Kelsey Jenkins, PhD Candidate

I’m Kels, and I’m a PhD Candidate at Yale University in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. I completed my undergraduate in Geology and Geophysics at Louisiana State University, followed by an M.Sc. in Biological Sciences at Sam Houston State University.

What was your path into science? If you ask any vertebrate paleontologist this question, the majority will say, “Uhh, I was five years old once.” I stopped asking other paleontologists because the answer is so predictable, and it’s my truth as well. 

I am from Houma, Louisiana, a region of the country that is certainly not known for its fossils or for an exceptional educational system. Luckily, I had the support of my parents who encouraged their daughter’s unusual fascination with fossils. But, when college came around, I was clueless on how to get an education in paleontology…it’s not as if there was a paleontology degree. I chose a big state school, LSU, because I thought it would have the most resources available to me, and I could figure it out from there. I initially majored in anthropology, thinking that’s what I needed to work on dinosaurs (wrong!), but by luck I signed up for a historical geology class as an elective. The first class covered the history of the earth and the fossil record. I changed my major shortly after to geology, and I navigated my way through the department until I met my first mentors in paleontology, Judith Schiebout and Suyin Ting. They gave me a job in the museum collections cataloging a huge donation of mammal fossils, and I spent two years getting hands on experience and teaching myself basic anatomy and taxonomy. Following that, Patrick Lewis, my M.Sc. advisor at SHSU, offered me a project on a strange little reptilian creature from the Triassic of South Africa which fueled my current love of fossil reptiles, reptilian evolution, and dentition. I’m still working on reptile evolution and functional morphology now in my PhD with Bhart-Anjan Bhullar.

What is your research about? Imagine every reptile you’ve ever heard of, living and extinct: lizards, snakes, turtles, dinosaurs, alligators, mosasaurs, pterodactyls. Now, imagine the grandpa that unites them all, the original reptile ancestor. I research the creatures that lead up to that original reptile ancestor. Those animals represent some of the first widespread colonization of land by tetrapods (four-legged animals), and they preserve some of the first instances of important adaptations seen in modern reptiles. That part of the reptilian lineage holds clues about how to become an effective land animal following the initial embargo from water onto land by more fish-like creatures.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of science? I’m still figuring that one out. I enjoy cooking, hiking, crochet, writing, and spending time with my friends, but it’s not always easy to separate myself from work and research. When you pursue science, you’re pursuing a passion, and you don’t always want to take a step back. But, it’s important to take breaks and stretch your legs, though telling yourself that is sometimes easier said than done. If I can give students any piece of advice: you definitely need to take breaks. Get a hobby. Get several. Find out what else you might enjoy too.

Meet the Museum: Dino Parque Lourinhã

Linda and guest blogger David Kroeck,

During a recent field trip (August 2021), we visited the Dino Parque Lourinhã in western Portugal, approximately 50 km north of Lisbon. Dino Parque Lourinhã is open every day except on holidays and tickets currently cost 9,90 € for children, 13 € for adults, but you can get your tickets at a lower price if you book online [Fig 1].

Fig. 1: Entrance of the Dino Parque Lourinhã with Supersaurus lourinhanensis, a sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) named after the town of Lourinhã.

The park consists of a large outdoor area showcasing life sized dinosaur reconstructions, a small museum as well as an activities hall.

The main part of the park consists of an outdoor space, divided into four zones highlighting the terrestrial fauna of the Paleozoic, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. A fifth area (called sea monsters) displays a range of marine creatures from different periods, from Jurassic ammonites to Eocene manatees [Fig 2]. A large board near the entrance shows a geologic timescale, depicting the main transitional events and examples of typical fauna and flora for each period [Fig 3]. Five paths then wind through a dense pine forest, hiding even the largest dinosaurs surprisingly well until you stand right in front of them – you never know what lurks behind the next group of trees. The natural cover also provides shade on hot sunny days. Arrows give visitors a chance to walk through the zones in chronological order to experience the evolution of the prehistorical fauna.

Fig. 2: Liopleurodon, an ancient marine reptile belonging to a group called pliosaurs
Fig. 3: Panel showing the geological timescale, including typical fauna and flora and major events as well as the paleogeography.

All displays come with explanations in English, Portuguese, French and Spanish, giving a brief overview of each creature, where fossils have been found, when it lived, information about its diet and hunting strategies, and more. These signs also include pictures of the actual fossils that can be compared with the reconstruction.

The vast majority of reconstructions is rather up to date with the scientific literature; a large number of theropods is shown with a variety of feathers for example [Fig 4]. It is clear that such huge displays cannot be re-done with every new paper that is being published on a certain species, but overall, we found the scientific accuracy of the models impressive. This is certainly due to the very recent opening of the park in 2019. We highly recommend a visit to the park to see brand new dinosaur models. While dinosaurs are, of course, the main attraction of this place, you will also find reconstructions of many different prehistoric animals, such as invertebrates, amphibians, marine reptiles and pterosaurs. All reconstructions were made in dynamic poses, and this artistic choice makes them look alive – guaranteeing great photos [Fig 5]. In total there are more than 180 models.

Fig. 4: Velociraptor, a small, feathered theropod found in central Asia, belonging to a group called dromaeosaurids, also commonly known as ‘raptors’.
Fig. 5: Pterosaurs nesting in a tree in front of the Dino Parque.

For all the very young paleontologists the park has much to offer. Several mini-playgrounds are scattered throughout the exhibits and paleontology is presented in a child friendly manner with a diversity of educational activities and shows. There is for example a sand box in which a plesiosaur replica fossil is hidden so that playing children can excavate it themselves. We also noticed that the only stairs in the entire park are used to access a platform near the head of Supersaurus, a very large sauropod. The rest of the park uses slopes and is thus wheelchair accessible and lots of benches and picnic tables are distributed throughout the entire park so the next place to rest is never far away.

The museum focuses on the rich local dinosaur fauna found in the area, such as a nest of Lourinhanosaurus eggs with embryos inside, and Torvosaurus remains. The museum also explains the local geology and how the area looked like during the Jurassic; it was a meandering river/delta system located in the Lusitanian Basin. Both alluvial and marine fossils are abundant in the sedimentary rocks. More on the geological setting of this area will be covered in a separate blog post where we describe our own fossil hunting efforts in Portugal. The museum also provides an insight into paleontological excavation methods and hosts the preparators’ laboratory, so you can watch people work on newly discovered fossils in real time through a large window [Fig 6].

Fig. 6: Ongoing preparation in the live lab of unidentified sauropod vertebrae found in Lourinhã.

We received a little tour behind the scenes of the park and talked to the preparators who showed us their current projects and were excited to explain the implications of their latest finds. Since these were of course still unpublished, we had to promise to keep everything secret and thus can’t talk about it. You’ll have to keep an eye out for publications on fossils from that area, it’s exciting stuff! Taped to the window to the preparators’ lab was a little poster saying the preparators accept (unpaid) interns/volunteers and people who are looking for thesis projects, so if you are curious about the topic, and excited about learning how to prepare dinosaur or other fossil material, you can apply for an internship there [Fig 7]. Our tour behind the scenes also included very interesting conversations with some of the people who worked on the life-sized dinosaur reconstructions. We got to observe their work for a little bit: they were in the process of creating a copy of a Torvosaurus gurneyi skull replica [Fig 8].

Fig. 7: Information poster for people interested in short or long-term training in preparation techniques, including theses and Erasmus+ mobilities.
Fig. 8: Left: Skull of Torvosaurus, the largest theropod of Europe; right: Preparator working on a mold of the Torvosaurus skull to create a copy of it.

Even without the tour behind the scenes the Dino Parque is definitely worth a visit. Here are some additional impressions of our visit:

Fig. 9 Explorer’s tent with, among other things, geological maps of the area, a poster displaying important dinosaurs from Europe and a globe showing, quite accurately, how the Earth looked like in the Upper Jurassic.
Fig. 10: Supersaurus with two small pterosaurs on its neck. With 45 m length, this model is the largest of the Dino Parque.
Fig. 11: Triceratops stealing Linda’s hat.
Fig. 12: Two Deinonychus stalking their prey. Like their Asian relatives Velociraptor, the North American Deinonychus belonged to the dromaeosaurids (‘raptors’).
Fig. 13: David and the large pterosaur Geosternbergia, falsely labeled Pteranodon (to which it was originally assigned)
Fig. 14: Triceratops skull.
Fig. 15: Lourinhasaurus, a sauropod named after the town of Lourinhã. Linda as a scale.
Fig. 16: Allosaurus with its prey, a stegosaurus. Notice the two juvenile Allosaurus in the bottom part.
Fig. 17: A happy Ankylosaur, an armored-skinned dinosaur.
Fig. 18: Tanystropheus, a long necked aquatic reptile from the Triassic in Europe and Asia. In the background you can see the ancient crocodile Sarcosuchus, a Tyrannosaurus rex and an Ankylosaurus.
Fig. 19: Linda and David unimpressed by the Dilophosaurus’ attempt to threaten them.

Matthew Inabinett, Appalachia CARES/AmeriCorps service member; assistant collections manager at the Gray Fossil Site & Museum

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m a vertebrate paleontologist currently living in Johnson City, Tennessee. I graduated from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) with my master’s degree in paleontology in May 2020. While I was a student at ETSU, I had a graduate assistantship position in the fossil collections at the Gray Fossil Site & Museum (GFS), which I’ve fortunately been able to continue since November 2020 thanks to a position serving at GFS through AmeriCorps. Prior to coming to ETSU for graduate school, I earned my bachelor’s degree in geology from Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2018. As a student at Amherst, I worked all four years as a docent in the Beneski Museum of Natural History — as you can probably tell, I really love natural history museums and want museum work to be a core component of my future. 

Image 1: Me in collections at the Gray Fossil Site & Museum. I am holding the 19th thoracic vertebrae of the Gray Fossil Site’s mastodon, which is very likely a new species. The left and right hindlimb bones (femora, tibiae, and fibulae) are on the cabinet behind me. (August 2021)

How did you get interested in science?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been very interested in animals, and from about the age of four that interest grew to include fossil animals. Through reading lots of books and watching science shows as a little kid, I became increasingly fascinated by animals, in particular dinosaurs. Even as a young kid, I was always pretty interested not just in the animals themselves (e.g., which dinosaur was the biggest or coolest-looking) but in how they lived and what their world was like, and how they evolved with changing ecosystems, which are definitely interests that have only continued to grow as I’ve studied paleontology professionally. 

I should also point out that in addition to reading books and watching television programs about nature and paleontology, some of the most critical sources for fueling my interest in science were family trips to zoos, aquariums, and museums. There really isn’t anything as fascinating as getting to see live animals or real fossils in person — now just as much as when I was an elementary schooler — and these places gave me a real-life look at research and conservation in action. If I can hop on a little soapbox for a moment, I just want to say that over the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, places like these — which are generally operating on tight budgets anyway — took a serious financial hit, and if you’re in a position where you are able to support zoos, aquariums, museums, or similar science education venues in your area, please do! These are the places that not only push forward our knowledge of life on Earth and our ability to conserve it, but also can inspire people to become scientists themselves or to be more supportive of science-based causes and issues, and as such represent something really valuable in our society.

What kind of work do you do?

My research as a graduate student and since has focused on prehistoric elephants, in particular on mastodons — an extinct family similar to but only distantly related to the living elephants, and characterized most recognizably by the conical cusps on their teeth. Mastodons evolved in Africa and spread to Eurasia and eventually, about 16 million years ago, to North America where they survived until about 12,600 years ago and were an important part of large mammal communities across the continent. I am interested in the taxonomy, evolution, and lifestyles of mastodons in North America, particularly in the southeastern US. My thesis focused on (re)describing five mastodons from the Pleistocene (ice age) of coastal South Carolina, including the two individuals used to make the skeletal mount on display at the Beneski Museum. These mastodons showed some features like relatively large tusks in their lower jaws and really broad molars that are toward the extreme end of the spectrum for their species. I’m currently involved in some other projects along similar lines, looking to quantify variability in mastodon molars and particularly in the presence/absence of tusks in the lower jaw. 

Image 2: The American mastodon mount (along with other creatures!) at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. The skeleton and upper teeth are from one individual, the lower jaw with its teeth and tusks are from a second; the skull, upper tusks, and pelvis are reconstructed. These specimens were found in South Carolina in the 1860s. Notice the tusks in the lower jaw — they are the largest I’ve tracked down in any American mastodon. (February 2020)

My position at the GFS is in collections, which I think is a really wonderful way to experience the museum world. Basically, this is a position that involves the storage, cataloguing, accessioning, and upkeep of fossils once they’ve been excavated and prepared, and assisting researchers and students with access to the specimens. I’ve had to learn a lot about archival materials and practices to ensure long-term stability of specimens, as well as how to document specimen information, loans, research access requests, and other important information. I find it an especially exciting career path because of the opportunity to look at all the fossils in the collection up close (it’s done wonders for my osteological knowledge), and the fact that the Gray Fossil Site, which unsurprisingly dominates our collection, is both incredibly rich and the only site of its age (Early Pliocene, about 4.8 million years ago) in Appalachia means that many of the fossils I get to handle and house represent species new to science! 

How does your research contribute to understanding paleontology?

Mastodons were a long-lived group that entered North America about 16 million years ago and survived here until about 12,600 years ago at the end of the last ice age; in that time they were found across the whole continent and were important parts of large mammal communities, so understanding their natural history helps paleontologists form a better picture of what was going on in North America more broadly. Even though mastodons are really common ice age fossils in most of North America, the first 15 million years or so of their history on the continent is not well-understood, and even comparatively well-studied ice age mastodons have lots of unanswered questions. I’ve focused especially on mastodons in the Southeast because it’s an area where they are common but generally not as well-studied as other places like the Midwest and Great Lakes region, and only by describing and studying more specimens from comparatively understudied time intervals and places can paleontologists begin to piece together what variation exists in mastodons and what it might mean. It’s important to tease apart what kinds of variability indicate differences between mastodon species (and when and how different species might’ve separated from each other), versus adaptations to particular environmental conditions over time, versus the individual variation present in any species. The environmental aspect is interesting given the ongoing investigation into the (probably very substantial) role rapid climate change at the end of the ice age had in the extinction of mastodons and other large mammals; understanding how mastodons themselves changed in response to earlier climate changes might help us better understand why they went extinct at the end of the ice age, and perhaps what that might mean for their modern elephant relatives. 

Compared to research, working in natural history collections might not seem like it contributes as much to answering questions or spreading knowledge about paleontology, but I think that it is actually a great way to do both of those. Without well-maintained collections, conducting research becomes much more difficult, so by making sure that materials in collections at GFS are well-housed and well-maintained, catalogued, accessioned, properly labelled and documented, and accessible to researchers (who have filled out their research access request paperwork beforehand!) I’m playing my part to further scientific progress at this remarkable site and in the field as a whole. The institution outlives the individual, and so I hope that by always adhering to best practices in collections and treating the tasks with care, our specimens will have a better chance of surviving in perpetuity. Additionally, it’s not only research that is benefitted by a well-maintained fossil collection; public outreach can be as well. When it comes to choosing fossils for display and interpretation, collections staff are often going to be indispensable resources when it comes to considerations both aesthetic (e.g., what specimens are the most striking?) and functional (e.g., how stable will this fossil be out of collections in a display case, and is predisposed to fragility due to its curation history?). As I got my start in museums as an educator, I try to keep things like this in mind at GFS, which may be coming in handy soon as we begin the process of revamping our exhibits.

What are your data and what do you study?

Image 3: Measuring the jaw of the Gray Fossil Site mastodon. The long symphysis (chin) and lower tusks differ from the American mastodon and other species. (February 2019)

My research is on mastodons, and there are a few areas I’m particularly interested in: mastodon from the Southeastern US, the variability in the form and presence of lower tusks in some mastodons, and patterns in variability in tooth form as a proxy for species differences in mastodons. Despite being one of the most common, charismatic, and well-known groups of fossil animals in North America, there are a lot of things about mastodon evolution we don’t really understand. While there’s a lot of exciting research going on in the genetics of ice age mammals, including mastodons, my own research uses the good ol’ dry bones approach of looking at morphology: not all fossils preserve good genetic material, even if they’re geologically recent enough to (this seems like it’s a particular problem in the Southeast), and a lot of the areas where we have the biggest questions about mastodon history (when did certain lineages/species split from each other and how? what might have driven certain adaptations?) involve fossils too old for genetic work to be done. Documenting, measuring, and describing specimens — especially teeth, the most durable part of the vertebrate skeleton and (in most mammals) among the most taxonomically informative, and especially especially the 3rd molars (in elephants and their relatives, the largest, longest-lasting, and most distinctive tooth) — provides a basis for large-scale studies of patterns and gives us a morphological framework on which we can place the results of isotopic and genetic studies. I also have a great fondness for “historic paleontology,” investigating and revisiting work done many decades ago to see how older scholarship can fit in with newer interpretations, and to try and solve long-standing questions where information may have slipped through the cracks of history. This kind of investigation laid the groundwork for my master’s thesis, which was anchored on the redescription of the mastodon skeleton on display at Amherst College, collected in 1868, published on briefly in 1918, and little remarked-upon since — which is a shame, because some of that material is really remarkable; the lower tusks on that mount, for example, are the largest I’ve come across for this species of mastodon, and the teeth are proportionally wider than in any other specimen yet measured.

Image 4: Measuring a baby tooth from an early mastodon, Zygolophodon proavus, at the Beneski Museum of Natural History. (February 2020)

What methods do you use to communicate science?

As I noted above, I started out as a museum docent, and I still think talking to people face-to-face at a museum is the finest, most engaging way to share the excitement of paleontology. That’s not really something I’ve gotten to do with a lot of regularity since I came to ETSU, but through collections I’ve gotten opportunities to be involved with another really great branch of museum education and outreach: exhibits! There is a lot of work that goes into making a museum exhibit — even a temporary one. Specimens have to be assessed and have condition reports filled out, and adequate supports have to be made for them; theme, tone, and content have to be decided on for the text, and illustrations and graphics have to be made; and the exhibit has to be prepared with visibility and accessibility for as many museum-goers as possible in mind. Earlier this year, I was able to complete a small temporary fossil exhibit that my colleagues and I began back in early 2020, before the pandemic, and I found the whole process fascinating. There are so many things that I just hadn’t considered about the process beforehand, and I think getting to have that experience is really informative. It’s certainly a different feeling to chatting with visitors and educating on the fly out on the museum floor.

What is your favorite part of being a scientist?

One of the things I find most exciting about being a scientist — and particularly a paleontologist — is just the connection you get to have with the natural world. In doing paleontology, in any capacity, you’re connecting yourself with everything that came before you in some small way. A lot of people like to approach paleontological research with the idea that it should be striving to answer Big Questions with major, serious implications for the modern world (often with particular emphasis, on climate change and its ecological effects), and that research is wonderful and critically important, but I personally don’t agree with the notion that it should necessarily be a driving factor in all paleontological research. Sorry to expound my own weird philosophy on the subject, but… humans are the only species we know of that has ever had the capability to look back and to study what the world was like in own past and before we even existed; I think that we almost owe it to the organisms that came before us to study and understand them and their lives and their worlds. There’s something primal and fascinating about getting to hold in your hands, to see and seek to understand, some part of a living thing that has been hidden away for millions of years. I don’t think it’ll ever stop being an amazing thrill.

Image alt 5: The lower jaw of an American mastodon from South Carolina, at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston. Note how this mastodon lacks tusks in its lower jaw. (May 2019)

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

For someone who wants to be a scientist, I’d say it’s good practice to get into to learn to change your mind about things with new information, and try not to make knee-jerk decisions or reactions — which are not things that come naturally to (probably) anyone, but learning to adapt your interpretations and opinions with more data and more reflection is critical in science. Also, though this is cliché, you should definitely always have an excitement for the natural world and an inquiring mind about it. For someone interested in paleontology particularly, I would say (though I expect most people who are seriously interested about paleontology would already be doing this) to take a real interest in living fauna and flora for their own sake, because you’ll learn a lot about how organisms work and it really will help you think about what fossil organisms and ecosystems must have been like, and of course because the species we share the planet with now are totally fascinating in their own right. Another paleontology topic I feel is important to clarify is that to be a paleontologist, you don’t have to be good at all aspects of paleontology: fieldwork is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; being skilled at preparing fossils is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; having the often-methodical skills for collections or curation is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; teaching classes is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; having a doctorate is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist. Knowing and respecting the value of — and potential stumbling blocks in — each of these areas will serve you well, and help you carve out a niche for yourself where you feel you fit in, and have a job that matches your skills. Don’t be afraid to realize that you maybe aren’t cut out for some parts of paleontology — maybe you hate being out in the dirt, or dread the idea of spending years working toward a PhD. There’s still room for you to contribute great, important work to the field.

Devra Hock, Paleontologist, Ph.D. Candidate

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi! My name is Devra Hock and I am currently working on my PhD on mammalian paleoecology. Outside of my research, I love dance and musical theater. I’ve danced and performed my whole life and recently that interest has shifted towards aerial dance (think Cirque du Soleil, but much less fancy). I teach aerial hoop and pole fitness classes, as well as perform with my aerial studio in Lincoln, NE. Having something else to focus on with non-academic goals and challenges allows me time to have fun and accomplish personal goals. I also have a love of vintage-inspired fashion, and want to help re-define what scientists look like.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do?
Right now, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which is very similar to a research scientist. I conduct my own research for my dissertation, as well as teach in my department and assist my advisor with his research. I’m studying mammalian paleo-ecology, and specifically looking at how the distribution of mammalian traits can be used to predict environments. To do that, I use historical mammalian distributions and their associated traits and environments as proxies to build a model that can be applied to the fossil data. Currently, I am comparing both North American and African mammal data to determine which is the best proxy to use for Miocene North American fossil localities. Another part of my research is examining the change in North American mammalian distributions from historical to modern times and discussing possible causes. In addition to my research, I am on the board of the Association for Women Geoscientists and currently transitioning from a region delegate to the Communications Coordinator after participating on the communications committee being in charge of the AWG Twitter and part of the team that keeps the website updated.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
I grew up loving going to museums and science centers, but that did not translate into an interest into science as a career field until middle school, with a 6th grade field trip focusing on earth sciences. That was my first exposure of geology as a scientific field. From there, the following year I researched what radiocarbon dating was for a research fair at school and used woolly mammoths as my example in that project. While working on that project, I found myself going down the paleontology documentary rabbit hole and got more and more interested in paleontology itself. In high school, I was lucky to have a science teacher that had a background as a paleo-anthropologist, and I was able to really develop my interest in paleontology throughout high school.

As a scientist, I appreciate the skill to look for questions that don’t have answers and to think critically about data and facts presented to me. I’ve also learned how to be collaborative with a variety of people from different disciplines. Additionally, one of my favorite parts about being a paleontologist is our ability to essentially time travel through our research. Especially when we’re out in the field, we’re standing in rocks that formed millions of years ago and finding fossils that haven’t seen the light of day since they were buried. As a geologist and paleontologist, we’re able to look at the rocks and interpret what environment created each rock layer, and travel through different environments as they changed through time. In my specific field of paleo-ecology, we try to understand what the interactions of animals and their environments looked like throughout time.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
My research has two broad contributions to society. First, my research of historical versus modern mammalian distributions will add to our knowledge of the changes occurring in the natural world around us and what the potential causes might be. These discussions contribute to the work of ecologists and conservationists as they work to maintain our natural spaces for future generations. Second, my research into paleo-ecology will add to our knowledge of the evolution of environments and animals throughout time, which also contributes to our understanding of why and how environments change and what the animals’ response has been in the past.

My work with the Association of Women Geoscientists and local outreach events creates discussions about equity and equality in the geosciences for women and other underrepresented groups. Currently both with AWG and in my own department, I have been working with others to find sustainable and achievable methods to increase diversity and inclusivity in the geosciences and to dismantle systemic and institutional barriers.

 

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists?
My biggest piece of advice is to find a way to try out things you’re interested in to see if you really like doing them. I started doing field work in high school as a gauge if I really did like paleontology in practice and not just from TV documentaries. It’s also a great way of building experience and connections. My second biggest piece of advice follows that, which is networking. Just like any other field, your path is what you make of it, but knowing other people in your field can change the shape of your path. Don’t be hesitant to reach out to professors or researchers in the field that you’re interested in. With emails, the worst that can happen is they never respond! Science is filled with opportunities, but unfortunately opportunities aren’t always equal. You may have to seek out experiences that will help you later on. There are a lot of unspoken rules and expectations, and sometimes you won’t get opportunities you are qualified for, and that’s not your fault. You just have to keep pushing and your time will come. However, with everything I just said, don’t lose yourself to your science. We are all multi-faceted human beings with lots of different interests. Make sure to take time for yourself and your other hobbies. Time away from school or research is just as important as time spent working. While school and research are important parts in your life, they aren’t your entire life. Remember, you can’t do science if you’re burned out!

To learn more about Devra and her research, visit her website here!

Alex Klotz, Physicist

Photo by Sean DuFrene

I am a physics professor at California State University, Long Beach. My specialty is biophysics, which as the name suggests is at the interface of physics and biology, and I’m interested in using materials from the natural world to answer fundamental physics questions. Evolution has had billions of years of practice to engineer neat materials, while we have only been doing it for a few thousand. I spent a few years looking at knots in DNA to understand how entanglements between in and between molecules affect the mechanical properties of things made out of molecules. Now I study DNA structures called kinetoplasts, which are basically sheets of chainmail made of thousands of linked DNA loops. They look like tiny jellyfish and are found in the mitochondria of certain parasites. Among other things, I’m trying to use them to answer questions about the physics of 2D materials that are important for bringing materials like graphene (single-layer carbon) to actual technological use. Totally unrelated to my work with DNA, I also wrote a paper calculating how long it would take to fall through a tunnel through the center of the Earth (38 minutes), which was all over the news for a few days back in 2015.

I also dabble in outreach; I kept a blog about my various science thoughts and adventures for a few year and volunteer for programs like NetPals and Skype-a-Scientist. I’m hoping to start a similar program here in Long Beach. Right now the most outreachy thing I do is make dumb science jokes on twitter, which mainly reach other scientists.

My favorite part of being a scientist is figuring something out that nobody has figured out before, it is an amazing feeling. I remember the first “discovery” I made during my senior thesis in college and the few that I made over the next few years. Now I’m lucky enough that I get to discover new things a few times a year. I’m training several students in my lab and I hope they get to feel that as well.

A kinetoplast, which is a network of about 5000 linked DNA rings, is seen here under a microscope moving along with a flowing liquid. Its shape changes from a folded taco to a flat frisbee as it moves. Scale bar is 5 microns, about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.

My main hobby the last few years has been road biking, which I like as a way to experience the outdoors, meet people while not having to talk non-stop, and stay fit and active. It was a pretty good hobby to have during the pandemic when there was nothing else to do. I used to play ultimate frisbee, but I’ve been injured for a few years. I like animals although I don’t currently have any pets. Another pandemic hobby I picked up was walking around the neighborhood every morning and meeting all the outdoor cats. I just moved a month ago so I have to meet all the new cats.

I won’t say too much about the path I took and how you should follow it, because it involves a good deal of privilege and luck. My advice to graduate students is to attend as many seminars as you can, not just in your own sub-sub-sub-field of research. You learn a lot about your discipline that will come in handy later, you can make good contacts, and you can get ideas that you may be able to apply to your work.

Rachel Roday, Graduate Student and Marine Scientist

Rachel transporting a sedated sandbar shark to a respirometer to understand shark metabolism.

My favorite activities are ones that help me connect to nature, such as SCUBA diving, kayaking, and painting landscapes. Even as a child, I spent all of my free time at the beach or obsessing over turtles, so it was no surprise when I decided to pursue marine science as a profession. I obtained my Bachelors of Science in marine science and biological sciences from the University of Delaware where I conducted research on shark respiration and zooplankton behavior. I also completed an internship at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida examining red tide toxins from Florida beaches.

Currently, I am a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute. Though I have yet to begin my thesis, my research will focus on understanding the role of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in marine fishes. PFAS are a group of approximately 4500 manmade chemicals that are water, heat, and oil resistant. They have been found in non-stick pans, fire-fighting foams, stain resistant carpets, and many other common use items and are known carcinogens in humans. Little is known about the impact of these chemicals on marine fishes, so I hope to fill some of this knowledge gap by determining the toxicity of lesser known PFAS compounds and how they might be transferred from parent to offspring. As a scientist, I aim to understand the extent of human impact on biology within the marine ecosystem. In the future, I hope to influence the regulation, product development, and disposal techniques of manmade chemicals such as PFAS, insecticides, sunscreens, and pharmaceuticals in order to protect the environment and ultimately, us humans.

Rachel on a dive in the Florida Keys during her internship at Mote Marine Laboratories

It took me four years of undergraduate classes, several internships, and two wildly different research projects to figure out the specific area that I wanted to focus on in graduate school. In other words, I got really good at figuring out what I didn’t want to pursue. This would be my greatest piece of advice to someone looking to find their way in science or any profession: try out lots of things, as many as you can! Not only does a range in experience bring about a unique perspective, but you never know what one door might open for you later on down the road.

I also suggest that people learn about the science that interests them in their backyard or community. As a Long Island native, this was easy for me because growing up, I was surrounded by beaches. But even learning about the local plant life or stargazing at night can help curate your specific scientific interests. I believe that having a personal and maybe even emotional relationship with nature and science can instill passion that propels you through all of the more tedious and challenging parts of life. Overall, even if science is just a hobby and not a career end-goal, I think it’s important to find ways to make it accessible at home and never be afraid to ask questions!

Rachel aboard a Norwegian research vessel in the Arctic Ocean during the polar night, researching the photobehavior of copepods, a small crustacean.

Iris Arndt, Geoscientist

Tell us a bit about yourself
Hi everyone, my name is Iris. Besides science, I enjoy spending time outdoors. I love hiking and (relaxing) bike rides (preferably combined with a bit of regional geology). I also enjoy playing board games and pen and paper role-playing games with friends. It is important to me to volunteer and get involved in my surrounding, such as in early career networks and university boards.

What kind of scientist are you, and what do you do?
I am a PhD student in geosciences working on geochemical analysis of tropical bivalve shells. I analyze geochemical parameters (element ratios e.g. Mg/Ca, Sr/Ca, Ba/Ca and stable isotopes δ18O and δ13C) recorded during growth within the shell, with the goal of reconstructing the paleoenvironmental conditions (such as temperature, salinity, and primary productivity) that prevailed in the reef where the organism grew. I also look at more recent shells to evaluate the structure and geochemistry of shells grown under known environmental conditions.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
I think I was always a curious person. As a child I loved going to natural history and science museums, especially those with interactive elements. My grandfather encouraged my scientific interest a lot and provided me with toys like crystal growing sets and chemistry kits. Ironically, I was particularly interested in extraterrestrial topics. I started studying geosciences because it seemed like an interesting field that combined chemistry, physics, and biology, and because I thought it would be really cool to go on field trips. My enthusiasm for geosciences grew over the course of the first semester, and after my first field trip, I was absolutely certain that geoscience was what I wanted to do. With paleoclimate reconstruction, I found a field that I personally think is important to advance and interesting to work in.

For me, the best thing about being a (geo)scientist is that you get to work on something you really care about and that you have the opportunity to contribute to the understanding of some of the important processes that shape this wonderful planet we live on. I also appreciate being able to work creatively and come up with new ideas and approaches, building on decades of remarkable research. Plus, it’s fantastic to be surrounded by so many cool, open-minded, talented, and nerdy people to share and discuss exciting new findings and approaches with.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
The Earth is a very complex system, and modelers are making remarkable progress in predicting its response to climate change. Models are often tested against paleoclimate data and are not (yet) always able to reproduce the parameters identified in paleoclimate studies. Providing paleoclimate data and understanding how Earth’s climate has changed in the past can help to better predict future changes. My work focuses on obtaining high-resolution (up to daily) paleoenvironmental data from shells. These high-resolution climate snapshots can provide insights into short-term climate aspects such as seasonality and frequency of extreme weather events. I believe that climate-related changes in seasonality and extreme weather events are more tangible than, for example, long-term changes in average temperature over decades. Therefore, I hope that continued research in the field of high-resolution paleoclimate reconstruction will provide a basis for making the relevance and effects of upcoming climate change in daily life more apparent to everyone.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions; the more you ask, the more you learn.

Dare to find your own interpretations and discuss your ideas with colleagues, even if they seem crazy. Maybe you missed something, in which case your interpretation can be adjusted, or maybe you found something super cool that others overlooked.

Stay curious and adventurous. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t turn out as planned. Unexpected results can lead you into the unknown, where new findings are waiting to be discovered.

Mahmoud El-Saadi, M.Sc Candidate, Environmental Physiologist

Hello! My name is Mahmoud, a master’s student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. After completing my undergrad at Carleton, I stayed to pursue an M.Sc in Biology in Dr. Heath MacMillan’s lab.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
I would say my favorite part of being a scientist is the constant excitement of asking questions and having the freedom to try things out. In a constantly changing world, new evidence is always popping up which can occasionally change the way we look at pre-existing theories and data. I really enjoy meeting other scientists and bouncing ideas off of them, as well as communicating science to people.   

As for my interest in insects, it started with an upper-year biology course on insects which involved going out and collecting different species of insects. I was hooked after the course, in large part due to simply appreciating how diverse these animals are in their biology. The world of insects is massive!

What is your research about?
My research is currently looking at how insects are injured by low temperatures, and if there is any connection to their gut. The majority of insects, such as flies, locusts, crickets, and bees to name a few, do not do very well at low temperatures, and this can result in them becoming injured or dying. The exact driving forces behind these injuries are not exactly known, but they are thought to be driven by water and ion balance becoming dysregulated due to the insect’s gut losing most of its ability to control water and ion flow between the inside and outside of the gut. However, similar to us, insects also have a diverse community of bacteria in their gut! This leads me to my main question: if insects suffer injuries at low temperatures, is that partly because gut bacteria are finding their way outside and into tissues? If that is the case, then the resulting infection could be another factor behind the tissue damage which would provide better insight as to why most insects cannot handle the cold very well.

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
To see if low temperatures lead to bacterial leak from the gut, I am feeding a fluorescent strain of E. coli bacteria to locusts, my model insect of choice. After they eat the bacteria, I expose them to a low temperature and extract a sample of their hemolymph, or “blood”. I then place the hemolymph in agar gel plates that allow any bacteria to grow overnight. I would then confirm the presence of the fluorescent bacteria by shining a UV lamp on the plates, which would show a strong yellow fluorescence. If bacteria are finding their way out of the gut, then I would see the fluorescent bacteria in the plates.

A unique strain of bacteria that emits a yellow glow under an ultraviolet lamp.

How does your research contribute to the bigger picture?
When it comes to the spread of insects across the globe, their ability to handle low temperatures is a very strong predictor for their survival and distribution. In other words, insects that are better able to survive cold environments are more likely to spread further than insects that are less able to survive the cold. This is particularly important when it comes to the issue of climate change, as greater and more frequent extremes in temperatures can expose many insect species to a different environment than what they are normally used to. In the context of pests that may damage agricultural crops, trees in forests, and pose a risk to our health, knowing how insects are physiologically affected by the cold can provide valuable information that we can use to predict their movement and future distribution. I would say that my work is just a small piece of the much grander puzzle of why insects do not like the cold!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
The advice I always give aspiring scientists is to never be afraid to ask questions. In a way, asking questions is what defines us! If you are an undergraduate student in STEM who is interested in research, try to take the first step to email a professor if you are interested in their work, because that first step can definitely go a long way. No matter your research background or experience, there is a field out there for everyone. Embrace your passion for science and go forth!

Ymke Temmerman, Ing. Water manager/ Aquatic ecotechnologist and MSc student Aquaculture and Marine Resources Management.

Ymke during a field trip to Texel where she just did some field work at The Slutter

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
From a young age, I was always very curious, wanting to learn as much as possible about everything related to the ocean. I always tried to learn more and continue to look for new things to discover. I grew up close to the coast in the Netherlands and till this very day, I still enjoy the nature there and it always feels like coming home. Part of the reason I got so interested in the ocean is the mystery that is part of it, the fact that on the beaches and along the coast, we only see a glimpse of the life beneath the surface. So when the time came to make a decision about what I wanted to study, the choice for water management/aquatic ecotechnology at a university located close to the coast was one that was directly related to my passion for the coasts. During my studies, the passion and enthusiasm for science only grew. The contrast between theory, lab work and boots in the mud is something I enjoyed and still do. During my first internships at the research institutes NIOZ (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research) and Wageningen Marine Research, I really got to experience doing research. These were amazing experiences, with fieldwork, experiments and a lot of new knowledge which ranged from small worms at the bottom of the North Sea to invasive species in industrial harbors. During these periods, I learned that the part I love about science is the continuous exploration of what seems like endless topics. And that with doing research, you contribute to knowledge. Because science to me is exploring new things of which the stories should be shared not only among scientist but with as many people as possible, especially the next generations that will need it to do better.

Ymke on a mudflat on Texel taking samples during an excursion

What do you do?
At the moment, I am finishing up my Masters in Aquaculture and Marine Resources Management. Within this program I am focusing on ecology and marine resources. The marine resources part is mainly about the services provided to us by the ocean (e.g. fish, coastal protection) and how to use these services in a sustainable way. For example, how fishing could be sustainable or how oyster reefs can be used for coastal protection. The ecological aspect is more about how these coastal and marine systems work and how different species contribute to keeping them healthy. Before my adventure at the university started, I did a Bachelors in Water Management in the middle of the Southwestern Delta of the Netherlands. During this study, I focused on ecology from rivers to oceans, learning about how to work together with nature to protect us against flooding. Other topics included climate change and the importance of water, where some countries have too much, others don’t have enough.

In addition to my studies, I am also active as an ambassador for the Dutch Wavemakers. This organization aims to educate the next generation worldwide about sufficient and clean water but also about water safety. We want to achieve this by collaborating with water athletes and students, hoping to make young people enthusiastic about water sports and water studies.  Next to this, we also hope to motivate the young generation to take action and be the change they like to see.

Ymke in Shanghai on a trip for the Dutch Wavemakers to participate in the Wetskills challenge 2019

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
We, as Dutch Wavemakers, communicate these important topics of water safety and scarcity with a positive attitude. We are convinced that it is not fruitful to keep pointing fingers at each other, since solutions are not often born from conflict. Instead we have a solution oriented approach in which we, of course, also talk about the problems but instead of focusing on doom scenarios we try to set out a positive future perspective. From experience, I know that this is way more effective in the long run when it comes to activating people. If they see the type of positive impact they can have as an individual, and if they spread the word with the same positivity as we do, this small action might become a big movement, leading to a real change in mindset.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, and the betterment of society in general?
As a Dutch Wavemaker, but also as someone with passion for the ocean, I hope to contribute to a positive change in which we start to see the ocean as a companion instead of an enemy or endless resource. As an ambassador I am involved in multiple projects that aim to create awareness for problems like plastic pollution, changing ecosystems and of course, the effects of climate change on our oceans and coastal zones. One of them is the SDG 14 alliance, which focuses on achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goal 14: Life below water. Here we hope to create more awareness about pollution, sustainable fisheries, increasing biodiversity and protection of the oceans, with the focus on the younger generations. Next to these projects, we also visit all different types of events where we teach the younger generations about the impacts of too much water, but also about the importance of having enough water. We do this with the help of fun little activities in which the children can participate. In this way, children learn about large scale problems like too much water in cities because of the lack of green spaces.

Measuring temperature for an experiment during Ymke’s Bachelors thesis

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Stay curious! As long as you remain curious and eager to learn new things, there is always a way for you to get there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, there are always people in your surroundings that would be happy to answer them for you. Especially if it is something that you are really passionate about! And remember you will never be too old to learn new things, because a world without new things to discover would be a bit boring, if you ask me!

Jihan Al-Shdifat, Chemist / Organic Biogeochemistry Scientist In-Training

Processing samples after the dive.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? I got into science out of curiosity. Not many people I know are in the sciences which I think called out to me to explore what a scientist does, what do they look like aside from how they are portrayed in popular culture, or in general. I chose chemistry because understanding the universe from a molecular point of view appealed to me. Now, I am focused on oceanographic work employing biogeochemistry tools and techniques.

The best part about being a scientist is that you can allow your curious mind to think freely. There is always so much more to learn. When you’re out doing fieldwork, or simply processing samples in the lab, the thrill you get whenever you’re making a discovery is irreplaceable. This doesn’t mean obtaining purely positive results- insights and observations on negative results and failed experiments make you appreciate the scientific process more. Unlocking life skills in pursuit of science is a thing! I learned SCUBA diving, and programming, because these are requisites needed to tackle the research problem I am working on at the moment.

With my work, I hope to encourage more Filipinos to pursue a career in the sciences.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? My research involves enumerating the lipids found in microbial mats, the water column and sediments in an area where groundwater bubbles out from the seafloor. These areas have very dynamic chemistries and my objective is to understand how micro- and macroorganisms thrive and adapt to these conditions.

Submarine groundwater discharge research group of the OASIS Lab, UP-MSI collecting biomass, sediment and gas samples.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Knowing the lipid composition gives us an understanding of the metabolic processes employed by microorganisms in adapting to their environment. Looking at the adaptation in areas affected by submarine groundwater discharge can very well contribute to assessing how organisms may behave in response to the changing oceans. The research also employs stable isotope measurements to go hand-in-hand with lipid studies. Another goal is to test how paleotemperature proxies behave in tropical climate as most studies are being done in temperate regions.

Leisure dive after sample collection: We make time to have a leisure dive after completing the sample collection dives to appreciate the rich biodiversity in Mabini, Batangas.

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.? The data that my research uses are lipid mass spectrometry profiles as well as isotopic compositions from isotope-ratio mass spectrometry analysis. Isotopic data are both compound-specific and bulk analysis. We also perform the standard physico-chemical measurements of the study site, as well as obtain DNA data of the microbial mats we’ve collected from the field. The team is also exploring the use of imaging to profile the microorganisms across the water column.

Bubbles emanating from the seafloor.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Scientists come in all shapes and sizes. As long as you have that curious mind to hold on to, there is no mold that you should follow on how to be one. Find an inspiration and follow it through with hard work and a lot of readings, and you’re good. More importantly, engage people on your work. Science is meant to be communicated to the larger population outside the scientific sphere and now more than ever is citizen science a force we definitely want to tap into.