Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Meet the Scientist
The goal of this page is to introduce you to how diverse science is by exploring what individual scientists do! We hope that you will learn how many different avenues you can take to explore the natural world around us. Each guest scientist will also explain what type of data they use, why they enjoy science, and share some advice for young future scientists. Other similar blogs include Fossil Guy’s paleontologist interviews, The Female Scientist portraits, and Rock-Head Sciences.
What do you do, and how does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
I study ice sheet dynamics in Antarctica, which means that I am interested in the processes that influence how ice mass gets moved off the continent and into the ocean, in either solid (iceberg) or liquid form. The term ‘ice-sheet dynamics’ may be confusing if you think of Antarctica as a giant frozen ice cube. Instead, think of the Antarctic ice sheet as a giant cone of sand – when you pour dry sand on the top of a sand pile with steep edges, rivulets of sand start to form. These ‘streams’ move sand from the top of the pile out to the edges. In Antarctica, the same process (gravity) creates fast-moving corridors of ice – we even call them ‘ice streams’.
OK, so what about the ‘dynamics’ part? Now imagine that your pesky little sister takes a shovel, and removes a chunk of sand at the edge of the pile. Sand will flow into the newly-created hole, right? The same thing happens when warm ocean temperatures melt ice at the edges of the Antarctic continent: ice streams speed up and move more ice off the continent and into the ocean. Warm air temperatures can also increase surface meltwater production which can drain into crevasses and promote iceberg calving, also causing ice streams to drain more ice into the ocean.
These processes add to the total volume of water in the ocean. Therefore, what happens to the Antarctic ice sheet in the future will determine the rate and amount of global sea level rise.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
I use computer models that simplify the interactions between ice sheet and the climate, in order to reconstruct ice-sheet dynamics. We need to be confident that these models can adequately represent past time periods, though, before we can trust the computer model predictions of future Antarctic mass loss and sea level rise. Therefore, we validate these computer models by comparing them to geologic records of ice sheet behavior. My previous research project interpreted ice sheet dynamics and retreat patterns by mapping features that fast-moving ice-streams carved into the ground throughout the last glacial cycle. This information is used to calibrate the ice sheet model, ensuring that the model is physically realistic and reconstructs the same ice sheet retreat pattern as I interpret from the geologic record.
The animation below shows a computer model projection for future sea level rise up to the year 2500. Here, the model assumes business-as-usual carbon emissions until the year 2100 (following ‘Representative Carbon Pathway’ RCP8.5). Even though the model’s carbon emissions are held constant after the year 2100, it takes the Antarctic ice sheet decades to centuries to fully respond to the high-CO2 forcing, leading to a huge amount of sea level rise. You can see the ice sheet (blue) get thinner and retreat, exposing the land (brown) of the continent underneath. I made this animation as part of a project to predict future sea level for the city of Boston; you can learn more about this project here, and see the full video I made here. This is an example of how ice sheet computer models are used to predict future impacts of our modern decisions about carbon emissions.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
One of my favorite parts about being a scientist is the international community. When I go to conferences, or participate in field work, I am always in the company of international colleagues who become friends. I learn so much about science, but also about culture and history I would not be exposed to otherwise. Another favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to travel to amazing places, like Antarctica!
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
My biggest piece of advice to young scientists (and to everyone) is: ASK STUPID QUESTIONS. Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question, but no, it doesn’t mean that you are stupid. It means that you care more about understanding a concept and broadening your mind than what the people around you think. It’s hard – I still struggle with this, especially in a public setting like a class or lecture – but it’s so important. Asking stupid questions is by far the #1 easiest way to learn anything new, and often leads to the best conversations you’ll ever have. If you have a stupid question but feel embarrassed, just remember that there is a 99% chance that someone around you is wondering the same thing but is too shy to ask.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My job is to do interesting things. If I’m working on boring things, I’m not doing my job right! Plus, I really enjoy the teaching and mentoring ends – working with younger scientists (from middle school students up through Ph.D. students) is really a joy for me.
What do you do?
I figure out how stuff rots in the ocean. Microorganisms are naturally present everywhere on Earth, and most of them eat food and “breathe out” carbon dioxide, just like us. I try to figure out what kinds of food microorganisms in the ocean (and in lakes and streams) like to eat, and how they digest it.
How does your science contribute to the understanding of climate change or to the betterment of society in general?
Microorganisms have to “breathe in” some chemical to help them turn their food into energy. Some microorganisms breathe in oxygen like we do, while others breathe in some pretty weird chemicals like iron or even uranium. The balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals on Earth’s surface has a big effect on what life on Earth is like. We’re currently worried about too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for instance – but if there were zero carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Earth’s oceans would freeze solid! Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, so the activities of ocean microorganisms have a big effect on Earth’s environment as a whole.
What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
I like to combine data about the chemical composition of organic matter in the ocean (i.e., leftover phytoplankton and plant matter, aka the stuff that is rotting) with measurements of the activities of the microorganisms that cause the rotting. There have been tremendous advances in DNA sequencing technologies in the past few years, so even though my background is in chemistry I am beginning to understand what kinds of reactions microorganisms are capable of carrying out.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Ask questions, and then read to learn the answers! For younger scientists, there is a journal called “Frontiers for Young Minds”. Just like any other respectable journal, the articles here are written by scientists and then peer-reviewed by other scientists. For more advanced folks, there are quite a few high-quality open-access (i.e., free) journals. Good ones include PLoS One, PeerJ, the Frontiers family of journals, Science Advances, and Nature Communications. These are the real deal – scientists writing for other scientists. You can use Google Scholar to find papers. Find a subject you’re interested in, and read everything you can about it! You won’t understand everything right away, but that’s OK – I find stuff in papers that I don’t understand all the time. The only way around that is to keep reading. This is learning science the hard way, but if you can spend some time reading and thinking about other people’s papers, you’re well on your way to becoming an expert.
Greetings, Time Scavengers. When I was contacted to participate in this week’s Meet the Scientist blog my immediate thought was on my lack of qualifications. I hold no PhD, no Masters, and I am not currently employed in any science field. What I do have is a lifelong appreciation for science and an obsession for collecting fossils.
I collect fossils mainly around northern Alabama, a region rich in Lower Carboniferous aged limestone (~350 million years ago). This started innocently enough by helping a friend gather landscaping rocks several years ago. I found a rugose horn coral that day and have never stopped looking down. I attended a paleontology group meeting out of Birmingham, Alabama for some guidance in identifying some of my early finds and through that paleontology group, I met a mentor. Studying under and hunting with that mentor is where I discovered a love for fossil echinoderms.
Echinoderms are fascinating. One of the longest-lived group of invertebrates on this planet and they are still around. That sand dollar you find on the beach or that starfish you spy in a tidal pool has a looong history! And there is still so much research to be done. Debate lingers on the exact origins of the crinoid (my personal echinoderm favorite.) Research on starfish and brittle stars is underrepresented and there are so many undescribed species.
Amateurs like me depend on that research, in the form of scholarly articles to help us identify our fossils as much as the paleontologists depend on us amateurs to provide them with viable specimens to study. I have donated to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in the past and one day will donate my whole collection at large. I just haven’t finished the collection yet. Fossil collecting is like playing Pokemon, but with genera of crinoids.
I suppose the main point of my ramblings thus far is to challenge you guys to find your passion, find a mentor along the way to teach you, and take that passion even further than I have. I look forward to reading your future articles!
To follow Jess Cost’s collecting adventures on her Instagram account, click here!
I am one of the rare people (not so rare in paleontology) that has always known what I wanted to do in life. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. When I got a bit older this expanded to paleontology in general as I was spending my summers in Northern Michigan collecting fossil corals (Petoskey Stones) along the shore of Lake Michigan and reading every book I could about fossils.
When I got to high school, I started to think about paleontology as a career and called the nearest Natural History Museum (University of Michigan) asking to talk to someone. I ended up speaking with Tom Baumiller who was very generous with his time and chatted with me on the phone, invited me to the museum, and got me working as a volunteer with the museum collections. I came to the University a year later and Tom had research projects waiting. I ended up conducting research for four years at the museum working with Tom on predation in the fossil record and Dan Fisher on stable isotopes in mastodons. This provided insight into the process of science as well as strong mentorship. I spent countless hours in Tom’s lab along with his graduate students (Forest Gahn, Asa Kaplan, and Mark Nabong), which helped to formulate my own interests and provided casual advice regarding graduate school and academia.
What, exactly, do you do?
The aspect of paleontology that really piques my interest is thinking about the weirdness of fossil organisms. Seeing the remains of animals in the past that look nothing like animals today, inspires wonder of these ancient environments and also provides a clear mystery to be solved. This is what originally interested me in dinosaurs, but as I delved deeper into paleontology it was clear that things got stranger when I looked further into the past.
As far as weird goes, nothing beats echinoderms (relatives of sea urchins and sea stars). As you may know from previous Time Scavenger posts by the stellar young scientists that contribute to this blog (Maggie, Jen, and Sarah), early echinoderms are extraordinarily diverse and have many perplexing features. To explore this, I examine the diversity of features and forms (disparity). This method allows the visualization of evolutionary dynamics from the perspective of how different rather than how many. For my dissertation, I examined crinoid disparity during the Early Paleozoic focusing on a few key questions. What controls the diversity of features in a community of animals? What is the role of weird things in disparity patterns through time? And, are rare animals objectively weird? I compiled a large database of crinoid characteristics largely by studying museum collections and was able to address these questions. It turned out that rare animals weren’t all that objectively weird compared to common things. However, weird animals (outliers based on their characteristics) played a large role in understanding the evolution in form through time, especially during shifts in environmental conditions.
I have since expanded my research to examine trends in disparity in all echinoderms. This is a gargantuan project in that it requires some working knowledge of the many different groups of echinoderms. It has been one of the most rewarding tasks scientifically as it has given me the chance to sit down with many different echinodermologists and discuss the group they know best. From these discussions, I have compiled a huge character list that I along with my research students have used to examine trends in body plan evolution within echinoderms. This is still ongoing research, but I can start asking questions regarding the nature of the Cambrian Explosion and the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. We can explore patterns of disparity at the level of a phylum and how that parses out to the different groups within it. And, we can start to examine how different forms evolved and what limits the range of feature seen in echinoderms.
How does your job contribute to the understanding of evolution or climate change?
I work at the University of West Georgia, which is a regional comprehensive University. This means that a large portion of my time is devoted toward teaching our diverse student body. I teach a steady mix upper level geology courses and non-major introductory classes. I spend significant amounts of time in my upper level courses discussing evolutionary processes and the nature of science. I feel paleontology is a perfect place to discuss biases, uncertainty, and how scientists actually try to understand the world around them.
This is even more important in my introductory classes. I have a very casual lecture style that fosters student confidence to ask questions. I focus on discussing geologic time, evolution, and climate change. In addition, we talk about why these issues are important and explore the political implications. Politics are a tricky area in the current climate, but if I can get students to include a candidate’s scientific literacy into their decision making process when they are voting, I have done my job.
What methods do you use to engage your students?
I find in my classes getting students out of the classroom and into the field is the most effective way to communicate. Students can make direct observations and see that the real world is much more complicated than what they see in the classroom. Field experiences foster bonds between the student and instructors that makes students more comfortable asking questions. In addition, field work creates more cohesive student groups that then are more likely to work together and elevate the entire class while they are back on campus.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
I think my advice varies depending on who I am addressing so I will list a few things:
Take advantage of local fossil groups, they are a wealth of knowledge and experience! If you discover something that you don’t recognize when you are collecting fossil, they can help. Also, feel free to contact professional paleontologists regarding your questions. I have research projects collaborating with or using specimens collected by avocational paleontologists. Also, remember that professional paleontologists have tons of responsibilities such that it may take a while to reply, we can’t go out into the field as often as we would like, and publications based on your material may take a fair amount of time.
Learn as much as possible: read books and articles, go to meetings of local fossil groups (if there are any nearby), and visit museums. Contact professionals with your questions, but be respectful of their time (if you email during exam week that email might get lost!). Most paleontologists would be thrilled to meet an enthusiastic aspiring paleontologist, especially because we were also in that position.
Publish your work, publish side projects, establish collaborations and publish them. Obviously, make sure the publications are high-quality science, but put yourself in the best position possible. Also, try to squash down the feelings of competition. I know students are all competing for the same grants and ultimately the same jobs. However, if you collaborate or help other students in your department or subfield, that elevates everyone. If one of your friends gets a grant, awesome. They will do more research and make your department/subfield look better. If they get a job that means you will have someone to collaborate with when you get a job! Being supportive and collaborative will make graduate school better. These friendships can also lead to exciting opportunities for you in the future. For instance, I am currently planning a joint trip with one of my graduate school buddies (Kate Bulinski) and recently received a box of Cambrian echinoderm plates form another (Jay Zambito).
Students on the Job Market
Apply to everything. I was aiming for a research position, but ended up at a teaching-focused school. I didn’t think it would make me happy, but I love it here. Don’t limit your options when you may not know what you really want. Also, take time to do the things that clear your head- meditate, jog, hike, etc. Make sure your application is the best possible and then the rest is out of your hands. Likely some of the things that a search committee is looking for are outside of your control so you might as well go for a walk with your dog.
The first few years on the job are really exhausting, but a few things will make it easier. Maintain your contacts and collaborations. Pick projects that won’t be quite as time intensive. Establish mentors in your department and in your field that can give advice when you need it (thanks Bill Ausich and Tim Chowns). Avoid getting bogged down in things that are not considered in your job performance (mentors will help here). Finally, keep doing the things that clear your head. If you are busy these are often the first things that get left behind, but they are important so keep doing them.
Sumrall, C.D. and Deline, B. 2009. A new species of the dual-mouthed paracrinoid Bistomiacystis and a redescription of the edrioasteroid Edrioaster priscus from the Upper Ordovician Curdsville Member of the Lexington Limestone. Journal of Paleontology, v. 83, no. 1, p. 135-139, doi: 10.1666/08-075R.1
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
I never thought I could or would be a scientist, because I never knew that it was actually an option for me. I knew I wanted to be educated and it was along that journey I fell in love with geology at Mount Holyoke College. Under the mentorship of Dr. Harold Connolly at the American Museum of Natural History in 2009 and Dr. Steve Dunn at Mt Holyoke College, I started my first research projected analyzing a Calcium Aluminum Inclusion found within the Allende meteorite. CAI’s inclusions are the oldest rocks to form in our solar system approximately 4.5 billion years ago.
Having something that old in my hands caused so many emotions, and I wanted to understand all of the processes that formed the minerals to the creation of the rock as it moved away from the sun.
I also completed my masters’ thesis on analyzing three samples of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that impacted Russia in 2013 at Brooklyn College under the mentorship of Dr. John Chamberlain. For that project, I used the mineralogy and petrographic features to quantify the amount of impact events and mineral evolution the meteorite experienced after breaking away from its parent asteroid.
I recently started my PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst specializing in my other passion hydrogeology with Dr. David
Boutt’s research group. My dissertation project aims to quantify and understand the seasonal trends of recharge to the water storage on the island of Tobago, by creating an annual water budget. It will be based on the islands annual precipitation, runoff, evapotranspiration, stream and river discharge, and infiltration into the subsurface using a transient flow groundwater modeling and geochemical analysis.
What do you do?
In a nutshell, I am trying to quantify the amount of water stored in the subsurface of the island as time passes. This means that the hydrologic water budget depends on the changes of variables such as precipitation, evapotranspiration, and runoff.
I am also learning how to use isotopic ratio of hydrogen (tritium) to determine the age of water. This is important since you have an understanding of whether the water from a well is recharged by rainfall or by a deep (i.e. old) underground source.
How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?
Today, it is becoming more imperative to understand and use potable water sustainably. We see many countries or regions of the world experiencing drastic shifts in climate leading to severe droughts or massive flooding related issues. My research is directly related to climate change, since its behavior completely shifts the amount of groundwater stored in the subsurface. Thus, quantifying the amount of water stored in the subsurface at any period in time is important to sustainable water management for all countries.
What are your data, and how do you obtain it?
In hydrogeology, we use a combination of data types and sources to complete an analysis. Some of these are: geological maps, well information (i.e. hydraulic conductivity and depth to water table) precipitation samples and amounts, surface water samples, and remote sensing just to name a few. All of these types of data and samples are then analyzed through various processes to produce the final result.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
I would tell any budding scientist to make sure to study a topic they are passionate about, because it actually makes the entire process enjoyable. I think it is also important to be well rounded and have a strong foundation in all science topics.
I do not have any educational background in a science. Instead, I have a background in video editing. Working in that field taught me how to piece together a story. I use that skill as an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service. My job is to take the research that scientists have gathered and explain it to visitors in a way that is easier to understand. I do this by giving guided tours and presentations. I also pass along this information through informal interactions with the public while staffing a visitor center desk or walking along a trail. I try to find a way to connect visitors to the natural, historic, and cultural resources of a park. When a visitor can relate to a resource, they are far more likely to understand the facts we present to them, and in turn care about the resource. Rangers help make these connections with the use of story-telling, analogies, and metaphors. Through informal interactions with the public, we can learn more about what a visitor might value. This helps us choose the facts and ideas to present to the visitor to help them better connect with the resource.
Explaining climate change and evolution to visitors is part of the job as well. Using interpretive techniques, we are given the opportunity to spark the interest of someone who may deny or simply not understand these concepts. That spark will hopefully lead visitors to research these topics themselves after their visit.
In my experience so far, I have worked at Redwood National and State parks, which contains some of the last 5 percent of old growth coast redwood trees in existence. These are the tallest trees in the world! Most visitors are surprised to hear that the park also contains 40 miles worth of coastline as well. We are lucky to have a fantastic team of scientists with various backgrounds working for the park. Whether it is a question about the redwood canopy, the coastline, or any other ecosystem in the park, interpretive rangers are always reaching out to these scientists as a resource.
My favorite thing about being an interpretive ranger is knowing there is always something new to learn about the park I am representing. I am always excited to develop a new educational program to present, or sneak in an extra fact into a conversation with a visitor. Seeing a visitor’s awestruck reaction lets me know I have done my job correctly and keeps me passionate about my work.
For people interested in a position as an interpretive ranger, I would recommend you start volunteering with your local forest preserves or museums. You can also find work through volunteer.gov. Interpretive certifications can be earned through the National Association for Interpretation and the ProValens Learning program. Never be afraid to ask questions! Rangers want to talk to you and would love to give you advice.
My favorite part of being a scientist is discovering new things. I get to see things that no one has seen before and try to figure out how different pieces of evidence and types of information fit together to solve puzzles about how the universe works. My interest in science started when I was very young. I loved going on walks in my neighborhood and finding cool leaves and rocks and bugs. It’s super cool that now I get to study them as my job!
I am a structural geologist. This means I study how rocks move against each other, on the Earth and other planets. My current research project involves studying some features on Mars that were made by what is called compressive stress (rocks being pulled toward each other and pushed up to form a ridge shape). For this project I am looking at images sent back to Earth from spacecraft that orbit Mars. The data I use for my research are from cameras and other scientific instruments on spacecraft that orbit Mars. I have visual images (photographs) and topographic data (elevations of different features). I am trying to find all the ridges formed by compressive stress in a certain region near the equator of Mars called Aeolis Dorsa. When I find the features I am looking for, I measure how tall and long and wide they are to calculate how much the rocks have moved and in what direction.
My research helps us understand the different types of geologic processes that have happened on Mars in the past. Based on the many studies people have already done on Mars, we know that some of the process occurring on Mars include lots of rain causing rivers and lakes, giant volcanoes creating large lava plains, and wind storms depositing sand dunes and eroding rocks away to form ridges called yardangs. My research contributes to our knowledge of the tectonic processes that have occurred. This can help scientists decide what areas on Mars would be the best landing places for future rovers and manned missions and what kinds of scientific instruments or other equipment would be useful there.
I am a paleoichthyologist, meaning that I am a paleontologist who specializes in fishes. In particular, my research is focused on the evolutionary history of early ray-finned fishes from freshwater deposits in North America; many of the fishes from these Triassic and Early Jurassic deposits remain undescribed and poorly understood with regard to their relationships to other fishes, as well as the roles they play in their respective environments. This time period is interesting to me because fish at this time were much different than what we see today. Much fish biodiversity had gone extinct at the end-Permian extinction event, and so lineages that persisted into the Mesozoic evolved into new habitats and niches. I focus on changes and trends in the morphology among several different groups of ray-finned fishes, and how these fishes evolved to exploit novel ecological niches at a turbulent time in Earth’s history.
I also serve as an editor for the PLOS Paleontology Community blog! While not directly related to my research, science communication is an avenue of my work as a scientist that allows me to branch out into other topics within the community and highlight new, exciting research that is available to everyone through Open Access! I enjoy getting to talk to other paleontologists about their research and projects, as well as help paleontologists and paleo enthusiasts access new information, resources, and useful tools.
My research revolves directly around examination of anatomy and morphology of fishes from the orders Semionotiformes, Redfieldiiformes, Dapediiformes, and other closely-related ray-finned fishes. I collect most of my data through a microscope, examining specimens from museum collections or specimens that were collected in the field and prepared by great volunteers from the Utah Friends of Paleontology. I take high-resolution photographs of specimens so that I can examine and measure the morphological features of the fossils, and I also collect data from drawing specimens using a camera lucida. If you are unfamiliar with a camera lucida, it is a drawing tube microscope attachment that makes it possible to see a blank paper and my hand juxtaposed upon the specimen visible through the microscope oculars. I then trace the specimen I am seeing in the microscope onto the paper, which is actually placed next to the specimen though it looks like I am drawing directly on the specimen. The result is a drawing interpretation of the anatomy. This technique is old, but I still use it because it really forces me to closely examine and interpret what I am seeing. As my PhD advisor would say, “What you do not draw, you do not see.”
The data I collect may be written into a formal, detailed anatomical description, if the specimens represent a new species. That description can be used by other paleontologists to evaluate and compare to their own specimens. It also gets coded into a matrix of morphological characters, which includes other species that may or may not be closely related. I then analyze the completed matrix of morphological characters using phylogenetic software. The output is a hypothesis of evolutionary relationships of the group of fishes I am focusing on for the project, which I can then use to address evolutionary questions, such as the number of times a specific anatomical or morphological feature may have independently evolved, or assessing a role these fishes may have played in their respective ecosystems.
My research is part of a larger collaborative effort to assess the biodiversity of the Early Mesozoic of North America at a time in Earth’s history that saw major changes to the planet’s geography, several mass extinctions, and faunal turnover events that lead to the opening of novel ecological niches for both aquatic and terrestrial organisms. By looking at how species respond to catastrophic events, we may be more able to understand how modern biodiversity may evolve and adapt to modern changes that are being accelerated by human impacts.
My favorite part about being a scientist is realizing how vast and amazing this world and its history are! There is just so much to learn and see, and really, even with how far we have come as a society, there is still so much we don’t know! I love nerding out with fellow paleontologists, because frankly, how could you not love doing something this fun? It’s exciting! I also love discovering a new species, or uncovering a new specimen when doing fossil preparation. Just knowing that I am the first human to lay eyes on this little fish that died over 200 million years ago is very humbling.
My advice to young scientists would be to not get discouraged when you fail. I say when, not if, because failure is inevitable. Everyone fails, absolutely everyone. Every scientist you know has had grants rejected, papers revised, ideas spurned, etc. We all start somewhere! The key is persistence! Take the criticisms you will receive (and again, you will receive criticism at some point or another, so don’t despair!), and just use it to make your work better and more solid. Don’t forget that you are doing something totally awesome and worthwhile.
On a more practical note, practice reading and writing scientific papers. The scientific jargon can be a huge barrier to students and young scientists, but is so important when it comes time to share your own work with others. So read, read, read! Learn how to interpret their results. There is no excuse to not have access to scientific papers because Open Access research is ever-growing. Check out the weekly Fossil Friday Roundup (shameless plug!) which highlights new Open Access paleontology-related papers!
Follow Sarah’s blog here, for more information and updates on her research and check out the PLOS Paleo Community here, for awesome open access paleontology.
I’m a climate scientist interested in past archives of climate change. I explore warm climates of the past to help understand future climate change. I look at the ocean’s role in moving around heat and carbon in the earth’s system.
What is your data, and how do you obtain it?
I work on marine sediment from the bottom of the ocean. Within this sediment are tiny fossil shells, the size of a single grain of sand. The chemistry of these fossil shells, formed by protists called foraminifera, can be used to reconstruct temperature, ice volume, carbon chemistry, and many other properties of the ocean. In the laboratory, I chemically clean these shells to remove contaminants and analyze them by mass spectrometry. Using the minor and trace elements of these shells I’m able to reconstruct climate conditions from a warm period approximately three million years ago, the Pliocene warm period, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are estimated to be similar to today with human inputs.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
My research contributes to our understanding of climate change by understanding the most recent period of sustained warmth. One focus of my research is to understand the tropical Pacific Ocean through time and how it influences global climate. The importance of the tropical Pacific is exemplified by the ocean-atmospheric changes during an El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which alters global climate. Today, the tropical Pacific is characterized by a western warm pool and an eastern cold tongue. The thermocline, the uppermost layer of the ocean within which temperature decreases rapidly with depth, plays a critical role in this tropical Pacific temperature pattern and ENSO development. During the warm Pliocene, records show the eastern tropical Pacific was warmer than today. My research shows the thermocline was deep which contributed to the warm temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific. This altered tropical ocean-atmosphere dynamics which we call El Padre (figure below).
What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
I’ve cultivated a group of phenomenal collaborators that I enjoy working with. We ask questions that are relevant to future climate change and are inspired by each other’s dedication.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Take a programing class! I started coding in graduate school and although I am by no means a master coder, I’ve been able to explore datasets and examine relationships in climate data.
To learn more about Heather’s research, you can follow on her on Twitter here or visit her website.
I am an invertebrate paleontologist. My research interests are mainly focused on paleoecological themes, especially investigating biotic interactions (predator-prey relationships, paleoparasitism) and exploring how variations in body morphology (the form of living things) can be used as a proxy to interpret paleoenvironmental attributes. As an example, in snails, shell shapes and ornamentation (ex. spines or other shell modifications) can be influenced by predators (biotic) and/or by abiotic factors, like flow rate or nature of the substrate (the sediment or rock on which the animal lives).
I work primarily on marine invertebrates. My favorites include gastropods (snails), bivalves (clams), elephant tusk snails (which are very cool), sea urchins, and foraminfera. I started my journey in my home country, Sri Lanka, where I worked on Miocene marine fossils of Aruwakkalu in Sri Lanka (Epa et al., 2011). After joining Ohio University for my masters, I studied the late Oligocene freshwater ampullariid snails of Tanzania (Epa et al., 2017 in press). Currently, I am investigating predatory and parasitic interactions within a collection of Plio-Pleistocene marine bivalves from Florida. Here, I look at predatory drill holes (Fig.2C) and trematode (a group of flatworms) parasitic traces (blisters and pits; see Fig.2A and B) to explore taxonomic selectivities (specific animals getting harmed) and to investigate potential relationships between environmental factors and variability in intensity of such biotic interactions.
Bivalves (clams) are not only pretty (Fig.3) but also one of the key contributors in maintaining good ecosystem health, thus acting as keystone species at local geographic scales. In addition, throughout human history, bivalves (mollusks in general) have been an important component in the food industry and many communities around the world have direct interactions/dependence on their regional mollusc communities (malacofauna). Thus, community structure and population dynamics of bivalves affect ecosystem health, human health and, to a large extent, economies of coastal communities.
One of the research questions I address in my doctoral research is the effects and factors governing trematode parasitism among bivalves. Parasitism is known to cause detrimental effects on bivalves. However, little work has been done on paleoparasitology compared with other biotic interactions like predation. So, my research will look in to the geological and modern records/trends of trematode parasitism in bivalves to explore factors that influence variation in parasitism. Using these data, I plan to interpret how climate change can influence parasitism among bivalves and add a novel dimension to stress the importance of reducing our footprint on Earth.
There is so much I love about what I am doing. Getting to work with my favorite animals makes me feel that I have the best job in the world. As a scientist, you have the power to communicate important scientific findings to people with different academic backgrounds and to people that hold different societal positions. This is especially important as at present, as our carbon footprint on the blue planet is a serious cause for concern. My advice to young scientists is simple: love what you do and do what you love. ALWAYS try to maintain a balance in life.
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