Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Education & Outreach
Here we will explore how Adriane and Jen reach out to the public to explore geology, paleontology, evolution, and climate! We are very involved with getting young minds engaged in science – enjoy a peek inside the outreach aspect of our careers.
Not long ago I was invited to visit Dr. Gordon Hubbell’s personal collection and museum of modern and fossil sharks. Dr. Hubbell is a retired veterinarian who is a renowned shark expert. He has been on fossil collecting expeditions across the world. I’ve been fortunate to know many collectors with vast personal collections but Dr. Hubbell’s was on another level. He had a special room that was devoted to his specimens, preparation, and photography.
There are curated specimens in display cases, that were designed specifically for Gordon’s fossil collection. The display cases each hold miniature exhibits on different aspects of sharks. For a non-shark expert, or even enthusiast, this was absolutely overwhelming. I like sharks, I think they are fascinating but I haven’t spent much time learning about them or exploring their fossil record.
The group that I visited the museum with included a graduate student researching some of the fossil specimens in Gordon’s collection. Another phenomenal aspect about Gordon – he understands the utility of his collection in active scientific research. In this case, the student and his assistant were photographic a complete set of shark teeth – by complete I mean a set from the top and lower jaw of the animal. Gordon had many complete sets of fossil teeth, which is incredibly rare.
I learned an incredible amount about sharks from their morphology (whole and just teeth), sexual dimorphism, geographic distribution, and some of the weird mutations that can occur in their teeth. But I think what was the largest takeaway is that Gordon wanted his visitors to learn and be excited about sharks. He didn’t have to make all of these incredible displays, he could have just pulled out specimens and I still would have learned a lot. But allowing the visitor to learn and ask questions about the content is much more effective and kept me engaged for a long time.
In addition to having one of the largest collection of shark remains, Gordon is also an artist. He sculpts animal life – modern and ancient. Some of these models were present in his collection and were so fun and lifelike that they really added to both my exploration of sharks and the exhibits. He even offers souvenirs on your way out – I got to take home an extinct mackerel shark tooth from Morocco that lived about 60 million years ago.
Take a virtual tour of his collection and museum here. Read more in the news about Gordon’s expertise and collection here.
At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, we have a natural history museum on campus called the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. Every year they do a family fun day event called Can You Dig It? where scientists from different departments on campus come and set up various activities to engage families. The Earth and Planetary Sciences department always shows up with several fun activities for families and kids of all ages. This year we had quite a few things going on.
Outside we had two tables of planetary activities. One table was talking about volcanoes and how to tell the difference between rocks formed by volcanic eruptions and rocks formed by meteorite impacts. We had real meteorites and impact deposits, as well as some volcanic rocks, so the kids could hold them all and really see the difference.
I was at the other planetary table, where we had some more meteorites and 3D-printed models of actual impact craters on the moon and Mars. We used these to explain how the shape of impact craters change depending on the size of a meteorite and the speed at which it impacts. We also had a tub of flour with a thin layer of cocoa powder on top. There were several marbles and small balls, and kids could hold one above the tub and drop it to make their very own impact crater. The layering using cocoa powder allowed us to show them how ejecta blankets work at real impact craters. An ejecta blanket is made of rocks from the impact site being blown up and out of the crater and landing to form a “blanket” surrounding the crater. In the tub, you could see flour on top of the cocoa powder after the impact, showing how buried layers get exposed at the surface surrounding impact craters.
Inside the museum, we had a table where people could bring in rocks or fossils they had collected and geologists or paleontologists would help identify them. This is a really popular thing, and some people bring loads of rocks they’ve been collecting all year.
If you have a local museum, make sure to go check them out. Local museums are often cheap or free and also host fun events like this one!
I recently got to participate in a different kind of outreach activity. Instead of going to a classroom or museum and talking to students in person, I got to share my research with students in a classroom all the way across the country via Skype! I had signed up with an organization called Skype a Scientist earlier this past fall.
This organization matches scientists with teachers who would like to have a scientist talk to their classrooms about their research, maybe related to something they’ve studied in class. Because it’s all conducted via Skype, the scientists and classrooms could be anywhere. I live in Knoxville, TN and the 7th grade classroom I connected with is in Seattle, WA. This was fun because I grew up in the greater Seattle area, so I could talk about the local geology. I got to share with them how growing up in the shadow of volcanoes, experiencing earthquakes as a kid, and learning about the glacial ice sheets that used to cover the land where my family now lives all inspired me to love and learn about geology.
My thesis research here in Knoxville has been on the geomorphology of Mars, which was perfect because this class was just finishing up a unit on Mars geomorphology. The teacher contacted me a couple of weeks before we met via Skype. I sent them some info on my research and the students sent back a list of questions they had for me. The topics of these questions ranged from undergrad vs. grad school to questions about Mars to questions about my favorite rocks or field areas. I was really impressed by the thought they put into these questions and the range of things they were interested in. During the Skype session, I started by answering as many of these questions as I could. This took about half the class time, so the teacher and students then had a chance to ask follow-up questions. The students were very engaged and interested in what I was saying. I was a little nervous beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions or the technology would fail on us, but it went really well and we all agreed it would be fun to do again. If you are a teacher or scientist I would totally recommend checking it out!
If you are interested in signing your class up, or a researcher interested in talking to a classroom, you can sign up for Skype a Scientist here!
National Fossil Day is a holiday enacted in 2010 to celebrate prehistoric life. Each year museums, institutes, and organizations plan events around understanding geology, paleontology, and Earth’s history! This year, I helped plan activities for the FOSSIL project and the department of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The annual event has all the natural history departments and several local organizations set up as a knowledge fair. Adults and children can wander around to different tables to learn about Florida’s different animals, plants, and more!
At the FOSSIL project table, we displayed real megalodon teeth, 3D printed teeth made of plastic, and digital teeth! On the myFOSSIL website you can look through a 3D gallery (click here) and move digital fossils around in your browser. We also had an app up that was developed by the iDigFossils group to estimate body size of the sharks based on their teeth! It was really fun and helped show the utility of the website!
The vertebrate paleontology table had a modern turtle shell next to ancient fossil turtle pieces! The idea was you could select a piece of shell material and try to figure out where on the turtle shell the piece was fun. This was difficult with some pieces but others were very clearly the edge of the shell or contained ribs. As many of you may know, I am not a vertebrate paleontologist so I had to quickly learn as much as I could about turtles. Shout out to my friend Jeanette for teaching me how to identify turtle shell fragments the week before the event. Many of these turtle pieces were about 5 million years old and from areas around Florida! We also had a few jaws for people to look at different teeth and then play a matching game. The game had you match different animals and teeth, then we talked with the players about diet and how we can use differently shaped teeth to think about what food the animal was eating.
I helped out at the two tables inside but outside we had a dig pit and wash pit stations. So one was where you would dig through sand to find different fossils and the other was where you would use a screen to sieve through material to find smaller fossils!
We had our National Fossil Day celebrations a bit early to coincide with the opening of a new exhibit, ‘Permian Monsters’. The Permian period is incredibly interesting because it was before dinosaurs when mammals were dominant and roaming the Earth. I was asked to be on the radio to describe the differences between dinosaurs and mammals in less than 30 seconds! At first I was thinking… what the heck am I going to say to these people but then I knew: ‘The major difference between these early mammals and dinosaurs is the amount of holes in their heads.’ The radio host lost his mind and then asked me a million questions after we were off air.
This was my first National Fossil Day at a new institution and I had a lot of fun! I hope everyone got to celebrate and share their love and knowledge for fossils!
This semester, I am one of our Introduction to Geology course teaching assistants (or TA for short). This class is offered through the Geosciences department at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and this semester, includes over 150 students! The course is designed to introduce our students, who are mostly freshmen and sophomores, to some fundamental principles of geology and important Earth system processes (such as volcanoes, plate tectonics, and earthquakes). Every time the class is taught, which is once a semester, we offer an optional field trip for the students. This trip is held on a Saturday, and we take the students all around the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts to show them the major rock formations and tell them the geologic history of the area. In this post, I’ll talk a bit about what we did with the students and why field trips such as these, although optional, are of value.
We began the day at 8:30 am on a rainy October morning. For the trip, about 85 students had signed up. The class TAs, of which there were five on this trip, had decided to each share the responsibility of leading the field trip. We were going to 6 stops altogether, so we each chose a stop at which to talk. Because of the rain, cold, and early start, a large majority of our students didn’t show up. So we left the university with about 65 students in tow!
The first place we stopped was in a nearby town, which is sort of famous. Shelburne Falls was the filming site of the movie ‘The Judge’ starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. But the other (and more important, in my opinion) reason the town is famous is because it contains features called potholes, which were first created when the glaciers glaciers that once covered the area about 20,000 years ago began melting. Potholes are round impressions in the rocks, made by small rocks and pebbles swirling around in a depression in a large rock body. Over time, the small rocks, pebbles, and cobbles carve out a larger and deeper depression. Potholes usually form in or near rivers, as the swirling and moving water is key to their creation.
After we marveled at the Shelburne Falls potholes, we loaded up the vans and took the students into the Berkshire mountains. We stopped at several places in the mountains to talk about the tectonic history of the region, and marvel at the views. Generally, the rocks in the Berkshires have a very long and complex tectonic history. Most of the rocks are a billion to 450 million years old. These rocks are severely faulted (or broken) and folded from orogenies, or times when volcanic island arcs or other continents slammed into North America. The east coast of North America has experienced three different orogenies over the past ~450 million years. From these, the Appalachian Mountain chain was built, which stretches from southeastern Canada south into Alabama. We explained this tectonic history of mountain-building to the students.
But we didn’t just talk about really old rocks on the field trip. We also showed our students more recent geological phenomenon, such as the effects of hurricanes on local river systems. In 2011, Hurricane Irene tracked across western Massachusetts, bringing with it torrential rainfall within just a few days. The weeks before the hurricane hit, several inches of rainfall had already fallen in the area, making the ground saturated. The mixed effects of already-soaked ground, plus additional rainfall, led to landslides in the area. One landslide took out half a road. The damage was so extensive and severe the road was closed for 3.5 months!
The second to last stop we made with the students was to an old marble quarry. The quarry was in operation during the 1800’s into the early 1900’s. However, the mining came to a halt one day when a fire broke out in the barn where the dynamite was kept. This fire, and the subsequent explosions, rocked the town. From then on, the quarry was taken over by the state and made into a state park. And I’m really glad it was: the park is lovely, with a huge marble amphitheater and a river that runs through a carved canyon. The park claims to have the largest natural bridge in the U.S., perhaps the world. I’m not certain if this is true, but the park is lovely. Because the age of the marble is Ordovician (~450 million years old), and I studied this time period during my masters degree, I happily chatted to the students at this stop. I even went full nerd and brought brachiopod and trilobite fossils with me to show the students what types of organisms probably lived in this region hundreds of millions of years ago.
Our last stop was to a local graveyard just down the road from the quarry. Here, the gravestones are all leaning in different directions. They weren’t originally like that, so what caused them to move? It turns out that the graveyard is built on a drumlin. A drumlin is a small hill that was created by the glaciers that covered Massachusetts 20,000 year ago. Because the drumlin is made of sediments that aren’t well consolidated (or packed down), the earth ‘creeps’, or moves. Another way to think of this is the ground is still settling, much like a new house will settle over time on its foundation. After this stop, we packed up the students and headed back to UMass.
Geology is a tricky subject to teach, as a lot of the concepts involve thinking in 3D and sometimes 4D. Learning to think like this takes great practice, patience, and repetition. Field trips such as these expose the students to new concepts and ideas, and we get to teach them these concepts while on the outcrop, looking at the rocks. For example, when talking about the rock formations being smashed together and all pushed towards the west, we can do this while standing in front of a rock with folds and breaks. Using a compass, we can show the students that the folds are pushed, or tilted, to the west from orogenies that I mentioned above. Our students also get more face time with each other, with the TAs, and with the professor. Field trips often create a more relaxed and casual atmosphere than the classroom, so these are great opportunities for students to chat with us (and vice versa) and ask questions they wouldn’t necessarily ask in the class. Having large all-day field trips such as these are also wonderful for students who already are or are thinking about becoming geology majors. These students get a bit more experience with the major and a taste of what’s to come during their degree.
One of the problems in geology is lack of accessibility for students who are hearing, visually, or physically impaired. Because our science takes us outdoors much of the time, this isn’t attractive for students who may be wheel-chair bound or have a disability of any sort. In addition, the geosciences are losing students who did not grow up loving the outdoors, and who may not be comfortable going on day-long field trips. One way to make the class more accessible is to have an alternative option for students who cannot or don’t feel comfortable going outdoors for long periods of time. In our class, we also give the students the option to do the field trip virtually. One of our professors at UMass built a program with images, text, and figures that lets students ‘visit’ local rocks and formations of interest to learn about the geology of the region.
But the all-day optional field trip isn’t just great for our students, it’s also great for the teaching assistants. Because we all took turns talking at different stops, we each got practice talking to a large group of students and explaining geologic concepts. Most of the time, graduate students talk with each other and use science jargon that is not appropriate for undergraduates or the public (they just don’t understand the words we use). Talking with students who have no prior experience with geology makes us think about how we can explain things more thoroughly and simply. Leading the trip together also gives us experience in leadership and teamwork: we all have to work together to make the trip fun, informative, and safe for everyone involved!
A couple of weekends ago I was able to tag along to a very special geology event-Geoconclave. Geoconclave is a competition in Tennessee for undergraduate geology majors from schools in Tennessee and nearby in the surrounding states. Each school participating brings a team of students to compete in various events and camp out with other geology nerds. As a graduate student there, I was able to help out our team (cooking, cleaning up, making sure people got to their competition sites, etc.) as well as help out the faculty members in charge of the weekend as a whole and helped with specific competitions. Our first night there was very reminiscent of being at camp for the first night-we got to meet students from the other schools, eat dinner, and play card games all night. Most of us got to bed pretty early because we needed to be up early the next day to start the conclave fun!
The next morning all of the competitions started. The first half of the day was spent doing written competitions in hydrogeology, pace and compass, maps, rock identification, mineral identification, and fossil identification. These written competitions were set up as 30 minute tests, some were more hands-on than others, that one student from each school participated in. Every team was awarded points towards the overall competition based on how they placed in each individual event.
During the afternoon we had our fun field events-the rock hammer throw and the geode roll! These were separated by hammer throw for distance and accuracy, and geode roll for distance and accuracy. It was interesting to see the different techniques that everyone had for throwing hammers and rolling the geode. You wouldn’t think that there would be a strategy or technique for these things, but there certainly is! It was fun to sit with the team from University of Tennessee and hear them discuss and strategize how to throw each object for each event. These events were definitely some of the most fun and it was great to be able to cheer on other teams and laugh along with them as we threw hammers and geodes.
After dinner, all of the teams competed in the rock bowl–a geology-based quiz game! We played bracket elimination style and the questions alternated between questions that would be fair game in any intro geology class all the way up to questions that are typical to ask senior geology students. This was the hardest event (in my opinion!) for students to sit through because the audience had to be silent, no matter how badly we wanted to answer questions! At the end of rock bowl, the winners of Geoconclave and rock bowl were announced, but, the best part was after cleaning up many students went and hung out around a campfire-the competition was fun but at the end of the day, we had more fun hanging out with other young geologists than competing with them.
By the time that we got up and started making breakfast on Sunday morning, most of the other teams had left already (they had much longer drives that we did!) and it was nice to have our quiet breakfast before the deep cleaning of the camp kitchen started. After camp was cleaned up, several of us went to go look at the waterfall in the state park in which we were camping. It was such a nice way to end the weekend!
Being able to experience Geoconclave as a grad student made me really appreciate the work that goes into hosting an event like this, but also made me really jealous that we didn’t have something like this where I did my undergrad. It is such a fun way for students who love geology to practice their skills, but also to meet other geologists around the state. I know I speak for many people on UT’s team when I say that I can’t wait for next year!
A few weeks ago I took part in FUTURES: European Researchers Night (@FUTURES_ERN). FUTURES occurs all over the EU (300 cities, 24 countries), but locally was put on by several universities (University of Bristol, University of Bath, Bath Spa University) to highlight the contributions of the European Union to science in the area. There were storytelling functions, programs where you could walk to different locations with scientists talking about their research, and even the wonderfully British “Tea with a Researcher”. One of the odd things about science is that in a few key ways I count as a quasi-European researcher now that I’m affiliated with (work for) a European University. I’m also funded by the UK government through the Natural Environment Research Council. This is all despite being American. I originally wasn’t going to take part in this because I was supposed to be at a meeting, but a family circumstance required me to stay in town. Luckily, a local children’s museum was close enough and a few folks from the School of Earth Sciences had organized a display already. Because I was supposed to be in London, I had no part in the planning or creation of anything. As somebody who knows how much time can go into those, it was very nice to just come in and talk to folks.
There were several different parts to the display. We had three jars with different levels of CO2 and lamps demonstrating the greenhouse effect. The jar and lamp setup worked surprisingly well, considering the numerous other variables, but by the end of the evening I think the seals gave out and the pure-CO2 temperature jar had equalized with the others. There were also several banners we could use in the background to talk about the different effects that climate change has on the Earth and us, including one that described the different fluxes of CO2 into the atmosphere (~28% from power, ~28% from transportation, etc.). Lastly, and the most conversation-starting, was a collection of food with a representation of how much carbon goes into the air. The best part was that there was a set of balloons each representing 1 kg of carbon. For each item then, there was a sheet of paper with how much carbon is emitted during production, then graphically represented as a bunch of balloons. So, if 3 kg of carbon is emitted, there were 3 clutches of balloons. It led to discussions of how much meat production emits, if it’s better to eat local or in season, and how much CO2 different modes of transportation emit. The balloons were key for many people, as they took a difficult problem to represent (atmospheric gas) and made it visual.
The entire display worked better for adults than it did for kids. In part, it’s tough to communicate climate change to kids… that’s not accurate. It feels really bad to talk about climate change to children. They’re too young to do anything about it; they can’t vote, they have little control over their eating habits, they can’t control how they get around, but mostly because it’s not their fault. Climate change is a problem that we and our parents and their parents have caused, and it sucks to be the one to tell kids about what’s going to happen when they’re adults. Also, we were across the aisle from a virtual reality blood vein, so tough for jars of gas to compete. Bringing climate science to kids relies on props: cores, fossils, etc.; bringing it to adults can use that, but you can also talk about the real and very scary challenges that we will face due to climate change.
This summer I got the chance to hang out with local elementary school students and do cool science experiments. I was one of several volunteers from 500 Women Scientists KnoxPod, an organization dedicated to science outreach and opportunities for fellowship for women scientists, and we partnered with the local Freedom Schools Program, a national summer literacy program for at-risk and minority youth. As part of our partnership, we came up with some fun experiments and demonstrations of various scientific topics to get our students engaged and interested in science.
Our main goals were to show the students that anyone can do science and that the ideas of science affect our daily lives in many ways. Since we had never done this before, it involved a lot of Google searching and trying to find ways to do experiments that were fun and doable for a range of ages and abilities of students. It was helpful that the students we worked with were divided into upper and lower elementary age groups, so we could have some activities involving more reading for the older kids. But both groups were very impressive with their understanding and retention of the ideas, even remembering things we had talked about much earlier in the summer!
One of the most rewarding moments was when one of the girls who had seemed kind of shy and reserved during the earlier sessions came up to me one day and told me that she wants to be a scientist when she grows up! By the end of the summer there were other kids too who would cheer when I walked in, declare that science was their favorite subject, and try to sit as close to me as possible. This made me feel like all the hours spent preparing lessons were totally worth it. I had never done any sort of K-12 classroom presentation before so it was also a really great opportunity to get more practice explaining the concepts of science in an accessible way.
Below are pictures from when we made a pendulum and added paint to make some art and show patterns of pendulum swinging and their causes.
I recently had the opportunity to work with high school students and like many high schoolers, everyone was nervously discussing AP (advanced placement) classes that they were taking, when the next ACT or SAT test day was, and of course, what colleges everyone was looking at. For several of those students, thinking about college brought up questions about their immigration status in this country and what resources were available to them to help finance their education. I felt honored that these students felt comfortable enough to ask me for help finding these resources and I wanted to share with others some of the resources that I have found.
FAFSA + State Aid + In-State Tuition:
FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) is the most annoying and painful online form that ultimately results in loans from the Department of Education to help pay for school. If you have DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, you are eligible to apply for FAFSA. However, even if you don’t have DACA status and are an undocumented student, you may be eligible to apply for state aid in certain states. In at least six states (California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington) you are able to apply for state aid.
In-State tuition varies from state to state, but thankfully there are good graphics and readily available lists of the states that are currently allowing in-state tuition. This can be a big issue for students because if you aren’t getting in-state tuition, often the school then has you pay international tuition, which is significantly more expensive. Like applying for state aid, these in-state tuition states do require residency in those states, and some of those states have an application that needs to be filled out in order to be considered for in-state tuition.
Click here for more information about FAFSA + State Aid + In-State Tuition
Privately funded scholarships are also an option and a quick Google search will bring up more than I have included here. Like with any scholarships though, there are applications (and sometimes other supplemental materials) with strict deadlines, so looking sooner rather than later is to your benefit! Some of these scholarships do require you to go to specific schools or be a resident of specific states, so make sure to look at the fine print and all eligibility requirements before applying!
Applying to and attending college as an undocumented student can come with a very different set of challenges placed on top of the usual nerves of going away to school. The website My Undocumented Life has blog posts and articles written by other undocumented students about all kinds of life situations that are different or challenging because of immigration status. I will also say that Twitter can be a very valuable resource to anyone looking for scholarships, financial aid, or any questions about college as an undocumented student. If you search hashtags like #undocumented, #DACA, #Dreamers, #UndocuSTEM, or if you tweet asking for help looking for resources using those hashtags, other students who have gone through similar situations already are likely to respond and help you out or provide advice!
From the perspective of a teacher, I will also say that if you have a teacher, guidance counselor, or another person that you trust to share this information with and ask for help, we want to help you. Every person who wants an education deserves access to that education and at least in my case, I will continue to help anyone and everyone who needs help finding a way to make that happen!
One of my favorite events every year is called the Planetary Geologic Mappers Meeting. This is a meeting held annually at which all scientists with a NASA grant to do geologic mapping come and present updates on their maps. It’s really cool because there are maps not just of well-known or major planetary bodies (Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Moon) but also of smaller or less well-known bodies, including asteroids, dwarf planets, and several moons of planets in the solar system. Earth is of course a planet too, but to distinguish science done on and about earth from that done about any other place in the solar system or universe, everything not on Earth is called “planetary” and Earth-specific research is termed “terrestrial”. The main point of this meeting is to update NASA, although it has also become a place to get feedback and support from the USGS Astrogeology mapping support team and fellow mapping scientists, but it’s also a great opportunity for students to network and learn more about planetary geologic mapping.
This meeting is very small, generally less than 50 attendees, unlike the big geology conferences like GSA (Geological Society of America) and AGU (American Geophysical Union). This means that even though this was only my third time attending, I was familiar with many of the people there and what they were doing. There were a number of new faces this time, which is very exciting. It’s always fun when people start doing planetary mapping for the first time, and the community is very welcoming of new-comers and willing to help.
This year it was held in our department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. My advisor, Dr. Devon Burr, was the local organizer this year, so I got a chance to see everything that goes into hosting a conference like this. It was great fun to welcome all the mappers to Knoxville. I’ve made a few friends at this meeting over the years and I loved the chance to show them around my city.
The first two days are poster and oral presentations. One person from each mapping team gives an oral presentation on their project, with some time for questions they have for other mappers or thoughts and questions from the mappers and USGS mapping staff. Most mapping teams also have posters of their maps. There is lots of time built into the schedule for poster presentations and networking. There are teams of mappers from different universities or institutions who use this time to meet and discuss their work in person rather than phone or e-mail as they usually have to do during the school year. It’s also a good time for student mappers to ask more experienced mappers or those with expertise in a particular field for advice and feedback on their projects.
The first night we had a social and all went out for dinner at a local restaurant. It was a great break from all the science we’d been discussing. We got a chance to catch up and talk about where we’re all living and working, show off pictures of our pets and families, etc. It’s good as scientists to take time to appreciate each other as humans too with lives outside of our jobs each day. While this meeting is short and sweet, it’s always great fun and I look forward to the next one!