Mattie Jensen, Microbiologist & Technical Manager

I am a Scientist.

It may be a little cliché, but like all scientists I know, I was always interested in science. It was one of those subjects in school that came naturally to me. By the time I graduated high school, I had taken all of the advanced science courses offered by my school, plus two college-level courses. You would think someone this driven by science would immediately jump into a science degree in college, right? Nope.

I attended college for graphic design. After a semester, I changed my major to photography. A couple semesters later, I changed my major to psychology – and that is where my real journey began. Eight years of hard work, studying all night while working multiple jobs to support myself through school, and I finally had my degree – my major was psychology, my minor was biology. I focused on a neuroscience approach to addictions and wanted to be a drug and alcohol therapist.

Along the way, I found myself working as an office manager for a microbiology laboratory. The work they did fascinated me, as I had many happy flashbacks to the courses I took in high school and college. As I worked my way through school, I also worked my way into the laboratory. Upon graduation, I jumped into a rigorous training program to become a microbiologist, led by an incredible mycologist and a snarky clinical bacteriologist. Seven years later – I run an environmental microbiology lab outside of Chicago for this company.

Long story short – plans change, but who you are at your core and what truly excites you remains the same. Science was always a part of me. I was always the kid questioning everything, asking Why and How, solving problems logically and methodically, taking horrible notes that somehow made sense to only me. I was weird. I got made fun of a lot. And I’m still weird. But I made a career out of it, so I’m really not complaining.

What Do I Actually Do?

I am a microbiologist, specialized in the indoor air quality, water quality, and industrial hygiene worlds. I don’t analyze any human-based samples, but I am responsible for keeping a lot of people safe. From pharmaceutical production, to the mold growing under your kitchen sink, to the water grandpa Joe uses to take showers at his assisted living facility… we’re on it.

Our clients go out and take a variety of sample types, and we analyze them for any potential pathogens that may be present. We do old-school, bench-top, human-driven science. We aren’t relying on fancy machines to analyze things for us, and sure our reference materials may be a couple decades old, but what we do is tried and true.

Why is this important?

Bacteria and fungi are amazing and mind-blowingly smart. They’ve been a part of our world since it began. Outbreaks happen, yes, but the type of work an environmental microbiologist does is all about being proactive. If a pharmaceutical company is producing medicine in a contaminated environment, we stop it from reaching you. If grandpa Joe is being exposed to potentially pathogenic bacteria in his water, we catch it and help remediate it. And even though your house is spotless and you would eat off of your floors, we highly suggest you don’t because you have six different types of mold growing under your sink.

The environmental world of microbiology is full of unsung heroes. If you don’t work for the CDC, no one really knows what you do or really knows why it’s important. But that’s okay, we’re all a bunch of nerds and don’t want the spotlight anyway. I still want to get involved in local colleges and reach out to inspiring young scientists because this world is dying. What we do isn’t even really taught in schools anymore, as more and more schools focus on clinical laboratory sciences and molecular research using expensive machines. Not saying any of that is bad, learning more and more about the world around us is a huge part of science, right? But we’re already fighting an anti-science, anti-vaccine movement right now, let’s not also let the bacteria around us win and party with the re-emerging viruses.

Are you a Scientist, too?

If you, too, are a kind-of-weird person, always asking why and how, never leaving any problem unfinished, maybe you’re a scientist too. Even if you can’t make up your mind in what you want to do with your life but you kind of relate to Mr. Spock on a personal level, maybe you’re a scientist too. If you are interested in a scientific field, do tons of research before settling down! There’s more to microbiology than clinical laboratories. I’d be happy to connect with you and tell you more!

Connect with Mattie on LinkedIn by clicking here!

John Doherty, Biogeochemist

John Doherty, PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong.

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

My favorite part about being a scientist is undoubtedly getting to do research for a living. While there are many stressful aspects associated with being a scientist, at the end of the day I get to spend most of my time learning about things that are deeply interesting to me. Science has also allowed me to travel the world and meet some of the most inspirational people I would have otherwise never crossed paths with.

What do you do?

When people hear the word “biogeochemistry” for the first time, the general response I get is “biogeo-what? Are you a biologist, geologist or chemist? Couldn’t you just pick one?” While this is a fair question, it is unfortunately not how the Earth system works.

I work specifically in the field of paleoceanography, the branch of science concerned with the ancient oceans and their role in climate. My research aims to understand the evolution of polar North Atlantic Ocean circulation over geological warm periods that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago. The ocean, however, is an interconnected mess of physical, chemical and biological phenomena. To thoroughly investigate oceanographic processes, it is therefore necessary for scientists to have a broad and multidisciplinary understanding of all aspects of marine science.

As a biogeochemist, I work mainly with organic matter preserved in microfossils called foraminifera. The composition of this organic matter reflects historic upper-ocean biochemistry recorded during the foraminifer’s lifetime, which allows me to make observations about the chemical conditions of the ancient surface waters. The surface-ocean chemistry of this particular region is subsequently controlled by waters mixing together, which makes foraminifera-bound organic matter a useful proxy to reconstruct physical mixing processes in the upper-ocean water column.

Foraminifera microfossils (left) and bacteria (right) used for the isotopic analysis of organic nitrogen.

But who cares about what the surface of the polar North Atlantic used to look like? Because this is where southern-sourced Atlantic waters sink and return to tropical latitudes (the so-called “ocean conveyor belt”), this one region actually governs the strength of the entire Atlantic circulation in addition to a variety of global climatic phenomena that we are just beginning to understand. Studying how Atlantic waters used to move during past warm periods therefore allows us to get an approximate idea of how the Atlantic may continue to change in the near future, and its greater effects on Earth’s climate.

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

My data are mostly measurements of stable nitrogen isotopes of organic matter contained within foraminifera shells, which dominate sediment core samples from the polar North Atlantic region. This isotopic signature, or the ratio of heavy to light nitrogen atoms, is a proxy for surface nutrient processes affected by upper-ocean nutrient mixing. Because foraminifera contain only miniscule amounts of organic nitrogen, extracting this organic material and turning it into a measurable form requires intensive laboratory and chemical work. I therefore spend most of my time in the laboratory rather than on a boat, which is unfortunately slightly less scenic.

One of my field sites in the Polar North Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Dr. Benoit Thibodeau.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

There are now several lines of evidence which indicate that ocean circulation in the polar North Atlantic is slowing down, likely as a result of human-caused global warming. While today’s rate of warming is unique in the recent geological history of Earth, our planet has experienced intense warm events in the past. By investigating the behavior of the Atlantic circulation in the past, we are able to better understand the long-term climatic and oceanographic implications of our current warming. For example, we hope our research will shed light on the extent to which the modern ocean circulation will slow down, and what this slowing means for other aspects of Earth’s climate in the long term.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Stay curious and keep an open mind! I switched my major several times throughout my undergraduate career before I discovered my passion for science.

Don’t let previous failures detract from your goals. Often times, we see the finished product of science in the form of a published, peer-reviewed journal article. What we don’t see in that article is all of the failed experiments and misguided hypotheses leading to its production. Doing science means falling short many times, recognizing mistakes, learning from them and continuing to improve. The most important thing you can do is to not give up and to keep trying, because one day  this stuff will work out.

Follow John on Twitter @ocean_chemist, and read more about him and his research on his personal website

 

Jen Gallagher, Geneticist

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

Me at my happy place. On the afternoon before a long weekend, I finally have time to come into the lab and dissect yeast.

My favorite part about being a scientist is going into the lab, doing an experiment, and discovering something that nobody else knows. My uncle was in grad school when I was a kid. He studied fracture mechanics in metals, or crackology, as I like to call it. I visited his lab and he showed me his million-dollar microscope. He was getting a Ph.D. so I decided I would, too. I wasn’t interested in engineering. I liked watching nature shows on PBS and biology in school. In high school, I learned about DNA replication. DNA has directionality and can only be replicated in one direction but there are two strands held together in the opposite direction. When you separate the DNA there isn’t enough space to copy the other strand. The cell solves this problem by making short sections of DNA of the strand that is facing the opposite direction and then gluing them together. These are called Okazaki fragments and I thought that was cool. Also, in that class, my teacher showed us statistics on how many people get undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. degrees and all the different careers you could do with those degrees. So at 16, I decided to get a Ph.D. and do research in biochemistry. I searched for schools that had strong undergraduate research in a real biochemistry program. I didn’t want chemistry and biology class, but a dedicated program. Once I did start a biochemistry project, I decided that wasn’t for me. Biochemistry involves reducing reactions to their bare minimums, but life isn’t like that. So, I traded the cold room and purified proteins for genetics. I like asking the questions and having the cells tell me the answers.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?

I investigate why genetically diverse individuals respond differently to the same stress, usually a chemical. Every chemical is a poison in the right dose but also can be a medicine. Water is essential for life is also toxic in high doses. Drowning is a leading cause of premature death. The stress response is a complex reaction. The first thing that happens is that cell growth is arrested. It’s like if your house is on fire. Once you see the fire, you don’t finish washing the dishes and then find the fire extinguisher. There are common responses to stress and then there are specific ones. To find out how the cell’s response to a specific stress, we exploit genetic variation within a species. I compare cells that can successfully deal with the stress to ones that can’t and determine what are the underlying differences that govern that. Depending on the stress we sequence genomes, measure the changes in gene expression or proteins. We work on yeast because in general people don’t appreciate being poisoned and don’t reproduce as fast as in the lab. Yeast have a generation every 90 minutes. Yeast are fungi and are more related to us than to bacteria. They have important applications in baking, brewing, and biotechnology. Yeast share many biochemical pathways with us and so by studying them, we can then extrapolate that to humans. In my lab we are working on glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical, and copper nanoparticles, a novel antimicrobial material.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

I am an experimental geneticist. We have tens of thousands of different yeast strains in the lab. Most of these yeast come from other labs. The yeast community is generous, and these are all freely shared. To understand how RoundUp resistance occurs in nature, we also collect yeast from different environments. We have several sites with different RoundUp exposures. We started with a reclaimed strip coal mine, a state park, and the university organic farm. We have taken the public and students from local public schools to collect samples from these areas. We bring the samples to the lab and teach them how to coax the yeast out and then purify their DNA so we can sequence them. We thought that the mine would have the highest frequency of RoundUp resistant yeast because they spray that area every year with RoundUp. The park has been a state park since the 1930s and RoundUp was invented in the 1970s. RoundUp is a synthetic herbicide and not included in the list of herbicides and pesticides permitted on organic foods. We were completely shocked when we found that the organic farm had the highest number of RoundUp yeast and the mine had the fewest. There could be several explanations. One is that the yeast weren’t specifically resistant to RoundUp but whatever genetic changes that had been selected to gave it a selective advantage in that environment also conferred resistance. When we further investigated the histories of these sites we came up with another idea. The organic farm wasn’t always an organic farm. Two decades ago it was a conventional farm and from that previous exposure, the yeast became resistant and never lost it. The state park routinely uses RoundUp to combat invasive plants. There is also a power line that spans the canyon and they use helicopters to spray RoundUp so that trees don’t grow into the power line. The mine is used as a study site to find genes that are important for trees to grow on poor soil so that biofuels can be made. They started that study the year before I started collecting yeast so only a year of exposure was not enough to select for resistance. So now we have an even better study. We can go back every year to the mine and collect yeast. We can track RoundUp resistance as it happens.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society in general?

We are exposed to and consume chemicals every day. Differences in how we respond to those chemicals in part depend on small differences in our genome. We use these genetic differences to find out how cells are metabolizing chemicals successfully and survive or unsuccessfully and die. When the human genome was sequenced, we thought that all its secrets would be unlocked. While tremendous advances in biomedical research could only have been done with this information, there is so much that we don’t know how to read. It’s like finally getting the keys to the entire library but all the books are written in a language that you taught yourself and they’re words that you don’t know how to translate. Based on a sequenced genome, we are not yet able to predict a person’s medical conditions or how a person will respond to drugs. The chemicals that we study are important agricultural and industrial chemicals. With the overuse of herbicides, we are now facing RoundUp resistant weeds. We don’t know how to combat this because we only partially understand how weeds become resistant. The active ingredient in RoundUp inhibits a biochemical pathway that plants, bacteria, and yeast have but humans do not. Therefore, it has been challenging to study possible effects of RoundUp exposure in humans. All known acute poisonings have been from the inactive ingredients and not the glyphosate. However, chronic exposure is time-consuming and complicated to study. We are using yeast to determine if there are other biochemical targets of RoundUp in yeast that humans may have. These studies can’t be done in plants because RoundUp exposure is lethal and prevents the synthesis of nutrients but yeast can be supplemented with the nutrients that RoundUp suppresses. Other chemicals like MCHM have limited toxicological information. Several years ago, a massive chemical spill contaminated the water supply in West Virginia. It caused headaches, nausea, and rashes and nobody knew why. MCHM changes how proteins fold and doesn’t have a specific target like RoundUp. By using this chemical we are studying how changes in protein folding regulate metal and amino acid levels in the cells. Fungal infections are difficult to treat because they are immune to antibiotics. Antibiotics work because they exploit fundamental differences in the metabolism of bacteria from humans. Yeast are more closely related to humans so there are fewer druggable targets. Copper is an effective antifungal material, but it is expensive, and metal has several drawbacks. By incorporating copper into cellulose-based nanoparticles, cheap, moldable, and biodegradable materials can reduce food spoilage and infections from medical devices.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

Be prepared to fail. Failure is an opportunity to learn. In the example of the RoundUp resistance, the results were the opposite of what we thought. We can’t change the results, but we did further investigation and found an even more interesting story. I think of this as lost keys. My keys are always in the last place that I look. Why? Because I stop looking when I find them. If you think you know the answer, you stop searching. There is so much to discover and so many connections of which we are not aware. By challenging how you think about something you can overcome your assumptions and chip away at the unknown.

Head to Jen’s faculty page to learn more about her and her research by clicking here.

Sam Miller, Hydrologist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
I enjoy exploring in the field to help find clues that support our theory and understanding of how our world works and using that experience to formulate better hypotheses and tests that will push the science forward. Our world is a fascinating place with endless opportunities to learn. Learning is humbling (“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know” -Einstein).

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
I study streamflow generation in mountain environments of the western U.S. Or how snow(melt) becomes (stream)flow. Learn more about streamflow and the water cycle by clicking here. Mountains of the world have been termed ‘water towers for humanity’ due to the variety of downstream users reliant on water that originates as high-elevation snowpack. Population growth and migration combined with a warming climate is putting additional stresses on water resources originating from mountain snowpack, thus it is critical we have a thorough knowledge of how and where our streamflow originates.

There are a variety of approaches and scales used to study hydrology. I generally work at the watershed scale to perform stream gaging and measure natural tracers of the water cycle (electrical conductivity and water isotopes). Combining stream discharge and tracer data allows you to separate streamflow into different origins. Learn more about the field of hydrology by clicking here.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
When temperatures warm, mountain snowpack begins melting earlier in the year. Earlier snowmelt and subsequent streamflow response has a variety of consequences ranging from biological impairment associated with changes to the natural flow regime to shifts in the timing and magnitude of water available for downstream reservoirs and irrigation. Importantly, earlier snowmelt often results in lower summer streamflow which can have detrimental effects in arid regions with an increasing demand for water. Part of my research aims to identify areas where this earlier shift in snowmelt is having the most adverse effects on summer streamflow by conducting an empirical, retrospective analysis from hundreds of stream gages in the western U.S.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
I use a combination of data I collect myself from field work in the Snowy Range of Wyoming, streamflow data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The USGS and NRCS data can be easily obtained from packages in R (‘dataRetrieval’ and ‘RNRCS’) but is less satisfying than digging 10 feet to install your own data loggers.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
I would advise young aspiring scientists to become proficient in a programming language (preferably several) as soon as possible. As computing power and data continue to grow, it is important that we make efficient use of our time. Also make sure you do not lose sight of the passions that drove you to pursue your career in the first place.

Robert Ulrich, Biogeochemist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist is being able to pursue the questions that pop up in my mind about how the world works and having the ability to share what I learn with others.

I got into science because I was always curious: I always wanted to know what everything was, how everything worked, and why everything is the way it is.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
Currently, for my first project, I study the different ways that marine animals make their shells/skeletons affect how they record their growth conditions. My second project will be looking at how a widely-used crystallization method affects this in a lab setting.

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

Research: My research will help us better understand how the proxies people like paleoclimatologists use are recorded in biominerals. My research will also help us to better understand the different ways that these animals are forming their biominerals.

Goals/Outreach: My life experiences and activism thus far have motivated me to cultivate a career in academia. Growing up biracial and needing to navigate the boundary between my two backgrounds and growing up queer in a catholic household have taught me the lesson that I need to create my own space if I want to truly feel comfortable. As a graduate student, I have created spaces for myself as well as others from marginalized groups (i.e., Queers in STEM, The Center for Diverse Leadership in Science). I want to continue advocating for diversity and inclusion in STEM by challenging stereotypes of who is successful, and I believe that becoming a tenured professor would put me in an influential position to not just create spaces, but a position to effect the current culture at all levels: classrooms, departments, universities, academia, and policy.

Rob in the lab!

What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
My lab specializes is carbonate “clumped” isotopes. Measuring clumped isotopes measures the abundance of carbon-13 and oxygen-18 bonded to each other throughout the crystal lattice of the calcium carbonate shells. Ideally, this proxy correlates with and only with the growth temperature of the crystal and does not require knowing the isotopic composition of the growth medium. We are also able to measure the abundance of carbon-13 and oxygen-18 isotopes in the samples, which can also be used as proxies.

For my research, the samples for my first project are crushed shells/skeletons of a range of marine organisms that were grown in culture at the same conditions. This was additionally done at a range of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to simulate the effects of ocean acidification. For my second project, we have synthesized amorphous calcium carbonate in the lab. This is typically done via flux (mixing two solutions to achieve saturation). We are then measuring the carbon-13, oxygen-18, and clumped isotope values of the samples while they are amorphous as well as at different points through the transformation. I believe may also test different ways of transforming the material!

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
My advice to young scientists would be to not be okay with how things are or just “deal with it.” If you are the only person like you in your classes or program, that is not okay. I don’t say that to discourage, but to motivate effecting change.

Follow Rob’s updates on his website, Twitter, and Instagram! Also, in addition to Rob’s amazing research he is an active advocate for underrepresented groups in STEM.

Dr. Laurie Brown, Geophysicist and Paleomagnetist

Dr. Laurie Brown getting ready to drill a 2.5 million year old lava flow in southern Patagonia, Argentina.

How did you become interested in science?

I always enjoyed the outdoors, growing up outside a small town in upstate New York.  Camping trips with my family took me to many national parks and the wonders of the Western US.  In 8th grade I had a great Earth Science course, which I loved, but I somehow did not connect it as a career path.  I went off the Middlebury College in Vermont to enjoy the mountains and skiing, but majored in Math because it was easy for me.  By Senior year I decided to take a Geology course as an elective (because I liked mountains) and by the second week I was hooked!  It was initially the idea of working outdoors in wild and scenic places that attracted me, but I soon learned there were wonderful scientific problems aplenty.  It was 1968 (yes, I am of that generation!) and the concept of Plate Tectonics was just emerging.  Luckily, I had a wonderful professor teaching the year sequence of Physical and Historical Geology and he brought into class the latest scientific discoveries and made the course exciting and provocative.  He also encouraged me to go to Grad School with my one year of Geology, but lots of Math, Physics, and Chemistry, and the rest is history!

What do you do?

I have been a University professor for 45 years, the last 5 as Emeritus.  Being a professor at a major research university means you do many things, all at the same time!  I taught courses in Geophysics at the undergrad and grad level, as well as other courses needed by my department including Oceanography, Field Methods, Field Mapping, Physical Geology, and Tectonophysics.  I mentored students at all levels, both those in my classes and those working in my lab.  I ran a research program including Masters and PhD students where we worked together both in the field and in my paleomagnetism laboratory.  And, as is common in academia, I did a considerable amount of service for my department, my university, and my profession.

Paleomagnetic cores from Patagonia, cut and labeled, and ready to be measured!

What is your research?

I study the Earth’s magnetic field as it is recorded in earth materials- the field of paleomagnetism.  When rocks form – igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic –they are able to retain a record of the current magnetic field within magnetic minerals (magnetite and hematite primarily) in the rock.  Samples can be collected from these rocks millions of years later and the original field measured for both direction and magnitude.

Field aspects of my research involve collecting oriented samples from in situ outcrops and locations.  Currently I work mostly with hard rocks, both young volcanic flows and ancient metamorphic rocks.  I drill samples from these units using an adapted chain saw with a 1 inch diamond bit, water-cooled to preserve the diamonds.  Usually 8-10 cores are drilled at each site (lava flow or outcrop) and all are oriented in place with a sun compass.  This produces many samples; my current project in southern Patagonia involves 120 separate lava flows, and over 1000 cores!  Paleomagnetic studies also can be done on sedimentary rocks, also drilled in the field, and on lake and ocean cores, where samples are collected from the sediment once the cores are split open.

Measuring basalt cores on the cryongenic magnetometer in the Paleomagnetic Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Laboratory measurements are performed on a cryogenic magnetometer in my Paleomagnetism Laboratory here at UMass.  It only takes a few minutes to measure the magnetization in a single sample, but a number of tests for stability and reproducibility are required before the data can be interpreted.  Samples are demagnetized in a step-wise fashion using either high temperatures (up to 700°C) or alternating magnetic fields.  We often measure other magnetic properties of the samples, including magnetic susceptibility (measured both in the field and on lab samples) and hysteresis properties.  Microscopic work or SEM studies help us to identify the carriers of the magnetization.

Current Projects.  I am working at both ends of Earth history as current projects include a major study of paleomagnetic directions from young (< 10 myrs) lava flows from southern South America.  These rocks are being used to investigate how the Earth ’s magnetic field varies in the Southern Hemisphere over the last 10 million years.  Other projects are looking at very old rocks in northern Canada where I study the variations in magnetization in a piece of ancient lower crust, now exposed at the surface, and studies of 900 million year old intrusive rocks in southern Norway that are helping us reconstruct the Earth at a time when all the continents were together in a supercontinent called Rodinia.

Magnetic susceptibility meter on a 1.8 billion year old dike intruding 2.2 billion year old metamorphic rocks, Athabasca Granulite Terrane, northern Canada.

How does your research contribute to climate change and evolution?

Paleomagnetism is able to contribute to studies of climate change, evolution, and the history of the Earth by providing additional methods to both correlate sequences and unconnected outcrops, and by providing additional information on geologic age.  The geomagnetic time scale of normal and reversed polarities is well established, and using this magnetostratigraphy enables us to date sedimentary sequences, and to identify similar sequences in other locations.  Measuring the paleomagnetism of deep-sea cores is so well established that the large drilling ships have on-board magnetic laboratories.  Although I am not doing this kind of magnetic work at present, many other labs are, providing important constraints on the timing and correlation of climatic proxies and many parts of the fossil record.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Persevere!  Find that special part of geoscience that intrigues you and work hard to be the best you can at it.  Take all the various opportunities that are available to you, and see where you go!  There will be ups and downs, but as a career the Geosciences provide many positive and productive possibilities.  With over 50 years of activity in the Geosciences, I can easily say I have never lost my joy of working with and on the Earth and the many interesting problems and challenges it provides.  You, alone, may not solve all the problems facing our planet, but you will greatly contribute to our knowledge of the Earth – its evolution, its history, and its constantly changing environment.  And, along the way, you will interact with a number of other awesome scientists, get to see much of the world, and provide a rewarding and enjoyable career for yourself.

Dr. Benjamin Gill, Geochemist

Fieldwork in the Clan Alpine Range of Nevada. This work was part of an NSF funded study on the changes in paleoceanography in response to climate change during the Early Jurassic.

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

What I love most about being a scientist is being able to follow my curiosity. It’s a privilege to be able work on things that I’m genuinely excited about. I’ve always been interested in the world around me. This probably was first sparked by outdoor trips (camping, hiking, etc.) that my dad took me on when on I was a kid. Specifically, I got interested in geology because my childhood best friend’s dad is a geologist. He took us on trips to collect rocks and minerals; I liked it and my friend was let’s say less enthusiastic about it.

Field work on the Middle Cambrian Wheeler Formation in the Drum Mountains of Utah. This study was to examine the environmental conditions that led to the preservation of an exceptional fossils deposits in this formation.

As a scientist, what do you do?

I study the history of environmental change on our planet in order to determine what was behind this change and its consequences. I mainly do this by looking at the chemistry of the sediments and rocks that were deposited/formed during these time intervals. The chemistry of these materials allows us to reconstruct chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere in the long-distance past.

What data do you use in your research? 

Much of my research involves working with geochemical data obtained from sediments, fossils and sedimentary rocks. Specifically, in our laboratory at Virginia Tech, we have instruments that can measure the amount and the isotopes of (atoms with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons) carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. However, my students and I don’t just stick to the laboratory — we frequently go into the field to collect samples. In fact, this summer we will be out in Nevada and Alaska collecting samples and data in the field.

Field team for 2018 for our study of the end-Triassic mass extinctions in Alaska. Front row, left to right: Jeremy Owens (Florida State University), Theodore Them (College of Charleston, former PhD student from our lab group), João Trabucho-Alexandre (Utrecht University). Back Row left to right: Me, Martyn Golding (Geological Survey of Canada), Andrew Caruthers (Western Michigan University), Yorick Veenma (Utrecht University), and Selva Marroquín (Virginia Tech, PhD candidate in our research group).

It is also important to point out that much of the work I do involves collaborating with colleagues with a variety of specialties: paleontologists, sedimentologists and mineralogists to name a few. Combining all these different types of data allows us to make more integrated and robust scientific interpretations.

Drilling core from Chattanooga Shale in Tennessee for a study on the Late Devonian mass extinctions. In the foreground is Matt Leroy, PhD candidate in our research group. We were collecting these rocks as part of one of a of his research projects.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

 

Studying past events informs us about how our planet responds to past changes in the climate and environment. In other words, understanding these past events helps us understand how the Earth may change in the future. Many of the events my lab group studies involve times of rapid or serve climatic and environmental change and mass extinction events.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be wrong. One of my mentors in graduate school says that 99 percent, if not all, of your scientific interpretations are going to be wrong. This isn’t an excuse to be ignorant, but all you can do is to come up with the best explanation with what you have.

Hiking to a field site in Alberta with graduate students from my lab group. This work was part of an NSF funded study on the changes in paleoceanography in response to climate change during the Early Jurassic. Left to right: Theodore Them, Angela Gerhardt and me.

Alex Lyles, Karst Resource Technician, US Forest Service

As an avid outdoorsman, getting my degree in geology was the best decision I have ever made. Because of this degree, I currently work as a geology field technician with the US Forest Service in Southeast Alaska. My job focuses on the conservation of karst, a landscape characterized by soluble (easily dissolved) bedrock that often contains caves, sinkholes, springs, and complex subsurface hydrologic networks. Karst ecosystems are exceptionally productive for wildlife, but also sensitive to runoff caused by logging, road building, waste management, and farming. My position in Alaska mostly focuses on potential logging units, since that is the main economic driver and logging near karst features often produces sediment runoff that can inundate karst systems and cause adverse hydrologic, biologic, and ecologic effects on the forest ecosystem.

I first came to southeast Alaska the summer after my senior year of undergrad, having been offered an exciting GeoCorps internship as a cave guide through a partnership with Geological Society of America (GSA) and the US Forest Service. This position, located on Prince of Wales Island, greatly helped me solidify and communicate my passion for geology, particularly the intricate workings of karst geology. I always highly recommend GeoCorps internships to budding geologists and environmental scientists because they expose those with little-to-no experience to potential environmental work in the public sector. It was my GeoCorps position that allowed me to meet Dr. Jim Baichtal, the Forest Geologist for the Tongass National Forest. Jim values my good attitude and enthusiasm for geology and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping, and brought me back to Alaska as a field technician in the beginning of 2017 when I finished my undergraduate degree.

I have remained in this occupation since, and am gearing up to begin my third field season as a Karst Technician in Alaska. While this position is not research-based, I have had extensive opportunity to study the quaternary history of southeast Alaska, focusing on regional to local-scale glacial geomorphology to decipher ice flow patterns during the late Wisconsin Glaciation, which I presented a poster on at the annual GSA conference in 2017. I also know that my job as a tech has greatly sharpened my understanding of geomorphic processes and how they tie into the greater ecology, especially concerning karst landscapes. Much of my position also involves extensive aerial photography interpretation of vegetation and geomorphology prior to entering the area of reconnaissance to determine the “hot spots” for karst features. Aerial photo interpretation has become somewhat less necessary since the recent acquisition of half-meter resolution Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) imagery, considering that most caves, sinkholes, and springs are readily apparent upon inspection of the bare earth digital elevation model (DEM). The LiDAR makes my work easier and less likely for me to miss features, but hardly puts me out of a job, seeing as most of these features still need to be field verified and observed by a specialist to determine their significance and role in the landscape before the area undergoes any land management activities.

Left: An image of the bare earth DEM LiDAR hillshade showing a mountain lake draining into a sinkhole. Right: The same area, but with a sink fill function ran through ArcMap and converted to polygon contours to better show the detailed drainage pattern of the feature.

As a field tech, I use GIS every day, mostly centered on geologic and karst vulnerability mapping. We use a High-Medium-Low system to describe the vulnerability of the karst terrain; with High being the areas immediately adjacent to, in the direct watershed, or overtop karst features and cave systems, Medium being the expanse in between high vulnerability areas, or “karsty” areas with a low hydrologic head, and Low being karst areas without features directly leading to the subsurface, these are often covered by thick glacial till (sediments left behind by glaciers) or underlain by less soluble bedrock. No logging activity can occur over areas of high vulnerability karst. My field partner and I will enter units with GPS devices to determine this classification and I use our location data and DEM interpretation to update the “karst layer” that is used by land management specialists in the region. The Tongass karst program serves as a management model for many of the National Forests in the country, so playing a key role in the program has been a great honor and learning experience for me.

Alex enjoying a splendid day hiking through muskegs to get to a reconnaissance area. Photo credit: Brooke Kubby

Working in such an amazing place has definitely had an impact on me. My confidence as a geologist has grown, my navigation skills and competence in hiking rough terrain have developed, I am more comfortable handling responsibility, and my passion for geology and ecology develops every day that I spend contemplating geomorphic processes and geologic history. I believe that I have been especially fortunate to have these experiences, but I would not have gotten to where I am if I hadn’t taken initiative and fully thrown myself into the internships that were available. I now conduct the hiring and interviews for the same GeoCorps position that first brought me here. During college, I was unsure which branch of geology was right for me. It took getting out into the field and immersing myself into a unique environment before I realized exactly where my passions lie, and how I could fit them into the working world. I now plan on attending graduate school this fall for karst hydrogeology, a subject that I would not necessarily have seen myself pursuing 5 years ago. My advice to young geoscientists is to seize opportunity when it presents itself, and dig for opportunity when it doesn’t. Get out of your comfort zone and keep an open mind about how geology plays a role in the world. And finally, when you are applying to jobs or internships, make sure that you give each application your complete effort and attention, even if it might not exactly align with your interests at the time.

Caroline Ladlow, Sedimentologist

Caroline holding a field notebook with coring equipment in front of her in Iona Marsh, Hudson River NY.

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

At the beginning of college one of my professor’s suggested that I take an introduction to geology course, and within a few weeks I was hooked! Before that, I had no idea that geology and earth science was a subject that people studied. But I was hooked on the idea that my classes were teaching me more about the world around me- and I still am! I love studying subjects that directly affect people and communities, so now I research historical hurricanes and different types of flooding.

What do you do?

An issue that comes up more often in the news is the frequency of intense hurricanes. These storms impact huge numbers of people along coastlines all over the earth; now we worry that these big storms might be happening more often or might be getting stronger. However, we do not have long historical records around the world of how often these storms used to happen. The really cool thing about geology is that we can look further back in time using things that nature leaves behind. I go to lakes and marshes near the coast to collect sediment- we take a big empty tube and stick it into the earth to learn about big floods that have happened in the past. It works kind of like sticking a straw into your drink and putting your thumb on top, except we do this with mud and sand. When we look at the layers in the mud, the deeper down we go is further in the past, like the pages in a book. Layers of sand tell us that a big storm happened there in the past, pushed into the lake by huge storm waves that bring sand in toward land from the ocean and beach. Counting how many of these sand layers there are helps us understand the frequency of storms through history. Knowing more about the past can help us understand how to help prepare for these storms, help protect coastal populations, and whether they are happening more frequently now.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

Most of the global population lives within 60 miles of the coast, so studying storms and coastal flooding is really important. Boston, MA is one of many cities globally that is along the coast and vulnerable to coastal flooding, especially with the additional threat of sea level rise. Each year during hurricane and nor’easter seasons we are repeatedly reminded of the threat that these storms pose to the coastal populations of the eastern United States, not to mention other parts of the globe. The more we can constrain the frequency and strength of storms, the better we can serve and protect the people of Earth from these huge floods. I am motivated not only to be active in the research I do studying coastal flooding, but also to play a role in disseminating knowledge to public and policy spheres. The research I am involved in can help inform hurricane and nor’easter preparedness for populations all along the coasts, helping decide where structures will get built and how storm water management and adaptations plans are designed.

Showing and describing sediment cores and clay samples to our project stakeholders at an annual meeting (photo credit Jon Woodruff).

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

Most of the data that I use comes directly from sediment, either at the bottom of lakes or on wetlands and marshes. As it builds up over time at the bottom of lakes, we can look down into the mud and read a history through the different grain sizes from sand to mud, the types of animals that lived there, and the types of materials that make up the sediment!

How do you engage with the science community and with the public?

I recently got to participate in the AGU Voice for Science program- an incredible opportunity to learn more about science communication and meet other scientists interested in outreach. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the largest society of earth and space scientists around the world, and they have some very cool opportunities for outreach and science communication training. So far, my outreach experience has mostly been in educational programs to get children interested in science. This program through AGU broadened my experience in science communication into policy, and we got to do congressional visits to talk to Senators and Representatives from various states about science funding. I think a really critical aspect of outreach is building relationships with the communities you want to impact and making yourself available for their questions and concerns. We often approach outreach with the attitude that we have expertise about a specific issue to offer people, but they may be interested in an entirely different subject. Asking a community what their interests and questions are before you go in with your own is a really valuable way to build trust and a strong working relationship for future research and outreach. I am excited to see how my outreach will change in the coming months after learning so much from this workshop!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Pursue your goals, even if they seem out of reach or even impossible. And never hesitate to ask others for help and advice!

 

Benjamin Keisling, Glaciologist and Paleoclimatologist

Benjamin examining a sediment core drilled from Antarctica during an expedition in January 2018. Photo by Bill Crawford, IODP.

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

I got interested in science because I loved nature videos as a kid. I specifically remember one about the Alvin exploring the deep ocean that I would watch over and over, and I thought that being a scientist must be the coolest thing in the world. After that, I had a series of passionate and supportive teachers and mentors that nourished my interest in science and equipped me with the tools I needed to pursue a career in it.

There are a lot of things I love about being a scientist, but I think my favorite is the opportunities science has given me to meet people from different backgrounds. I have a network of peers, collaborators and mentors all around the world and I have learned so much, both as a scientist and a human being, from all of them.

What do you do as a scientist?

I study glaciers and ice sheets, the huge masses of ice that exist today in Greenland and Antarctica. I’m interested in how they responded to climate change in the past, so that we can better predict how they will respond to climate change in the future. This is particularly important today, because the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating rate and causing sea level to rise along coastlines around the world. To do this, I run computer model simulations of earth’s climate and ice sheets and compare the results with geologic data. I use these comparisons to understand what caused past changes to the ice sheets (for example, atmospheric or oceanic warming) and make predictions of how much sea level rise occurred during past warm periods.

Benjamin working on creating models while on the research vessel JOIDES Resolution. Photo by Mark Leckie.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

My research helps us understand the stability of ice sheets as the climate warms, which is one way we can improve predictions of sea level rise in the coming decades.

What are your data, and where do they come from?

For my research, I work with a lot of continuous climate records derived from ice cores and marine cores, which has been a great way to learn about those archives and given me some amazing opportunities to get involved with fieldwork. If you want to read more about that, you can find information on my blog

Another part of my work that I am passionate about is making science more equitable. In many ways throughout history, scientific discourse has been dominated by some voices at the expense of others. In the U.S. today this is exemplified by the over-representation of white men as professors, in leadership positions, and as award recipients. This hinders scientific progress and is harmful to our community. Science advances by testing new ideas and hypotheses, which is inefficient when not everyone is invited to the table to share their ideas. Unfortunately stereotypes, discrimination, and harmful working conditions (among other factors) have kept many brilliant people from pursuing scientific careers, and especially academic ones.

At UMass, I have been working with a group of graduate students to address this through BRIDGEBRIDGE is a program that encourages departments to identify and invite Scholars from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM who are early in their careers to participate in an existing departmental lecture series. We also ensure that we provide the Scholar with a platform to share their personal experiences with obstacles and opportunities in entering and remaining in academia, so that current graduate students are better equipped to navigate that process. This is a small but meaningful way to make sure that all scientists feel like they have role models who have had experiences they can relate to, and we have found that many graduate students do really benefit from it.

Three penguins watch the JOIDES Resolution drill ship from a large piece of sea ice. Benjamin sailed on this expedition to the Ross Sea in early 2018 (Credit: Gary Acton & IODP).

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

If you want to be a scientists then you should already start thinking of yourself as a scientist. The sooner you start experimenting with that identity and what it means to you, the better prepared you’ll be for actually doing science. I remember the first time I started meeting the “real scientists” whose papers I had obsessed over as an undergraduate. The idea of meeting these big names was overwhelming and intimidating and I doubted that I could ever occupy the same profession as them. Looking back at that almost ten years later, it’s clear to me that was a false distinction that only served to hold me back.

Being a scientist starts with being curious or interested in something and simply asking questions about it. How does it work? What happens if I do this? If you are asking those questions about anything, then you’re already thinking like a scientist, and you can do anything that a scientist can do. Some of those things that a scientist does are more exciting than others (doing experiments and taking measurements compared to writing grants, for example) but my advice would be to try all of it. Writing grants based on your own ideas is scary because there’s a potential for rejection, but it’s extremely important to try, and there’s no end to what you can learn through that process. It’s taken me a long time to understand that rejection of one of my ideas isn’t a rejection of my worth as a scientist; and conversely, when you apply for a grant or scholarship and you do get it, there’s an incredible feeling of validation and support.

So I would say get started as early as possible looking for opportunities to get rejected. Apply for everything you can. A lot of things won’t come through, and you have to learn to accept that. But other things will, and getting that recognition will not only be good for your self, it will pave the way for other opportunities and lead you to new research questions. And if you’re ever intimidated by an application, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have been there before – more often than not we are willing to support you through the process.