Maddie Gaetano, PhD Candidate

I’m currently a third year PhD candidate in the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati. I completed my undergraduate degree in geology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. My primary field of study is conservation paleobiology, which applies practices and methodologies of paleontology to the preservation and conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems.

How did you get interested in science in general? I spent a lot of my childhood in the Adirondack Park region of Upstate New York, an area in which continued environmental preservation and conservation is a priority. A degree in environmental or earth science was really appealing to me because of my connection with the Adirondacks. I was introduced to conservation paleobiology by my undergraduate research advisor. I love that this field combines the practice of conservation with the field of paleontology, as it connects my personal interests with work that is hopefully contributing to a broader positive impact.

What do you do?  I study the headgear grown by female ungulates (hooved mammals). Headgear, like antlers grown by deer and horns grown by bovids, are typically thought of as something males use as a weapon or display when competing over mates. However, many different female ungulates also produce headgear, even though they don’t typically participate in mate competition like the males do. As a result, we don’t fully understand why female ungulates grow headgear, though it could be attributed to defense against predators, competition over limited food resources, or even as a visual mimicry of young male calves to deter against aggressive adult males. To better understand the evolutionary pressures driving female ungulate headgear growth, I focus on the antlers grown by female caribou.

Interested in learning more about this research? A part of this project was summarized in a Paleo News post

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? A large part of my research relies on shed caribou antlers from the spring calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in Alaska. These antlers have been collected over the course of about 8 years, using surveys completed across the area where female caribou give birth each year. Female caribou shed their antlers within days of giving birth, so calving grounds accumulate years and years of primarily female antlers. I’m interested in the consumption of these shed antlers by female caribou. When animals bite or gnaw a bone, they often produce characteristic bite patterns on the surface of the remaining bone. I evaluate those bite marks that we see on antlers and other bones to determine what kind of animal (carnivore, rodent, or caribou) has consumed that bone. This helps us to understand the diets of different animals, including caribou, as well as how they might compete with other animals over available bone resources.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favorite part about being a scientist is that I get to ask really interesting questions. I think there’s a misconception that science is all about generating answers. However, I have found that projects and papers are most exciting when they create even more questions than we had before. It’s very rewarding to find one of those new questions that frames your work in a slightly different perspective and allows it to evolve. I also love brainstorming about these big questions with my peers. Everyone has a different set of skills and expertise, so even an hour long conversation with a group of excited collaborators can advance a project by huge leaps!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? I would suggest that you read as much as you can about the topics that interest you, whether it be in books, scientific journals, blog posts by other scientists etc. Really critically evaluate each piece, write down questions you have, interesting methodologies used, or ideas that are sparked. Finally, if you consistently connect with research done by a specific scientist or lab group, I would reach out to them and ask to talk about your questions or their work in general. Most scientists I know are very enthusiastic when someone takes an interest in their work, and would be more than happy to help you reach your personal goals, whether that be learning about a new topic or pursuing a degree or career in their field.

Blandine Hautier, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s graduate

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hi! My name is Blandine, and I am a master’s graduate in vertebrate paleontology. I specialise on dinosaurs (taphonomy, histology). I did my geology bachelor’s degree in Lille (France) with an Erasmus+ mobility in Tomsk (Russia), followed by a master’s degree in paleontology done in Lille for the first year, and an Erasmus mobility in Bonn (Germany) for the second, with my master’s thesis. Outside of paleontology, I am interested in modern Japanese literature, gothic fiction, taking care of plants and animals. But to be honest, I’m having the most fun when I’m in a museum! 

Posing in front of (from the left to the right) Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Edmontosaurus skull casts, on display at the “Big, Bigger, Dinosaurs” exhibition in Bonn (Museum Koenig).

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My career is only beginning, and I like to try out everything related to paleontology. 

For my master’s thesis, I had a research project on green-colored dinosaur bones from Utah (USA). The remains belonged to several diplodocines (large long-necked dinosaurs), and an unusual fossilization turned them green. Histology (study of bones microstructures) is a technique which has many uses, one of them being the determination of the age of an animal by the observation of its bone tissues. This method is particularly useful in bonebeds where dinosaur remains have been mixed because of river flows (for example). Through the observation of bone sections under the microscope, I could determine that the diplodocine remains came from animals of different ages, which meant several dinosaurs’ carcasses were mixed in the quarry.

Before that, during my bachelor’s, I learned dinosaur bone preparation in the vertebrate paleontology laboratory of the Tomsk State University. It’s a tedious work, but you really learn a lot by preparing the fossils by yourself. There are so many details you can miss when you observe a bone taken out of its context! The surrounding sediments, the geometry of the deposition, the state of preservation of the remains… all those clues are very important when doing a paleontological investigation! I see things in this way: a vertebrate paleontologist is often like a medical examiner in a murder case. When the body is removed from the crime scene, they are able to tell the cause of death, but not who killed the victim. To get the whole picture, we need the crime scene as well. For paleontologists, this corresponds to the quarry/bonebed, or at least the sediments around the bones. This is what field excursions, and thorough documentation on excavations are for!

Sitting on the left of a Titanosaurus vertebra (circled in orange) we discovered with my friend Lisa Garbé (on the right) in Russia with the paleontological laboratory from the Tomsk State University

During the bachelor years I had in Lille, I worked as a curating assistant for the geology department of the Museum of Natural History, and helped organising several public outreach events, giving talks on the need of paleontology in our societies to understand today’s climate emergency.

A few months ago, I helped dismantling the “Big, Bigger, Dinosaurs” exhibition at the Museum Koenig in Bonn, and returning to this kind of environment after a 3 years break felt really good. Since then, I occasionally help setting up and dismantling exhibitions around dinosaurs, and it is so much fun! (PS: I created an instagram account to try to share the behind the scenes of dinosaur research and exhibitions… @dinosaurs_forensics 😉 )

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? When I was a child, I developed an interest for bones early on. I would collect bones and skulls from diverse animals I would find in the fields, clean and sort them in different categories. As my mother thought this was a horrible hobby for a little girl, she got rid of my collection as soon as she found out it was not a short-lived interest. I then moved on to snail shells, but this collection was really stinky, and ended up in the trash like the former one. To me, keeping those bones and shells were like preserving memories of what once was. I wanted to understand what had happened to those animals, and their remains were a way to find out. One day, a friend of my parents showed them a plant fossil. It was a trace of a thing that lived in the past, it was beautiful, did not stink.. and my parents liked it? From that moment on, I started asking questions about fossils and collecting them. My dad brought me to the Museum of Natural History in Lille, and there I could show my treasures, get answers about them, and see which stories could be uncovered through fossil remains. I decided I would become a paleontologist one day. Growing up, I received a great support from my dad, one museum curator, and three school teachers who encouraged me to follow my passion, despite everyone around saying that I would “never make it” in paleontology.

My favorite parts about being a scientist are to question the current knowledge, go on field excursions to look for fossils in places where nature has been untouched, and also try to close the gap between scientists and the public. In the same way older people made me want to do paleontology and pushed me to follow my dreams, I want to transmit the knowledge and will to understand our world to younger generations. I love speaking to kids, grandparents, families who want to know about what was, and what  extinct forms of life can tell us about our present and future.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? Dinosaurs make kids and adults dream and wonder, and even if this field of paleontology can be considered as “less meaningful” regarding climate change than micropaleontology as an example, I like researching about them just for the sake of knowledge. Why did they look this way? What were their habits? Why were they so big?

Holding a real piece of a limb bone of the “Arapahoe” sauropod during the dismantling of the Museum Koenig’s exhibition

I believe there is nothing wrong in trying to answer questions which do not appear as  “useful” for today’s societies. All questions deserve to be answered. On the other hand, understanding dinosaur’s ecology, biology, environment and habits definitely help us refine the knowledge we have about evolution and other aspects of the living.

Dinosaurs are also useful in another way: as they are part of the worldwide pop-culture, they are very often the first step into paleontology for many people. Through dinosaurs, it is possible to speak to people about fossils, geology, evolution, extinction events. As a result, for public outreach, scientists (including me) use them as an introduction to topics such as climate change. That’s why so many scientific articles use “dinosaur” in their title, even when those animals are not involved in the paper.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists?  “Do or do not. There is no try.” if you want to do science, go for it. Do your best, always, and if it does not work, you won’t have any regrets because you did all you could to make it happen. And when obstacles will come along the way, never forget that for each problem there is a solution. If you have passion, you will get to meet similar-minded persons who will help you reach your goals, and you will end up finding your spot in this field. 

If you are a LGBTQ+, disabled, POC or woman-identifying person: there is space for you in science. Together, we should and will make this environment a safer place, where we all can grow equally. We need diversity, please don’t give up on your dreams. 

Follow Blandine’s updates on Research Gate and Instagram.

Taking a break to observe the landscape during a field excursion in Siberia.

Danijela Dimitrijević, Paleobiologist

Figure 1. The happiness of discovering a fish fossil form the Upper Jurassic in the Wattendorf quarry, Germany.

Hi! I’m Danijela, a first year PhD student at FAU University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. I am from Serbia, but I have been living in Germany since 2018 when I started a master’s degree in Paleobiology at FAU. 

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My research is all about corals and reefs through time. I study the evolution of scleractinian corals also known as stony corals, from the time when they first appeared in the mid Triassic, around 250 million years ago until today. I am so happy to be working on these super organisms because everything about them is fascinating – their biology, ecology, and geology. They build coral reefs in shallow tropical seas which harbour the highest diversity of organisms in the ocean. They also live in a mutually beneficial relationship with tiny algae which perform photosymbiosis while living within the coral’s soft tissue and provide corals with 90% of necessary nutrients. Corals are also hunters at night, and some of them can live at depths of thousands of meters. Unfortunately, their future fate and the fate of many organisms that live on reefs and depend on them are also affected by the climate change and other anthropogenic disturbances such as pollution and overfishing. I could talk for hours about how cool are corals and reefs they form, and how we need to do everything we can to keep them from disappearing, so I have been lucky that this semester I have been given the opportunity to teach the course on geobiology of reefs to our Master students (in English of course!). 

Figure 2 Filming a video as a part of the Science communication class. You can watch the video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLXlfYpRxaY

For my research, I am particularly interested in how their morphological characters changed through time and if their extinction risk was related to changes in their traits. For example, in my Master thesis I looked at changes in corallite diameter through time. Corallite is a skeletal cup in which the coral polyp sits. The size of the corallite could be related to their efficacy of obtaining nutrients and I was interested to see if this change was related to major warming events or reef crises in Earth’s history. This would help us predict their future fates under global warming scenarios. For this kind of research, we used datasets such as the one we created by collecting data from the literature into the database called ART which stands for Ancient Reef Traits. This database has been built for the past two years by the team of scientists at Paleo group at FAU and soon will become available to everyone. 

Figure 3 Doing field work on Silurian reefs of Gotland Island, Sweden. I am the very concentrated person on the left 🙂

How did you become a palaeontologist? Unlike many paleo people, my story of getting into the paleo world is untraditional one. I wasn’t into dinosaurs when I was little, and I didn’t even know much about palaeontology until a few years ago. However, I always loved nature and all its wonders, and have been fascinated by both the biology and Earth’s history. In high school I was also interested in social sciences and languages so choosing a bachelor’s degree was very difficult for me. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make because at the time I believed that I would have to be forever stuck in the chosen field. But I actually switched fields several times. I started by studying a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at University of Belgrade in Serbia. Then, I did a master’s degree in applied ecology (IMAE) which was funded by the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program, and it meant that I had to change universities during the two years. It was one of the best experiences of my life – not only did I get the opportunity to study at Universities in France and Portugal, but I have also met many amazing people and made friends for life. Within this program we got to go on a month-long field trip in Ecuador and experience and study different ecosystems. From hiking at 4000 meters in the Paramo ecosystems in the Andean mountains, over living in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, to swimming with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands. After all these experiences I was sure I wanted to be a scientist. My master thesis was about the diet of Antarctic penguins (no, I didn’t get to go there) and at the time I was in search of a PhD program where I could get the opportunity to go to the Antarctic and study penguins. However, during that search I also stumbled upon several palaeontology projects, and I was simply drawn to it. Palaeontology as a field offered so much more than contemporary ecology – it was the intersection of ecology, biology and geology and many other fields and it felt just right for me. Since I didn’t have any formal education in palaeontology, I wanted to learn more about it. So, to the shock of many I decided not to do a PhD, but to do another master’s degree in Paleobiology. It was maybe one of the hardest decisions I made and it set back my scientific career by a few years, but it was definitely the right one! I am now grateful to myself that I was brave enough over the course of years to follow my heart and change fields! 

Figure 4 Exploring the Galapagos Islands was so much fun!

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My message to young prospective scientists is that it’s never too late for anything in life and especially not for pursuing your passion. I still believe that having to choose a career path when you are 19 years old (or even a bit older) is way too early. So, give yourself a time if you need to explore your interests. Most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be stuck in a box – being interdisciplinary and having many different skills are the great advantages for a scientist. So, believe in yourself and just follow your own path, because doing what you love is the greatest reward of all.

Figure 5. Example of a corallite skeleton within coral colony. Photo accessed from https://www.istockphoto.com/de/foto/coral-struktur-gm950047064-259317766

Follow Danijela’s updates on Twitter, Research gate, and her website.

Haley Boles, Undergraduate Student and Astrobiologist

This is a picture of me at the Stennis C. Space Center on Feb. 21, 2018. I’m standing in front of the A-1 test stand where I had the opportunity to watch a hot fire test of one of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) engines (RS-25) where the engine reached up to 113 percent thrust level.

Hi!  My name is Haley and I’m an undergraduate researcher at the University of Florida (UF) pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Cell Science.  Before transferring to UF, I received my A.A. from Santa Fe College. 

What do you do? I perform research in the field of astrobiology, the study of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how might humans detect it. A common strategy for determining whether a planet used to, or currently does, contain extraterrestrial life is to look for biosignatures.  A biosignature is anything that provides scientific evidence of past or present life.  Rocks on Earth are commonly used for testing and validating biosignature detection strategies.  However, rocks on Earth don’t perfectly match up to the rocks we would see on other planets, specifically Mars.  One of the differences between the rocks on Earth and the rocks on Mars is that the rocks on Mars’ surface are much older (> 3.5 Ga) than those on Earth’s surface.  This major age difference brings into question how accurate our Earth-sourced Martian analogs are.  In order to address this question, my research focuses on how effective a specific biosignature detection strategy called tetramethylammonium hydroxide (TMAH) thermochemolysis is at detecting organic molecules in rocks ranging from 1.1-3.2 Ga. 

An average day in lab for me. Running a sample through the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) and analyzing the resulting chromatographs.

My research directly supports multiple NASA astrobiology missions; however, its biggest impact is seen when interpreting the data gathered by NASA’s Curiosity rover which landed on Mars in 2012.  Curiosity has performed TMAH thermochemolysis on Martian rocks and the data from this experiment has been downlinked back to Earth.  My research directly helps the scientists at NASA interpret this TMAH thermochemolysis data. 

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Understand and accept that science requires perseverance.  Nothing about science is easy, but if you can persist in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success, you will go a long way

This is me in front of the biosafety cabinet where I inject internal standards into my samples before running them through the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS).

Paolo Abondio, Research Fellow, Molecular Anthropology & Population Genomics

The “masked scientist” in front of the Institute of Anthropology entrance at the University of Bologna, where he performs his bioinformatic magic with human genetic data.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I currently am a Research Fellow at the University of Bologna, where I participate in several projects pertaining human evolution and environmental, as well as biocultural, adaptation. My main occupation is developing and implementing computational, analytical, and statistical methods for large-scale genetic datasets, in order to infer population composition, relationships, dynamics and instances of adaptation due to natural selection. I mainly handle data produced from modern human groups, but also integrate ancient DNA to provide a temporal framework and disentangle episodes of adaptive introgression, where the genetic elements providing evolutionary advantage have been acquired through admixing events with the cousin populations of Homo sapiens (Neanderthals and Denisovans). As part of a team in the highly interdisciplinary field of anthropology, we are trying to answer human-related questions from several viewpoints, integrating molecular expertise with socio-cultural perspectives, as well as geo-archeological and linguistic data. The methodology that we employ is very flexible and can be easily applied to any other living (or extinct) population, provided that reasonably good quality DNA can be recovered.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? I have been interested in science since middle school, where biology and maths were my favourite subjects. I actually started a degree in Physics, but later realized that I wanted to study something more real, concrete and “dirty”, so I switched to Biological Sciences and graduated with a thesis in Biophysics. During my undergraduate degree, I have been particularly fascinated by two courses, Anthropology, and Introductory Bioinformatics (an emerging discipline in Italy at that time). I decided to enroll in an International Master’s Degree in Bioinformatics (something only two Italian universities were offering), where I graduated with a thesis in Molecular Anthropology, studying the differential composition of the Italian population in terms of ancestry and possible adaptive pressures. I then pursued a PhD in Earth, Life and Environmental Sciences, again focusing on human evolution and adaptation to changing environments, dietary influences, socio-cultural and linguistic isolation, as well as the evolution of cultural and behavioral traits in the context of genetic variation. Lately, I am broadening my academic interests towards issues that are close to my heart: neurodegeneration, science education/communication, conservation biology and public health in minority groups. And this is what I love about being a scientist: being able to blur disciplinary boundaries while working at the cusp of knowledge, towards novel fields of study.

The “masked scientist” in front of the poster he is presenting at the XVI National Congress of the Italian Society of Neurology for Dementias. Here, population genomic methods have been applied to contextualize and estimate the age of a rare mutation causing Alzheimer’s disease in Southern Italian families.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Based on personal experience, my advice for the new generation of scientists it would be this: if you want to pursue a career in any field, you must believe in yourself, be fierce and fearless, and know that there are no limits to what you can do. Be patient and open-minded: you will have to deal with despicable people, but also with the greatest and most generous minds you will ever meet. The future of science (and of all other academic fields) is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, so think big, be bold and try to stretch your brain and the boundaries of knowledge as far as you can.

Sara Todorovic, Paleoclimatologist, Ph.D. candidate

The Coral Climatology team, a group of three women and one man standing in front of a brick building with glass windows.
Photo of the Coral Climatology team – (left to right) Sophie Zweifel, former intern; Marie Harbott, doctoral candidate; Dr. Henry Wu, work group leader; and me.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Hi everyone! I am a doctoral candidate at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research in Bremen, Germany. After graduating in Ecology at the University of Belgrade in Serbia, I finished a MSc in Marine Environment and Resources (MER Erasmus Mundus) at the University of Southampton, University of Liege, and University of Basque Country. Finally, I decided to pursue research in paleoclimate reconstructions in order to improve our knowledge of modern climate change and ocean acidification. I am a part of the Coral Climatology group led by my supervisor Dr. Henry Wu, and funded by the Make our Planet Great Again research initiative, a joint project of France and Germany to tackle modern climate change through research related to Earth system science, climate change and sustainability, and energy transition.

What research are you doing for your PhD? For our research, we use cores drilled from massive tropical corals like Porites (but don’t worry, they are not hurt by this). Only the top few millimeters of the coral is alive, the rest is all skeleton – an intricate rock made of aragonite, as coral polyps keep growing. Cores we work on were drilled during past expeditions so our project is kept more sustainable. After the cores are drilled, the holes are filled so the coral can keep growing safely without fears of other animals infesting it. My project is focusing on the South Pacific area which is  home to the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), the largest persistent precipitation band in the Southern Hemisphere. The climate of this area is modulated by large-scale ocean-atmospheric interactions (El Niño/Southern Oscillation, Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation), which also impacts regional seawater CO2 absorption and pH variability.

Coral slab microsampling
Photo of me microsampling one of the coral slabs in our lab.

The cores are transported to our coral climatology lab in Bremen, slabbed and washed, X-rayed and CT-d. The scans help us see the annual bands, similar to tree rings, that help us determine how old the corals are to connect our data to points in time, but also help us establish the best sampling path so our data isn’t impacted by corals turning sideways or protruding from the slab etc. Coral skeletal microsamples are then drilled continuously and analyzed for many trace elements and isotopes for hydroclimate and sea surface temperature reconstructions (δ18Oc and sw, Sr/Ca, Li/Mg, U/Ca, Sr-U), while δ13C, B/Ca, and δ11B analysis allows for the reconstruction of surface seawater carbonate chemistry changes and pH variability. It’s truly a lot of work, one core has approximately around 2000 mm samples to be analyzed with two different methods, and then around 250-350 annual samples with a third method.

Boxes of samples
Collection of samples (around a 1000 of them at least) from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in NY, USA to be shipped to Bremen for analysis. 

In this geologically short period of only 300 years or so, important changes have happened in how us humans use natural resources and affect the environment. Our coral-based reconstructions provide monthly to annual data to describe this change as corals have lived through it for hundreds of years, one of them dating back to 1770AD, much before the first instrumental measurements started!  

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Working in science is not a straight line and not easy. When you love what you do, it’s easy to lose boundaries and let it consume you too much. Science is also not only academia, and I am learning myself that there are many options out there. The pressure of short contracts in academia, multiplying deadlines and no work-life separation has led me to burn out before.

Sample preparations for analysis.
Ten samples is all we can analyze in a day for d11B isotope ratios and annual pH reconstruction.

I like to balance my work life with doing sports and running (I am a proud two-time half marathon finisher so far, but I am no stranger to an occasional Netflix marathon either). I am also a big foodie, and whenever work gets a bit too much, baking a cake fixes it. Try to keep in mind that you’re in for a marathon and not for a short race. 

Learn more about Sara and her lab’s research on their website here!

Noel Hernandez Gomez, Paleontologist in Training

A photo of Noel Hernandez sitting on top next to a river coming from a waterfall in the middle of a valley in Mackay Idaho during a field work excursion.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, I am an aspiring scientist from birth who loves the outdoors and hopes to make a difference in the world. When I’m not doing research, I prefer to spend my time going out and seeing new things, whether that’d be a new nature trail, or a fun night with friends, there is always something to enjoy about life, which is why I have a strong passion for helping the world and all its beauty.

I am currently an undergraduate student at the University of South Florida, on my senior year for a Geology B.S., I have plans to go to Grad school in the future, and hopefully attaining a PhD as my career progresses. My focus is paleontology, and all the research I have done so far is on invertebrate animals, more specifically on crinoid evolution and echinoderms. I am currently performing research on a growth series of eight samples of Erisocrinus typus lead by Whitney Lapic and with the help of Dr. Sarah Sheffield and a previous study of hers. We mostly focus on reading past studies from many authors that talk about the species we are dealing with and examining samples to understand how these animals used to grow. Our goal is to have a publication on this by the end of the year. My goal is to keep doing research such as this for the foreseeable future and perhaps focus on other part of paleontology as well, not just confined to invertebrates.

As discussed previously, my main goal as a scientist is to make a difference in the world, and I chose to do so by studying our past. Growing up, I was surrounded by a country drowned in conflict and turmoil, I took these experiences as motivation to change this, not just for my country, but for the entire world. The change that needs to occur for a better tomorrow, starts with the right information, and science is the pursuit of this information, all facets of science are bound by this uniting principal. My work does not have obvious major implications for our society, but understanding the development of ocean creatures, even those of hundreds of millions of years ago can have contextual importance to our understanding of the oceans today and how global climates have changed in the past. Paleontology focuses on gaining an understanding of the past so that we can have an idea of what our future holds.

A contribution that I hope to make to the scientific community is to facilitate the exchange of information between English speaking scientists and Spanish speaking ones, since my native language is Spanish, and I am fluent in it, my hope is to broaden the range in which paleontology can be talked about and end the age of Eurocentrism for science.

For any up-and-coming scientist, whether they are paleontologists, or any other kind of scientist, I would strongly advise to never limit yourself due to your expectations of what you should be. Scientists are talked about as these unreachable and mighty individuals that hold the infinite knowledge of everything, and this notion can make it difficult sometimes to get in contact with professors or mentors, but the reality is that scientists are just humans, who aren’t perfect, and are just as capable as anyone else, don’t have reservations about reaching out to the members of your college or the faculty of your university, there is always a need for bright minds.

Brittany N. Price, Paleoclimatologist

Brittany, a brown-haired woman, wearing PPE while working on a gas bench in Northern Illinois Universities Stable Isotope Laboratory.
Brittany wearing personal protective equipment while working on a gas bench in Northern Illinois University’s Stable Isotope Laboratory

Similar to many children, I was always fascinated by volcanos! The dynamic way in which they change the landscape inspired me to pursue a degree in geology. While this interest and appreciation of volcanoes has never faded, a new specialty piqued my interest in my second year at university – Paleoclimatology. The idea that the past climate history of the earth could be reconstructed over millions of years by analyzing the chemical makeup of microfossils preserved in oceanic sediments quickly made me alter my focus, and subsequently my entire career trajectory! I spent the next three years working in the Paleoclimatology and Stable Isotope Geochemistry labs at the University of Miami to prepare forams (microfossils) from the Gulf of Papua (off the coast of Papua New Guinee) for stable oxygen and carbon analysis to better understand the influence of sea level, as well as variability in the East Asian Monsoon system in the western Tropical Pacific.

Fast forward almost 15 years and I am nearing the completion of my PhD. I now focus on terrestrial records that I use to assess variability in hydroclimate dynamics (i.e. rainfall) over the Holocene around the Pacific Ocean Basin. My current projects include a wide variety of locations and proxy data, from establishing chronologies of glacial advancement and recession in the South-Central Chilean Andes, to carbonate isotope reconstructions from small lake basins in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Moving forward I hope to work on better constraining the roles that aridity and convection play in the global hydroclimate system through the use of stable isotopes, as well as to reconstruct better land-based temperature proxy records. It is truly amazing to witness the analytical advances that have been made even during my relatively short career as a geoscientist!

Brittany, wearing full PPE including a face shield, working to decant hydrofluoric acid from samples used for cosmogenic chlorine-36 dating.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring geologists it would be that no two paths look that same, so it is best not to compare yourself to others! There are so many interesting careers in our discipline, and it is alright to explore them. After I completed my undergraduate education, I continued on for my Masters in Geology. While I had wanted to work on terrestrial sediment cores, I ended up working on a basin analysis project using seismic reflection data. Having this skill set opened avenues that I hadn’t originally considered for myself, and led to a job offer and a career working in the oil and gas industry for 8 years. However, I realized that I was still truly inspired and passionate about Paleoclimatology, and that I still had so much more I wanted to learn. I decided to leave the workforce, and as a more mature student (at least 10 years older than the average age of my cohort) I entered the PhD program at Northern Illinois University. Returning to the world of Paleoclimatology has been one of the best and most fulfilling experiences of my adult life, even if the path I took to get here was a bit longer than most.

Brittany, woman in a wide-brimmed hat and fleece jacket, on a snow-covered field in front of a small cirque glacier
Brittany on a snow-covered field in front of a small cirque glacier.

Benjamin Keenan, Biogeochemist

Photo showing Benjamin in the foreground with a volcano erupting the background
Benjamin during an eruption of Volcán de Fuego or Chi Q’aq’ in Guatemala

Hello everyone. I am a biogeochemist who uses ancient molecules found in lake sediments to investigate interactions between humans and their environment. I am finishing a PhD in biogeochemistry at McGill in Montréal, Québec. I like skiing and ice skating, jazz, and when the earth is not frozen over I spend my lot of time bike-camping and swimming outdoors. I moved to Canada after a degree in geological sciences in England/California and working as an environmental consultant, a water engineer, and as a research assistant at the Complutense University of Madrid.

My current research looks at how the lowland Maya interacted with their environment and how they responded to climate change over 3,300 years. I take samples from Central America, extract organic molecules known as lipids and analyse them using different methods. I use plant waxes as a proxy for vegetation and hydrological change (how wet or dry it was) in the past, polycyclic aromatic carbons (from the incomplete combustion of carbon) as a proxy for biomass burning the past, and faecal stanols as proxies for population change.

My first chapter shows that population declines in the southwest Maya lowlands are associated not only with drought at multiple times throughout history, but also with anomalously wet periods, and has also highlighted potential efforts to reduce soil erosion as well as the use of night soil (human waste) as fertiliser in the past. This work attracted a lot of media interest, including from the CBC, Haaretz, El Mundo, and Archaeology Magazine, and will be vulgarised in the magazine Le Climatoscope. It also forms part of the chapter “Climate Change and Variability in the Protoclassic” in Remaking Maya Civilization, Social and Political Transformations in the Protoclassic Maya Lowlands.

Benjamin wearing a striped shirt, shorts and wellington boots in a tree over a cliff reaching out to collect leaves for analyses
Benjamin in the field in Guatemala collecting leaves for plant wax analyses

Now I am in the process of writing my thesis, which I will submit in December, and working with a digital artist to create a virtual Itzan, the archaeological site where the samples I have analysed were taken from. I think it is important for people to know that ancient societies were affected by climate change and by looking at responses to environmental change in the past how we might better understand anthropogenic climate change today and in the future. I am particularly interested in migration as climate change adaptation and am a member of the McGill Refugee Research Group.

Most students are fortunate enough to be on campuses with interesting seminars and public lectures in different departments that you can attend and make connections between your interests, your research and what is happening in different areas and at different scales. This is interesting and can be fruitful, and helps prevent you from getting stuck in the rut of your niche bit of research. Attending talks in anthropology, geography, and social sciences has given me new perspectives for my thesis, where the question I am researching requires an interdisciplinary approach.

Figure from Keenan et al. (2021) showing population change in the context of palaeoclimate and changes in pollen (a proxy for deforestation).

Patty Standring, PhD Student at University of Texas at Austin studying paleoceanography using benthic foraminifera

Hello! I am Patty, and I am a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). I am also an Air Force veteran. I worked as a Dari Linguist during my 10 years in the military before returning to school to get a bachelor’s degree at UT in geophysics.

Photo of me in front of my microscope at the Institute for Geophysics.

What research are you doing for your PhD? I am studying the paleoceanography of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean during the Eocene and Oligocene epochs (~30-40 million years ago). I look for tiny fossil shells from organisms called foraminifera (forams for short) in deep-sea sediments, and then analyze the isotopes in the shells. I specifically study the forams that live on the seafloor, so they are referred to as benthic forams, whereas planktic forams float in the water column. Forams are single-celled organisms and build their calcite shells from elements in the seawater, essentially recording what seawater conditions were like when they were alive and giving us information about the source of water masses, ocean circulation, and climate changes through time. When forams die, their shells are incorporated into deep-sea sediments, so all we have to do is dig up old ocean mud and then we have a record of what the ocean was like a long time ago.

The time period I am studying is important because the global climate was changing from very warm (much warmer than today) to very cold conditions, and ocean circulation was changing. Atmospheric carbon dioxide was much higher than today but declining, which cooled the climate enough that ice sheets developed on Antarctica. As a result of many of these changes certain groups of foraminifera went extinct. I am trying to find out how these climate and ocean changes occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea in the hopes that it will help us understand how modern ocean circulation developed and how it may change in the future as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to increase.

Image of 10 Nuttallides truempyi foraminifera to be analyzed for isotope data. My fingers provide some scale of how small the shells can be.

 

Why did you leave the military to pursue science? I joined the military at age 19 due to lack of employment opportunities and an inability to pay for college. After enlisting, the Air Force trained me in Dari, one of primary languages spoken in Afghanistan. I was a Dari Linguist for six years and reenlisted during my deployment to Afghanistan for four more years. Learning Dari not only gave me a unique appreciation for the Afghan culture but also exposed me to broader geopolitical issues I was previously sheltered from.

Image of me shortly after reenlisting while deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in Dec 2011.

Growing up in southern California, I am familiar with earthquakes, but have been fortunate to not have been significantly affected by them. While deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a northern province in the country experienced a larger magnitude earthquake, resulting in significant damage and casualties, with an entire village swallowed by a landslide. It struck me that a similar magnitude earthquake in the US would not have resulted in the same level of devastation primarily due to the emergency infrastructure of the US and building safety requirements. It made me reconsider what my efforts in Afghanistan were actually resulting in and whether or not I could have a more positive impact on the people I was trying to help.

After my deployment, I began considering what options I might have when my enlistment was up. I decided I wanted to pursue a science career, with the original goal of studying earthquake hazards. I hoped that my military experience would aid in increasing earthquake preparedness and mitigation efforts in countries like Afghanistan.

Me aboard the R/V Brooks McCall in Galveston Bay, Texas, during the Marine Geology Geophysics Field Course in 2018.

Why did you decide to study paleoceanography? After my second enlistment was up in 2015, I moved to Austin and went to Austin Community College (ACC) in preparation for applying to the University of Texas at Austin. While at ACC, I participated in a summer research program where I worked on a group project in a lab studying the permeability and porosity of different types of rocks (how much fluid can flow through certain types of rocks). This experience helped solidify my desire to study geology at UT and gave me confidence in my ability to conduct scientific research. It also instilled in me the importance of promoting participation of 2-year college students in scientific research.

My original goal was to study earthquakes and earthquake hazard mitigation, but my participation in UT’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) Marine Geology and Geophysics Field Course introduced me to marine geology, oceanography, and – more importantly – forams. I was fortunate enough to be able to work on an undergraduate research project with UTIG Research Scientist Dr. Chris Lowery using foram ecology to study sea level change along the Texas Gulf Coast over the last 10,000 years. That project, along with Dr. Lowery’s mentorship, gave me the confidence to pursue a graduate degree studying ancient climate and oceanographic changes in the hopes that they will help us understand modern ocean and climate stability and potential impacts on vulnerable communities.

Me graduating from home in May 2020. Like many things in the last two years, the in-person graduation ceremony at UT was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Do you have any advice for aspiring scientists? I have a non-traditional path toward science. Although it took me much longer to get to where I am, I believe my experiences make me a better scientist and a more well-rounded individual. I come from a low-middle income socioeconomic background, I served in the military in a completely different career field, and I attended community college before enrolling at UT Austin. These are just a few of what some people might consider obstacles that I overcame to get to where I am now. However, I am who I am because of where I come from, what I have sacrificed for my education, and the path I took to get to this point. As an older student, I feel much more certain in what I want from my education and in my future scientific career. As a military veteran, I have a socio-political perspective that informs my research goals. So, my advice to aspiring scientists is do not be afraid of a non-traditional path. Things like prior work experience and a community college education are benefits because they make you a versatile individual, and able to adapt to changes in ways that students on a traditional path may not be able to. Take advantage of opportunities that may become available to you because you never know where they will take you or how they might change your perspective or your research path.

What do you want your future to look like? My military experience helped me realize how important it is to me to have a positive impact on the lives of others. After receiving my PhD, I hope to find a position working for a government agency like the US Geological Survey or the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. I would like to work on scientific research that informs policy decisions pertaining to climate change impacts, particularly for marginalized communities that are typically more vulnerable to climate change and are underserved with respect to mitigation efforts.

Note from the TS Team: Patty has also written a post on the Student Veterans Research Network that we encourage you to read.