UMass Undergraduate Research Conference

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

Adriane here-

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

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

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

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

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

Solveig presenting her poster to our UMass Geosciences professors.

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

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

Amherst Elementary Science Night!

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

Adriane here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life Discovery Conference

Jen here –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendations

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

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

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

Information Sciences: What are they?

Rose here –

I study information sciences at the University of Tennessee. Why is it called information sciences and not information science? The information sciences are a very broad field, containing many other fields such as data management, knowledge management, librarianship (public, academic, and specialized), archiving, museum studies, and information-seeking behavior studies, among others. This is really true of most sciences, as biology, geology, physics, and chemistry all contain multitudinous specialized fields within the broad discipline.

Here at UT, we have some undergraduate and doctoral students in the School of Information Sciences, but the majority of the students are in the master’s (MS) program. This is because in the library and information sciences, an MS is considered the terminal degree. It is a professional degree, meaning that rather than a focus on research and producing a thesis or dissertation like many grad school programs, there is a focus on learning theories and practical skills that librarians and information professionals need to do their jobs.

Standing in front of the library at Central Washington University, where I got my undergrad degree in geology. This library was one of my favorite places and I spent many hours there studying or just reading in a quiet corner.
Librarians at many colleges and universities have faculty status, even though they are not doing full-time teaching or research. This is important because the services they provide are integral to all of the research and teaching that occur on campus. Many information professionals and librarians, especially academic librarians, already have graduate or undergrad degrees in other fields, which gives them a good foundation for knowing the potential information needs of the patrons they serve. Many librarians spend some amount of time on their own research, either within the information sciences or in other areas they have expertise in.

I also have a previous graduate degree, an MS in planetary geology. I decided to continue and get another MS in information sciences rather than try to find a job as a geologist right away. I knew I did not want to get a PhD and be a professor doing full-time research or teaching. However, I did want to find a way to stay involved in the planetary research and teaching community in a support role. With a degree in information sciences, I could work as a GIS specialist (What is GIS?), a technical information or data management specialist, or as a librarian specializing in an area related to planetary science. These are all jobs that exist within organizations such as academic and specialized libraries, USGS/NASA/NOAA, and private planetary science institutes and industries.

One of my favorite holiday activities: sitting by the fire reading about awesome women in science!
Since joining the School of Information Sciences last fall, I have had several opportunities to explore career options in this field. I got a position this as a Community Fellow with the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). ESIP receives funding from NASA, NOAA, and USGS, and contains many member organizations who are working to improve all aspects of information and data management in the earth sciences. In my position as a fellow I get to attend their two annual meetings for free and to participate in any of their clusters (groups focused on a specific topic), as well as working more closely with one particular cluster. This gives me the opportunity to see what is going on in earth science data, as well as find new people to collaborate with. I have also been able to participate in a couple of research projects focused on Earth and planetary science data. I got the chance to travel to the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington DC in December to collect data for one of these projects. I had never been to Washington DC before, so that was a cool experience. I will even get to travel to the 4th Planetary Data Workshop in Flagstaff in June to present some of my research, so stay tuned for a post about that!

Advancing Informal STEM Learning PI Meeting 2019

Jen here –

The opening slide for the meeting! Everyone was set up at round tables in the main ballroom of the hotel conference area.
Part of my new job is working on the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded FOSSIL Project that has created a social community that shares resources, help, and more on paleontology related ideas (myfossil.org). Every few years the funding group, Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) has a Principal Investigator (PI) meeting, to bring all of the project leaders together to share updates and brainstorm new ideas. I was selected as the FOSSIL Project representative to attend the event. This involved putting together a poster summarizing our project and what has happened over the past four years the project has been operating. I also included where we hoped to be heading in the future as we are working to make the platforms more community driven.

This was my first real dive into NSF. I had submitted several postdoctoral fellowships to NSF but never really engaged with program officers outside of emails or been in the audience of talks by different NSF staff members. The first day was primarily listening to different NSF staff explain and explore the various outlets of funding through NSF, the different programs to apply for funding, and the importance of the annual report. I took a considerable amount of notes because as an early career professional, it’s likely I will need to know some of these people and programs as I move forward in my career.

This was my first breakout session where we thought about informal learning in strange, or unusual, places.
There were breakout sessions where we could explore specific things in more detail. The first session I attended was on identifying informal places where people have some time to engage in science content. There was a brief introduction to different projects going on right now and then we spent much of the remaining time in small group discussions. We shared our own experiences with conceptualizing and implementing programs in different places and then discussed other spaces where we could introduce people to science. Some of these include: sporting events, airports, bus stations, and much more! Places where people go on a regular basis that we could introduce some brief content into. The next session I attended was on three key components: identity, interest, and engagement. There was a recent task force that really dove into these three topics and interviewed members of the research field to get at the components from all viewpoints. If you are interested in learning more head to: Informal Science.

Here I am with the poster I made for the meeting.
There was a poster session where we could explore the other AISL projects and network with potential collaborators. It was split into two sessions but I didn’t feel this was very effective because the rooms were sort of spread out and no one seemed to really stick to the schedule. So, I didn’t get to interact with as many people as I was hoping to but those that I did engage with were interested in the program and were very friendly. The final day of the event included a morning filled with small group discussions on broadening participation in STEM. I had a really interesting small group and we had a lot of interesting conversations about our projects and experiences.

Overall, this was a greatly informative experience for me. It was sort of a last minute trip but I really made the most of it and left with a lot of knowledge. I think getting to meet and listen to some of the NSF program officers really helped personalize them. It’s difficult sending proposals into the internet void and only having a few interactions with a staff member. Everyone I listened to and interacted with was very eager to help others succeed.

Teaching Science Communication to Biology students

Adriane here-

This semester, I was given the opportunity to do something new: lecture to an undergraduate Biology writing class about how to communicate science to non-scientists! I was invited to speak to this class because the professor knew about my education outreach and blogging experiences with Time Scavengers.

One assignments the class had to do was summarize a published scientific paper for the general public. So I thought it would be a good idea to put together a short slide show for the students about who I am, how I got involved in science communication, and an overview of Time Scavengers. I also told the students about some of the lessons I’ve learned as a science communicator, and some best practices. Although there are several tips and tricks for writing for the general public, here are the four I chose to focus on:

  • Science writing for the public should be the opposite of formal scientific paper.
  • Explain figures in the figure caption, even if it is repetitive with the text
  • Use figures that are simple, labeled, and not too overwhelming
  • Reduce the jargon- include explanations and define any jargon words that are used
The students working on their summaries.

The paper the students summarized was about the amount of microplastics, or very small pieces of plastics, that are found in the southern part of the Marianas Trench. The paper and it’s findings are very important because it highlights the fact that our plastic waste is making it into the farthest reaches of our oceans, into the food chain, and affecting our wildlife. So it was a great paper for the undergrads to practice their science communication skills. There was only one catch: they could only use the ‘ten hundred’ most common words from the English language to write their summaries, thus ensuring they couldn’t use any science jargon words. This was done on the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, which allows you to type text directly into a word box, but notifies you if you use a word that is not part of the 1,000 most common words.

When we began the activity, the students were a bit frustrated at first, as words such as ‘ocean’, ‘Earth’, and ‘salt’ aren’t words they could use! But then, they got creative and began coming up with ways to explain some of the more difficult concepts!

Needless to say, this was a really fun activity that resulted in quite a few laughs! I was impressed at how well the students’ summaries really captured the messages in the paper they were summarizing. This activity really highlighted the fact that we (scientists) don’t have to use large jargon-y words to get across important messages!

Below are some of the students’ summaries:

“Lots of small pieces of things you would find all around you are in deep water where they are hurting animals. Deep water animals are hurt when they eat things that they should not eat. People put these man made things in the water and they break down into small pieces that shouldn’t be eaten. There are lots of different things that can break down, and they’re in bags, computers, phones, clothes, and food packs in stores. The small pieces are all around the animals, and they are eating them all the time. People are worried and are finding lots of truth saying that this is going to make the animals die and hurt how they act with each other and what they eat. It also makes them sick because they can’t get bad things in their body out, and can’t make important things that help the brain and body talk to each other. People lost a lot of the bad things that are in the water, and we have now found them in the really deep water, and it is hurting animals in both deep and upper water now.”

“The fine pieces thrown away by human after using are getting into the deep water and hurting the animals that live in the deep water. Many kinds of these used pieces are found in different places of the water, even in the deepest part. This is because that the pieces on the top of the water would go deeper when the land shakes or water moves. Studying these piece can help us better understand them and clean them from the water, keeping animals save in their home.”

“Humans use a lot of stuff that eventually finds its way into the water. These small pieces of stuff start on land and eventually move to the water where it takes a lot of time to break down. Eventually this bad human stuff finds it’s way to the deep parts of the water where it is not supposed to be. Animals living in the water can easily be hurt and get sick by this bad human stuff. With this stuff in the water it will be very hard to take away. In order to keep a lot of life, humans must do something to clean the water. Clean water will help human life as well.”

“We studied problems in bodies of water like bad things on the ground under water. Further down we go, more build up of the bad things is seen. The deeper down in the water, the worse the problem is. Many pieces of bottles and other man made things sit and bother surrounding life. Another problem that was presented in the reading was the ground taking in the man made things-which makes it harder for animals to eat, breathe, and live. The changes that have happened because of the man made things are still not known and being looked into.”

“A big problem that is growing is making the bodies of water, and what lives there, sick. These bad things are small and can be found more in deep water. Humans are bad because they are not safe with throwing away these things so it hurts water animals by making them sick. The well-being of water and animals needs to be helped by humans. Cleaning up water is good, as well as watching what is put into water to stop the problem before it happens. Water is very important to human and animal life, so bad things being put into bodies of water needs to stop. ”

“Lots of small pieces of things you would find all around you are in deep water where they are hurting animals. Deep water animals are hurt when they eat things that they should not eat. People put these man made things in the water and they break down into small pieces that shouldn’t be eaten. There are lots of different things that can break down, and they’re in bags, computers, phones, clothes, and food packs in stores. The small pieces are all around the animals, and they are eating them all the time. People are worried and are finding lots of truth saying that this is going to make the animals die and hurt how they act with each other and what they eat. It also makes them sick because they can’t get bad things in their body out, and can’t make important things that help the brain and body talk to each other. People lost a lot of the bad things that are in the water, and we have now found them in the really deep water, and it is hurting animals in both deep and upper water now.”

Humans placed too many bad things like bags and bottles in the deep water. This, in the end, hurts the tiny animals living in the water. If this goes on, it will even hurt our entire home later on. We first thought that the bad things were only near the top of the water, however it seems that the bad things are even in the deepest parts of the water as well. The people who study this are explaining how they found this out in this paper.

Scientist of the Week

Sarah here-

I took a geoscience education class as an elective my senior year of college. One of our first assignments was to draw a picture of a scientist. That was all the direction we received from the professor. And yet, even with this vague assignment, all of the students (yes, including me) drew the exact same thing: a white man with messy hair and a lab coat. Why?

Science has had a long history of discrimination and exclusion. This shouldn’t be a surprise: since science is done by humans, and humans have shaped how we view scientists through centuries. Because of this, many of us have shaped in our minds the image of a scientist- the one I described above. And that’s something I want to change.

My geology classes are primarily taken by introductory students-I teach hundreds of students every year, from every conceivable life experience. And many of these scientists that we talk about in class-Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, James Hutton, Alfred Wegener- look very similar. And while all of these scientists made incredible contributions to science, we often overlook equally incredible contributions by scientists that didn’t fit the mold of the ‘typical’ scientist. I wanted to change that. So, in my classes, we started a “Scientist of the Week” segment to highlight the achievements of all kinds of scientists. I began making a list for myself- this list started with the scientists that I have heard of- famous scientists that lived long ago or scientists that I’ve read about recently and even scientists just starting out their careers. My list was subdivided into many categories-women in STEM, Native/Indigenous in STEM, Black in STEM, military veterans in STEM, Deaf/hard of hearing in STEM, LGBTQ+ in STEM, etc. So far, I have over one hundred scientists on my list and I’m adding more daily.

This is an image of Dr. Wangari Maathai (Photo Credit: Patrick Wallet), one of our past scientists (and one of my personal heroes) of the week. Dr. Maathai was born and raised in Kenya; in the 1970s, she became the first woman from east and central Africa to earn a PhD. She is the founder of the “Green Belt Movement”, which paid women in Kenya to plant trees. This program had extreme success, both at lifting vulnerable populations of women out of poverty and at rebuilding forests across her country. She had so much success in this project, that it was modeled in other nations. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in 2004, becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and she remains one of the only environmentalists to have won this prestigious award. To learn more about Dr. Maathai’s work, read this biography.
I show a photo of the scientist to my students and tell them a little bit about their story during lecture and provide a written blurb of their achievements for my students to read later. One of our recent scientists was Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced, an astronomer from Puerto Rico (who now works in South Africa). She lost her eyesight during her undergraduate education; after she lost her sight, she developed programs to transfer her data into audible sound so that she could continue to analyze her research in a method that best suited her. Another recent example was a friend of mine, Dr. Rene Shroat-Lewis, who is a paleontologist. She is also a veteran and served in the US Navy-she gave good advice to veterans returning to college on how to find their future path. Many of the scientists I highlight, I also highlight how discrimination shaped their experiences in the sciences and how discrimination has shaped how some of these scientists are remembered in history. For example, we recently talked about Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who took the first image of DNA’s structure. Her work was famously shown to James Watson and Francis Crick, who used her data to finish their analysis of DNA. They later collected the Nobel Prize for their work, while Franklin’s work was left largely ignored. James Watson later wrote in an autobiography about Franklin, insinuating she wasn’t bright enough to understand her scientific data. James Watson has been recently featured in the news for asserting racist views. My class and I discussed how the science community for many decades chose to ignore Watson’s racism and sexism, to the detriment of the career’s and safety of traditionally discriminated groups of people in science.

I want to share these stories because they mirror the experiences of many of my students. My university, The University of South Florida, serves a broad diversity of students. I want students to see scientists that share their backgrounds-science doesn’t belong to men, to able-bodied people, to white people, to heterosexual people, to cis people, to people with Phds., to any religion or lack of religion, or to any economic class. Science belongs to everyone. However, I don’t feel that it is right to only highlight the awesome stories of scientists in underrepresented groups without also highlighting how discriminatory attitudes have shaped our history of science. Scientists must reflect on this history to always make sure that we are working towards building an inclusive community.

I have only been doing this for a few months, so I haven’t been able to compile data on how my students are engaging with the material. I have had a few students tell me their feelings, so I do have some anecdotal evidence. One student told me that she felt more confident to apply to medical school, after seeing scientists that looked like her and shared many of her experiences. Another student told me she had never seen a Native scientist highlighted in a classroom before-she sent the Scientist of the Week to members of her community and started learning about other Native scientists. I’m not naïve enough to believe that this Scientist of the Week exercise is enough to “fix” the significant challenges the science community faces in terms of diversity and inclusion. Changing the science community to reflect the diversity we have in the world will require much more work. But this is an effective way to introduce large groups of students to a history of science that isn’t nearly as often told.

If you’re interested in doing a similar project with your classes or if you have suggestions for scientists to highlight (self-nominations encouraged!), come talk to me! You can find me on twitter @sarahlsheffield

Jaws International

Jen here –

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.

Wide shot of the main exhibit and specimen area.

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.

Exhibit on shark vertebrae including detailed anatomy but with clear easy-to-understand diagrams and labels.
Biogeography of megalodon teeth. All regions of the globe were included but not able to be captured in a single photo.
Schematic representation of how shark teeth get replaced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comparison of fossil and modern sets of teeth. Notice the specific way the teeth curve.
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.

Souvenir shark tooth from Dr. Hubbell’s museum.
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.

Set of shark vertebrae sitting in under some of the displayed fossils. That is a six foot table.
Fossil shark called Helicoprion that had a spiral of teeth coming of the front end of the face.
Model created by Gordon of a complete Helicoprion whorl of teeth.
Carcharodon hubbelli from Peru. Specimen was found by Dr. Hubbell and he subsequently donated it to the Florida Museum of Natural History, specimen number 226255.

Can you dig it?

Rose here –

In the geology gallery at the museum, scientists explore their own research and help visitors better understand the process of fossilization. Photo from @EPS_UTK on Twitter.

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.

Other graduate students outside with experiments dealing with impact craters for visitors to explore!

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.

Graduate students have a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) for students and visitors to get more information about a variety of topics. Photo from @EPS_UTK on Twitter.

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!

Skype a Scientist

Rose here –

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.

I didn’t take any pictures during the session, but here are the rocks I used to answer their question “what are your favorite rocks that you’ve collected?” Clockwise from top left: a conglomerate a friend sent me from California, a jar of Mount St. Helens ash my gramma collected off her car the morning after the eruption, a piece of Columbia River Basalt I collected in undergrad, a gypsum rose from Morocco (my parents bought it in a shop in Oregon), a large quartz crystal my gramma collected in the Mojave desert, a piece of rose quartz I collected in the Sierra Nevada, and a piece of amethyst my roommate brought back from Uruguay.

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!