I am a physics professor at California State University, Long Beach. My specialty is biophysics, which as the name suggests is at the interface of physics and biology, and I’m interested in using materials from the natural world to answer fundamental physics questions. Evolution has had billions of years of practice to engineer neat materials, while we have only been doing it for a few thousand. I spent a few years looking at knots in DNA to understand how entanglements between in and between molecules affect the mechanical properties of things made out of molecules. Now I study DNA structures called kinetoplasts, which are basically sheets of chainmail made of thousands of linked DNA loops. They look like tiny jellyfish and are found in the mitochondria of certain parasites. Among other things, I’m trying to use them to answer questions about the physics of 2D materials that are important for bringing materials like graphene (single-layer carbon) to actual technological use. Totally unrelated to my work with DNA, I also wrote a paper calculating how long it would take to fall through a tunnel through the center of the Earth (38 minutes), which was all over the news for a few days back in 2015.
I also dabble in outreach; I kept a blog about my various science thoughts and adventures for a few year and volunteer for programs like NetPals and Skype-a-Scientist. I’m hoping to start a similar program here in Long Beach. Right now the most outreachy thing I do is make dumb science jokes on twitter, which mainly reach other scientists.
My favorite part of being a scientist is figuring something out that nobody has figured out before, it is an amazing feeling. I remember the first “discovery” I made during my senior thesis in college and the few that I made over the next few years. Now I’m lucky enough that I get to discover new things a few times a year. I’m training several students in my lab and I hope they get to feel that as well.
My main hobby the last few years has been road biking, which I like as a way to experience the outdoors, meet people while not having to talk non-stop, and stay fit and active. It was a pretty good hobby to have during the pandemic when there was nothing else to do. I used to play ultimate frisbee, but I’ve been injured for a few years. I like animals although I don’t currently have any pets. Another pandemic hobby I picked up was walking around the neighborhood every morning and meeting all the outdoor cats. I just moved a month ago so I have to meet all the new cats.
I won’t say too much about the path I took and how you should follow it, because it involves a good deal of privilege and luck. My advice to graduate students is to attend as many seminars as you can, not just in your own sub-sub-sub-field of research. You learn a lot about your discipline that will come in handy later, you can make good contacts, and you can get ideas that you may be able to apply to your work.
My favorite activities are ones that help me connect to nature, such as SCUBA diving, kayaking, and painting landscapes. Even as a child, I spent all of my free time at the beach or obsessing over turtles, so it was no surprise when I decided to pursue marine science as a profession. I obtained my Bachelors of Science in marine science and biological sciences from the University of Delaware where I conducted research on shark respiration and zooplankton behavior. I also completed an internship at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida examining red tide toxins from Florida beaches.
Currently, I am a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute. Though I have yet to begin my thesis, my research will focus on understanding the role of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in marine fishes. PFAS are a group of approximately 4500 manmade chemicals that are water, heat, and oil resistant. They have been found in non-stick pans, fire-fighting foams, stain resistant carpets, and many other common use items and are known carcinogens in humans. Little is known about the impact of these chemicals on marine fishes, so I hope to fill some of this knowledge gap by determining the toxicity of lesser known PFAS compounds and how they might be transferred from parent to offspring. As a scientist, I aim to understand the extent of human impact on biology within the marine ecosystem. In the future, I hope to influence the regulation, product development, and disposal techniques of manmade chemicals such as PFAS, insecticides, sunscreens, and pharmaceuticals in order to protect the environment and ultimately, us humans.
It took me four years of undergraduate classes, several internships, and two wildly different research projects to figure out the specific area that I wanted to focus on in graduate school. In other words, I got really good at figuring out what I didn’t want to pursue. This would be my greatest piece of advice to someone looking to find their way in science or any profession: try out lots of things, as many as you can! Not only does a range in experience bring about a unique perspective, but you never know what one door might open for you later on down the road.
I also suggest that people learn about the science that interests them in their backyard or community. As a Long Island native, this was easy for me because growing up, I was surrounded by beaches. But even learning about the local plant life or stargazing at night can help curate your specific scientific interests. I believe that having a personal and maybe even emotional relationship with nature and science can instill passion that propels you through all of the more tedious and challenging parts of life. Overall, even if science is just a hobby and not a career end-goal, I think it’s important to find ways to make it accessible at home and never be afraid to ask questions!
Tell us a bit about yourself
Hi everyone, my name is Iris. Besides science, I enjoy spending time outdoors. I love hiking and (relaxing) bike rides (preferably combined with a bit of regional geology). I also enjoy playing board games and pen and paper role-playing games with friends. It is important to me to volunteer and get involved in my surrounding, such as in early career networks and university boards.
What kind of scientist are you, and what do you do?
I am a PhD student in geosciences working on geochemical analysis of tropical bivalve shells. I analyze geochemical parameters (element ratios e.g. Mg/Ca, Sr/Ca, Ba/Ca and stable isotopes δ18O and δ13C) recorded during growth within the shell, with the goal of reconstructing the paleoenvironmental conditions (such as temperature, salinity, and primary productivity) that prevailed in the reef where the organism grew. I also look at more recent shells to evaluate the structure and geochemistry of shells grown under known environmental conditions.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
I think I was always a curious person. As a child I loved going to natural history and science museums, especially those with interactive elements. My grandfather encouraged my scientific interest a lot and provided me with toys like crystal growing sets and chemistry kits. Ironically, I was particularly interested in extraterrestrial topics. I started studying geosciences because it seemed like an interesting field that combined chemistry, physics, and biology, and because I thought it would be really cool to go on field trips. My enthusiasm for geosciences grew over the course of the first semester, and after my first field trip, I was absolutely certain that geoscience was what I wanted to do. With paleoclimate reconstruction, I found a field that I personally think is important to advance and interesting to work in.
For me, the best thing about being a (geo)scientist is that you get to work on something you really care about and that you have the opportunity to contribute to the understanding of some of the important processes that shape this wonderful planet we live on. I also appreciate being able to work creatively and come up with new ideas and approaches, building on decades of remarkable research. Plus, it’s fantastic to be surrounded by so many cool, open-minded, talented, and nerdy people to share and discuss exciting new findings and approaches with.
How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
The Earth is a very complex system, and modelers are making remarkable progress in predicting its response to climate change. Models are often tested against paleoclimate data and are not (yet) always able to reproduce the parameters identified in paleoclimate studies. Providing paleoclimate data and understanding how Earth’s climate has changed in the past can help to better predict future changes. My work focuses on obtaining high-resolution (up to daily) paleoenvironmental data from shells. These high-resolution climate snapshots can provide insights into short-term climate aspects such as seasonality and frequency of extreme weather events. I believe that climate-related changes in seasonality and extreme weather events are more tangible than, for example, long-term changes in average temperature over decades. Therefore, I hope that continued research in the field of high-resolution paleoclimate reconstruction will provide a basis for making the relevance and effects of upcoming climate change in daily life more apparent to everyone.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions; the more you ask, the more you learn.
Dare to find your own interpretations and discuss your ideas with colleagues, even if they seem crazy. Maybe you missed something, in which case your interpretation can be adjusted, or maybe you found something super cool that others overlooked.
Stay curious and adventurous. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t turn out as planned. Unexpected results can lead you into the unknown, where new findings are waiting to be discovered.
Hello! My name is Mahmoud, a master’s student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. After completing my undergrad at Carleton, I stayed to pursue an M.Sc in Biology in Dr. Heath MacMillan’s lab.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? I would say my favorite part of being a scientist is the constant excitement of asking questions and having the freedom to try things out. In a constantly changing world, new evidence is always popping up which can occasionally change the way we look at pre-existing theories and data. I really enjoy meeting other scientists and bouncing ideas off of them, as well as communicating science to people.
As for my interest in insects, it started with an upper-year biology course on insects which involved going out and collecting different species of insects. I was hooked after the course, in large part due to simply appreciating how diverse these animals are in their biology. The world of insects is massive!
What is your research about? My research is currently looking at how insects are injured by low temperatures, and if there is any connection to their gut. The majority of insects, such as flies, locusts, crickets, and bees to name a few, do not do very well at low temperatures, and this can result in them becoming injured or dying. The exact driving forces behind these injuries are not exactly known, but they are thought to be driven by water and ion balance becoming dysregulated due to the insect’s gut losing most of its ability to control water and ion flow between the inside and outside of the gut. However, similar to us, insects also have a diverse community of bacteria in their gut! This leads me to my main question: if insects suffer injuries at low temperatures, is that partly because gut bacteria are finding their way outside and into tissues? If that is the case, then the resulting infection could be another factor behind the tissue damage which would provide better insight as to why most insects cannot handle the cold very well.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them? To see if low temperatures lead to bacterial leak from the gut, I am feeding a fluorescent strain of E. coli bacteria to locusts, my model insect of choice. After they eat the bacteria, I expose them to a low temperature and extract a sample of their hemolymph, or “blood”. I then place the hemolymph in agar gel plates that allow any bacteria to grow overnight. I would then confirm the presence of the fluorescent bacteria by shining a UV lamp on the plates, which would show a strong yellow fluorescence. If bacteria are finding their way out of the gut, then I would see the fluorescent bacteria in the plates.
How does your research contribute to the bigger picture? When it comes to the spread of insects across the globe, their ability to handle low temperatures is a very strong predictor for their survival and distribution. In other words, insects that are better able to survive cold environments are more likely to spread further than insects that are less able to survive the cold. This is particularly important when it comes to the issue of climate change, as greater and more frequent extremes in temperatures can expose many insect species to a different environment than what they are normally used to. In the context of pests that may damage agricultural crops, trees in forests, and pose a risk to our health, knowing how insects are physiologically affected by the cold can provide valuable information that we can use to predict their movement and future distribution. I would say that my work is just a small piece of the much grander puzzle of why insects do not like the cold!
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? The advice I always give aspiring scientists is to never be afraid to ask questions. In a way, asking questions is what defines us! If you are an undergraduate student in STEM who is interested in research, try to take the first step to email a professor if you are interested in their work, because that first step can definitely go a long way. No matter your research background or experience, there is a field out there for everyone. Embrace your passion for science and go forth!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? From a young age, I was always very curious, wanting to learn as much as possible about everything related to the ocean. I always tried to learn more and continue to look for new things to discover. I grew up close to the coast in the Netherlands and till this very day, I still enjoy the nature there and it always feels like coming home. Part of the reason I got so interested in the ocean is the mystery that is part of it, the fact that on the beaches and along the coast, we only see a glimpse of the life beneath the surface. So when the time came to make a decision about what I wanted to study, the choice for water management/aquatic ecotechnology at a university located close to the coast was one that was directly related to my passion for the coasts. During my studies, the passion and enthusiasm for science only grew. The contrast between theory, lab work and boots in the mud is something I enjoyed and still do. During my first internships at the research institutes NIOZ (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research) and Wageningen Marine Research, I really got to experience doing research. These were amazing experiences, with fieldwork, experiments and a lot of new knowledge which ranged from small worms at the bottom of the North Sea to invasive species in industrial harbors. During these periods, I learned that the part I love about science is the continuous exploration of what seems like endless topics. And that with doing research, you contribute to knowledge. Because science to me is exploring new things of which the stories should be shared not only among scientist but with as many people as possible, especially the next generations that will need it to do better.
What do you do? At the moment, I am finishing up my Masters in Aquaculture and Marine Resources Management. Within this program I am focusing on ecology and marine resources. The marine resources part is mainly about the services provided to us by the ocean (e.g. fish, coastal protection) and how to use these services in a sustainable way. For example, how fishing could be sustainable or how oyster reefs can be used for coastal protection. The ecological aspect is more about how these coastal and marine systems work and how different species contribute to keeping them healthy. Before my adventure at the university started, I did a Bachelors in Water Management in the middle of the Southwestern Delta of the Netherlands. During this study, I focused on ecology from rivers to oceans, learning about how to work together with nature to protect us against flooding. Other topics included climate change and the importance of water, where some countries have too much, others don’t have enough.
In addition to my studies, I am also active as an ambassador for the Dutch Wavemakers. This organization aims to educate the next generation worldwide about sufficient and clean water but also about water safety. We want to achieve this by collaborating with water athletes and students, hoping to make young people enthusiastic about water sports and water studies. Next to this, we also hope to motivate the young generation to take action and be the change they like to see.
What are your data and how do you obtain them? We, as Dutch Wavemakers, communicate these important topics of water safety and scarcity with a positive attitude. We are convinced that it is not fruitful to keep pointing fingers at each other, since solutions are not often born from conflict. Instead we have a solution oriented approach in which we, of course, also talk about the problems but instead of focusing on doom scenarios we try to set out a positive future perspective. From experience, I know that this is way more effective in the long run when it comes to activating people. If they see the type of positive impact they can have as an individual, and if they spread the word with the same positivity as we do, this small action might become a big movement, leading to a real change in mindset.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, and the betterment of society in general? As a Dutch Wavemaker, but also as someone with passion for the ocean, I hope to contribute to a positive change in which we start to see the ocean as a companion instead of an enemy or endless resource. As an ambassador I am involved in multiple projects that aim to create awareness for problems like plastic pollution, changing ecosystems and of course, the effects of climate change on our oceans and coastal zones. One of them is the SDG 14 alliance, which focuses on achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goal 14: Life below water. Here we hope to create more awareness about pollution, sustainable fisheries, increasing biodiversity and protection of the oceans, with the focus on the younger generations. Next to these projects, we also visit all different types of events where we teach the younger generations about the impacts of too much water, but also about the importance of having enough water. We do this with the help of fun little activities in which the children can participate. In this way, children learn about large scale problems like too much water in cities because of the lack of green spaces.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Stay curious! As long as you remain curious and eager to learn new things, there is always a way for you to get there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, there are always people in your surroundings that would be happy to answer them for you. Especially if it is something that you are really passionate about! And remember you will never be too old to learn new things, because a world without new things to discover would be a bit boring, if you ask me!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? I got into science out of curiosity. Not many people I know are in the sciences which I think called out to me to explore what a scientist does, what do they look like aside from how they are portrayed in popular culture, or in general. I chose chemistry because understanding the universe from a molecular point of view appealed to me. Now, I am focused on oceanographic work employing biogeochemistry tools and techniques.
The best part about being a scientist is that you can allow your curious mind to think freely. There is always so much more to learn. When you’re out doing fieldwork, or simply processing samples in the lab, the thrill you get whenever you’re making a discovery is irreplaceable. This doesn’t mean obtaining purely positive results- insights and observations on negative results and failed experiments make you appreciate the scientific process more. Unlocking life skills in pursuit of science is a thing! I learned SCUBA diving, and programming, because these are requisites needed to tackle the research problem I am working on at the moment.
With my work, I hope to encourage more Filipinos to pursue a career in the sciences.
In laymen’s terms, what do you do? My research involves enumerating the lipids found in microbial mats, the water column and sediments in an area where groundwater bubbles out from the seafloor. These areas have very dynamic chemistries and my objective is to understand how micro- and macroorganisms thrive and adapt to these conditions.
How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Knowing the lipid composition gives us an understanding of the metabolic processes employed by microorganisms in adapting to their environment. Looking at the adaptation in areas affected by submarine groundwater discharge can very well contribute to assessing how organisms may behave in response to the changing oceans. The research also employs stable isotope measurements to go hand-in-hand with lipid studies. Another goal is to test how paleotemperature proxies behave in tropical climate as most studies are being done in temperate regions.
What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? The data that my research uses are lipid mass spectrometry profiles as well as isotopic compositions from isotope-ratio mass spectrometry analysis. Isotopic data are both compound-specific and bulk analysis. We also perform the standard physico-chemical measurements of the study site, as well as obtain DNA data of the microbial mats we’ve collected from the field. The team is also exploring the use of imaging to profile the microorganisms across the water column.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Scientists come in all shapes and sizes. As long as you have that curious mind to hold on to, there is no mold that you should follow on how to be one. Find an inspiration and follow it through with hard work and a lot of readings, and you’re good. More importantly, engage people on your work. Science is meant to be communicated to the larger population outside the scientific sphere and now more than ever is citizen science a force we definitely want to tap into.
Hello folks! My name is Marie-Charlott and currently I am working on my master’s thesis in theoretical ecology. To be honest, I never expected to get this far in my scientific career and everyday when I get up in the morning (when coffee is involved) I am happy to contribute some knowledge to our scientific world.
What is your favourite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general? Well, I have kind of a romanticised story of how I decided I want to be a scientist; when I was a child, I was obsessed with animal documentaries, atlases about animals and especially with dolphins. I had tons of books about the life of the ocean (spoiler alert: I changed to bears!) When I graduated high school, I did not really know what I wanted to do with my life or where I could see myself in the future. I decided to apply for all kinds of studies that I thought might be suitable for me at universities all around my hometown. Eventually I only got accepted at the University of Cologne for the bachelor’s program in biology. I had my very first big mind-blowing moment when I sat in a lecture of inorganic chemistry and the professor explained to us that all matter on our planet, as far as we are concerned, is made of the same quality: atoms. It is only the protons, neurons and electrons that make the difference. Only these three things determine how matter is and how it is able to react. At this very moment, I fell in love with science in general. I could not believe how great everything around us actually appears to be, how many fantastic secrets are out there to uncover. I decided I want to get to know and contribute AS MUCH AS I COULD. And since that moment, many more mind-blowing moments like this followed. And I undoubtedly believe this will never stop for the rest of my life.
Science also literally saved my life and gave me a place to belong to. Both of my parents passed away during my Bachelor’s studies and I was lost in this big world. I found support and passion in working for something bigger than me, something that is real and can be proven. It gave me stability.
What I truly love about science and the scientific community: No matter who you are, where you came from, who you love or who you decide to be: We all agree on the general principles of logic, causality and reproducibility. We all work for the same goal.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, palaeontology, or to the betterment of society in general? It is not a secret anymore that humanity contributed well to destroy its own home planet by climate change, globalisation, urbanisation, biodiversity- and ecosystem loss. There is undoubtedly an immense amount of work to do – and I started with my master thesis at a point where I try to understand what went wrong in our approach to maintain species diversity so far. Many biodiversity conservation programs were designed to reintroduce species into their natural habitat to maintain ecosystem workability when they disappeared. Unfortunately, many of them failed and the programs were not successful. But how do we investigate the reasons for a failed reintroduction? Interview the released animals one by one?
Scientists have found another, feasible solution to get to the bottom of the matter.
When we try to model an event or reproduce a mechanism on the computer in a simulation, preparation and evaluation is a dynamic process where we learn from what we model and try to improve this model to get as close as possible to the real event we try to simulate. In my master thesis, I created a simple model based on equations which solution represents the population density of different animal species. My model is not adapted to one species in particular but held general to investigate the event of what we call community closure: A ecosystem loses a species and begins to dynamically re-calibrate itself towards a new equilibrium. The interactions within the system change when one interaction partner just disappears; and this is where I start my investigation. I force one of the species which used to interact as a competitor or as a predator or prey into extinction and then try to reintroduce it back into the system when a new equilibrium is reached. When we find out more about the major forces that keep ecosystems closed, we might find a way to manage some of these factors and tackle the issue of failed reintroduction programs.
One of the biggest problems in nature is: We can only see the system in its status quo as it appears to us right now. Due to environmental uncertainty, it is often hard to approximate what happened in the past and what led to the state we observe right now. This is also what computational models are for: We can play around with our models and maybe are able to reveal completely new phenomena we might also find in nature when we know what to look for.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Never let anyone else tell you what you are able to do or not. Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars. My Mom used to say: It is always possible if you are willing to work hard, and I truly believe in that. There is nothing you can’t learn, even when you don’t feel apt or suitable for the task. Go for what you are passionate about in life and also learn from your mistakes. A bad grade or a rejected paper do not mean you suck as a scientist. Struggle means improvement and we are all in this together, so don’t worry about one thing in particular you haven’t been perfect at.
Hi!! I am Deepak, a final year PhD student. I have recently submitted my thesis for evaluation at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, India. I am quite passionate about my research work as a scientist, exploring and digging the Earth’s surface to answer some of the curiosity-driven questions such as “the role of climate instability in human evolution”.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
The most important aspect of being a scientist “who deals with sediment and rock records” is that you get the opportunity to explore scientific questions that have a broader implication in understanding the past climate under which hominins evolved to become Homo sapiens. As a scientist, I get the opportunity to visit archaeological sites that have fossilised records of stone tools and artefacts used by prehistoric humans. Seeing archaeological samples and working on them to unravel human history feels exhilarating, and the realisation of holding artefacts used by humans thousands of years ago gives me goosebumps. The experience of working in the field and digging the sediment sequences to understand the past environment feels like time travelling. This excitement and curiosity have been the source of motivation for exploring the relationship between the past climate and prehistoric humans evolution.
It all started during my undergraduate coursework in Geology, where I was introduced to various topics ranging from the Vertebrate Paleontology, Earth Climate, Quaternary Geology, and Evolution of Life through time etc., which built the foundation of my research career. The Quaternary period due to its association with human evolution fascinated me a lot. The research papers that correlate the fall of Harappan Civilisation with climate instability, particularly to the Indian summer monsoon weakening at ~4.2 ka and the collapse of well-known 8th or 9th century’s old Maya civilisation was linked to the arid climate, and excessive deforestation attracted my attention in this field.
Curiosity to unravel the mechanisms through which climate has shaped the evolution of Homo species brought me closer to my PhD project. My PhD research work at the stable isotope laboratory of IISER Kolkata, India, was oriented towards the understanding human-environment relationship. With the help of my supervisor Prof. Prasanta Sanyal, I was able to formulate my PhD project, which utilises stable isotopic tools to decipher changes in climatic conditions and their resultant effects on the prehistoric human population. Throughout this project, I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my research work.
What do you do?
I try to reconstruct the environmental conditions using multiple proxies to understand the relationship between climate and culture changes. By doing this, we would be able to understand the climatic situations through which human evolution took place.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general?
My graduate research work aimed to understand the course of human evolution during the Late Quaternary period in the Indo-Gangetic region. The Quaternary period encompasses numerous key advancements in human evolution such as early migration, brain size development, typo-technological evolution, adaptation to an extreme environment, hunting to sedentism lifestyle, agriculture and domestication of animals. However, any advancement in human evolution cannot be deciphered in isolation without understanding the prevailing climatic conditions, since humans like every other organism also respond and adapt to their changing environment. To comprehend the complex research questions of Late Quaternary in the Indian subcontinent, I have used the multidisciplinary (Geology, Organic and Stable Isotope Geochemistry, Archaeology and Anthropology) approach to decode the early-human environment and their behaviour in extreme climate scenario. I have employed a multi-proxy approach that includes compound-specific isotopic analysis of n-alkanes and soil carbonates from paleosols to understand the past climate and vegetation in the Belan River Valley situated in north-central India. My research highlights the vital linkage between the prehistoric human populations and climate variability.
At the same archaeological sites, further research work on the study of macroscopic charcoal particles suggests the controlled use of fire by hominins during the Middle Paleolithic phase dated around ~55 ka BP. This charcoal record provides the oldest evidence of fire use by hominins from the Indian subcontinent. Additionally, I aim to decode the provenance of sediments deposited in the Indo-Gangetic plains during the Late Quaternary period. To achieve this, we have planned to measured Strontium (87Sr/86Sr) – Neodymium (143Nd/144Nd) isotopes to understand the provenance of fluvial sediments and stone tools from archaeological sites. Therefore, through this project, I have targeted novel questions and used the latest measurements techniques to provide an overall idea of climate, vegetation, fire and provenance and its linkage to prehistoric phases in India. The results of my project have helped in filling a scientific void by presenting results from the Indian subcontinent, which will lead to an improvement in the understanding global-scale picture of human evolution.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
I would say to them, “The only way to achieve your dream is not to give up”. The journey is not easy, but the curiosity in you will find a path that will lead you to success.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist is being able to see fantastic geological sites and learning about some of the weirdest species of Earth’s past. I wish I could say I always had an interest in paleontology, but it wasn’t until the end of my freshman year of college that I realized I had a passion for this field. As a general education requirement, I took Life of the Past. One day, while rapidly taking notes, a slide changed to a photo of a Quetzalcoatlus skeleton. I lost the ability to focus on my scribblings and my mind wandered. So many questions: did this creature fly, how could it fly, could I have ridden it while it was flying? I don’t know if it was the thought of riding this gigantic pterodactyl, or the realization of this ancient yet new world had just come into existence, either way at that moment I was hooked. Within a week I added on Geology as a dual major and started volunteering at the Missouri Institute of Natural Science.
What do you do?
Currently I am an undergraduate student, I am studying Geology and Anthropology emphasizing on Paleontology and Archaeology. I am hoping to be a vertebrate paleontologist and a science educator one day. I also volunteer at our local natural science institution. Here I apply what I have learned in my majors and because of this I’ve been able to get my hands into a lot of different projects. I have worked with triceratops bones to prepare them to cast and mold. I have also worked on reshaping the replicated portions of the triceratops to make them biologically accurate. I’ve made replicas of different dinosaur’s teeth and claws to raise funding for the museum. I help classify newly donated rocks and minerals when they come in. I have helped create some of our displays in our mineral exhibit. The museum has also given me the privilege to be a part of their lectures and field trips. During these field trips, I would give guided tours of the museum and take the families to hunt for marine fossils on the premises. I have also given lessons at a local school about varying dinosaurs and what it is like being a paleontologist.
How does your research and outreach contribute to the betterment of society in general?
Being a part of the museum gives me the ability in having a part in outreach programs. These types of programs work with younger generations and stimulates the interest for the field at an early age. These are the next generation of paleontologist, chemists, or biologists that will continue to make advancements in science and history. When we work with the younger generations you know amazing things are bound to happen!
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
My advice is to aspiring scientists is never be afraid to put yourself out there. Ask the questions that are pounding in your head. Reach out and talk to that scientist you look up too. Never be ashamed to ask a silly question! Science is founded on hunting down the answers to questions that no one has yet answered.
What is your favourite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? When I was young, I was, as many kids, particularly interested in dinosaurs and other fossils. I liked nothing more than visiting a natural history museum marvelling at the wonders of nature‘s past. And of course, I had a proper collection of dino toys. My primary school teachers gifted me a small book about Earth history before I left, knowing very well about this passion of mine. I suppose I just didn‘t grow out of this passion (Certain movies by Spielberg might have played a part in it as well …). Thus, still aspiring to become a palaeontologist, I registered in Bonn University for the geosciences Bachelors program in 2010, which I finished in 2013. I really enjoyed my studies there, so naturally I followed up with the master‘s program that I finished in 2016.
What interests me the most in sciences is the pursue of knowledge. To enhance our knowledge by finding the natural coherence of things. Finding traces of what is yet hidden in the dark, making hypotheses, searching for more clues, trying to see and understand more and more. A great aspect in geosciences is field work. It is such a thrilling experience to visit an outcrop and reconstruct the past, which is, for me, quite a lot like detective work. Looking at all the little puzzle pieces of past ecosystems, such as fossils and sedimentological features, then trying to put it all together into a bigger picture. Since I was young I would read with excitement about the explorers of old times – Humboldt, Darwin, Shackleton, Fawcett, and the like – dreaming of going on such expeditions myself one day. Indeed, my studies brought me to many places, not seldom quite off of touristic trails, and sometimes even a slight bit dangerous. It‘s as close to the travels of these past explorers as I could have wished for.
In laymen‘s terms, what do you do? My current research is focused on ancient marine organic-walled phytoplankton. Plankton describes the organisms that float in the water column. Within the plankton we have zooplankton and phytoplankton. The former are heterotroph, which means they need to consume other organisms to gain energy, while the latter are autotroph, meaning they obtain energy through photosynthesis, just like plants on land. In today‘s oceans we find a variety of groups in the phytoplankton, such as diatoms, coccolithophores, green algae, dinoflagellates and cyanobacteria. I am working on phytoplankton from the Palaeozoic, a time interval dated roughly between 541 Million and 250 Million years ago. During this time the phytoplankton was represented mostly by what we call acritarchs. So what are acritarchs? I‘m not sure, actually. And that‘s why they are called acritarchs, as the name means „uncertain origin“. We don‘t know the biological affinity of acritarchs, and they surely belonged to a variety of groups, but most of them are interpreted to represent the remains of phytoplanktic organisms, some of which might be related to today‘s dinoflagellates.
So how can we study microscopic remains of organic-walled plankton that lived hundreds of millions of years ago? Actually, these little things are quite resistant. In order to process a rock sample for palynological analysis, we dissolve the rock in different acids. What remains are organic-walled microfossils, so called palynomorphs, such as the acritarchs, that we can study under a microscope. But what is so interesting in microscopic organisms that were floating in the ancient seas? First, they help us to define the age of sediment rocks. Many palynomorphs represent important index fossils, and thus, have a stratigraphic value. Then, since phytoplankton is often bound to certain environmental conditions, palynomorph assemblage analyses can help us reconstruct parameters, such as water temperature, depth, or distance to land, during the time of the deposition of the sediment: That is how the distribution of different taxa of phytoplankton can give us valuable information about the palaeoenvironment. Another and major aspect of phytoplankton is their photosynthetic activity. While often the continental forests are called the „lungs of the Earth“, phytoplankton are responsible for 50–80 % of the production of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Through their photosynthetic activity phytoplankton take up great amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Large quantities of this carbon is then stored in deeper parts of the ocean when phytoplankton die and sink to the seabed. During the early Palaeozoic the importance of phytoplankton within the carbon cycle was much bigger, since plants were yet to conquer the land. Another important aspect is the fact that phytoplankton is at the base of marine food webs. For these reasons we assume that changes in phytoplankton through time must have had an impact on both Earth‘s climate and marine ecosystems. My studies aim to find correlations between biodiversity changes of the phytoplankton and changes in different palaeo-environmental parameters, such as temperature, atmospheric O2 and CO2 concentrations, sea level, and palaeogeography.
How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? While palaeontology is the study of past processes, it can be of great value for the present. Awareness of climate change as a major global crisis has significantly increased in the last decades. Its effects are already perceptible in many of the Earth’s ecosystems. It has become an important task to estimate future consequences of the rapidly changing climate. Palaeontological investigations provide an important tool for predicting processes in changing environments by reconstructing past intercorrelations. Inversing the famous quote of the Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell, “The present is the key to the past”, our knowledge of processes in Earth history may help us to estimate future developments. Several important extinction events are known, some of which are related to increases in greenhouse gases. Thus, investigating biotic changes during these crucial time intervals and comparing the results with recent developments is very important. I want to contribute with my work to our understanding of today‘s profound changes in the biosphere caused by human activities.
If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? During my Ph.D. project I mostly worked on a database of the Palaeozoic phytoplankton comprising occurrence data from published literature including stratigraphic and geographic information. We used this database to create diversity curves for the Palaeozoic phytoplankton. But I also went on sampling trips myself, which is basically taking rock samples from different stratigraphic layers. In the laboratory these samples are being processed, generally by dissolving the rock in acids and sieving the residues. Then palynological slides are being produced by distributing the sieved residues on glass slides and embedding them in a clear medium. After, the samples are analysed under the microscope. For some of my work I did morphometrics, which is measuring certain parameters of microfossil specimens in larger population in order to statistically analyse them. This can help assessing morphological variability and to review taxonomic classifications.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Working in science can be frustrating at times. That‘s part of it, I suppose. Don‘t let it discourage you. Follow your passion. Other than that, „Explore. Dream. Discover.“ – H. Jackson Brown Jr.