendees must take off work reducing their income and available time. Other costs include any gear you must purchase to safely attend. 

In a lot of cases, universities and colleges may have some source of funding to help their students attend field camp. These funds are, in most cases, provided by alumni donations that help cover a large chunk, but not all, of the students’ field course expenses.

There are also a few scholarships and grants you can apply to to attend field camp. Here a few examples of such awards:

Personal Experiences

Whitney Lapic, attended as an undergraduate with Mount Holyoke College

Field camp was not offered at my undergraduate institution, Mount Holyoke College. My program did offer a class which was based on a trip to Death Valley that was held over spring break every other year, but this was the closest thing we had to a field course. At the time, I did not think that seeking out a field camp would be worthwhile as I was not going into a subdiscipline that was field work intensive. That being said, I still wanted to gain field experience – and I believed that the experience was a requirement for me to get into graduate school. 

My greatest concern for field work was being able to physically keep up with the group and I know that this fear, and the cost of field camp, greatly deterred me from attending. I was however, extremely lucky to have been accepted as an exchange student at the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K. for a semester and decided to take some time to create my own miniature field excursions while abroad. After plenty of research, I organized a series of trips to the nearby Gault Clay formation in Folkestone, which was a brief and inexpensive bus trip away. Here, I was able to work at my own pace (while trying to beat the tide) and gain experience in collecting, preparing, and identifying fossil specimens from start to finish. While this was by no means a replacement for a field course, it still introduced me to new challenges and allowed me to gain experience on my own time. It certainly helped that I was in a location of my choosing, so it was of significant interest to me. 

Linda Dämmer, attended as an undergraduate with University of Bonn (Germany)

I studied Geosciences at the University of Bonn (Germany). The system there works a bit differently from many US geology programmes: Almost all courses, with just a few exceptions, had a mandatory field work component. These field trips ranged from a few hours used to visit a little stream nearby and practice different methods to estimate the amount of water flowing down the stream per hour, to traveling abroad to spend 10-14 days practising geological mapping or learning about regional geological features. I’ve probably participated in close to 20 field trips during my undergraduate studies, I visited Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Bulgaria during these excursions as well as many sites in Germany. Except for the far away field trips (Bulgaria and Spain) where we had to pay for our flights, these were generally fairly low cost, since the university covered the majority of the expenses, most of the time the students had to pay about 50€ (approx $60) or less as a contribution. There have been people who were unable to attend the mandatory field trip components of the programme, for a variety of reasons (for example pregnancies or disabilities), and they usually were able to instead do a different activity such as written assignments instead. In addition, for many courses more than one field trip option was offered, because taking an entire class on a field trip at the same time doesn’t work well. So based on interests, schedules and financial situation, everyone could often choose between different field trips, that would all count for the same course. I have learned so much during each field trip. Seeing geological/environmental features ‘in the wild’ has helped me tremendously to deepen my understanding of the processes involved and I’m very grateful for these experiences. But they also – and maybe even more so – helped me understand my physical boundaries and how far I can push myself, they helped me improve my organisational skills and made me a better team player. I think these are probably the real advantages of doing field trips, the actual content can probably also be learned in other ways. But the vast majority of the field trips also turned out to be lots of fun, even when you’re sitting in a tiny tent with two other students while it has been raining for the past 4 days and everything you own is completely wet and muddy, when you’re hiking through the mountains and your mapping partner is about 65% sure they’ve just heard what sounded like a wild boar behind you, or when you’re sweating and getting sunburned while trying to find your way back to the campsite in the spanish desert without any landmarks, there’s always something to laugh about and other people to help you out on when you think something too hard. Like that one time I managed to lose my field notebook at an outcrop and only noticed after a 90 minute hike to the next outcrop. I was already exhausted and really wasn’t looking forward to hiking back and forth again to get my notebook, but thanks to a friend volunteering to go with me, I managed to do it (that’s the day I learned to take a picture of every page of my notebook after every outcrop AND to save the pictures online as soon as possible).

I think it’s absolutely worth it, if you’re able to join field trips, I recommend you do it. 

I’d like to briefly discuss a different aspect about this though. All of the things I said are only true if you go with the right people. While I’ve not experienced too many negative situations during field trips myself, I’m aware that some people have not had a great time during field trips. For example, because the majority of geologists on this planet still consist of cis male people, who might not understand that menstruating or having to pee in the field can be a challenge for AFAB people, it might be difficult or embarrassing having to argue in front of the entire class that someone needs a break. Sometimes you also find out the hard way that the nice professor isn’t actually as nice as you thought when you have to spend 24h per day for an entire month with them instead of just attending their lecture for 2h every Tuesday morning. 

I’m still recommending everyone to join as many field trips as possible, but if you can, make sure there’s at least one person you already know and trust among the other participants. Having friends with you will make it a much better experience, in many ways.

Jen Bauer, attended as a graduate student with Ohio University 

I have an undergraduate degree in biological sciences and an earth science minor. The minor program did have a field component but it was only a week long trip to the Ozark area. This was  a nice precursor because I understood what a much longer version would entail. I completed my field camp during my MS program at Ohio University. It was my first summer and was run through Ohio University, so I didn’t have to apply for other programs. I could simply enroll in the course. At this time the course had two parts: (1) a two-week component that was focused near Athens, Ohio and in the nearby West Virginia mountains (this was meant to help us get accustomed with techniques in the field prior to being ‘released’ into the wild; and (2) a four-week component that was largely based at Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association. I completed this field course that summer and really enjoyed the experience at large. My biggest concern was being comfortable in the field and being able to keep up with my field partners. I trained regularly for a month in advance – cardio and weight training, which was certainly a little over the top. I had no trouble keeping up. I did not have the best field clothes due to not having money to purchase anything too expensive. This did not hinder me in the slightest. Since I went as a graduate student, my experience was a little different from those that attend as undergraduate students. I went in fully expecting full nights of rest and I worked hard so that I wouldn’t have to pull all nighters. I cannot function well on lack of sleep, let alone hike and map an area if I am exhausted. I made very conscious choices to be mindful of this. I still got my maps in on time and did very well in the course. My advice for folks heading to field camp would be to be confident in your abilities and know your weaknesses – you can’t be good at everything and it’s ok to lean on your field partner. Also, don’t forget to enjoy the experience. It’s a practical application of all of your knowledge up until that point. I had a lot of fun seeing structures and trying to infer them while drawing the maps. 

Maggie Limbeck, attended as a graduate student with the University of St. Andrews

My undergraduate institution (Allegheny College) did not require field camp for graduation because we were able to incorporate a lot of field trips/field work into our classes. All of my upper level courses either had weekend field trips around the area (Western Pennsylvania, Catskill Mountains in NY, West Virginia) or had multiple lab weeks that were designed around field work. We were also required to take a seminar course that had a week-long field trip to a further destination (my year went to Sapelo Island, GA), where we could really practice our geology skills as a capstone course. 

When I got to grad school, it was considered a deficiency that I had not been to field camp and I needed to go in order to graduate with my Master’s. I ended up going to Scotland for field camp and even though it was an international field camp it was priced similarly to attending one in the United States (read a previous post on Field Camp in Scotland). Because I was going to be doing field work in a chilly, wet climate I did spend a fair amount when purchasing a raincoat, rain pants, and boots to make certain I would stay dry and warm during long days in the rain. These purchases, while expensive, did keep me happy and dry as it rained for weeks while I was there! Going as a graduate student was an interesting experience because many of the other students bonded by staying up late working on their maps and/or going out to party – I on the other hand was working to make sure I could go to bed at a decent hour and be up early enough for breakfast and to make my lunch for the next day. Having an awareness of how you work best and function best is really beneficial because you are setting yourself up to be successful (and there are probably other students wanting to keep a similar schedule as you that you can work with!), but do make sure you do take advantage of some of these later nights, they are really help bond you to the other students and will make working with different groups of people a little easier. One other piece of advice: don’t be scared to speak to the instructor if you aren’t feeling well, are hurt, or need some adjustments made. We had a specific cooking group for those with dietary restrictions or preferences and those who were not feeling well for a day were given different activities to complete. It might be little things (in our case, my group hated the mustard that was being purchased for lunches!) but it’s important to talk to your instructor so you aren’t stuck in a situation that could potentially be dangerous for you!

Sarah Sheffield, attended as an undergraduate with Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute

I went to UNC Chapel Hill, which does require a field camp for their geosciences B.S., but did not offer one themselves. So I went to field camp at the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute. I had to pay for out of state tuition for two credits (it was a two week program), which was expensive, but I gained a lot from the program. I flew to Montana and met the other participants, many of whom I still talk to a decade (!!!) later.  This field camp was unusual for a geoscience degree, in that there was no mapping or structural component. However, I did learn skills such as: locating potential fossil sites; jacketing vertebrate specimens; and vertebrate fossil identification, among other things. I enjoyed my time and highly recommend it if you have the opportunity! The major downside to field camp was cost: the tuition was difficult to cover, but it wasn’t the only consideration. I did not have access to good field gear, which meant that my time in the field was not as comfortable as it could have been (e.g., my shoes were not really appropriate for strenuous field work; good boots are arguably one of the most important pieces of gear for a field scientist!). See if you can find used, quality gear on sites like eBay, Craigslist, etc.-sometimes you can find gems for really reasonable prices! 

My M.S. institution did not originally count this field camp as a field credit, due to the lack of mapping and structural geology components. However, the department chose to waive the requirement in the end in order to not have a graduate student in their undergraduate field camp. My Ph.D. institution simply required that I do field work during my Ph.D., which I did in Sardinia, Italy during my second year there. I only mention this because my field camp at BBPI may not count at other institutions as a traditional field camp credit, so you’ll want to check with your institution.  

As a paleontologist, I find that I did not need a full field camp to become a successful geologist. My research takes place in both the field and in museums, with more of an emphasis on museums. As I write this, I have been unable to do field work for a few years due to a severe ankle injury, so I am grateful that the geosciences field is becoming more broad, so that more folks who may not be able to do field work for many reasons can do so! 

Kristina Barclay attended as an undergraduate with the University of Alberta

I took my undergraduate degree in Paleontology at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I was required to take 3 field classes (1st and 2nd year geology, 4th year paleontology), and another one of my classes included a field trip (4th year paleobotany). I also took an invertebrate zoology class at Bodega Marine Lab (UC Davis) as a grad student, but as I was already working/living at the lab, I didn’t have to spend any extra money (other than tuition), but other students had to pay for lodging/meals. The 1st and 2nd year geology field camps I took at the U of A were 2 – 3 weeks tours across Alberta and B.C., mostly consisting of mapping exercises in the Rocky Mountains. Our paleo field schools were within the city, so we could go home every day, which was nice after a day of digging in the snow/mud in April! For the 1st and 2nd year field schools, we stayed in hotels or cabins. At the time, a lot of the costs were funded by oil and gas companies, so there weren’t too many extra expenses incurred by the students (other than tuition). That said, field gear is expensive, and as a 1st year, buying expensive waterproof notebooks, rock hammers, hand lenses, sturdy hiking boots, and field clothes was a little hard on the budget! Although, many years later, I still own and use a lot of those things, so some were very useful investments if you’re going to continue to do field work.

One thing I’d say is that it’s not worth buying the really expensive field clothes or rain gear because one tumble on rocks or rogue branch, and they get shredded. Field gear doesn’t need to be pretty or brand-named – I buy $10 rain pants because I know I’ll destroy them anyway (and I’ve had one of those pairs last me 10 years). The other challenge was that I paired with two men for the trip (we were marked as groups and stayed in the same cabins). They were good friends of mine and I was fortunate enough to trust them, but as a smaller woman, keeping up with them and finding a private spot to “go” outside was a little bit of a challenge! Thankfully, there were usually spots with trees, but I’ve done a lot of fieldwork with men where there was no cover, so trust is key. I tend not to drink coffee when I’m in the field and just stick to water to minimize unnecessary trips to the bathroom. You don’t want to short-change yourself on water in the field, though, so just make sure you are open and honest with your group about your bathroom needs (menstruating folx, especially). Field camps can be tiring, cold, and a pile of work, but they are absolutely awesome experiences and a chance to visit some amazing, remote places. They also gave me the confidence and experience to be able to conduct and lead independent field work in grad school, which might not be necessary for everyone, but is an important part of my research. Make sure to take lots of pictures and notes (good note taking is so important) and enjoy the experience!

Homeschooling and Science

Rose here-

I am a geologist and data engineer, and I was homeschooled. When I was growing up, homeschooling was not very common and most of the few resources available were focused on conservative/religious families. We had a handful of other homeschool friends over the years but most went to public school. While homeschooling may not be for everyone, it is great to see that it is so much more accepted now. Recent statistics show that 3-4% of K-12 students in the US are homeschooled, although that number may be higher at the moment due to the Covid pandemic.

When I first started taking science classes in college, I was a bit nervous because I had had no formal science and especially lab classes while being homeschooled. However, I feel that homeschooling did prepare me for college by requiring me to be self-motivated and good at finding information on my own. Another advantage of homeschooling is flexibility. For example, if an activity or lesson doesn’t take very long, you don’t have to wait for the class to be finished while twiddling your thumbs, you can move on to the next thing and finish everything more efficiently. On the other hand, if a concept is taking longer to learn, you can take all the time needed until you get it down. This taught me time management and persistence.

Another cool thing about homeschooling is the flexibility to develop your own curriculum. Some students work best from textbooks and with lots of structure, others do best with non-structured activities or schedules that change often. The advantage here is it’s all up to you so you can experiment until you find what works best for you.

Since a lot more of you are homeschooling right now, either long-term or just short-term during the pandemic, I’ve put together some ideas for teaching/learning science at home.

  • Your local public library is a treasure trove of resources for whatever you need. Any subject you want, you can find books or videos to check out. If you need help, the librarians always love to help you find the perfect resource to fit your needs. One common way my family approached science at home was to pick a subject and find a good book or video series to take us through it (chemistry, biology, astronomy). We’d watch or read and then discuss together.
  • Another favorite activity was using nature field guides to ID things we saw outside. We had a collection of field guides for things like birds, mushrooms, and native plants and loved looking up a bird we saw at the feeder or a leave we found on a walk. Whether on walks in the neighborhood or park or just in the backyard, take pictures or sketches of cool leaves, birds, critters, etc and then look them up when you get home. The guide will have basic info but once you figure out what you saw you can dig deeper online or in an encyclopedia to learn more if you’re interested. [Editor’s note: Look into apps like iNaturalist, Seek, and eBird for on the go identifications and to contribute to community science efforts!]
  • While not too many are open yet, museums and public gardens are great places to explore and spend some time learning while having fun. Often public libraries will have discount or free passes available for local places like these, so look into those (many may not be available during pandemic restrictions though). Even if they’re not open, many museums are posting activities for families to do at home right now, so check out some websites and see what you can find.

There are also lots of good science-based shows that you can find streaming online. Some favorites for younger kids are Emily’s Wonder Lab and Octonauts.

Geosciences programs should drop the GRE, here’s why.

Adriane here-

For a few years now, there has been a debate raging in the science community: Should admissions at universities and colleges drop the requirement that students need to take the GRE for graduate schools? This is a conversation that has been steeped in inherent and implicit biases, data, and a gross misunderstanding of how standardized tests impact students. In this piece, I won’t go into details about how our own biases affect the decisions we make and opinions we form. Rather, the purpose of this post is to pull together the available data that show that the GRE is, in fact, an ineffective tool to predict the success of graduate students. To further this narrative, there are also personal stories from people who have taken the GRE included in this post.

Here is a list of US-based Geology/Geography programs that have dropped GRE.

The GRE

First, a bit of background about the GRE test. The GRE, which stands for Graduate Record Examinations, is a standardized test that students take who are applying for graduate schools, including law and business school. The GRE itself is created by ETS, a company that touts itself as creators of ‘some of the most well-known and widely used educational assessments in the world’. There are different types of GRE tests, called Subject Tests, depending on what the student wants to focus on as their career path: Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. There is no subject test currently for the geosciences, so students who wish to pursue a graduate degree in this field just take the General Test. 

The General Test is broken down into 3 major categories: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Each of these categories is supposed to test the student’s ability to draw conclusions from discourse and reasoning, summarize text, and distinguish major from minor points, measure the ability to understand, interpret, and analyze quantitative information, apply mathematical skills to problem-solve, and measure critical thinking and writing skills. These are just a few things the GRE is designed to measure, as stated on their website (https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/). 

To take the GRE test, there is, of course, a fee involved. The current prices to take the test as of July 1, 2020 are as follows:

Australia $230
China $231.30
India $213
Nigeria $226
Turkey $255
All other parts of the world $205

(All data from https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/fees/)

Students cannot take a GRE test anywhere. There are specific testing centers that distribute the GRE, and they do so about 3 times a year in September, October, and April for the United States, but can be variable depending on other countries. Often, the testing centers are located in larger cities, away from more rural areas. The test itself takes about 3 to 3.5 hours, and students are not allowed to bring any snacks or drinks into the testing center with them. These restrictions are variable and can be more or less strict depending on the testing center. 

After the student has taken the test, they receive part of their scores right away. The written portion of the exam is scored by a group of panelists who later give them the score on the written portion. The student then must immediately decide if they want to send those scores to the graduate schools they are applying to. The student doesn’t have to send their scores to any school if they don’t want to or feel like they need to retake the test. If you don’t send the scores at this time, it does cost extra to send them at a later time. Scores are reported on a scale from 130 to 170 in 1 point increments for the verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning part of the exam, and from 0 to 6 in half point increments on the analytical writing portion.  

Although the student can choose to send their test results to multiple schools, it does cost an additional $27 to send scores to additional schools. As stated on ETS’ website, these requests for additional scores are not refundable, cannot be canceled, nor can they be changed. 

The Data

From the above section, it should be clear that the GRE test is serious business, as it costs quite a bit of money to take, takes a large amount of time, and is largely uncomfortable (seriously, no snacks?!?). The test is supposed to be an indicator of student success in graduate school, but there have been studies published that say otherwise. In addition, there are problems with the test, as it is not an equal predictor of success for men and women, nor among underrepresented groups. In this section, I’ll summarize some of those studies and their major findings.

The GRE as a Poor Predictor of Graduate Student Success

First, let’s start with the obvious assumption that the GRE test does predict success of upcoming graduate students. One of the earliest studies looking at the predictive power of the GRE was by Dunlap (1979). This study found that the best predictor a student success was the student’s performance on the basis of faculty interviews and undergraduate GPA. The GRE was a weak predictor of success. Dawes (1971) showed that GRE scores can be good predictors of grades and faculty evaluations, but only for first-year graduate students’ performance in psychology. Another study by Wood and Wong (1992) showed that the GRE, by itself, accounted for slightly less than 10% of the variation in the criteria of graduate performance against which the GRE was validated. This study also only looked at psychology students. A more recent assessment of student GRE scores as predictors of success in psychology departments was conducted by Sternberg and Williams (1997). These researchers at Yale University asked graduate student advisors to rate their graduate students on their analytical abilities, creative abilities, practical abilities, research abilities, and teaching abilities. The researchers also computed the students’ first-year, second year, and combined GPAs on a scale of 4 (high pass) to 0 (fail). Similar to the Dawes (1971) study, the data from Sternberg and Williams (1997) indicated that the GRE was a modest predictor of grades, but only for the students’ first year in graduate school. The GRE scores were not found to be useful in predicting other arenas of graduate performance, such as analytical, creative, practical, research, and teaching abilities.

Similarly, a study conducted by researchers looked at the predictive power of GRE scores in construction management programs in the United States. The study, conducted by Wao and others (2016) tried to correlate the success of graduate students (success meaning they finished their degree within two years and not drop out). They, too, found that the GRE scores were not correlated with graduate student success, and thus recommended that admissions committees should reassess requiring the GRE scores at all. 

Personal Stories & Experiences

In high school, I was not a great student, and did terrible in math classes (my high school math teacher once told me to get away from his desk when I asked for help because I was ruining the signal on the TV while he watched basketball, DURING CLASS). When it was time for me to take the GRE, I was already working 20-30 hours per week to put myself through community college and help my family with expenses. I had to take a day off of work, paid $200 for the exam, and had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest testing center. I was so nervous about taking the test, I sweat the entire time even though the room was chilly. At the end of my exam, my scores didn’t meet the minimum most graduate programs required (300 points). I ran to my car, crying, and called my mom telling her I had failed. I couldn’t really afford to take the test again, but I did so twice more. I received about the same scores all three times, but in the end, I was out over $600 that I needed for school and my family. Today, I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow, and have personally grown and accomplished so much during my short academic career. No, the GRE was not a predictor of my success, but rather highlighted the fact that I came from an area with subpar high schools and from a family with lower socio-economic status. 

Adriane Lam, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Binghamton

I an above average high school student, I didn’t significantly apply myself because I was easily distracted and often bored in class. But I did my work, just not to the best of my ability. I never was a strong test taker, and didn’t have excellent ACT scores (25). I went on to a local public institution and really did awful my first year. I was NOT able to coast through like I did in high school. This means I bombed my first year of my undergraduate studies. I spent the next 4 years (I spent 5 as an undergraduate) working to raise my GPA. I graduated with a 2.86 GPA. I have to reiterate that I am a terrible test taker, I get so anxious, my study habits were variable and awful. I struggled. I didn’t know that I could even ask for help until the last few years when I found supportive mentors. I dreaded the GRE, I got workbooks, flashcards, and even recorded myself reciting definitions of terms so I could listen to myself on my commute to work and school. The testing center wouldn’t let me bring in tissues or chapstick and said I could either take in my sweater or I had to take it off because I couldn’t take it off in the testing center. These are all comfort items for me and I felt naked and uncomfortable heading into the testing center. I took the exam and I got an okay score, around 1200 (I took the old version). One of my mentors said I needed to take it again because that wasn’t competitive. So, regardless of the expense, I scheduled another test. I did worse. This was a waste of my time and money, neither of which I had an abundance of. Today, I am a collection manager at an established museum and research institution – regardless of my GPA or GRE scores, I managed to achieve my goals.

Jen Bauer, Ph.D., University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

My story is from applying to PhD programs in 2013, both involving schools in the top 10 Earth Science PhD programs. At one I was told by the PI I was waitlisted because of my scores (which I can only assume meant my GRE scores, my GPA was a 3.8), only to then be admitted 1 week before the decision deadline after others had declined and I had accepted elsewhere (which was rather embarrassing). I was later told by the (junior) PI that he seriously regretted waitlisting me, which was quite humiliating. The second program was told when I visited informally before applications were due that there was a ‘formula’ involving GPA, quant and writing score that was unofficially used. I was below the threshold, told to retake the GRE before applying, all while trying to finish my MS degree. Knowing there was a threshold I needed was incredibly stressful.

-Anonymous

I actually had a very positive experience with the GRE even if I’m not convinced of its utility as an application requirement overall. I’m also concerned about what standards are replacing it and how inequality is built in those too. Before applying to a geoscience grad program, I was nervous about “belonging” and being successful in the field. I didn’t do science undergrad, I was a little older, and black. Hitting the marks on my GRE helped reassure me that I was in fact qualified and belonged. I’m not sure how much my score actually factored in to my admission. Re the test itself, I bought an inexpensive test prep book (could have got it at library too), took it at a location walkable from my home, easy peasy. Test location was at an HBU so even that was encouraging. Largest drawback for me was the cost of the exam itself. That’s just one experience and if the data says the test is a useless barrier, then I trust the data. I always felt weaker in school on the quantitative side of things. The GRE wasn’t a class. It’s not math I’d apply in my field. It was a nut to crack, something to persevere and figure out. That’s something I do in my PhD, everyday. That’s how the GRE helped me feel ready.

-Shannon Valley

I went to undergrad on a full needs-based scholarship, because my family had no money to send me to college. I worked part time jobs, sometimes more than one during a semester, through all 4 years of college. I wanted to apply to grad school, and spent nearly a month’s pay signing up for the GRE. Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to the GRE, my grandfather died quite unexpectedly and I ended up needing to reschedule it because my mother needed help cleaning out his house out of state. I had to pay an extra $50 to reschedule (which wasn’t easy to scrape up). It took me over an hour and a half by bus to get to the exam because they didn’t offer the test where I went to undergrad (they still don’t)-they offered it in a city a short distance away, but without a car, I had to rely on public transportation. This added a lot to the stress of the day, seeing as the exam started at 8AM. 

The amount of money it cost me to take this exam left me struggling to afford food, toiletries, and medical bills. I then had to figure out how to pay for the steep fees for the applications themselves. I didn’t know that you could send your scores for free *if* you did it the day you took the exam until I was already taking it. Because of that, I had to resend my scores after the exam for even more extra fees (I want to say $10 per school to send an email with my scores, but I can’t remember what the costs were back in 2010). 

I got into grad school (M.S.) with a relatively low score in the quantitative section. Frankly, between taking 5-6 classes, extracurricular activities, and working (my senior year, I taught a lab section of a course for pay, tutored athletes, and worked as an office assistant in a music department all at the same time), I didn’t have any time to study for the GRE. I used an old copy of the GRE study book from the library when I had a free hour or two, but I didn’t study as much as I could have if I hadn’t been working. 

 I took it again when I applied to a Ph.D. program- I only did this because a mentor of mine told me I’d never get into a Ph.D. program with my quantitative scores (I scored in the 99% in the qualitative/literature section,  but everyone said that didn’t matter in the STEM fields). I, again, had to spend just over two hundred dollars (my monthly take home pay as a student was around $850-$900/month, so this was tough to do, mind you). I had a car this time, but still had to drive an hour each way to take the test. This time, I was able to get a study book that I found from a thrift store and I was able to do a little bit better in quantitative, but not enough that it was worth the extreme stress I went through trying to figure out how to pay for the exam. Today, I’m an assistant professor at a university that has a significant number of low income students and the costs for the GRE have only gone up since I took it, while wages haven’t changed with those rising costs. I want to see a world where my students don’t have to forfeit time to study just so they can save up enough to take the test. 

 –Sarah Sheffield, Ph.D. The University of South Florida 

As someone who grew up taking standardized tests every year starting in 4th grade, I have always been a good standardized test taker, (other kinds of exams not so much, my test anxiety really didn’t start until my undergrad when I felt that my scores would really determine my future) so the idea of the GRE didn’t bother me. At the time, it very much just felt like another annoying step to be able to apply to graduate programs. However, since the exam wasn’t offered in the same city that my college was located in, I had to drive 40 minutes to the exam after my classes ended that day to sit in a freezing cold cubicle with noise cancelling headphones to block out the sound of anxious typing from all the other students taking the exam with me. 

One thing I did appreciate about the exam was knowing my quantitative and qualitative scores immediately after finishing the exam. I knew that my quantitative score would be my lowest (hello, math insecurities) but did hope that it would be a competitive score-an arbitrary number in my head that I had gotten from looking up “acceptable GRE scores for paleontology programs” on Google. My quantitative score was lower than what that number in my head was, but on my way out the door I made the decision that knowing how I test in math and how much better I would need to do to raise that score even a few points was not worth the stress and the $200 to retake the exam. I was 100% comfortable with this decision, but still nervous that my score might deter universities from accepting me for my Master’s. While the scores did not prevent me from being accepted into a Master’s program, I do think that they played a role in some of my rejections from PhD programs because they were schools with strict cut offs on GRE scores. However, I was accepted into a PhD program and have yet to see the need for anything I learned specifically to do well on the GRE. 

Maggie Limbeck, PhD student, University of Tennessee

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