Dr. Rehemat Bhatia, Foraminifera Geochemist

Rehemat looking at foraminifera under the microscope

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

Throughout my time in middle school, my favourite lessons at school were always biology, chemistry and physics. I also really enjoyed physical geography, and  my teachers at school were always enthusiastic, engaging and were more than happy to support my interest in geology. They pointed me in the right direction with careers when I was in high school, and without their guidance I probably wouldn’t have studied geology at university. I also volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London from the beginning of my third year of undergrad with an EU funded research project called Throughflow (as part of the V Factor Volunteer Scheme). The researchers who I volunteered with were also incredibly encouraging and supportive, and great mentors too.

I enjoy being a scientist because:

  • I get to look at microfossil specimens that no one has looked at before. Foraminifera are so pretty, and I still can’t believe that these single celled organisms manage to create these ornate skeletons which record climate during their lifetime! Understanding the stories they have locked up inside is sometimes a little difficult, but I enjoy the challenge that this presents.
  • Lab work is fun. I love learning different chemical techniques.
  • I get to meet lots of awesome people from a variety of backgrounds and geological disciplines and talk science with them.
  • I get to communicate my science to public audiences and inspire new generations of scientists.

What do you do?

I use the chemistry of fossil plankton called foraminifera to understand more about their ecologies and what the climate was like millions of years ago.

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

We use chemical data from foraminifera shells to reconstruct past climate. However, we don’t fully understand all aspects of foraminiferal ecology i.e. exactly what their lifestyles were like- did they all live with algae? Did they migrate or change in size because oceans became harder for them to live in? Ecology affects shell chemistry. Thus, before we put together long term climate records to understand how the earth’s climate has changed through time using chemical signals from foram skeletons, it is important to understand the controls on the signals that we use. This is particularly pertinent to geological periods that we use as future climate analogues such as the Eocene (~47-33 million years ago).

A picture of a foraminifera (taken with a microscope) that has been blasted with Rehemat’s laser! Where the holes are is where the laser was used to measure the different amounts of elements in the shell.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

Planktonic foraminifera are single celled plankton which have a skeleton made from calcium carbonate. Some species choose to live in the surface waters of the ocean, whilst others choose to live in the thermocline. Some even live together with algae! All forams are beautiful, and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Foraminifera are really awesome too, because in the same way human hair records our diet, their skeletons record the environmental conditions around them in the ocean. By the analysis of one shell, we can understand the climate in the location and the time that the foram lived, including how hot the oceans were and even how much ice there was on land!

When foraminifera die, their skeletons sink to the sea floor and build up in layers, creating an extensive fossil record more importantly an extensive climate record too! The same signals we use to infer climate in the past can tell us how they used to live too i.e. their ecology.

To understand foraminiferal ecology, I use several geochemical proxies. Proxies are chemical signatures which are an indirect way of understanding an environmental parameter. I primarily use  oxygen isotopes, carbon isotopes and the amounts of magnesium (Mg), strontium (Sr) and boron (B) (ratioed to calcium, Ca) in foraminiferal shells. If these elements are unfamiliar to you, you might not have realized you’ve seen them before. White fireworks have Mg, green fireworks have B and red fireworks have Sr! I gather these data using different machines called mass spectrometers and electron microprobes. One of the mass spectrometers I use is hooked up to a laser, which is super cool. I use the laser to drill through foram shells to understand how Mg, B and Sr vary through the shell wall. Mg/Ca, Sr/Ca, B/Ca, δ18O and δ13C signatures are specific to certain species. For example, a surface dwelling species will have greater Mg/Ca and a more negative δ18O signature. Therefore if I collected these type of data from a species with an unknown ecology, I would infer that it was a surface dweller.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

  • Always be curious.
  • Ask as many questions as you can – no question is stupid. If someone tells you your question is stupid – they’re wrong.
  • Talk with lots of people who might be able to help you gain more of an insight into the world of science. You never know who might be able to give you work experience/research internships/jobs (both academic and non academic).
  • If things go wrong academically early in your career, don’t let that stop you from progressing later on. Work hard, learn from your mistakes, and you can do anything you’d like to (I speak from experience with this one…)
  • Have mentors and a support network. I wouldn’t have survived the final stages of my PhD without mine.
  • Look after yourself – no science is worth you burning out over. As a friend once told me – the forams will still be there and waiting for you to look at them in the morning… (they’re not wrong).
  • For those studying for exams (including PhDs): Don’t lose your enthusiasm and don’t give up if things get tough. You set out to learn/research something cool, and if you’ve made it this far, you can totally do it!

Learn more about Rehemat’s research and follow her on Twitter @rehemat_

Kevin Jiménez-Lara, Paleomammalogist and Paleobiogeographer

Kevin taking photographs of a fossil anteater skull deposited at the fossil mammal collections at the Field Museum in Chicago, IL.

First, let me introduce myself. I am a Colombian PhD student at the National University of La Plata, Argentina. My research is focused on the evolution of xenartrans, mammals that include armadillos, sloths, and anteaters.

Since I was a child, I have had a strong fascination to learn about nature. For that reason, I loved (and I still do love) reading a lot and watching documentaries about science, wildlife, meteorological phenomena, the history of the Earth, the history of the Universe, astrophysical theories and hypotheses, and other similar topics. Science has an amazing explanatory power, and that has always been what I like most about it. Science allows us to know our place in the Universe.

Following my vocation, I studied biology in college. Although during my undergrad there were many disciplines that caught my attention, the only one that enamored me was the study of extinct life forms, i.e. paleobiology. At first glance, it is not easy to explain why I wanted to be a paleobiologist, since there are very few Colombian paleobiologists and institutions that teach paleobiology and/or develop paleobiological research in my home country. However, studying the unique history of evolution of living beings seemed not only a noble, respectable activity, but it also became a passion that I believe will always accompany me as long as I live. Paleobiology has formed the basis of my life in the professional field, and also in a personal, philosophical sense.

Kevin doing paleontological prospecting and fossil collection in the La Venta area of southwestern Colombia. In this area some of the most important fossil assemblages of tropical continental vertebrates can be found.

To perform research in paleobiology in a country located in the intertropical belt of the planet (near the equator) and characterized as one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth poses great challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, there is little or no state support to study paleobiology as a consequence of socio-historical development. In addition, there are limitations related to logistics in regions that are difficult to access due their geographic location and/or security features. We also face scarcity of continuous outcrops of sedimentary rocks where fossils can be found. Often, as a result of climatic factors and abundant vegetation (plant life), fossils are poorly preserved (however, sometimes, they are exquisitely preserved!). But these limitations are largely compensated by huge opportunities. Fossils from the tropics are exceptionally valuable. They document innumerable evolutionary stories that can help explain one of the most disturbing questions for many biologists: why is there a tendency in different groups of living organisms to present greater diversity in the intertropical zone compared to other regions on Earth, such as in higher latitudes?

Paleobiology in the tropics is very necessary because of the generalized geographic bias in research of many extinct organisms and periods of Earth’s history. Namely, most research on these topics has been conducted in Europe and North America. In Colombia, paleontological field expeditions and studies have yielded surprising findings, including, of course, our flagship fossil organism (in my opinion): Titanoboa (Titanoboa cerrejonensis). For all those who do not know it, this snake lived approximately 60 million years ago in the extreme north of Colombia (Guajira peninsula), and its most surprising feature is its size and body mass. Titanoboa measured about 13 meters in length and could exceed one metric ton in weight. That makes it the largest known snake of all time!

Artists’ rendition of Titanoboa in its natural habitat, a very warm and humid tropical forest in La Guajira, northern Colombia, around 60 million years ago. Other reptiles of this time period were also giants, such as crocodiles and turtles.  Image by Jason Bourque.

I contribute to tropical paleobiology by studying fossil xenartrans (armadillos, sloths, and anteaters), particularly those that lived in northern South America and southern Central America. I seek to clarify questions on evolutionary/phylogenetic relationships between extinct representatives of these charismatic mammals and, at the same time, to reconstruct historic changes in their geographical distributions (where they lived through time).

Why is it important to study extinct armadillos, sloths, and anteaters? There are many reasons, but my favorite is that they are animals whose origin and evolution are closely related to great-magnitude abiotic (non-biological) events and processes (such as climate changes and tectonic events). Through tens of millions of years, abiotic factors shaped their biology and ecology to configure the xenartrans in one of the most peculiar mammals that existed during the Cenozoic (the last 65 million years). Have you seen how strange some armadillos look when they roll into a ball, or the very slow movements of a three-toed sloth, or the long tubular snout of a giant anteater? If you have not seen this, you should check out the videos linked in the previous sentence. But in the fossil record we know even more bizarre features of xenartrans than we see in living species. For example, several species of giant sloths used to swim (yes, you read it right, ‘swim’) in littoral zones (areas close to the beach) of western South America around 5 million years ago! Is that not mind-bending?

Several species of the giant sloth genus Thalassocnus could swim in shallow marine habitats off the west coast of South America (Peru and Chile) during the late Miocene-Pliocene (7-4 million years ago). Paleobiologists know this primarily from studies on anatomical adaptations to swimming indicated from the animal’s bone structure. Image by Roman Uchytel.

Xenartrans constitute an outstanding study model on how Earth and life evolve together, from their evolutionary differentiation ~98 million years ago, possibly triggered by the geographic separation of Africa and South America, until their colonization of North America during the last 9 million years in the environmental framework of the Panama Isthmus uplift and the Last Great Glaciation. This makes xenartrans interesting organisms to study evolutionary patterns and processes of high complexity in the tropics.

I am particularly interested on the evolutionary implications (diversification) of dispersal (or movement) events of xenartrans from northern South America to North America (including its ancient Central American peninsula) during geologic intervals which immediately precede the definitive formation of the Isthmus of Panama. Long distance dispersal through a shallow sea, like that which existed between southern Central America and northwestern South America before the complete isthmus emergence, is one of the least understood biogeographic phenomena. The explanatory mechanism of long-distance dispersal allows for disjunct distributions and for us to more comprehensively understand the subtle interaction between distinctive faunas of contiguous areas.

In order to fulfill my general research objective, it is necessary to work hard in determining identities and affinities of Middle-Miocene to Pliocene (15-2 million years old) xenartrans of the aforementioned regions, including not only previously collected fossils, but also new findings. In a complementary way, it is required to put identifications in geographic context through faunal similarity/dissimilarity methods. I also use probabilistic biogeographic models (models that use statistics) to infer major distributional patterns and processes of several subgroups of xenartrans, so that we could understand in an analytic, non-strictly traditional narrative way, the changes of their occurrences in space. Finally, long distance dispersal events through poorly suitable environments for most xenartrans, like shallow seas, are approached through locomotive reconstructions to estimate dispersal capacity (vagility).

I want to end this post by giving an important advice to all those who aspire to be scientists. The path to work in science may be, to a greater or lesser extent, long and complex. However, if you remain true to your convictions and strive under a regime of self-discipline, you will not only be a scientist, but also one of the most prominent researchers in your field. Question everything, do not firmly hold onto hypothesis that have little associated evidence. And, above all, write, write to clarify in your mind many issues related to your research.

To learn more about Kevin and his research, check out his blog called ‘Caribe Prehistorico’. To find this post in Spanish, head to Kevin’s blog by clicking here.

Dipa Desai, Paleoclimatologist & Educator

Dipa working in Colorado with the National Park Service.

What do you do?

I am a paleoclimatologist, and I study the ecological and environmental effects of climate change using the fossil record. Specifically, I research how the Ross Ice Shelf in West Antarctica responded to temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations slightly higher than what Earth will experience in the next several decades. The Ross Ice Shelf is currently the largest mass of floating ice in the world, and West Antarctica is currently melting faster than the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet–what’s going to happen when this much ice melts into the ocean? How will melting affect regional plankton communities, the base of marine food webs? When that much freshwater is added to the ocean, what happens to ocean currents and circulation? I’m interested in answering these questions and using research outcomes to improve environmental policies and climate change mitigation strategies.

I’m also an educator! I spent the last two years in the classroom teaching 5th and 6th grade STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) classes, and I informally teach when I participate in STEM outreach events and programs. I plan to use my research as a model to teach the next generation of voters and environmental stewards about their planet’s historical and future climate change, and inspire the next generations of diverse, innovative STEM professionals. As an educator, I have seen how disparities in access to educational opportunities disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants and non-native English speakers, and other traditionally oppressed and disadvantaged groups. As a member of these communities, I see a lack of representation and inclusion in STEM professions, and a gap in scientific literacy in our policymakers, so I want to use STEM education to affect greater social and political change.

What do you love about being a scientist?

I love learning about the Earth’s past–being the first person ever to see a fossil since its deposition, using clues in the fossil record to understand and imagine what the Earth looked like millions of years ago, and making connections to predict what our world will look like in the future. However, my favorite part of the job is telling other people about what I do! I can see folks light up when I mention I study fossils, and it’s cool to see how many people grew up wanting to become a paleontologist, just like me! I think most people believe paleontology doesn’t have any real-world applications but in reality, paleontology offers a unique perspective to understanding the modern environment. When I tell students, I see them get excited about science and all its possibilities: I remember when I judged the MA State Middle School Science Fair once year, a participant was amazed that you can use fossils to study climate change, and she asked what else can we study using fossils? It is exciting to share my career with youths, especially those who look like me, because their idea of what a paleontologist looks like and does changes when they meet me.

Describe your path to becoming a scientist. 

As a kid I loved dinosaurs and exploring outside, so I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist from an early age, but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get here. Growing up as a child of undocumented immigrants, our family faced housing, food, and financial insecurities, so college seemed beyond our means. However, I received the Carolina Covenant Scholarship to become the first person in my family to attend college, and I studied Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Fun Fact: Time Scavengers Collaborator Sarah Sheffield was my teaching assistant for Prehistoric Life class!). I completed a B.S. in Biology, and minors in Geological Science, Archaeology, and Chemistry.

While I was an undergraduate at a large research institution, I didn’t have a dedicated mentor or the cultural capital to know I should pursue undergraduate research as a stepping-stone to getting into graduate school. After graduation, I pursued research opportunities with the National Park Service in Colorado and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where I got the chance to conduct independent research projects, help excavate and catalog fossils, and teach local people about their community’s paleontological history. While in Panama, I became fluent in Spanish and wondered how I could use my new experiences and skills to communicate complex STEM concepts to broader audiences. I transitioned to teaching middle school for the next two years; I taught hands-on STEM classes to 5th and 6th graders in the largely immigrant community of Chelsea, Massachusetts. I enjoyed giving my students educational opportunities that will help them in the future, and the challenges my family faced in my childhood prepared me as an educator to understand how my students’ personal lives affected their learning in my classroom.

The experiences I pursued after my undergraduate career gave me the skills and clarity needed to develop and pursue a graduate research degree. I’m currently working on my Master’s/Doctoral joint degree in Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

How do you communicate science? How does your science contribute to understanding climate change?

For my graduate research, I’m studying how warmer-than-present paleoclimates affected Antarctic ice cover and the paleoecology of the surrounding ocean. Specifically, I study the Miocene Climatic Optimum, when global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were slightly higher than they are today, and close to what we expect to see at the end of the century. Studying the deep sea records of this time period reveals how microfaunal communities (i.e. foraminifera) reacted to a rapidly warming global climate, and how changes in Antarctic ice cover impacted sea level and ocean circulation; this can be applied to improve climate models and future environmental policies.

I want to bring my research to public audiences through in-person, multilingual outreach at museums, schools, and other educational institutions, and through online media to make climate science accessible and improve scientific literacy. Using multimedia, interactive, and open-access platforms to communicate science not only reaches more people, but also fits the needs of many different learning populations; this is why I believe STEM disciplines need to move away from the traditional format of communicating findings in paid science journals and articles.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Mistakes are the first steps to being awesome at something.

Try as many new experiences as possible.

Identify what skills you need to do the job you want, then identify opportunities that will give you those skills.

Find a career that you enjoy, you are good at, that helps others, and hopefully makes you some money along the way.

Ron Fine, Citizen Scientist

The picture that appeared on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer in April, 2012, presenting “Godzillus” to the public with Prof. Carlton Brett (center) and Prof. David Meyer (right).

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

From my earliest memories I have always had an interest in dinosaurs and fossils. I grew up in Bellbrook, Ohio, where I spent many a day playing in the creeks in Magee Park and the Sugarcreek Reserve. Both were loaded with fossils from the famous Cincinnatian series of the Ordovician. While collecting fossils is my absolute favorite, I’ve always been fascinated by science and nature in general, with interests in biology, geology, minerals, astronomy, engineering and physics, as well as art, cooking and photography.

What do you do?

I have a degree in Landscape Architecture, but I work as a mechanical designer in the aerospace industry. Currently, I design tools that are used to build jet engines. I create the 3D models and drawings, which are used to make the tools.

While I haven’t as yet spent much time doing my own research, I’ve been blessed to help the professionals with numerous papers based on specimens I collected. I love and collect all fossils, so I’ve not concentrated on any particular group or type. I feel this has been advantageous, as it gives me more opportunities to work with the various scientists who do have areas of specialty. Lately, I’ve been working with Dr. Alycia Stigall on brachiopods. In the past I worked with Dr. Roger Cuffey on bryozoans, and Dr.’s Carlton Brett and David Meyer on Godzillus. As a member of the Dry Dredgers, the oldest fossil club in North America, I get to contribute regularly. I take meeting photos for the website, bring in specimens for others to examine, and occasionally write something for the newsletter or website. I also volunteer, and am an exhibitor, at Geofair every year, and occasionally play fossil tour guide at local parks or give presentations with my portable fossil display.

Playing fossil field guide to teacher Brian Dempsey and fifteen students from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, in Acton, MA, at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio in May, 2017.

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

I have a talent for finding rare, unusual or exceptional fossils. I bring these specimens to the attention of the professionals so that they can be properly studied, and sometimes, they are used to write a scientific paper and are deposited in a museum or university collection for future scientists to study. Godzillus has been my best effort so far. It actually became very famous! I collect everything prodigiously. The quality specimens are made available to professionals for research projects, and the rest is given to the Dry Dredgers to make the fossil kits that fund club activities, or given to school kids.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Your life will be far richer if you pursue your interests. Find others who share your passions, join a club, volunteer. You won’t regret it!

Sadie Mills, Environmental Educator and Museum Project Coordinator

Using Ollie, a non-releasable Eastern Screech Owl, to teach students about bird adaptations at the Rock Eagle 4-H center near Eatonton, Georgia.

My curiosity about the natural world started on family camping trips. One regular destination was the shores of the Sea or Cortez, where the extreme tidal range (up to 9m!) produced incredible tide pools full of stingrays, octopi, brittle stars, and more. My fascination with nature and true love of being outside eventually led me to pursue job opportunities (and later a master’s degree) in environmental education. Environmental education aims to help people understand, appreciate, and think critically about their interactions with all aspects of the natural world. This can be accomplished through outdoor experiences, laboratory activities, live animal encounters, and more. My work days have included leading students on forest hikes, taking families seining at the beach, and educating public visitors at rehabilitated sea turtle releases. While many of these experiences are short-lived, they often spark enduring curiosity, positive feelings about nature, and sometimes positive behavior change among participants. Not every interaction makes a difference, but when they do the results can be quite powerful.

Tide-pooling at Puerto Peñasco (Sonora, Mexico), one of the places that got me hooked on nature. (Tragically, the 101 Dalmatians sweater is too blurry to properly appreciate.)

To remain effective, environmental education must adapt to our changing world, and in the 21st century this means branching out into virtual education. In my current position as coordinator for the FOSSIL Project, I get the opportunity to engage with audiences through online interactions on social media and our website (www.myfossil.org). FOSSIL (Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners) is an NSF-funded initiative that supports a community of amateur (avocational) and professional paleontologists with the goal of shared learning. Utilizing online platforms has allowed us to build a diverse and widespread community of learners, but also a community of educators. Each of our participants brings knowledge to the table, and the online space makes it easy and comfortable for them to share their experiences. This fall, we hope to further expand our community with the introduction of an accompanying mobile app. This tool will allow users to document and share their paleontological experiences directly from the field. I never thought I would contribute to an app, but I am now so excited to see the learning opportunities that will result from this new technology.

Teaching students to seine for surf-zone fishes and invertebrates on Tybee Island, Georgia.

One of the great joys of working as an environmental educator is seeing how excited people get when they learn something new, especially people who may be discovering their passion for science for the first time. For those thinking about a future in science, I hope you will consider the many career paths available to you. If you like technology or inventing, you can help develop the tools scientists use to make new discoveries. If your passion is writing, you can pursue science journalism or help edit science publications. You can conduct investigations as a researcher, teach others as a formal or informal science educator, pursue art as a science illustrator, or help shape policy as an environmental lawyer. In its own way, each job makes an important contribution to science, and society needs curious science enthusiasts in many different roles!

Dr. Page Quinton, Paleoclimatologist

Dr. Page Quinton (left) and student Samantha McComb (right), completing field work on the Madison Group Carbonates in Montana.

What do you love about being a scientist?

My favorite part of being a scientist is the systematic approach we employ to answer questions. Yeah, we can use a variety of techniques to get at our answers, but the process of collecting and interpreting the data must follow the same basic rules! I’d also add, that I am particularly fond of being a geoscientist because of the combination of lab and field work (the best of both worlds)!

What do you do?

I could be classified as a Paleontologist, Geochemist, and/or Paleoclimatologist. Which I choose to call myself depends on who I am talking to (obviously, I go for Paleontologist when talking to young kids for the instant cool-points)! The reason for the multitude of possible names is that I apply a variety of techniques to answer questions about the climate. In particular, my research focuses on the timing and nature of climatic changes in Earth’s history and their relationship to how carbon is stored and distributed on the Earth (e.g. in the atmosphere as CO2 or stored in rocks as fossil fuels).

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

I use fossils and their geochemical signals to understand the climate in the geologic past. The fossils I work with most are conodont elements (small tooth-like structures that make up the feeding apparatus of a marine eel-like organism). These fossils are composed of the mineral apatite which acts as a good record for the geochemistry of the water in which the conodont animal lived. From these tooth-like structures, I measure the oxygen isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 18O relative to 16O). The oxygen isotopic ratio is dependent (in part) on the temperature of the water. By documenting changes in the oxygen isotopic ratio through time, I can infer changes in water temperature through time.

I also work with carbon isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 13C to 12C) in marine limestones. These values can be used to reconstruct the distribution of carbon on the Earth’s surface. By looking at changes in the carbon isotopic value through time, I can infer changes in the global carbon cycle and therefore atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

Late Ordovician (~450 million years ago) conodont elements from northern Kentucky.

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

In addition to my scientific research I also teach undergraduate students at SUNY Potsdam. I always make sure my research informs how and what I teach. This is especially true for the Climate Change course I teach. That course focuses on how scientists know what they know and what types of evidence informs our understanding about climate. My hope for students completing that course is that they will come out of it with the knowledge and background to understand climate change.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Make sure you do what you love. Your job should be fun. That doesn’t mean every aspect of it will be a blast, many of the things I do can be tedious, but there is something very satisfying about setting out to solve a problem, collecting the data, and interpreting the data. For students interested in pursuing graduate education, the most important advice I can give is to make sure you can work with your advisor. I had a great advisor and it made graduate school a great experience.

Learn more about Page and her research on her website!

 

William Heimbrock, Amateur Paleontologist

Webmaster Bill Heimbrock at a Dry Dredgers meeting at the University of Cincinnati (Photo by Ron Fine).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? How did you become interested in science?

I’m an amateur paleontologist. That makes me a time traveler. I like traveling through time.

I see sequences of stratigraphic layers that represent ancient sea floors all in about the same place, but in different instances of time. Sometimes I’ll pull over at a road cut in Northern Kentucky and see the remains of animals and plants that lived 450 million years ago. And yet, I can easily picture myself in the late Ordovician Period. These animals were alive and swimming in a warm shallow sea.

As I climb the road cut, ascending through the rock layers, I am going forward in Ordovician time at a rate of thousands of years per second. I stop on a ledge. Time freezes. I see meter-length ripple marks in the bedrock that extend across the ledge as if I’m standing on a sea floor with wave action winnowing the silty bottom.  I’m astonished with the variety of fossilized animals still resting in exactly the same spot where they once lived.

The event of these creatures’ death is also recorded beneath my feet. I’m compelled to learn more. How did they die? Was it something they ate? I feel I can answer those questions using scientific methods.

Bill Heimbrock checking the strata on a popular road cut in southeastern Indiana before a Dry Dredgers field trip.

We have such power now as amateurs in many areas of science. Human beings are naturally curious. Even as a young child I conducted experiments and recorded my results. My neighbor told me that when I was young, she saw me conduct an experiment to verity the speed of sound. I stood at one end of our cul-de-sac, shouted, and ran super-fast (a technical term), stopped abruptly with unprecedented precision and listened for my shout. You can guess that I didn’t succeed in verifying the speed of sound that day, but it’s the spirit of trying that counts. I was inquisitive at an early age. I knew that science facts are verifiable and ready to be revised and improved by all of us. We are all amateur scientists!

What do you do?

Dr. Carlton Brett at the University of Cincinnati Geology Department shares his knowledge with Bill Heimbrock and other aspiring paleontologists. Collaboration between professors and members of the Dry Dredgers enhance both amateur and professional paleontology projects. Everyone benefits.

Professionally, I program large-scale computer systems. But at home I collect fossils as a hobby. This hobby has become my way to contribute to the field of Paleontology and to education.

I started out in the late 1980’s just collecting fossils for recreation in my local streams and fields. I love getting out there and listening to the birds and finding evidence of our ancient past. It’s a great pastime I highly recommend.

It wasn’t long before I wanted my efforts to be worth more than just recreation. So I joined the Dry Dredgers fossil club based at the University of Cincinnati. I met knowledgeable educators and other amateur and professional paleontologists who could use my fossils for teaching and research. They taught me a great deal, which made my daily fossil collecting much more enjoyable.

Bill Heimbrock has headed the production of the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits since 1992. These kits educate the public, provide teachers with a much needed resource and help fund the advancement of paleontology.

I was also able to give my extra fossils to the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits and benefit both the club and education. They sell bags of 12 Ordovician fossils “From the Hills of Cincinnati” at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science gift shop. The money goes into the club’s general fund which feeds paleontological research grants and projects while the kits help schools and fellow fossil enthusiasts.

I quickly became chair of the fossil kit committee. Now 27 years later, Kimberly Cox and I sell the Dry Dredgers fossil kits in park and museum gift shops around the area and donate some kits and loose fossils to teachers, schools and outreach facilitators.  Fossils used in our fossil kits are currently screened for scientific importance so that each fossil is put to the best use. Some may be deposited into a museum collection. I want collectors who give Cincinnati fossils to the Dry Dredgers to know their donation will benefit educational outreach and/or the science of paleontology.

An extra-large road cut in Maysville Kentucky exposes countless “instance in time” sea floors. Fossil sites like this are a time traveler’s dream – and an exciting reality for fossil hunters.

Another big part of my educational outreach efforts is the Dry Dredgers website, which I designed and have updated since 1998. We are fortunate to have a number of Dry Dredgers who have contributed all types of information about our late Ordovician fossils for the website. You will see me at all local Dry Dredgers field trips taking photographs of the fossils people find and helping identify the specimens. See my field trip reports here.

How does your  research and outreach contribute to the understanding of paleontology?

I’ve always hoped that in this short life I could make a dent in the advancement of mankind. We pop into this world, have just enough time to look around and figure a few things out, pass on what we’ve learned and then pop out of existence.

For the last 20+ years, I have been gathering information and fossils from dozens of fossil sites in the Cincinnati area in the hope that it will advance our body of knowledge on Earth’s ancient past. In addition to educating the public with our  Dry Dredgers website and building classroom fossil kits, my collection of Ordovician sediment and microfossils are helping professional paleontologists advance our knowledge of the evolution of nacre (mother-of-pearl) in mollusks and our understanding of the deposition of phosphate, an essential mineral for our existence.

Bill Heimbrock identifying fossils on a Dry Dredgers field trip. He takes photos and includes the identifications on his field trip reports.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Ask questions. Our society often discourages “questioning” accepted wisdom. Don’t let that stop you. Questions are how new knowledge is obtained. Be inquisitive and find out more than what others know. Discover things for yourself. Be an amateur scientist!

You can learn more about Bill Heimbrock’s amateur paleontology adventures on myfossil.org!

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!