Stephen Hill, Paleontologist/Geologist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general? My name is Stephen Hill and I am a graduate student at the University of South Florida in the department of Geosciences. Initially I had absolutely no intention of going into any field of science as an undergraduate(Majoring in history) but about midway through I was required to take an environmental science course. The instructor from that course was very encouraging when I came to her asking questions about what it took to go into biology or environmental science and invited me to join her and some other students on a visit to her husband’s research lab at the University of South Florida. That visit changed the trajectory of my life, on my drive home that day I was so excited about science, the feeling of chasing the unknown, and expanding knowledge. I left that lab that day and decided to change my major.

I eventually settled on majoring in geology over biology but as time went on I was slowly drawn towards the field of paleontology which blends aspects of both fields. I was initially drawn to geology because I was interested in the amount of fieldwork opportunities. Fieldwork and research opportunities have taken me all over, from using ground penetrating radar on grave sites in Florida to mapping the mountains of Idaho and quite a few places in between.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, or to the betterment of society in general? I am interested in how the morphology of Paleozoic echinoderms might relate to the environment in which they lived and how that environment influences the evolution of their respiratory structures. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors well preserved fossils of this time and type are quite rare. This is primarily due to the fact that many parts of echinoderm anatomy are quite delicate and have only been preserved in unique circumstances. Work like this can offer insights into the evolutionary history of marine species as they experienced mass extinction events in the Paleozoic and could serve as an analog for understanding how marine species of today might react to manmade climate change. 

In the future I would like to dedicate more time to fieldwork and the collection of either known or unknown Paleozoic echinoderms. Even today there are still many parts of the world that are not known to science. Seeking out these areas could provide new insights in the form of new fossil species or provide samples of known species of uncommon preservation which would further our understanding of them. 

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? Using scan data acquired from a 3D scanner, CT scanner, or a synchrotron I build a 3D computer model of a fossil. The type of scan data dictates the way the model is built, for instance when using CT or synchrotron data the model is built by combining thousands of individual slices. Because of the poor preservation building models can sometimes feel like building a puzzle or doing reconstructive surgery. Once a model is satisfactory there are many directions that can be taken ranging from being used strictly as a visual model or for finite element analysis. Finite element analysis is a broad term for quantitative methods such as structural analysis, fluid flow, or heat transfer it requires building a mesh (i.e. a model) which divides a larger more complicated object to many small triangles. These small triangles are the “finite elements” which when considered allow the larger object to be solved for more easily.  Of these finite element methods I am most interested in the application of computational fluid dynamics(CFD). Using CFD software the 3D model is put in a virtual environment where varying scenarios of water flow are simulated. As this virtual water flow occurs the software collects data relating to the drag force and coefficients created as the fluid flows around the model. From the CFD data you can theorize if one body plan would be favorable over another in a specific current setting. 

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? When you are coming up as an undergraduate the course work for STEM majors can be pretty daunting. Do not be afraid to ask questions and seek out resources that are available to you through your university academic or otherwise. For much of my early college experience I was hesitant to ask questions in class and I did not take advantage of resources like tutoring labs on campus. Once I became more comfortable with asking questions in class and discovered the campus tutoring lab it made things a lot less stressful.

Nick Cropper, Public Health Scientist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science? I really got interested in science in middle school when I first learned about DNA. The idea that every living thing is based on a unique combination of just four (or five) building blocks blew my mind! I remember asking myself: “What else don’t I know about the world around me?”. Ever since then, I’ve done everything I can to answer that question for myself! 

My favorite part about being a scientist is feeling like I’m contributing to the betterment of the world. Science is more than just data points and lab work. Many scientists spend their days going into communities in need and asking them how we can help. We can study the impact of our contributions to those communities and use that research to ensure we’re doing the greatest possible good. Knowing that my work could both help people immediately in need as well as contribute to helping an uncountable number of people in the future is what drives me to do science.

What do you do?  I like to think of what I do as being a doctor for a community rather than for an individual. First, I ask groups of people what problems they’re having. Then, with their help, I diagnose what’s causing their problems. Finally, we figure out what the best treatment is and do our best to improve the situation. Once we’ve implemented some of our solutions, we come back and ask ourselves “What worked? What didn’t? Why did some things work and not others? And how can we make sure that we do better next time?”. At the end of the day, I try to improve the lives of people in a community by utilizing the scientific method.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change and  the betterment of society in general? My research and outreach will focus on the policies designed to prevent future pandemics and protect vulnerable people from disease. Climate change is the existential issue facing our society today and its impacts will touch innumerable lives in the coming years. My priority as a public health scientist is to understand how climate change will affect the health of people globally and what we can do to mitigate the harm. I hope that my work will save lives and improve the quality of life for those most likely to be in harm’s way.

What are your data and how do you obtain them? I haven’t formally started my research yet, but I hope to work with policymakers to improve climate and disaster preparedness/response policies. My data will come from two sources. First, I’ll use research into past disaster responses to determine what went wrong and what could have been done to save lives or mitigate damage. Second, I’ll draw on existing policies that govern disaster preparedness and responses to determine where gaps still remain. The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent example of how different policies resulted in better or worse outcomes around the world. I suspect I’ll be comparing those policies and learning from their outcomes for much of my career!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? You can do science. Don’t allow yourself to be fooled by the misconception that you can only do science if you were the smartest person in the class or that a career in science is only for a certain type of person. Science is for everyone. In fact, science is most successful when there are scientists with a broad diversity of backgrounds, ideas, and interests. No matter what you may have excelled at or struggled with, whatever your experiences have been, wherever you’re from and whoever you are, there is a field of science in need of a unique and brilliant mind like yours.

Sam Ocon, Invertebrate Paleontology Graduate Student

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science? There is something so magical about being the first person in the world to know something. Even more magical, at least to me, is talking about that thing to others so they can share in the excitement! One of the major appeals of being a scientist, to me, besides adding to the general knowledge of the human race, is also learning to see the world in a different light; for example, long drives have become so much more exciting since I’ve been trained as a geologist. I loved watching the geology change as we traveled from my home state of Florida to my new state of West Virginia! 

I’ve been interested in science since I was very small. I come from a family with no formally trained scientists; however, several members of my family are fascinated by different aspects of the natural world. My dad is an amateur ichthyologist, my grandpa, a self-taught horticulturist, and my grandma is a nurse with a fascination for human biology. Growing up surrounded by people fascinated by science and nature (and watching Jurassic Park every single day) lead me to find science at a very young age.

What do you do? I am currently looking at horseshoe crabs, both fossil and modern, to figure out if they are really “living fossils” or not. More specifically, I’m looking at how fast their shape actually changes through time and if it is really as slow and steady as we commonly think it is.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of  evolution? I am hoping to use what I discover to inform horseshoe crab conservation around the world! For example, knowing how horseshoe crabs adapted to past mass extinctions (they’ve survived all 5!) will tell us how they may react to modern climate change. This will also help us understand more about other groups considered to be “living fossils” and teach us more about long term trends in evolution. 

What are your data and how do you obtain them?  Some of my data is from previous work done by my advisor, Dr. James Lamsdell, but I will also be collecting more data this spring and summer from 3D scans and photographs of fossil horseshoe crabs.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? If you are passionate about science, embrace that! Science takes a lot of hard work, but passion makes the hard work worth it. You can do this!

Sinjini Sinha, Paleontology Ph.D. Candidate

Sinjini ready to dissect an extant bony fish to study the anatomy of the fish at University of Alberta, Canada.

Hello! I am Sinjini, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to starting my doctoral studies, I pursued my bachelors and masters in Geology at the University of Delhi in India. Following that, I moved to the University of Southampton, UK to pursue a Master of Research in Vertebrate Paleontology and then joined the University of Alberta, Canada to study a M.Sc. in Systematics and Evolution. My previous research focused on the systematics and paleoecology of Late Cretaceous sharks from central India and southern England as well as on the diversity of Paleocene bony fishes from Canada.

What is your favorite part about being a paleontologist and how did you get interested in paleontology in general?
My favorite part of being a paleontologist is that it gives me the opportunity to dig up fossils in exotic locations- be it in the sandstones of Central India, in Western Canada or the chalk deposits of Southern England. I also enjoy sharing my scientific knowledge with non-scientists through Skype a Scientist sessions, in person outreach events, or simply by random conversations.

I always found it fascinating to know that fossils are remains of organisms that were alive several million years ago. During my undergraduate days at the University of Delhi in India, I used to enjoy my paleontology classes more than any other geology course and hence pursuing my dissertation in paleontology was an obvious choice for me. It was during my dissertation days, I realized how paleontology addresses critical questions about earth-life interactions in deep-time and that earth’s paleontological history archived in the deep-time rock record provides a major research opportunity to investigate the future of our planet. As my research progressed, I became sure that I want to pursue an academic career in paleontology and doing a Ph.D. is the next steppingstone towards fulfilling my career objectives.

What do you do? 
I study a moderate mass extinction event during the Early Jurassic (about 183 million years ago). During this period, there was a volcanic province eruption, which injected large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As a result, there were significant perturbations in environmental conditions around the globe such as global warming, low oxygen levels, and acidification in some parts of the ocean. It is thought that these changes led to multiple (or multi-phased) biotic crises, but they may have also enhanced exceptional fossil preservation. Fossil deposits that contain both hard skeletal parts (such as bones) as well as soft tissues (e.g., ink sacs of coleoids) of organisms are considered as exceptional fossil deposits (or Konservat-Lagerstätten deposits). Though rare, such deposits provide uniquely comprehensive records of past life. These deposits contain a direct record of soft tissues of organisms not typically preserved in regular deposits Thus, the goal of my research is to address how these changing environmental conditions in the Early Jurassic affected the exceptional preservation, extinction, and recovery of organisms.

Sinjini measuring a Late Cretaceous shark tooth from the Chalk deposits of England.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
Soft tissues of organisms get preserved under rare circumstances in which rapid soft tissue mineralization proceeds faster than soft tissue degradation along with other local (e.g., depositional environment, or climate), regional, or global (e.g., weathering, or bioturbation) phenomenon affecting their preservation. Sometimes, a combination of preservational pathways can lead to exceptional preservation. Thus, the mineralogy of a fossil specimen is the result of the preservational process it has undergone, especially since the preservation of soft tissues typically requires rapid growth of minerals in the original place. I use a Scanning Electron Microscope to get better images of the structures of the fossils and then use Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (EDS) to obtain the mineralogy of the fossils from the elements detected in the EDS.

For the extinctions and recovery aspect of the project, I will be studying the occurrences and abundances of the different groups of fossils across the extinction boundaries. This will help me investigate which organisms survived the extinctions and which organisms went extinct. The fossils will be collected through field work.

How does your research goals contribute to the understanding of evolution and paleontology in general?
Results from my project will provide information about preservational pathways of exceptional fossilization. Exceptional fossil deposits capture information about organism morphology, ecology, diversity, evolutionary relationships, and paleo community structure, hence more information about them is necessary for filling gaps in the paleontological record. In addition, it will provide data about the patterns of biotic change in tropical marine communities and how these communities recovered from significant global events like those we are facing now. Broadly, extinctions not rated as the biggest could shed light on the survival strategies of organisms, addressing concerns about the conservation of extant marine communities in our changing environment today.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
If you are passionate about paleontology, just go for it. I often hear from non-paleontology graduate students that they had to drop their idea of pursuing paleontology as a career because they thought there are no jobs available.

Sinjini is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. To learn more about her and her research, check out her website and social media platforms below:
Website: https://www.jsg.utexas.edu/student/sinjini_sinha/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/SinjiniS
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sinjini-sinha-5a101ba9/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sinjinisinha

Dr. Fatin Izzati Minhat, Micropaleontologist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist is that you get to meet people and go places. My interest in becoming a scientist started with my curiosity about the stars and moon when I was ten years old. Back then, I wished to be an astronaut so that I can travel the universe and look at the stars and planets. I learned a lot by reading and going through atlas. However, since both of my parents were not from a scientific background, many of my questions were unanswered. Later during my high school years, I met a cool biology teacher that seems to know-it-all. I admired her so much that I aim that one day I would like to teach students and do research at the same time. This is when I made up my mind to become a scientist. During my university years, I was very curious about life in the oceans which led me to take a major degree in aquatic life. The fun part about science is, the more you know, the more questions you have. These questions are the one that drives and motivated me each year to be a better scientist.

What do you do?
My work focuses mostly on the tiny (microscopic) sea creature called foraminifera. Foraminifera are single cell organisms, closely related to amoeba, that own a shell-like structure to cover their cell. As a micropaleontologist, I document the different foraminifera species found around Malaysian waters and sometimes use their distribution pattern to understand the environment they live in. The best part about foraminifera is that when they are living, they represent the surrounding environment and archive chemical signals around them within their shell (test). Once the foraminifera died, most of them were preserved in the sediment and became a good environmental archive. I can then use their distribution as well as the chemistry signal in their shell (test) to indicate changes in the environment. 

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? 
One of my research goals is to understand the past climate change around Southeast Asia during the Quaternary period. I had been using foraminifera to infer the changes of sea level and the implication towards coastal areas around Malaysia. Scientists have agreed that sea level rise due to global warming is currently inevitable but the sea level rise is far from uniform. Which means, different regions will experience different timing and magnitude of the sea level rise. Local factors may either amplify or reduce the impact of local sea level rise. Hence we must be well prepared with mitigation plans that protect the economy and livelihood of the coastal community. Since all states in Malaysia are coastal states, the country must understand the future impact of sea level rise towards the coastal ecosystem and community. Through the understanding of sea level patterns in the past, I hope that I can educate the community and advise the stake holder for future mitigation plans. 

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
I collected data on foraminifera assemblages, sediment type data and environmental data (i.e., water depth, salinity, temperature, ph). These data is used to understand the foraminifera assemblages and their response towards the changes in their surrounding environment. Most of my early work uses benthic foraminifera assemblages to monitor the health of marine environment. My recent interest is to use both benthic and planktonic foraminifera as a proxy for sea level and temperature changes. With the help of colleagues in National Taiwan University, I aim to reconstruct the sea-level and temperature changes during the Holocene. Hopefully the reconstruction and validate the physical earth model and future sea level projection around South China Sea and Malacca Straits.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
My advice would be for them to continue pursuing their dream in their field of interest. It may be difficult at the beginning especially for countries with limited resources but with motivation, great research teams, collaborations between world laboratories, one can carry out world class science sooner or later.

Follow Fatin’s updates on their website by clicking here.

Meghan Cook, Geoscience Education Researcher

As far back as I can remember, I have yearned to be an educator. I have fond memories of running a classroom in my parents’ back yard and giving my friends smiley-face stickers on their “assignments”. At that time (I was only 5 or 6!), I was unsure of the discipline direction or at what educational level I would like to teach, but I knew I had a visceral draw to understand the natural world. I also knew when I got older I wanted to have a family, yet not until I had my first child during the beginning stages of my doctoral program did I realize how challenging earning an education while building a family would be. 

I began my Ph.D. program in Geology in 2011 as well as a part-time adjunct professor position. I progressed with my studies until early 2014 when I became pregnant with our first child. I took a two-year respite from my Ph.D. program, allowing me to refocus my drive for the degree, and to find a job that could help support my growing family. When my official leave of absence came to an end in 2016, I was reinvigorated, raising two children (I had another child during the 2-year respite), and more confident in my role as a geoscience educator. I have since had another child who is now 7 months old. I hope to be an example for future women scientists that you can have both worlds: a family and an education. I unfortunately did not have many role models of women professors with children and I can only hope that my situation and choices can prove that choosing to have children and be a highly educated woman is a valid life goal.  

My research focuses on the affective (i.e., emotional) response of undergraduate geoscience students to traditional, real-world and non-traditional, virtual reality (VR) field trips. I primarily use qualitative means, such as interviews, to collect data. I ask students about their perceptions and feelings to better understand what aspects of a field trip positively or negatively impact their affective domain. The overall goals of my research are threefold: (1) to add to the extant literature pertaining to geoscience education best practices; (2) to understand the ways in which geoscience educators can grow and nurture the undergraduate geoscience community via traditional and non-traditional field trips, and; (3) to understand “what works” in the recruitment and retention of students into the geosciences by understanding the motivations and decisions of undergraduate geoscience students surrounding field trip experiences. My research has direct applications for making geoscience accessible for disabled students and applications in increasing the ability for geoscience participation, as well as in applying new knowledge to introductory major and non-major geoscience undergraduate courses to better recruit and retain students into the geosciences.

Molly Elizabeth Hunt, Paleontologist, Science Educator

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

My favorite part about being a scientist is sharing my science with others! Whether it’s creating educational activities, writing blog or social media posts, visiting classrooms, designing museum exhibits or just talking to people I am always happiest when I get to be a part of someone’s scientific journey. 

I was first introduced to geology when I was 5 years old and my great grandmother gave me a box of rocks and minerals. From there I began to read and collect more and more. It was then in high school, that I decided I wanted to focus on paleontology because of the great role model I had in my teacher Mr. Mike Koenig who took me fossil hunting. These two events and many others in-between sparked a passionate for earth sciences that has put me on to a track to a professional career as a geologist and paleontologist. 

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? 

As an undergraduate student in the Calede Lab at Ohio State, I study body size evolution or change over time. By looking at the teeth preserved as fossil from Gophers that lived around 30-11 million years ago, we can determine what the size of those creatures and then compare them to gophers that are alive today. 

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

By observing changes to the size of animals during different times we can understand how climate, and environment affect mammal groups. This is especial critical now as we are facing global climate change. Paleontology can use the past to plan and prepare for the future. 

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.?

I am use measurements of the teeth (toothrow length) of fossil gophers as well as calculations developed from living rodent training sets to estimate the body mass of these extinct species. I take photos of the toothrows and skulls of specimens in museum collections, which are input into a software to calculate lengths then I determine means and standard deviations for each species studied. For modern species we use weight in grams that has been published in scientific literature. This data is also put through computer analyzes with the incredible help of my advisor Dr. Jonathan Calede that can evaluate the evolution of body size over time, over geographic location, and within the phylogenetic tree. 

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Never give up. Even if someone tells you that you will not make it, even if you have a bad day, even if you make a big mistake, even if you get a bad grade….YOU can do it. Believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who will always support you and work hard! 

Learn more about Molly on her website or follow her updates on Twitter and Instagram!

Whitney Lapic, Paleoecologist

Fig 1. This was from August 2019. I was on a research vessel off the coast of Florida, helping the EAT team collect specimens.

Some background information for you all– I am a second year Master’s student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I would consider myself an aspiring paleoecologist and paleobiologist. And my interests lie in paleoecology, specifically predator – prey interactions, as well as science communication.

We know that predation plays a role in influencing modern ecosystems and so my research explores the impact that predation had on shaping ecosystems through geologic time. I am specifically looking at echinoids and how sea urchins and sand dollars evolved after new groups of predators emerged during the Mesozoic Marine Revolution (MMR). This time in Earth’s history is known for rapid diversification and emergence of new groups of marine life – many of which can be found in our oceans today. With all of these new or bigger and better predators in the oceans, prey, such as sea urchins, need to develop ways that they can deter predators from successfully attacking and preying on them.

The project that I am working on is part of the Echinoid Associated Traces Project (EAT) which addresses a wide range of paleoecological questions using biotic interactions and echinoids. My project investigates whether or not trends that can be seen in mollusks and their predators during the MMR can be seen in other groups of organisms. Recent studies suggest that the MMR was not this singular, homogenous event that it has previously thought to have been and so, we are looking at the timing of these potential escalatory trends in echinoids relative to other groups of organisms in which these trends have been so thoroughly demonstrated.

Fig 2. This is Encope, a live sand dollar that was collected off the coast of Florida.
Fig 3. In fall of 2019, I travelled to Moscow, Russia for the European Conference on Echinoderms. I attended a field trip and had the opportunity to look for sea urchin fossils.

When you think of sea urchins, you might think of long, sharp spines covering the entire organism, but that isn’t always the case. To determine if sea urchins developed traits to deter predators, we first need to find out what helps them avoid becoming prey. Over the past year, I have been identifying characteristics that we propose serve some form of antipredatory function. These morphologies include long and wide spines as well as spines that have unique shapes or sharp thorns covering them. These morphologies can actively deter predators by inflicting damage or they can promote the settlement of encrusting organisms that may provide camouflage. With the help of our undergraduate interns, I have been collecting data on these antipredatory morphologies across groups of echinoids.

Collecting data from so many specimens is no easy feat during a global pandemic. Thankfully, recent years have given rise to online databases and collections such as IDigBio. While it is no replacement for traveling to a museum to search for specimens, using images downloaded from IDigBio, our interns and I can still view hundreds of specimens from museums around the world. Through these virtual collections, we can digitally measure and categorize specimens and their antipredatory morphologies.

As an undergraduate student, I was unaware of some of these resources that were available to me, and so I feel as if they are perhaps unknown to undergraduate students who may be unable to work hands on with museum specimens for any number of reasons. With the current pandemic, the need for digital collections and databases is that much clearer. I am incredibly lucky that I am still able to continue my research and that my project may provide internship opportunities for the undergraduates involved, and much of that is due to the digitalization of museum collections.

Fig 4. Goniocidaris tenuispina (USNM E0001335), a sea urchin with highly ornate and long spines. This specific specimen is one of hundreds observed from collections that have been digitalized and made available through IDigBio. This image is from the Smithsonian and is from the NMNH Extant Specimen Records. There is a Creative Commons license (CC0) associated with it, so it is not subject to copyright.

Victoria Crystal, Geologist, Paleontologist, Podcaster

Victoria collecting fossils in the field

Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Victoria developed a passion for paleontology by frequently exploring the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. She later got her bachelor’s degree in geology from Colorado College and her master’s degree in geology and paleontology from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Victoria’s research focuses on understanding ancient ecosystems from the Late Cretaceous period (the time of the dinosaurs) and the early Paleocene (the time just after the extinction of the dinosaurs). She uses two different approaches to do so:

 1- Geochemistry – She measures the carbon and oxygen isotopes in fossil dinosaur teeth to learn about what the dinosaurs were eating and drinking. Tooth enamel is made up of several different elements, including oxygen and carbon. When the tooth enamel is made inside the body, the oxygen ingested by an organism from its drinking water is incorporated into the chemical structure of the enamel. And the carbon in the tooth enamel comes from the food the organism eats.  In this case, Victoria is looking at the teeth of herbivorous dinosaurs, so the food is plants. Victoria is interested in where the dinosaurs are getting their water and food. She asks questions like, “are dinosaurs drinking water from large rivers that flow down from mountains? Or are they drinking water from ponds and streams on the floodplain? And are the plants they are eating close to the banks of these water sources or are they farther away?”  

Victoria using a rock saw to collect fossils out of very hard sandstone

2 – Paleobotany – She also measures the size and shape of fossil leaves to determine what the average temperature was when the leaves were alive and how much it rained at that time. This helps her to determine what the climate was like in the past. She is also curious about how plant communities recovered after the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. This is the extinction that famously killed the dinosaurs, but also about 60% of plant species in North America went extinct too. So when she looks at the size and shape of fossil leaves to learn about the climate of the past, she also analyzes how many different types of leaves there were. This helps her to answer questions like, “how soon after the extinction did plant communities start to increase in diversity (meaning number of plant types)? How soon after the extinction did we start to see forests and rainforests in North America?” 

Along with geology and paleontology, Victoria is also passionate about education and STEM outreach. She is a certified Environmental Educator and has spent summers teaching science and leadership at the Keystone Science School and the Logan School for Creative Learning in Colorado.  She is also the host of the podcast Ask a Scientist, in which she interviews scientists asking them questions written by elementary and middle school students. She encourages everyone, including aspiring scientists, to be curious about the world around them and to always ask questions.

Victoria using a dremel drill to sample dinosaur tooth enamel
Podcasting!

Niklas Hohmann, Master student in Paleobiology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? The best part are the findings that completely contradict your intuition! Discussing these findings with other scientist and finding out where and why the intuitions failed are the moments where I learn most. I always loved these learning moments that spark curiosity, so aiming for a career in science was a natural thing to do.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?  I study how parts of dead animals such as mussel shells are turned into fossils. This sub-discipline of paleontology is called “taphonomy”, which is Greek and roughly translates as “the science of burial”. The focus of my research to find out how much information about past environments is lost when fossils form. Some shells might for example be very fragile, so finding few fossils of them is not necessarily evidence that they did not play an important role in the past ecosystem.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Before 1950, very little information about ecosystems was collected. This makes it difficult to assess the impact humans had on nature simply we do not really know how nature looked like 500 or 1000 years ago. By developing tools to reconstruct these ecosystems from fossils, I hope to contribute to the understanding how nature looked like in the past so we can better protect it for future generations.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? All data I use was previously published by someone else and I compile it from the literature for specific questions I am working on. Typically this would be information about shells that were found in a drillcore, their material properties that were determined in a lab experiment, and the environmental conditions where the core was taken.

Aside this empirical data, I borrow concepts from chemistry, physics, and different branches of mathematics for modeling. This can lead to interesting analogies: The way shells are distributed in the sediment is similar to the way heat is migrates through a solid medium, which is in turn tightly connected to particle movement.

The effect of sediment input on shell abundance in the sea floor. When sediment input is low, many old shells will be found at the sediment surface. Typically the ages of shells found at the same place differ by hundreds of years, a phenomenon called time-averaging. When sediment input is high, shells are buried quickly, which protects them from destructive processes close to the surface.

How has your research have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? A lot of scientists that depend on access to labs were having troubles getting their work done due to the social distancing measures. Also many of the side jobs that are crucial for students were not available anymore, which put a lot of financial pressure on them.

My research has not been affected much, but all the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 have strengthened my belief that science communication should be a central part of scientific practice.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? If you’re already in academia: Don’t specialize too early and look for a mentor you get along with. In general: stay curious and ask all the questions. Especially the ones you think are stupid.