Ron Fine, Citizen Scientist

The picture that appeared on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer in April, 2012, presenting “Godzillus” to the public with Prof. Carlton Brett (center) and Prof. David Meyer (right).

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

From my earliest memories I have always had an interest in dinosaurs and fossils. I grew up in Bellbrook, Ohio, where I spent many a day playing in the creeks in Magee Park and the Sugarcreek Reserve. Both were loaded with fossils from the famous Cincinnatian series of the Ordovician. While collecting fossils is my absolute favorite, I’ve always been fascinated by science and nature in general, with interests in biology, geology, minerals, astronomy, engineering and physics, as well as art, cooking and photography.

What do you do?

I have a degree in Landscape Architecture, but I work as a mechanical designer in the aerospace industry. Currently, I design tools that are used to build jet engines. I create the 3D models and drawings, which are used to make the tools.

While I haven’t as yet spent much time doing my own research, I’ve been blessed to help the professionals with numerous papers based on specimens I collected. I love and collect all fossils, so I’ve not concentrated on any particular group or type. I feel this has been advantageous, as it gives me more opportunities to work with the various scientists who do have areas of specialty. Lately, I’ve been working with Dr. Alycia Stigall on brachiopods. In the past I worked with Dr. Roger Cuffey on bryozoans, and Dr.’s Carlton Brett and David Meyer on Godzillus. As a member of the Dry Dredgers, the oldest fossil club in North America, I get to contribute regularly. I take meeting photos for the website, bring in specimens for others to examine, and occasionally write something for the newsletter or website. I also volunteer, and am an exhibitor, at Geofair every year, and occasionally play fossil tour guide at local parks or give presentations with my portable fossil display.

Playing fossil field guide to teacher Brian Dempsey and fifteen students from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, in Acton, MA, at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio in May, 2017.

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

I have a talent for finding rare, unusual or exceptional fossils. I bring these specimens to the attention of the professionals so that they can be properly studied, and sometimes, they are used to write a scientific paper and are deposited in a museum or university collection for future scientists to study. Godzillus has been my best effort so far. It actually became very famous! I collect everything prodigiously. The quality specimens are made available to professionals for research projects, and the rest is given to the Dry Dredgers to make the fossil kits that fund club activities, or given to school kids.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Your life will be far richer if you pursue your interests. Find others who share your passions, join a club, volunteer. You won’t regret it!

Sadie Mills, Environmental Educator and Museum Project Coordinator

Using Ollie, a non-releasable Eastern Screech Owl, to teach students about bird adaptations at the Rock Eagle 4-H center near Eatonton, Georgia.

My curiosity about the natural world started on family camping trips. One regular destination was the shores of the Sea or Cortez, where the extreme tidal range (up to 9m!) produced incredible tide pools full of stingrays, octopi, brittle stars, and more. My fascination with nature and true love of being outside eventually led me to pursue job opportunities (and later a master’s degree) in environmental education. Environmental education aims to help people understand, appreciate, and think critically about their interactions with all aspects of the natural world. This can be accomplished through outdoor experiences, laboratory activities, live animal encounters, and more. My work days have included leading students on forest hikes, taking families seining at the beach, and educating public visitors at rehabilitated sea turtle releases. While many of these experiences are short-lived, they often spark enduring curiosity, positive feelings about nature, and sometimes positive behavior change among participants. Not every interaction makes a difference, but when they do the results can be quite powerful.

Tide-pooling at Puerto Peñasco (Sonora, Mexico), one of the places that got me hooked on nature. (Tragically, the 101 Dalmatians sweater is too blurry to properly appreciate.)

To remain effective, environmental education must adapt to our changing world, and in the 21st century this means branching out into virtual education. In my current position as coordinator for the FOSSIL Project, I get the opportunity to engage with audiences through online interactions on social media and our website (www.myfossil.org). FOSSIL (Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners) is an NSF-funded initiative that supports a community of amateur (avocational) and professional paleontologists with the goal of shared learning. Utilizing online platforms has allowed us to build a diverse and widespread community of learners, but also a community of educators. Each of our participants brings knowledge to the table, and the online space makes it easy and comfortable for them to share their experiences. This fall, we hope to further expand our community with the introduction of an accompanying mobile app. This tool will allow users to document and share their paleontological experiences directly from the field. I never thought I would contribute to an app, but I am now so excited to see the learning opportunities that will result from this new technology.

Teaching students to seine for surf-zone fishes and invertebrates on Tybee Island, Georgia.

One of the great joys of working as an environmental educator is seeing how excited people get when they learn something new, especially people who may be discovering their passion for science for the first time. For those thinking about a future in science, I hope you will consider the many career paths available to you. If you like technology or inventing, you can help develop the tools scientists use to make new discoveries. If your passion is writing, you can pursue science journalism or help edit science publications. You can conduct investigations as a researcher, teach others as a formal or informal science educator, pursue art as a science illustrator, or help shape policy as an environmental lawyer. In its own way, each job makes an important contribution to science, and society needs curious science enthusiasts in many different roles!

Dr. Page Quinton, Paleoclimatologist

Dr. Page Quinton (left) and student Samantha McComb (right), completing field work on the Madison Group Carbonates in Montana.

What do you love about being a scientist?

My favorite part of being a scientist is the systematic approach we employ to answer questions. Yeah, we can use a variety of techniques to get at our answers, but the process of collecting and interpreting the data must follow the same basic rules! I’d also add, that I am particularly fond of being a geoscientist because of the combination of lab and field work (the best of both worlds)!

What do you do?

I could be classified as a Paleontologist, Geochemist, and/or Paleoclimatologist. Which I choose to call myself depends on who I am talking to (obviously, I go for Paleontologist when talking to young kids for the instant cool-points)! The reason for the multitude of possible names is that I apply a variety of techniques to answer questions about the climate. In particular, my research focuses on the timing and nature of climatic changes in Earth’s history and their relationship to how carbon is stored and distributed on the Earth (e.g. in the atmosphere as CO2 or stored in rocks as fossil fuels).

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

I use fossils and their geochemical signals to understand the climate in the geologic past. The fossils I work with most are conodont elements (small tooth-like structures that make up the feeding apparatus of a marine eel-like organism). These fossils are composed of the mineral apatite which acts as a good record for the geochemistry of the water in which the conodont animal lived. From these tooth-like structures, I measure the oxygen isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 18O relative to 16O). The oxygen isotopic ratio is dependent (in part) on the temperature of the water. By documenting changes in the oxygen isotopic ratio through time, I can infer changes in water temperature through time.

I also work with carbon isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 13C to 12C) in marine limestones. These values can be used to reconstruct the distribution of carbon on the Earth’s surface. By looking at changes in the carbon isotopic value through time, I can infer changes in the global carbon cycle and therefore atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

Late Ordovician (~450 million years ago) conodont elements from northern Kentucky.

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

In addition to my scientific research I also teach undergraduate students at SUNY Potsdam. I always make sure my research informs how and what I teach. This is especially true for the Climate Change course I teach. That course focuses on how scientists know what they know and what types of evidence informs our understanding about climate. My hope for students completing that course is that they will come out of it with the knowledge and background to understand climate change.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Make sure you do what you love. Your job should be fun. That doesn’t mean every aspect of it will be a blast, many of the things I do can be tedious, but there is something very satisfying about setting out to solve a problem, collecting the data, and interpreting the data. For students interested in pursuing graduate education, the most important advice I can give is to make sure you can work with your advisor. I had a great advisor and it made graduate school a great experience.

Learn more about Page and her research on her website!

 

William Heimbrock, Amateur Paleontologist

Webmaster Bill Heimbrock at a Dry Dredgers meeting at the University of Cincinnati (Photo by Ron Fine).

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

I’m an amateur paleontologist. That makes me a time traveler. I like traveling through time.

I see sequences of stratigraphic layers that represent ancient sea floors all in about the same place, but in different instances of time. Sometimes I’ll pull over at a road cut in Northern Kentucky and see the remains of animals and plants that lived 450 million years ago. And yet, I can easily picture myself in the late Ordovician Period. These animals were alive and swimming in a warm shallow sea.

As I climb the road cut, ascending through the rock layers, I am going forward in Ordovician time at a rate of thousands of years per second. I stop on a ledge. Time freezes. I see meter-length ripple marks in the bedrock that extend across the ledge as if I’m standing on a sea floor with wave action winnowing the silty bottom.  I’m astonished with the variety of fossilized animals still resting in exactly the same spot where they once lived.

The event of these creatures’ death is also recorded beneath my feet. I’m compelled to learn more. How did they die? Was it something they ate? I feel I can answer those questions using scientific methods.

Bill Heimbrock checking the strata on a popular road cut in southeastern Indiana before a Dry Dredgers field trip.

We have such power now as amateurs in many areas of science. Human beings are naturally curious. Even as a young child I conducted experiments and recorded my results. My neighbor told me that when I was young, she saw me conduct an experiment to verity the speed of sound. I stood at one end of our cul-de-sac, shouted, and ran super-fast (a technical term), stopped abruptly with unprecedented precision and listened for my shout. You can guess that I didn’t succeed in verifying the speed of sound that day, but it’s the spirit of trying that counts. I was inquisitive at an early age. I knew that science facts are verifiable and ready to be revised and improved by all of us. We are all amateur scientists!

What do you do?

Dr. Carlton Brett at the University of Cincinnati Geology Department shares his knowledge with Bill Heimbrock and other aspiring paleontologists. Collaboration between professors and members of the Dry Dredgers enhance both amateur and professional paleontology projects. Everyone benefits.

Professionally, I program large-scale computer systems. But at home I collect fossils as a hobby. This hobby has become my way to contribute to the field of Paleontology and to education.

I started out in the late 1980’s just collecting fossils for recreation in my local streams and fields. I love getting out there and listening to the birds and finding evidence of our ancient past. It’s a great pastime I highly recommend.

It wasn’t long before I wanted my efforts to be worth more than just recreation. So I joined the Dry Dredgers fossil club based at the University of Cincinnati. I met knowledgeable educators and other amateur and professional paleontologists who could use my fossils for teaching and research. They taught me a great deal, which made my daily fossil collecting much more enjoyable.

Bill Heimbrock has headed the production of the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits since 1992. These kits educate the public, provide teachers with a much needed resource and help fund the advancement of paleontology.

I was also able to give my extra fossils to the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits and benefit both the club and education. They sell bags of 12 Ordovician fossils “From the Hills of Cincinnati” at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science gift shop. The money goes into the club’s general fund which feeds paleontological research grants and projects while the kits help schools and fellow fossil enthusiasts.

I quickly became chair of the fossil kit committee. Now 27 years later, Kimberly Cox and I sell the Dry Dredgers fossil kits in park and museum gift shops around the area and donate some kits and loose fossils to teachers, schools and outreach facilitators.  Fossils used in our fossil kits are currently screened for scientific importance so that each fossil is put to the best use. Some may be deposited into a museum collection. I want collectors who give Cincinnati fossils to the Dry Dredgers to know their donation will benefit educational outreach and/or the science of paleontology.

An extra-large road cut in Maysville Kentucky exposes countless “instance in time” sea floors. Fossil sites like this are a time traveler’s dream – and an exciting reality for fossil hunters.

Another big part of my educational outreach efforts is the Dry Dredgers website, which I designed and have updated since 1998. We are fortunate to have a number of Dry Dredgers who have contributed all types of information about our late Ordovician fossils for the website. You will see me at all local Dry Dredgers field trips taking photographs of the fossils people find and helping identify the specimens. See my field trip reports here.

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

I’ve always hoped that in this short life I could make a dent in the advancement of mankind. We pop into this world, have just enough time to look around and figure a few things out, pass on what we’ve learned and then pop out of existence.

For the last 20+ years, I have been gathering information and fossils from dozens of fossil sites in the Cincinnati area in the hope that it will advance our body of knowledge on Earth’s ancient past. In addition to educating the public with our  Dry Dredgers website and building classroom fossil kits, my collection of Ordovician sediment and microfossils are helping professional paleontologists advance our knowledge of the evolution of nacre (mother-of-pearl) in mollusks and our understanding of the deposition of phosphate, an essential mineral for our existence.

Bill Heimbrock identifying fossils on a Dry Dredgers field trip. He takes photos and includes the identifications on his field trip reports.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Ask questions. Our society often discourages “questioning” accepted wisdom. Don’t let that stop you. Questions are how new knowledge is obtained. Be inquisitive and find out more than what others know. Discover things for yourself. Be an amateur scientist!

You can learn more about Bill Heimbrock’s amateur paleontology adventures on myfossil.org!

Sandy Kawano, Comparative Physiologist and Biomechanist

Who am I?

I am a nerd who turned a lifetime fascination in nature documentaries and monster movies into a career as an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, where I get to study the amazing ways that animals move through different environments and then share these discoveries to students through my role as a teacher-scholar.

How did I become a scientist?

To explain how vertebrate animals became terrestrial, I have to study the evolutionary changes that spanned the transition from fishes to tetrapods which is recorded through the anatomical changes that are left behind in fossils, such as these specimens from the Field Museum.

My career started off a bit rocky when I was rejected from the four-year university programs I applied to in high school. I wanted to become a wildlife biologist to maintain biodiversity and this roadblock made me question whether I was good enough to pursue what I loved. The thought of being a university professor hadn’t crossed my mind yet but I knew that I needed a college degree, so I attended community college where my chemistry professor explained how research helps solve mysteries. I loved puzzles, so I thought “why not?”. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, and was lucky to work with excellent professors who helped me conduct research and inspired me to study how the environment affects animal movements. I did temporarily work as a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during this time, but research made me realize that I could study the maintenance of biodiversity through the lens of evolution and ecology. With my mentors’ support, I completed a Ph.D. at Clemson University and earned post-doctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Royal Veterinary College. In 2017, I started a tenure-track position at California State University, Long Beach.

What do I study?

One of the aims of my research is to compare how fins and limbs allow animals to move on land and two key players in this story are the African mudskipper (Periophthalmus barbarus; left) and tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), respectively.

My research combines biology, engineering, and mathematics to reconstruct animal movement by piecing together how muscles and bones produce motion. I deconstruct how living animals move so I can build computer models that reverse-engineer the ancient movements of extinct animals. One of my goals is to figure out how vertebrates (animals with backbones) went from living in water for hundreds of millions of years as fishes to moving onto land as tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). I enjoy studying animals that challenge the norm, such as ‘walking’ fishes, because they open our eyes to the amazing diversity on Earth and help us learn from those who are different from us. Here’s to nature’s misfits!

What would I have told younger me?

I would encourage anyone interested in science to explore diverse experiences and treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, whether it be about yourself or the world around you. We often treat obstacles in our lives as affirmation that we are not good enough, but it is not the obstacles that define us but the way in which we respond to those obstacles. These struggles can push us to grow stronger or approach questions with new and creative perspectives. There are many equally important ways to be a scientist and there is no single pathway to becoming a scientist, so enjoy your adventure!

Follow Sandy’s lab updates on her website and Twitter account!

Joy Buongiorno Altom, Geomicrobiologist

Figure 1: My very first expedition to Svalbard for collecting mud! The Arctic is especially vulnerable to ecosystem changes with continued climate warming. To understand these changes, we head up to 79 degrees North and look at carbon-cycling microbes to gain insight into their ecological structure and function.

My love for science was born freshman year of college when I was encouraged to ask questions about nature and began reading books about the evolutionary origin of life and the cosmos. Through reading, I found that science is the best tool that we have to understand the world around us and that we should never stop asking questions of our origins. However, big questions related to evolutionary histories, for example, require the collaboration and contribution of multiple different fields of science and so, I set out on an educational journey that would allow me to grow my scientific toolbox to encompass skills across multiple disciplines. My background in zoology taught me perspective on communities and how ecological linkages between different species can play crucial roles in how an ecosystem functions. I then delved into geoscience to gain an understanding of how organisms interact with their physical and chemical environment. Now, I evaluate sediment microbial communities and their contribution to biogeochemical cycling of nutrients with genomic sequencing analyses.

Figure 2: Example of a microbial network analysis from sediment in Svalbard. Each little symbol is a different type of microorganism, and lines connecting each symbol indicates that they share either a positive (solid) or negative (dashed) relationship. Colors indicate relatedness (same colors = same family history) and different shapes indicate how they eat. These networks can help us identify novel relationships between microorganisms and generate hypotheses about what is causing a positive or negative relationship.

I am currently using my cross-discipline training to paint a complete picture of microbial communities in Arctic sediments. My goal is to make useful contributions to models aimed at describing how continued climate warming will affect carbon cycling in the Arctic Circle. It is currently unknown if the biological feedbacks associated with glacial retreat and warming surface ocean temperatures will lead to a net carbon sink (removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) or net source (contributing to atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions). To answer these questions, I collect environmental DNA and RNA from sediments in different fjords all over Svalbard alongside geochemistry measurements. I employ microbial network analyses to find links between community members and geochemistry to unravel the hidden drivers behind microbial abundance and community composition. With genomic sequencing data and cutting-edge bioinformatics tools, I evaluate the carbon cycling potential within nearly complete microbial genomes collected from these sediments and then computationally map their genes to RNA activity in the environment. We are finding that spatial gradients in the amount and quality of organic matter control metabolic potential of sediment microbial communities.

Figure 3: Beautiful mud core. The mud in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard is a rusty red color because of the surrounding iron-rich bedrock geology. Bands of black are where iron oxide minerals form when chemical conditions are just right. The combination of sediment accumulation and biogeochemical reactions causes this lovely tiger-striped appearance.

Pursuing a career in science has allowed me to travel the world, meet new and interesting people, experience cultures different from mine, and cultivate relationships that will prove invaluable for future collaborations. I love what I do, and encourage anyone who wants to pursue a career in science to do it! My advice to aspiring young scientists is to identify a mentor you trust early on that will guide you through tough times of self-doubt that may arise, or provide strong letters of recommendation.

Follow Joy’s research and work on Twitter by clicking here!

Prof. Richard Damian Nance, Structural Geologist

Type locality of the 460-440 million-year-old megacrystic Esperanza granitoids, Acatlán Complex, southern Mexico.

I am a field-based structural geologist and I have been in love with geology for as long as I can remember. If you like a good “whodunit” then geology is an endless delight. All science is about inquiry and analysis, but geology is more than this – it involves the imagination. Like a good detective novel, geology provides incomplete evidence that must be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing to come up with a story or, in my case, a picture of the past.

My interests lie in plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle, and the influence of these global processes on crustal evolution, mantle circulation, climate, sea level and the biosphere. To tackle such a wide field requires a broad geological background. I am interested in any evidence in the rock record pertaining to the Earth’s changing geography with time. So I collect data on structural kinematics, magmatic environments, depositional settings and provenance, and metamorphic history. I also date rocks and analyze their chemistry and isotopic signatures. I even collect fossils! In this way I try to interpret the geologic history of broad regions so that I can reconstruct past continental configurations and thereby evaluate the causes and effects of Earth’s moving continents and the long-term geologic, climatic and biological consequences of their episodic assembly into supercontinents.

Paleogeographic map of the Rheic Ocean, which separated the southern continents (Gondwana) from the northern continents (Laurentia and Baltica) for much of the Paleozoic Era. The map attempts to reposition the continents in Early Silurian time, about 440 million years ago.

This “big picture” approach to geology suits me well because there is really no aspect of the science that doesn’t fascinate me. For me, geology has not just provided a fantastic career, it has been a lifelong passion. When I joined the Humphrey Davy grammar school in the UK at the age of 12, I came under the spell of a truly exceptional teacher by the name of Bob Quixley. Mr. Quixley taught geography, but his real delight was geology and his enthusiasm for the subject, and the blackboard artwork he crafted to convey it, were addictive. For a period of five years, he had us captivated and, in testament to his influence, no fewer than five of my classmates and I went on to university and careers in geology.

It was a decision I have never questioned. Geology embraces everything that makes a career rewarding. It is important, it matters to both science and society, it is varied and interesting, it takes place in the field and the classroom as well as the office, it pays well and, most of all, it is a lot of fun!

A dangerous game. Checking my undergraduate field mapping 35 years later on a UN-sponsored international field trip to Cornwall and the Lizard ophiolite (a piece of ocean floor linked to the Rheic Ocean) in SW England.

What, you might ask, have supercontinents to do with anything that society cares about? Well, what we don’t grow, we mine, and plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle play a vital role in the search for mineral deposits and energy resources. They also help us understand the natural environment, the distribution of our water resources and the origin of geologic hazards. They additionally influence Earth’s climate and so help us to determine what happens when climate changes, and whether the climate change we are witnessing today is of human origin or a natural phenomena. And this just touches the surface.

So if you are studying geology or think about doing so, I strongly encourage you to continue. I have never met a geologist who didn’t love what they were doing, and to be paid to do what you love is worth a fortune!

Cam Muskelly, Citizen Scientist and Paleontology/Geology Educator

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

Collecting fossils from Lower Carboniferous (Upper Mississippian) rocks from Huntsville, Alabama

My favorite part about being a citizen scientist is that I get to talk to and meet different people of all ages who want to know what lies in the Earth’s rocks. There were many things that drew me into the fields of paleontology and geology. One of the main reasons was my exposure to a teacher’s fossil collections while I was in the 2nd grade. I knew what fossils were but I had never actually held one at the time. At this time, a 4th grade teacher invited me and a friend (who was also interested in fossils) to her classroom to look at her fossil collection.

She pulled out a drawer and inside were various kinds of fossils. She had fossil specimens such as trilobites, plants, shells, and even a dinosaur coprolite (fossilized feces). She gave me a crinoid stem that she found in the Fort Payne Formation of Tennessee and thus began my journey into paleontology and later geology.

What do you do?
I provide lectures and communicate with the public about paleontology and geology. I have given talks in museums, geological societies, schools, and other events about the various topics in geology. My main focus is in historical geology and deep time geology. I try to communicate with the public about how vast geological time is by using the telltale signatures in the fossils and rocks around you. I have keen interests in early Earth and the remnants of that time as well as Paleozoic and Mesozoic paleontology and geology. I also discuss things such as the fossils that have been found in the state I live in, Georgia.

How do your efforts contribute to the betterment of society in general?
Fossils and rocks are key to the Earth’s long history. In order to understand how we as a species will survive the next few million years on this planet we call home, we have to look into how life and the factors affecting life have evolved through time. As the great geologist Charles Lyell once said, “The present is key to the past.” I constantly have my head buried in scientific literature and read what others have built on and even how it has changed based on new data that has been collected by scientists across the world.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?

Fossils through geologic time table set up for Science/Technology night for Puckett’s Mill Elementary school in Dacula, Georgia

When I communicate to the the public, I always stress the understanding of deep time and the importance of that concept. The concept of deep time isn’t new. It has been known since the days of James Hutton (1726-1797). Deep time is the vast expanse of time locked inside the rock and fossil record. When we think of time we normally think in terms of minutes or seconds. Geologists talk about time in the order of thousands, millions, or even billions of years. It is hard for average person to grasp such an immense scale of time. I try to make this more understable by setting fossils in chronological order to give people a idea on how fossils and environments change through each interval of the geological time scale.

I also use the “Pen Method”. Let’s say I order a new set of ink pens from the store. I open the top of the pen and on it is a small plastic ball to protect in pen from drying out. If you take all of human existence and crunch it up, human existence would fit on the plastic ball of the tip of a new pen. That would be example on how small we are in the vast geologic history of planet Earth.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Never ever give on up on what you are passionate about. There is more than one way to become a paleontologist. Let nothing get in your way. Find opportunities around you and take advantage of them. Communicate with scientists and ask questions. Learn how to to read the secrets that are locked in the rocks. Even the smallest secrets can tell you a huge story of a lost world.

Chris Allen, Archaeologist

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?

Chris setting up a total station, an instrument used to survey land and record sub-millimeter accuracy of spatial locations, at an archaeological site located on University of Tennessee property in Knoxville, TN (Summer 2018).
I am an archaeologist, or someone who studies the people of the past. My work focuses on prehistoric and historic populations of North America. The study of archaeology involves the scientific study of the material remains, or the physical things left behind by past human populations. Archaeologists are interested in all aspects of the people of the past from the tools they used to the houses they lived in, their diets and their beliefs, the way they treated their dead, etc. Archaeologists consider the evolution of the human lineage, the effects of the environment has on different cultures, and the influence of human ideas surrounding things like identity, power, and gender on the cultures they study. Using archaeology and the archaeological method is a great way to explore any question that pertains to the past and the people who lived in it.

Archaeology is an important scientific field because for most of the human past it is the only record of who we were, how we lived, and where we came from stored in what we call the archaeological record, or the material remains our ancestors left behind. Even for the more recent human past that has a written history, many aspects of a person’s daily life are never recorded but these can be observed through thorough scientific study.

An archaeological site in the process of archaeological excavation. This photo was taken at an archaeological site located in South Carolina (Summer 2017). The project uncovered a large area and included many more team members than pictured! Archaeology is a true collaborative scientific endeavor.
Archaeologist use a systematic methodology, called excavation, to accurately record information from places where past people performed various activities, called archaeological sites. Archaeologist tend to become specialized in various aspects of the archaeological record from the study of lithic technology (how people used stone tools) to settlement patterns (the way people move and lived on a landscape). My research is focused on two parts; first is the applications of technology in archaeology used to better recognize how information recovered from archaeological sites relates to the interpretations we archaeologists make about past human behavior. Secondly, I am additionally interested in all aspects related to foodways of past people which includes activities, rules, and meanings that surround the production and consumption of food.

Chris and Danielle (a field student) screening dirt through mesh to recover small artifacts. Artifacts will have three stages of identification attached to them. They are; the site number, the unit number, and the level of that unit. This information helps archaeologists reconstruct exactly what happened at an archaeological site when all the materials gets back to the lab.
An archaeological excavation can take on many different forms depending on the environment and questions asked by the researcher. It can be terrestrial or underwater, it can be large-scaled with multiple teams, or just one or two people, it can last years or a few days. Archaeology can and does happen practically anywhere and everywhere.

My current research is focused on pottery from a Historic Cherokee site located in Eastern Tennessee. I am using spatial technology to document how pottery from the site was distributed amongst households to understand how the community formed. Additionally, my research utilizes X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry to analyze the elemental composition of individual ceramic sherds. By studying the elemental variation of pottery, I am able to differentiate between the manufacturing processes used by various Native Peoples and make stronger conclusions about how Cherokee communities organized themselves during this time period. Archaeology is often approached as a scientific form of storytelling. By collecting data from the materials past people left behind we can perhaps tell their story and record it for future generations to learn about our shared human history and experiences.

A ceramic sherd recovered from a 2017 Summer field school in South Carolina. Small details like the pattern on the surface of the sherd help archaeologist determine the age and culture the ceramic belongs to. This ceramic was likely made by someone during the Woodland period (2,500 BCE – 1,000 CE).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part of being a scientist telling stories from the past! Like many people I grew interested in science at a very early age, but the number of scientific fields overwhelmed me. I was undecided about which field I wanted to pursue until I was partway through my undergraduate degree. It was then that I took a few anthropology courses and went on my first archaeological dig. I was hooked and continued taking anthropology courses, changed my major, and I am now working on obtaining a Masters degree in the field of anthropology. Being a student for so long I have discovered that life is much better when you enjoy the work you do. I decided to follow the lesson and make a career out of a scientific field I love.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Science has the great potential to take you to new places and explore research areas not yet discovered. This is why I got started in a scientific field, but I have stayed because I found and surrounded myself with wonderful people who support my academic ideas. I would say to aspiring scientists to seek other folks who support their academic goals and interests and talk to scholars (both students and professionals) that are currently in the field! If you are interested in learning more about archaeology I would recommend finding an archaeological field school near you. Most universities with an anthropology program will have a yearly field school!

To learn more about Chris and his work check out his website by clicking here!

Gabriel-Philip Santos, Collections Manager and Outreach Coordinator

What do you do?

What do I do? That’s a fun question. Most people think of paleontologists as scientists who only study dinosaurs, but really there many different ways to be a paleontologist and not all of them have research as their main thing. At the Alf Museum, I wear many hats, so really what I do depends on the day, which is really fun honestly! My main duty is as the collections manager of the Alf Museum. I like to call myself the “Keeper of Bones” because its my job to take care of the 180,000+ fossils in our museum. Sometimes that involves organizing them, repairing broken fossils, sending fossils out to other scientists, or using fossils to create a brand new exhibit.

As the outreach coordinator, my job is to create fun and engaging programs that help our guests learn about natural history. One of my favorite ways to do this is to connect culture with science. For example, for our Making Monsters Discovery Day, I dress up as Professor Oak from the Pokemon franchise to talk about the real-life fossils that inspired fossil Pokemon! This is how Cosplay for Science got started actually! Cosplay for Science is a fun imitative I created with my friends Brittney Stoneburg, Michelle Barboza-Ramirez, and Isaac Magallanes to use cosplay to explain the science behind our favorite fandoms!

Outside of my main duties at the museum, I also like to conduct my own research. I mainly focus on the evolution of marine mammals, particularly the weird, hippo-like desmostylians (imagine something that looks like a hippo, lives on the beach, but is the size of an elephant).

What is your data and how do you obtain it?

A figure from a publication, showing the growth stages of teeth as species of Desmostylus aged.

When I conduct my own research, my data is obtained through looking at the shapes and differences in the bones of desmostylians and other marine mammals. For my first publication, my co-authors and I looked specifically at the teeth of desmostylians. We looked at how the teeth type and shape changed as the animals got older and also at how they wore their teeth through use. From this, we were able to create a way for future paleontologists to tell the general age of a desmostylian based on what teeth they have and how worn they are.

My job as a paleontologist is not much of a data gatherer. I am really more of a data preserver and presenter as a collections manager and outreach coordinator. In the collections, we preserve as much data as we can by protecting fossils from breaking down and by digitizing fossils. We don’t turn fossils into data like Tron, but what we do is we photograph specimens. We create 3D models. We save data like where a specimen was found or who found a fossil in a special computer database. As a science communicator, my job is to take other scientist’s data and make it easier for the general public to understand.

How does your research contribute to climate change, our understanding of evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?

As a collections manager, I get to be part of something bigger. While I may not contribute directly to major discoveries, my job ensures that all the fossils in our collection are preserved for future paleontologists. Within the collection that I take care of, there may be many important discoveries waiting to be described. As an educator, I also get to help inspire a new generation of scientists and help to create a future that is guided by science. We are facing a very grim future because of people out there who disregard science. If I can help to make everyone in our community see the value in science, even if they don’t want to become scientists, that, I think, can help to build a better future where critical thinking is not only valued, but the norm.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

So many things! My favorite part of being a scientist is that I have the opportunity to learn something new everyday and then go out and help someone else learn something new! Ever since I was kid, I have loved stories and when you’re a scientist, there a limitless stories out there to discover and retell. Its just amazing and really makes me excited to come into work everyday!

What advice would you give to young scientists?

What I like to tell young scientists or scientists new to their field is to make sure that you love what you do. I’m not saying that you have to go to work or school everyday laughing and smiling, but that overall, you enjoy your work, research, or job. If you aren’t happy with what you are doing, there is nothing wrong with changing your career path. I would also like to tell scientists to be sure to take care of yourself. You should always put yourself first in anything you do. Don’t push yourself to the brink of exhaustion because you think you need to in order to succeed in science. There’s no need for that. I guess to sum it all, you do you and be sure to treat yo’ self every now and then.

To follow Gabe check out his Twitter and Instagram. To learn more about the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology click here! To learn more about Cosplay for Science check out their website, Twitter, and Instagram!