Dr. Rachel Lupien, Paleoclimatologist

Rachel working in the organic geochemistry lab.

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

My favorite part about being a scientist is learning something new every day. We get to ask and answer questions; some experiments are very large and involve many people and many years, and others are accomplished just by graphing our data in a new way. We also get to learn from our friends and colleagues, and from papers, talks, and lessons of the community. I really like my job because it is a great mix of field, lab, and computer work. I’m never bored, although some tasks are definitely tougher for me than others. Field work, conferences, and short courses have brought me all over the world, and this sort of travel is so exciting.

I’ve always looked for how to apply the things I’ve learned. I was good at math in school, but to me, applying those math skills to scientific questions was always more interesting. I thought I wanted to be a chemistry major at the beginning of college, but the Earth sciences incorporated the application of math, chemistry, physics, and biology to topics like volcanoes and earthquakes and climate change. I then studied geology, really digging into how the Earth moved over billions of years, but now I have further applied my scientific background to a topic that I find is absolutely crucial for us as a society to understand: climate change.

Rachel in Norway, where she was taking a sediment core from a lake.

What do you do?

I study the natural variations of climate in Africa over many millions of years to understand how environmental change drove human evolution. I analyze rainfall, plants, and other climate parameters by studying fossil molecules that are transported from land, buried, and accumulated over time in lake and ocean sediment. I then quantify the climate patterns over different time scales, and attempt to understand the relationship between our human ancestors (hominins) and their environment. I also make links with global climate changes to understand the sensitivity of the African environment to changes in solar radiation, greenhouse gases, ocean circulation and temperatures, and glacial-interglacial cycles. The past is the key to the future, and these connections will help us understand how this historically under-studied continent will respond to current and future global warming.

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

Rachel holding the real skull of a baby ape, named Nyanzapithecus alesi. This fossil is 13 million years old!

I am an organic geochemist working mainly with leaf wax biomarkers. These waxes (the shiny coating) are produced by plants to protect them from excess evaporation and physical damage. Eventually the waxes are transported to the bottom of a watershed, like a lake or the ocean, and preserved in the sediment. They are preserved because the waxes are comprised of long organic molecules, meaning a bunch of carbon and hydrogen atoms arranged in a row, which makes them resilient to weathering or degradation. Over time the waxes are preserved along with the lake/ocean sediment as it accumulates, and we go and take cores from these archives. We split open the sediment cores and do a long series of geochemical extractions in the organics lab. Finally, I measure the isotopes of both the hydrogen and carbon atoms in the leaf waxes, which are proxies for precipitation amount and plant type, respectively. I then plot these isotope data versus depth or age to understand how the climate changed over time, and do quantitative analyses to understand the cycles, shifts, and amplitudes of variability in the climate system over million-year, millennial, and centennial time scales.

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

I study and teach about past, current, and future climate change and the effects of climate change on evolution. Our human ancestors (and other animals) lived and depended on their environment, which was likely driven by natural oscillations in the climate system. By understanding environmental responses to climate, we can test various theories about the link between ecosystems and human evolution. This work gives us a better idea not only of how resources (habitat, food, land use) will change with future global warming, but also what characteristics of climate change human populations are likely to respond to. The rate at which the Earth is currently warming and changing is very important to understand when thinking about the human response, and reconstructing climate change in the past on these shorter time scales is something that I’m interested in focusing on in the future.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Rachel in Kenya, teaching a field course.

Disseminating your scientific findings is so important. If you put in a lot of work to your research, but can’t let the world know what you found, it’s not helping the public to its maximum potential. I was always such a math/science kid, even through college, and I didn’t realize the importance of being a creative, focused, clear, interesting writer. My advice for aspiring scientists would be to read and write often and to work on these as skills. No matter what scientific profession you end up in, including academia and industry, you will need to write succinctly for a wide audience. But no fear! I used to think I was a terrible writer and I really didn’t enjoy it, but it is something that I’ve practiced and improved upon over time.

Rachel is a postdoctoral research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. To learn more about her and her research, follow her on Twitter @loopdlupien or visit her website here.

 

Arsum Pathak, PhD Candidate & Climate Researcher

Collecting geospatial data on Cable Beach, Nassau, The Bahamas.

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

Being a scientist feeds my curiosity for the real world around us. As a climate researcher, I combine natural and societal systems in a social-ecological approach to explore a complex global issue – climate change. The more I learn about the interlinkages of the natural and social systems, the more I realize about their synergies, and the more fascinated I am by the world around us. And the fact that I get to travel to beautiful places definitely helps!

I have been interested in science ever since I can remember. From a young age, I enjoyed learning different subjects, however, science always seemed the logical choice for me. It constantly stimulated my curiosity and interests leaving a thirst for learning more that continues till date. Over the years, science has shaped me to be a logical thinker and problem solver and my love for the subject grows each day.

What do you do?

Example of hard infrastructure for coastal protection, Nassau, The Bahamas.

My research interest lies at the science-policy interface with a focus on climate change, sustainable development, and Small Island Developing States. I am particularly interested in exploring climate adaptation that is synergistic with the broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the coastal economies. My dissertation research employs a holistic theoretical lens of social-ecological systems that combines ecological and societal systems with the conceptual frameworks of vulnerability and resilience to guide climate adaptation and sustainable development. To understand these cross-cutting and complex concepts, I use a mixed-methods approach with a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods for data collection and analysis.

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

I use both primary and secondary data in a mixed-methods approach. For writing my dissertation, I utilized geospatial data, surveys, and interviews combined with secondary policy and planning documents to answer my research questions.

Overwater villas in a Maldives’ resort where average elevation is less than a meter.

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

Through my research, I aim to understand the ways how coastal communities will evolve and adapt in the face of future climatic change, particularly, rising sea levels and storm surge. My broader goal is to look for practical and creative solutions for climate adaptation that also supports the sustainable development of coastal areas.

Arsum is a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida. To learn more about her and her research, head to her website here

Rachel Kronyak, Planetary Geologist

I work as a Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. My job is very interdisciplinary but generally revolves around operating rover missions on Mars – the ultimate remote work experience! I’m involved in two Mars rover missions: the Curiosity rover and the Perseverance rover. Curiosity has been on Mars since 2012 and is still going strong! I help make decisions about what the rover is going to do, for example: where to drive to, what to take photos of, what to shoot the laser at. Being able to see brand-new, never-before-seen images of Mars is by far the best part of being on the Curiosity team!

 

The actual Perseverance rover undergoing final tests in the cleanroom at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Perseverance rover is NASA’s latest Mars rover that is scheduled to launch THIS summer and land on Mars in February 2021. We are very busy making preparations for surface operations for when Perseverance lands on Mars. This involves a lot of rover hardware testing to figure out how the rover will drill and collect rock and regolith samples. We’re also busy training the science team to be able to operate the rover smoothly once it lands. To do this, we’ve had a few field training exercises to simulate the rover operations procedures. Rover teams are made up of hundreds of scientists and engineers from all over the world, so teamwork and communication are the most important factors in making NASA missions successful.

An artist’s rendition of what the Perseverance rover will look like once it lands on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Since we can’t send people to Mars just yet, sending car-sized rovers is the next best thing to help us get closer to answering fundamental questions about the Red Planet: Did Mars host environments that may have supported life in the past? Did life ever evolve on Mars? How has Mars’ climate evolved over time? What can the geologic rock record on Mars tell us about ancient environments and how they’ve changed over time? How can we prepare to send humans to Mars?

Simulating Mars rover operations in the desert and also with a fully functional Earth model of the Curiosity rover.
Me in the field – simulating Mars rover operations in the desert and also with a fully functional Earth model of the Curiosity rover.

I first became interested in science and NASA when I was in high school and had the opportunity to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. A lifelong athlete, I really enjoy teamwork-oriented jobs, which is why jobs in mission operations have always appealed to me. My advice to young, aspiring scientists would be that if you find something that truly inspires you, pursue it! Meet new people, ask questions, and never stop exploring!

A photo of the countdown clock we have at JPL for Perseverance’s launch and landing. One of my favorite places at JPL.
The Curiosity rover in action on Mars, taking “selfies”. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The Curiosity rover in action on Mars, taking “selfies”. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Follow Rachel’s updates on her website, Twitter, or Instagram! Another website folks might be interested in: NASA’s Mars exploration website. It’s frequently updated with rover mission updates and has tons of info about past, present, and future missions to Mars: https://mars.nasa.gov/

Indah Ardiningsih, Chemical Oceanographer

My passion in science started in high school. After attending a workshop about nature conservation, I realized that we need science to gather more knowledge to live sustainably with nature.

Being a scientist led me to visit many places that I never imagined before. Last year, I got a chance to join an interdisciplinary research expedition to the Southern Ocean, and stepped on the frozen land of Antarctica for the first time. Visiting Antarctica was a life changing experience for me, and we shared the story of our research expedition in the NIOZ blog, click here to read more.

I am a doctoral student at the Royal Netherland Institute for Sea research (NIOZ) and currently working on iron (Fe) chemical speciation in the polar regions. I sample seawater to measure the concentration and binding strength of organic iron-ligand complexes in different environmental circumstances, in both the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. Ligands help make elements and nutrients available for life to use in biological processes. Learn more about ligands by clicking here.

Organic iron-binding ligands are naturally occurring organic compounds, which have strong binding strength for iron. These ligands can either be derived from land, as degradation products of organisms are washed into the sea by rain or rivers, or they can be an organic compound synthesized in situ by marine microbes. Organic ligands control marine dissolved iron concentrations by stabilizing the iron in solution by forming iron-ligand-complexes. Almost 99% of dissolved iron in oxic (oxygen rich) seawater occurs as such organic complexes. Without this ligand stabilization, iron precipitates and is not available for marine microbes, especially phytoplankton, which is the base of food web in the ocean and relies on iron as a required nutrient. 

Why do we study this in polar regions? The polar regions are undergoing rapid environmental changes due to global warming. These changes have caused alterations of many biogeochemical processes in the ocean, which eventually affects global iron biogeochemical cycling. As ligands play a vital role in determining dissolved-iron concentrations in seawater, the investigation of organic ligands is the key component to study the potential impact of warming polar region on iron cycling in the ocean, which in turn will have major impacts on the marine food webs.  

My advice for young scientists: Although your contribution to the world seems to be unseen, what you are doing is having a big impact on the future of humankind.

Follow updates on the Antarctic expedition FePhyrus II and Indah!

Md. Ibrahimul Bari, Aspiring Paleontologist

Holding my first discovered fossilised vertebra of a bovine.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? When a child starts to grow up he or she explores the world around him or her and finds interest among those things that they love. When I was a child I was so much obsessed with dinosaurs and fossils. I always wanted to know if there’s any dinosaur found in my country , to find the answer of this question I started to dig into science and found geology and paleontology are the main focus of my career.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? Currently I am a student completing a course on Disaster Management and environmental science at University of Dhaka and I am inquest of an international scholarship in geology to start my undergraduate studies. I am working on a project (Bangladesh Academy of Geological Sciences) to establish an organisation in my country Bangladesh for geology enthusiasts and to make the subject much familiar to all ages. Presently I teach young students about the basics of geology and paleontology.

Confirming the stratigraphy by splitting the rock.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Geology is a subject which works with several fields of natural sciences. On my project my goal is to make people aware about natural resources and to show how natural objects interplays in our life and society. From my aspect I believe these notions will make people to think differently and will change the prospective to see natural world.

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? Besides my project I am doing a research on Quaternary period fauna that may lived on the northern plains of Bangladesh. As I am always in search of rocks and fossils which tells a significant story. I usually collect data aka materials from the Holocene alluvium formation which are carried by the river during the flood. My focus is to pinpoint from where the fossil materials are originally originated and the geologic history because most geologists baffle to answer this question. Recently I am collecting mud of a subsurface hoping to study the palynology of the strata at the Department of Geology at the University of Dhaka soon.

Picture from my visit at University of Dhaka, Department of Geology

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? My only advise for the aspirants is to follow their own dreams and use the slim chances to uphold what they are capable of doing in their own field. Because if a dream is destroyed many discoveries and inventions got buried. The joy of discovering something is delicious and its worth to risk.

Md. Ibrahimul Bari is a Disaster Management Course student at the  University of Dhaka. Connect with Md. Ibrahimul Bari on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, or his organizational Facebook Page.

Thomas Dudgeon, Vertebrate palaeontology student

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favourite part about being a scientist is the constant thrill of discovery, and understanding more about the world we live in. I have always enjoyed learning new things, particularly about the natural world, and a great part about science is that it provides an environment full of people who are also just as interested in learning and understanding as I am.

An aspect of palaeontology that I find most exciting is that palaeontologists cannot simply study these animals in ‘the wild’ to see how they were behaving and interacting with their environment when they were alive. Instead, palaeontology is sort of like puzzle solving, where you need to look for clues in the fossil record to piece together the bigger picture of what these animals were like. It often astonishes me just how much detail researchers are able to pars out from the fossil record with new computational techniques, and paint an incredible picture of the diversity and complexity of the history of life on earth.

Champsosaurus CT scanning

What do you do? My current research focuses on the extinct reptile Champsosaurus, which lived from about 90 to 55 million years ago in what is now North America and Europe. These animals would have lived in freshwater rivers, and at a glance would have looked a lot like modern crocodiles, although they’re quite distantly related to one another. I recently completed my Masters degree studying Champsosaurus at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where I used medical X-ray computed tomography scanning (usually just called CT or CAT scanning) to describe the skulls of these animals in fine detail. This technology allows us to look inside the specimens without damaging them, just like how a doctor may use CT scanning to look inside a person without having to operate. With CT scanning, I described the bones of the skull of Champsosaurus in 3D, and identified some features that had never been seen before, such as an unusually structured middle-ear bone that was specialized to support the skull, rather than detect sound vibrations.

It also allowed me to describe the cavities that once held the brain, inner ear, nerves, and blood vessels, structures that had never been described before in much detail. I then used statistical comparative techniques to compare the inner ear of Champsosaurus (the organ that gives us the sense of balance and the ability to sense movement) to a variety of modern and extinct reptiles in order to get an idea of how Champsosaurus may have been moving when they were alive.

I found that the brain was typical of other closely related reptiles, and that the inner ear was very similar to modern aquatic reptiles, which provided new evidence that Champsosaurus spent most of its time in the water. Since graduating, I have been using computer modeling techniques to describe the geographic range of Champsosaurus in North America during the latest Cretaceous period to give us a better idea of where these animals may have lived at that time, even in areas were there are no sediments of the right age to preserve their fossils.

Dorsal view of a Champsosaurus skull

 

Dorsal view of a segmented virtual Champsosaurus skull

How did you get interested in your current research project? My interest in Champsosaurus arose through a combination of a few things. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in natural history, evolution, and life on Earth, but as with most kids, I had a particular interest in dinosaurs. When I began my Masters degree, I was entering the first phase of my life were I could finally study dinosaurs. I was enamoured with the topic that I was initially working on, describing the skull of the famous armoured dinosaur Ankylosaurus using CT scanning. Unfortunately, when we CT scanned the specimen about 4 months into my program, the specimen was just too large and dense for us to get usable data, and we couldn’t see any structures inside the skull at all. This meant that I needed to find a new project in order to finish my degree. My supervisors and I discussed several topics, most of which were also on dinosaurs, and my initial urge was pursue another dinosaur-related project. However, I was also intrigued by a similar project to my initial Ankylosaurus work, describing the skull of a small crocodile-like reptile called Champsosaurus using CT scanning. This was the first time I’d even heard of Champsosaurus, but after reading into the variety of topics more, I decided to go with Champsosaurus because I was fascinated with understanding the anatomy, evolution, and behaviour of these extinct animals, particularly because they are a relatively understudied animal when compared to some of their contemporaries like the dinosaurs and crocodilians. I was also excited by the tools I would get to learn in this project (working with CT data, and using computers and stats to describe shape variation in the inner ear). Although I am absolutely still interested in broadening my research into dinosaur palaeontology down the road, I’m glad I decided to go with the Champsosaurus for my Masters because it has given me an avenue to pursue exciting research in the future (and it also taught me the valuable lesson that palaeontology is far more than just dinosaurs!).

Champsosaurus CT scanning computer

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do
you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work
with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.?
For my Masters thesis research on the skull of Champsosaurus, the data I worked with primarily consisted of CT scans of specimens that were already in museum collections. The bulk of my work involved CT scans of two well-preserved skulls housed at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada, but for my analysis of the inner ear of Champsosaurus, I used CT data from 60 different species of modern and extinct reptiles and birds to compare the shape of their inner ears with Champsosaurus. These CT data came from museums and universities around the world, and I acquired the data either directly from other researchers, or from online databases like Morphosource (https://www.morphosource.org/) and Digimorph (http://digimorph.org/), two great resources for accessing CT data. Once I acquired the data, my work mostly took place on computers where I digitally reconstructed the inner ears of these animals so I could compare them with Champsosaurus.

How did you learn about the palaeoVC? What do you take away from the
conference?
I first heard about the PalaeoVC through my primary Masters supervisor, and a few other graduate students at my university. The first year of the conference I unfortunately wasn’t able to present because I was finishing up my degree, but this year I was able to, so I jumped at the chance. I thoroughly enjoyed the ease of the presentation submission, and I was happy to see the wide diversity of interesting projects happening around the globe. One aspect that impressed me was how interested the community was in engaging in conversation with one another, even though everything was online, and how supportive and positive people were of each other and their work.

How does the corona crisis affect your research and academic life? This summer, I’ve been working for the Canadian Museum of Nature as a student research assistant, and I’m fortunate enough that my work (scanning and transcribing field notes, and segmenting fossil CT data for the museum’s palaeontologists) can be done from home. In terms of my own research projects, the pandemic has certainly slowed things down. Some projects that I am involved in have been completely frozen until museums reopen, but it’s a necessary sacrifice to help flatten the curve. Those projects that have not frozen have slowed dramatically, but this is inevitable given that everyone’s lives have changed significantly since closures were put in place. One thing that I do miss is getting to see my friends and colleagues in person, but technology has thankfully allowed us all to keep in touch and caught up with each other, even if it’s not ideal.

Carrying a fossil in the field

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists and other early
career researchers?
For aspiring scientists, I would tell them to follow their passions and go down an avenue that they would want to pursue for their career. If there is something you love doing, and you can make a career of it, it’s the best of both worlds. I’d also add that they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to researchers, professors, or current students if they have any questions on applying to universities, or how they can enter the academic and research fields. Most people are happy to answer these questions, and aspiring scientists shouldn’t have to feel like they’re walking in the dark when trying to find out how to get started.

For other early career researchers, I would first and foremost ask them to please take care of themselves. I think we all know that academia naturally encourages people to push for a heavy workload, which is certainly a good thing in that it fosters an environment full of passionate and driven people. But if you work yourself to the point that you’re no longer getting enjoyment from what you’re doing, then you need to take a break. Most researchers and academics went into their field because they love doing what they do, and you want to make sure that you can hold on to that enthusiasm and excitement so that you can continue to enjoy your work for the rest of your career.

Follow Thomas’s updates on Twitter.

Mckenna Dyjak, Environmental Scientist & Geologist

Hello! My name is Mckenna Dyjak and I am in my last semester of undergrad at the University of South Florida. I am majoring in environmental science and minoring in geology. I have always been very excited by rocks and minerals as well as plants and animals. In high school, I took AP Environmental Science and realized I couldn’t picture myself doing anything other than natural sciences in college. While in college, I joined the Geology Club and realized that I loved geology as well. At that point it was too late in my college career to double major, so I decided to minor in geology instead. Since then, I have been able to go on many exciting field trips and have met amazing people that have helped further my excitement and education in geology. One of my favorite trips was for my Mineralogy, Petrology, and Geochemistry class that went to Mount Rogers in Virginia to observe rock types that would be similar to a core sample we would later study in class. Figure 1 below is a picture of me in Grayson Highlands State Park on that field trip! As you can see, my hiking boots are taped because the soles fell off. Luckily, some of my fellow classmates brought waterproof adhesive tape which saved my life.

Figure 2. University of South Florida Engineering Expo 2020 at EPC booth.

My favorite thing about being a scientist is that everyone has something that they are passionate and knowledgeable about. You can learn so many different things from different people and it is so fun seeing how excited people get about what they are most interested in. It is a great thing to be in a field where constant learning and relearning is the norm. I love to share what I know and learn from others as well. 

 As of now, I am doing an internship with the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County in the Wetlands Division. At the EPC we are in charge of protecting the resources of Hillsborough County, including the wetlands. An important part of what we do is wetland delineation (determination of precise boundaries of wetlands on the ground through field surveys) which requires a wide knowledge of wetland vegetation and hydric soils (soil which is permanently or seasonally saturated by water resulting in anaerobic conditions)! Once the wetland is delineated, permitting and mitigation (compensation for the functional loss resulting from the permitted wetland impact) can begin. Figure 2 below is a picture of me at the Engineering Expo at the University of South Florida explaining the hydrologic cycle to a younger student at the EPC booth!

Figure 3. Vibracore sampling at Whidden Bay, 2019.

Outside of environmental science, I have a passion for geology or more specifically, sedimentary geology. I have been fortunate enough to have amazing professors in my sedimentary classes and have discovered my love for it! I enjoy going on the field trips for the classes and expanding my knowledge in class during lectures. I am interested in using sedimentary rocks to interpret paleoclimate (climate prevalent at a particular time in the geological past)  and determining how past climate change affected surface environments. One really awesome field trip I got to go on was for my Sedimentary Environments class where we took core samples in Whidden Bay and Peace River. In Figure 3 I am in the water, knee deep in smelly mangrove mud, cutting the top of our core that we will eventually pull out and cap. I plan on attending graduate school in Fall of 2021 in this particular area of study.

The study and reconstruction of paleoclimate is important for our understanding of the natural variation of climate and how it is changing presently. To gather paleoclimate data, climate proxies (materials preserved in the geologic record which can be compared to what we know today) are used. I am interested in using paleosols (a stratum or soil horizon that was formed as a soil in a past geological period) as proxy data for determining paleoclimate. Sediment cores (seen in Figure 4) can also be used to determine past climate. The correlation between present day climate change and what has happened in the geologic past is crucial for our push to mitigate climate change.

Figure 4. Core sample from Figure 3.

I urge aspiring scientists to acquire as much knowledge they can about different areas of science because they are all connected! It doesn’t matter if it is from a book at the library, a video online, or in lecture. You also do not have to attend college to be a scientist; any thirst for knowledge and curiosity of the world already has you there.

Marie Boirot, Biologist & M.Sc. candidate in Palaeontology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favorite part is discovering something no one ever discovered before. It is exciting to know you are the first person seeing what you see ! There is so much left for us to discover. Something we take for the absolute truth today may be proven inaccurate in ten years. Science is constantly evolving, so we will always have a job! Also, the scientific and academic background are really helpful to develop the critical mind and not fall for answers too simple to be true (conspiracy theory, yay!).

What do you do?
I am finishing my wildlife management master’s degree under the supervision of Richard Cloutier at the Palaeontology and Evolutionary Biology Lab (at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, in Québec, Canada). My project consists of scanning fossil fishes skulls to see what’s inside! I work with super cool fishes, the lungfishes, that still exist today and are closest relative to all terrestrial vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds)!  My species are more than 380 million years old, that’s more than 130 million years BEFORE the first dinosaurs! I work on 3D-preserved skulls, which is relatively rare in fossils. I scanned them to see if their braincase was ossified or not, and their description helps untangle the relationships between fossil lungfishes !

How did you get interested in your current research project?
I met Richard during an undergraduate evolutionary biology class and he mentioned that he worked on lungfishes. I’m a big fan of lungfishes, particularly Neoceratodus, the Australian lungfish (it is too cute, it looks like it smiles all the time !) and I really enjoyed Richard’s class and way of teaching. As a joke, I told my brother that I would do a master with him (I wanted to do an oceanography master’s degree initially), but eventually I did ask Richard to join his lab! I followed my instinct rather than the thing I “was supposed to do” and I don’t regret it. He offered me several projects and I chose this one! I had never done palaeontology before, it is really challenging but so much fun to learn a whole new biology discipline.

What are your data and how do you obtain them? My material is five skulls of the lungfish Scaumenacia curta, endemic to the Escuminac Formation, in Miguasha, Québec, Canada, and one Pentlandia macroptera specimen, from the Orcadian Basin, in Scotland. I scanned the specimens with a micro-CT scan, which uses the same technology as a X-ray scanner at the hospital. Then I segmented on a computer my scans, which basically means I colored the interesting structures with a graphic tablet, and I extracted a 3D-model. For Scaumenacia, thanks to a peculiar preservation process called pyritization, I had enough information on the braincase to code for phylogenetic characters and add it to a matrix. The matrix is from Clement et al., 2016, and we modified it a little bit. It is really fun to do the process myself, from the enigmatic skull to a phylogeny including my data on the inside of this skull.

(Clement, A. M., Challands, T. J., Long, J. A., & Ahlberg, P. E. (2016). The cranial endocast of Dipnorhynchus sussmilchi (Sarcopterygii: Dipnoi) and the interrelationships of stem-group lungfishes. PeerJ, 4, e2539)

How did you learn about the palaeoVC? What did you take away from the conference? I learned about it during a lab meeting in January I think, and since I was finishing my results it was a wonderful opportunity to present them, even more with the coronavirus resulting in all physical conferences cancelled. I learned that it is possible to use palaeontology as an education tool for children and that it actually works! We often think fundamental science is “useless” in everyday life but it is really important to continue to expand our knowledge and more importantly to share it with non-scientist people! Also, the idea of a virtual international congress was really ahead of its time! Beside the corona crisis, the carbon impact of an international meeting is enormous, and we often don’t have time to see all the presentation we want. It is really clever to do this virtually.


How does the Coronavirus pandemic affect your research and academic life?
I finished writing the first complete draft of my thesis during the first two weeks of lockdown! All my social implications being cancelled, I had no other choice than write all day ! I did not have to go to the lab anymore so it did not stop me from working, even if I missed the university routine and separating work from home. I don’t have to complain, because many of my colleagues had to stop their researches because they did not have access to the equipment, and I can only imagine how frustrating it can be. Another meeting I was supposed to go to was cancelled, I am disappointed but it could have been much worse ! I could present here and it was a wonderful opportunity.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists and other early career researchers?
My first advice would be: do not do that for anyone except yourself. Science and research can be really challenging and you have to have a motivation and desire to learn to get through an entire 2-3-4 years project. Do not do it to prove something to someone, but because you really want to try it. On the other hand, if you really want to try doing research, go for it and do not let anyone tell you you are not good enough ! Passion is the only fuel, and there is no feeling like seeing your first results, getting a R script to work, or presenting your research!

Follow Marie’s work through her lab’s Facebook Page, her ResearchGate, or contact her via email (marie.boirot@ uqar.ca).

Marie is one of three early career paleontologists who won for best presentation at the 2nd Palaeontological Virtual Congress in 2020. Read more about the Congress here!

Kailey McCain, Interdisciplinary Natural Sciences Undergraduate

Kailey hiking in the Nantahala National Forest in December, 2019.

Hello, my name is Kailey and I’m a Junior at the University of South Florida majoring in interdisciplinary natural sciences, with an emphasis on geology, chemistry, and biology. Most people are surprised by my degree, and I get a lot of questions about the interdisciplinary aspect. As a future scientist, I believe it is critical to have an interdisciplinary approach to solve problems. Sir Francis Bacon, developer of the scientific method, urged not only scientists, but all people, to remove the lens they look at problems through and take into consideration the myriad of perspectives. To me, my degree embodies that. 

Upon graduation I plan on pursuing a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology and my research interests are centered around dissecting the effects anthropogenic factors, or human activity, have on disease prevalence and transmission. 

What is your favorite aspect about being a scientist?

Graphic explaining the difference between primary (original research) and secondary evidence (syntheses, summaries).

Growing up, I always had an insatiable curiosity about life and our world. That curiosity has ranged from why we have an atmosphere to how human activity has caused harm, not only to our climate, but to all of ecology. I found that studying natural sciences challenges me, but rewards me by answering those questions.

Another aspect of science I love is the community that being in the sciences gives you! As a young woman, it is incredibly motivating to see such a diverse set of individuals working towards one common goal: expanding the knowledge of humankind. Before I immersed myself into the community, it was hard to see myself as a scientist. This was due to a lack of representation of female scientists; however, now I know that I can be whoever I want and I hope to show other young girls that too.

As to how I got interested in science, I originally went into college as planning on pursuing medicine,  but after taking a history of life course through the Geosciences department, my whole trajectory changed. I suddenly found myself so excited for the lecture and I started asking questions that didn’t have concrete answers, and that captivated me. I always wanted to help people and the world, and becoming a research scientist seemed to fit that more so than anything else.

How does your research and education contribute to the understanding of climate change and to the betterment of society?

By studying the ways in which human activity affects wildlife diseases, scientists are able to predict what our future world will look like, attempt to change the trajectory of diseases, and protect some of the world’s most amazing ecosystems. I also think it’s important to expand on this catch all term “human activity”. This can include, but is not limited to, deforestation, climate change, light pollutants, and habitat fragmentation. All of these actions are intertwined in how we look at protecting the world’s ecosystems, while still allowing for human development.

3D scan of Gyrodes abyssinus, which is Late Cretaceous in age (~100-66 million years ago).

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

I am currently working on a systematic review of all the meta-analyses (I’ll explain what this means below) on Toxoplasma gondii, which is a type of parasite that is predominantly found in cats and humans. The data collected for this study is not found in the field or even the lab, but in other scientific publications, which is why we call it a meta-analysis! My job is to find all studies that are relevant and point out potential positive correlations between the data for other researchers to explore further.

I am also currently interning at a 3D visualization lab scanning paleontological collections (fig. 2)! The purpose of 3D scanning is to digitize collections that can be shared to people all over the world.The softwares utilized are Geomagic Wrap and Zbrush.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

My advice to aspiring scientists is to not give up! As an undergrad, is it incredibly difficult to remove this level of perfection we place on ourselves, but it is necessary. Everyone has messed up, everyone has failed a test, and no one is perfect. Your well being and mental health is more important than any grade. 

Another piece of advice is to always try. There have been countless opportunities that I could have had, but I was too scared of rejection. At the end of the day, rejection is a part of life (especially the academic life).

 

Baron Hoffmeister, Environmental Scientist & Geologist

Baron in the Calhan Paint Mines in Calhan, CO.

Hey there! My name is Baron Hoffmeister and I am a graduating senior at the University of South Florida. I am pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in  Environmental science with a minor in geology. I have always been drawn to the outdoors, and extremely curious about nature and how things work. When I decided to attend college I knew that I wanted to study something related to science. I decided to pursue environmental science as I became extremely interested in climate change and resource management.  In my junior semester at USF, I went on my first geology field trip to Fort de Soto Park in St. Petersburg, Florida. This was for USF’s Sedimentary Environments course and the goal of the trip was to study common sedimentary structures associated with barrier island formations. On this field-trip, we explored the barrier islands that make up Fort de Soto park and in several locations took pound core samples and dug trenches. In figure 1 you can observe some of the pound core samples taken from various parts of Fort De Soto Park. This is one of many useful methods that sedimentologists use to understand depositional history within a small region. This hands-on field experience left an impact on me and I immediately fell in love with geology. I was so far along in my environmental science program that it didn’t make sense to switch majors, so I chose to pick up a minor in geology instead. Fortunately, the majority of the geology courses I have taken all allowed me to take trips and participate in fieldwork relating to the courses. Most importantly, each of my professors expresses such a profound passion for geology that it is infectious and this has been instrumental in my admiration for geology. 

Pound core samples from Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg, FL.

My favorite part about being a scientist is that it allows me to spend time outdoors learning about the environment and the process that takes place that shapes the world we live in. This has always driven my passion for science and has carried over into my personal life. Any opportunity that I can find to go and explore nature I jump at. Figure 2 is a photo from my last trip to Colorado where I had the chance to explore the Calhan Paint Mines and study the large clay deposits in this region. It was very cold and windy that day. I believe with the windchill the temperature that day was in single digits. There was also a brief snow shower that rolled through and covered the entire park in a fresh layer of snow while we were there. After living in Florida for the past five years it was nice to finally see some snow again! 

Currently, I am interning for a contract management group before I apply to graduate school for sedimentary geology to start in the Fall of 2021.  I am interested in studying sedimentary geology and its relation to paleoclimate. Specifically, I am interested in how past climates have affected the rates of sedimentation and carbon cycling. I want to use this information to understand how current climate change patterns affect carbon cycling and sedimentation throughout the world. Science communication is critical for sharing ideas, research, and for education, but it is also crucial for being a great scientist. That’s why I have decided to write for Time Scavengers. I am excited about this learning process and the opportunity to educate others about geology, and understanding climate change!

I would tell any aspiring scientist to work hard and pursue an education, even if it is through your own efforts and experience.