Reducing your carbon footprint

Sarah here –

Scientists are increasingly concerned with climate change. You might feel helpless, as you watch the news-you see images of awful pollution, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers and to me, it can be overwhelming! We all know how to cut carbon emissions- drive our car less (or buy a hybrid car!), support renewable energy, and get solar panels for our houses! However…if you’re like me and you live in an area where you can’t really get by without a car and you may not have the means to do much about getting a hybrid or solar panels, this advice may not be so helpful. So today’s post is dedicated to SUPER EASY WAYS to reduce your carbon footprint. Spoiler alert: many of these will also save you money! Double win!

1. Stop buying paper napkins! Paper alone makes up approximately 16% of US landfills. You can cut down on the number of napkins that you contribute to a landfill by purchasing a one-time set of cloth napkins. I made the switch a year ago! I spent about $30-50 a year in paper towels and napkins for 2 people. I purchased a $13 set of napkins 2 years ago, and haven’t bought another napkin since. I toss them in the wash with my regular laundry and I love them! They also make my not- so-fancy meals of cereal and toast feel even fancier! Try this set by clicking here.

Sarah gave Jen are reusable Pokemon snack bag not long ago that Jen uses regularly to bring snacks to work!

2. Stop buying dishwashing sponges! Sponges are seriously one of the most germy things in our house-many studies have shown that the average sponge holds more bacteria than your bathroom- and, as an added detriment, you have to throw them out pretty frequently. I just discovered an awesome alternative: silicone sponges that are antimicrobial AND dishwasher safe! I wash all of my hand washable dishes with them, clean my sinks and counters, and pop them in the dishwasher-no waste and I feel so much better that they’re not harboring bacteria. Try this set by clicking here.

3. Invest in silicon freezer bags! So, one of the hardest things for me is to reduce my need on plastic-I’ll admit it! One of the best things I’ve discovered on my journey to make small efforts that add up to a lot are silicon freezer bags. They have completely replaced single use freezer bags for me! I buy my food in bulk and freeze them in separate bags-these silicon bags are airtight and keep my food frozen nicely. When it’s time to thaw them out, I just take the bag and wash it in hot water or the dishwasher (yes, this even works with meat like chicken!). The bags were a little pricy-about $20- but I haven’t bought freezer bags in just under 2 years. Consider the savings-each set of freezer bags is about $3-5, depending on where you get it. If you bought a set of freezer bags even once every two months, you’re still looking at a LOT of money saved! Better yet, I use these bags to pack sandwiches, hold jewelry when I’m traveling, and store leftovers from dinner. Try these – click here.

4. Cut down on meat just a little bit-especially beef! Cows actually burp a little bit of methane when they eat-which is all of the time! Our reliance on beef is a major cause for carbon emissions across the globe. Consider eating more turkey and chicken, or, better yet- just cut down on meat once or twice a week! There are so many excellent dinner choices that are vegetarian (and those meat substitutes you can get in the freezer aisle are actually pretty darn delicious now!) Added bonus- it can cut down on your grocery bill, even by removing meat from your diet a few times a week!

Sarah’s silicon freezer bags!

5. Reduce your takeout packaging. Takeout food waste can exceed the amount of carbon emissions that cars produce each year! Next time you’re at a restaurant, request that they don’t give you a straw (think about using reusable ones, like these), don’t take more than a few paper napkins, ask that they don’t give you more condiments than you need, refuse the plastic bag they put the food in, and try not to do the carry out option as much and eat there, to cut down on the packaging that has to be used! Any reduction in waste will help.

6. Don’t use plastic grocery bags! Bring your own OR, if you don’t buy that much, refuse a bag altogether. Many stores (like Target) will give you a small discount for bringing your own reusable bags! You can even replace the plastic produce bags at the store with these – click here.

Remember, being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to be incredibly stressful. These small changes in my life have really cut down on my waste consumption. Please, do your best to reduce your carbon footprint-and enjoy all the money you’ll save with some of these tips! None of these tips were sponsored- I use all of these in my own life and love them! Statistics and general facts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Curating a New Fossil Collection

Yep, we’re really into puns.
Fossil turtle shells from the Oligocene (~32-34 million years), along with a turtle coprolite (fossil poop) from the Eocene (~47 million years).

Adriane here-

Last year, the Department of Geosciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst received a very generous donation of fossils. Being a fossil freak myself, I was over the moon excited to set up the new collection and help make the display for these precious fossils. Our department already has an impressive collection of minerals (the Rausch Mineral Gallery, which is open to the public weekdays from 9 am – 5 pm), so a fossil gallery was the perfect compliment to this. The department decided to call the collection the Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection, after the generous donor.

Teeth of Hyracodon, a pony-like organism that lived during the Oligocene.

Setting up the fossil displays was quite a task, but one of the most fun tasks I have participated in during my time at UMass as a graduate student! Unwrapping boxes upon boxes of vertebrate and invertebrate specimens was better than Christmas morning as a kid! There are several amazing fossil specimens, but one of my favorite is a Triceratops horn fragment. Other impressive specimens are the two nests of dinosaur eggs and two individual eggs.

An Edmontosaurus metatarpal (toe bone).

In addition to the fossils donated to us, the Geoscience department also has an impressive collection of Paleozoic invertebrate fossils that were collected by a previous professor (who has long since retired). The last cabinet in our fossil display was reserved especially for these fossils. My previous research experience was with Paleozoic invertebrates, so I (quite happily) undertook the task of selecting, identifying, and setting up these fossils.

A piece of a Triceratops horn.

My advisor Mark, my lab partner Serena, and I were tasked with organizing the display in cabinets next to our mineral gallery. We decided to order the specimens according to geologic time, with the youngest fossils on the right side of the room and the oldest on the left. In addition, we also tried to separate the fossils within each cabinet by terrestrial and marine organisms. This way, visitors can see how life on Earth has changed and evolved through time on land and in the oceans.

A Eubrontes trace fossil. Eubrontes is the name given to the dinosaur track. This one in particular came from western Massachusetts, and is about 200 million years old!

Rock, mineral, and fossil collections within universities and colleges are very important resources, as they allow the students in those institutions access to the collections through research, curating, and learning activities. Professors can also incorporate the collections into their teaching curriculum if they wish to. This semester, the Historical Geology students at UMass will each be assigned a fossil from the collection. As a class project, each student will write a one-page description of their fossil, and will include facts about the organism. These pages will then be print and bound in a book kept by the fossil collection so visitors can learn more about the extinct organisms. In this way, the students are learning about geologic time, evolution, and paleontology, and also science communication!

An Oviraptor egg, with a plastic model behind it to illustrate how the young dino would have grown inside the shell.

The collections are great tools for education outreach and science communication. For example, I have used the Rausch Mineral Gallery housed at UMass to teach local Boy Scouts about natural resources and important minerals we use in our everyday lives. Late last year, the first group to see the fossils was a science club from one of our local high schools. The kids were amazed at the fossils! When I told them our oldest fossils were ~550 million years old, they were seriously impressed. In the world of paleontology, dinosaurs are often king, so it’s always a sweet victory when I can get people to marvel at our Earth’s earliest multi-cellular invertebrate creatures.




Keichousaurus hui, a marine reptile that live about 240 million years ago.
Two eurypterids, Eurypterus lacustris. Eurypterids are commonly called ‘sea scorpions, and are the state fossil of New York. These two are from the Silurian Period and lived ~430-418 million years ago.
An unidentified leaf fossil with excellent preservation. Notice how the leaves and stem are clearly visible.
Two Devonian (~385 million years) brachiopods. They may not look like much, but these specimens are extra special because their lophophores, which were internal feeding structures, are preserved!
A Plesiosaur vertebrae (back) and humerus (front). Plesiosaurs were marine reptiles that preyed on other marine organisms. This specimen was found in southern Colorado and is Late Cretaceous (100-66 million years) in age.
A piece of a Hadrosaur jawbone. Hadrosaurs were duck-billed dinosaurs. This specimen came from the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation and is 70-66 million years old.
Fern fossils from the famous Mazon Creek locality in northern Illinois. The fossil are preserved in concretions, and when split, there are two halves of the fossil.
A Eucalyptocrinus specimen. This species belongs to the Class Crinoidea, which includes modern animals such as modern ‘feather stars’.
The final product! The Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection is housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst,  Department of Geosciences, and is open to the public during weekdays from 9 am-5 pm.

Women in STEAM Panel Discussion

Jen & Maggie here –

There was a statewide STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) festival that occurred at the end of October. Last spring, Maggie and I started to plan how we could contribute to this festival. We wanted to host something targeting young students and get them excited about continuing their education in the STEAM fields. We teamed up with the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture to host a “Women in STEAM Panel Discussion“.

We spent a considerable amount of time searching for panelists but eventually ended up with a planetary geoscientist, paleobiologist, robotics engineer, industrial engineer, and biochemist! The career stage of these women all varied, an aspect I found to be key on this panel. I was the paleobiologist on the panel and Maggie was our fearless moderator. Prior to the panel we created trading cards for each of the panelists with an image, their name, and title on the front and the back had a short biography and what facets of STEAM their work represents.

Example of the trading cards created for the STEAM panel discssuion.

We wanted to showcase the diversity of projects and fields that really tie into STEAM. As a paleobiologist, I spend much of my time looking at rocks and fossils but I also spend an immense amount of time creating complex 3-dimensional models to get more information on extinct animals. Without some artistic creativity and innovation, these models would be difficult to assemble.

The panel discussion began with a 3-5 minute brief history introduction about how we got to where we are today. A main goal of this panel was to showcase how different everyone’s journeys are, there is not one specific way to achieve your goals but usually it’s messy and a bit challenging. After the introductions, Maggie led us through some questions that we had already came up with to help move the panel along. We covered questions such as “do you still learn new things?” to “what can current STEAM students do if they feel they are not succeeding?”

We opened the floor up for questions as well and had a very productive discussion. Topics from the audience ranged from challenges faced as a women in our career positions to consciousness in robots. Events like this are not only beneficial to the audience but also to the panelists! Maggie and I both had a wonderful time and learned a lot about some very successful women and left feeling very empowered.

Click here for an article about the event from the Daily Beacon.

Tennessee’s Governor’s School

Jen here –

Colin simulating how early amphibians would do push ups.

This past summer I participated in Tennessee’s Governor’s Schools for the Sciences and Engineering program. Governor’s School is an intense month of coursework for high school students. For the month, the students live on campus in one of the dorms, take a few classes, and get to experience how college would be! I participate in many different outreach activities but the high school age range is one that I have not worked with very often. Most of the students I have worked with are 3rd-5th grade levels.

Sarah, one of our collaborators, and I were the teaching assistants for the course on “Vertebrate Evolution”. We helped the students with activities related to the lectures and pulled specimens out of our fossil collection for the students to examine.The course was structured as a walk through the evolution of vertebrates through time with emphasis on what specific features join groups of animals. It was a lot of fun to learn about vertebrate evolution, as I work on invertebrates. It was also a great experience getting to work with high school students. We took them on several class trips: tour of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Ripley’s Aquarium, and Zoo Knoxville.

Part of the Governor’s School gang at the zoo!

Class met for 3 hours every afternoon for a month, it was a lot! By the end of the month both the students and instructors were all very exhausted. The students had a final project that they presented as posters on the last day of class. It was so fun to hear about all of the great animal groups they researched. One of the most rewarding things about experiences like this is learning from your students. I have so much respect for K-12 teachers.

I simply do not have the mental or physical capacity to work with young students for an entire day. Thank a teacher for their dedication to educating our youth – it is a terribly difficult job that so many wonderful people excel at.

Fossil Summer Camp

Jen here –

Discussing teeth next to the T. rex replica in the geology gallery!
This past summer I was given the opportunity to redesign a summer camp that has been taught at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture for many years. I spent a long time going over the previous content from the summer camp and making it more engaging for the students. This meant coming up with new activities and crafts to keep the students occupied for three hours a day for one week.

The museum staff and I worked hard to promote the summer camp alongside the other camp for older students, Archaeokids! Archaeokids was a similar camp as the fossil camp but focused on archaeology rather than paleontology. Both archaeology and paleontology are fantastic sciences to get young students excited about learning. Both fields involve active learning by engaging the students with specimens from dig sites or fossil localities! I was asked to do a short interview to promote my camp to get more students enrolled, you can view it here.

Starting our sediment excavation outside on a beautiful day! The students also learned the importance of note taking.
Each day of the summer camp had a different theme that we could organize activities around. Here were the different themes in order: Fossils and fossil formation, rocks and the rock cycle, vertebrate anatomy, trace fossils, and artistic license and interpretation. The last activity of every day was exploring sediment to identify different animals that would have been found in the ancient environment. We had two teams one had sediment from the Ordovician and the other from the Mississippian. The first day we spent focusing on surface collection, just using our eyes to collect fossils from the pile of sediment. The following two days were spent sieving the sediment to see how things changed when we looked at a specific size of sediment and animals. The students really enjoyed being able to pick through the sediment to find the critters.

Exploring geologic time and taking about events that happened along the time scale.
The culmination of our sediment excavation was to draw out the environment that the sediment is recording. They were able to use a fossil guidebook that I made for them and the gallery exhibits of the reconstructed environments. They then were able to present their environments to their friends and discuss the differences! Both environments had some similar and some different animals. They got to pass around the different ones and talk about them. It was a very successful week and we all had a lot of fun!

McClung Museum Temporary Exhibit on Echinoderms

Sarah and Jen here –

The outside of the McClung Museum with Monty, a replica of an Edmontosaurus.

Our local museum, the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, has a rotating small exhibit in their permanent geology gallery. They often contact the graduate students to showcase current research within our department (Earth and Planetary Sciences).

Our lab group (at the time) had three students, Sarah, myself (Jen), and Ryan. Each of us work on a different type of echinoderm (sea stars, sea urchins, sand dollars). Sarah works on these strange creatures called diploporitans, Ryan works on heart urchins, and I work on blastoids! We did an exhibit showcasing each of the different things that we do with our fossils. This ranges from finding new fossils on field excursions, visiting museums to study their collections, or running new experiments. Even though we study different organisms from different time periods, we all share a similar goal: to better understand these animals so that we can better assess relationships through time.

A photo of our echinoderm exhibit at the McClung Museum.

Paleontology with Girls Inc.

Sarah and Jen here –

Jen walking around with a Spinosaurus tooth.
We went to a local elementary school to participate with the local Girls Inc. chapter in Knoxville. The goal was to get these young girls (K-5) excited about science and explore our science with them! We are both paleontologists so we brought a ton of really cool fossils and some of our common field equipment.

To begin, we had each of them draw a scientist. Many of them drew themselves conducting science! This is exactly what we were hoping for; often, girls will draw a male scientist rather than themselves or other females. We had a variety of scientists: engineers, botanists, aerospace engineers, soil scientists, oceanographers, and chemists! Many of them drew themselves out in the field or in a laboratory setting. It was very refreshing to see so many awesome career ideas from these young students.

Sarah walking around with a trilobite.
We went through the basic field gear we bring out in the field: a hammer, sunscreen, a hat, a compass, a notebook, fossil guidebook, and pencils! We explained why we need this basic gear and how we use it in the field. We then discussed different types of fossils. To do this, we brought mostly large specimens that they could visualize the modern relatives. We walked around with each specimen, allowing the girls to make observations, touch the specimen, and think about what it could be. It’s always easiest to prompt them into figuring out what the specimen could be. We would ask “Is it a plant or an animal?” A very simple question but not always clear from the fossil record! We would then discuss specific features of the specimen. Are there patterns? Could you see any strange features? Does anything look like something you see today? The questions help the students interact with us and they were not afraid to speak up. It’s always such a pleasure to interact with young students that are so curious because they ask the best questions!

FossiLab Outreach at the Smithsonian

Andy here-

One of the most enjoyable activities I got involved with while at the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum of Natural History was FossiLab. FossiLab is a windowed room where volunteers and scientists go about doing work that needs to be done in the museum. Some of the volunteers there do is look through sediment samples for tiny fossils. That’s time consuming work, but it can be done, and done well, with a few afternoons of training. Most of what the volunteers engage in re-housing fossils. Besides research and education, the Smithsonian also very importantly stores lots of items. The NMNH stores over 40 million fossils, and the fossils are only one part of what that particular museum has. Some of these fossils need to be put in new boxes, since the old ones aren’t doing a good job storing them anymore. So, they spend hours cutting new styrofoam to cradle to fossils just so, making new custom ‘housing’ that will keep the fossil safe for decades to come. This means I’ve gotten to see many cool fossils, like Miocene aged dolphin ancestors collected by the scientist who found (though didn’t name) the first Triceratops.

The rare view from the other side of the glass in FossiLab with an empty museum.
An example of some of the measurements on a planktic foraminifer (image generated by Melanie Sorman)

I, as a scientist, was doing research while I was in FossiLab. I study planktic foraminifera. In particular I’m interested in how their history is changed by climate. Can we detect how their evolution was altered by changing climates in the past? While upstairs in FossiLab I spent lots of time measuring individual foraminifera to understand their shape. I was doing this with forams which lived about 100 million years ago in a warm interval, trying to understand the evolution of one particular aspect of their shape. Certain species of foraminifera develop a ‘keel’, a build-up of calcite on the outer-edge of the shell. Yes, if you look at it just right, it does look like the keel on a boat. The question that we’re attacking is ‘did the keel develop from one lineage, or did several independent lineages develop keels simultaneously?’. This is important for a few reasons. The keel is a key feature of the test (internal shells), and has been thought for years to indicate that the foram lived deeper (though that’s not always the case). Also, much evolutionary research in forams depends on understanding how different species are related. We know this really well for the Cenozoic (65 Million years ago to the present), but the Cretaceous has several really important ancestor-descendent relationships that we just haven’t figured out yet. This is one of those. There’s a sign in front of the microscope that I used explaining much of this, and a little slideshow that plays with more detail.

FossiLab also has a door that lets the volunteers or scientists walk out and talk to folks. If people watched for a while, then I’d usually get up and go talk to them. I have a little tray filled with objects to talk about what I do. First, I’d hand them a tray of microfossils (which to a naked eye, look like sand) and ask them to make observations about what they saw. Usually I’d get “It’s sand!”. I then put the tray under my WoodenScope and show them that each ‘grain of sand’ they saw was actually tiny shells. We’d talk about what forams are, and how we use a big boat called the R/V JOIDES Resolution with a drill on it to get them. Describing coring goes like this: 

“Have you ever stuck a straw through a cake?”

“Yes!” Oddly, 80% of the groups have somebody that’s done this.

“OK, so what happened? What’s in the straw?”


“But what’s on top?”

“Right, you get the cake layers. There’s icing on top, then cake, then if it’s a really good cake, there’s another layer of icing and more cake. The ocean is just like that, there are layers. The JOIDES is our straw, and we’re using the cores to sample the layers in the bottom of the ocean.”

Then we finish up by talking about what forams can tell us. We count up forams because if we have more of a kind that likes warm water, then we can tell the water was warmer at that time in that location, or more cold loving forams means colder water.

To finish the interaction, I let the kids or adults ask as many questions as they want. Usually it ends with the parents telling them they have to go.

Fossil Fun with Pre-K Students

Jen here-

Maggie and I recently traveled to Clayton-Bradley Academy to explore fossils and different animals with pre-K students. We have a set of fossils we usually bring with and a guideline of topics to hit with various age levels but planning for pre-K never works out!

Exploring different fossil forms with young scientists! They had great questions.

We tried to keep it simple and hands-on. Each of the samples we brought with us was relatively large and the students were able to touch everything. We first showed them a sample of Lepidodendron – which is often mistaken for scales or dinosaur skin. We discussed how it was a plant, what the shapes meant, and how there is no plant material left.

We then examined various teeth and had the students compare them to their own teeth. The students could feel in their mouth and find the sharper versus flat teeth to compare to the fossils that they were exploring. We had a large mammoth molar that we passed around and most of the students thought that it was ribs from an animal. We oriented them and told them it was actually a tooth and to think about what sort of animal would have a tooth that big today. Younger children often have difficulty connecting words/names with the actual animal so we brought with images of these animals to help visually remind the students of what we are talking about. They couldn’t come to the conclusion of mammoth on their own but once we showed the image they remembered a similar animal from movies (mostly Ice Age) and you could see the wheels turning. It is always an adventure traveling to new schools and interacting with different age groups. It really tests your ability to modify your vocabulary and thought process.

Letting the young students touch some very old dinosaur teeth!

Hosting the Webelos Cub Scouts at UMass!

Adriane here-

Me telling the Webelos how fossils are used to infer where the continents were located in the past.

Every few months, I get to host local troops at my university to teach them about rocks and fossils. I’ve done this a few times now, and I’ve helped several scouts earn their Geology and Mining in Society badges. The latest visit was from a local Webelos troop and their parents! We hosted about 15 scouts and their parents, and one adorable sister!
Two of the university’s professors, Mike Williams and Sheila Seaman, a structural geologist and petrologist (in other words, they study rocks and minerals and the tectonics of the Earth), taught the group about key minerals that make up rocks. In addition, they brought out some really interesting rocks.

Raquel helping one of our younger guests identify microfossils!

After Mike and Sheila wrapped up with the rocks, I talked with the troop about cool things geologists get to do (mostly traveling all over the world), and the importance of the fossil record. I then let everyone walk around the room to examine three tables full of fossil specimens arranged by the different geologic eons.

Outreach such as teaching scouts about rocks, minerals, and fossils is vastly important, as many public schools do not teach their students about these nor let their students get hands-on experience testing minerals and identifying fossils. Many students do not get exposure to geoscience classes until they reach college or university, so students are missing the opportunity to learn about Earth’s vibrant and complex past. After all, learning about past organisms and climate events has important implications for understanding how ecosystems and climate will react to future climate change.