Lisette Melendez, Geology and Astronomy Undergraduate Student

Standing outside of NASA Ames, where Lisette worked in aiding the lunar landing mission!

What is your favorite part of being a scientist?

Ever since I was very young, I’ve always had a fascination with geology. In elementary school, I would tout around my battered copy of the Smithsonian handbook on rocks and minerals and take notes in my “research journal”. Rocks littered every available surface of my room, and my ears always perked up when we finally reached the Earth Science section of our science classes. What’s cooler than learning about Earth’s layers and how volcanoes form? During field trips, I would sometimes get separated from the group, too mesmerized by rocks that I found on the ground. Even with all these signs, it wasn’t until the end of my first year in university that I realized that I could become a geologist and work with rocks for a career. 

I started off in a field that I was pressured into but that I had no passion for. How could I miss geology as a career option? For many years prior, every geologist that I encountered in my textbooks were white men. While I was working on one of my assignments, I looked over to see what my friend was working on. The assignment was to use Steno’s Laws of Stratigraphy to determine what order the rock layers were deposited. I thought the assignment was fascinating while my friend looked at me with a strange face. They told me about their professor, Dr. Sheffield, and how passionate she was for geology and all the amazing fieldwork she’s done throughout her career. This was a mindblowing moment for me: it was the first time I learned about a female geologist. That same day, I went to the student affairs office and changed my major to Geology. 

From that day forward, I got to experience first hand what a difference doing what you love made in one’s life. My favorite part of being a scientist is simply that there’s always more to learn. Every single day, I wake up incredibly excited to go to class and learn about minerals, volcanoes, and paleobiology. I still remember being in my old major looking wistfully at the Mineralogy class on the USF course inventory. I’m forever grateful that now, that’s what I study all the time! I look over my room and now there are textbooks on planetary volcanism, astrobiology, and sedimentology that join the rocks scattered on various surfaces. Sometimes, I feel like I never really changed from that child who loved rocks: now, I’m just working to be able to collect rocks for the rest of my life.

What do you do?

Right now, I’m studying geology and astronomy at the University of South Florida. My future goals are to get accepted into a PhD program for planetary science, and then hopefully work on the research team that analyzes samples from the surface of Mars and become a curator at a natural history museum! 

Most of the research I do works towards uncovering the geologic past of celestial objects. It’s the perfect overlap between my two favorite subjects: geology and astronomy! Last summer, I conducted research about Martian ice caps at Brown University through the Leadership Alliance – an awesome program aimed at increasing diversity in STEM (read my Time Scavengers post about it here!). I also interned at NASA, where I helped write the code of a navigation program that would assist scientists locate ideal landing areas on the Moon. This upcoming summer, I’m really excited to be working with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on analyzing meteoritic samples collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. The samples collected contain information on the earliest history of our solar system! I’m using my time in undergraduate studies to get a clearer idea of what branch of planetary science I’d like to delve into in graduate school.

Volunteering as a mentor for NCAS (NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars).

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

I believe research in the planetary sciences helps humanity as a whole by illuminating our role in the universe. By addressing the questions of the universe,  the answers to our day to day problems become clearer through perspective. It’s easier to plot out humanity’s destiny and how to build a better society for everyone by figuring out where we came from and how the universe around us is changing. This is particularly important when considering the future of humans in space. Being able to find geologic analogs of celestial terrain (like the Martian surface) on Earth will help us decide which crops and structures work best for the Martian environment. As we continue exploring the universe, it’s important to keep in mind universal codes of safety, planetary preservation, and anti-imperialism in order to avoid harming the new environments we enter.

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

One of the first pieces of advice that one of my mentors, Dr. Mustard, bestowed onto me was that “science is never done in a vacuum”. Collecting scientific data is an incredibly exciting part of research, but it’s also essential to communicate your findings with others to increase scientific literacy and humanity’s pool of knowledge. Science is all about sharing what you’ve learned and what you’ve experienced. It is much more rewarding involving different perspectives and helping everyone feel included. Through my officer positions at two clubs at USF, the Geology Club and the Contemporary Art Museum Club, I promote the importance of STEAM and interdisciplinary research. I believe one of the keys to successful science communication is to express why one’s excited about the topic and to make it relatable to what others are interested in. I’m really excited to join Time Scavengers as a science communications intern in order to hone in on this essential skill and become a better scientist overall.

Standing at the base of the 40 foot radio telescope at Green Bank Observatory!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

My advice would be to just take a moment and think about what you really want from life. I’ve spent countless years just trying to follow what others expected me to do that I never really thought about what I wanted to be. Following the path others decide for you is no way to live your life. You’re the one who will have to live out your career path, so choose one you’re passionate in! There’s definitely space for you! There is such a wide range of fields, from studying bugs to glaciers, you deserve to make your mark the way that you want to.

Finding where you belong is essential to unlocking the zeal that will pull you through obstacles and challenges. Prior to joining the geology department, I was a very shy and reserved person. However, my passion for geology and astronomy (and the endless kindness from geologists) gave me the courage to overcome my anxieties and become resilient in the face of adversity. I transformed from a quiet and socially anxious person into the president of my university’s Geology Club and founder of USF’s Society of Women in Space Exploration Chapter. Openly doing what you love will also surround you with like-minded individuals that are the key to building a good support group! My favorite part about becoming a geologist would definitely be being able to network and meet others who are just as passionate about rocks as I am. It’s exhilarating, being friends with geologists and gathering around in the parking lot of a Waffle House to examine an outcrop. The feeling of togetherness is unmatched.

 

Dr. James C. Lamsdell, Paleobiologist and Podcaster

Frozen waterfalls in Ithaca, NY while visiting the Paleontological Research Institute for Darwin Day in 2019.

I first became interested in science without ever realising that it was science the interested me. My parents used to show my brother and I nature documentaries on TV, and I found the natural world fascinating. I wanted to find out more about it and began reading everything I could. I thought dinosaurs were fantastic from an early age (I still have a full collection of the Dinosaur! Magazine series in my parents’ loft, including all the trading cards) and this developed into a broader interest in palaeontology through membership to Rockwatch. The thing I love most about being a scientist is the detective work. The act of discovery – finding things out that noone has seen or realised before, gathering evidence and coming to your conclusions, constructing a story to tell others about what you’ve found – is very exciting.

Holding a horseshoe crab while visiting Delaware in 2017.

My research is varied, ranging from the description of species of ancient sea scorpions and horseshoe crabs to studying patterns of extinction across different habitats during biotic crises. At its core, my work seeks to understand what drives the evolution of new animal forms and how animals evolve to successfully invade new environments, such as moving into freshwater from the oceans or when arthropods first moved on to land. This work explores the fundamental mechanisms by which evolution operates and can tell us how past species have adapted to environmental changes. Understanding how organisms have adapted to new environments in the past can help us interpret how organisms today are likely to respond to our current climate change.

Doing fieldwork in the Devonian if West Virginia in 2018.

Most of my work focuses on fossil arthropods, particularly eurypterids (sea scorpions) and xiphosurids (horseshoe crabs), aquatic relatives of arachnids (spiders, ticks, scorpions, etc.). My data comes directly from the fossils, and so I have built almost all my datasets completely from scratch. I gather most of it from museum collections – there are so many fossils that have never been described, and many eurypterid species have not been looked at since their original description over a hundred years ago. Museum collections are an invaluable scientific resource and critical to the continued success of all natural sciences. I also communicate science regularly with two of my colleagues, Amanda Falk and Curtis Congreve, on our podcast Palaeo After Dark. The podcast is more of an informal reading group discussion, and stemmed from our desire to keep talking to each other regularly about science as we moved off to do different jobs in different parts of the country. We only have a couple of goals; show that scientists are people with interests beyond science, and to not talk about our own research. We tend to be a bit too technical for general audiences, but I know people that have our discussions on while they are stuck working alone in the lab for company, and it’s nice to know that we can provide that sort of support for people.

For anyone who wants to be a scientist (and believe me, anyone can be a scientist), my main advice is to stay curious. If you can, read about things that interest you. The more you read, the more you will find that interests you.

Follow Dr. Lamsdell’s updates on his website by clicking here or on Twitter @FossilDetective.

Thomas Henry Culhane Ph.D. and Enas Culhane, Community Scientists, Activists, and Teachers

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

We love the problem solving interplay that occurs when we are able to exchange techniques for Do-it-Yourself construction of appropriate technologies with  communities facing environmental and climatic challenges. We became interested in exploring the synergies between human and non-human communities after our personal experiences of disruptions in environmental and social services as the results of minor and major natural disasters (earthquakes and hurricanes, wars and occupations and economic deprivation) in our homelands and during our travels.

What do you do?

We focus on harnessing local resources, using biomimicry and permaculture design and finding ways to cooperate with microbial and other biological systems  to improve and develop  sustainable lifestyles. In particular, we “life-test” food-energy-water and zero waste “nexus” technologies for closing the loop between “food-waste” and “toilet waste” and other “organic residuals” using self-built  biodigesters and hydroponic systems to produce fuel, food and fertilizer and create healthy soil ecosystems. The heart of our work is outreach and education so that we “teach a woman to fish” rather than “give a man a fish” and empower everybody to participate in the much needed zero-waste  “circular economy”.

Enas Culhane, Dr. T.H. Culhane and Suleiman Halasah introducing the “Solar CITIES Pickle Barrel Biodigester” in a workshop at Talitha Kumi Environmental Education Center in Beit Djala, Bethlehem, Palestine.

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

Modelling and creating an attitude of  self reliance and local resilience and a more accountable relationship between consumption patterns  and self-provisioning capacity helps society adapt to and mitigate the changes in climate and the losses of productive land and water ecosystems that are a consequence of the bad practices promulgated in the Anthropocene.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

We teach a new course at the University of South Florida called “Envisioning Sustainability” that uses VR/AR and game development software and hardware and visual storytelling to help students develop interactive “5D” models/simulations and digital assets  that show the application of best practice technologies to their own homes/neighborhoods and areas of interest. These data can then be shared on-line and act as immersive meeting spaces for testing ideas before attempting to implement them in the field.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Our best advice for aspiring scientists is to humbly consider yourself a small but important part of a much larger “ecology of mind” and an unbroken thread in history’s “Great Conversation” and Co-Evolutionary Process  and strive to contribute your observations, insights and epiphanies in a cooperative open source manner for the betterment of all (human and non-human).

Dr. Culhane is the Director of the Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Concentration in the Patel College of Global Sustainability at the University of South Florida. Both he and Enas Culhane are community scientists, activists, and teachers. To learn more about their work, visit their website, blog, and Facebook group

Alec Baines, Undergraduate Researcher in Vertebrate Paleontology

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

Whether it’s watching alligators carrying their hatchlings or seeing a T. rex skeleton towering above me in a museum, I have always loved an amazing group of animals called “archosaurs”. This group includes living members like birds and crocodilians, as well as their extinct cousins, the dinosaurs and pterosaurs. I love being able to learn more about these creatures and figuring out what their extinct relatives were like when they were alive. Although I love the living birds and crocodilians, there is something wonderfully monstrous about their extinct relatives that sparks my curiosity.

What do you do?

I make digital models to study how archosaur brains have changed throughout Earth’s history. Birds have brains that fit closely to the inside of their skulls but their closest living relatives, crocodilians, do not. This means that we can assume the shape of bird’s close extinct relatives, like theropod dinosaurs, can also be modeled from the inside of their fossilized skulls. Living birds and crocodilians’ brains as bookends can then be used in comparison with the models to gain a better understanding of what structures are present and how it fits in evolutionary history.

Scarlet macaw (left) and a digital model of its brain (right).

I also use a combination of photography, scanning technology, and 3D imaging software to make digital models that look exactly like the real fossil. The models can then be 3D printed or viewed on a computer from anywhere across the globe. Fossils are subject to so many risks – theft, damage, even being sold into private collection where they are unavailable to the public. Having a digital model acts like a backup, so if something bad happens to the fossil there is still a way for future generations to interact with and learn from it.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution and the betterment of society?

Although some archosaurs are extinct, like pterosaurs and dinosaurs, many birds and crocodilians are still alive today. The more we know about how this amazing group of animals has changed in the past, the better we can predict how this amazing group of animals will continue to change in the future.

Talking to people with assistance from an Eastern Screech Owl.

Fossils can be difficult to access due to distance from where they are located and potential for damage when handling them. By making 3D digital models and print files available, it makes it possible for anyone to use them in their classroom or study them that wants to.

I also do zoo education as a way to talk about evolution, climate change, and conservation with people. By introducing people to these animals, it makes it easier to have friendly conversations about how these sometimes touchy subjects like evolutionary history and how climate change is currently affecting them. I believe that people protect what they care about and there’s no faster to a person’s heart than introducing to the furry friends affected by all this.

On being disabled and queer in STEM

My passion for archosaurs and paleontology largely comes from the fact that I’m autistic. Many autistics, like myself, develop intense interests in specific subjects and so I’ve turned mine into a career that has brought me so much joy. My disability has also made me great at creative problem solving. I often run into sensory difficulties when handling fossils and the dusty boxes they’re kept in, so I figured out solutions like wearing compression gloves that help me to tune out the bad textures. I’m constantly practicing critical thinking skills to work around my difficulty with social cues, which inadvertently sharpens my critical thinking for things like working on a research problem. Being disabled can admittedly be frustrating but it has also made me uniquely great at what I do. Also, vaccinate your kids. Vaccines cannot cause someone to become autistic and people like me aren’t worse than polio.

Celebrating both paleontology and queer identities with people all over the world online!

I’m transgender and biromantic/grey-asexual. Let’s just shorten that to “queer” to save some breath. I’ve admittedly had some people in science be nasty about it and even refuse to work with me because of my identity, but they aren’t worth talking about. On the flip side, I’ve met many people in paleontology that are very supportive of queer people and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many other queer people through shared research topics. Growing up, I didn’t know about many queer people in science at all and thought I would end up quite lonely in my career. I look forward to continuing to prove my younger self wrong and being visible for the next generation to see how welcome they are in science.

Nick Smith, Paleontologist

I am a paleontologist interested in the evolutionary history and systematics of Paleozoic echinoderms (i.e. sea stars, sea urchins, and sea lilies). I am currently working with one of the five echinoderm groups that persisted through the Paleozoic all the way to modern day, the brittle star! Brittle stars look similar to starfish, but their arms appear clearly separate from their body (central disk). Brittle stars originated during the Early Ordovician (approx. 485–480 million years ago) and diversified pretty quickly throughout the early Paleozoic. Unfortunately, there is a large, (nearly 60 million year!) gap in our knowledge of brittle stars from the beginning of the Mississippian to the beginning of the Mesozoic, and it has remained that way for the past 30 years. Because brittle stars are made up of thousands of individual skeletal elements, finding fully articulated brittle star skeletons to expand our understanding of their life histories is challenging.

Figure showing the difference in shape between brittle stars (left) and starfish (right). Notice the difference in how the arms appear separated from the central body in brittle stars, but as an extension of the body in the starfish. Images taken from Science Photo Library and jaxshells.org.

To remedy this challenge, I am utilizing a technique that has primarily been used with Mesozoic and Cenozoic aged brittle stars that focuses on the use of morphologically significant (differently shaped) elements from the arm. Skeletal elements of brittle star arms have been proven to be taxonomically significant, meaning that we can identify different genera of brittle stars based on these arm pieces. I collect these skeletal elements by sieving (washing and sorting by size) weathered down shale from Mississippian aged sediment located in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Finally, I compare the individual elements with articulated skeletons in museums to assign species names to my elements. I can then use that knowledge to fill in the gaps of our understanding of late Paleozoic brittle stars.

This is an image of the individual skeletal elements from the brittle stars I work with. The skeletal elements on the left half of the image are lateral arm plates (plates that hold the spines of a brittle star), and the skeletal elements on the left are vertebral plates (plates that core the arm of brittle stars). Image taken from Smith and Sumrall, 2019.

My fascination with science and the natural world was when I first completed an animal dissection during the 7th grade. I, however, took a more non-conventional approach to studying geology and paleontology. I first started college shortly after graduating high school with a degree in biology and quickly failed out. It would not be until after I took a break from school and returned to school that I truly understood what I wanted to do with my life. After taking an introductory physical geology course, I realized how I could incorporate my love for geology with my love for organismal biology.

My favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to expand our knowledge of the world and the ability to inspire the next generation of scientists! I have had the opportunity to visit places I never imagined I would have the opportunity to visit, learn new techniques to explore the fossil record, and have met and worked with some of the most brilliant minds from all over the world. As a gay cis male in the geosciences, I hope to be able to inspire the next generation of great minds and promote diversity in all STEM fields!

My advice to young scientists is that you should never think your ideas are not worthy. Search, inquire, and explore what you find interesting and then share that knowledge with the world! Realize that it is ok to fail and understand that there is power in failure. Do not give up! Above all else, communicate with other scientists and establish a set of friends/peers that you can share ideas with, ask for assistance when needed, and laugh and cry with.

Follow Nick’s updates on his Research Gate or on Instagram, @nick_smith_28!

Larry Collins, PhD Candidate, Geoscience Education Researcher

Me after collecting pyrite concretions in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? Hi!  My name is Larry Collins and I am a PhD Candidate at Washington State University in Pullman, WA.  As a freshman at Mansfield University, I took Physical Geology with Dr. Chris Kopf and he ignited my true passion for geology.  Dedicating time and energy into instruction was what Dr. Kopf did and this made me even more excited to learn about the processes that affect and shape our earth.  After five years of teaching high school earth science, AP Environmental Science, and Ecology, I wanted to pursue graduate education so that I could share this passion with future educators.   

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?  In my master’s program, I was part of a large project that examined pieces of pyrite that were found within the Demopolis Chalk outside of Starkville, MS.  We were attempting to understand the origin of these pieces of pyrite and what they could also tell us about earth’s early atmosphere. While I enjoyed this project, my true passion was understanding more about how people think and learn about the earth.  These are the exact types of questions that Geoscience Education Researchers (like me) tackle. Specifically, my interests are in the nature of science and assessment. I study how students develop an understanding of the nature of science throughout their undergraduate careers and I develop my own instruments and assessments to accomplish this research goal.  I also study performance-based assessments can be used as tools for learning in order to improve geological literacy. 

Pyrite concretions within the Demopolis Chalk. The chalk outcrops are Late Cretaceous in age.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general?Understanding the nature of science is important for when someone encounters new scientific data or media in the news, on the web, or during a scientific presentation.  The ideas that folks holds about the nature of science are linked to their willingness to accept scientific ideas such as climate change and evolution which have been labeled as controversial.  Understanding how students develop conceptions of the nature of science also ensures that they will understand how new knowledge in science develops and be more accepting of ideas that have been deemed as controversial. 

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? I use interviews, performance-based assessments, and surveys with students in order to collect evidence of their understanding of the nature of science.  I draw on my past instruments such as the VNOS and VASI developed by Lederman, Lederman, Schwartz, and colleagues to also inform my work.   

At the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous, here I am leading a workshop on performance-based assessments.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists? As a first generation scientist, I would say that you should always apply for any opportunity that you hear of.  Apply even if you feel like you are not good enough for it because imposter syndrome is a real thing and a lot of us in academia have it!  You never know the great opportunities (such as graduate research opportunities) that can come your way by putting yourself out there. It may be tough, but always reach out to scientists that you respect and admire…a lot of them are friendly and always willing to share their career paths with you!  

Zoliswa (Zoe) Nhleko, Ecologist

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

My favorite part about my job is working with amazing wildlife most people don’t get to see on a daily basis or even in their lifetime. And the scenic landscapes I get to work in. My love for wildlife started when I was in primary school and part of an environmental club that met once a week at the local museum. 

What do you do?

I do research on large mammals. Right now it’s specific to white rhinos. I am investigating how rhino poaching is and may continue to affect rhino population dynamics like recruitment, where they are distributed in the landscape and their behavior.

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

Most rhino populations are at risk of extinction if the poaching goes on unabated. My research hopes to contribute towards means to biologically save the species. There is only so much we can do to stop poaching, but maybe there is much more we can do in our biological management of the species to allow them to grow at maximum rates in order to withstand the poaching onslaught. Lessons from rhinos could be used on other species facing poaching.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

Some of my data like long term population estimates came from long term monitoring programs like aerial rhino censuses which are done every year in my study site. Data on how poaching affects behavior and physiology came from field work I conducted myself. I ran an experiment using sound playback and camera traps for the behaviour component and collected white rhino poop samples for the physiology question. 

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

Science comes in all shapes and sizes, there is space for everyone. Find what you are passionate about and look up people who work in that field and reach out for advice. Some of the projects/jobs I have done have come through reaching out to people in the field that were strangers but soon became valuable connections. 

Mason Hintermeister, Aspiring Paleontologist

August 2018: Mason in Red Hill, PA searching for Late Devonian vertebrates.

What do you do?

I’m an aspiring paleontologist. I take trips by myself or with fellow fossil hunters to various sites and collect ancient remains. The best of these fossils are always made available to the Calvert Marine Museum where they can be stored and studied in perpetuity. I also spend a lot of time communicating paleontology both online and in person. I manage a page of Facebook called “Pedantic Palaeontology” where I talk about what I’m following in the world of paleontology. I frequent Facebook groups and The Fossil Forum, offering identification of fossils and answers to paleontological questions whenever they arise. I attend many paleontological clubs and meetings in my area, where I interact with both those new to the field and those who have been in it far longer than I. I’m lucky to be located in Maryland, which has an astonishingly rich paleontological record, so I have the opportunity to introduce people to a wide range of spectacular fossils. Recently, I had the opportunity to give a presentation to the Natural History Society of Maryland on the topic of Giant Threshers and their evolutionary significance.

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

All sciences face a constant struggle to communicate their importance and their findings to a general audience. The emergence of social media provides an invaluable platform for the dissemination of all sciences, including paleontology. Everyday hundreds of people go to a Facebook group to ask a question about paleontology or to get something they have found identified. Giving them a concise but informative answer can be all it takes to get them excited about the subject. Likewise, taking the time to have a conversation with a child, with an interested adult, or with a group of people can make all the difference. The more people who understand the relevance and the wonders of our natural world, the better humanity can progress as a whole.

January 2019: Mason prior to giving a talk on Giant threshers at the Natural History Society of Maryland

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

I cannot remember a time when science failed to captivate me. Fortunately, my parents were keen enough to realize this and fed my passion from a young age. While other small children were begging their parents to put on another cartoon, mine were slipping another documentary into the DVD player. However, it wasn’t until middle school when I figured out what science I wanted to pursue. An earth science teacher decided to take interested students on a fossil hunting trip. After that, I was hooked. That summer, I took an online course in paleoanthropology, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. There are few feelings in this world that compare to being the first person to lay eyes on an organism which hasn’t seen daylight for millions upon millions of years. It’s like reading ancient drama. The players may have perished long ago, but the stories persist in stone.

What advice do you have for other aspiring paleontologists?

Being an aspiring scientist myself, I have realized the true importance of cooperation in science. In order to progress in this field, I have had to build the confidence necessary to ask for help from those already in the field. Every expert was once an aspiring scientist, and the vast majority are happy to help budding scientists, interested amateurs, or anyone with a curious mind. So go ask that question, strike up that conversation, and feed your curiosity.

Check out Mason’s Facebook page ‘Pedantic Palaeontology‘ here!

Mark Yu, Paleoceanographer, Isotope Geochemist, and Marine Geologist

Mark in front of the R/V JOIDES Resolution in Punta Arenas, Chile. The JOIDES Resolution brings together Earth scientists from around the globe to investigate processes underneath the marine sediments. This cruise, JR100 Chilean Margin, was focused on Patagonia climate and ocean circulation in the last ~150 Ka.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

The field I am specializing in, paleoceanography/paleoclimatology and biogeochemistry, represents the complex interplay between the lithosphere (Earth), hydrosphere (oceans), biosphere (life), and atmosphere. These immense variables pose great challenges in interpreting our geologic record and requires us to form interdisciplinary collaborations throughout departments. As I progressed in my studies from undergraduate work at the University of Rochester to graduate research at the Rutgers University, my mind is slowly teasing out the meaning of these variables as I attempt to decipher changes to ocean chemistry for my dissertation. In short, my love affair for science is grounded on the ability to form intellectual bridges across all fields and geographic locations while unraveling Earth history.

What do you do?

As a paleoceanographer, my goal is to decipher changes in ocean chemistry/circulation through isotopic and elemental ratios of calcareous organisms known as foraminifera that inhabit various depths of the water column. My dissertation is focused on the tropical thermocline, the upper part of the water column that is defined by a massive decrease in temperature from the mixed layer and where much of the productivity in the ocean occurs.

A scanning electron microscope image of planktonic foraminifera, Gs. ruber, used by Mark in his research. This sand sized calcareous protist inhabited the surface layer of the water column thousands of years ago

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

The geochemical data I analyze are trapped within the calcareous shells of foraminifera that are preserved in the sediment record at the bottom of ocean basins. Marine geologists undertake global expeditions on the drill boat, namely the R/V JOIDES Resolution, and other vessels to survey and core deep into the sediments. Once I have identified and picked the desired foraminiferal species, I analyze them on mass spectrometers where isotopic and elemental ratios are measured. In turn, each isotopic and elemental ratio provide us with variables in the ocean such as temperature, ice volume, productivity, ventilation, etc.

How does your research contribute to understanding climate change?

As the Earth changes with anthropogenic warming, the oceans serve as the largest buffer in dampening its effects. However, understanding how ocean circulation, ventilation, and productivity responds to temperature and carbon dioxide fluctuations is vital for our model predictions. My dissertation extends to Marine Isotope Stage 5e (MIS 5e) in the Indian Ocean. This was the last warm period (or interglacial period, as scientists call warm times within a time that is generally cool) similar to today around ~125 Ka and elucidating oceanographic properties in the sediment record will allow us to parametrize monsoon dynamics for societal and ecological implications.

Mark onboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson in the Argentina Margin with a multicore drilling apparatus. This cruise was focused on seismic surveying and shallow coring operations to decipher water mass geometry and erosional processes in the underwater canyons.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Be curious, observant and ask questions. No question is a dumb question. Likewise, remain skeptical and challenge assumptions. Not every answer is set in stone. The dogma written in textbooks are continuously being challenged and reworked by scientists. Find a few great mentors – people who you aspire to be and will provide you with the time and expertise to show you the ropes. Lastly, find your passion in life and run off with it.

Follow Marks updates on his website, LinkedIn, or Instagram!

Dr. Karena Nguyen, Disease Ecologist

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

The best perks about being a scientist are sparking wonder and creativity in others (especially the general public!), hearing about ongoing research in other fields, and conducting interdisciplinary research to integrate knowledge across disciplines.

During my time as a Ph.D. student, I did a variety of volunteer projects to engage members of the Tampa community. Science is for everyone, and the best scientists can and do communicate their work to the general public!

I stumbled into science the way most scientists do (I think) – completely by accident. I was set on being pre-med, but when I took Biology II my second semester freshman year, I fell in love with ecology. While everyone else was griping about the topic, the interactions between species and the environment made sense to me. The professor teaching the class noticed and took me under his wing. I started doing undergraduate research in his lab and took General Ecology a couple years later. There was one lecture on disease ecology and I still remember how it sparked these additional questions in my mind, e.g. how does the environment influence the spread of infectious diseases? I was totally hooked from then on and decided to pursue graduate school to answer these questions.

What do you do?

I am mainly interested in how environmental factors, especially temperature, influence interactions between parasites and their hosts. For my dissertation, I studied a human parasite, Schistosoma mansoni, and its intermediate snail host, Biomphalaria glabrata. The parasite must infect a snail before it can infect humans, and I examined how temperature influenced the parasite at various points of its life cycle, in addition to how temperature affected infected snails over time (see figure). I combined published data and laboratory experiments with mathematical models to predict how disease transmission may shift in response to changing temperatures under global climate change conditions.

The life cycle of a parasite. Image credited to @kes_shaw

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

For my dissertation, I used a combination of published data and data from laboratory experiments to simulate how changes in temperature influence the parasite and its intermediate snail host.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?

Infectious diseases of humans and wildlife are increasing due to complex interactions between human population growth, changes in agricultural supply and demand, and global climate change. For example, human population growth is driving increases in agricultural development and accelerating global climate change. As more habitats are cleared for farmland, the likelihood of humans encountering wildlife that carry infectious diseases will likely increase. Global climate change may also influence how easily these diseases are spread between humans and wildlife. Thus, the broader goal of my research is to improve predictions of disease spread so that the public health sector can improve the timing and application of intervention methods. By examining how one part of the puzzle affects disease transmission, we can disentangle what to expect in the future as interactions between humans, animals, and environment continue to change.

Dr. Nguyen is now a postdoctoral scholar at Emory University. Learn more about Karena’s research on her website and by following her on Twitter @Nguyen_4Science