Meet the Museum: La Brea Tar Pits

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

Ryan here –

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

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

Scene on the exterior of the museum.

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

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

Active excavation site at the museum.

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

Processing of material.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Example of specimens in the shelf space.
Oversized specimens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

Iconic wall of dire wolves.
Beautifully done display wall

NAPC Teacher’s Workshop in Digital Paleontology Resources

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


 Jen and Adriane here – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint: Transportation

This blog post is the second in our series on how to reduce your carbon footprint! Find our first post by Sarah by clicking here.

Sometimes, you can’t reduce your footprint in all areas and that’s OK!
Many of our advances as a society have made life much better for people with a range of needs. A good example of this is plastic straws. Plastic straws, of course, contribute to our overall plastic waste, but there are many disabled people who rely on plastic straws as a safe and hygienic way to eat and drink.  Alternatives like paper or metal straws aren’t always viable options for several reasons. Plastic straw bans can often hurt people who rely on straws for basic survival, so always make sure that while advocating for reducing waste, you’re not creating disadvantages for other groups of people. Advances in society have helped us live longer and better lives- some plastic waste is an inevitability. Do your best to reduce your footprint where you can, but don’t feel guilty if you can’t reduce it in every aspect of your life. And if you can cut out plastic straws, do so- but don’t take it away from people who need it!

This series is meant to be a series of ideas that you may or may not be able to employ in your daily lives but getting a better understanding and awareness is an excellent first step.


Jen & Jillian here –

Transportation can be a difficult area of your life to cut your carbon footprint. Not everyone, including us, can purchase an electric or hybrid vehicle, or choose to travel by train instead of plane, even knowing that transportation accounts for over a quarter of US carbon emissions (data from 2016). But there are other ways to reduce your carbon footprint while commuting or running errands. While not everyone lives somewhere where these are viable options, or is physically able to travel in certain ways, we encourage you to take an in-depth look at what’s in your area! In addition to reducing carbon emissions and working toward a more green future, many of these suggestions have the potential to improve your health by getting you moving, instead of a car.

Take public transportation more: Not only do gasoline vehicles emit greenhouse gases, they also are a major source of air pollution, which is linked to premature death and a myriad of systemic health problems. This is particularly important in areas that are prone to at-risk air conditions, like cities, or areas with climatic and geographic characteristics that lead to smog (like Los Angeles). 

Research local public transit options and figure out if there is a method that is best for you.

Riding public transit is easier than ever – many public transit systems utilize Transit App, which makes it very simple to find routes, plan trips, and in some cases, see real-time data on where vehicles are, or have their own in-house apps. Google Maps also offers transit instructions for a lot of cities too. Worried about getting stranded or needing your car in case of emergency? Many metropolitan planning commissions offer an emergency or guaranteed ride home program, like this one. Take a look at what’s in your area!

Riding public transit allows you to use your time for something else, be it napping, reading, or just relaxing, instead of paying attention to the road and dealing with the stress of traffic. More and more systems offer Wi-Fi and outlets or charging stations on their vehicles. Additionally, riding public transit will save you money over the long term. Data from 2016 indicates that money saved by commuting by public transit for a two-worker household is over $6000 annually – approximately the same amount spent on groceries (How public transit can (and must) help reduce carbon pollution). Additionally, many workplaces have pre-tax commuter benefits that can be used to pay for transit passes and many schools and universities have agreements that let students and/or staff ride for free with an appropriate ID. 

Public transit also increases the efficiency of traffic, fewer vehicles promote fewer traffic jams and reduces fuel waste. In 2011, the American Public Transportation Association provided evidence that the use of public transportation ‘saved 865 million hours of travel time and 450 million gallons of fuel in 498 urban areas’ (Why is public transportation good for the environment?).

Jillian, before moving within walking distance of her job, commuted to work nearly every day by bus. She enjoyed letting the bus drivers deal with traffic and other drivers, zoning out instead of stressing out, and walking a little extra each day to get to and from the stops.

If you live in a bike/pedestrian-friendly area, start biking or walking more frequently! Not only are these activities good methods of exercise but they can reduce emissions from traffic congestion and fuel use (Reducing your Transportation Footprint). If you are concerned about safety, head to your local bicycle shop or bicycle advocacy organization to talk with people in the community. If there isn’t a local shop or organization by you, REI often offers bike classes. There are likely local resources to help you get started and give you ideas for safety precautions during your commute. 

Pedestrians on the move.

Check out TrailLink, a non-profit dedicated to developing trail networks across the United States. Another great resource is Google Maps. There is an option to include a layer with bike routes (head to the three horizontal bar dropdown in your browser to add it to your maps). This is an excellent planning tool and you can use street view to confirm your route before heading to the street or path. Many bus and train systems have bike racks in or on vehicles so you can become an expert multi-modal commuter! 

This is Jen’s favorite method of commuting.  She feels like she gets to work feeling fresh and a clear head to start the day. It takes time to really feel comfortable on the bike and the road but it is worth the effort. Make sure you have a helmet and proper lights/reflectors so that you stay visible. Also, it’s likely other people at your office are bike commuters, ask them for tips or see if they would ride with you the first few times. It’s always helpful to have someone guiding you.

There are bicycle collectives, cooperatives (co-ops), and communities all over the world. BikeCollectives has a comprehensive list of community bicycle organizations around the globe so you can look up your state or country to get more details on your local areas. In many cases, this will result in low-costs for transportation on your end and new friends and hobbies. Bike communities are very invested in sharing knowledge of bike maintenance and safety. 

Carpool with coworkers or colleagues: Maybe you don’t live in a location that has good public transit or allows you to safely be a cyclist or walking pedestrian. Carpools or multiple occupancy-vehicles are an excellent way to reduce the number of cars/vehicles on the road and in turn minimize levels of pollution. This mode of transportation also saves money in terms of gas, vehicle maintenance, and parking fees. Many highways are adopting carpool lanes as an incentive for reducing the amount of vehicles on the road. 

Larger workplaces often have carpool programs, and many metropolitan area planning commissions have programs to help commuters find a carpool buddy. Try searching for “find carpool [city name]” – here’s a program in Indianapolis.

Scooter and bicycle share programs: Many cities now have various programs that allow pedestrians to rent scooters or bicycles. These programs have an app that allows you to unlock and purchase a scooter or bike for a period of time for a fee. Some of these programs have docking stations scattered throughout the city for you to pick up or return the vehicle. Wikipedia has a description of bike-share systems and a detailed history, which you can read about by clicking here and a list of programs (click here). This can be an excellent mode of transportation for quick trips or recreation but make sure you return the vehicles to an appropriate spot, they can really clutter sidewalks and make things difficult for other pedestrians. 

Fly less: Jet fuel is a high-carbon energy source so reducing the amount of flights you take per year can greatly reduce your impact. This also means that booking direct flights reduces your impact. The larger and heavier the aircraft, the more fuel is consumed. This means that even packing efficiently and light will have an impact (Reducing your Transportation Footprint). Some are deciding to completely abstain from flying (a task that is definitely easier in Europe, which has a strong passenger rail infrastructure).

Regulating the environmental impact of air travel is quite complicated. It’s difficult to have an excellent, green alternative for shuttling millions of people around the world every day. Click here to read a comprehensive article that explores some of the major issues. This article also highlights that the complexity should not deter us from working to learn more.  

Additional Reading:

American Geophysical Union 2018

Rose here –

Last December I got a chance to do two things I have never done before: Visit Washington D.C. and attend the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting. The AGU fall meeting is one of the biggest geology conferences and is held every year in December. This year they broke records with 26,000+ attendees and 28,000+ abstracts submitted!

Here I am with my advisor, Dr. Wade Bishop from the UT School of Information Sciences, at the Data Help Desk in the exhibit hall, where we spent most of the conference.

My advisor was working on a project which required surveying attendees of the meeting and he was able to pay for me to come as well to help out with that. While I had to spend much of my time there at the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) Data Help Desk in the exhibit hall, I was able to get away and attend some talks and poster sessions. The project I was helping with was asking scientists who came for help at the Help Desk about their experiences, so we can figure out how to make the Help Desk more relevant and helpful for scientists at future meetings.

I flew in a whole day early so I could explore around D.C., because I knew once the conference started there would be so much going on it would be hard to get away. It was quite cold out so I bundled up in my jacket, hat, and scarf and headed out to see what I could find. I headed toward the National Mall, excited to finally visit the Smithsonian and all the memorials. I walked all the way to the far end of the mall first so I could see the various memorials. I visited the World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials. As a geologist, my favorite was the WWII memorial because of the variety of rocks used in cool ways. I also learned that besides the regular Vietnam War memorial wall, there is a memorial to the women who served the country and made great contributions during that time.

One of my favorite exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History. All of the minerals in this case are specimens of Corundum, also known as Ruby or Sapphire.

Next I visited the National Museum of Natural History. I had seen it in movies, but I was excited to see all the exhibits in person. This being AGU week, the most packed section was the rock and mineral exhibit. There was a line to even get in, and once in the excitement in the room was quite noticeable. It was so fun to see everyone excitedly discussing the different minerals, where they came from, and why they looked the way they did. These are the things we do for fun when you get a bunch of geologists together!

At the conference, while I did spend most of my time working in the exhibit hall, I had picked a few sessions of science talks to attend. The cool thing about conferences like these is that there are many simultaneous sessions in multiple fields of geology, so I could go see talks on anything I want. I often hop around to talks in fields other than what I work on, but since I had limited time to see talks this time I picked a few planetary science sessions to go see, and a few in areas that are important to me, like promoting equity and inclusion and dealing with sexual harassment in the geosciences. One of my favorite sessions was a lunchtime special session on the last day. AGU held a session celebrating the start of their 100th year, where they had speakers from many of their 25 sections give talks on how our scientific understanding has changed in the last 100 years in their field.

Visiting the map collection at the Library of Congress!

One of the coolest things I got to do was on the last day, right before we left D.C. My advisor knows someone who works at the Library of Congress (LOC) with the map collection, so we got to go and get a behind the scenes tour at the LOC. I loved seeing all the old and unusual maps they have there. The room where they store the maps is as long as 3 football fields! As a geologist it was especially exciting to see their collection of notes and maps from Marie Tharp, who used data from instruments on research ships to produce the first scientific map of the seafloor. This map was important because it showed us where the seafloor was spreading and gave us more evidence for plate tectonics.

I am so glad I was able to go to AGU in D.C. for the start of their Centennial celebrations, and I look forward to going again!

Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections

Jen here –

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

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

Paul Mayer of the Field Museum introducing the conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out #SPNHC2019 on Twitter for all the updates!

Southeastern Geological Society of America Meeting

Jen and Cam here –

Cam ready to present his poster!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out Cam talking more about his experience here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Museum: McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture

Jen here –

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

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

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

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

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

Read our other posts that mention the McClung Museum:

UMass Undergraduate Research Conference

This year’s pamphlet for the 25th Annual UMass URC! This is the first year the conference has gone ‘green’, meaning the program is now in a downloadable app instead of printed.

Adriane here-

Every Spring, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has a one day event for undergraduate students to present their research, called the UMass Undergraduate Research Conference. This year was the conference’s 25th anniversary. During this event, over 1,000 undergraduate students from the commonwealth’s 28 public colleges and universities come to UMass to present the research they have been conducting, in the form of posters, e-posters, and talks. The conference is open to the public, and is totally free. In addition, the conference is open to students in any and all disciplines, such as Anthropology, History, Nursing, Sociology, Kinesiology, Social Work, and Political Science, just to name a few. The conference is set up so that there are eight sessions, each 45 minutes long, where students present their posters or e-posters (entire 45 minutes) or give talks in sessions (each talk is 15 minutes long, so three per session).

This year, the undergraduate student I have been working with, Solveig, presented her research on the northwest Pacific Ocean. In addition, there was one other student, Kurt, who also presented his research on reconstructing temperatures from sediments in the high northern latitudes. Both of our UMass students did great, and were continuously talking with professors, the public, and other students about the research they have been working hard on this past year.

A row of poster presentations. Altogether, there were probably around 6 to 8 rows of posters!

While our UMass students were presenting, I walked around to chat with students about their research. In short, I was totally blown away by all the cool research being done at campuses across Massachusetts! The first student I talked to was from the nursing school here at UMass. She compiled data that has already been published to quantify how nurses and doctors introduced themselves to their patients. Interestingly, her findings suggested that not every nurse or doctor likes to introduce themselves by their first and last names, as they felt this might give away too much information, and might lead their patients to distrusting them more.

The second student I talked to developed a survey to assess how much trust the public has in their family, community, local government, and national government and agencies with respect to climate resiliency. She surveyed adults in western Massachusetts from a more liberal demographic and found some interesting results. Firstly, she found that people are willing to trust their family, friends, neighbors, and local governments more than national government agencies. This result is a bit off-putting because money for remediation after natural disasters comes mainly from national agencies, not local communities. Secondly, the results from the survey indicate that when it comes to investing in climate resiliency, people would rather put funding towards cleaner energy sources. This is interesting because making a switch to clean energy is something that should be done to curb climate change rather than a resiliency effort.

Solveig presenting her poster to our UMass Geosciences professors.

The third student I talked to had built a model for where clean energy plants should be built in Mexico. This student was in the Department of Engineering, and his data and  models could be given to policy makers to help them determine where to build such plants. From this student, I also learned that Mexico has very ambitious national sustainability goals. They plan to generate 35% of their electricity from clean energy sources by 2024, and 50% by 2050! The last students I chatted with were working with moths to determine how their bodies change during metamorphosis. The students put moth larvae (pupa) into a machine that determines the lean mass and total body fat of small animals in a non-invasive way. I had never heard of such a technique, but here at UMass, there is a lab that uses this technology to scan birds to determine how much body fat they lose during migration. These students were the first to ever use the technology on moths! The students first began the study by keeping the pupa in the machine for a few days. They then injected the pupa with hormones to make the animal’s body think it is a certain time a year, and will thus begin the process of metamorphosis. The machine measures the amount of body fat throughout this process until the pupa hatches into an adult moth. They found that the process of metamorphosis takes a lot of energy, and thus uses up a lot of fat. The undergraduate students are writing up the results of their findings for a journal, which will eventually be published!

All in all, this was a wonderful experience for the undergraduate students that attended and presented. They received crucial feedback on their projects, and were asked questions by professors outside of their respective departments. Because members of the public were also there, the students had to think about how to talk about their research to non-scientists. I would love to see such a conference at other large state universities, as this was a wonderful event for everyone who attended!

Amherst Elementary Science Night!

Solveig at the fossil table. Here, she is telling kids and parents about whale baleens. Visible on the table is a walrus vertebrae and a piece of a whale vertebrae (the large, plate-sized fossil).

Adriane here-

Recently, I participated in the first-ever Amherst Elementary Science Night. This event, held at one of the local middle schools in Amherst, Massachusetts, was designed to introduce elementary-aged children to the different areas of science. Several professors, graduate, and undergraduate students  from the University of Massachusetts Amherst attended to help out with fun activities for the kids! Several professors and students from our department also attended to teach the kids about aspects of geology. Of course, I was there to tell anyone who would listen about the wonderful world of paleontology and showcase different fossils.

The event was held in the cafeteria space of the middle school, which was divided into two areas. The first area included tables with activities and fun science stuff for the younger kids. The second area was for older kids, with more advanced science activities. Altogether, there were eight of us from the geology department who attended, with three of us (me, Solveig, and our advisor, Mark) who were in the younger section with a table full of fossils!

Helen working with kids at the core table. In front of her is an image of a sediment core.

At our fossil table, we brought specimens from the three major time periods: the Paleozoic to show people what early life looked like, the Mesozoic (or time when the dinosaurs were alive), and the Cenozoic (the time after the dinosaurs went extinct to today). Some of the awesome fossils we brought along were stromatolites (fossil cyanobacteria), brachiopods, a piece of a Triceratops dinosaur bone,  a ~350 million year old coral fossil, coprolite (fossil poop), a mammoth tooth, whale ear bone, a piece of whale baleen, and a modern coral (to compare to the fossil coral). Of course all the kids wanted to touch the dinosaur bone, and the mammoth tooth is always a big hit! But my favorite part of the night was asking kids what they thought the coprolite was. Most didn’t know, whereas other kids would throw out a guess. When I told them it was fossil poop, almost all immediately started giggling, and some even made some really funny faces! It was great fun!

In the second room, two of our UMass Geoscience professors (Bill and Julie) and three other graduate students (Helen, Hanna, and Justin) ran two other tables. Julie and Helen did an activity in which they taught kids about sediment lake cores, and the different types of sediment layers in cores that can be used to interpret Earth’s ancient climates. To do this, they rolled different-colored Play-Doh into thin layers and stacked them into bowls. The different colors represented different sediment layers on the seafloor or lake bed. The kids then took their own ‘cores’ from the Play-Doh using segments of clear plastic straws! Helen and Julie also had images of real sediment cores laid out on the tables so the kids could see what these look like.

Justin (foreground) and Bill (background) at the sandbox.

Next to Julie and Helen’s table was Bill, Hanna, and Justin. They brought along our sandbox, which we use in our classes to illustrate how faults are made. The sandbox is a bit more complex than it sounds: the box is wooden, with clear plastic sides. One side of the box has a hand crank, which will push the side of the box towards the other, thus pushing the sand in front of it. The sandbox is meant to demonstrate plate tectonics, specifically what happens when one tectonic plate moves towards another. The sand represents the upper layer of our Earth’s crust. To begin, we fill the sandbox with a neutral-colored sand, then add a thin layer of blue sand, another thin layer of neutral sand, and a second layer of blue sand. Then, when we crank the handle and the sand is pushed, it creates tiny ‘faults’ that can be seen in the sand layers. This is always a fun activity for the kids (and our students!), and is a great way to communicate how an otherwise complicated geologic phenomenon occurs.

The event only lasted about two hours, but we all interacted with several kids, their siblings, and parents! Doing outreach activities like this is always fun, and reminds me of when I was younger and excited about the natural sciences. For us scientists who do a lot of serious work, events like these are important reminders of why we love doing what we do, and share that passion with others around us.

 

Life Discovery Conference

Jen here –

I was recently part of the 5th Life Discovery – Doing Science Biology Education, a conference for science educators that is part of the Ecological Society of America. This year had a theme of “Microbiomes to Ecosystems: Evolution and Biodiversity Across Scale, Space and Time” and was hosted in Gainesville, Florida! There were a few local partners including iDigBio, UF Biodiversity Institute, Florida Museum, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I’ve been working on a few projects with various iDigBio team members and their education and outreach coordinator, Molly, reached out to me to see if I would be interested in participating in the Life Discovery Conference.

The Life Discovery Conference header. A really interesting way to tie together all of the aspects of biology!

I was representing the Florida Museum, Thompson Earth Systems Institute, and the FOSSIL Project! The conference was held over two full days at a local hotel conference center. The first day had an opening keynote presented by the amazing paleontologist, Dr. Lisa White from the University of California, Berkeley. She spoke about all of the digital resources available through the University of California Museum of Paleontology website. Many of which I knew about because I had used them as a tool some time during my academic journey!

Dr. Lisa White presenting on Thursday morning of the conference on a variety of amazing projects to explore paleobiology, evolution, and biodiversity in deep time!!!

The keynote was followed by breakout sessions where we could go learn about different programs, activities, and/or resources that had been implemented or evaluated by educators. This was a lot of fun for me to listen in and engage with. I learned a lot about different programs or lessons that are available for a variety of topics. Then we returned to the main ballroom to do networking discussions on different topics. I was leading a discussion on ‘Teaching Evolution through the Fossil Record.’

In my session we went through a few different questions and talked about successes and challenges that had been faced in the classroom, such as: (1) Do you teach evolution in your classroom and is it met with resistance? (2) Do you already incorporate fossils into your lessons on biodiversity? Would you want to or could you more? (3) New and different ways to include fossils into your lessons. (4) Is geology content a barrier for you or your students? At the end of our discussion we were to determine three takeaways and three recommendations for the future.

One of the break out sessions was on planting science, an online mentoring program to help students engage with different aspects of plant biology!
General takeaways

  • Fossils are important aspects of teaching evolution and biodiversity
  • Tangible and physical evidence such as fossils or the timeline where you walk through
  • Accessibility barriers in terms of cost of fossils and other tools

Recommendations

  • Finding community connections to help get fossils or content expertise
  • Exploiting online resources and technology to 3D print your own fossils
  • Using fossils to teach other subjects outside of evolution

After the discussion session, I had to run across campus for a meeting with the FOSSIL Project team. I missed one session of talks and lunch during my meeting but I was able to return to the conference for the last two sessions where people were sharing content and experiences. The conference adjourned shortly after that and picked up the following day first thing in the morning. I was part of the keynote panel that began promptly at 8 AM. This panel consisted of three early career professionals in related fields. We each gave 5 minute presentations on how our research incorporates large data sets and some information on outreach initiatives we have been part of. Following our presentations we fielded questions from the audience on our research, past experiences, and outreach events. It was a very successful hour and I was very fortunate to be invited to participate!

Overall the conference was a huge success. There were not many participants, maybe 100 at most. So it was a very small intimate conference and everyone had so many fantastic ideas and resources that I really learned a lot!