Sandy Kawano, Comparative Physiologist and Biomechanist

Who am I?

I am a nerd who turned a lifetime fascination in nature documentaries and monster movies into a career as an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, where I get to study the amazing ways that animals move through different environments and then share these discoveries to students through my role as a teacher-scholar.

How did I become a scientist?

To explain how vertebrate animals became terrestrial, I have to study the evolutionary changes that spanned the transition from fishes to tetrapods which is recorded through the anatomical changes that are left behind in fossils, such as these specimens from the Field Museum.

My career started off a bit rocky when I was rejected from the four-year university programs I applied to in high school. I wanted to become a wildlife biologist to maintain biodiversity and this roadblock made me question whether I was good enough to pursue what I loved. The thought of being a university professor hadn’t crossed my mind yet but I knew that I needed a college degree, so I attended community college where my chemistry professor explained how research helps solve mysteries. I loved puzzles, so I thought “why not?”. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, and was lucky to work with excellent professors who helped me conduct research and inspired me to study how the environment affects animal movements. I did temporarily work as a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during this time, but research made me realize that I could study the maintenance of biodiversity through the lens of evolution and ecology. With my mentors’ support, I completed a Ph.D. at Clemson University and earned post-doctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Royal Veterinary College. In 2017, I started a tenure-track position at California State University, Long Beach.

What do I study?

One of the aims of my research is to compare how fins and limbs allow animals to move on land and two key players in this story are the African mudskipper (Periophthalmus barbarus; left) and tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), respectively.

My research combines biology, engineering, and mathematics to reconstruct animal movement by piecing together how muscles and bones produce motion. I deconstruct how living animals move so I can build computer models that reverse-engineer the ancient movements of extinct animals. One of my goals is to figure out how vertebrates (animals with backbones) went from living in water for hundreds of millions of years as fishes to moving onto land as tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). I enjoy studying animals that challenge the norm, such as ‘walking’ fishes, because they open our eyes to the amazing diversity on Earth and help us learn from those who are different from us. Here’s to nature’s misfits!

What would I have told younger me?

I would encourage anyone interested in science to explore diverse experiences and treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, whether it be about yourself or the world around you. We often treat obstacles in our lives as affirmation that we are not good enough, but it is not the obstacles that define us but the way in which we respond to those obstacles. These struggles can push us to grow stronger or approach questions with new and creative perspectives. There are many equally important ways to be a scientist and there is no single pathway to becoming a scientist, so enjoy your adventure!

Follow Sandy’s lab updates on her website and Twitter account!

Joy Buongiorno Altom, Geomicrobiologist

Figure 1: My very first expedition to Svalbard for collecting mud! The Arctic is especially vulnerable to ecosystem changes with continued climate warming. To understand these changes, we head up to 79 degrees North and look at carbon-cycling microbes to gain insight into their ecological structure and function.

My love for science was born freshman year of college when I was encouraged to ask questions about nature and began reading books about the evolutionary origin of life and the cosmos. Through reading, I found that science is the best tool that we have to understand the world around us and that we should never stop asking questions of our origins. However, big questions related to evolutionary histories, for example, require the collaboration and contribution of multiple different fields of science and so, I set out on an educational journey that would allow me to grow my scientific toolbox to encompass skills across multiple disciplines. My background in zoology taught me perspective on communities and how ecological linkages between different species can play crucial roles in how an ecosystem functions. I then delved into geoscience to gain an understanding of how organisms interact with their physical and chemical environment. Now, I evaluate sediment microbial communities and their contribution to biogeochemical cycling of nutrients with genomic sequencing analyses.

Figure 2: Example of a microbial network analysis from sediment in Svalbard. Each little symbol is a different type of microorganism, and lines connecting each symbol indicates that they share either a positive (solid) or negative (dashed) relationship. Colors indicate relatedness (same colors = same family history) and different shapes indicate how they eat. These networks can help us identify novel relationships between microorganisms and generate hypotheses about what is causing a positive or negative relationship.

I am currently using my cross-discipline training to paint a complete picture of microbial communities in Arctic sediments. My goal is to make useful contributions to models aimed at describing how continued climate warming will affect carbon cycling in the Arctic Circle. It is currently unknown if the biological feedbacks associated with glacial retreat and warming surface ocean temperatures will lead to a net carbon sink (removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) or net source (contributing to atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions). To answer these questions, I collect environmental DNA and RNA from sediments in different fjords all over Svalbard alongside geochemistry measurements. I employ microbial network analyses to find links between community members and geochemistry to unravel the hidden drivers behind microbial abundance and community composition. With genomic sequencing data and cutting-edge bioinformatics tools, I evaluate the carbon cycling potential within nearly complete microbial genomes collected from these sediments and then computationally map their genes to RNA activity in the environment. We are finding that spatial gradients in the amount and quality of organic matter control metabolic potential of sediment microbial communities.

Figure 3: Beautiful mud core. The mud in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard is a rusty red color because of the surrounding iron-rich bedrock geology. Bands of black are where iron oxide minerals form when chemical conditions are just right. The combination of sediment accumulation and biogeochemical reactions causes this lovely tiger-striped appearance.

Pursuing a career in science has allowed me to travel the world, meet new and interesting people, experience cultures different from mine, and cultivate relationships that will prove invaluable for future collaborations. I love what I do, and encourage anyone who wants to pursue a career in science to do it! My advice to aspiring young scientists is to identify a mentor you trust early on that will guide you through tough times of self-doubt that may arise, or provide strong letters of recommendation.

Follow Joy’s research and work on Twitter by clicking here!

Prof. Richard Damian Nance, Structural Geologist

Type locality of the 460-440 million-year-old megacrystic Esperanza granitoids, Acatlán Complex, southern Mexico.

I am a field-based structural geologist and I have been in love with geology for as long as I can remember. If you like a good “whodunit” then geology is an endless delight. All science is about inquiry and analysis, but geology is more than this – it involves the imagination. Like a good detective novel, geology provides incomplete evidence that must be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing to come up with a story or, in my case, a picture of the past.

My interests lie in plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle, and the influence of these global processes on crustal evolution, mantle circulation, climate, sea level and the biosphere. To tackle such a wide field requires a broad geological background. I am interested in any evidence in the rock record pertaining to the Earth’s changing geography with time. So I collect data on structural kinematics, magmatic environments, depositional settings and provenance, and metamorphic history. I also date rocks and analyze their chemistry and isotopic signatures. I even collect fossils! In this way I try to interpret the geologic history of broad regions so that I can reconstruct past continental configurations and thereby evaluate the causes and effects of Earth’s moving continents and the long-term geologic, climatic and biological consequences of their episodic assembly into supercontinents.

Paleogeographic map of the Rheic Ocean, which separated the southern continents (Gondwana) from the northern continents (Laurentia and Baltica) for much of the Paleozoic Era. The map attempts to reposition the continents in Early Silurian time, about 440 million years ago.

This “big picture” approach to geology suits me well because there is really no aspect of the science that doesn’t fascinate me. For me, geology has not just provided a fantastic career, it has been a lifelong passion. When I joined the Humphrey Davy grammar school in the UK at the age of 12, I came under the spell of a truly exceptional teacher by the name of Bob Quixley. Mr. Quixley taught geography, but his real delight was geology and his enthusiasm for the subject, and the blackboard artwork he crafted to convey it, were addictive. For a period of five years, he had us captivated and, in testament to his influence, no fewer than five of my classmates and I went on to university and careers in geology.

It was a decision I have never questioned. Geology embraces everything that makes a career rewarding. It is important, it matters to both science and society, it is varied and interesting, it takes place in the field and the classroom as well as the office, it pays well and, most of all, it is a lot of fun!

A dangerous game. Checking my undergraduate field mapping 35 years later on a UN-sponsored international field trip to Cornwall and the Lizard ophiolite (a piece of ocean floor linked to the Rheic Ocean) in SW England.

What, you might ask, have supercontinents to do with anything that society cares about? Well, what we don’t grow, we mine, and plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle play a vital role in the search for mineral deposits and energy resources. They also help us understand the natural environment, the distribution of our water resources and the origin of geologic hazards. They additionally influence Earth’s climate and so help us to determine what happens when climate changes, and whether the climate change we are witnessing today is of human origin or a natural phenomena. And this just touches the surface.

So if you are studying geology or think about doing so, I strongly encourage you to continue. I have never met a geologist who didn’t love what they were doing, and to be paid to do what you love is worth a fortune!

Cam Muskelly, Citizen Scientist and Paleontology/Geology Educator

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?

Collecting fossils from Lower Carboniferous (Upper Mississippian) rocks from Huntsville, Alabama

My favorite part about being a citizen scientist is that I get to talk to and meet different people of all ages who want to know what lies in the Earth’s rocks. There were many things that drew me into the fields of paleontology and geology. One of the main reasons was my exposure to a teacher’s fossil collections while I was in the 2nd grade. I knew what fossils were but I had never actually held one at the time. At this time, a 4th grade teacher invited me and a friend (who was also interested in fossils) to her classroom to look at her fossil collection.

She pulled out a drawer and inside were various kinds of fossils. She had fossil specimens such as trilobites, plants, shells, and even a dinosaur coprolite (fossilized feces). She gave me a crinoid stem that she found in the Fort Payne Formation of Tennessee and thus began my journey into paleontology and later geology.

What do you do?
I provide lectures and communicate with the public about paleontology and geology. I have given talks in museums, geological societies, schools, and other events about the various topics in geology. My main focus is in historical geology and deep time geology. I try to communicate with the public about how vast geological time is by using the telltale signatures in the fossils and rocks around you. I have keen interests in early Earth and the remnants of that time as well as Paleozoic and Mesozoic paleontology and geology. I also discuss things such as the fossils that have been found in the state I live in, Georgia.

How do your efforts contribute to the betterment of society in general?
Fossils and rocks are key to the Earth’s long history. In order to understand how we as a species will survive the next few million years on this planet we call home, we have to look into how life and the factors affecting life have evolved through time. As the great geologist Charles Lyell once said, “The present is key to the past.” I constantly have my head buried in scientific literature and read what others have built on and even how it has changed based on new data that has been collected by scientists across the world.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?

Fossils through geologic time table set up for Science/Technology night for Puckett’s Mill Elementary school in Dacula, Georgia

When I communicate to the the public, I always stress the understanding of deep time and the importance of that concept. The concept of deep time isn’t new. It has been known since the days of James Hutton (1726-1797). Deep time is the vast expanse of time locked inside the rock and fossil record. When we think of time we normally think in terms of minutes or seconds. Geologists talk about time in the order of thousands, millions, or even billions of years. It is hard for average person to grasp such an immense scale of time. I try to make this more understable by setting fossils in chronological order to give people a idea on how fossils and environments change through each interval of the geological time scale.

I also use the “Pen Method”. Let’s say I order a new set of ink pens from the store. I open the top of the pen and on it is a small plastic ball to protect in pen from drying out. If you take all of human existence and crunch it up, human existence would fit on the plastic ball of the tip of a new pen. That would be example on how small we are in the vast geologic history of planet Earth.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Never ever give on up on what you are passionate about. There is more than one way to become a paleontologist. Let nothing get in your way. Find opportunities around you and take advantage of them. Communicate with scientists and ask questions. Learn how to to read the secrets that are locked in the rocks. Even the smallest secrets can tell you a huge story of a lost world.

Chris Allen, Archaeologist

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?

Chris setting up a total station, an instrument used to survey land and record sub-millimeter accuracy of spatial locations, at an archaeological site located on University of Tennessee property in Knoxville, TN (Summer 2018).
I am an archaeologist, or someone who studies the people of the past. My work focuses on prehistoric and historic populations of North America. The study of archaeology involves the scientific study of the material remains, or the physical things left behind by past human populations. Archaeologists are interested in all aspects of the people of the past from the tools they used to the houses they lived in, their diets and their beliefs, the way they treated their dead, etc. Archaeologists consider the evolution of the human lineage, the effects of the environment has on different cultures, and the influence of human ideas surrounding things like identity, power, and gender on the cultures they study. Using archaeology and the archaeological method is a great way to explore any question that pertains to the past and the people who lived in it.

Archaeology is an important scientific field because for most of the human past it is the only record of who we were, how we lived, and where we came from stored in what we call the archaeological record, or the material remains our ancestors left behind. Even for the more recent human past that has a written history, many aspects of a person’s daily life are never recorded but these can be observed through thorough scientific study.

An archaeological site in the process of archaeological excavation. This photo was taken at an archaeological site located in South Carolina (Summer 2017). The project uncovered a large area and included many more team members than pictured! Archaeology is a true collaborative scientific endeavor.
Archaeologist use a systematic methodology, called excavation, to accurately record information from places where past people performed various activities, called archaeological sites. Archaeologist tend to become specialized in various aspects of the archaeological record from the study of lithic technology (how people used stone tools) to settlement patterns (the way people move and lived on a landscape). My research is focused on two parts; first is the applications of technology in archaeology used to better recognize how information recovered from archaeological sites relates to the interpretations we archaeologists make about past human behavior. Secondly, I am additionally interested in all aspects related to foodways of past people which includes activities, rules, and meanings that surround the production and consumption of food.

Chris and Danielle (a field student) screening dirt through mesh to recover small artifacts. Artifacts will have three stages of identification attached to them. They are; the site number, the unit number, and the level of that unit. This information helps archaeologists reconstruct exactly what happened at an archaeological site when all the materials gets back to the lab.
An archaeological excavation can take on many different forms depending on the environment and questions asked by the researcher. It can be terrestrial or underwater, it can be large-scaled with multiple teams, or just one or two people, it can last years or a few days. Archaeology can and does happen practically anywhere and everywhere.

My current research is focused on pottery from a Historic Cherokee site located in Eastern Tennessee. I am using spatial technology to document how pottery from the site was distributed amongst households to understand how the community formed. Additionally, my research utilizes X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry to analyze the elemental composition of individual ceramic sherds. By studying the elemental variation of pottery, I am able to differentiate between the manufacturing processes used by various Native Peoples and make stronger conclusions about how Cherokee communities organized themselves during this time period. Archaeology is often approached as a scientific form of storytelling. By collecting data from the materials past people left behind we can perhaps tell their story and record it for future generations to learn about our shared human history and experiences.

A ceramic sherd recovered from a 2017 Summer field school in South Carolina. Small details like the pattern on the surface of the sherd help archaeologist determine the age and culture the ceramic belongs to. This ceramic was likely made by someone during the Woodland period (2,500 BCE – 1,000 CE).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part of being a scientist telling stories from the past! Like many people I grew interested in science at a very early age, but the number of scientific fields overwhelmed me. I was undecided about which field I wanted to pursue until I was partway through my undergraduate degree. It was then that I took a few anthropology courses and went on my first archaeological dig. I was hooked and continued taking anthropology courses, changed my major, and I am now working on obtaining a Masters degree in the field of anthropology. Being a student for so long I have discovered that life is much better when you enjoy the work you do. I decided to follow the lesson and make a career out of a scientific field I love.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Science has the great potential to take you to new places and explore research areas not yet discovered. This is why I got started in a scientific field, but I have stayed because I found and surrounded myself with wonderful people who support my academic ideas. I would say to aspiring scientists to seek other folks who support their academic goals and interests and talk to scholars (both students and professionals) that are currently in the field! If you are interested in learning more about archaeology I would recommend finding an archaeological field school near you. Most universities with an anthropology program will have a yearly field school!

To learn more about Chris and his work check out his website by clicking here!

Gabriel-Philip Santos, Collections Manager and Outreach Coordinator

What do you do?

What do I do? That’s a fun question. Most people think of paleontologists as scientists who only study dinosaurs, but really there many different ways to be a paleontologist and not all of them have research as their main thing. At the Alf Museum, I wear many hats, so really what I do depends on the day, which is really fun honestly! My main duty is as the collections manager of the Alf Museum. I like to call myself the “Keeper of Bones” because its my job to take care of the 180,000+ fossils in our museum. Sometimes that involves organizing them, repairing broken fossils, sending fossils out to other scientists, or using fossils to create a brand new exhibit.

As the outreach coordinator, my job is to create fun and engaging programs that help our guests learn about natural history. One of my favorite ways to do this is to connect culture with science. For example, for our Making Monsters Discovery Day, I dress up as Professor Oak from the Pokemon franchise to talk about the real-life fossils that inspired fossil Pokemon! This is how Cosplay for Science got started actually! Cosplay for Science is a fun imitative I created with my friends Brittney Stoneburg, Michelle Barboza-Ramirez, and Isaac Magallanes to use cosplay to explain the science behind our favorite fandoms!

Outside of my main duties at the museum, I also like to conduct my own research. I mainly focus on the evolution of marine mammals, particularly the weird, hippo-like desmostylians (imagine something that looks like a hippo, lives on the beach, but is the size of an elephant).

What is your data and how do you obtain it?

A figure from a publication, showing the growth stages of teeth as species of Desmostylus aged.

When I conduct my own research, my data is obtained through looking at the shapes and differences in the bones of desmostylians and other marine mammals. For my first publication, my co-authors and I looked specifically at the teeth of desmostylians. We looked at how the teeth type and shape changed as the animals got older and also at how they wore their teeth through use. From this, we were able to create a way for future paleontologists to tell the general age of a desmostylian based on what teeth they have and how worn they are.

My job as a paleontologist is not much of a data gatherer. I am really more of a data preserver and presenter as a collections manager and outreach coordinator. In the collections, we preserve as much data as we can by protecting fossils from breaking down and by digitizing fossils. We don’t turn fossils into data like Tron, but what we do is we photograph specimens. We create 3D models. We save data like where a specimen was found or who found a fossil in a special computer database. As a science communicator, my job is to take other scientist’s data and make it easier for the general public to understand.

How does your research contribute to climate change, our understanding of evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?

As a collections manager, I get to be part of something bigger. While I may not contribute directly to major discoveries, my job ensures that all the fossils in our collection are preserved for future paleontologists. Within the collection that I take care of, there may be many important discoveries waiting to be described. As an educator, I also get to help inspire a new generation of scientists and help to create a future that is guided by science. We are facing a very grim future because of people out there who disregard science. If I can help to make everyone in our community see the value in science, even if they don’t want to become scientists, that, I think, can help to build a better future where critical thinking is not only valued, but the norm.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

So many things! My favorite part of being a scientist is that I have the opportunity to learn something new everyday and then go out and help someone else learn something new! Ever since I was kid, I have loved stories and when you’re a scientist, there a limitless stories out there to discover and retell. Its just amazing and really makes me excited to come into work everyday!

What advice would you give to young scientists?

What I like to tell young scientists or scientists new to their field is to make sure that you love what you do. I’m not saying that you have to go to work or school everyday laughing and smiling, but that overall, you enjoy your work, research, or job. If you aren’t happy with what you are doing, there is nothing wrong with changing your career path. I would also like to tell scientists to be sure to take care of yourself. You should always put yourself first in anything you do. Don’t push yourself to the brink of exhaustion because you think you need to in order to succeed in science. There’s no need for that. I guess to sum it all, you do you and be sure to treat yo’ self every now and then.

To follow Gabe check out his Twitter and Instagram. To learn more about the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology click here! To learn more about Cosplay for Science check out their website, Twitter, and Instagram!

Ruthie Halberstadt, Glaciologist

 

Ruthie doing field work in the Dry Valleys, Antarctica, helping to collect a permafrost core that records ice sheet dynamics during the mid-Miocene (a very warm time period ~14 million years ago, the last time that atmospheric CO2 levels were similar to today).

What do you do, and how does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

I study ice sheet dynamics in Antarctica, which means that I am interested in the processes that influence how ice mass gets moved off the continent and into the ocean, in either solid (iceberg) or liquid form. The term ‘ice-sheet dynamics’ may be confusing if you think of Antarctica as a giant frozen ice cube. Instead, think of the Antarctic ice sheet as a giant cone of sand – when you pour dry sand on the top of a sand pile with steep edges, rivulets of sand start to form. These ‘streams’ move sand from the top of the pile out to the edges. In Antarctica, the same process (gravity) creates fast-moving corridors of ice – we even call them ‘ice streams’.

OK, so what about the ‘dynamics’ part? Now imagine that your pesky little sister takes a shovel, and removes a chunk of sand at the edge of the pile. Sand will flow into the newly-created hole, right? The same thing happens when warm ocean temperatures melt ice at the edges of the Antarctic continent: ice streams speed up and move more ice off the continent and into the ocean. Warm air temperatures can also increase surface meltwater production which can drain into crevasses and promote iceberg calving, also causing ice streams to drain more ice into the ocean.

These processes add to the total volume of water in the ocean. Therefore, what happens to the Antarctic ice sheet in the future will determine the rate and amount of global sea level rise.

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?

I use computer models that simplify the interactions between ice sheet and the climate, in order to reconstruct ice-sheet dynamics. We need to be confident that these models can adequately represent past time periods, though, before we can trust the computer model predictions of future Antarctic mass loss and sea level rise. Therefore, we validate these computer models by comparing them to geologic records of ice sheet behavior. My previous research project interpreted ice sheet dynamics and retreat patterns by mapping features that fast-moving ice-streams carved into the ground throughout the last glacial cycle. This information is used to calibrate the ice sheet model, ensuring that the model is physically realistic and reconstructs the same ice sheet retreat pattern as I interpret from the geologic record.

The  animation below shows a computer model projection for future sea level rise up to the year 2500. Here, the model assumes business-as-usual carbon emissions until the year 2100 (following ‘Representative Carbon Pathway’ RCP8.5). Even though the model’s carbon emissions are held constant after the year 2100, it takes the Antarctic ice sheet decades to centuries to fully respond to the high-CO2 forcing, leading to a huge amount of sea level rise. You can see the ice sheet (blue) get thinner and retreat, exposing the land (brown) of the continent underneath. I made this animation as part of a project to predict future sea level for the city of Boston; you can learn more about this project here, and see the full video I made here.  This is an example of how ice sheet computer models are used to predict future impacts of our modern decisions about carbon emissions.

 

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

One of my favorite parts about being a scientist is the international community. When I go to conferences, or participate in field work, I am always in the company of international colleagues who become friends. I learn so much about science, but also about culture and history I would not be exposed to otherwise. Another favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to travel to amazing places, like Antarctica!

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

My biggest piece of advice to young scientists (and to everyone) is: ASK STUPID QUESTIONS. Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question, but no, it doesn’t mean that you are stupid. It means that you care more about understanding a concept and broadening your mind than what the people around you think. It’s hard – I still struggle with this, especially in a public setting like a class or lecture – but it’s so important. Asking stupid questions is by far the #1 easiest way to learn anything new, and often leads to the best conversations you’ll ever have. If you have a stupid question but feel embarrassed, just remember that there is a 99% chance that someone around you is wondering the same thing but is too shy to ask.

Drew Steen, Geomicrobiologist and Ocean Scientist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My job is to do interesting things. If I’m working on boring things, I’m not doing my job right! Plus, I really enjoy the teaching and mentoring ends – working with younger scientists (from middle school students up through Ph.D. students) is really a joy for me.

What do you do?
I figure out how stuff rots in the ocean. Microorganisms are naturally present everywhere on Earth, and most of them eat food and “breathe out” carbon dioxide, just like us. I try to figure out what kinds of food microorganisms in the ocean (and in lakes and streams) like to eat, and how they digest it.

How does your science contribute to the understanding of climate change or to the betterment of society in general?
Microorganisms have to “breathe in” some chemical to help them turn their food into energy. Some microorganisms breathe in oxygen like we do, while others breathe in some pretty weird chemicals like iron or even uranium. The balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals on Earth’s surface has a big effect on what life on Earth is like. We’re currently worried about too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for instance – but if there were zero carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Earth’s oceans would freeze solid! Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, so the activities of ocean microorganisms have a big effect on Earth’s environment as a whole.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
I like to combine data about the chemical composition of organic matter in the ocean (i.e., leftover phytoplankton and plant matter, aka the stuff that is rotting) with measurements of the activities of the microorganisms that cause the rotting. There have been tremendous advances in DNA sequencing technologies in the past few years, so even though my background is in chemistry I am beginning  to understand what kinds of reactions microorganisms are capable of carrying out.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Ask questions, and then read to learn the answers! For younger scientists, there is a journal called “Frontiers for Young Minds”. Just like any other respectable journal, the articles here are written by scientists and then peer-reviewed by other scientists. For more advanced folks, there are quite a few high-quality open-access (i.e., free) journals. Good ones include PLoS One, PeerJ, the Frontiers family of journals, Science Advances, and Nature Communications. These are the real deal – scientists writing for other scientists. You can use Google Scholar to find papers. Find a subject you’re interested in, and read everything you can about it! You won’t understand everything right away, but that’s OK – I find stuff in papers that I don’t understand all the time. The only way around that is to keep reading. This is learning science the hard way, but if you can spend some time reading and thinking about other people’s papers, you’re well on your way to becoming an expert.

Follow Drew’s updates on his website and/or Twitter!

Jessica Cost, Fossil Collector and Citizen Scientist

Greetings, Time Scavengers. When I was contacted to participate in this week’s Meet the Scientist blog my immediate thought was on my lack of qualifications. I hold no PhD, no Masters, and I am not currently employed in any science field. What I do have is a lifelong appreciation for science and an obsession for collecting fossils.

A windblown selfie at one of my favorite collecting locales in the Lower Bangor Limestone.

I collect fossils mainly around northern Alabama, a region rich in Lower Carboniferous aged limestone (~350 million years ago). This started innocently enough by helping a friend gather landscaping rocks several years ago. I found a rugose horn coral that day and have never stopped looking down. I attended a paleontology group meeting out of Birmingham, Alabama for some guidance in identifying some of my early finds and through that paleontology group, I met a mentor. Studying under and hunting with that mentor is where I discovered a love for fossil echinoderms.

Echinoderms are fascinating. One of the longest-lived group of invertebrates on this planet and they are still around. That sand dollar you find on the beach or that starfish you spy in a tidal pool has a looong history! And there is still so much research to be done. Debate lingers on the exact origins of the crinoid (my personal echinoderm favorite.) Research on starfish and brittle stars is underrepresented and there are so many undescribed species.

Amateurs like me depend on that research, in the form of scholarly articles to help us identify our fossils as much as the paleontologists depend on us amateurs to provide them with viable specimens to study. I have donated to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in the past and one day will donate my whole collection at large. I just haven’t finished the collection yet. Fossil collecting is like playing Pokemon, but with genera of crinoids.

I suppose the main point of my ramblings thus far is to challenge you guys to find your passion, find a mentor along the way to teach you, and take that passion even further than I have. I look forward to reading your future articles!

To follow Jess Cost’s collecting adventures on her Instagram account, click here!

Brad Deline, Paleontologist

How did you get interested in science in general?

I am one of the rare people (not so rare in paleontology) that has always known what I wanted to do in life. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. When I got a bit older this expanded to paleontology in general as I was spending my summers in Northern Michigan collecting fossil corals (Petoskey Stones) along the shore of Lake Michigan and reading every book I could about fossils.

When I got to high school, I started to think about paleontology as a career and called the nearest Natural History Museum (University of Michigan) asking to talk to someone. I ended up speaking with Tom Baumiller who was very generous with his time and chatted with me on the phone, invited me to the museum, and got me working as a volunteer with the museum collections. I came to the University a year later and Tom had research projects waiting. I ended up conducting research for four years at the museum working with Tom on predation in the fossil record and Dan Fisher on stable isotopes in mastodons. This provided insight into the process of science as well as strong mentorship. I spent countless hours in Tom’s lab along with his graduate students (Forest Gahn, Asa Kaplan, and Mark Nabong), which helped to formulate my own interests and provided casual advice regarding graduate school and academia.

What, exactly, do you do?

The aspect of paleontology that really piques my interest is thinking about the weirdness of fossil organisms. Seeing the remains of animals in the past that look nothing like animals today, inspires wonder of these ancient environments and also provides a clear mystery to be solved. This is what originally interested me in dinosaurs, but as I delved deeper into paleontology it was clear that things got stranger when I looked further into the past.

Visualization of the distribution of echinoderm body forms based on their characteristics. Modified from Deline 2015 with images from Sumrall and Deline 2009 and Sumrall et al. 1997.

As far as weird goes, nothing beats echinoderms (relatives of sea urchins and sea stars). As you may know from previous Time Scavenger posts by the stellar young scientists that contribute to this blog (Maggie, Jen, and Sarah), early echinoderms are extraordinarily diverse and have many perplexing features. To explore this, I examine the diversity of features and forms (disparity). This method allows the visualization of evolutionary dynamics from the perspective of how different rather than how many. For my dissertation, I examined crinoid disparity during the Early Paleozoic focusing on a few key questions. What controls the diversity of features in a community of animals? What is the role of weird things in disparity patterns through time? And, are rare animals objectively weird? I compiled a large database of crinoid characteristics largely by studying museum collections and was able to address these questions. It turned out that rare animals weren’t all that objectively weird compared to common things. However, weird animals (outliers based on their characteristics) played a large role in understanding the evolution in form through time, especially during shifts in environmental conditions.

I have since expanded my research to examine trends in disparity in all echinoderms. This is a gargantuan project in that it requires some working knowledge of the many different groups of echinoderms. It has been one of the most rewarding tasks scientifically as it has given me the chance to sit down with many different echinodermologists and discuss the group they know best. From these discussions, I have compiled a huge character list that I along with my research students have used to examine trends in body plan evolution within echinoderms. This is still ongoing research, but I can start asking questions regarding the nature of the Cambrian Explosion and the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. We can explore patterns of disparity at the level of a phylum and how that parses out to the different groups within it. And, we can start to examine how different forms evolved and what limits the range of feature seen in echinoderms.

How does your job contribute to the understanding of evolution or climate change?

I work at the University of West Georgia, which is a regional comprehensive University. This means that a large portion of my time is devoted toward teaching our diverse student body. I teach a steady mix upper level geology courses and non-major introductory classes. I spend significant amounts of time in my upper level courses discussing evolutionary processes and the nature of science. I feel paleontology is a perfect place to discuss biases, uncertainty, and how scientists actually try to understand the world around them.

This is even more important in my introductory classes. I have a very casual lecture style that fosters student confidence to ask questions. I focus on discussing geologic time, evolution, and climate change. In addition, we talk about why these issues are important and explore the political implications. Politics are a tricky area in the current climate, but if I can get students to include a candidate’s scientific literacy into their decision making process when they are voting, I have done my job.

What methods do you use to engage your students?

Discussing the Mississippian rocks surrounding Lake Cumberland, Kentucky.

I find in my classes getting students out of the classroom and into the field is the most effective way to communicate. Students can make direct observations and see that the real world is much more complicated than what they see in the classroom. Field experiences foster bonds between the student and instructors that makes students more comfortable asking questions. In addition, field work creates more cohesive student groups that then are more likely to work together and elevate the entire class while they are back on campus.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

I think my advice varies depending on who I am addressing so I will list a few things:

Amateur Paleontologists

Take advantage of local fossil groups, they are a wealth of knowledge and experience! If you discover something that you don’t recognize when you are collecting fossil, they can help. Also, feel free to contact professional paleontologists regarding your questions. I have research projects collaborating with or using specimens collected by avocational paleontologists. Also, remember that professional paleontologists have tons of responsibilities such that it may take a while to reply, we can’t go out into the field as often as we would like, and publications based on your material may take a fair amount of time.

Aspiring Paleontologists

Learn as much as possible: read books and articles, go to meetings of local fossil groups (if there are any nearby), and visit museums. Contact professionals with your questions, but be respectful of their time (if you email during exam week that email might get lost!). Most paleontologists would be thrilled to meet an enthusiastic aspiring paleontologist, especially because we were also in that position.

Graduate Students

Publish your work, publish side projects, establish collaborations and publish them. Obviously, make sure the publications are high-quality science, but put yourself in the best position possible. Also, try to squash down the feelings of competition. I know students are all competing for the same grants and ultimately the same jobs. However, if you collaborate or help other students in your department or subfield, that elevates everyone. If one of your friends gets a grant, awesome. They will do more research and make your department/subfield look better. If they get a job that means you will have someone to collaborate with when you get a job! Being supportive and collaborative will make graduate school better. These friendships can also lead to exciting opportunities for you in the future. For instance, I am currently planning a joint trip with one of my graduate school buddies (Kate Bulinski) and recently received a box of Cambrian echinoderm plates form another (Jay Zambito).

Students on the Job Market

Apply to everything. I was aiming for a research position, but ended up at a teaching-focused school. I didn’t think it would make me happy, but I love it here. Don’t limit your options when you may not know what you really want. Also, take time to do the things that clear your head- meditate, jog, hike, etc. Make sure your application is the best possible and then the rest is out of your hands. Likely some of the things that a search committee is looking for are outside of your control so you might as well go for a walk with your dog.

Young Professionals

The first few years on the job are really exhausting, but a few things will make it easier. Maintain your contacts and collaborations. Pick projects that won’t be quite as time intensive. Establish mentors in your department and in your field that can give advice when you need it (thanks Bill Ausich and Tim Chowns). Avoid getting bogged down in things that are not considered in your job performance (mentors will help here). Finally, keep doing the things that clear your head. If you are busy these are often the first things that get left behind, but they are important so keep doing them.

References:
Deline, B. 2015. Quantifying morphological diversity in early Paleozoic echinoderms. In Zamora, S. and Rábano, I. (eds.), Progress in Echinoderm Palaeobiology, Cuademos del Museo Geominero, 19. Instituto Geológico y Minero de España, Madrid, p. 45-48.

Sumrall, C.D. and Deline, B. 2009. A new species of the dual-mouthed paracrinoid Bistomiacystis and a redescription of the edrioasteroid Edrioaster priscus from the Upper Ordovician Curdsville Member of the Lexington Limestone. Journal of Paleontology, v. 83, no. 1, p. 135-139, doi: 10.1666/08-075R.1

Sumrall, C.D., Sprinkle, J. and Guensburg, T.E. 1997. Systematics and paleoecology of late Cambrian echinoderms from the western United States. v. 71, no. 6, p. 1091-1109.