Isaac Magallanes, UChicago Ph.D. Graduate Student

Photo taken at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico in the summer of 2018. I was helping with the GABI RET 2018: The North American Connection.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? As a scientist, I enjoy traveling and meeting/learning from people with a diversity of research interests. When I was a kid, I was always curious and interested in the world around me. I would watch PBS shows like NOVA and Nature with my dad. It didn’t matter to me whether I was learning about giant baleen whales or tiny African ant colonies, I enjoyed it all.  Although I was never able to visit a museum or attend a science camp during my childhood, the time spent with my family watching these programs laid the foundation for what would eventually become my passion and career path as an adult.

Although my parents fostered my interest in science, I never saw myself becoming a scientist. I believed I would grow up and do manual labor like my father. As a kid I would often assist my dad with an odd job or install carpet with my brother in law on the weekends. I did not see myself going to college, much less applying for graduate school.

Had it not been for the encouragement from my parents and high school English teachers, I would not have attended Cal State Fullerton as an undergraduate. Although I began my academic journey as an English major, I found myself becoming more interested in science. During this time, I enrolled in Geology 101 to fulfill a gen ed requirement and met my undergraduate advisor Dr. James Parham. He presented the course material in an accessible manner by using local examples when discussing geology and paleontology.

This class became the spark I needed to change my major and embark on the academic journey I am on today. He has and continues to be a great mentor and friend.

Photo taken in Washington Park near the University of Chicago.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?   To be concise, I study ancient vertebrate organisms and the processes that shape their morphology (shape). The term morphology can refer to many different things but I when use it I mean the shape of bones. Throughout my journey this has taken many forms.

As an undergrad, I described a new species of extinct fossil walrus from Southern California. My research also summarized the diversity and geographic distribution of fossil walruses as a group during the last ~18 million years.

As a masters student at the University of Florida, my research focused on studying paleoecology and reconstructing the dietary preferences of extinct mammal herbivores (horses, camels, rhinos, and elephant ancestors) from North Central New Mexico that lived ~16.9-6.7 million years ago.

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.? It largely depends on the project, but I primarily rely on museum collections. In some cases, I have collected fossils for my own research through field work, but often I hop on to other student’s field expeditions to lend a helping hand. Camping and hiking are some of the many perks of being a paleontologist that I enjoy.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science? In addition to conducting research, I also enjoy participating in scientific outreach. As a student, I have visited K-12 classrooms as a science expert, helped develop lesson plans with teachers, and participated in many pop-up museum events. This is due in large part because my master’s advisor and mentor, Dr. Bruce MacFadden, actively encouraged me to always think about the broader impacts of science.

Recently, I have been working with the “Cosplay for Science” team (of which I am a founding member) in developing unique pop-up museum experiences that bridge the gap between science and pop-culture. My favorite part about being involved with “Cosplay for Science” is getting to attend comic-cons and discuss how science inspires our favorite comic-books, movies, books, video-games, and TV shows. Be sure to check out our Instagram (@cosplayforscience) and follow us for more info on cool pop-ups and interesting content from our contributors!

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? I would say to not be hesitant in seeking new opportunities and experiences. When I began doing research at Cal State Fullerton, I felt like I was entering a whole new world. At first it was overwhelming, but I soon realized that I was not alone and found a strong support group in my lab mates and advisor. These relationships have continued through the years and served as great resource. Science is very fun, but it can also be hard, having the right team around you can help make the journey more enjoyable and fulfilling!

Follow Isaac’s updates on Twitter and Instagram!

Jarrett McDowell, Fossil Enthusiast

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

I have almost always been interested in science, ever since I was a little kid. I used to like to do “magic” science tricks at home like putting a bar of soap and pepper in a bowl and showing how I could make the pepper float away from the soap. Science for me was always good at explaining the reason behind why certain things happened the way they did. To be honest, that is my favorite part of being a scientist. I am able to help people know why something is the way it is or at least come up with hypotheses as to why.

What do you do?

I am a teacher and an amateur paleobotanist, a person who likes to study fossil plants. The field of paleobotany is like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle except you don’t know how many pieces your puzzle has, you don’t know if all your current pieces belong to the same puzzle or different puzzles, and some of your pieces have been torn, bitten, or smudged. You seldom find a plant that has been fossilized in its entirety. You usually find a leaf here, a stem there, maybe some roots over there, and a sporangium over here. Chances are each part has also been given its own genus name or species name because the person who found the part did not know if it belonged to one of the other parts. Over time paleobotanists work together to try to link all these parts together and show that they belonged to one plant or multiple plants.

The sporangium of a prehistoric lycopod that was used in reproduction in the Carboniferous.

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

I think the best way to teach science is you have to make it relevant to whomever is listening. Children like science because they are naturally curious about the world around them. The question is, how you can you make it relevant to their lives? I loved my soap and black pepper magic experiment because it involved two things I had in my house and I regularly saw. With fossil plants, it’s a bit more difficult but I can still show kids a fossil and then show them the nearest living relative of that ancient plant. The Ginkgo tree is a great example of this because it is a living fossil and many of its ancient relatives have similar leaves that are easily identifiable.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution? 

I have not done any research as of late, but my previous research aimed to clarify evolution of lycopods in North America. Essentially I was trying to show that multiple species and genera of lycopods were all the same plant. This would help in the study of plant evolution and prehistoric ecology because it would help us learn more about the biodiversity that lived in these Carboniferous swamps. From a societal perspective, it’s important because I think it is always good for people to know about the natural history of the land they live on.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

My advice to any aspiring scientist is know that setbacks will happen. Things won’t always go the way you want them to go and that’s perfectly okay. I thought I would go into college, get perfect science grades, and be on to the next stage of my life. I was wrong. I found science classes to be very challenging and my undergraduate GPA showed it, although I was a great researcher and I loved the classes. Because of my not-so-stellar grades, I graduated with my Bachelor’s and tried out other careers because I thought I was not fit for paleontology. I worked as a pharmaceutical auditor for a while then seven years as an ESL/EFL teacher abroad (ESL/EFL- English as a second/first language). I was good at both jobs but I felt unfulfilled because these weren’t careers that I wanted but jobs that I was just good at. This led me to start pondering what I really wanted in life for several months until I realized that I wanted to return to the field of paleontology. After asking around and researching different graduate programs, I settled on one that I wanted to attend. To sum up, my advice is to know that setbacks will happen. You can plan as much as you want but things may not go accordingly.

Franziska Sattler, Vertebrate Paleontologist & Science Communicator

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in
science in general? My most favorite part of working in science is how collaborative it is! I get to work with a fantastics election of people, all with different scientific backgrounds, that enrich my research and give me the opportunity to learn from more experienced scientists.

I’ve always wanted to become a paleontologist, ever since I was a young girl and my parents
frequently took me to the natural history museum in my city. I still visit museums whenever I
travel to a new place and love to see how they set up their exhibitions. Science communication
has become a growing passion of mine and I now even get to do it professionally, which brings
me a lot of joy.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?My research mainly focuses on the tooth growth and replacement of dinosaurs. Both carnivorous and herbivorous dinosaurs replaced their teeth in a certain time frame and pattern and I find it incredibly interesting to find out more about the differences in the species. Working in a research museum also helps me to communicate my work directly with the public.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? I believe that one of the main quality criteria of good science is the engagement of everybody,
including the public, and the investigation of methods with which we can integrate the biggest
possible diversity of views and perspectives. I love science communication for exactly that
reason. Educating the public on scientific subjects and results leads to a better informed society and raises awareness and interest for research. This way we also encourage the next
generation to consider science as a career path.

 

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you
found to be the best way to communicate science? I have been very fortunate to work in an environment where scicomm is highly encouraged and valued. The Museum fuer Naturkunde Berlin (Natural History Museum Berlin) has offered me my very own education format. With “Kaffeeklatsch mit Wissenschaft” (Lit. Coffee time with Science) people join in relaxed large groups and can examine a certain topic and ask researchers questions without feeling intimidated. On one hand, the concept combines something many people have known their entire lives: sitting together with your family on Sundays, drinking coffee & tea, eating cake and discussing life, their week and discussions about current events. On the other hand, there is science: which is still an often deterrent term, that even today still seems unclear to visitors (“What do scientists actually do all day?”). By combining these two terms, I want to take away the fear of visitors who might otherwise “just come to look around”, and are too shy to actively ask questions or chat along.

Besides that, I organize Pint of Science Germany and Soapbox Science in Berlin together with an awesome team. I have found that many people already join these projects with a lot of knowledge of their own and I always finish each session having learned something myself.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? Go to as many conferences as you can and if you lack the funds, look up grants for students, travel grants or see if you can volunteer for free attendance. Many meaningful relationships are made at places like this and it is a lot of fun! I was able to enrich my academic and private life in so many ways, just by joining annual meetings, joining cool projects and making friends at those conferences.

Follow Franziska’s updates, SciComm efforts, & research on her website, Twitter (@ohyeahfranzi & @wisskommkaffee), Instagram (@ohyeahfranzi & @wisskommkaffee), and Facebook!

Dr. Rachel Lupien, Paleoclimatologist

Rachel working in the organic geochemistry lab.

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

My favorite part about being a scientist is learning something new every day. We get to ask and answer questions; some experiments are very large and involve many people and many years, and others are accomplished just by graphing our data in a new way. We also get to learn from our friends and colleagues, and from papers, talks, and lessons of the community. I really like my job because it is a great mix of field, lab, and computer work. I’m never bored, although some tasks are definitely tougher for me than others. Field work, conferences, and short courses have brought me all over the world, and this sort of travel is so exciting.

I’ve always looked for how to apply the things I’ve learned. I was good at math in school, but to me, applying those math skills to scientific questions was always more interesting. I thought I wanted to be a chemistry major at the beginning of college, but the Earth sciences incorporated the application of math, chemistry, physics, and biology to topics like volcanoes and earthquakes and climate change. I then studied geology, really digging into how the Earth moved over billions of years, but now I have further applied my scientific background to a topic that I find is absolutely crucial for us as a society to understand: climate change.

Rachel in Norway, where she was taking a sediment core from a lake.

What do you do?

I study the natural variations of climate in Africa over many millions of years to understand how environmental change drove human evolution. I analyze rainfall, plants, and other climate parameters by studying fossil molecules that are transported from land, buried, and accumulated over time in lake and ocean sediment. I then quantify the climate patterns over different time scales, and attempt to understand the relationship between our human ancestors (hominins) and their environment. I also make links with global climate changes to understand the sensitivity of the African environment to changes in solar radiation, greenhouse gases, ocean circulation and temperatures, and glacial-interglacial cycles. The past is the key to the future, and these connections will help us understand how this historically under-studied continent will respond to current and future global warming.

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

Rachel holding the real skull of a baby ape, named Nyanzapithecus alesi. This fossil is 13 million years old!

I am an organic geochemist working mainly with leaf wax biomarkers. These waxes (the shiny coating) are produced by plants to protect them from excess evaporation and physical damage. Eventually the waxes are transported to the bottom of a watershed, like a lake or the ocean, and preserved in the sediment. They are preserved because the waxes are comprised of long organic molecules, meaning a bunch of carbon and hydrogen atoms arranged in a row, which makes them resilient to weathering or degradation. Over time the waxes are preserved along with the lake/ocean sediment as it accumulates, and we go and take cores from these archives. We split open the sediment cores and do a long series of geochemical extractions in the organics lab. Finally, I measure the isotopes of both the hydrogen and carbon atoms in the leaf waxes, which are proxies for precipitation amount and plant type, respectively. I then plot these isotope data versus depth or age to understand how the climate changed over time, and do quantitative analyses to understand the cycles, shifts, and amplitudes of variability in the climate system over million-year, millennial, and centennial time scales.

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

I study and teach about past, current, and future climate change and the effects of climate change on evolution. Our human ancestors (and other animals) lived and depended on their environment, which was likely driven by natural oscillations in the climate system. By understanding environmental responses to climate, we can test various theories about the link between ecosystems and human evolution. This work gives us a better idea not only of how resources (habitat, food, land use) will change with future global warming, but also what characteristics of climate change human populations are likely to respond to. The rate at which the Earth is currently warming and changing is very important to understand when thinking about the human response, and reconstructing climate change in the past on these shorter time scales is something that I’m interested in focusing on in the future.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Rachel in Kenya, teaching a field course.

Disseminating your scientific findings is so important. If you put in a lot of work to your research, but can’t let the world know what you found, it’s not helping the public to its maximum potential. I was always such a math/science kid, even through college, and I didn’t realize the importance of being a creative, focused, clear, interesting writer. My advice for aspiring scientists would be to read and write often and to work on these as skills. No matter what scientific profession you end up in, including academia and industry, you will need to write succinctly for a wide audience. But no fear! I used to think I was a terrible writer and I really didn’t enjoy it, but it is something that I’ve practiced and improved upon over time.

Rachel is a postdoctoral research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. To learn more about her and her research, follow her on Twitter @loopdlupien or visit her website here.

 

Arsum Pathak, PhD Candidate & Climate Researcher

Collecting geospatial data on Cable Beach, Nassau, The Bahamas.

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

Being a scientist feeds my curiosity for the real world around us. As a climate researcher, I combine natural and societal systems in a social-ecological approach to explore a complex global issue – climate change. The more I learn about the interlinkages of the natural and social systems, the more I realize about their synergies, and the more fascinated I am by the world around us. And the fact that I get to travel to beautiful places definitely helps!

I have been interested in science ever since I can remember. From a young age, I enjoyed learning different subjects, however, science always seemed the logical choice for me. It constantly stimulated my curiosity and interests leaving a thirst for learning more that continues till date. Over the years, science has shaped me to be a logical thinker and problem solver and my love for the subject grows each day.

What do you do?

Example of hard infrastructure for coastal protection, Nassau, The Bahamas.

My research interest lies at the science-policy interface with a focus on climate change, sustainable development, and Small Island Developing States. I am particularly interested in exploring climate adaptation that is synergistic with the broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the coastal economies. My dissertation research employs a holistic theoretical lens of social-ecological systems that combines ecological and societal systems with the conceptual frameworks of vulnerability and resilience to guide climate adaptation and sustainable development. To understand these cross-cutting and complex concepts, I use a mixed-methods approach with a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods for data collection and analysis.

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

I use both primary and secondary data in a mixed-methods approach. For writing my dissertation, I utilized geospatial data, surveys, and interviews combined with secondary policy and planning documents to answer my research questions.

Overwater villas in a Maldives’ resort where average elevation is less than a meter.

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

Through my research, I aim to understand the ways how coastal communities will evolve and adapt in the face of future climatic change, particularly, rising sea levels and storm surge. My broader goal is to look for practical and creative solutions for climate adaptation that also supports the sustainable development of coastal areas.

Arsum is a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida. To learn more about her and her research, head to her website here

Rachel Kronyak, Planetary Geologist

I work as a Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. My job is very interdisciplinary but generally revolves around operating rover missions on Mars – the ultimate remote work experience! I’m involved in two Mars rover missions: the Curiosity rover and the Perseverance rover. Curiosity has been on Mars since 2012 and is still going strong! I help make decisions about what the rover is going to do, for example: where to drive to, what to take photos of, what to shoot the laser at. Being able to see brand-new, never-before-seen images of Mars is by far the best part of being on the Curiosity team!

 

The actual Perseverance rover undergoing final tests in the cleanroom at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Perseverance rover is NASA’s latest Mars rover that is scheduled to launch THIS summer and land on Mars in February 2021. We are very busy making preparations for surface operations for when Perseverance lands on Mars. This involves a lot of rover hardware testing to figure out how the rover will drill and collect rock and regolith samples. We’re also busy training the science team to be able to operate the rover smoothly once it lands. To do this, we’ve had a few field training exercises to simulate the rover operations procedures. Rover teams are made up of hundreds of scientists and engineers from all over the world, so teamwork and communication are the most important factors in making NASA missions successful.

An artist’s rendition of what the Perseverance rover will look like once it lands on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Since we can’t send people to Mars just yet, sending car-sized rovers is the next best thing to help us get closer to answering fundamental questions about the Red Planet: Did Mars host environments that may have supported life in the past? Did life ever evolve on Mars? How has Mars’ climate evolved over time? What can the geologic rock record on Mars tell us about ancient environments and how they’ve changed over time? How can we prepare to send humans to Mars?

Simulating Mars rover operations in the desert and also with a fully functional Earth model of the Curiosity rover.
Me in the field – simulating Mars rover operations in the desert and also with a fully functional Earth model of the Curiosity rover.

I first became interested in science and NASA when I was in high school and had the opportunity to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. A lifelong athlete, I really enjoy teamwork-oriented jobs, which is why jobs in mission operations have always appealed to me. My advice to young, aspiring scientists would be that if you find something that truly inspires you, pursue it! Meet new people, ask questions, and never stop exploring!

A photo of the countdown clock we have at JPL for Perseverance’s launch and landing. One of my favorite places at JPL.
The Curiosity rover in action on Mars, taking “selfies”. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The Curiosity rover in action on Mars, taking “selfies”. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Follow Rachel’s updates on her website, Twitter, or Instagram! Another website folks might be interested in: NASA’s Mars exploration website. It’s frequently updated with rover mission updates and has tons of info about past, present, and future missions to Mars: https://mars.nasa.gov/

Indah Ardiningsih, Chemical Oceanographer

My passion in science started in high school. After attending a workshop about nature conservation, I realized that we need science to gather more knowledge to live sustainably with nature.

Being a scientist led me to visit many places that I never imagined before. Last year, I got a chance to join an interdisciplinary research expedition to the Southern Ocean, and stepped on the frozen land of Antarctica for the first time. Visiting Antarctica was a life changing experience for me, and we shared the story of our research expedition in the NIOZ blog, click here to read more.

I am a doctoral student at the Royal Netherland Institute for Sea research (NIOZ) and currently working on iron (Fe) chemical speciation in the polar regions. I sample seawater to measure the concentration and binding strength of organic iron-ligand complexes in different environmental circumstances, in both the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. Ligands help make elements and nutrients available for life to use in biological processes. Learn more about ligands by clicking here.

Organic iron-binding ligands are naturally occurring organic compounds, which have strong binding strength for iron. These ligands can either be derived from land, as degradation products of organisms are washed into the sea by rain or rivers, or they can be an organic compound synthesized in situ by marine microbes. Organic ligands control marine dissolved iron concentrations by stabilizing the iron in solution by forming iron-ligand-complexes. Almost 99% of dissolved iron in oxic (oxygen rich) seawater occurs as such organic complexes. Without this ligand stabilization, iron precipitates and is not available for marine microbes, especially phytoplankton, which is the base of food web in the ocean and relies on iron as a required nutrient. 

Why do we study this in polar regions? The polar regions are undergoing rapid environmental changes due to global warming. These changes have caused alterations of many biogeochemical processes in the ocean, which eventually affects global iron biogeochemical cycling. As ligands play a vital role in determining dissolved-iron concentrations in seawater, the investigation of organic ligands is the key component to study the potential impact of warming polar region on iron cycling in the ocean, which in turn will have major impacts on the marine food webs.  

My advice for young scientists: Although your contribution to the world seems to be unseen, what you are doing is having a big impact on the future of humankind.

Follow updates on the Antarctic expedition FePhyrus II and Indah!

Md. Ibrahimul Bari, Aspiring Paleontologist

Holding my first discovered fossilised vertebra of a bovine.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? When a child starts to grow up he or she explores the world around him or her and finds interest among those things that they love. When I was a child I was so much obsessed with dinosaurs and fossils. I always wanted to know if there’s any dinosaur found in my country , to find the answer of this question I started to dig into science and found geology and paleontology are the main focus of my career.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? Currently I am a student completing a course on Disaster Management and environmental science at University of Dhaka and I am inquest of an international scholarship in geology to start my undergraduate studies. I am working on a project (Bangladesh Academy of Geological Sciences) to establish an organisation in my country Bangladesh for geology enthusiasts and to make the subject much familiar to all ages. Presently I teach young students about the basics of geology and paleontology.

Confirming the stratigraphy by splitting the rock.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Geology is a subject which works with several fields of natural sciences. On my project my goal is to make people aware about natural resources and to show how natural objects interplays in our life and society. From my aspect I believe these notions will make people to think differently and will change the prospective to see natural world.

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.? Besides my project I am doing a research on Quaternary period fauna that may lived on the northern plains of Bangladesh. As I am always in search of rocks and fossils which tells a significant story. I usually collect data aka materials from the Holocene alluvium formation which are carried by the river during the flood. My focus is to pinpoint from where the fossil materials are originally originated and the geologic history because most geologists baffle to answer this question. Recently I am collecting mud of a subsurface hoping to study the palynology of the strata at the Department of Geology at the University of Dhaka soon.

Picture from my visit at University of Dhaka, Department of Geology

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? My only advise for the aspirants is to follow their own dreams and use the slim chances to uphold what they are capable of doing in their own field. Because if a dream is destroyed many discoveries and inventions got buried. The joy of discovering something is delicious and its worth to risk.

Md. Ibrahimul Bari is a Disaster Management Course student at the  University of Dhaka. Connect with Md. Ibrahimul Bari on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, or his organizational Facebook Page.

Thomas Dudgeon, Vertebrate palaeontology student

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favourite part about being a scientist is the constant thrill of discovery, and understanding more about the world we live in. I have always enjoyed learning new things, particularly about the natural world, and a great part about science is that it provides an environment full of people who are also just as interested in learning and understanding as I am.

An aspect of palaeontology that I find most exciting is that palaeontologists cannot simply study these animals in ‘the wild’ to see how they were behaving and interacting with their environment when they were alive. Instead, palaeontology is sort of like puzzle solving, where you need to look for clues in the fossil record to piece together the bigger picture of what these animals were like. It often astonishes me just how much detail researchers are able to pars out from the fossil record with new computational techniques, and paint an incredible picture of the diversity and complexity of the history of life on earth.

Champsosaurus CT scanning

What do you do? My current research focuses on the extinct reptile Champsosaurus, which lived from about 90 to 55 million years ago in what is now North America and Europe. These animals would have lived in freshwater rivers, and at a glance would have looked a lot like modern crocodiles, although they’re quite distantly related to one another. I recently completed my Masters degree studying Champsosaurus at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where I used medical X-ray computed tomography scanning (usually just called CT or CAT scanning) to describe the skulls of these animals in fine detail. This technology allows us to look inside the specimens without damaging them, just like how a doctor may use CT scanning to look inside a person without having to operate. With CT scanning, I described the bones of the skull of Champsosaurus in 3D, and identified some features that had never been seen before, such as an unusually structured middle-ear bone that was specialized to support the skull, rather than detect sound vibrations.

It also allowed me to describe the cavities that once held the brain, inner ear, nerves, and blood vessels, structures that had never been described before in much detail. I then used statistical comparative techniques to compare the inner ear of Champsosaurus (the organ that gives us the sense of balance and the ability to sense movement) to a variety of modern and extinct reptiles in order to get an idea of how Champsosaurus may have been moving when they were alive.

I found that the brain was typical of other closely related reptiles, and that the inner ear was very similar to modern aquatic reptiles, which provided new evidence that Champsosaurus spent most of its time in the water. Since graduating, I have been using computer modeling techniques to describe the geographic range of Champsosaurus in North America during the latest Cretaceous period to give us a better idea of where these animals may have lived at that time, even in areas were there are no sediments of the right age to preserve their fossils.

Dorsal view of a Champsosaurus skull

 

Dorsal view of a segmented virtual Champsosaurus skull

How did you get interested in your current research project? My interest in Champsosaurus arose through a combination of a few things. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in natural history, evolution, and life on Earth, but as with most kids, I had a particular interest in dinosaurs. When I began my Masters degree, I was entering the first phase of my life were I could finally study dinosaurs. I was enamoured with the topic that I was initially working on, describing the skull of the famous armoured dinosaur Ankylosaurus using CT scanning. Unfortunately, when we CT scanned the specimen about 4 months into my program, the specimen was just too large and dense for us to get usable data, and we couldn’t see any structures inside the skull at all. This meant that I needed to find a new project in order to finish my degree. My supervisors and I discussed several topics, most of which were also on dinosaurs, and my initial urge was pursue another dinosaur-related project. However, I was also intrigued by a similar project to my initial Ankylosaurus work, describing the skull of a small crocodile-like reptile called Champsosaurus using CT scanning. This was the first time I’d even heard of Champsosaurus, but after reading into the variety of topics more, I decided to go with Champsosaurus because I was fascinated with understanding the anatomy, evolution, and behaviour of these extinct animals, particularly because they are a relatively understudied animal when compared to some of their contemporaries like the dinosaurs and crocodilians. I was also excited by the tools I would get to learn in this project (working with CT data, and using computers and stats to describe shape variation in the inner ear). Although I am absolutely still interested in broadening my research into dinosaur palaeontology down the road, I’m glad I decided to go with the Champsosaurus for my Masters because it has given me an avenue to pursue exciting research in the future (and it also taught me the valuable lesson that palaeontology is far more than just dinosaurs!).

Champsosaurus CT scanning computer

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.?
For my Masters thesis research on the skull of Champsosaurus, the data I worked with primarily consisted of CT scans of specimens that were already in museum collections. The bulk of my work involved CT scans of two well-preserved skulls housed at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada, but for my analysis of the inner ear of Champsosaurus, I used CT data from 60 different species of modern and extinct reptiles and birds to compare the shape of their inner ears with Champsosaurus. These CT data came from museums and universities around the world, and I acquired the data either directly from other researchers, or from online databases like Morphosource (https://www.morphosource.org/) and Digimorph (http://digimorph.org/), two great resources for accessing CT data. Once I acquired the data, my work mostly took place on computers where I digitally reconstructed the inner ears of these animals so I could compare them with Champsosaurus.

How did you learn about the palaeoVC? What do you take away from the
conference?
I first heard about the PalaeoVC through my primary Masters supervisor, and a few other graduate students at my university. The first year of the conference I unfortunately wasn’t able to present because I was finishing up my degree, but this year I was able to, so I jumped at the chance. I thoroughly enjoyed the ease of the presentation submission, and I was happy to see the wide diversity of interesting projects happening around the globe. One aspect that impressed me was how interested the community was in engaging in conversation with one another, even though everything was online, and how supportive and positive people were of each other and their work.

How does the corona crisis affect your research and academic life? This summer, I’ve been working for the Canadian Museum of Nature as a student research assistant, and I’m fortunate enough that my work (scanning and transcribing field notes, and segmenting fossil CT data for the museum’s palaeontologists) can be done from home. In terms of my own research projects, the pandemic has certainly slowed things down. Some projects that I am involved in have been completely frozen until museums reopen, but it’s a necessary sacrifice to help flatten the curve. Those projects that have not frozen have slowed dramatically, but this is inevitable given that everyone’s lives have changed significantly since closures were put in place. One thing that I do miss is getting to see my friends and colleagues in person, but technology has thankfully allowed us all to keep in touch and caught up with each other, even if it’s not ideal.

Carrying a fossil in the field

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists and other early
career researchers?
For aspiring scientists, I would tell them to follow their passions and go down an avenue that they would want to pursue for their career. If there is something you love doing, and you can make a career of it, it’s the best of both worlds. I’d also add that they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to researchers, professors, or current students if they have any questions on applying to universities, or how they can enter the academic and research fields. Most people are happy to answer these questions, and aspiring scientists shouldn’t have to feel like they’re walking in the dark when trying to find out how to get started.

For other early career researchers, I would first and foremost ask them to please take care of themselves. I think we all know that academia naturally encourages people to push for a heavy workload, which is certainly a good thing in that it fosters an environment full of passionate and driven people. But if you work yourself to the point that you’re no longer getting enjoyment from what you’re doing, then you need to take a break. Most researchers and academics went into their field because they love doing what they do, and you want to make sure that you can hold on to that enthusiasm and excitement so that you can continue to enjoy your work for the rest of your career.

Follow Thomas’s updates on Twitter.

Mckenna Dyjak, Environmental Scientist & Geologist

Hello! My name is Mckenna Dyjak and I am in my last semester of undergrad at the University of South Florida. I am majoring in environmental science and minoring in geology. I have always been very excited by rocks and minerals as well as plants and animals. In high school, I took AP Environmental Science and realized I couldn’t picture myself doing anything other than natural sciences in college. While in college, I joined the Geology Club and realized that I loved geology as well. At that point it was too late in my college career to double major, so I decided to minor in geology instead. Since then, I have been able to go on many exciting field trips and have met amazing people that have helped further my excitement and education in geology. One of my favorite trips was for my Mineralogy, Petrology, and Geochemistry class that went to Mount Rogers in Virginia to observe rock types that would be similar to a core sample we would later study in class. Figure 1 below is a picture of me in Grayson Highlands State Park on that field trip! As you can see, my hiking boots are taped because the soles fell off. Luckily, some of my fellow classmates brought waterproof adhesive tape which saved my life.

Figure 2. University of South Florida Engineering Expo 2020 at EPC booth.

My favorite thing about being a scientist is that everyone has something that they are passionate and knowledgeable about. You can learn so many different things from different people and it is so fun seeing how excited people get about what they are most interested in. It is a great thing to be in a field where constant learning and relearning is the norm. I love to share what I know and learn from others as well. 

 As of now, I am doing an internship with the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County in the Wetlands Division. At the EPC we are in charge of protecting the resources of Hillsborough County, including the wetlands. An important part of what we do is wetland delineation (determination of precise boundaries of wetlands on the ground through field surveys) which requires a wide knowledge of wetland vegetation and hydric soils (soil which is permanently or seasonally saturated by water resulting in anaerobic conditions)! Once the wetland is delineated, permitting and mitigation (compensation for the functional loss resulting from the permitted wetland impact) can begin. Figure 2 below is a picture of me at the Engineering Expo at the University of South Florida explaining the hydrologic cycle to a younger student at the EPC booth!

Figure 3. Vibracore sampling at Whidden Bay, 2019.

Outside of environmental science, I have a passion for geology or more specifically, sedimentary geology. I have been fortunate enough to have amazing professors in my sedimentary classes and have discovered my love for it! I enjoy going on the field trips for the classes and expanding my knowledge in class during lectures. I am interested in using sedimentary rocks to interpret paleoclimate (climate prevalent at a particular time in the geological past)  and determining how past climate change affected surface environments. One really awesome field trip I got to go on was for my Sedimentary Environments class where we took core samples in Whidden Bay and Peace River. In Figure 3 I am in the water, knee deep in smelly mangrove mud, cutting the top of our core that we will eventually pull out and cap. I plan on attending graduate school in Fall of 2021 in this particular area of study.

The study and reconstruction of paleoclimate is important for our understanding of the natural variation of climate and how it is changing presently. To gather paleoclimate data, climate proxies (materials preserved in the geologic record which can be compared to what we know today) are used. I am interested in using paleosols (a stratum or soil horizon that was formed as a soil in a past geological period) as proxy data for determining paleoclimate. Sediment cores (seen in Figure 4) can also be used to determine past climate. The correlation between present day climate change and what has happened in the geologic past is crucial for our push to mitigate climate change.

Figure 4. Core sample from Figure 3.

I urge aspiring scientists to acquire as much knowledge they can about different areas of science because they are all connected! It doesn’t matter if it is from a book at the library, a video online, or in lecture. You also do not have to attend college to be a scientist; any thirst for knowledge and curiosity of the world already has you there.