Riley Black, Science Writer & Paleontologist

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

Science thrives on curiosity. Even though we can talk about Science as an apparatus of journals, schools, and theories, basic questions like “What’s that?” are what draw us into a richer understanding of nature. For myself, dinosaurs were my introduction to science. I wanted to know everything I could about them from the time I was little. I wanted to know how they moved, what they ate, why they dominated the world for so long, and more. And while a career as an academic paleontologist wasn’t in the cards for me, I’m glad that writing about the past gave me an alternate route to engage with paleontology and contribute to the field in my own way.

What do you do?

I’m a writer! My career is centered around writing about paleontology and the animals the science studies, which means I freelance for publications such as Smithsonian, Slate, and Nature when there’s something neat to say about prehistoric life. I’ve also written several books. Written in Stone, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Skeleton Keys are fossil-based books for adults, while Prehistoric Predators is a children’s book about ancient carnivores. And I’m just starting a new adult-audience book about the mass extinction that ended the Cretaceous. The flexibility in my career also lets me go out on fossil expeditions, and I’ve been going out every summer since 2011 to join different museums and universities all across the American west to help them find and excavate fossils. I never expected to become a writer, but searching for old bones is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.

A Brachychirotherium track Riley found!

What methods do you use to engage your audience and community? 

There’s no single way to best communicate science. The methods that work in a museum, a podcast, Twitter, a book, or a talk are all different. And that’s what’s wonderful. There are so many ways to tell stories about science, who engages in the quest, and what questions we most want to know. My biggest bit of advice would be to think about your format and audience. Who are you trying to reach? What stories do you want to tell? Connection can take many forms, and simply keeping that goal in mind can have a huge difference. Science isn’t an Answer or a dictate. It is, and should be, a conversation.

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

We often think of the past almost as an alien world. We focus on the strange and unusual. But the fact of the matter is that the world around us today evolved from times of the past, and we can trace everything around us through Deep Time. Every species alive today has connections through the fossil record, for example, and we can look at how organisms in the past reacted to issues we face today – from forest fires to sweeping climate change. I see my role as an interpreter of these stories. I want to remind people that we have an inextricable connection to our favorite extinct species and that a richer view of the past helps us appreciate the world we’re now in. I also try to comment on how science gets done and changes through time. Science is done by people, after all, and that means the history of paleontology and how the science is conducted is just as important as its results.

Riley pointing to Permian aged (~280 million years ago) Walchia fronds (fossil plants).

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Ask questions. Not only of what you want to know, but about the paleo pathways you might travel. There’s a common misconception that becoming a professor or curator is the pinnacle of paleontology and what everyone aspires to. This isn’t true at all. Some of the happiest paleos I know are collections managers, preparators, mitigation paleontologists, or have taken positions outside the tenure track lane. And paleontology offers many opportunities to stay involved even if studying fossils isn’t your career. The field thrives on amateur expertise and assistance, from searching for new fossil localities to assisting in museum collections. Whatever you do, don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that there’s only one way to be a paleontologist or that you need to give up your identity to fit a certain mold. There are so many ways to engage your wonder about ancient life, and the greater the diversity of voices in the field the stronger our understanding will become.

Madison Elsaadi, Neuroscientist

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

I’ve basically been a scientist since I was a kid, it wasn’t until college that I began to consider science as a career path.  I’ve always been curious about the world, and even today my favorite part about being a neuroscientist is knowing that I’m at the forefront of human knowledge, it’s a powerful thought that has always attracted me to the field.  Neuroscience is essentially one of the only fields of science that lacks a foundational principle.  In other words, we know so little about the brain.  We know far more about galaxies light years away!

What do you do?

My research focuses on DNA damage and repair in adult neurons.  Every cell of your body, except neurons, can copy its genome in case the original suffers damage.  Because neurons don’t divide, your neurons are stuck with the same copy of DNA your entire life!  My work aims to better understand how neurons handle DNA damage, and how a lifetime of this damage can accumulate and manifest as a disease like depression, schizophrenia, and especially age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

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

To test DNA-instability in neurons, we use genetic engineering tools like CRISPR/Cas9 to modify genes involved in DNA damage repair.  I then measure structural changes in individual neurons.  Working with brain tissue, I can label proteins of interest using fluorescent dyes, and visualize them in 3D space using a confocal microscope, followed by 3D reconstruction of individual neurons.  Confocal microscopes emit a high-powered laser that shows nanometer structures…it’s like peeking inside a single neuron!

(Left) Flourescent 3D image of a single labeled neuron from the striatum of the mouse brain, captured using a Nikon Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope. (Right) Image is magnified and partially reconstructed using commercial software. Reconstructions permit detailed analyses of neuronal morphology.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?

The world is rapidly aging, and as of date no disease modifying therapeutics exist to combat neurodegenerative diseases.   Unlike other diseases, patients with neurodegeneration never recover and family members are exhausted from caring for them.  This means no one advocates for these patients or these diseases and often funding lags behind other fields like cancer research.  This has led many experts to sound the alarm and warn of a coming neurodegenerative epidemic [1].  My research suggests DNA-instability underlies neurodegeneration, and I hope the technology we’re developing can expedite drug discovery for these diseases and thereby lessen the burden families and society will face.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

For anyone considering a career in science, particularly entering into a life science PhD program, you should know it will be the most exciting, rewarding, stressful and frightful time of your life, so you should be ok with all those emotions!  I recommend thinking about potential career paths after graduate school – go perform the self-assessment [2] at the link below (it’s designed specifically for life science graduate students).  Secondly, I would join a research lab ASAP.  Cold call professors at local institutions and tell them your plans.  Many undergraduate professors will be eager to take you in.

1)  Petsko, Gregory A. “The next epidemic.” Genome biology vol. 7,5 (2006): 108. doi:10.1186/gb- 2006-7-5-108

2) https://myidp.sciencecareers.org/

Learn more about Madison through his LinkedIn and Instagram pages!

Ashley Ramsey, Staff Geologist for Geosyntec Consultants, Inc.

Professional Headshot.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist, why I chose science, and particularly why I decided to be an environmental consultant, is that the field is constantly changing, and there is always something new to learn, discover, or develop. Through my obtaining my undergraduate geology degree at Baylor University and my masters geology degree at The University of Tennessee, I was never sure what career path to take, but I knew that I liked to learn and do so at a very quick pace. Since beginning my consulting career just over one year ago, I have had the opportunity to study a multitude of contaminant impacts and remediation techniques for groundwater, porewater, soil, and sediment. Not only this, but every day I am fortunate to collaborate with scientists across the United States on a daily basis.

Step 1, wear proper PPE😊 Work can be a bit messy sometimes, but that’s half of the fun, right?!

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
As a consultant at Geosyntec I conduct environmental contaminant investigations and remediations concerning chlorinated solvents, petroleum, metals, pesticides, and/or emerging contaminants. These contaminants are sourced from many historic and modern day industrial activities like dry cleaning and petroleum storage and sales among many others. My work over the last year and a half has been on sites located across state of Florida and have involved in soil, sediment, porewater and groundwater monitoring and sampling; contractor oversight; permitting; and the development and execution of proposals, remedial designs, and reports.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
My work provides knowledge to clients and the public about the state of their environment and what steps we can actively take to better it. As environmental consultants we conduct investigations to ensure environmental contaminants are not migrating away from their source and that concentrations are not increasing. This work is extremely important as it ensures no harm is coming to the members of our community from the investigated contaminants as they go about their day to day lives.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Keep at it! Sometimes you will have no idea which path to take and may become overwhelmed by those around you who already have their path determined. Take on a new project, study a new field, take that random class or field trip. By exploring every possible avenue, you will find your niche.

Measuring surface and pore water temperatures to provide a line of evidence for groundwater upwelling in a Jacksonville Creek.

Ian Forsythe, Invertebrate Paleontologist and Undergraduate Researcher

Ian with a  brachiopod shell.

I study ways we can tell species apart based on their morphology (the structure and shapes of their hard parts).  For my research, I use the fossils of brachiopods (marine animals that resemble clams) from the Upper Ordovician period (around 450 million years ago). I collect the majority of my data from fossils in museum collections but collect fossils in the field when I can’t find what I need in an existing collection. While the applications of my research may not be readily apparent it is actually applicable to a variety of things.

 Species are the fundamental unit we use to classify organisms and being able to tell them apart is an important skill. Being able to identify species based on morphology is a necessary step in many studies of evolutionary processes, climate change, ecology, and patterns of biodiversity (the numbers of species present on the Earth through time). This is even true for biologists studying modern animals! While modern biologists define species as members of a population that can actually or potentially interbreed in nature it isn’t reasonable or even possible to conduct breeding experiments for every animal on Earth. Therefore, from a practical standpoint morphology is the best way to identify species whether you study fossils or living organisms.

Images of Rafinesquina brachiopods, which Ian works on. Here, the specific shell features of this brachiopod are highlighted and labeled. These features are part of the brachiopod’s morphology, or shell shape and structure. Image from OrdovicianAtlas.org.

When I was five, I started collecting marine fossils from rocks near my home. The fact that where I lived used to be under the sea was amazing to me. Although I had an interest in science at a very young age, I didn’t consider it as a career until much later. It was a book I read my freshman year of college (Wonderful Life by Stephen J. Gould) that inspired me to pursue paleontology professionally. It is a story about the bizarre creatures that lived in the sea over 500 million years ago and the scientific struggle to understand them. My experience with science has been fascinating and rewarding in more ways than I can describe, but I have to say that my favorite thing about being a scientist is learning new and exciting things every day.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring scientists, it would be that it is never too late to pursue a career in science. All kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds become scientists and many of them start out pursuing other things (I started college thinking I would be a writer). If you are getting ready to start college and unsure what degree you want to pursue, try taking some courses at a community college. There are so many fascinating fields in science it can be hard to know which one is right for you and community college is a wonderful place to get a feel for what you may want to pursue.

Carmi Milagros Thompson, Invertebrate Paleontologist

Fun in the sun at Haile Quarry – fossil collecting tools at hand.

I have always been interested in science – when I was young, my mom would take us on the Metro to go visit all of the Smithsonian museums. My favorite was always the Natural History Museum (and I was lucky to go back as a research intern after I finished my undergraduate degree- but I digress). Growing up, I felt a lot of pressure to have a good career that paid well (doctor, engineer, lawyer, as the refrain goes)…so I was miserably going through a pre-med track, until I took a geology class…partially by accident, partially just to take all the sciences. I knew that I had to become a geologist from the first lab session where we scrambled down a hill to look at some Coastal Plain outcrop. Paleontology was also a mistake, but a happy one – a long story for another time! .

I think of my work as being similar to that of a librarian. Instead of books, I work with things that have been dead for (usually) millions of years. My job, as a collections manager, is (broadly) to organize and maintain holdings of fossil invertebrates (aforementioned dead things), so that people who are asking all kinds of questions about past life on Earth can quickly and easily access material. In addition to that, I supervise a rotating cast of interns and volunteers. When I’m lucky, I get to do field work (looking at fossils in the wild) with the rest of our research group – usually in Florida, but sometimes all over the country. No two days are ever the same – there are long stretches of identification and reorganization, of course, but most weeks are packed with visitors, curation, and more.

Behind the scenes at the Natural Museum of Natural History

In my “free time,” I guest contribute to the Neogene Atlas of Ancient Life (working on the scaphopods gap right now), coordinate and participate in outreach events at the museum and around the state, manage affairs for the Florida Paleontological Society as the secretary, maintain the invert paleontology collection website, and work with the Paleontological Society Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I am also working on a few personal research projects: a virtual collection tour (release date early fall), systematics and paleoecology of fossil cephalopods from Florida, and paleoecology of offshore molluscan fauna from the mid-Atlantic United States in sediment cores collected for beach nourishment. 

I was once described as “active on Twitter,” so I’ll plug that too  (see link at end of article) – my goal there is to promote our museum specimens and highlight different activities in which I participate – say hi if you’d like! 

ADVICE (as a young person who gets a lot of advice – here’s a brief summary!)

Digging for oysters in the Florida Panhandle.

In terms of paleontology specific advice, keep your options as open as possible – paleontology is certainly a competitive field, but there are many ways to pursue it as a career (there is a good blog post here about it!). For general career advice, find your support team – mentors, classmates, other professionals…people who will cheer you on throughout your successes and support you when things aren’t so great. And, this is such a geologist thing to say, but keep it all in perspective – there are going to be really tough times and problems that seem like they are impossible in the moment (everyone struggles), but think of the long term. Things usually have a way of working themselves out, often in surprising ways. I find that success usually outweighs the many, often-invisible failures along the way. 

If you want to keep up with Carmi check out the Florida Museum’s Invertebrate Paleo or Twitter @bibibivalve.

Laura Speir, Paleoclimatologist

Laura Speir sitting in front of the instrument they use to analyze oxygen isotope ratios to understand climatic changes. Much of the work Laura does involves lab work as opposed to field work.

I study changes in past climate using fossils, focusing on climate 500-450 million years ago during an event called the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (or GOBE). The GOBE represents one of the largest and longest diversification events (where a huge number of new species evolved) in earth history. Many scientists, including myself, are trying to understand the role of climate on the GOBE. Leading into the GOBE, the earth was very warm, warmer than we would expect for animal life. During the peak of the GOBE, the oceans appear to have cooled to temperatures slightly warmer than what we see today.

For my research, I use microfossils known as conodonts. Conodonts are extinct animals that are similar to hagfish or lampreys. We usually don’t find the whole conodont animal, but rather their “teeth” are left behind. We use these “teeth” (known as conodont elements) as a proxy for understanding climate. This is because conodont elements preserve the changes in different oxygen elements (known as isotopes) within the ocean. The ratio between these oxygen isotopes (16O and 18O) can be measured and a temperature can be calculated. While some scientists will collect rocks that contain conodont elements themselves, I receive conodont elements from paleontologists who have done previous research using conodont elements.

So, why do scientists like myself study past climates? By studying climates in the distant past, we can better understand how our climate is changing now. Scientists who create climate models use past climate data to better their models and studying periods of time when the earth was vastly different than our own allows climate modelers to test the limits of their models.

Outside of research, I am a teaching assistant for the University of Missouri geology field camp. Many geology programs require a field course where the students spend some amount of time learning how to recognize different rocks within the field and how to place them onto a map. The University of Missouri takes students to the Wind River Basin near Lander, Wyoming to learn these skills, as well as a fantastic trip to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I was a student at this field camp myself back in 2016 and have been a teaching assistant there for the past two field seasons. The geology in this region is absolutely stunning and makes a wonderful field area for our students to learn stratigraphy and mapping. Geology gave me the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Spain and Portugal, as well).

One of my favorite things about being a scientist is having the opportunity to share what I do with a variety of people. I participate in many outreach events and tell the general public about paleontology. Many students are not exposed to geology or paleontology in school, but these outreach events allow students (and their families) to learn about the earth. While I was never exposed to outreach events such as the ones I participate in now, I was fortunate enough to take earth science courses during high school, as well as an introductory geology course at my local community college. Looking back, however, I was always interested in the processes that governed the earth, from rocks to meteorology to biology.

There is no one true path to entering a science field. Many of us started out wanting to enter different field (I myself originally wanted to go into film). Community college is a great place to start your journey, particularly if you are unsure what field you want to major in. If you are in college, take a variety of courses. If you find a science course that you enjoy, don’t be afraid to take similar classes. Find a field that you enjoy doing and pursue it.

Laura Speir at Grand Teton National Park during the University of Missouri Geology Field Camp during the 2019 field season. Laura and other staff members take students to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park to learn about the regional geology of Wyoming.

On being non-binary in science

Recently, I came out as non-binary. I do not identify as male or female, but somewhere between the two. While there are a growing number of scientists who identify as LGBTQIA+, finding other scientists in your field can be quite difficult. However, there is a growing effort for science organizations to provide opportunities for LGBTQIA+ people and many organizations are adjusting their policies to protect against gender identity discrimination. This is a huge step forward, as some states and cities do not provide such protections. Some scholarships and awards that I had previously applied for or considered applying for are women-specific, as women are, generally, poorly represented in science. However, some of the organizations I have talked to are willing to open their applications for non-binary/agender/genderfluid people, as they are also poorly represented in science.

As a grad student, my peers are generally accepting of my gender identity. My professors (and most importantly, my advisor) have accepted my gender identity and have made every effort to adjust their language regarding my pronouns (they/them). The occasional slip up does happen (even by me!) and I do my best to correct people. My biggest worry is how my gender identity will affect my future career. Will the hiring committee be accepting or will they look the other way because I do not conform to their ideas of gender? As I continue my journey, my hope is to find more scientists like myself at different points in their careers and learn how they have overcome the obstacles they have faced.

Matthew Jones, Paleomammalogist

Measuring small mammal teeth in the lab at the University of Kansas. Photo by Megan Sims.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
I love trying to understand the paths that organisms took throughout evolutionary history, so I really like studying fossils in order to understand modern animals. I grew up loving dinosaurs as a kid and I guess I just never grew out of that phase, but I’ve always been interested in pretty much all animals- fossil and living. When I was an undergrad, an opportunity arose to participate in a short field course in Costa Rica about bat ecology. I brought it up to my parents and they didn’t say yes, but they didn’t say no either, so I applied and ultimately was able to travel to Costa Rica and spend three weeks in the rainforest studying bats. During my Master’s degree I started to merge my interest in bats with my interest in paleontology and ultimately ended up where I am now: studying bat paleontology and evolution.

Observing a small fruit bat in the wild in Costa Rica. Photo by Lennon Tucker.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
I study the evolution of mammals shortly after the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs. My main focus is on the paleontology of bats and other small, insectivorous mammals- creatures like shrews and hedgehogs- during the first two intervals of time following that extinction: the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. Bats are a particularly interesting group to work with because they show up suddenly in the fossil record at the beginning of the Eocene epoch, about 56 million years ago, and they are almost instantly found worldwide. We have no idea where they came from or what their ancestors looked like.

How does your work contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general?
Powered flight has only evolved four times in the history of life: in insects, pterosaurs (the flying reptiles that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs), birds, and bats. So evolving flight is really hard to do, but it unlocks a lot of opportunities for the animals that can do it. Unfortunately, we don’t know as much about how bats achieved flight as we do about how birds did. There’s no equivalent of Archaeopteryx for bats, so there is still debate as to the closest relative to bats. There are more species of bats than any other mammals except rodents, and bats do everything from pollinating tropical forests to controlling crop pests. The ability to fly clearly helped bats become some of the most successful mammals on the planet, but since we don’t know what they evolved from, we have no idea how they became such specialized creatures.

Teeth of a primitive bat my colleagues and I recently described named Anatolianycteris insularis, from the middle Eocene of Turkey. A-C are a lower premolar viewed from the top, tongue side, and cheek side, respectively, and D is a lower molar viewed from the top.

What data do you use use for your research?
Since the earliest bats known from the Eocene look pretty much like modern bats, a lot of my research has focused on little insectivorous animals from the Paleocene Epoch. A lot of mammals from that time period are known only from their teeth. This is less challenging than it sounds because mammal teeth are very diagnostic, sometimes even down to the species. In particular, I’m focusing on one group of insectivorous mammals known mostly from their teeth called nyctitheres. There has been some thought that they might be related to bats, but that has never really been tested explicitly. So I spend most of my time looking at tiny nyctithere and bat teeth under a microscope in order to conduct a thorough analysis of their relationships.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Be curious about everything, even if it isn’t super closely related to the field you are interested in. I love going to talks about things like ecology and genetics, and I end up learning a lot that I can apply to my field. Or I learn things that help me understand what my fossil animals would have been like when they were alive, how they interacted with their environment, and how they evolved.

Also, get involved and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most scientists I know really like what they study and they are happy to talk to students who are interested. When you get to college, reach out to professors and ask if you can get involved in doing research in their lab. But don’t feel bad if you don’t know something. No one can know everything about a particular field, no matter how long you study it. So ask people if you don’t understand what they are talking about, or a phrase or concept that they used- there’s no shame in that.

Keep up with Matt’s updates by checking out his website by clicking here.

Mattie Jensen, Microbiologist & Technical Manager

I am a Scientist.

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

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

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

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

What Do I Actually Do?

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

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

Why is this important?

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

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

Are you a Scientist, too?

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

Connect with Mattie on LinkedIn by clicking here!

John Doherty, Biogeochemist

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

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

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

What do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

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

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

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

 

Jen Gallagher, Geneticist

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

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

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

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?

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

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

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

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

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

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

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

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