Nicole Torres-Tamayo, Biologist, Open Science Advocate

Nicole Torres-Tamayo focuses her research on reconstructing the paleobiology of our ancestors through the study of their anatomies.

I am a biologist currently doing my PhD in the field of Paleoanthropology and I am interested in the application of innovative methods to reconstruct key fossils in human evolution. I started my PhD program in Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity in 2016 and the focus of my research is the origin and evolution of the body shape in the genus Homo, which emerged in Africa around 2 million years ago. In particular, I use quantitative methods to reconstruct missing fossil elements of the torso of extinct hominins to shed light on their lives in the past: behavior, locomotion, diet, etc. and their relationship with the environment (paleobiology).

Fossils are priceless, scarce and unique, and they are what paleoanthropologists have to infer the morphology and function of extinct species. Fossil specimens are usually confined to institutions located in the country where they were excavated, and because of their fragility, they are rarely transported out of these places. For this reason, the emergence of virtual techniques in the last decades has been crucial to expand the work with fossil specimens worldwide: they allow for doing research in a virtual environment, avoiding fossil manipulation and damage, while working thousands of kilometers far from where the specimen is hosted.

Among these virtual techniques,  3D scanning is one of the most widely used data collection methods in Paleontology. The morphology of a bone is captured by means of a 3D surface scanner, and the resulting 3D scans are fused to generate a 3D virtual model of the original bone. In my Ph.D. research, I measure these 3D models using 3D geometric morphometrics to quantify the size and shape variation of different anatomical traits through points called landmarks and semilandmarks. The Cartesian coordinates collected by these points reflect the morphology of the bones and can be analyzed using multivariate statistics.

Original fossil hipbone KNM-ER 3228 (~1.9 m.a, putative Homo erectus) hosted at the National Museum of Nairobi (Kenya).

My Ph.D. research has been funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and by several supporting travel grants (Synthesys program, AMNH collection study grant, Erasmus +, etc.). Thanks to this funding I have travelled to many places to scan skeletal and fossil collections hosted in different institutions. However, I am very aware that this is not the rule in science, at least in Spain, the country where I was born, grew up and started my research career. There are many young researchers across the world who do not have funding to cover their living expenses during the Ph.D. and who need to combine their Ph.D. research with a part-time job out of academy (e.g. coffee shops, restaurants, etc.). It is not surprising that these people cannot afford the expenses to collect data for their own research. I have heard many stories about truncated Ph.D. projects from people who had not access to the data necessary for their own research and who sometimes lack support from their own laboratories. The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting how necessary research data sharing is for the progress of science, as many people who have not had access to data hosted in their labs or in foreign institutions have suffered a great impact in their investigations as a consequence of mobility restrictions. All these stories have been a turning point in my career and because of them, today I am a huge advocate of open science and research data sharing, which defines my interests and concerns above any discipline.

3D surface scanning is a widely used data collection method and allows for the digitization and virtual conservation of valuable fossil specimens.

One of the greatest advantages of the virtual techniques that I use is the production of virtual models that become part of the virtual collections of the institutions where the original specimens are hosted, contributing to the digital conservation of the specimens in a virtual archive. But also, the virtual nature of these models make them suitable for being shared within the scientific community and the derived datasets (3D coordinates, raw measurements, methodological protocols, etc.) can be hosted in open online repositories (e.g. GitHub, Open Science Framework, Morphosource, etc.) to be available for the scientific community. Sometimes these data are subjected to strict ethical protocols (e.g. clinical data that come from medical institutions) and cannot be shared, but once again, this is not the rule: the majority of the research data that Palaeontologists use can be (and should be) shared with the scientific community, and researchers, especially the young ones, are increasingly willing to do it. But unfortunately, an important part of the Paleo-community is still reluctant to share their research data, something that in my opinion hinders the progress of science and makes it more opaque and inaccessible. For this reason, my Ph.D. research has been bolstered by two incentives. Firstly, I encourage young students to learn why transparency and reproducibility are important beyond any field of research and the role data sharing plays on this. And secondly, I contribute by making my research data and code freely available in open online repositories for researchers who experience restrictions in data collection.

These good scientific practices are not only applicable to Palaeontology; they are valid in all scientific disciplines. Sadly, I encountered many difficulties when promoting research data sharing, most of them under the argument of “we are not going to do this because we have never done it before”. The pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) once said: “The hardest thing in the world is to change the minds of people who keep saying, ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’ These are days of fast changes and if we don’t change with them, we can get hurt or lost.” My advice for aspiring scientists is to keep Dr. Hopper’s words in their minds during their entire scientific career.

 

 

Malique Bowen, Graduate Researcher

scientist hiking a horseshoe crab at seaWhat is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? My favorite part about being a scientist is that it is always changing. I always get to build on what we already know, and the possibilities are endless. As a kid, my mom would buy me science kits that grew crystals, allowed me to build microscopes, and insect collection kits that all made me fall in love with the how and why behind environmental science. Since my childhood I simply remember asking why/how that works and now I have the capabilities to ask questions and do the science to figure it out.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? I consider myself a microbial ecologist, so I essentially work to identify how microbes control the surrounding environment. I’ve worked with microbes that eat oil, microbes that live on monkeys, microbes in the water, and microbes in the ground. I try to understand how the little things make the world go ‘round.

For my master’s I am using microbes to better assess water pollution in Delaware waterways.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? A lot of research I have done is applicable to water quality management. We can use oil degrading microbes to mitigate oil pollution or tracking microbial pollution through waterways can help better assess management policies.

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? With the help of the Department of Natural Resources, we have actually been collecting all of our data ourselves. We have collected a lot of animal, water, and sediment samples to analyze for microbes.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? My advice to aspiring scientists would be to never be afraid to ask for help and learn. There are many other scientists that were in the same position you may be in, and many are willing to help and see you through it. The best science is collaborative science but you must ask for help first.

Follow Malique’s updates on Twitter!

Allison Nelson, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s Student

Allison ready for field work in Montana. Photo from “Learning From the Ground Up”, University of Washington.

Hello, my name is Allison, and I’m a master’s student at Indiana University. I have a bachelor’s degree in Earth and Space Science from the University of Washington. For a few years, I worked across the western US on public lands as a park ranger and field technician. Now that I’m back in school, I’m researching wolves.

What do you do? The main question I’m trying to answer is are red and grey wolves one or two species? This is a complicated question, as red wolves have historically interbred with coyotes. The interbreeding means that they may have been a group of grey wolves that mated with coyotes and now seem different enough to be called red wolves. I use measurements of wolf skulls to see if I can find a difference (size or proportions) between grey and red wolves. Currently, I’m using pre-existing datasets, but if Covid-19 allows, I hope to visit museums and measure more skulls. 

This is an important question for conservation efforts that focus on wolves. Conservation efforts typically focus on one species, and the ambiguity makes this difficult. 

Allison digging a soil pit to assess landscape change in Eastern Nevada. Photo by Eli Rolapp.

How did you get interested in paleontology, and what’s your favorite part of being a paleontologist? During the second year of my bachelor’s degree, I took a class on volcanoes. After that class, I declared a geology major and my sedimentary geology classes talked about fossils. In class, I got to see and touch fossils, and I was hooked. 

As for my favorite part of being a paleontologist, I have two parts. The first is the field work! I love hiking with a backpack full of gear looking for fossils. The second part is the outreach. I enjoy talking to people about what has been found, what sort of creatures they were when alive, and in what kind of environment they lived.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Keep asking questions! Questions and curiosity are what push science forward. 

Follow Allison’s updates on her LinkedIn!

Scott Xavi Gudrich, Marine Environmental Scientist and Science Communicator

 

Conducting fieldwork

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? I remember long visits to the Berlin zoo with my father where we spent hours nurturing our shared passion for the natural world and fulfilling our curiosity. When I was seven years old, I asked for an encyclopaedia for Christmas and I recall the absolute joy I felt when I was presented with a huge book full of knowledge. I read it front to back. My second huge passion is music, and I diverted my attention away from science towards hard rock for a number of years before going back to my roots and returning to university at 37 to study first Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (BSc) and then Marine Environmental Protection (MSc). My favourite part of being a scientist is that the learning never stops, the exploring, re-thinking, questioning and boundary-pushing. I love meeting all the inspiring colleagues and I love being able to pass my knowledge on to others and trade it in for theirs. This is why I am especially interested in transdisciplinary work and science communication. 

Plover Rovers Shirt

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? Currently, I mainly run The Plover Rovers, a marine science communication charity which I founded last year when I was put on furlough from my job as a benthic taxonomist – benthic taxonomists spend most of their time staring down microscopes, identifying tiny marine invertebrates. I’m loving all the outreach and communication I get to do with the charity and meeting all the wonderful colleagues who want to get out there and talk about their passion.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? With the Plover Rovers we want to enable knowledge exchange between science and local communities. We want to bridge the gap between science and society – we believe science can play an important part in empowering communities by giving them the broader knowledge to understand what is happening locally, what affects them in their day-to-day life, like flooding, collapsing fish stocks, pollution, or offshore energy installations; to put it all into a bigger context. At the same time, we believe that scientists need to regularly talk to people outside of academia, people who deal with the effects of the issues the scientists are researching. With the “Talking the Coast” project, we hope to help establish lasting direct links between marine scientists and local communities and help make marine science accessible for a broad demographic. Our events will not just be pure science. We want to collaborate with local partners to provide some hands-on outdoor activities, with artists and sustainable businesses, for example, local micro-breweries or small-scale fisherfolk, to design events which appeal to a wide audience. By improving the ocean literacy of coastal communities, we are adding our little grain of sea salt to the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science? We strongly believe in the power of positive messaging, of giving people a sense of empowerment and purpose rather than scaring them stiff with doom and gloom messages. Communicating about the ocean in ways that enhances and increases awareness, concern, connection and positive behaviours, requires an understanding of how different people and communities think about, and value, the ocean. Crucially, we want to focus on understanding where people are, what their values are currently, and exploring how these can be used to develop effective communication around the ocean and ocean literacy. In order to achieve this, we use a four-tiered approach: 1. Present relevant science with a focus on dialogue rather than top-down knowledge transfer 2. Collaborate with artists to provide an additional more emotive access to the topic 3. Collaborate with local organisations to provide people with the possibility of local engagement 4. Heritage & storytelling: We collect stories from local people to explore and understand their connection to the sea, their concerns, hopes and visions.

 What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Follow your dreams, don’t stress, accept that life is never a straight line (and who’d want that anyway– a cardiac flatline means you’re dead!) and free yourself from concepts like “making a career”, “rising up through the ranks”, “competition” and “better salaries with a PhD” – all of these concepts are rooted in a capitalist system focused more on competition and hierarchies than on knowledge gain and collaboration. Build a good support network, seek out the out-of-the-box thinkers, act on crazy ideas, be bold, explore, change the world.

Follow Plover Rovers on their website, Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram!

Agathe Toumoulin, PhD, Paleoclimatoecologist

Me, animating a climate modeling workshop with middle school students for a Science day in the lab (CEREGE, Aix-en-Provence, France).

How did you get interested in science in general? To some degree, my family probably played a role by cultivating my curiosity. My dad, by making some electricity home experiments from time to time (I think his favorite, and more impressive to us was: putting a light on from a potato!), my mom by loving plants and growing flowers everywhere, my aunts by occasionally brining my sister and I to zoos and museums. However, I don’t think any of my family and friends would have predict I would work in the science field. Until my 20’s I was more on the road to become stage director, art or theater critic, or even visual artist. After studying theater, languages, philosophy and literature in high school, I decided to start medical studies with the motivation to learn about the human machine functioning. After a few months, I realized it was hard but not exciting at all. Therefore, I decided to move to another discipline and while I was hesitating between art history and biology, I choose the second option. And this was the good one. I will always remember how my BSc botany and zoology classes were captivating. It was like learning about so many aspects of our world I never questioned before: what muscles make an earthworm move? How does a clam breath? What processes enable plants to move? How many lichens are there on the trees around? Without mentioning field trip on country side identifying plants and fungi, or on an island, collecting algae for herbarium… All these experiences really change the way you apprehend your environment! A tipping point in my formation was my first research internship in paleontology, during this experience I measured a hundred of belemnites (an extinct group of marine cephalopods) but more importantly, I realized I wanted to become a researcher. Of course, I feel really lucky that our public education system is (for the moment) not expensive, as compared to most other countries’. This enabled me to test for different branches and find my own. 

Late Eocene Eotrigonobalanus furcinervis fossil leaf (Museum für Mineralogie und Geologie, Dresden, Germany).

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? My work aims at reconstructing deep-time (i.e., millions of years old) environment and climate characteristics using fossil plants (wood and leaves) and Earth System Models. 

An Earth System Model is a numerical tool that calculates the earth’s climate according to a number of parameters. It is often used to predict how the climate will be in the future. It allows us, for example, to estimate how much the earth should warm up for a given increase in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere. For the past, climate models allow us to assess the effects on paleoclimates of big changes, often suggested by fossils, such as changes in continent position, relief, volcanic activity, sea-level, or greenhouse gases concentration.

Fossil plants enable the reconstruction of past local to regional environment conditions. We can use fossil plants in different ways: (1) by identifying them and looking for their current closest cousins (called nearest living relatives). As we know in what conditions these live, we can then hypothesize the related fossil species had close preferences (in terms of temperature, need for water, nutrients); (2) – this is what I prefer by far – by looking at the size and shape (called physiognomy) of the fossil leaves. We know, thanks to numerous measurements of global modern vegetation, that leaf size and shape change according to the conditions in which the plant develops. For example, leaf size changes with the amount of rainfall: leaves are larger in wet areas, where plants are not likely to dry out. 

Examples of results from different climate simulations made with the French Earth System Model (IPSL-CM5A2). Hundreds of parameters can be analyzed! Our experiments use a middle Eocene paleogeography, which explains some differences in continent location!

Here is an example of my work to better illustrate the use of these tools. My MSc internship and PhD were focused on the Eocene climate (between ~56 and 34 Myr ago). We know from several indicators, notably because fossil plants close to extant tropical vegetation and crocodilian bones were found at very high latitudes, near the Arctic Ocean, that this period was globally warmer. Despite on average higher temperatures, this period is particularly known for a long-term climate cooling, responsible for the Antarctic ice-sheet growth! By studying the evolution of leaf shape of a fossil beech leaf assemblage, I tried to see if this cooling was visible in Germany. Then, using climate models, I tried to understand which parameters were responsible for this change. In the different modelling experiments, we tried to understand how the major changes described at that time: changes in paleogeography (more precisely, the Drake Passage opening), drop atmospheric concentration in CO2, Antarctic ice-sheet expansion, and the associated drop in sea level (the growth of continental ice-sheet result in sea-level lowering), may have affected the Eocene climate and if some of these parameters could explain the global cooling!

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? My research aim at better reconstructing the evolution of Earth climate and environment through life history, but we always learn from knowing our past. Eocene temperatures correspond to those predicted for 2300 following the worst climate change scenario (RCP8.5). Studying this period of time may provide some information on the manner a globally warmer climate works. It also constitute the opportunity to test the validity of climate model predictions for the future: paleoclimate modeled can be compared to climate estimates obtained from proxy-data. However, Eocene and modern world aren’t fully comparable, there are important differences, notably in the continent location (ex. North and South America were not connected during the Eocene). This means that we cannot necessarily apply our knowledge of the Eocene to the future. For my part, I find that my research is important for its historical significance, to understand how global biodiversity got here. 

Jurassic coniferous fossil wood from Antarctica, University of Kansas, Paleobotany Collection

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?  During my BSc I get a half time job, as a guide at the Museum of Natural History of Toulouse. It was a great experience that really made me want to connect people to science. Since then, I designed and animated some workshops around biodiversity and climate for children. I am not a professional in Sci Comm, but for me, communicating science starts by establishing an equal relationship between researchers and the general public. We all know things. I like to instill confidence in people, by making them participate, and then share original anecdotes on a given topic. These anecdotes are not necessary complex mechanisms, nor the most recent scientific discoveries, but stimulate curiosity and raise interest, and I think it’s the first step for people to get into science. 

Me, looking for Permian fossil plants in the Lodève Basin (France) during a field trip organized by the association Agora Paleobotanica.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist ? There are different aspect of working in science I really like: 

To marvel and play – To me being a scientist in paleo- is like a game, there are some clues around (and not always your favorite) and you must get some information from that to picture how the environment was millions of years ago. For now, I’ve been working on 35 to 180 Myr old periods which differs through many aspects of our everyday life context. To me working on these ancient landscapes is somehow like traveling (I guess that fiction authors may also feel this way). 

Being part of something bigger – Although, we sometime feel like being in a very specific research niche, there are at least dozens of people working on similar/complementary questions around: you are part of one community! This network structure really opens up research questions that can be addressed. I like contacting people from other country asking for their expertise and exchange.  

Being free – One of the big advantages of research is also that you are relatively free in the work you do and the way you do it. It certainly depends on the labs and teams you’re part of, but in general you manage your time and projects, being your own boss in a way and this is something I really like. I’m currently writing my first postdoctoral research project and I really feel like I can build something that fits me 100%.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

  • Do as many internships as you can: these experiences will help you define your interests and what you want to do, and meet inspiring people.   
  • Do not hesitate to contact / talk to people! Although everybody is busy, people generally like you being interested in their work and may provide you help (e.g. on special methods) or advice (including for your career!). 
  • Do not censor / limit yourself: just because you never worked in a given field/with some methods doesn’t mean you won’t be able to succeed. Believe in yourself and work hard enough to explore research areas that interest you.

Follow Agathe’s updates on her website and Twitter!

Stephen Hill, Paleontologist/Geologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Cropper, Public Health Scientist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Ocon, Invertebrate Paleontology Graduate Student

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinjini Sinha, Paleontology Ph.D. Candidate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Fatin Izzati Minhat, Micropaleontologist

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

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

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

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

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

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