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.
This year is the third iteration of an entirely online conference, Palaeontological Virtual Congress, open to abstract submissions from anyone studying paleontological sciences. A broadly accessible conference as the digital means provides increased access to scientific content. There is flexibility with file format, presenters can be visible on camera augmented by images and slides edited into the video, upload their slides without an overlaying audio, or walk through their slides while providing audio narrative. We asked Vicente Crespo, the main organizer, some questions about the concept and the history of the conference.
Who organized this event?
The Organizing Committee is formed by 9 people, with 3 professors (Evangelos Vlachos, Rosalía Guerrero-Arenas and Penélope Cruzádo-Caballero), 4 post-doctoral researchers (María Ríos, Francesc Gascó, Humberto G. Ferrón and me), and 2 pre-doc students (Fernando A. M. Arnal and José Luis Herráiz) from five different countries. In the past editions of the congress, it was expected there would be around 100 participants, and the final attendees were near 400. This year there was a total of 275 contributions presented, and I we will have around 600 participants, which at the moment are from 51 different registered countries.
What are the major changes in the upcoming event compared to the last installment?
Although we always try to keep a similar format, which is comfortable and easy for users, we also try to innovate in each edition and try to learn each time from the advice given by the participants. This is why this edition we have set new Discord channels, so that interaction between participants is more direct and easy plus we set a new website. But, and above all, in this edition we really wanted to make clear the purpose of this initiative which is to reach all, and include all, which meant setting a new Social Fund that allows participants from low and lower-middle income countries to get a registration free of charge.
Online conferences have gotten much more common as the COVID-19 crisis persists. Will this change how people perceive the PalaeoVC?
I hope it won’t change the way people see us! It is true that in these difficult times, typically face-to-face congresses have become virtual. Most of them have kept their in-person soul, that is, reduced to the same time period as their face-to-face versions and the conferences in real time, although I believe that in time, they will return to being in person. However, in the PVC, which was held before the pandemic, and is aimed at a more global audience, the congress lasts 15 days, and the presentations are not live, so you can enjoy them at any time of the day, and as many times as you want, with the freedom other type of events do not provide.
Will there be a 4th PalaeoVC?
Hopefully there will be a fourth edition, especially with the success in participation of this third edition. Our idea is to hold it every year and a half, so the next one should be in May 2023.
So hope you enjoy it and See you soon at the 3rd PVC… and at the 4th PVC!
International Fossil Day is an initiative by the International Paleontological Association and the National Park Service (National Fossil Day in the U.S.), the idea is to spread the interest in the life of the past and many different organisations and museums around the world host events or activities today. Of course we, the Time Scavengers team, have to participate in this, there can never be too much paleo-related fun!
We want to celebrate IFD by showing off our team members’ favourite extinct species or individual fossils, some facts about the species or individual and why we picked them as our favourites.
Click here to visit the National Park Service website to learn more about National Fossil Day, and here to visit the International Palaeontological Association to learn more about International Fossil Day!
Most of my paleontology lectures during my undergrad took place in small rooms somewhere deep in the side wings of the institute building, on the edge of the paleontological collection/museum that is located within the institute. Whenever me and my friends were waiting for our professors to show up, we would stare and marvel at the exhibited specimens. I vividly remember walking into that area for the first time, it is dominated by a huge, mounted skeleton of an adult cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) and I was completely blown away by the sheer power it radiates. I didn’t care too much about the T. rex skull cast around the corner that most others found so fascinating. From that first day of paleo classes, having my own mounted cave bear skeleton has been on the top of my bucket list. U. spelaeus lived during the Pleistocene across both northern Asia and Europe and went extinct during the Last Glacial Maximum about 24,000 years ago. They are closely related to brown bears (Ursus arctos), the two species have a last common ancestor about 1.2 million years ago. Even though they were huge, powerful bears that were reaching 3.5m (11.5ft) when standing upright, with large teeth and fearsome claws, it’s currently thought that the majority of the western populations were eating an almost exclusively vegetarian diet! Recently, two very well preserved frozen cave bear carcasses have been discovered in two separate areas of thawing permafrost in Russia, an adult and a cub, both with almost all soft tissue present and intact. I’m already excited and looking forward to reading all the new research that will be done on these specimens!
I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History during the summer of 2015 and that experience was what solidified my interest in paleontology. I worked with my supervisor on Eocene mammals from the western United States and had some of my first experiences doing large scientific outreach events during that summer. Because of that summer I will always have a soft spot for Uintatheres!
Uintatheres (U. anceps) lived during the Eocene in North America and were large browsers. These animals looked similar to rhinos but male U. anceps had six knob-shaped protrusions coming off of their skulls. Part of my experience working with these fossils was reorganizing the collections space that housed the skulls, they are incredibly heavy! I mentioned that U. anceps were browsers, but they also had long canine teeth that resemble the canines of saber tooth cats. These teeth may have been used as a defense mechanism but also may have played a role in how they plucked leaves from plants. While I don’t work on Eocene mammals now, Uintatheres will always be special to me for the role they played in getting me excited about paleontology and scientific outreach!
I cannot pick just one fossil to highlight right now, so here are two of my favorites! In 2016, I was studying in England and visited the Natural History Museum in London where I saw an incredible ammonite, Asteroceras stellare. Asteroceras was a large ammonite that lived during the Early Jurassic and whose shell reached nearly three feet in diameter. Asteroceras was a nektonic carnivore who might have fed on fish, crustaceans, and bivalves.
My favorite vertebrate fossil is the Ichthyosaur. I loved visiting the Jurassic Coast in England and got to explore Lyme Regis, both the birthplace of Mary Anning and a town that had references to paleontology everywhere you looked. You can see ichthyosaur fossils in both the Lyme Regis Museum and the Natural History Museum in London and at the NHM, you can see some of the specimens that Mary Anning and her family had collected along the Jurassic Coast. Ichthyosaurs (Greek for “fish lizard”), are marine reptiles that lived during much of the Mesozoic and were thought to be one of the top aquatic predators of their time.
I have three favorite extinct species: the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), the dinosaur Parasaurolophus, and the chalicothere Moropus elatus. Mastodons are distant relatives of the elephants, and they seem to be overshadowed by the wooly mammoth. However, both lived in North America until the end of the Pleistocene epoch. I’ve always thought that Parasaurolophus was an elegant duck-billed dinosaur, and I’ve seen them featured in several movies in the Jurassic Park series. I think that chalicotheres are so bizarre! Distant relatives to horses, rhinos, and tapirs, imagine a big draft horse with giant claws instead of hooves! I’ve seen several skeletons of these over the years. Moropus elatus went extinct in the Miocene epoch.
Like anyone in paleo would tell you I can’t pick one particular fossil organism as my favorite. Currently my favorite fossil organism is the “bear-dog” known as Amphicyoningens which would have been a formidable predator during the Mid-Miocene. The cenozoic was a time for innovation in mammals and bear-dogs were the best of both worlds. All the stoic grandeur of a bear and all the cute charm of a dog, what more could you want? The picture shown was taken at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Jonathan Jordan (Paleo Policy Podcast)
For me, the Mesozoic reigns supreme. However, my recent trip to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles gave me a greater appreciation for the Cenozoic era and mammalian evolution in general. While it may not be my favorite fossil ever, I was captivated by Panthera atrox’s look and the idea of an American Serengeti 340,000 to 11,000 years ago. Genetic analysis suggests with high likelihood that Panthera atrox is a close relative of the Eurasian Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea). After the Bering Strait land bridge was submerged by rising sea levels, Panthera atrox was isolated from its Eurasian relatives and became a distinct species that has been found as north as Alaska and as south as Mexico. Neat! Check out an image of Panthera atrox’s skull on the Smithsonian Learning Lab site!
I’m fortunate to have worked on many different types of animals during my career, starting with dinosaurs, then moving to Devonian brachiopods and their encrusting organisms, and now working on much younger Pleistocene-aged animals that are still alive today. I mostly study biotic interactions, such as predation, so I thought I would share my favourite trace fossil (ichnotaxon), Caedichnus! Trace fossils are different than a body fossil because they show evidence (or traces) of an organism or its behaviour. In the case of Caedichnus, this trace fossil is created by a crab trying to break into the shell of a snail by peeling away at the shell opening (aperture) until it can reach the snail’s soft body. Imagine having a crab try to peel your shell back like an orange – scary! Caedichnus traces are useful for determining how many crabs were in an area, and identifying patterns of crab predation through space and time. I’m now using them to determine the impacts of climate change and human activity on crab fisheries since pre-human times.
Like most of my colleagues above, it is incredibly hard for me to say which fossil is my favorite! So instead, I’ll talk about my favorite fossil group, the foraminifera. Foraminifera are single-celled protists that live in the surface ocean (planktic foraminifera) or in/on ocean sediments (benthic foraminifera). Planktic foraminifera are my favorites; they evolved about 175 million years ago, and still live in the global ocean today! One of the ways which we know about past climate states how the ocean behaved to such warming and cooling events of the geologic past is through analyzing the chemistry of fossil foraminifera shells, or tests! Foraminifera are also incredibly useful in studies of evolution, as they have a robust fossil record. Learn more about Foraminifera here!
What’s YOUR favourite extinct species? Let us know in the comments, maybe we will feature them in a future post!
During a recent field trip (August 2021), we visited the Dino Parque Lourinhã in western Portugal, approximately 50 km north of Lisbon. Dino Parque Lourinhã is open every day except on holidays and tickets currently cost 9,90 € for children, 13 € for adults, but you can get your tickets at a lower price if you book online [Fig 1].
The park consists of a large outdoor area showcasing life sized dinosaur reconstructions, a small museum as well as an activities hall.
The main part of the park consists of an outdoor space, divided into four zones highlighting the terrestrial fauna of the Paleozoic, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. A fifth area (called sea monsters) displays a range of marine creatures from different periods, from Jurassic ammonites to Eocene manatees [Fig 2]. A large board near the entrance shows a geologic timescale, depicting the main transitional events and examples of typical fauna and flora for each period [Fig 3]. Five paths then wind through a dense pine forest, hiding even the largest dinosaurs surprisingly well until you stand right in front of them – you never know what lurks behind the next group of trees. The natural cover also provides shade on hot sunny days. Arrows give visitors a chance to walk through the zones in chronological order to experience the evolution of the prehistorical fauna.
All displays come with explanations in English, Portuguese, French and Spanish, giving a brief overview of each creature, where fossils have been found, when it lived, information about its diet and hunting strategies, and more. These signs also include pictures of the actual fossils that can be compared with the reconstruction.
The vast majority of reconstructions is rather up to date with the scientific literature; a large number of theropods is shown with a variety of feathers for example [Fig 4]. It is clear that such huge displays cannot be re-done with every new paper that is being published on a certain species, but overall, we found the scientific accuracy of the models impressive. This is certainly due to the very recent opening of the park in 2019. We highly recommend a visit to the park to see brand new dinosaur models. While dinosaurs are, of course, the main attraction of this place, you will also find reconstructions of many different prehistoric animals, such as invertebrates, amphibians, marine reptiles and pterosaurs. All reconstructions were made in dynamic poses, and this artistic choice makes them look alive – guaranteeing great photos [Fig 5]. In total there are more than 180 models.
For all the very young paleontologists the park has much to offer. Several mini-playgrounds are scattered throughout the exhibits and paleontology is presented in a child friendly manner with a diversity of educational activities and shows. There is for example a sand box in which a plesiosaur replica fossil is hidden so that playing children can excavate it themselves. We also noticed that the only stairs in the entire park are used to access a platform near the head of Supersaurus, a very large sauropod. The rest of the park uses slopes and is thus wheelchair accessible and lots of benches and picnic tables are distributed throughout the entire park so the next place to rest is never far away.
The museum focuses on the rich local dinosaur fauna found in the area, such as a nest of Lourinhanosaurus eggs with embryos inside, and Torvosaurus remains. The museum also explains the local geology and how the area looked like during the Jurassic; it was a meandering river/delta system located in the Lusitanian Basin. Both alluvial and marine fossils are abundant in the sedimentary rocks. More on the geological setting of this area will be covered in a separate blog post where we describe our own fossil hunting efforts in Portugal. The museum also provides an insight into paleontological excavation methods and hosts the preparators’ laboratory, so you can watch people work on newly discovered fossils in real time through a large window [Fig 6].
We received a little tour behind the scenes of the park and talked to the preparators who showed us their current projects and were excited to explain the implications of their latest finds. Since these were of course still unpublished, we had to promise to keep everything secret and thus can’t talk about it. You’ll have to keep an eye out for publications on fossils from that area, it’s exciting stuff! Taped to the window to the preparators’ lab was a little poster saying the preparators accept (unpaid) interns/volunteers and people who are looking for thesis projects, so if you are curious about the topic, and excited about learning how to prepare dinosaur or other fossil material, you can apply for an internship there [Fig 7]. Our tour behind the scenes also included very interesting conversations with some of the people who worked on the life-sized dinosaur reconstructions. We got to observe their work for a little bit: they were in the process of creating a copy of a Torvosaurusgurneyi skull replica [Fig 8].
Even without the tour behind the scenes the Dino Parque is definitely worth a visit. Here are some additional impressions of our visit:
Agathe here – The European Geoscience Union, EGU, a leading learned society in the fields of Earth, Planetary and space sciences, organize each year the largest European conference in geosciences. Due to COVID-19, this year’s conference was entirely virtual. Naturally, attending an online conference is very different from going to one in person: meeting people is less easy and you don’t feel the excitement of being surrounded by your colleagues and friends, not to mention that it is difficult when you are in front of your computer to put your work in progress aside and devote yourself to the conference. I attended the EGU meeting to present results of my PhD work in paleoclimatology, on the evolution of continental climate from the mid-Eocene to the early Oligocene. As it was my first big 100% virtual conference, I would like to give my impressions on the format, a little bit particular, but which will certainly become more and more common in the future.
Part I – Joining a fully virtual conference, what does it look like?
The number of participants at EGU General Assemblies increases from year to year, and this conference format will not have limited participation with 18,155 scientists from 136 countries this year against 16,273 participants from 113 countries in the last edition, in 2019 . In recent years, various movements have developed that promote a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions associated with research activities: first aware of climate change, researchers must adapt their practices to be consistent and follow an energy-saving approach . One of the positive points of this year’s meeting is that without all the flights to Vienna, its carbon imprint was much lower. Last April, the EGU estimated that by organizing a fully virtual conference with 18,000 participants, greenhouse gas emissions of the assembly would be equivalent to less than 0.1% of the same conference in person (despite the video stream) !
Normally, the conference hosts a large number of presentations including posters, 10-minute talks, and “PICOs” (Presenting Interactive COntent®), a format for short digital presentations, specific to the EGU. To give an idea, in 2019, the assembly counted 5531 orals, 9432 posters and 1287 PICOs . In order to give everyone the opportunity to present results to a broad audience, the majority of this year’s presentations were in the form of PICOs, i.e. small 2-min-talks with a single slide! This was the case for my presentation. Fortunately, the EGU website also allowed presenters to add more content, so I also made a 20-minute video to present my work to the most interested speakers. What an exercise! Let’s face it, even if we like challenges, summarizing several months of work in 120 seconds is still a bit frustrating. But with hindsight, I think it was very interesting, reminding me of the 3 minutes thesis competitions, 3MT (these are really nice to see, if you never tried check here ).
First of all, presenting your work in 2 minutes requires a lot of work to be done beforehand. How can I share the problematic and the interest of my work with my audience without presenting the different notions in detail? What are my main results? What is the take-home message? I think being used to talking about your research with your non-academic friends and family may really help. The conference offered the possibility to make this presentation live or to pre-record it. I choose the second option to make mine more accessible, by adding subtitles and to be able to archive it online after the conference. As a non-native speaker, I know that it can sometimes be difficult to follow a whole session of presentations, especially if they are not totally in our research topic, and depending on speakers’ accent. So, it was also an opportunity to make sure that this 2-minute message would get through to as many people as possible who came to listen. Finally, this format was also very interesting for the diffusion of the work. I now have a fairly simple 2-minute video associated with my in-progress publication. It’s still additional work to do, but I think I’ll practice this exercise again next time before I start writing an article, and then why not for its dissemination afterward! In spite of this particular format, moments of exchange were allowed in each session, through dedicated video conference rooms for each presenter. I had the pleasure to meet new researchers, saw friends and colleagues. Like in big music festivals, many sessions are held in parallel at EGU General Assemblies. With shorter, though dense, sessions, I think I was able to see more and a greater diversity of studies.
Part II – Thinking more
In parallel to sessions on my research theme (paleoclimates), which always teach a lot, the EGU offers the possibility to attend special (and longer), oral presentation, the Medal lectures, which allowed me to attend presentations by the eminent (paleo)climatologists Valérie Masson-Delmotte and Kim Cobb, and small courses (useful to nice to refresh one’s geology basics for example). What I really like about the EGU is that the conference also has great sessions (presentations, lectures or debates) about research in general and how to do it, for example: about the role of geosciences in the evolution of the world / about education and communication of science / or about diversity, equity and inclusion in science. This year, I was particularly impressed by two of them:
First, “A Climate and Ecological Emergency: Can a pandemic help save us…?”, with the passionating and super-positive intervention of the climatologist Katharine Hayhoe (see her website which gives a lot of tools to understand and raise awareness about climate change [5,6]), who compared the rapidity of action on a global scale in response to COVID to the persistent lack of action of governments in the face of the ongoing climate crisis, trying to understand the origin of this crisis (ex. The phenomena of psychological distancing: COVID showed us that we could react quickly and limit our emissions, how can we do the same in the face of climate change? I was also particularly interested in the session, “Promoting diversity in geosciences“, which took stock of the lack of diversity and neo-colonial practices within geosciences, and exposed concrete means to set up an anti-racism laboratory [7,8]. Budiman Minasny’s presentation introduced me to the concept of parachute science (aka helicopter research) which is “when researchers from wealthier countries go to a developing country, collect information, travel back to their country, analyze the data and samples, and publish the results with no or little involvement of local researchers“. One can imagine that perhaps some unscrupulous researchers take advantage of local researchers to do unrecognized research assistance work in the field, somewhere far away… There are people with a poor morality in all fields. However, I had never realized (in fact I had never asked myself), that there was a whole grey area with indirect and less obvious ways of misconducting. A striking example was for instance that by working on research questions centered on other countries, without involving local universities, we may grab potential research to local research communities… In my future research, I would like to address questions of macro-evolution on a global scale, although brief, this presentation would clearly have helped me thinking about my future collaborations. As a non-minoritized (although) woman, I am not the best person to talk about this topic, and I certainly still have tons of things to learn to be up to speed, but it is thanks to conferences like these that one learns little by little how to conduct fair science at the scale of one’s lab and internationally, so these should be promoted.
Short conclusion –
As already explained on this blog , attending conferences is very important, especially for young researchers. Thanks to this meeting, I was able to see many presentations, meet researchers in my field, but also question the way I present my work and create materials to share it with more people. The development of this digital format also makes it possible to hold more conferences, especially since some of the smaller ones can be free. Yet, like most researchers, I think, I am looking forward to the experience of real conferences. This experience calls for questioning our practices: since we can do 100% virtual and low carbon conference, how far do we find it acceptable to travel to a conference?
During the summer of 2017, I was an intern at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, NY. The PRI works in conjunction with the Museum of the Earth and neighboring Cayuga Nature Center. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram where they share updates on exhibits and virtual events like Science in the Virtual Pub. The Museum of the Earth’s social media also features takeovers from guest scientists and live updates from the prep lab. The museum is currently on a modified schedule during the Covid-19 Pandemic, but you can check their updated hours here. Additionally, the Museum of the Earth has recently started a new initiative in an effort to increase the accessibility of their museum to the community. During Pay-What-You-Wish Weekends, which take place during the first weekend of each month, guests may choose from a range for their admissions cost in place of traditional ticket costs.
As an intern at the PRI, my time in the museum was limited, however, I was sure to take a self guided tour through their exhibits before I was to start next door in the research labs at the PRI. Since that summer, the Museum of the Earth has expanded its collection of in person and online exhibits which you can see the availability of here. These online exhibits and videos are great educational tools while remaining remote. There are many exhibits currently on display at the Museum of the Earth, so I will do my best to highlight a few of my favorites!
The museum as a whole is set up so that the guest experiences a Journey Through Time – an exhibit which comprises the majority of the museum displays. The Museum of the Earth displays fossils ranging from microfossils to the Hyde Park mastodon and those from early life on Earth to present day organisms. These exhibits include the 1.5 meter heteromorph ammonite, Diplomoceras maximum, which was discovered on Seymour Island, Antarctica, and the North Atlantic Right Whale skeleton. Upon entering the museum, guests are greeted by a 44 ft long whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling between the two floors of the museum. North Atlantic Right Whale #2030 passed away in Cape May, New Jersey in 1999 and PRI employees assisted in recovering and cleaning the skeleton, where it was added to the museum in 2002. The skeleton was so big that during construction of the museum, part of the building was left open so that the whale could be brought in via a crane. Guests wrap up their journey through time with the coral reef exhibit, where they can learn about reef ecosystems and discover the importance of the diversity of fish and invertebrates that live within them, and the glaciers exhibit, where they can explore the history of glaciers in the Finger Lakes region.
The Museum of the Earth has a new exhibit that opened in late March – Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology. Not only is this an in-person exhibit on display at the museum until Fall 2021, but it has become permanently available online for those unable to visit Ithaca. This exhibit works to both highlight the achievements and discoveries made by women in paleontology as well as introduce the public to trailblazers and modern voices. This exhibit works in tandem with the recently published children’s book, Daring to Dig: Adventures of Women in American Paleontology, to demonstrate to children and students that science is for everyone. You can learn more about the Daring to Dig Project here.
During non-pandemic times, the museum and PRI host the occasional field trip to local outcrops in upstate New York. As an intern at the PRI, I was able to tag along on these great opportunities. These field trips are open to the public for a fee which provides access to basic supplies that you may need while out at the site as well as the educational experience provided by local experts at the PRI. Be sure to keep an eye on their events page where you can be kept up to date on both virtual and in-person events and activities going on!
When you think of carbon dioxide emissions, what comes to mind? For most people, that is probably something along the lines of fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, and global warming. But for me, I think about ocean acidification. Often referred to as “the other carbon dioxide problem”, ocean acidification, or OA for short, is a lesser-known by-product of excess carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Between 25 – 30 % of the carbon dioxide produced since the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by our oceans. This buffering capacity of the ocean has actually helped reduce some impacts of global warming and greenhouse gases, but, as we’ve discovered in the last decade or two, it has come at a great cost to our oceans.
When carbon dioxide (CO2) enters the ocean, it reacts with seawater to form excess hydrogen (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3–). Increases in hydrogen ions are what makes liquids more acidic and reduces their pH, hence the term “ocean acidification”. But the main consequence of increases in hydrogen ions in seawater is that hydrogen ions bond readily with the carbonate ions (CO32-). Carbonate is naturally occurring in seawater, and it is a crucial building block for organisms that build calcium carbonate hard parts, like clams, oysters, lobsters, corals, and even the tiny plankton that serve as the base of the ocean’s food chain. The less carbonate ions available in seawater, the harder it is for organisms to make their hard parts. In the past 15 years or so, there has been considerable research demonstrating the negative effects of OA on calcifying organisms. These calcified structures can take more energy for organisms to form, grow smaller, slower, and/or weaker, or even start to dissolve! Increased seawater acidity can also affect organism survival, particularly in early life stages. On the west coast of the U.S., there have already been several seasonal mass die-offs events of oyster crops that have caused significant and repeated financial losses to the aquaculture industry, most likely attributed to OA.
As most societies, particularly coastal communities, depend on the oceans for both food and livelihoods, monitoring and mitigating OA has become a global priority. The UN has declared the next decade (2021 – 2030) the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Many countries, including Canada, have committed to the Ocean Decade and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). OA is directly addressed in the Ocean Decade plan under SDG 14.3 – to “minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels”. To this end, the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) has created a database where researchers can make sure their data adheres to SDG 14.3.1 methodologies and then contribute their data to this global OA database. There are also many other national and international OA groups that have been created in recent years to help create and share OA knowledge and research.
Canada and Ocean Acidification
Canada faces several unique challenges with respect to OA. First, we have the largest coastline of any country in the world. Second, Canada is more vulnerable to OA given our latitude and colder ocean temperatures, as carbonates are naturally more soluble in colder waters. Thirdly, Canada is surrounded by three connected ocean basins, each with unique properties that make them vulnerable to the effects of OA. In the Pacific, OA is exacerbated by seasonal upwelling, where deep, naturally acidic ocean waters are forced to the surface by wind patterns. The Arctic is vulnerable due to rapidly increasing freshwater input from melting sea ice and glaciers from warming temperatures (freshwater is more acidic than seawater). In the Atlantic, OA is exacerbated by ocean mixing patterns and freshwater input from the Arctic. Finally, Canada’s coastal communities, of which there are many given our extensive coastline, are socioeconomically vulnerable to OA.
As a country, Canada is contributing to regional, national, and global OA research efforts through several means, such as independent research projects, local community action plans, and through our federal Fisheries and Oceans department (DFO), just to name a few. But Canada is a big country, and it can be hard to connect across such a wide geographical area. This is where our Ocean Acidification Community of Practice (OA CoP) comes into play. Funded by Canada’s Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response network (MEOPAR), the OA CoP is one of several MEOPAR Communities of Practice. The goal of MEOPAR CoPs is to facilitate knowledge mobilization and integration by uniting groups with shared concerns on particular topics (in our case, OA).
Our community was initiated in 2018, and is comprised of two Co-Leads from academia and government science, a coordinator (me), and an interdisciplinary Steering Committee consisting of experts from industry (aquaculture and fisheries), academia, DFO, and NGOs at all career stages (student representative to senior-level management) and from all across the country. Our goals as Canada’s OA community are to coordinate across all sectors and disciplines to share OA expertise and data (particularly to end-users), identify pressing needs for OA research/knowledge in Canada, and foster a collaborative and supportive environment for groups affected by OA. We also act as the Canadian leads for international collaborations and OA research efforts, such as GOA-ON, the OA Alliance, and the OA Information Exchange.
Anyone who is interested in or affected by OA in Canada is welcome to join our community. We currently have over 170 members, including individuals from aquaculture, fisheries, and NGOs, academics, federal and provincial government scientists, Indigenous community leaders, graduate students, and members of other international OA organizations. Members receive our quarterly newsletters, and updates on any upcoming events that might be of interest. We also encourage our members to join Team Canada and participate in the OA Info Exchange, an international forum that is a great place to discuss and share new ideas, research, and see what experts from around the world are doing to address and learn about OA.
What do we do?
As the OA CoP Coordinator, my job is to keep growing our community, seek new research and community-building opportunities, facilitate our involvement in the broader global OA community, provide, maintain, and create new resources for our members, and stay updated on the latest OA research and news. Here are some of the things I’ve been working on for Canada’s OA Community.
Canada’s OA Website
One of our biggest activities has been to create a website that acts as a central hub for all of the resources we’ve gathered for Canada’s OA community. The website, oceanacidification.ca, is always growing, and we regularly add new OA resources and materials. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all the importance of online resources, so a large part of my focus over the past year has been to develop new online content for our community that will allow us to connect, even if we are unable to gather in person for regional workshops. The goals of these new resources are to help increase awareness and engagement with our community, and further our CoP objectives.
Our Map of Canada’s OA Resources
On the International OA Day of Action (January 8, or 8.1, the current pH of our oceans) this year, we launched an exciting new resource, an interactive map of Canada’s OA Resources, where visitors can search for OA projects, experts, and resources from across Canada, or browse the resources available in their area. We update the map regularly to make sure our community has all the latest information.
Our New Blog Series
In December, we launched four new blog series aimed to increase engagement and awareness, and provide new resources for our community. The first blog series, OA News (You Could Use), is a weekly snapshot of OA news and activities happening around the world. Posts contain 3 – 5 OA-related news items, including upcoming events, news stories, recent publications, and new resources. The second series is called Research Recaps, where we interview researchers, particularly early career researchers, to get an inside perspective on their recent publications. The posts are written in accessible language, allowing a wide audience to get a glimpse of how the scientific process works, and how researchers create new OA knowledge. The third blog series is called Scientist Spotlights, where we interview individuals to learn more about their research backgrounds and interests in OA. These posts allow the average person to learn more about why researchers are interested or motivated to study OA-related subjects. Our fourth series, Meet the CoP, is similar to our Scientist Spotlight series, but we interview our leadership team to learn more about why they are motivated to lead Canada’s OA community. The goal of the Meet the CoP series is to inspire and help us understand why the OA research and our community matters to Canada. A lot of my inspiration in creating these four blog series came from working with Time Scavengers.
I’ve been working to increase our online social media presence since October, 2020, posting at least 3 – 4 times a week on Twitter, and 1 – 2 times a week on Facebook and Instagram. Using some of the things I’ve learned volunteering with Time Scavengers, I’ve started to try out different visual graphics to go along with our posts to see what is appealing to viewers. An interesting trend I’ve noticed so far is that while we get the most engagement on our Instagram posts (likes), Twitter is the predominant source of our social media web traffic, and is our third most common source of web traffic (behind direct visits and google searches).
Ongoing and Future Projects
One of our biggest projects that we are hoping to start working on this summer (funding and COVID dependent) is our Critical Ocean Acidification Sensor Technologies for Coastal Industries and Communities (COAST to Coast) OA sensor package. The plan is to partner with aquaculture operators to deploy OA sensors that will not only allow us to contribute to larger OA monitoring efforts, but might also allow operators to determine and predict OA events. Another goal of the sensor package is to assess the viability of newer, lower cost sensors, as most of the well-established OA sensors are very expensive, which is cost-prohibitive for individual aquaculture operators. We are also working on a couple of research papers, including meta-data analyses of OA research in Canada, and regional OA vulnerability assessments in partnership with both DFO and NOAA’s joint OA Working Groups, that will include biological, physical, and socio-economic data. I’ve been collecting and using the meta-data I gather to make a database of Canada’s OA publications as well that we hope to release in the coming months.
What I’ve Learned
It has been a great experience getting to work with such an interdisciplinary group to learn more about the many disciplines involved in OA research. While a lot of my Ph.D. research involved the effects of ocean acidification on molluscs and their shells, as a palaeontologist, I typically think about OA from a deep-time, biological perspective. In this role, I’ve thrown myself into the modern world of OA, and learned about everything from government and interagency science, to policy, oceanography, chemistry, aquaculture, fisheries, social science, and more. I’ve been able to meet and listen to OA experts from around the world, including and Mexico and the U.S., as well as countries in Europe, Africa, South America, and Central America. The international OA community is really welcoming and collaborative. I’ve also learned a lot about chemical oceanography and carbon cycles in the Arctic from the lab where I am a postdoc.
I’ve been able to apply and grow my skills in science communication by getting to interview and interact with so many people who all think about OA so differently. I’ve had a lot of fun interviewing researchers and writing blog pieces, as well as facilitating conversations with groups from all different sectors. It has helped me become a more well-rounded scientist and science communicator. As someone who is interested in conservation palaeobiology and the implications of the fossil record for modern conservation and climate change issues, being able to “speak the language” of a wide range of modern scientists and stakeholders is also a valuable skill when trying to identify research priorities, build collaborations, or seek funding opportunities. My experiences working with Time Scavengers have also helped me think of new and creative ways to help grow our OA Community in Canada.
The past year has been extremely hard for all of us, and has really stifled our abilities to do the things we love most. For me, one activity that I love doing but haven’t been able to do is outreach with K–12 students and the public. However, that all changed last week when I received an email from a second-grade teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan, New York.
These second-graders were learning about fossils and paleontology, and the teacher was reaching out to ask if I would speak to the students. I was thrilled, and quickly agreed. The teacher and I chatted over the phone before the Zoom talk with the students to be certain we were on the same page about what the students had learned and some topics that would be interesting and fun to touch on. From this chat, I made a quick PowerPoint with some images of topics that we wanted to touch on for the students.
The day of the chat with the students, I gathered a bunch of tools that geologists and paleontologists use in the field and in the lab. These tools included rock hammers, chisels, picks, a Brunton compass (a special compass that geoscientists use in the field), and of course the tools I most commonly use for my research, paintbrushes and a microscope. I also gathered some of my flashier, attention-grabbing fossils to show the students, such as an ammonite cast, a modern coral, an ancient coral for comparison to the modern, and my Mammoth tooth. I also gathered some smaller fossils, like brachiopods, trilobites, and shark teeth, to showcase some other commonly found fossils in New York and along the eastern coast.
When I logged into the Zoom chat, the teachers and I chatted while the students filtered in. While waiting, the teacher played the song ‘I Am A Paleontologist‘ (seriously, if you haven’t heard this song yet, check it out!). Once we began the short introduction, there were over 100 students and teachers on the Zoom call! This was incredibly cool, to be able to reach so many students at once.
I began by just introducing myself and telling the students about different types of fossils that paleontologists work on, and showcasing some of the fossils I had with me. I then showed them 3D models of the plankton fossils I work with, and explained how we get these tiny fossils. I quickly went over scientific ocean drilling, showing the students pictures of the drillship JOIDES Resolution, and explaining simply how drilling at sea works. I also discussed what type of research I did and where, and what I had learned from this research.
For the second half of the presentation, we opened the Zoom room to the students for questions. All of the questions were very good and thoughtful, and fun to answer! The students asked such questions like ‘What is your favorite fossil?’, ‘How many fossils do I have?’ (a hard one to answer, considering I have hundreds of jars of sediment samples that each contain thousands of fossil!), and ‘Tell me about one of your friends you sailed with’ (in which I talked about my friends I sailed with on the JOIDES Resolution in 2017). Someone also asked about marine dinosaurs, so I mentioned Ichthyosaurs, which were marine reptiles. I also alluded that the first skeleton of this ancient animal was found by a woman in the 1800’s, who lived in Europe. It turns out that the students knew exactly who I was talking about: Mary Anning!
All in all, this chat with so many bright young students over Zoom was so uplifting and refreshing. The experience really highlighted that even in a pandemic, we can successfully conduct outreach, with a major plus being able to talk to so many students at one time!
Over the past year, members of the Time Scavengers team created a new travel grant for students and avocational/amateur scientists. These groups often lack funding to attend conferences, which are valuable experiences. Conferences not only provide the opportunity for students to receive feedback by experts other than their advisor or supervisor. Conferences are important networking opportunities as such many fruitful scientific collaborations started with two cups of coffee and a chat next to a student’s poster in a crowded conference venue. We hope that by sharing our motivation and structure, other organizations will consider funding opportunities similar to ours.
The travel grant is named after Dr. Otilie “Tilly” Edinger, a female, Jewish, deaf paleontologist. Dr. Edinger’s work started an entire subdiscipline: paleoneurology, a discipline that focuses on understand ancient brains. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s history, work, and more head to the Time Scavengers page: Who is Dr. Tilly Edinger
The Motivation for a Grant
Studies show that the Geosciences are among the least diverse scientific disciplines in the US (Bernard & Cooperdock, 2018). In addition, we, as geoscientists, still don’t have a complete picture of how lacking we are with respect to diversity, as major surveys (e.g., through the National Science Foundation and Natural Environmental Research Council) do not capture LGBTQIA+, disability, neurodiversity, and other identities. Previous studies have shown that retention rate from student to professional membership in societies is quite low in terms of gender diversity (Plotnick et al. 2014), this likely spans across historically excluded groups. People with such underrepresented identities are less likely to participate in events, such as professional meetings, that require time and especially money, as financial strains can limit such participation. This inability to attend professional events thus hinders those students in the long-term. The motivation for establishing the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant was to support and encourage the participation of historically excluded individuals by helping to reduce the financial burden of conferences.
The current reimbursement system used by universities around the world is ill-suited to the situation faced by real students. There are currently several travel grants for geoscience students available through different societies, foundations, and organizations. However, the problem arises in that students are asked to pay for such conference costs up-front, and then are reimbursed at a later date for the conference travel. More often than not, reimbursement for conference expenses can take months to process, meaning if students paid for expenses on their credit card, they are accruing interest on those expenses. This reimbursement system greatly disadvantages students, especially those who are low-income and/or first generation, and do not have a steady stream of income.
Avocational/amateur scientists are valuable contributors to science, but currently there are very few places where they can seek financial help to attend professional meetings and conferences, places where they too can share their science and meet new collaborators. Additionally, some of these scientists are retired or self employed, and just like students, may have a limited or unstable source of income to spend on such expensive networking opportunities.
We therefore decided that all students and avocational scientists working in a relevant discipline are eligible to apply for the travel grant. Additionally, we would provide people who hold underrepresented identities priority.
Establishing a Committee
Once we knew we wanted to create a new travel grant, the Time Scavengers team established the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant Committee. The job of the committee was to hammer out details related to the grant itself, who is eligible, who would get priority, creating a system for choosing awardees, fundraising for the grant, and creating impactful social media posts (on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to garner support for the grant. As you can likely tell from that long list, there was a lot for us to do!
Jen and Adriane had already created an outline for the grant before the committee was formed, early in 2020. Therefore the first thing the committee did was refine this grant text, refine the grant example document, and create web pages on the Time Scavengers site for the grant and about Dr. Edinger.
We held biweekly meetings to work through various aspects of the grant — primarily the application and rubric. Each meeting was about 1 hour in duration and coordinated across 4 time zones. We were really mindful to make a simple application that gathered the data we needed to properly evaluate and fund those that needed the support. We came up with a ranking system that does not rank people based on their prior scientific experience and success. Instead, this ranking system is based on the applicant’s need for financial support to a conference and historically excluded identities that they hold.
The grant committee also discussed award amounts, as most grants provide a static monetary value (e.g. $500). However, no two conferences possess the same fee structure and a static amount is not equitable. We decided that the award amount will be flexible and we will support as many individuals as we can per application cycle. The first year we fundraised enough to support 3–5 individuals, depending on the conference expenses. As this is the first year of this grant, we decided that the goal would be to support only conference registration and abstract fees, with the hope to expand to broader support in the future.
Data Regarding the Impact of Conferences
Before we began a targeted campaign to raise funds we wanted to survey the community about the impact of attending conferences on their careers. This informal anonymous survey was disseminated via social media. In total, 64 people responded and 56.3% said that associated fees and lack of funding prevented conference attendance and a similar percentage paid for some amount of their first conference out of their own pocket. 57.8% of respondents suggested that there are not enough ample funding opportunities for students to help attend conferences. 64.1% of respondents indicated that being reimbursed for conference fees had a negative impact on their financial situation. Regardless of these hardships, 65.6% of respondents said that attending their first scientific conference extended their scientific network and/or led to collaborations. This clearly indicates conferences are both a financial burden and critical to progressing your career.
We outlined a two week marketing campaign to promote and encourage donations to the travel fund. Each day we would release a social media post on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with facts about Dr. Edinger, the grant details, why folks should donate, and data from the survey mentioned above. Our goal was to be as transparent as possible with our motivations behind the grant, while also demonstrating the need for such a grant to our potential donors with the survey data we had just collected. Committee members helped create graphics and text for the marketing campaign.
Once we had a solid marketing outline, we started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to gather the financial resources needed to start the grant. An advantage of crowdsourcing is that small donations from the community can add up quickly. Our average donation was $51.48 USD, with individual donations ranging from $1 – $200, with 55 separate donors. We surpassed our goal within just two weeks’ time! See all of our Tilly Edinger Grant Donations. The grant committee is blown away by the support and encouragement we received from the scientific community. We therefore launched the grant in November and have already received the first applications. The travel grant committee will meet again in February to assess the applications and announce the awardees shortly after.
Requirements of Awardees
Most grant awardees have some small requirements from the granting organization. We will ask all people who receive the travel grant to write a short blog post about their conference experience and a Meet the Scientist post so stay tuned for their reports! We will collect them all under the tag TravelWithTilly on the Time Scavengers website.
As this was our first round of fundraising, we expected that some adjustments might be needed for future fundraising cycles. Our initial focus of this pilot year was to cover the costs of registration and abstract fees for conferences. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, all conferences switched to a virtual format for the foreseeable future. We hope to continue to grow our fundraising capabilities so we are able to fund as many people as possible when in-person conferences resume. Other areas of growth including improving our application, such as asking applicants for cost breakdowns of the conference they plan to attend, and incorporating community feedback. In the future, we hope to expand to cover airfare and other travel expenses.
Bernard, R. E., and Cooperdock, E. H. G. 2018. No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geosciences , 11, 292–295.
Plotnick, R. E., Stigall, A. L., & Stefanescu, I. 2014. Evolution of paleontology: Long-term gender trends in an earth-science discipline. GSA Today, 24(11).
I’ll preface this entire post by saying that I identify as a straight, cis, white woman, and I recognize that I still have a lot of learning and work yet to do when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of my professional as personal life
I’ve been involved in diversity initiatives in my department, including organizing a speaker series aimed at addressing gender disparity in my department. In 2016, we lost our only female geology faculty member (out of a faculty of ~50 people). This meant that most of our undergraduate and graduate students would never get the chance to interact or learn from a female role model and professor during their geology degrees. In response, a group of female graduate students launched an initiative to create a speaker series (the Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series) to bring female geoscientist experts to the department so that students still had the chance to interact with and learn from female role-models and world-class experts in geoscience. Fast forward to today, and several women have been hired as faculty in the department, and we have expanded the series to directly address representation of other groups, specifically racial, and mental or physical disabilities. It has been a rewarding and challenging experience, and I have learned so much. So when I had the opportunity to teach a class of my own in the department, recognizing I might still be one of the only female teachers they might have during their degrees, I wanted to try and incorporate some of these lessons and experiences into the classroom.
Integrating Inclusion into the Curriculum
The class I taught was Introduction to Invertebrate Palaeontology – a required second year class for geology and palaeontology majors. For most, this class was either the first biology, or the first palaeontology class of their degrees. I already had some course materials available from the previous instructor, and our course syllabi and learning objectives had to be approved by our department. So how was I to include a new topic that wasn’t necessarily “integral” to the course goals? It was really easy! I just included diversity as a course topic and created an extra credit assignment! I also included a diversity statement in my syllabus. For a nice example of a diversity statement to include on your syllabus, see this example by Dr. Rowan Martindale (University of Texas Austin).
In terms of class time, I dedicated about 5 – 10 minutes once a week to a diversity in geoscience topic. I showed the students some recent research and statistics on diversity in geoscience, introduced some of the terminology used (e.g., representation, intersectionality, implicit bias), and shared data from a paper by Bernard and Cooperdock (2018), which gives breakdowns of the number of Ph.D.’s awarded by race and gender in the U.S since 1973, showing little progress towards achieving diversity in 40 years. Another awesome topic I was able to include by chance was showing the class a documentary that was being offered for free on International Women and Girls in Science day. The Bearded Lady Project made a 22 min doc about challenging the stereotypes of what a palaeontologist looks like. The documentary interviews female palaeontologists about their experiences and some of the discrimination they have faced in their careers or in the field. I showed the short doc in class and then gave the students a chance to discuss some of their thoughts on the documentary. The class really enjoyed it!
Showcasing Diversity with “Student Choice” Extra Credit Assignments
I created an extra credit assignment to encourage students to learn about geoscientists who have made important contributions to the field, but perhaps haven’t received the attention or recognition that others have, such as Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, or Charles Lyell. I asked students to tell me about “non-traditional” (as in, not straight white men) scientists they felt were important role models or had made important contributions to science. I tried to leave the assignments as open-ended as possible so that students could be creative with their choice of person (e.g., could be living or dead), but just asked they include 3 – 5 facts, a picture of the person or their research topic/discovery, and their references. They could turn in the assignment as a document or slide, and if they gave me permission, I would then share it with the class. I also said that each week, I would present a choice of my own if no one handed in an assignment. This was to try and encourage the students to hand in assignments earlier in the term before their choices were selected by myself or another student. It also allowed us to plan to showcase certain scientists during important relevant events, such as Black History Month, and Pride Week.
The idea of this assignment was to encourage student creativity, expose students (and myself) to new and/or important faces and discoveries in science, and allow us all the opportunity to learn something new about the history of our discipline. Importantly, I wanted this to be a student-driven list. I wanted to know the students’ perspectives on who they thought were important people in geoscience and palaeontology. For copyright and security reasons, I won’t include student names or their assignments, but I will offer the names and a bit of info on some of the people the students and I chose to highlight (in no particular order):
Geerat Vermeij – Dr. Vermeij is one of the world’s leading palaeontologists and experts in malacology (the study of molluscs) and predation. He is a professor at UC Davis, and has won numerous awards for his ground-breaking research, including a MacArthur Fellow. He has published several books (in addition to hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers), including Privileged Hands, and A Natural History of Shells, which are great reads for scientists and non-scientists alike! Dr. Vermeij has been blind since the age of three, but still conducts both field and lab research. I chose Dr. Vermeij as an example for the class of the kind of scientist they might choose, as I admire Dr. Vermeij’s research.
Mary Anning – Known as the “mother of palaeontology”, Mary Anning was a fossil hunter in 19th century Britain. Her discoveries include the first Plesiosaurus, ink sacks in belemnites (cephalopods), the first British pterosaur, and was the first to attribute coprolites as faeces. Despite all of her knowledge and contributions to the field, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman.
Franz Nopcsa – Nopcsa was a 19th century Transylvanian aristocrat, palaeobiologist, explorer, and ethnographer, and was open about his homosexuality, traveling with his partner, Bajazid. He was a pioneer in the field of palaeobiology, and came up with the concept of Island Dwarfism. He was also an early supporter of plate tectonics and the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. Unfortunately, he was faced with financial difficulties and physical illness which led to him tragically killing Bajazid and himself.
Florence Bascom – Dr. Bascom was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1893, and only the second American woman to receive a Ph.D. in geology. Dr. Bascom went on to be the first woman to work for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), first woman elected to the council for the Geological Society of America (GSA), and founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Tilly Edinger – Dr. Edinger was the founder of palaeoneurology, the study of the relationship between braincases, skulls, and the brain. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Frankfurt in 1921. Dr. Edinger achieved much during her career, and won numerous awards and recognitions for her contributions to palaeontology. She also served as the President of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology (1963 – 1964). As a Jewish woman in Germany during WWII, she had to work in secret, and eventually fled to London, and then the U.S., where she spent the rest of her career. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s life and legacy, please visit our Who is Tilly Edinger page, and consider donating to our Tilly Edinger Travel Grant for students and avocational scientists!
Louis Purnell – Purnell was the first African American curator at the National Air and Space Museum. However, before working at the National Air and Space Museum, he worked as an invertebrate zoology specialist and expert in fossil cephalopods at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, but experienced a lot of racism and academic jealousy at the museum and was passed over for promotions, and he left for the National Air and Space Museum.
Bolortsetseg Minjin – A world-renowned leader and advocate for Mongolian palaeontology, Bolortsetseg Minjin has been instrumental in protecting Mongolia’s fossil heritage, addressing fossil poaching, and providing palaeontology education opportunities to Mongolians. She founded the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, and has won numerous international awards for her work, including a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Ramond M. Alf Award.
Cameron Muskelly – I included Mr. Muskelly as an example of a young avocational scientist who is making amazing strides in palaeontology and outreach, and is an advocate for not only Black geoscientists, but those with mental disabilities and autism in science. Mr. Muskelly has accomplished much for education and outreach in geoscience and palaeontology in his home state of Georgia, and recently won the Katherine Palmer award from the Paleontological Research Institution for his outstanding contributions to the field as an avocational palaeontologist. Read more about Cam on Time Scavengers on his Meet the Scientist blog post!
Riley Black – Author of the books My Beloved Brontosaurus, The T. rex Handbook, and Skeleton Keys, Black is a well-known popular science and palaeontology writer.In 2019, Black came out as transgender, and has been an advocate for LGBQTIA+ voices in palaeontology, writing an article called “Queer Voices in Paleontology” for the journal Nature, which outlined the challenges faced by queer palaeontologists, as well as her personal experiences on the struggles of transitioning and fieldwork. Read more about Riley on Time Scavengers on her Meet the Scientist blog post!
I’ll end by saying that I have a lot more growth I’d like to do in terms of being a better ally and advocate for diversity in science, but this was a really fun and rewarding experience that the students and I really enjoyed, and I would definitely do again. One additional resource that I have found really helpful is this recent article by Dr. Christy Visaggi: Equity, Culture, and Place in Teaching Paleontology.
Special guest blog by the organizers of the Paleontological Research Institution’s 14th Annual Summer Symposium, which was virtual and had the theme of: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Paleontology. The event was recorded and links to the YouTube channel can be found at the end of the post!
Who organized this event and what are your backgrounds?
Caren: My name is Caren Shin, and I’m a PhD student at Cornell University in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, advised by Dr. Warren Allmon.
Corey: My name is Corey Hensen and I am a PhD student at Cornell University. I completed an undergraduate degree in geology at the State University of New York at Geneseo and now study stratigraphy and paleobiology under Dr. Warren Allmon.
Dana: I’m Dana Friend and I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, NY. I received a B.A. from Cornell College (Mt. Vernon, IA) and a PhD in Paleobiology from Cornell University. Broadly speaking, my research field is phylogenetic systematics and macroevolution. I’ve planned PRI symposiums for years as a graduate student but this year I served primarily as an informal advisor of sorts and #1 cheerleader for the new cohort of graduate students and the symposium planning committee.
Jaleigh: My name is Jaleigh Pier and I have worked at PRI the last two years on a variety of projects in both the Science Communication and Collections Departments. This fall, I will be starting my PhD at Cornell under Dr. Greg Dietl, which is how I joined the PRI Summer Symposium Planning Committee since graduate students normally plan this event.
Matthew: My name is Matthew Pruden; I am a PhD student at Cornell University in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department. I completed my undergraduate degree in paleontology at the University of Alberta, and now I am studying Conservation Paleobiology under Dr. Greg Dietl.
Vicky: My name is Vicky Wang and I am the Collections Assistant at PRI. My undergraduate degree is in biology from Brown University and later I took classes in paleontology and geology. At PRI I’ve worked mostly on specimen digitization projects (including EPICC) and also helped with a major revision of the collections policies. I don’t have formal training in collections work, so I’ve been supplementing what I learn through work with books, articles, and free resources. From everything I’ve seen so far, the collections stewardship and digitization communities are incredibly generous and collaborative.
How did you come upon this theme? What inspired you all?
In early May, our weekly discussion group read an article that discussed gender parity among palaeontology authors and discussed gender, race, and lack of general diversity in our field. A few weeks after that was George Floyd’s death and the beginnings of widespread protests in the US. In the following week, as emotions and difficult conversations surfaced on social media, we found it particularly hard to focus on work. These events coincided with the beginning stages of planning for Summer Symposium, and we felt very strongly the need to do what we could to change the way things were in our field, and elsewhere.
Changing the way Summer Symposium was run seemed like a good way to translate those feelings into action. Originally we were going to have three short sessions, each with a different topic, including one on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in paleontology. But when we reached out to presenters, so many people wanted to contribute to the DEI session that we quickly decided to expand it and make DEI the focus of our entire event. We wanted to create a space to continue these difficult but necessary conversations, especially for one of the least diverse STEM fields. We wanted to bring together a wide swathe of the paleo community to share information and ideas for solutions, to affirm the importance of addressing DEI issues in our field, and to encourage others to begin or continue to make change where they are. Of course we understand that one event can only do so much, and we see our symposium as a link in a chain of many sustained efforts by many different people.
What were the biggest challenges of organizing the symposium?
The biggest challenge was navigating the virtual conference world, since none of us had experience in planning or running a virtual conference. The organizers of the recent Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) virtual conference were kind enough to meet with us and impart valuable advice. They shared numerous materials with us and patiently answered all of our questions to where we began to feel comfortable with our abilities to run a successful virtual symposium.
Another challenge was managing speakers across several time zones and coming up with a schedule that allowed enough time for an extended Q&A while also striking the right balance between ample breaks, time to manage potential technical difficulties, and not making the event too long for people in different time zones. Lastly, we collectively put in over 300 hours for this event, and with some of us working full-time jobs and others teaching summer courses or doing their own research, it took a coordinated effort for all of this to come together.
We think it’s also important to point out that, although our event relied on volunteer labor, we don’t think that’s the necessarily ideal model. We would like to have offered speaker honorariums if we had the funding to do so. We also want to acknowledge the hard work of many other organizers of virtual conferences who are doing this work as volunteers.
How many attendees were there? How does this compare to last year’s in person event?
More than 200 people attended the event, with participants tuning in globally. We had just under 300 registered for the event. Many of the registrants were interested, but unable to attend on the day of the event and expressed interest in watching the recordings at a later time.
What are the benefits of having online conferences and symposia, in regards to both invited speakers and attendees?
The virtual format allowed us to address the field broadly and gave us more options in terms of who we could invite as speakers (they didn’t have to be in driving distance!). Attendees were able to join from all over the world (North and South America, Asia, Europe, etc.) and across many time zones. In the past, the PRI Summer Symposium has been a highly local event of around ~50 attendees. This virtual format clearly allowed us to reach a much larger (4x larger!) and a more diverse audience. Many people wrote in the feedback survey that not having to pay for travel or an expensive registration fee is what allowed them to participate. We would not also have been able to invite all the speakers we did. We are very grateful to all our speakers, who volunteered their time and effort to support us in this difficult time.
What do you all see as the greatest success of this symposium?
One success is reaching such a broad audience, it was thrilling to see people from literally all over the world attend our symposium! Another was being able to do something to continue the conversation on DEI in paleontology, and hopefully invoke change. It was very gratifying to hear from attendees at different career stages that they wanted to make the field more diverse and inclusive and that they learned a lot from the speakers. A lot of attendees also praised us for sticking to the posted schedule and really appreciated how well-organized the event was. Lastly, to see all of our hard work come to fruition and being received so well was truly amazing! We kept anticipating something to go wrong, but it turned out to be a huge success and was worth all of the effort to make it happen.
One of our attendees, Dr. Kristina Barclay (a collaborator with Time Scavengers) said:
“As someone who has been working to increase accessibility and diversity in geoscience, this symposium was incredibly valuable! I learned so much, and it was great to learn where I was on the right track, and what other things I can do in the future. It was great to hear from experts and see all of these resources in one place for a highly targeted palaeo/geo audience. Thanks for hosting such an important, successful event!”
What advice do you have for future online event organizers?
Plan ahead! Especially if you will have time constraints due to other commitments, planning ahead will give you time to learn about transitioning to a virtual format, from researching other similar events and how they were run, to defining your own event logistics and making a plan for advertising the event. Include cushion in your schedule for transitions and in case some speakers need a little extra time, and to make a plan for how to handle things if something goes wrong. If your event is long, it’s also important to include substantial breaks. Have a thoughtful code of conduct and enforce it.
Ask for help! Being able to ask the SPNHC and iDigBio organizers for advice helped tremendously and gave us a starting point for developing our own materials (which you can find and use here: Moderator Guide, Presenter Guide, Code of Conduct). Our own organization team grew as the event planning picked up momentum!
Seek support! Although this was an all-volunteer effort from both the organizing team and speakers, if you are organizing an event and you are aware of the types of resources required (e.g. financial, technical), see if a nominal registration fee, or other ways to support your event are available. In our case, we opted for speaker-nominated organizations that attendees could check out and support, if they were able.