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.

Marie Boirot, Biologist & M.Sc. candidate in Palaeontology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favorite part is discovering something no one ever discovered before. It is exciting to know you are the first person seeing what you see ! There is so much left for us to discover. Something we take for the absolute truth today may be proven inaccurate in ten years. Science is constantly evolving, so we will always have a job! Also, the scientific and academic background are really helpful to develop the critical mind and not fall for answers too simple to be true (conspiracy theory, yay!).

What do you do?
I am finishing my wildlife management master’s degree under the supervision of Richard Cloutier at the Palaeontology and Evolutionary Biology Lab (at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, in Québec, Canada). My project consists of scanning fossil fishes skulls to see what’s inside! I work with super cool fishes, the lungfishes, that still exist today and are closest relative to all terrestrial vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds)!  My species are more than 380 million years old, that’s more than 130 million years BEFORE the first dinosaurs! I work on 3D-preserved skulls, which is relatively rare in fossils. I scanned them to see if their braincase was ossified or not, and their description helps untangle the relationships between fossil lungfishes !

How did you get interested in your current research project?
I met Richard during an undergraduate evolutionary biology class and he mentioned that he worked on lungfishes. I’m a big fan of lungfishes, particularly Neoceratodus, the Australian lungfish (it is too cute, it looks like it smiles all the time !) and I really enjoyed Richard’s class and way of teaching. As a joke, I told my brother that I would do a master with him (I wanted to do an oceanography master’s degree initially), but eventually I did ask Richard to join his lab! I followed my instinct rather than the thing I “was supposed to do” and I don’t regret it. He offered me several projects and I chose this one! I had never done palaeontology before, it is really challenging but so much fun to learn a whole new biology discipline.

What are your data and how do you obtain them? My material is five skulls of the lungfish Scaumenacia curta, endemic to the Escuminac Formation, in Miguasha, Québec, Canada, and one Pentlandia macroptera specimen, from the Orcadian Basin, in Scotland. I scanned the specimens with a micro-CT scan, which uses the same technology as a X-ray scanner at the hospital. Then I segmented on a computer my scans, which basically means I colored the interesting structures with a graphic tablet, and I extracted a 3D-model. For Scaumenacia, thanks to a peculiar preservation process called pyritization, I had enough information on the braincase to code for phylogenetic characters and add it to a matrix. The matrix is from Clement et al., 2016, and we modified it a little bit. It is really fun to do the process myself, from the enigmatic skull to a phylogeny including my data on the inside of this skull.

(Clement, A. M., Challands, T. J., Long, J. A., & Ahlberg, P. E. (2016). The cranial endocast of Dipnorhynchus sussmilchi (Sarcopterygii: Dipnoi) and the interrelationships of stem-group lungfishes. PeerJ, 4, e2539)

How did you learn about the palaeoVC? What did you take away from the conference? I learned about it during a lab meeting in January I think, and since I was finishing my results it was a wonderful opportunity to present them, even more with the coronavirus resulting in all physical conferences cancelled. I learned that it is possible to use palaeontology as an education tool for children and that it actually works! We often think fundamental science is “useless” in everyday life but it is really important to continue to expand our knowledge and more importantly to share it with non-scientist people! Also, the idea of a virtual international congress was really ahead of its time! Beside the corona crisis, the carbon impact of an international meeting is enormous, and we often don’t have time to see all the presentation we want. It is really clever to do this virtually.


How does the Coronavirus pandemic affect your research and academic life?
I finished writing the first complete draft of my thesis during the first two weeks of lockdown! All my social implications being cancelled, I had no other choice than write all day ! I did not have to go to the lab anymore so it did not stop me from working, even if I missed the university routine and separating work from home. I don’t have to complain, because many of my colleagues had to stop their researches because they did not have access to the equipment, and I can only imagine how frustrating it can be. Another meeting I was supposed to go to was cancelled, I am disappointed but it could have been much worse ! I could present here and it was a wonderful opportunity.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists and other early career researchers?
My first advice would be: do not do that for anyone except yourself. Science and research can be really challenging and you have to have a motivation and desire to learn to get through an entire 2-3-4 years project. Do not do it to prove something to someone, but because you really want to try it. On the other hand, if you really want to try doing research, go for it and do not let anyone tell you you are not good enough ! Passion is the only fuel, and there is no feeling like seeing your first results, getting a R script to work, or presenting your research!

Follow Marie’s work through her lab’s Facebook Page, her ResearchGate, or contact her via email (marie.boirot@ uqar.ca).

Marie is one of three early career paleontologists who won for best presentation at the 2nd Palaeontological Virtual Congress in 2020. Read more about the Congress here!

Kailey McCain, Interdisciplinary Natural Sciences Undergraduate

Kailey hiking in the Nantahala National Forest in December, 2019.

Hello, my name is Kailey and I’m a Junior at the University of South Florida majoring in interdisciplinary natural sciences, with an emphasis on geology, chemistry, and biology. Most people are surprised by my degree, and I get a lot of questions about the interdisciplinary aspect. As a future scientist, I believe it is critical to have an interdisciplinary approach to solve problems. Sir Francis Bacon, developer of the scientific method, urged not only scientists, but all people, to remove the lens they look at problems through and take into consideration the myriad of perspectives. To me, my degree embodies that. 

Upon graduation I plan on pursuing a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology and my research interests are centered around dissecting the effects anthropogenic factors, or human activity, have on disease prevalence and transmission. 

What is your favorite aspect about being a scientist?

Graphic explaining the difference between primary (original research) and secondary evidence (syntheses, summaries).

Growing up, I always had an insatiable curiosity about life and our world. That curiosity has ranged from why we have an atmosphere to how human activity has caused harm, not only to our climate, but to all of ecology. I found that studying natural sciences challenges me, but rewards me by answering those questions.

Another aspect of science I love is the community that being in the sciences gives you! As a young woman, it is incredibly motivating to see such a diverse set of individuals working towards one common goal: expanding the knowledge of humankind. Before I immersed myself into the community, it was hard to see myself as a scientist. This was due to a lack of representation of female scientists; however, now I know that I can be whoever I want and I hope to show other young girls that too.

As to how I got interested in science, I originally went into college as planning on pursuing medicine,  but after taking a history of life course through the Geosciences department, my whole trajectory changed. I suddenly found myself so excited for the lecture and I started asking questions that didn’t have concrete answers, and that captivated me. I always wanted to help people and the world, and becoming a research scientist seemed to fit that more so than anything else.

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

By studying the ways in which human activity affects wildlife diseases, scientists are able to predict what our future world will look like, attempt to change the trajectory of diseases, and protect some of the world’s most amazing ecosystems. I also think it’s important to expand on this catch all term “human activity”. This can include, but is not limited to, deforestation, climate change, light pollutants, and habitat fragmentation. All of these actions are intertwined in how we look at protecting the world’s ecosystems, while still allowing for human development.

3D scan of Gyrodes abyssinus, which is Late Cretaceous in age (~100-66 million years ago).

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

I am currently working on a systematic review of all the meta-analyses (I’ll explain what this means below) on Toxoplasma gondii, which is a type of parasite that is predominantly found in cats and humans. The data collected for this study is not found in the field or even the lab, but in other scientific publications, which is why we call it a meta-analysis! My job is to find all studies that are relevant and point out potential positive correlations between the data for other researchers to explore further.

I am also currently interning at a 3D visualization lab scanning paleontological collections (fig. 2)! The purpose of 3D scanning is to digitize collections that can be shared to people all over the world.The softwares utilized are Geomagic Wrap and Zbrush.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

My advice to aspiring scientists is to not give up! As an undergrad, is it incredibly difficult to remove this level of perfection we place on ourselves, but it is necessary. Everyone has messed up, everyone has failed a test, and no one is perfect. Your well being and mental health is more important than any grade. 

Another piece of advice is to always try. There have been countless opportunities that I could have had, but I was too scared of rejection. At the end of the day, rejection is a part of life (especially the academic life).

 

Baron Hoffmeister, Environmental Scientist & Geologist

Baron in the Calhan Paint Mines in Calhan, CO.

Hey there! My name is Baron Hoffmeister and I am a graduating senior at the University of South Florida. I am pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in  Environmental science with a minor in geology. I have always been drawn to the outdoors, and extremely curious about nature and how things work. When I decided to attend college I knew that I wanted to study something related to science. I decided to pursue environmental science as I became extremely interested in climate change and resource management.  In my junior semester at USF, I went on my first geology field trip to Fort de Soto Park in St. Petersburg, Florida. This was for USF’s Sedimentary Environments course and the goal of the trip was to study common sedimentary structures associated with barrier island formations. On this field-trip, we explored the barrier islands that make up Fort de Soto park and in several locations took pound core samples and dug trenches. In figure 1 you can observe some of the pound core samples taken from various parts of Fort De Soto Park. This is one of many useful methods that sedimentologists use to understand depositional history within a small region. This hands-on field experience left an impact on me and I immediately fell in love with geology. I was so far along in my environmental science program that it didn’t make sense to switch majors, so I chose to pick up a minor in geology instead. Fortunately, the majority of the geology courses I have taken all allowed me to take trips and participate in fieldwork relating to the courses. Most importantly, each of my professors expresses such a profound passion for geology that it is infectious and this has been instrumental in my admiration for geology. 

Pound core samples from Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg, FL.

My favorite part about being a scientist is that it allows me to spend time outdoors learning about the environment and the process that takes place that shapes the world we live in. This has always driven my passion for science and has carried over into my personal life. Any opportunity that I can find to go and explore nature I jump at. Figure 2 is a photo from my last trip to Colorado where I had the chance to explore the Calhan Paint Mines and study the large clay deposits in this region. It was very cold and windy that day. I believe with the windchill the temperature that day was in single digits. There was also a brief snow shower that rolled through and covered the entire park in a fresh layer of snow while we were there. After living in Florida for the past five years it was nice to finally see some snow again! 

Currently, I am interning for a contract management group before I apply to graduate school for sedimentary geology to start in the Fall of 2021.  I am interested in studying sedimentary geology and its relation to paleoclimate. Specifically, I am interested in how past climates have affected the rates of sedimentation and carbon cycling. I want to use this information to understand how current climate change patterns affect carbon cycling and sedimentation throughout the world. Science communication is critical for sharing ideas, research, and for education, but it is also crucial for being a great scientist. That’s why I have decided to write for Time Scavengers. I am excited about this learning process and the opportunity to educate others about geology, and understanding climate change!

I would tell any aspiring scientist to work hard and pursue an education, even if it is through your own efforts and experience.

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!