Paul Giesting, Environmental Geologist

Working on clay – carbon dioxide experiments at University of Illinois
No, I really don’t have a better picture of me working on basically anything ever.
Today I’m a consultant investigating and cleaning up soil and groundwater contamination (click here for more information); I also have a podcast called That’s So Second Millennium where I talk about science, geology and physics in particular, as well as religion and philosophy.

As far as how I got into geoscience in the first place… I was always that little boy who was really interested in math, and that expanded to include chemistry and minerals in high school. Over time the elements came to have personalities for me. I love color, so minerals were natural things for me to love as well. Years later, when I taught mineralogy, I assigned lists of elements – oxidation states – colors for quizzes. Unfortunately, it seems that students never enjoy anything as much when they’re going to be tested over it as I did when I was reading it for fun.

Hopefully you’re reading this blog post for fun, though, so let’s give it another go.

Elements, color, and minerals
You may have picked up in high school or college chemistry that the periodic table has the shape that it does because of the quantum behavior of electrons. They sort themselves out into shells and subshells. The elements in each row of the periodic table have their outermost electrons (in ground state, the lowest energy configuration) in a given shell: 1 in the first row, H and He, 2 in the second row, Li to Ne, and so on. Each shell has one or more subshells–those are those s, p, d, f letters you learn about.

How does that translate to light and color? Well, light comes to us as little bits of energy called photons. The whole electron structure business is about energy, and the jumps in energy electrons need if they are going to jump from one subshell to another. Visible light is made up of photons with a particular range of energies. Those energies happen to be about the right size to coax electrons to jump around inside the d subshells of atoms big enough to HAVE d subshells, but not completely full ones. The elements that fit that description are down there in the low spot in the middle of the periodic table, the transition elements, or you might nowadays call it the “d-block.” The rare earths, or lanthanides and actinides, or “f-block” elements also work.

If you run your eyes along the top line of the d-block, you see all in a row chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt, nickel, and copper. All of those are important elements in geochemistry and in industry, iron of course being a major element and the most abundant. They also all happen to be “willing” to lose variable numbers of electrons, go into different oxidation states, and exhibit different colors:

As you can see with cobalt and nickel, the oxidation state is not the only thing that controls the color. The ligands – molecules or ions – bonded to the metal change the behavior of the electrons and produce a whole spectrum of colors. Thus, this table is only an attempt to note some of the most common colors. You can explore the subject in a number of different directions, for an example click here.

Meanwhile, most compounds of non-transition elements, especially the “s-block” elements to the left of the periodic table like sodium and calcium, are colorless or white. It takes more energy to jerk around s and p electrons, and those energies correspond to ultraviolet photons.

Having d or f-block elements is not the only way for a mineral to wind up colored, by any stretch, but it is very common. Here are some of my favorite colored minerals and the elements that make them so, along with mugshots from mindat.org:

Crocoite, Cr
Spessartine, Mn
Fayalite, Fe
Atacamite, Cu
Scheelite, W
Phosphuranylite (yellow), U and Metatorbernite (green), Cu is more abundant than U in this mineral

Uranium and nuclear waste
My criteria for choice of dissertation topic and therefore advisor and graduate school essentially came down to this. When I ran into Peter Burns (yes, Simpsons fans, I learned about uranium from Dr. Burns, go figure) at Notre Dame, and found out that I could work at the lunatic fringe of the periodic table, I decided to go for it. I’d recommend broadening the thought process beyond just the subject matter if you’re choosing a graduate program, but I can definitely report that uranium geochemistry is not boring.

At that time, 15 years ago, this place called Yucca Mountain in Nevada was in the news as the one place under consideration for storing the U.S. high level nuclear waste from power plants. I can’t possibly go into all the issues surrounding high level nuclear waste – weapons work generates different wastes than power plants, there’s the whole reprocessing question, the security problem so that waste doesn’t get stolen and made into dirty bombs, it goes on and on.

Let’s focus on a few key issues. Whether it was the best idea or not, nations around the world built quite a few nuclear power plants. We have dozens here in the U.S., and NONE of their high level waste has ever been permanently disposed of.

Although nuclear waste is nasty stuff to deal with, nuclear power has one big advantage today: it gives you juice without having to burn fossil fuels. Wait, let me make that two advantages: unlike renewable energy from solar and wind, nuclear power plants provide baseline power regardless of the weather. So it might not be the best solution to move completely away from nuclear power just yet.

(Really, they need to get fusion plants working so that we can stop dealing with uranium, but we’ve been waiting an awful long time for that. We may have working Star Trek transporter beams before we have fusion reactors at this rate.)

So we really, really need places to put all this high level waste safely. That means we need to understand how uranium geochemistry works well enough to put together reliable models. That means we need to know what uranium species are in solution at particular geochemical conditions.

Uranium is a weird element – I did not call it the lunatic fringe of the periodic table for nothing. Uranium(VI), the oxidation state of uranium when it’s in equilibrium with all this nasty oxygen stuff we have in Earth’s atmosphere, is nearly always in the form of a weird complex cation called the uranyl ion, UO22+. Those two oxygens stick off into space to make this sort of three-ball dumbbell.

You may be aware that there are a lot of carbonate minerals… most metal carbonates are insoluble in water. Not the uranyl ion. Uranyl carbonate is mad soluble. There are also uranyl hydroxide ions in water solution at a variety of pH conditions. All this was known reasonably well from studies dating way back, some in geology (especially related to ore deposits of uranium) and some from chemical engineering. So in the run up to deciding on whether to do the Yucca Mountain repository or not, these existing studies were used to model the geochemistry and how long it would take the uranium to escape and how far it would go. Like all engineers and bureaucrats, the people involved were pretty confident about their answers.

For a trace element, uranium forms a lot of distinct minerals. That tends to happen when your chemistry is weird and you don’t fit into the sites of other elements in ordinary minerals. There were and are many of these minerals whose structures are not yet known. At the time, my research group (not me personally) was interested in a weird pair of minerals called studtite and metastudtite. Their structures weren’t known. Their bulk chemistry seemed to indicate peroxide ions, which would be very strange; there aren’t any other peroxide minerals, because the peroxide ion is really unstable. As I recall, Peter didn’t think they were really peroxides once they were crystalline, although he might remember it differently.

In any case, as it turns out, you can use peroxide to synthesize studtite and it is, in fact, a peroxide. The peroxide must be generated by radioactivity chewing up water molecules to make peroxide in the intense environment around other uranium minerals.

But as it turns out, on the way to making studtite, the real science happened.

If you jack uranium and peroxide into solution at certain pH conditions, you get crystals of studtite. At other conditions… well, you get a solution, and if you evaporate it down, depending on the counter ion (you need some cations like sodium, lithium, etc. for charge balance) you get something delightfully frightening:

Uranium… peroxide… buckyballs.

Nobody knew these things existed. They’re actually pretty stable in solution. In a nuclear waste repository, like oh say Yucca Mountain, with MAD amounts of radiation from not just uranium but a whole bunch of hot, hot fission products, there could be oceans of peroxide and the conditions could be just right for making these things, which would traipse off into the Nevada groundwater and do things those previous geochemical models did not suspect.

Yucca Mountain died because of politics, not because of these studies. It may be just as well. Maybe we dodged a bullet there. In any case, we need to do something else with all that waste, and there may be some more craziness lurking out here on the lunatic fringe that we’d better put into our models before we pull the trigger.

Carbon sequestration
For my first postdoc, I studied the interaction between clay minerals and high-pressure carbon dioxide. This research was funded by Shell in the Netherlands and was aimed at discovering whether carbon sequestration in deep aquifers is a viable option. An aquifer is a permeable rock with water in it, and deep aquifers have caps of less permeable rock called aquitards. Clays tend to be the dominant minerals in these aquitards. Many clays have the ability to expand or contract their crystal lattice and are called swelling clays.

Carbon sequestration involves scavenging carbon dioxide from power plant emissions and compressing it into a liquid or supercritical fluid. Carbon dioxide below the critical point liquifies at around 60 atmospheres, not a very high pressure. It’s actually very easy to make supercritical carbon dioxide, as the critical point is only around 30 C.

This fluid is then injected into a deep aquifer to get it away from the atmosphere. By the time it gets into that aquifer, it will be warm enough to be supercritical even if it was not at the surface. The supercritical fluid is lighter than water, so it rises, and the caprock will have to hold it in place if the sequestration effort is to work.

The following website and figure from Shell may help make more sense of this process. Click here for information on carbon capture and storage and here for an explanatory figure.

When we started the experiments, we were concerned that the carbon dioxide would suck water right out of the clay and cause the caprock to shrink and crack. Remarkably, the opposite was what we mostly observed. If anything, carbon dioxide entered the clay and swelled it. This is mostly good news: although swelling could also destabilize the caprock, a modest amount of swelling will actually close cracks and make the caprock better at holding in the carbon dioxide.

Advice
The best advice I could give to young scientists is to ask questions. Ask all kinds of questions and just talk to people. Get specific about what you can expect from a career in academia, in environmental consulting, in mining, in geotechnical, in whatever industry. Make friends and be a friend. Tell people about the things that light you up and also the things that make you sad or afraid, and be a welcoming person when other people respond in kind. This was immensely hard for me when I was in college: I was definitely a loner and pretty depressed most of the time. I had to learn eventually that I had to talk to people whether I felt up to it or not.

At the same time, be gentle on yourself. You’ve got plenty to offer the world, whatever your problems or family issues or your relationship status.

Bethany Allen, Computational Paleobiologist and Education Outreach Fellow

Fossil hunting at Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, UK. Photo credit: Alex Dunhill.

I am currently a PhD student at the University of Leeds, UK. My research looks at the role of mass extinctions in driving long-term trends in ecology and evolution. I do this by analysing large volumes of data from the fossil record, which requires statistical programming, an approach often termed computational paleobiology.

I’ve always enjoyed the problem-solving nature of science; it can be frustrating at times but really satisfying when all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. As an undergrad, I studied Biology and Earth Sciences at Durham University, UK, before going on to complete a Masters in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol, UK. Both of these courses helped to cultivate my passion for evolutionary biology, and equipped me with the scientific approaches and data analysis skills I needed to tackle “big data” questions in paleontology.

Admiring the museum collections at Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée [Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy] in Paris, France, with fellow paleontologist Vishruth Venkataraman. Photo credit: Rhys Charles
My PhD project is focused on comparing large-scale spatial patterns of biodiversity (=the variety of life in an area or on a global scale) before, during and after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event (~250 million years ago), the most severe mass extinction event in Earth history. During this time,  up to 95% of marine species became extinct. Widespread volcanic activity drove extreme global warming, leading to ‘hothouse’ conditions which prevented ecosystems (=a community of animals and how they react with the environment around them) from fully recovering for several million years. Understanding how global warming has affected the biosphere in the past is important for making accurate predictions of how global warming will affect animals and plants in the future.

Most of my data comes from the Paleobiology Database, a global database of fossil occurrences compiled by paleontologists, which is freely accessible to everyone (you can explore the data using the Navigator app). As one of the data enterers, I spend a lot of my time looking for information on fossils published in journals and books and adding them to the database. Once I’m happy with my occurrence data, I analyse them using R, a programming language and environment designed specifically for statistics. It enables me to carry out complex calculations across big data sets relatively quickly, to establish what the fossils are telling us about large-scale evolutionary patterns.

Volunteering with the Palaeontological Association at the Yorkshire Fossil Festival in Scarborough, UK. Photo credit: Jo Hellawell.

I also really enjoy outreach. Alongside my PhD, I work part-time delivering environmentally-themed school sessions, building on the experience I gained doing outreach with the Bristol Dinosaur Project during my Masters. At present, I’m particularly involved in delivering ‘Fossil Hunt’ sessions, visiting local schools to give 7-11 year olds the opportunity to handle fossils and learn about paleontology. It’s great to be able to show the children what ‘real’ scientists look like, and I always leave refreshed by their enthusiasm.

I love my research because it strikes the perfect balance between being something I’m really interested in (evolutionary biology) and requiring something I’m good at (data science). My advice to aspiring scientists would be to find this crossover in your own skills and interests – science takes perseverance, and that’s much easier when you’re making the most of your talents and are passionate about what you’re doing!

Follow along with Bethany, her research, and her education outreach activities on Meet the Scientist, Published,

Luke Varner, Geologist

San Andreas Overlook en route to White Sands, NM

What do you do?
As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida I am in the process of undergoing the absorption of the necessary geologic common knowledge about Earth processes to become a geologist. In addition, I’m also learning the approaches and disciplines necessary to perform scientific observations and investigations that are required to do research and field work for my future endeavors in geology.

What is 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.?

I haven’t yet been afforded the opportunity to plan my own research or collect my own data. I have, however, taken a deep interest into volcanology, geochemistry, and petrology while assisting a graduate student and a research volcanologist with their investigations of the evolution of magma bodies. This has allowed me to use their geochemical analysis data retrieved from rock samples. During this time, I have applied calculus and statistics to the geochemical analysis data to form a geochemical model that describe the degree of crystallization that would result in those rock formations. The data sets for these rock samples were collected via electron microscopy.

How does your research contribute to climate change, our understanding of evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?
The research I have assisted with could help in both economical and societal benefits by helping understand how and where mineral deposits may form. In addition, it helps describe the geologic history (via rock formation) of an area or region which is of benefit to all.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My favorite part about being a scientist is the opportunity that it provides to get out and question the how and why of things in the natural world. There are so many stories to be told about time (both deep and recent) that haven’t been told yet. Being a scientist offers the opportunity to contribute to both the scientific and non-scientific community by offering the possibility to help spread more understanding of the Earth’s natural processes. In my opinion, this is part of what helps keep alive the awe-inspiring wonder and “magic” about the Earth.

Investigating Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks in NM

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
Even though I am 36 I would still be considered a “young” scientist myself in the sense that I am new to the field of geology. However, I can give the advice that if you have the desire to seek out to become a geologist, or any discipline for that matter, don’t hesitate to go for it. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance from your peers and fellows. The amount of support and guidance I have been given so far in my journey by professors and fellow students has helped guide and inspire me. In my experience, most individuals in the wide umbrella of geoscience are more than willing to help if they are capable.

What are your  experiences with returning to school at a later age and what were the driving forces behind this decision?
My reasons for returning to school were quite simple. I made some foolish life choices as young student graduating high school and ultimately lacked direction in my life for many years. After spending more than a decade in the landscaping industry I couldn’t escape the feeling of being wholly unsatisfied with my career. I finally reached a point where I was not excited about what my career path was. Three years ago, I set out to seek a new direction. I asked myself the question, “What is the thing that I enjoy doing the most in life?” and followed that question with another; “Is it possible to find a career that would place you directly in that activity or surroundings. My answers were, without a doubt, that I felt most at home while being out in the natural world as I am a hiker and backpacker who has always loved exploring the beautiful environments and monoliths you can find across the globe; and that as a geologist I could choose a focus that would provide me an opportunity to both be placed in the outdoors and to help expand knowledge and understanding of these places I loved so much. So, the choice was clear. Three years ago, I re-enrolled into community college and finished AA before transferring to USF to seek my BS in geology. The experience has extremely gratifying while also very challenging. Being a now 36-year-old adult meant that I had a many more personal responsibilities and bills than most of my fellow students. It can be a challenge to find enough time to fit in all my duties as an employee, as a son, and as friend while continuing to uphold my studies. Regardless, I always try to keep the end goal in mind and remind myself that this is all a part of the process. The greatest benefit I have received from returning to school is the gift of being able to stay focused on my goals. Since I have already experienced the oft confusing timespan of young adulthood, it is much easier for me to not get off course due to the perceived necessity of over indulgence in social gatherings in which I see many young students struggle with. I’m here to trust the process and enjoy the ride.

Follow Luke’s geology experiences by checking out his blog: click here!

Dr. Rehemat Bhatia, Foraminifera Geochemist

Rehemat looking at foraminifera under the microscope

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

Throughout my time in middle school, my favourite lessons at school were always biology, chemistry and physics. I also really enjoyed physical geography, and  my teachers at school were always enthusiastic, engaging and were more than happy to support my interest in geology. They pointed me in the right direction with careers when I was in high school, and without their guidance I probably wouldn’t have studied geology at university. I also volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London from the beginning of my third year of undergrad with an EU funded research project called Throughflow (as part of the V Factor Volunteer Scheme). The researchers who I volunteered with were also incredibly encouraging and supportive, and great mentors too.

I enjoy being a scientist because:

  • I get to look at microfossil specimens that no one has looked at before. Foraminifera are so pretty, and I still can’t believe that these single celled organisms manage to create these ornate skeletons which record climate during their lifetime! Understanding the stories they have locked up inside is sometimes a little difficult, but I enjoy the challenge that this presents.
  • Lab work is fun. I love learning different chemical techniques.
  • I get to meet lots of awesome people from a variety of backgrounds and geological disciplines and talk science with them.
  • I get to communicate my science to public audiences and inspire new generations of scientists.

What do you do?

I use the chemistry of fossil plankton called foraminifera to understand more about their ecologies and what the climate was like millions of years ago.

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

We use chemical data from foraminifera shells to reconstruct past climate. However, we don’t fully understand all aspects of foraminiferal ecology i.e. exactly what their lifestyles were like- did they all live with algae? Did they migrate or change in size because oceans became harder for them to live in? Ecology affects shell chemistry. Thus, before we put together long term climate records to understand how the earth’s climate has changed through time using chemical signals from foram skeletons, it is important to understand the controls on the signals that we use. This is particularly pertinent to geological periods that we use as future climate analogues such as the Eocene (~47-33 million years ago).

A picture of a foraminifera (taken with a microscope) that has been blasted with Rehemat’s laser! Where the holes are is where the laser was used to measure the different amounts of elements in the shell.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

Planktonic foraminifera are single celled plankton which have a skeleton made from calcium carbonate. Some species choose to live in the surface waters of the ocean, whilst others choose to live in the thermocline. Some even live together with algae! All forams are beautiful, and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Foraminifera are really awesome too, because in the same way human hair records our diet, their skeletons record the environmental conditions around them in the ocean. By the analysis of one shell, we can understand the climate in the location and the time that the foram lived, including how hot the oceans were and even how much ice there was on land!

When foraminifera die, their skeletons sink to the sea floor and build up in layers, creating an extensive fossil record more importantly an extensive climate record too! The same signals we use to infer climate in the past can tell us how they used to live too i.e. their ecology.

To understand foraminiferal ecology, I use several geochemical proxies. Proxies are chemical signatures which are an indirect way of understanding an environmental parameter. I primarily use  oxygen isotopes, carbon isotopes and the amounts of magnesium (Mg), strontium (Sr) and boron (B) (ratioed to calcium, Ca) in foraminiferal shells. If these elements are unfamiliar to you, you might not have realized you’ve seen them before. White fireworks have Mg, green fireworks have B and red fireworks have Sr! I gather these data using different machines called mass spectrometers and electron microprobes. One of the mass spectrometers I use is hooked up to a laser, which is super cool. I use the laser to drill through foram shells to understand how Mg, B and Sr vary through the shell wall. Mg/Ca, Sr/Ca, B/Ca, δ18O and δ13C signatures are specific to certain species. For example, a surface dwelling species will have greater Mg/Ca and a more negative δ18O signature. Therefore if I collected these type of data from a species with an unknown ecology, I would infer that it was a surface dweller.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

  • Always be curious.
  • Ask as many questions as you can – no question is stupid. If someone tells you your question is stupid – they’re wrong.
  • Talk with lots of people who might be able to help you gain more of an insight into the world of science. You never know who might be able to give you work experience/research internships/jobs (both academic and non academic).
  • If things go wrong academically early in your career, don’t let that stop you from progressing later on. Work hard, learn from your mistakes, and you can do anything you’d like to (I speak from experience with this one…)
  • Have mentors and a support network. I wouldn’t have survived the final stages of my PhD without mine.
  • Look after yourself – no science is worth you burning out over. As a friend once told me – the forams will still be there and waiting for you to look at them in the morning… (they’re not wrong).
  • For those studying for exams (including PhDs): Don’t lose your enthusiasm and don’t give up if things get tough. You set out to learn/research something cool, and if you’ve made it this far, you can totally do it!

Learn more about Rehemat’s research and follow her on Twitter @rehemat_

Kevin Jiménez-Lara, Paleomammalogist and Paleobiogeographer

Kevin taking photographs of a fossil anteater skull deposited at the fossil mammal collections at the Field Museum in Chicago, IL.

First, let me introduce myself. I am a Colombian PhD student at the National University of La Plata, Argentina. My research is focused on the evolution of xenartrans, mammals that include armadillos, sloths, and anteaters.

Since I was a child, I have had a strong fascination to learn about nature. For that reason, I loved (and I still do love) reading a lot and watching documentaries about science, wildlife, meteorological phenomena, the history of the Earth, the history of the Universe, astrophysical theories and hypotheses, and other similar topics. Science has an amazing explanatory power, and that has always been what I like most about it. Science allows us to know our place in the Universe.

Following my vocation, I studied biology in college. Although during my undergrad there were many disciplines that caught my attention, the only one that enamored me was the study of extinct life forms, i.e. paleobiology. At first glance, it is not easy to explain why I wanted to be a paleobiologist, since there are very few Colombian paleobiologists and institutions that teach paleobiology and/or develop paleobiological research in my home country. However, studying the unique history of evolution of living beings seemed not only a noble, respectable activity, but it also became a passion that I believe will always accompany me as long as I live. Paleobiology has formed the basis of my life in the professional field, and also in a personal, philosophical sense.

Kevin doing paleontological prospecting and fossil collection in the La Venta area of southwestern Colombia. In this area some of the most important fossil assemblages of tropical continental vertebrates can be found.

To perform research in paleobiology in a country located in the intertropical belt of the planet (near the equator) and characterized as one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth poses great challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, there is little or no state support to study paleobiology as a consequence of socio-historical development. In addition, there are limitations related to logistics in regions that are difficult to access due their geographic location and/or security features. We also face scarcity of continuous outcrops of sedimentary rocks where fossils can be found. Often, as a result of climatic factors and abundant vegetation (plant life), fossils are poorly preserved (however, sometimes, they are exquisitely preserved!). But these limitations are largely compensated by huge opportunities. Fossils from the tropics are exceptionally valuable. They document innumerable evolutionary stories that can help explain one of the most disturbing questions for many biologists: why is there a tendency in different groups of living organisms to present greater diversity in the intertropical zone compared to other regions on Earth, such as in higher latitudes?

Paleobiology in the tropics is very necessary because of the generalized geographic bias in research of many extinct organisms and periods of Earth’s history. Namely, most research on these topics has been conducted in Europe and North America. In Colombia, paleontological field expeditions and studies have yielded surprising findings, including, of course, our flagship fossil organism (in my opinion): Titanoboa (Titanoboa cerrejonensis). For all those who do not know it, this snake lived approximately 60 million years ago in the extreme north of Colombia (Guajira peninsula), and its most surprising feature is its size and body mass. Titanoboa measured about 13 meters in length and could exceed one metric ton in weight. That makes it the largest known snake of all time!

Artists’ rendition of Titanoboa in its natural habitat, a very warm and humid tropical forest in La Guajira, northern Colombia, around 60 million years ago. Other reptiles of this time period were also giants, such as crocodiles and turtles.  Image by Jason Bourque.

I contribute to tropical paleobiology by studying fossil xenartrans (armadillos, sloths, and anteaters), particularly those that lived in northern South America and southern Central America. I seek to clarify questions on evolutionary/phylogenetic relationships between extinct representatives of these charismatic mammals and, at the same time, to reconstruct historic changes in their geographical distributions (where they lived through time).

Why is it important to study extinct armadillos, sloths, and anteaters? There are many reasons, but my favorite is that they are animals whose origin and evolution are closely related to great-magnitude abiotic (non-biological) events and processes (such as climate changes and tectonic events). Through tens of millions of years, abiotic factors shaped their biology and ecology to configure the xenartrans in one of the most peculiar mammals that existed during the Cenozoic (the last 65 million years). Have you seen how strange some armadillos look when they roll into a ball, or the very slow movements of a three-toed sloth, or the long tubular snout of a giant anteater? If you have not seen this, you should check out the videos linked in the previous sentence. But in the fossil record we know even more bizarre features of xenartrans than we see in living species. For example, several species of giant sloths used to swim (yes, you read it right, ‘swim’) in littoral zones (areas close to the beach) of western South America around 5 million years ago! Is that not mind-bending?

Several species of the giant sloth genus Thalassocnus could swim in shallow marine habitats off the west coast of South America (Peru and Chile) during the late Miocene-Pliocene (7-4 million years ago). Paleobiologists know this primarily from studies on anatomical adaptations to swimming indicated from the animal’s bone structure. Image by Roman Uchytel.

Xenartrans constitute an outstanding study model on how Earth and life evolve together, from their evolutionary differentiation ~98 million years ago, possibly triggered by the geographic separation of Africa and South America, until their colonization of North America during the last 9 million years in the environmental framework of the Panama Isthmus uplift and the Last Great Glaciation. This makes xenartrans interesting organisms to study evolutionary patterns and processes of high complexity in the tropics.

I am particularly interested on the evolutionary implications (diversification) of dispersal (or movement) events of xenartrans from northern South America to North America (including its ancient Central American peninsula) during geologic intervals which immediately precede the definitive formation of the Isthmus of Panama. Long distance dispersal through a shallow sea, like that which existed between southern Central America and northwestern South America before the complete isthmus emergence, is one of the least understood biogeographic phenomena. The explanatory mechanism of long-distance dispersal allows for disjunct distributions and for us to more comprehensively understand the subtle interaction between distinctive faunas of contiguous areas.

In order to fulfill my general research objective, it is necessary to work hard in determining identities and affinities of Middle-Miocene to Pliocene (15-2 million years old) xenartrans of the aforementioned regions, including not only previously collected fossils, but also new findings. In a complementary way, it is required to put identifications in geographic context through faunal similarity/dissimilarity methods. I also use probabilistic biogeographic models (models that use statistics) to infer major distributional patterns and processes of several subgroups of xenartrans, so that we could understand in an analytic, non-strictly traditional narrative way, the changes of their occurrences in space. Finally, long distance dispersal events through poorly suitable environments for most xenartrans, like shallow seas, are approached through locomotive reconstructions to estimate dispersal capacity (vagility).

I want to end this post by giving an important advice to all those who aspire to be scientists. The path to work in science may be, to a greater or lesser extent, long and complex. However, if you remain true to your convictions and strive under a regime of self-discipline, you will not only be a scientist, but also one of the most prominent researchers in your field. Question everything, do not firmly hold onto hypothesis that have little associated evidence. And, above all, write, write to clarify in your mind many issues related to your research.

To learn more about Kevin and his research, check out his blog called ‘Caribe Prehistorico’. To find this post in Spanish, head to Kevin’s blog by clicking here.

Dipa Desai, Paleoclimatologist & Educator

Dipa working in Colorado with the National Park Service.

What do you do?

I am a paleoclimatologist, and I study the ecological and environmental effects of climate change using the fossil record. Specifically, I research how the Ross Ice Shelf in West Antarctica responded to temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations slightly higher than what Earth will experience in the next several decades. The Ross Ice Shelf is currently the largest mass of floating ice in the world, and West Antarctica is currently melting faster than the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet–what’s going to happen when this much ice melts into the ocean? How will melting affect regional plankton communities, the base of marine food webs? When that much freshwater is added to the ocean, what happens to ocean currents and circulation? I’m interested in answering these questions and using research outcomes to improve environmental policies and climate change mitigation strategies.

I’m also an educator! I spent the last two years in the classroom teaching 5th and 6th grade STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) classes, and I informally teach when I participate in STEM outreach events and programs. I plan to use my research as a model to teach the next generation of voters and environmental stewards about their planet’s historical and future climate change, and inspire the next generations of diverse, innovative STEM professionals. As an educator, I have seen how disparities in access to educational opportunities disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants and non-native English speakers, and other traditionally oppressed and disadvantaged groups. As a member of these communities, I see a lack of representation and inclusion in STEM professions, and a gap in scientific literacy in our policymakers, so I want to use STEM education to affect greater social and political change.

What do you love about being a scientist?

I love learning about the Earth’s past–being the first person ever to see a fossil since its deposition, using clues in the fossil record to understand and imagine what the Earth looked like millions of years ago, and making connections to predict what our world will look like in the future. However, my favorite part of the job is telling other people about what I do! I can see folks light up when I mention I study fossils, and it’s cool to see how many people grew up wanting to become a paleontologist, just like me! I think most people believe paleontology doesn’t have any real-world applications but in reality, paleontology offers a unique perspective to understanding the modern environment. When I tell students, I see them get excited about science and all its possibilities: I remember when I judged the MA State Middle School Science Fair once year, a participant was amazed that you can use fossils to study climate change, and she asked what else can we study using fossils? It is exciting to share my career with youths, especially those who look like me, because their idea of what a paleontologist looks like and does changes when they meet me.

Describe your path to becoming a scientist. 

As a kid I loved dinosaurs and exploring outside, so I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist from an early age, but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get here. Growing up as a child of undocumented immigrants, our family faced housing, food, and financial insecurities, so college seemed beyond our means. However, I received the Carolina Covenant Scholarship to become the first person in my family to attend college, and I studied Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Fun Fact: Time Scavengers Collaborator Sarah Sheffield was my teaching assistant for Prehistoric Life class!). I completed a B.S. in Biology, and minors in Geological Science, Archaeology, and Chemistry.

While I was an undergraduate at a large research institution, I didn’t have a dedicated mentor or the cultural capital to know I should pursue undergraduate research as a stepping-stone to getting into graduate school. After graduation, I pursued research opportunities with the National Park Service in Colorado and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where I got the chance to conduct independent research projects, help excavate and catalog fossils, and teach local people about their community’s paleontological history. While in Panama, I became fluent in Spanish and wondered how I could use my new experiences and skills to communicate complex STEM concepts to broader audiences. I transitioned to teaching middle school for the next two years; I taught hands-on STEM classes to 5th and 6th graders in the largely immigrant community of Chelsea, Massachusetts. I enjoyed giving my students educational opportunities that will help them in the future, and the challenges my family faced in my childhood prepared me as an educator to understand how my students’ personal lives affected their learning in my classroom.

The experiences I pursued after my undergraduate career gave me the skills and clarity needed to develop and pursue a graduate research degree. I’m currently working on my Master’s/Doctoral joint degree in Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

How do you communicate science? How does your science contribute to understanding climate change?

For my graduate research, I’m studying how warmer-than-present paleoclimates affected Antarctic ice cover and the paleoecology of the surrounding ocean. Specifically, I study the Miocene Climatic Optimum, when global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were slightly higher than they are today, and close to what we expect to see at the end of the century. Studying the deep sea records of this time period reveals how microfaunal communities (i.e. foraminifera) reacted to a rapidly warming global climate, and how changes in Antarctic ice cover impacted sea level and ocean circulation; this can be applied to improve climate models and future environmental policies.

I want to bring my research to public audiences through in-person, multilingual outreach at museums, schools, and other educational institutions, and through online media to make climate science accessible and improve scientific literacy. Using multimedia, interactive, and open-access platforms to communicate science not only reaches more people, but also fits the needs of many different learning populations; this is why I believe STEM disciplines need to move away from the traditional format of communicating findings in paid science journals and articles.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Mistakes are the first steps to being awesome at something.

Try as many new experiences as possible.

Identify what skills you need to do the job you want, then identify opportunities that will give you those skills.

Find a career that you enjoy, you are good at, that helps others, and hopefully makes you some money along the way.

Ron Fine, Citizen Scientist

The picture that appeared on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer in April, 2012, presenting “Godzillus” to the public with Prof. Carlton Brett (center) and Prof. David Meyer (right).

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

From my earliest memories I have always had an interest in dinosaurs and fossils. I grew up in Bellbrook, Ohio, where I spent many a day playing in the creeks in Magee Park and the Sugarcreek Reserve. Both were loaded with fossils from the famous Cincinnatian series of the Ordovician. While collecting fossils is my absolute favorite, I’ve always been fascinated by science and nature in general, with interests in biology, geology, minerals, astronomy, engineering and physics, as well as art, cooking and photography.

What do you do?

I have a degree in Landscape Architecture, but I work as a mechanical designer in the aerospace industry. Currently, I design tools that are used to build jet engines. I create the 3D models and drawings, which are used to make the tools.

While I haven’t as yet spent much time doing my own research, I’ve been blessed to help the professionals with numerous papers based on specimens I collected. I love and collect all fossils, so I’ve not concentrated on any particular group or type. I feel this has been advantageous, as it gives me more opportunities to work with the various scientists who do have areas of specialty. Lately, I’ve been working with Dr. Alycia Stigall on brachiopods. In the past I worked with Dr. Roger Cuffey on bryozoans, and Dr.’s Carlton Brett and David Meyer on Godzillus. As a member of the Dry Dredgers, the oldest fossil club in North America, I get to contribute regularly. I take meeting photos for the website, bring in specimens for others to examine, and occasionally write something for the newsletter or website. I also volunteer, and am an exhibitor, at Geofair every year, and occasionally play fossil tour guide at local parks or give presentations with my portable fossil display.

Playing fossil field guide to teacher Brian Dempsey and fifteen students from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, in Acton, MA, at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio in May, 2017.

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

I have a talent for finding rare, unusual or exceptional fossils. I bring these specimens to the attention of the professionals so that they can be properly studied, and sometimes, they are used to write a scientific paper and are deposited in a museum or university collection for future scientists to study. Godzillus has been my best effort so far. It actually became very famous! I collect everything prodigiously. The quality specimens are made available to professionals for research projects, and the rest is given to the Dry Dredgers to make the fossil kits that fund club activities, or given to school kids.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Your life will be far richer if you pursue your interests. Find others who share your passions, join a club, volunteer. You won’t regret it!

Sadie Mills, Environmental Educator and Museum Project Coordinator

Using Ollie, a non-releasable Eastern Screech Owl, to teach students about bird adaptations at the Rock Eagle 4-H center near Eatonton, Georgia.

My curiosity about the natural world started on family camping trips. One regular destination was the shores of the Sea or Cortez, where the extreme tidal range (up to 9m!) produced incredible tide pools full of stingrays, octopi, brittle stars, and more. My fascination with nature and true love of being outside eventually led me to pursue job opportunities (and later a master’s degree) in environmental education. Environmental education aims to help people understand, appreciate, and think critically about their interactions with all aspects of the natural world. This can be accomplished through outdoor experiences, laboratory activities, live animal encounters, and more. My work days have included leading students on forest hikes, taking families seining at the beach, and educating public visitors at rehabilitated sea turtle releases. While many of these experiences are short-lived, they often spark enduring curiosity, positive feelings about nature, and sometimes positive behavior change among participants. Not every interaction makes a difference, but when they do the results can be quite powerful.

Tide-pooling at Puerto Peñasco (Sonora, Mexico), one of the places that got me hooked on nature. (Tragically, the 101 Dalmatians sweater is too blurry to properly appreciate.)

To remain effective, environmental education must adapt to our changing world, and in the 21st century this means branching out into virtual education. In my current position as coordinator for the FOSSIL Project, I get the opportunity to engage with audiences through online interactions on social media and our website (www.myfossil.org). FOSSIL (Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners) is an NSF-funded initiative that supports a community of amateur (avocational) and professional paleontologists with the goal of shared learning. Utilizing online platforms has allowed us to build a diverse and widespread community of learners, but also a community of educators. Each of our participants brings knowledge to the table, and the online space makes it easy and comfortable for them to share their experiences. This fall, we hope to further expand our community with the introduction of an accompanying mobile app. This tool will allow users to document and share their paleontological experiences directly from the field. I never thought I would contribute to an app, but I am now so excited to see the learning opportunities that will result from this new technology.

Teaching students to seine for surf-zone fishes and invertebrates on Tybee Island, Georgia.

One of the great joys of working as an environmental educator is seeing how excited people get when they learn something new, especially people who may be discovering their passion for science for the first time. For those thinking about a future in science, I hope you will consider the many career paths available to you. If you like technology or inventing, you can help develop the tools scientists use to make new discoveries. If your passion is writing, you can pursue science journalism or help edit science publications. You can conduct investigations as a researcher, teach others as a formal or informal science educator, pursue art as a science illustrator, or help shape policy as an environmental lawyer. In its own way, each job makes an important contribution to science, and society needs curious science enthusiasts in many different roles!

Dr. Page Quinton, Paleoclimatologist

Dr. Page Quinton (left) and student Samantha McComb (right), completing field work on the Madison Group Carbonates in Montana.

What do you love about being a scientist?

My favorite part of being a scientist is the systematic approach we employ to answer questions. Yeah, we can use a variety of techniques to get at our answers, but the process of collecting and interpreting the data must follow the same basic rules! I’d also add, that I am particularly fond of being a geoscientist because of the combination of lab and field work (the best of both worlds)!

What do you do?

I could be classified as a Paleontologist, Geochemist, and/or Paleoclimatologist. Which I choose to call myself depends on who I am talking to (obviously, I go for Paleontologist when talking to young kids for the instant cool-points)! The reason for the multitude of possible names is that I apply a variety of techniques to answer questions about the climate. In particular, my research focuses on the timing and nature of climatic changes in Earth’s history and their relationship to how carbon is stored and distributed on the Earth (e.g. in the atmosphere as CO2 or stored in rocks as fossil fuels).

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

I use fossils and their geochemical signals to understand the climate in the geologic past. The fossils I work with most are conodont elements (small tooth-like structures that make up the feeding apparatus of a marine eel-like organism). These fossils are composed of the mineral apatite which acts as a good record for the geochemistry of the water in which the conodont animal lived. From these tooth-like structures, I measure the oxygen isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 18O relative to 16O). The oxygen isotopic ratio is dependent (in part) on the temperature of the water. By documenting changes in the oxygen isotopic ratio through time, I can infer changes in water temperature through time.

I also work with carbon isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 13C to 12C) in marine limestones. These values can be used to reconstruct the distribution of carbon on the Earth’s surface. By looking at changes in the carbon isotopic value through time, I can infer changes in the global carbon cycle and therefore atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

Late Ordovician (~450 million years ago) conodont elements from northern Kentucky.

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

In addition to my scientific research I also teach undergraduate students at SUNY Potsdam. I always make sure my research informs how and what I teach. This is especially true for the Climate Change course I teach. That course focuses on how scientists know what they know and what types of evidence informs our understanding about climate. My hope for students completing that course is that they will come out of it with the knowledge and background to understand climate change.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Make sure you do what you love. Your job should be fun. That doesn’t mean every aspect of it will be a blast, many of the things I do can be tedious, but there is something very satisfying about setting out to solve a problem, collecting the data, and interpreting the data. For students interested in pursuing graduate education, the most important advice I can give is to make sure you can work with your advisor. I had a great advisor and it made graduate school a great experience.

Learn more about Page and her research on her website!

 

William Heimbrock, Amateur Paleontologist

Webmaster Bill Heimbrock at a Dry Dredgers meeting at the University of Cincinnati (Photo by Ron Fine).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? How did you become interested in science?

I’m an amateur paleontologist. That makes me a time traveler. I like traveling through time.

I see sequences of stratigraphic layers that represent ancient sea floors all in about the same place, but in different instances of time. Sometimes I’ll pull over at a road cut in Northern Kentucky and see the remains of animals and plants that lived 450 million years ago. And yet, I can easily picture myself in the late Ordovician Period. These animals were alive and swimming in a warm shallow sea.

As I climb the road cut, ascending through the rock layers, I am going forward in Ordovician time at a rate of thousands of years per second. I stop on a ledge. Time freezes. I see meter-length ripple marks in the bedrock that extend across the ledge as if I’m standing on a sea floor with wave action winnowing the silty bottom.  I’m astonished with the variety of fossilized animals still resting in exactly the same spot where they once lived.

The event of these creatures’ death is also recorded beneath my feet. I’m compelled to learn more. How did they die? Was it something they ate? I feel I can answer those questions using scientific methods.

Bill Heimbrock checking the strata on a popular road cut in southeastern Indiana before a Dry Dredgers field trip.

We have such power now as amateurs in many areas of science. Human beings are naturally curious. Even as a young child I conducted experiments and recorded my results. My neighbor told me that when I was young, she saw me conduct an experiment to verity the speed of sound. I stood at one end of our cul-de-sac, shouted, and ran super-fast (a technical term), stopped abruptly with unprecedented precision and listened for my shout. You can guess that I didn’t succeed in verifying the speed of sound that day, but it’s the spirit of trying that counts. I was inquisitive at an early age. I knew that science facts are verifiable and ready to be revised and improved by all of us. We are all amateur scientists!

What do you do?

Dr. Carlton Brett at the University of Cincinnati Geology Department shares his knowledge with Bill Heimbrock and other aspiring paleontologists. Collaboration between professors and members of the Dry Dredgers enhance both amateur and professional paleontology projects. Everyone benefits.

Professionally, I program large-scale computer systems. But at home I collect fossils as a hobby. This hobby has become my way to contribute to the field of Paleontology and to education.

I started out in the late 1980’s just collecting fossils for recreation in my local streams and fields. I love getting out there and listening to the birds and finding evidence of our ancient past. It’s a great pastime I highly recommend.

It wasn’t long before I wanted my efforts to be worth more than just recreation. So I joined the Dry Dredgers fossil club based at the University of Cincinnati. I met knowledgeable educators and other amateur and professional paleontologists who could use my fossils for teaching and research. They taught me a great deal, which made my daily fossil collecting much more enjoyable.

Bill Heimbrock has headed the production of the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits since 1992. These kits educate the public, provide teachers with a much needed resource and help fund the advancement of paleontology.

I was also able to give my extra fossils to the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits and benefit both the club and education. They sell bags of 12 Ordovician fossils “From the Hills of Cincinnati” at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science gift shop. The money goes into the club’s general fund which feeds paleontological research grants and projects while the kits help schools and fellow fossil enthusiasts.

I quickly became chair of the fossil kit committee. Now 27 years later, Kimberly Cox and I sell the Dry Dredgers fossil kits in park and museum gift shops around the area and donate some kits and loose fossils to teachers, schools and outreach facilitators.  Fossils used in our fossil kits are currently screened for scientific importance so that each fossil is put to the best use. Some may be deposited into a museum collection. I want collectors who give Cincinnati fossils to the Dry Dredgers to know their donation will benefit educational outreach and/or the science of paleontology.

An extra-large road cut in Maysville Kentucky exposes countless “instance in time” sea floors. Fossil sites like this are a time traveler’s dream – and an exciting reality for fossil hunters.

Another big part of my educational outreach efforts is the Dry Dredgers website, which I designed and have updated since 1998. We are fortunate to have a number of Dry Dredgers who have contributed all types of information about our late Ordovician fossils for the website. You will see me at all local Dry Dredgers field trips taking photographs of the fossils people find and helping identify the specimens. See my field trip reports here.

How does your  research and outreach contribute to the understanding of paleontology?

I’ve always hoped that in this short life I could make a dent in the advancement of mankind. We pop into this world, have just enough time to look around and figure a few things out, pass on what we’ve learned and then pop out of existence.

For the last 20+ years, I have been gathering information and fossils from dozens of fossil sites in the Cincinnati area in the hope that it will advance our body of knowledge on Earth’s ancient past. In addition to educating the public with our  Dry Dredgers website and building classroom fossil kits, my collection of Ordovician sediment and microfossils are helping professional paleontologists advance our knowledge of the evolution of nacre (mother-of-pearl) in mollusks and our understanding of the deposition of phosphate, an essential mineral for our existence.

Bill Heimbrock identifying fossils on a Dry Dredgers field trip. He takes photos and includes the identifications on his field trip reports.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Ask questions. Our society often discourages “questioning” accepted wisdom. Don’t let that stop you. Questions are how new knowledge is obtained. Be inquisitive and find out more than what others know. Discover things for yourself. Be an amateur scientist!

You can learn more about Bill Heimbrock’s amateur paleontology adventures on myfossil.org!