Kelly Dunne, Project Engineer


Inside a signal cabinet, using the controller to adjust signal timings at an intersection.

I am a project engineer with a B.S. in civil engineering and an M.S. in traffic engineering, working in the transportation department of a large suburb (150,000 residents). My responsibilities are diverse: overseeing the operation of the city’s 100 traffic signals, addressing and mitigating traffic safety and congestion concerns, reviewing commercial and residential development plans, studying parking trends in the downtown, implementing bicycle routes, meeting with residents, and managing construction projects.

My previous position was as a design engineer for a transportation engineering firm. Working for a consultant is the more typical civil engineer career path. This involved a lot of design work for new roadways, intersection expansions, bike paths, and roundabouts. There was a mixture of creativity (what’s the best way we can solve this traffic congestion?) with traffic engineering principles (at a given design speed, how long should the left turn lane be?). There was also a lot of CAD work: a good engineer needs to be able to produce constructable plan sets that meet the state transportation department’s standards. I eventually left this job because I wanted to have more ownership of projects and to be able to focus on one community instead of various project locations spread throughout the state.

The software in the Traffic Management Center is connected to traffic signals throughout the city and displays information in real-time. Live cameras are used to observe traffic conditions.

Working in the public sector is a unique challenge for an engineer because it involves many non-technical duties such as presenting project updates to City Council or explaining city ordinances to residents, but still requires a technical background. While there is limited design work as compared to a consulting firm, the satisfaction in creating something from nothing is still present when crafting new policies or establishing long-term development plans. A big part of the reason I set myself on this career path was because I wanted to be able to help the public. My role directly impacts the lives of tens of thousands of people. While it’s definitely behind the scenes, the things I do on a daily basis serve to make residents’ lives safer, more economical, and less frustrating.

My favorite part about being an engineer is knowing about day-to-day things that most people don’t ever stop to consider. Do you know that a traffic signal doesn’t detect a vehicle by weight, but because a car’s metal disrupts the electromagnetic field of a sensor in the pavement? Or do you know that roadways function as ancillary drainage systems and are actually designed to flood after a heavy rainfall in order to keep the water from getting into basements? Or that installing four-way stop signs at intersections can actually increase overall speeding in neighborhoods?

For any young people interested in a career in engineering, I would encourage you to not be intimidated. Engineering has a reputation for being a challenging major in college, but it’s not impossible and it’s not only for the whiz kids. If you find something that interests and excites you, don’t let the fear of failing hold you back. Determination, passion, and attitude will help you reach your goals.

Aaron Woodruff, Paleontologist

Aaron standing in front of a mastodon skeleton at the Illinois State Museum.
I am a vertebrate paleontologist, meaning that I deal in the fossils of ancient back-boned animals. I obtained my degree in paleontology from East Tennessee State University and I currently work as a lab technician at Georgia Tech. My primary research interests are paleoecology and ecomorphology of Cenozoic mammals. In the broad sense, paleoecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environments across prehistory. Ecomorphology is the study of the relationship between an organism’s physical adaptations and its lifestyle. For example, cheetahs are famously the fastest land animals alive today. To become such good runners they have evolved, among other adaptations, lightweight skeletons with long legs and flexible spines. The general lifestyle and behavior of an extinct animal may, therefore, be predicted by comparing its physical adaptations to that of a modern relative or to that of an otherwise comparably proportioned species. Back to the Cheetah example, several species of extinct cats and cat-like predators have been found to have possessed similar body proportions for active sprinting, suggesting that these animals hunted in a similar fashion.

Aside from my paleontological research, another great passion/occupation of mine is paleoart: the artistic representation of a prehistoric organism or environment. Paleoart is a valuable tool for communicating paleontological information to both scientists and non-scientists. We are more likely to process and memorize information presented to us in image format than through text. I personally find great enjoyment in reconstructing animals which no modern human has ever seen alive. It really feels like I am bringing these animals back to life. Furthermore, accurate paleoart is a good way to pull in audiences and raise interest in paleontology. Ask any paleontologist or enthusiast what first sparked their interest in fossils and ancient animals, and most of them will no doubt reference images from a favorite book from their childhood, a museum mural, sculpture, movie or documentary which featured life reconstructions of prehistoric animals. That’s paleoart! Some of my own artwork may be seen on my personal blog Life in the Cenozoic Era in which I talk about various animals from the Age of Mammals.

As a paleontologist, the best thing I can hope for is a large sample size to work with. This can be somewhat difficult in paleontology because fossils, by their very nature, are generally few and far between and are often damaged or incomplete. Whenever possible, having access to a large sample of a given extinct animal is ideal for ontogenic, demographic, and morphological studies among other areas. For my thesis project I was lucky enough to have access to a HUGE collection of fossils belonging to an extinct peccary from a Missouri cave site. Because I had thousands of bones from dozens of individuals to work with, from fetuses up to elderly individuals, I was able to learn some very interesting things about the peccary population from that locality. Another important resource is a good comparative collection of modern and extinct animals for reference. Being able to visit other research facilities or borrow specimens on loan is also a major aspect of acquiring data.

Map showing the location of the Bat Cave fossil site within the state of Missouri (top-left), the most complete Flat-headed Peccary skull from Bat Cave (bottom-left), a mounted skeleton from the American Museum of Natural History (top-right), and life reconstruction by me (bottom-right).

The research we are doing at Georgia Tech involves analyzing the bones of small mammals and looking at how the community composition changes through time. Small vertebrates are good indicators of local climatic conditions because they are generally confined to a small area; many of the smaller rodents never venture farther than 30 to 100ft from their nest in a single day. An elephant can simply walk up to 50 miles per day in search of an area that suits it better should environmental conditions fall outside of its comfort zone. A vole simply cannot do this, and is thus confined to a narrower range of environmental factors. From examining the Natural Trap Cave microfauna we are finding that the local climate has fluctuated greatly over the past 20,000 years. At various intervals the region was home to animals which are adapted to the high desert conditions which characterize the region today, in another layer we may find species that are indicative of wetter or less arid conditions, while in yet another layer we may see animals which should be more comfortable in colder environments farther north.

Repelling ~80ft into Natural Trap Cave to excavate Pleistocene-age fossils.
My favorite part of being a scientist is that I am always learning new and interesting things. I find it very humbling and gratifying to know that my research will contribute to the collective knowledge of the general public. Being able to learn through personal research, exchange knowledge and ideas with other scientists, and to teach what I have learned with other people are all things that I appreciate about my career. Another thing I enjoy is being able to travel to conferences and field sites where I am able to intermingle with other paleontologists and keep up to date with the latest discoveries. My advice to young scientists is go to conferences or local events whenever possible. Volunteer or participate in outreach programs at museums or universities. Also, reach out to professionals for advice or to just satisfy your curiosity. Many paleontologists, myself included, are very active on social media and are happy to chat about our research, share information, etc.

Follow Aaron’s blog Life in the Cenozoic Era or follow his updates on Twitter by clicking here.

Linda Dämmer, Geologist and Paleoclimate Proxy Developer

The great thing about science is that there is always something new to discover, always something new to try, always a new question to answer, always a new challenge. If you’re curious enough, there will always be ways to improve our understanding of how the world works. And as a scientist you’re free to explore all these avenues. Even though every single scientist is only looking at a tiny fraction of everything there is to discover, we still all contribute to the same, big, never ending puzzle. And I find that strangely appealing.

Inspecting a shallow marine site near an active submarine volcanic vent field on the Aeolian island of Panarea, Italy in May of 2017 (Mount Stromboli erupting in the background). Photo by Caitlyn Witkowski (NIOZ/Utrecht University).

By developing and improving methods for paleoclimatologists and paleoceanographers my research helps other scientists understand how the complex system that is our planet’s climate developed and changed over time and reacted to changing parameters in the past. Only if we understand this well enough we will be able to predict reliably how the climate system will be behave in the future.

The main problem we, as geoscientists, have with learning about the climate of the past is that we can’t go back in time to directly measure the temperature or the composition of the atmosphere and oceans (unfortunately our colleagues who are working on time travel are way behind their schedule, but they say it doesn’t matter 😉 ). And unless you’re only interested in the last few centuries, nobody has left us their notes in a neat lab book with all the information we are looking for listed up in a table. Therefore, we have to look at the next best thing: ‘nature’s lab book’, natural records of past environmental conditions. For example we can use ice cores, tree rings, sediment cores, corals and other fossils to learn about the past. But what exactly do we look for in these natural archives? Which particles, organisms, compounds, molecules or minerals have stored valuable information about, for example, temperature, sea water salinity, or composition of the atmosphere? And how do we unlock these data? That is what I’m working on. I’m trying to connect the environmental conditions with the resulting signals in the natural records that we find all over the world.

A benthic foraminifera (Amphistegina lessonii) up close. The scale bar here is 200 microns (1 micron = one millionth of a meter). The bright green, fluorescent part of the shell grew during an experiment that included a fluorescent dye. This way we can tell which areas of the shell are relevant for our measurements.

I do most of my work on living foraminifera (unicellular organisms with a carbonate shell) and the ratio of different elements in their shells. I use benthic (bottom dwelling) foraminifera and keep them under a range of different controlled conditions in the lab to improve our understanding of how environmental signals can be found in their shells.

In addition to this I also do field studies, where I sample foraminifera and collect environmental data from different locations and compare them to the relationships that were previously found in the laboratory settings. This means I get to travel a lot and use a wide range of sampling methods. I get some of my samples from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, more than 3 km (≈1.9 miles) below the surface, by taking sediment cores with a research vessel. I crawl through the mud of the intertidal zones along the Dutch Wadden Sea coast to collect living benthic foraminifera from the mud surface by scraping off the top layers of the sediment. I snorkel through the acidified ocean around the volcanoes of the Aeolian Islands in southern Italy to find species that survive these harsh conditions. I scuba dive in the Caribbean Sea to collect living planktic foraminifera one by one using a glass jar. I take hundreds of cubic meters of sea water during scientific cruises to filter out all the plankton in there and then spend hours and hours staring through a microscope to identify all the tiny species.

I’m currently trying to develop a new proxy that will help us learn more about the ocean pH and the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration of the past. To do so, a graduate student and I are using tropical benthic foraminifera. We keep the foraminifera under several different CO2 levels, which represent today’s as well as pre-industrial conditions and concentrations that are expected for the next century.

In addition to that, I’m now calibrating an already existing proxy (the ratio of magnesium (Mg) to calcium (Ca) in carbonates, which correlates well with temperature) to a species of oysters. This method has not been applied to these oysters yet. Doing this will improve the paleoceanographers’ ‘toolbox’ for climate reconstruction in intertidal (the area at a beach between low and high tides) settings, where the most commonly used proxies can’t be applied, since they are based on planktic foraminifera and most of them live in the open ocean, far away from the coast.

Linda is a PhD student at the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in the Department of Ocean Systems; Utrecht University, Faculty of Geosciences, Department of Stratigraphy & Paleontology. To learn more about Linda and her work, visit the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research New Generation of Foraminiferal Proxies website.

Kristina Barclay, Paleoecologist

Collecting marine snails (Tegula funebralis and Nucella ostrina) at Bodega Marine Reserve (UC Davis, Bodega Bay, California) for a six month project investigating how shell growth is affected by ocean acidification and the threat of predation.

I look at biotic interactions, such as predator-prey interactions, and how these relationships develop through time, or are affected by environmental change. I’m lucky because I get to study both living and fossil organisms, and try to find connections between the patterns in modern and fossil ecosystems which might help protect modern ecosystems faced with climate change. This is called conservation palaeobiology. Basically, I want to know how and why animal relationships got to where they are today, and figure out how to protect those relationships.

For my PhD research at the University of Alberta, I am mostly working with marine snails and one of their main predators, crabs. Crabs are very strong and try to peel the shells of snails, much like you would an orange. The predatory behavior by crabs can leave scars on the snail’s shell. We can see this on both live animals and in the fossil record, and it can tell us how successful the predators are or how many there were. But because I’m interested in bigger picture questions, like how animals interact with one another, I get to study many different organisms! For example, I have also done a lot of work on both living and fossil encrusting organisms (like barnacles) and how they interact with the animals that they encrust (see Dr. Mark Wilson’s Meet the Scientist post here).

Encrusting organisms (sclerobionts) on a fossil brachiopod shell (Waterways Formation, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Late Devonian).

My main question for my current research is how predator-prey interactions have and will be affected by climate change. All of the carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere by humans is being absorbed by the oceans, and this makes the water more acidic. The more acidic the water is, the harder it is for animals that have shells or hard parts to grow those structures. For animals like snails that use their shells to defend against crabs, this might mean they will be vulnerable to predators. If the snails are wiped out because they can’t protect themselves, what will happen to all of the animals that rely on snails for food? There could be very large ecosystem changes, which is especially scary as we rely more and more on the oceans to feed our growing global population. I just finished a six month experiment that investigated how living snails respond to ocean acidification combined with predation, but now I also want to see how past ocean acidification events have affected snails and their ecosystems. If we know what happened in the fossil record, we may be able to prevent it from happening again to our animals today.

I accidentally interrupted a giant sea star (Pisaster brevispinus) eating a giant clam while doing field work on modern ocean ecosystems near Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, Vancouver Island, B.C.

The best part about being a scientist is being able to explore what interests you, and to hopefully make a difference that benefits the animals and ecosystems you care about. I also get to be outside, either looking for fossils, or studying live ocean animals, which is so much fun! I’m also a science educator, so inspiring young kids, especially young girls, to pursue their interests in science is incredibly rewarding. Find a topic that interests you, but don’t be afraid to explore other possibilities. It’s important to think big picture, and to have other questions if your favourite one doesn’t work out. You also want to make sure that your research is somehow applicable to areas that are of interest or concern to a lot of people. Most importantly, though, I would say to never be afraid to ask questions, and make sure you ask lots of them. Sometimes you’ll feel like everyone is so much smarter than you, but I guarantee they are feeling the same way. Anyone can be a scientist, so long as you are passionate and never stop asking questions.

If you are interested in learning more about Kristina’s research check out her website here and/or her twitter here.

Roy E. Plotnick, Paleobiologist

I began my career working on eurypterids (sea scorpions), which were the largest arthropods of all time. I still occasionally study various arthropod fossils from all parts of the fossil record. I recently described the oldest known insect ears. This was part of a broader interest in the evolution of sense organs – when and why did organisms first evolve organs such as eyes and antennae? But I have also studied many other groups of fossil organisms, including crinoids (sea lilies), brachiopods, and sea anemones.

A lot of my research involves doing experiments, although the idea of “experimental paleontology” may sound odd. One example is a series of studies on how organisms live on soft muddy bottoms. I did experiments on how various kinds of ancient organisms may have prevented sinking in or being pulled out of the sediment. This may help us to design better anchors for boats. Another example involves studying fossil preservation: what are the environmental conditions that either allow or enhance the formation of a fossil? A third example involves studying how animal behavior controls what types of movements an animal makes and what types of trace they can leave behind. The goal is to understand what are known as trace fossils; the preserved remains of tracks, trails, burrows, etc.

Ear on the leg of a fossil cricket from the Eocene Green River Formation. Ref: Plotnick, R. E., and D. M. Smith. 2012. Exceptionally preserved fossil insect ears from the Eocene Green River Formation of Colorado. Journal of Paleontology 86(1):19-24.

Almost by accident I got interested in the history of caves and their impact on the fossil record. Leading a class field trip, we stumbled upon a 310 million-year old cave, one of the very every oldest caves in the world. This site and others like it have produced a treasure trove of amazingly well-preserved fossils, including some of the oldest conifers. I am also interested in describing the statistical properties of the fossil record. I recently showed that the locations of fossil sites are fractal; that is, they are clumped in space and these clumps are clumped and so on. A statistical method I developed to study the rock and fossil record has been since used in many areas of science, including cancer research! I have also investigated the current extinction of life on Earth, sometimes called the Sixth Extinction. This a major part of global environmental change. My research is focused on helping us better compare what is going on now with what happened in the geologic past.

The ability to pursue so many different areas of research is what I love best about being a scientist. An added benefit is that I usually have to team up with other scientists who know more than I do about the subjects we are interested in. And I also get young scientists involved. I have two pieces of advice for young scientists. First: read, read, read. Know what has been done so you can learn what important questions remain to be solved. Second: look outside the usual boundaries of your field for inspiration and ideas.

Stephanie K. Drumheller-Horton, Paleontologist

All kinds of things can move, alter, or even destroy animals’ remains after they die, but before they fossilize and are discovered by paleontologists. The study of these processes is called taphonomy. I specialize in taphonomic processes affecting vertebrates (animals with backbones), especially archosaurs (crocodiles, dinosaurs, and everything in between).

American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) bite mark collection on cow bones, at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, Florida.

I work a lot with living animals to better understand extinct ones. In my bite mark research, this includes collecting crocodylian bite mark examples on pig and cow limbs. I have spent a lot of time at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm collecting data. By studying modern bone surface modifications, I am trying to find novel marks or patterns of marks, which can be used to positively identify similar structures on ancient bones. This lets me identify fossil traces left by particular behavior types or organism groups.

Bone surface modifications are traces on bone surfaces left by other members of or features in its paleoenvironment. This includes everything from sediment abrasion to carnivore bite marks. All of these different types of bone alterations can tell us something about the environment in which the affected animal lived and died. However, we can only access this information if we are able to correctly identify and interpret the marks. Once we can differentiate these marks, we can start asking questions about evolution and paleoecology. What kind of environment was here when these animals were alive? Who was eating what in this ecosystem? How did this animal become fossilized, and what might that tell us about the diversity of the original environment? Paleontologists are not the only people to consider how bones have been altered through time. Forensic osteology is a field of science dedicated to studying what happened to human bones based on features left on the bone material. Read more about forensic osteology here.

A) Line drawing cross section of a stereotypical mammalian long bone, with explanatory illustrations bite mark classifications. Photographic examples of bite mark types: B) Two pits made by an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus); C) Puncture made by an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus); D) Score made by a Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis); E) Furrow made by a New Guinea crocodile (Crocodylus novaeguineae). Scale bars = 1 cm. From Drumheller & Brochu (2016).

The thrill of discovery is a big draw. When I find a new fossil out in the field, it’s pretty exciting to know that I am the first human being to ever see it. I feel the same thing about collecting data from lab experiments and field observations. Publishing a finished paper on a project can feel like you’ve been keeping a really cool secret, and now you finally get to share it with everybody.

Take as many opportunities to branch out and explore different fields as you can. You never know where they might lead you. My last semester of undergrad, I needed one more class to graduate. I already knew I wanted to be a paleontologist, I had actually already been accepted into graduate school. I ended up signing up for a forensic anthropology class, just because it sounded interesting, and my school had a world class program in the field. It was that class that introduced me to taphonomy and the study of bone surface modifications. One random elective class ended up shaping my entire career path.

Find out more about Stephanie’s research by checking out her Research Gate profile here or get more immediate information from her twitter here. Stephanie was part of a crowd funded experiment, found here, to excavate the Arlington Archosaur Site.

Selina R. Cole, Paleobiologist

Collecting Devonian fossils in Spain
I am a paleobiologist interested in how evolutionary patterns are generated over geologic time through biological and environmental processes. Recently, my research has focused on why some organisms are at a greater risk of extinction than others. We know from the fossil record that species go extinct, but extinction patterns are not the same for all groups – some survive for millions of years, others are relatively short-lived. I focus on identifying what factors make a group more or less susceptible to extinction, including things like environmental tolerance, feeding ecology, body size, and habitat preference. I also incorporate phylogenetics (the study of evolutionary relationships among species) into my research to determine whether extinction risk is similar for species that are closely related.

I primarily work with fossils belonging to a group of sea creatures called crinoids, which are cousins to animals like starfish and sea urchins. Crinoids have an excellent fossil record that goes back almost half a billion years. There is also a lot of variation among crinoids in terms of their feeding styles, the habitats they lived in, and how their skeletons are constructed, so they are excellent model for exploring factors that contribute to extinction risk.

Much of my time is spent working in museum collections to document variation across hundreds of features in fossil crinoids, take measurements of specimens, and collect paleoenvironmental information from the rocks the fossils are embedded in. Other important data for my research comes from new species of fossil crinoids that I have collected and/or described myself, which helps improve our knowledge of species’ geographic and temporal distributions. Finally, I analyze my datasets to infer the evolutionary relationships between crinoids and to determine what factors contributed to differential extinction patterns.

A) Examples of fossil crinoids with different feeding structures and corresponding habitat requirements. B) Geological durations of crinoid genera in the fossil record, organized by their evolutionary relationships and color-coded by habitat.

Although grounded in the geological sciences, the field of paleontology is an important complement to biology and the study of living organisms because it includes a temporal dimension: the fossil record. The overwhelming majority of species that have ever lived are now extinct, so studies of extinct organisms are important for fully understanding the history of life. By identifying factors that caused past organisms to go extinct, we can better infer the extinction risk of species living today. This is important because species are currently going extinct at an unprecedented rate as a result of human-caused climate change and habitat destruction, which has the potential to significantly impact many aspects of society, such as fisheries, agriculture, and environmental sustainability.

One of my favorite parts about being a scientist is that I get to do a wide variety of jobs. On any given day, I may collect data from museum specimens, work at a computer to program a new analysis, write up research results, do science outreach with the public, conduct field work to collect new fossils, travel to a new part of the world to do research, or describe and illustrate a new species of crinoid. It never gets boring, and I get to stay creative by coming up with ideas that will take my research in new directions.
If you decide to study science, do so because it’s something you love. Pursuing a career as a researcher is hard work, but it’s worthwhile if you’re studying subjects you enjoy. It can be easy to get lose sight of what initially got you excited about research in the first place, so be sure to occasionally step back and remind yourself why you are passionate about what you do. Give yourself time to enjoy what you study and explore new research questions, which will help cultivate your scientific creativity and curiosity.

Lena is currently working in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History. To learn more about her work visit her website here or her twitter here!

Andy Fraass, Paleoceanographer and Paleobiologist

I got into science because of Jurassic Park. I’ve always been fascinated by dinosaurs, but something about reading the novel, then watching that movie opening night just grabbed my brain and has never let go. When I got to college I realized that dinosaurs aren’t really the best way to ask the big questions that I’m interested in, like how evolution works, or how the possible shapes that an organism can have is shaped by evolution, or how past climate changes alter the course of evolution.

I study foraminifera because we (scientists) can find thousands – millions – in a single sample. We’re also not studying just a bone or two, we can find the entire shell. Having so many fossils to look at lets us be more sure of our findings. It’s so much cooler than dinosaurs. I know, I’ve yet to be able to convince anybody else of that.

I, as a micropaleontologist, also study past climates because it’s more important for society. Understanding evolution is important, but understanding the changes that our society, my daughter, and her kids (if she wants them) will experience is a more important use of my talents as a researcher and educator. I also use stable isotopes, the number of different fossil foraminifera with certain ecologies, and even just the sediments themselves to try and understand what controls past climate. One of the main findings of this field (called paleoceanography) is that our current changes in climate are unprecedented in well over 65 million years, with some research that concludes this is the most extreme climate change in about 400 million years (click here to read more about climate change and the geologic history of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere).

The left part of the graph is a measure of diversity, or the number of different species or genera of planktic foraminifera. Geologic time is plotted along the top of the graph, measured in millions of years (Ma). The number of species (purple) and genera (gold) of planktic  foraminifera through time are plotted on the chart. The grey shapes in the background are the number of sites in the ocean that have rocks of that age. This graphic shows a clear large extinction at the end of the Cretaceous (~65 million years ago with a huge, sharp drop in diversity) and a more gradual change at the Eocene/Oligocene boundary (~34 million years ago).

My favorite part of science – bar none – are the people with whom I work. Figuring out questions and discovering things is wonderful, but the best part is doing it with people who are as enthused with science as I am. Science can be hard, and it can be very frustrating. I have the amazingly good fortune of having friends whose skills complement mine and who help get me through the frustration. There is nothing better than sitting around a table plotting out a three-year project with a couple of folks who are as excited about the scientific possibilities as I am.

Audrey Martin, Planetary Geoscientist

I am a planetary geoscientist, which means I study rocks from other planets and asteroids in the solar system! More specifically, I study a group of asteroids called Trojans. Most asteroids in the inner solar system are found in the Main Asteroid Belt, however Trojans are found further out. They orbit in two swarms and share an orbit with Jupiter (Figure 1). They have gravitationally stable orbits around the Sun, and probably haven’t moved for nearly 4.5 billion years (almost the age of the solar system!). Asteroids like this are called ‘primitive bodies’ and hold useful information about the environment in the early solar system before planets were made. I use Trojan asteroids to reconstruct major events that shaped our solar system.

Everything we see comes from photons in a very small sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum called the ‘visible.’ Trojan asteroids are some of the darkest objects in the night sky, so I ‘look’ at them in the thermal infrared (TIR). All objects in the universe radiate heat in the form of photons, and I look at the heat radiated by Trojans. This is basically how night vision goggles work! Using TIR data, I can examine the surface characteristics of Trojans (i.e., what minerals are present and texture) that are useful in determining their formation environment. By knowing how and where Trojans formed we learn more about what the solar system was like billions of years ago.

This is a figure of the relative positions of the inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) as well as Jupiter. The main belt orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Notice the Trojan asteroid swarms, in orbit with Jupiter. This figure is definitely not to scale! From Planets for Kids, click through the image to get to their website!

Trojan asteroids are useful as ‘planetary fossils’ because they have been relatively undisturbed since the early days of the solar system. As such, they hold clues that are crucial for our understanding of the evolution of the solar system and planets. In 2021, NASA will launch Lucy a mission to the Trojan asteroids. The mission was aptly named after the fossilized hominid skeleton which helped form much of our knowledge on human evolution. In a similar manner, Lucy will collect data that are integral for understanding planetary formation and conditions in the early solar system.

My favorite part about being a scientist is learning more about how our solar system formed and gaining perspective on how precious Earth is. It is tremendously humbling to be a planetary scientist and research rocks that were formed in the solar nebula billions and billions of years ago, using data from spacecrafts that are currently over 200,000,000 km from Earth. And with the same spacecraft we can look back to Earth and see a small rocky planet, host to all the life we have ever known.

My advice to young scientists is to remain curious and keep asking questions. What you will find is with every question answered two more pop up, but keep asking. Sure, life as a scientist can be difficult, but that is not unique to a career in science. The unique aspect of being a scientist is that we get to expand the ‘bubble’ of human knowledge. As scientists, our endeavors are only limited by complacency. We will never know all that is there to know, but it is our job to keep searching and learning and discovering by asking questions.

Animations of Trojan Asteroids as they co-orbit the sun with Jupiter

Davey F. Wright, Paleontologist

Davey examining a fossilized coral reef from the Pleistocene of San Salvador Island, Bahamas.
I am a paleontologist and macroevolutionary biologist interested in advancing methods to reconstruct evolutionary “family trees” (= phylogenies) containing fossil species and how we can use evolutionary trees to answer questions about large-scale evolutionary patterns and processes. For example, when combined with mathematical models of evolution, phylogenies play a critical role in determining how fast species evolve in nature and why some lineages rapidly multiply into ecologically diverse descendants, whereas others persist in stasis or go extinct.

My taxonomic specialty is the Echinodermata (starfish, sea urchins, and kin), especially the Crinoidea (sea lilies and feather stars), which have a spectacular fossil record spanning nearly a half-billion years. Because echinoderm skeletons are highly complex and commonly preserve ecologic features as fossils (such as feeding structures), they are an ideal group for studying trait evolution and diversification at large scales over geologic time. My research sometimes dabbles with taxonomic databases (such as the Paleobiology Database) and other published sources, but I most frequently gather data my own data from first-hand observations of fossil specimens. The majority of my “fieldwork” involves dredging museum collections for exceptionally preserved specimens, but I also have a passion for paleontology in the field and am always looking for new ways to involve field-based data into my research.

Diversity history of Ordovician through early Silurian crinoids. The Middle to Late Ordovician rise in diversity shows the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (GOBE) as expressed in the crinoid fossil record; whereas the subsequent drop in diversity is related to the Late Ordovician mass extinctions. The dotted, vertical line represents the Ordovician–Silurian boundary. Geologic time is represented in million-year units (Ma). (Figure from Wright and Toom, in press)

I am presently involved in a number of different projects, including: new approaches to estimate fossil phylogenies that attempt to account for the incompleteness of the fossil record, ways to statistically test speciation models and ancestor–descendant relationships, and documenting global patterns of biodiversification during key intervals of Earth history. A recent project of mine has focused on disentangling the relationship between rates of evolutionary change and the accumulation of morphological variation within lineages. One might expect that when the rate of morphological evolution increases, you would have an associated increase in the overall diversity of body plans. However, results from my work suggest that elevated rates of evolution are often decoupled with changes in morphological variation. In fact, elevated rates may frequently involve multiple, independent radiations of distantly related species driven toward a pre-existing adaptive optimum by environmental change. Furthermore, major global change events throughout Earth history have acted to create, eliminate, or ‘reset’ ecological optima on the adaptive landscape upon which lineages evolve, which further complicates associations between rates of evolution and the diversity of anatomical forms. In addition to these broader issues, my phylogenetic research has also resulted in major taxonomic revisions of fossil and living crinoids.

Results from a Bayesian “tip-dating” analysis of early to middle Paleozoic crinoids depicting the evolutionary tree with the highest probability, which represents one of many possible hypotheses of relationships. Posterior probabilities are expressed in percent; blue bars represent the range of fossil age estimates; and black bars represent maximum possible stratigraphic durations. (Figure from Wright, 2017)

Being a scientist is fun! When I’m not measuring fossils, coding their anatomical traits, or describing new species, I’m most likely writing R code or conducting some kind of computer-based analysis of paleontological data. Some days I teach or engage in public outreach; other days I brush up on probability theory or new computational methods. Sometimes I daydream about crinoids. One of the best parts of being a scientist is that you get to use your creativity to satiate your intellectual curiosity.

Davey collecting ~350 million-year-old fossil echinoderms in the Brooks Range of Arctic Alaska
As a postdoctoral researcher I’m not sure if I’m qualified to give career advice, but I can at least provide some thoughts about my own experiences. During grad school, I was never able to relate to blog posts and comics on social media that promulgate the stereotype of unhappy, disgruntled graduate students. I am not claiming the path to erudition doesn’t have its share of ups and downs, nor wish to dismiss or downplay the difficulties experienced by others. I would just say that my experience was the exact opposite of the one caricatured by PhD Comics. For me, graduate school was filled with delightful opportunities that would have otherwise been unavailable had I chosen another career path, such learning to program or getting to travel the world. When I first became interested in paleontology, I never expected I would also get to learn so many cool things about geology, molecular evolution, statistics, or computer science. In many ways, the time I spent as a student were some of the best of my life. Nothing can take that away. Enjoy life, keep learning, and stay positive.

To learn more about Davey’s work click through to his website here or follow him on twitter here.