Judging the Wyoming State Science Fair

Megan here-

There’s something unmistakable about science fairs. Rows of tri-fold poster boards sit atop long tables, students stand eagerly (or nervously) next to their projects, and judges meander through the maze of people and posters. In middle school, I associated the words “science fair” with outright fear. I loved science, but my shyness meant that having to talk to adults and be judged was simply miserable. Luckily, I’ve developed since the woeful days of middle school and I quite enjoy talking about science. So when the opportunity arose to be a judge for the Wyoming State Science Fair (WSSF), I didn’t hesitate to sign up.

What do you do as a judge?

In its simplest sense, judging at the WSSF is broken down into three components:

    Previewing projects and taking notes while the students are not present
    Interviewing students about their projects
    Discussing scoring and winning projects with your judging team

All of this happens in the span of one day (or two if you preview the day before). I was on a judging team with four other people from a variety of earth sciences backgrounds. Each team had a category and a division to judge, and would go through the three aforementioned steps to choose first, second, and third place for that category and division. Our team was assigned to the Junior Division (sixth through eighth grade) Earth & Environmental Science Category.

What’s it actually like being a judge?

The WSSF was held in the University of Wyoming Union in a large ballroom filled with rows and rows of tables. Walking in, I recognized that familiar sense of unease and nervousness, but this time it was not mine. Having already previewed the projects while the students were not present, it was time for the interviewing–the part I remember being the most terrifying as the student. As I began going from project to project talking with students, I was struck by the confidence and creativity of these middle schoolers. Many students had short presentations prepared, they were all excited to answer my questions, and most didn’t hesitate to share their accomplishments (and their obstacles) with a total stranger. I was wildly impressed.

What I found most interesting was the underlying theme of all of the projects. Every student chose to study an environmental problem that affected them or their communities. One student studied the soil vibration effects of windmills near their town, another examined the pollution from cars idling at their middle school, and a group of students developed a sponge for hydrocarbon remediation for nearby oil spills. These students looked at the world around them, recognized a problem, and then studied it or tried to fix it. The results of such efforts were utterly fascinating.

What was the hardest part?

The deliberation was certainly the most challenging component of science fair judging. A team of five people means five different opinions. Some of us were graduate students, some were educators, and some were professional geologists. At the end of the day, this group of five had to decide on three top projects, and it was nearly impossible. Luckily, discussion and compromise led us to a decision, but it was no easy feat. Hearing each other’s opinions was intriguing and helped me see projects in a different light. It was an opportunity to be more open and view things from a different perspective.

In the end, judging the science fair was a rewarding and meaningful experience. If there were any middle school students who were as nervous as I used to be, I hope that I gave them the confidence to speak up about their science. Communicating science is undoubtedly the most important component of science itself, and instilling confidence in the next generation of scientists is imperative for our future.

If you’d like to learn more about the WSSF, view the list of 2018 awardees, or see pictures of the winning projects, click here.

Brad Deline, Paleontologist

How did you get interested in science in general?

I am one of the rare people (not so rare in paleontology) that has always known what I wanted to do in life. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. When I got a bit older this expanded to paleontology in general as I was spending my summers in Northern Michigan collecting fossil corals (Petoskey Stones) along the shore of Lake Michigan and reading every book I could about fossils.

When I got to high school, I started to think about paleontology as a career and called the nearest Natural History Museum (University of Michigan) asking to talk to someone. I ended up speaking with Tom Baumiller who was very generous with his time and chatted with me on the phone, invited me to the museum, and got me working as a volunteer with the museum collections. I came to the University a year later and Tom had research projects waiting. I ended up conducting research for four years at the museum working with Tom on predation in the fossil record and Dan Fisher on stable isotopes in mastodons. This provided insight into the process of science as well as strong mentorship. I spent countless hours in Tom’s lab along with his graduate students (Forest Gahn, Asa Kaplan, and Mark Nabong), which helped to formulate my own interests and provided casual advice regarding graduate school and academia.

What, exactly, do you do?

The aspect of paleontology that really piques my interest is thinking about the weirdness of fossil organisms. Seeing the remains of animals in the past that look nothing like animals today, inspires wonder of these ancient environments and also provides a clear mystery to be solved. This is what originally interested me in dinosaurs, but as I delved deeper into paleontology it was clear that things got stranger when I looked further into the past.

Visualization of the distribution of echinoderm body forms based on their characteristics. Modified from Deline 2015 with images from Sumrall and Deline 2009 and Sumrall et al. 1997.

As far as weird goes, nothing beats echinoderms (relatives of sea urchins and sea stars). As you may know from previous Time Scavenger posts by the stellar young scientists that contribute to this blog (Maggie, Jen, and Sarah), early echinoderms are extraordinarily diverse and have many perplexing features. To explore this, I examine the diversity of features and forms (disparity). This method allows the visualization of evolutionary dynamics from the perspective of how different rather than how many. For my dissertation, I examined crinoid disparity during the Early Paleozoic focusing on a few key questions. What controls the diversity of features in a community of animals? What is the role of weird things in disparity patterns through time? And, are rare animals objectively weird? I compiled a large database of crinoid characteristics largely by studying museum collections and was able to address these questions. It turned out that rare animals weren’t all that objectively weird compared to common things. However, weird animals (outliers based on their characteristics) played a large role in understanding the evolution in form through time, especially during shifts in environmental conditions.

I have since expanded my research to examine trends in disparity in all echinoderms. This is a gargantuan project in that it requires some working knowledge of the many different groups of echinoderms. It has been one of the most rewarding tasks scientifically as it has given me the chance to sit down with many different echinodermologists and discuss the group they know best. From these discussions, I have compiled a huge character list that I along with my research students have used to examine trends in body plan evolution within echinoderms. This is still ongoing research, but I can start asking questions regarding the nature of the Cambrian Explosion and the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. We can explore patterns of disparity at the level of a phylum and how that parses out to the different groups within it. And, we can start to examine how different forms evolved and what limits the range of feature seen in echinoderms.

How does your job contribute to the understanding of evolution or climate change?

I work at the University of West Georgia, which is a regional comprehensive University. This means that a large portion of my time is devoted toward teaching our diverse student body. I teach a steady mix upper level geology courses and non-major introductory classes. I spend significant amounts of time in my upper level courses discussing evolutionary processes and the nature of science. I feel paleontology is a perfect place to discuss biases, uncertainty, and how scientists actually try to understand the world around them.

This is even more important in my introductory classes. I have a very casual lecture style that fosters student confidence to ask questions. I focus on discussing geologic time, evolution, and climate change. In addition, we talk about why these issues are important and explore the political implications. Politics are a tricky area in the current climate, but if I can get students to include a candidate’s scientific literacy into their decision making process when they are voting, I have done my job.

What methods do you use to engage your students?

Discussing the Mississippian rocks surrounding Lake Cumberland, Kentucky.

I find in my classes getting students out of the classroom and into the field is the most effective way to communicate. Students can make direct observations and see that the real world is much more complicated than what they see in the classroom. Field experiences foster bonds between the student and instructors that makes students more comfortable asking questions. In addition, field work creates more cohesive student groups that then are more likely to work together and elevate the entire class while they are back on campus.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

I think my advice varies depending on who I am addressing so I will list a few things:

Amateur Paleontologists

Take advantage of local fossil groups, they are a wealth of knowledge and experience! If you discover something that you don’t recognize when you are collecting fossil, they can help. Also, feel free to contact professional paleontologists regarding your questions. I have research projects collaborating with or using specimens collected by avocational paleontologists. Also, remember that professional paleontologists have tons of responsibilities such that it may take a while to reply, we can’t go out into the field as often as we would like, and publications based on your material may take a fair amount of time.

Aspiring Paleontologists

Learn as much as possible: read books and articles, go to meetings of local fossil groups (if there are any nearby), and visit museums. Contact professionals with your questions, but be respectful of their time (if you email during exam week that email might get lost!). Most paleontologists would be thrilled to meet an enthusiastic aspiring paleontologist, especially because we were also in that position.

Graduate Students

Publish your work, publish side projects, establish collaborations and publish them. Obviously, make sure the publications are high-quality science, but put yourself in the best position possible. Also, try to squash down the feelings of competition. I know students are all competing for the same grants and ultimately the same jobs. However, if you collaborate or help other students in your department or subfield, that elevates everyone. If one of your friends gets a grant, awesome. They will do more research and make your department/subfield look better. If they get a job that means you will have someone to collaborate with when you get a job! Being supportive and collaborative will make graduate school better. These friendships can also lead to exciting opportunities for you in the future. For instance, I am currently planning a joint trip with one of my graduate school buddies (Kate Bulinski) and recently received a box of Cambrian echinoderm plates form another (Jay Zambito).

Students on the Job Market

Apply to everything. I was aiming for a research position, but ended up at a teaching-focused school. I didn’t think it would make me happy, but I love it here. Don’t limit your options when you may not know what you really want. Also, take time to do the things that clear your head- meditate, jog, hike, etc. Make sure your application is the best possible and then the rest is out of your hands. Likely some of the things that a search committee is looking for are outside of your control so you might as well go for a walk with your dog.

Young Professionals

The first few years on the job are really exhausting, but a few things will make it easier. Maintain your contacts and collaborations. Pick projects that won’t be quite as time intensive. Establish mentors in your department and in your field that can give advice when you need it (thanks Bill Ausich and Tim Chowns). Avoid getting bogged down in things that are not considered in your job performance (mentors will help here). Finally, keep doing the things that clear your head. If you are busy these are often the first things that get left behind, but they are important so keep doing them.

Deline, B. 2015. Quantifying morphological diversity in early Paleozoic echinoderms. In Zamora, S. and Rábano, I. (eds.), Progress in Echinoderm Palaeobiology, Cuademos del Museo Geominero, 19. Instituto Geológico y Minero de España, Madrid, p. 45-48.

Sumrall, C.D. and Deline, B. 2009. A new species of the dual-mouthed paracrinoid Bistomiacystis and a redescription of the edrioasteroid Edrioaster priscus from the Upper Ordovician Curdsville Member of the Lexington Limestone. Journal of Paleontology, v. 83, no. 1, p. 135-139, doi: 10.1666/08-075R.1

Sumrall, C.D., Sprinkle, J. and Guensburg, T.E. 1997. Systematics and paleoecology of late Cambrian echinoderms from the western United States. v. 71, no. 6, p. 1091-1109.

Are corals adapting to keep up with changes in ocean temperature?

Potential and limits for rapid genetic adaptation to warming in a Great Barrier Reef coral

Mikhail V. Matz, Eric A. Treml, Galina V. Aglyamova, Line K. Bay
Summarized by Time Scavenger collaborator, Maggie Limbeck

What data were used?

Researchers looked at genetic data for Acropora millepora (coral common in the Great Barrier Reef) to model (simulate) how corals will adapt to increasing temperatures, establish a direction of coral migration, and measure genetic diversity. These data were then used to predict the future survival of A. millepora in the Great Barrier Reef.


The corals used in this study were previously described in van Oppen et al. (2011) and several samples were collected from Orpheus and Keppel Islands. The coral samples were then genotyped (the genetic material was sequenced so that researchers could examine it) and that data was used to model all of the other experiments that were conducted. The coral genomes were used to look at divergence between populations (how genetically different are the populations that were sampled) and what are the demographics among populations. A biophysical model was used to examine the migration patterns between known coral habitats and the broader region surrounding the Great Barrier Reef. This model required data describing the seascape environment as well as coral-specific data relating to adult density (how many adults), reproductive output and larval spawning time, as well as how far do the larvae travel or disperse.


Figure 1. A. A map of the coast of Australia and the locations along the Great Barrier Reef that coral samples were taken from. A temperature gradient is also plotted on the map, with warmer colors indicating warmer temperatures and cooler colors indicating cooler temperatures. B. A plot of the different water conditions that were measured for each study site and where each study site plots in relation to those water conditions. C. A plot of how similar each coral population was to one another. The separation of the purple dots indicates that it is more genetically separated from the other coral populations that were sampled. D. This plot further shows that the population at Keppel is more genetically distinct from the other groups as the proportion of blue to yellow is drastically increased.

The results of this study indicate that the populations examined are demographically different from one another and that overall migration of these corals is moving in a southward direction (higher latitudes). The migration southwards is still largely driven by ocean currents, rather than preferential survival of warm-adapted corals migrating to cooler locations. It was also determined through the model that those corals that were pre-adapted to a warmer climate, were able to survive gradual warming for 20-50 generations which equates to 100-250 years. However, as the temperature increased, the overall fitness (the ability of a species to reproduce and survive) of these populations began to fluctuate with random thermal anomalies (e.g. El Nino Oscillations) and these fluctuations in fitness continue to increase as warming progressed, independent of the severity of the thermal anomalies. The good news in all of this is that much of the variation in the trait associated with the ability to adapt to warmer temperatures is due to the type of algal symbionts (algae that helps the coral to survive and reproduce) in the area. This means that coral larvae have very plastic (easily changed) phenotypes (genes that are visibly expressed) and can easily adapt to whatever algal symbionts are locally available.

Why is this study important?

This study is important because it has been projected that the global temperature is going to rise 0.1°C per decade for a total of 1°C in the next 100 years and as scientists we want to know how that global temperature change is going to affect organisms. Corals function as a “canary in the coal mine” because they and their algal symbionts are incredibly sensitive to temperature and light changes in the ocean. If we know how corals are going to respond to these changes in temperature, researchers and conservationists will have a better understanding of how to better protect the coral’s environment. This study has shown that corals are able to adapt to the changes in temperature and are migrating southward, but also demonstrated that the ability of mature corals to reproduce in rising temperatures is declining. To combat this, because of this study, conservationists know and may be able to release larval and juvenile corals that have been raised in labs into new environments to perpetuate the species.

The big picture

The big picture here is that climate change is very real and we can use evolution and models of evolution to understand how organisms are going to and are reacting to increasing temperatures. This research indicates that even with low levels of mutation, corals are able to adapt to warming oceans and can associate with different, local algal symbionts as they migrate. However, mature adult corals have increasingly less fitness as ocean temperatures rise which means that they are reproducing less, leading to overall decreased coral populations. There is hope for this particular coral though, if researchers and conservationists can find a way to successfully raise coral larvae and release them into their current and future habitats.

Matz, M. V., E. A. Treml, G.V. Aglyamova, L. K. Bay, 2018. Potential and limits for rapid genetic adaptation to warming in a Great Barrier Reef coral. PLOS Genetics, 14:4:1-19, doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1007220

Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

Megan here-

Graduate school is one of those experiences that can bring out the worst in you. Sure, there are a handful of encouraging moments; like when you read a paper and actually understand it, or finally figure out what your advisor was asking you to do (even though you can’t actually do it, at least you now know what it is that you can’t do). Victories are few and far between, and the continual obstacles and failures take a toll on students. Filmmaker and once-PhD student Duncan Jones said it best: “When I was at graduate school you wouldn’t have recognized me I was so different — and not a nice person: a grumpy, surly, upset, confused, lost person.”

A theme among graduate students is feeling lost and confused, and consequently becoming upset that you’re lost and confused. You develop insecurities and wonder if you’re even supposed to be a Master’s or PhD student at all. The feeling grows and persists, all while undermining your confidence. This is the Impostor Syndrome.

What exactly is the Impostor Syndrome?

It’s a sense of incompetence, self-doubt, or anxiety accompanied by abundant evidence that you’re actually quite competent, intelligent, and hardworking. You are constantly second-guessing your qualifications and sometimes feeling that you’ve fooled people into thinking you’re smart. In fact, this sometimes-debilitating condition is quite common among successful people, and I’ve found it to be considerably persistent in my geology graduate career thus far.

Much of graduate school is admitting what you don’t know.

It’s true, you have to acknowledge what you don’t know in order to move on. Once you’ve done that, you recognize the information you need to learn, the skills you must master, and the tools you should develop. But in that process of identifying knowledge deficiencies, I’ve found that I end up feeling less intelligent and less capable. Letting my weaknesses undermine my confidence is easy. Thoughts of “I’m not cut out for this” or, “I’m not smart enough to be in this program” can work their way into your head and really throw you for a loop.

Despite this constant fear that I’m not doing anything right, I somehow still love graduate school.

I really mean that. Graduate school is this wild experience in which you probably have no idea what you’re actually doing or why, but you get to learn about the very topic that interests you most. You’re surrounded by equally ambitious peers, you work with revered professors, and you have an advisor whose fundamental job as an advisor is to make you better at what you do. There are definitely frustrating, disheartening, sit-in-your-office-and-contemplate-whether-geology-matters moments. And when Impostor Syndrome gets the best of you, here’s some advice.

My advice:

  1. Use logic against negative thoughts. Whenever these “impostor” thoughts begin to brew in your mind, try to remind yourself that Impostor Syndrome tends to affect successful people. Consequently, you must be successful and competent too. Check out this comic from PHD Comics for a good laugh and a nice reminder that you’re not alone.
  2. Practice internal validation. Many people thrive off of external validation, like praise from their peers or professors. Try complimenting yourself and focusing on acknowledging the effort you’ve put into your research.
  3. Avoid comparing yourself to others. Every student has had a different educational experience leading up to graduate school. When we compare ourselves to our peers, we often identify insufficiencies in ourselves and end up feeling unintelligent or incapable. Instead, recognize your skills and abilities, then use this opportunity to collaborate with your peers.

If all else fails and you need to commiserate with others, PHD Comics is a good place to turn. Check out their Impostor Syndrome comics (here, here, and here) and don’t be afraid to get lost in the hilarity PHD Comics has to offer.

Boy Scouts Oceanography Badge at UMass

Adriane here-

Caroline leading the discussion on reasons why studying our oceans and its animals is important.

Every year, University of Massachusetts Amherst hosts hundreds of local Boy Scouts on campus through the program Merit Badge University. This is an awesome program that introduces the boys to different careers and fields of study. Most years, the UMass Geosciences department participates in the event. In previous years, we have helped the scouts earn their Geology and Mining in Society badges. In addition, we have also hosted local Webelos Cub Scouts in the department to teach them about local rocks and geologic processes.

This year, a small group of graduate students, including myself, worked with the boys to earn their Oceanography badges. The Merit Badge University program is spread over two Saturdays: one in February, and another in March. The boys are required to attend both weekends to fulfill the requirements for their desired badges. The first week was co-led by our Time Scavengers collaborator, Raquel, who focused on teaching the boys about our oceans and the different properties of these huge bodies of water.

Benjamin leading the discussion on underwater topographic features while the boys draw their underwater scenes.

I participated in the second week, along with two other graduate students, Benjamin and Caroline, and my two undergraduate students, Adam and Solveig.   We taught the boys about climate change and its effects on the ocean, marine life, and plankton, and they learned about seafloor features and the different branches of oceanography.

The first activity included the boys breaking into 4 small groups. Each group was assigned a branch of oceanography (physical, chemical, marine ecology, and marine geology) to research. Then, each group presented their findings to the rest of the participants. We also had the students come up with reasons why they think oceanography is important to study.

Adam helping a scout identify planktic foraminifera!

The second activity included a short presentation on climate change, and how increasing atmospheric CO2 is affecting our oceans and marine life. Topics we discussed included ocean acidification, ocean warming, and ocean stratification, as well as the effects of pollution on marine life. We were all pleasantly surprised with how well-versed the boys were on the subject, and many had their own climate change or pollution stories to share.

The third activity of the day included teaching the boys about the different types of underwater features, or topography. Benjamin gave a short presentation, then we had the boys draw their own underwater scene with the most common seafloor features included. The boys had a great time drawing their underwater scenes while chatting!

Solveig (right) looks through the microscope to confirm a scout’s (center) identification of a radiolarian, while Benjamin (left) listens to his reasoning!

The last activity of the day included teaching the boys about marine ecology. For this section, the boys were required to learn about marine plankton, food webs, and how the ocean produces and holds so much life. To get the boys thinking about what makes up the food chain, we set up microscopes around the room with samples of marine sediment and pond sediments. This way, the boys could see the vast number of marine plankton that make up the sediments. These plankton also make up the base of the food chain in marine systems! We created a short handout with pictures of some common plankton, such as planktic foraminifera, benthic foraminifera, and radiolarians. We also encouraged the boys to look for other odd things, such as echinoderm spines, ostracods, and fish teeth! Everyone (including us graduate and undergraduate students) had a blast looking through the microscopes!

We ended the event by quickly talking about the ways in which scientists can study the ocean. Unfortunately, we had so much fun doing our other activities, we didn’t have much time to discuss the various ways in which we do this! However, we were able to complete all the requirements for the Oceanography badge, so all of the scouts we taught earned this badge this year!

Marsha Allen, Cosmochemist and Hydrogeologist

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

I never thought I could or would be a scientist, because I never knew that it was actually an option for me. I knew I wanted to be educated and it was along that journey I fell in love with geology at Mount Holyoke College. Under the mentorship of Dr. Harold Connolly at the American Museum of Natural History in 2009 and Dr. Steve Dunn at Mt Holyoke College, I started my first research projected analyzing a Calcium Aluminum Inclusion found within the Allende meteorite. CAI’s inclusions are the oldest rocks to form in our solar system approximately 4.5 billion years ago.

Having something that old in my hands caused so many emotions, and I wanted to understand all of the processes that formed the minerals to the creation of the rock as it moved away from the sun.

I also completed my masters’ thesis on analyzing three samples of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that impacted Russia in 2013 at Brooklyn College under the mentorship of Dr. John Chamberlain. For that project, I used the mineralogy and petrographic features to quantify the amount of impact events and mineral evolution the meteorite experienced after breaking away from its parent asteroid.

I recently started my PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst specializing in my other passion hydrogeology with Dr. David

An image from Marsha’s research on the Chelyabinsk meteorite. The image on the left is a thin slice of the meteorite, with chondrules (black spheres which are mineral grains that grow in meteorites), and fractures (black lines) caused by the meteorite impact. The images on the right are the same thin section under the microscope in XPL (cross-polarized light, which is used to enhance minerals under the microscope; the different colors are different minerals).

Boutt’s research group. My dissertation project aims to quantify and understand the seasonal trends of recharge to the water storage on the island of Tobago, by creating an annual water budget. It will be based on the islands annual precipitation, runoff, evapotranspiration, stream and river discharge, and infiltration into the subsurface using a transient flow groundwater modeling and geochemical analysis.

X-ray map showing different minerals within a thin section (very thin slice of rock) taken from the Chelyabinsk meteorite. The different colors represent different minerals: red is silica; green is calcium; and blue is aluminum.

What do you do?

In a nutshell, I am trying to quantify the amount of water stored in the subsurface of the island as time passes. This means that the hydrologic water budget depends on the changes of variables such as precipitation, evapotranspiration, and runoff.

I am also learning how to use isotopic ratio of hydrogen (tritium) to determine the age of water. This is important since you have an understanding of whether the water from a well is recharged by rainfall or by a deep (i.e. old) underground source.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?

Today, it is becoming more imperative to understand and use potable water sustainably. We see many countries or regions of the world experiencing drastic shifts in climate leading to severe droughts or massive flooding related issues. My research is directly related to climate change, since its behavior completely shifts the amount of groundwater stored in the subsurface. Thus, quantifying the amount of water stored in the subsurface at any period in time is important to sustainable water management for all countries.

Marsha doing field work in Death Valley, California, as part of her PhD research.

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

In hydrogeology, we use a combination of data types and sources to complete an analysis. Some of these are: geological maps, well information (i.e. hydraulic conductivity and depth to water table) precipitation samples and amounts, surface water samples, and remote sensing just to name a few. All of these types of data and samples are then analyzed through various processes to produce the final result.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

I would tell any budding scientist to make sure to study a topic they are passionate about, because it actually makes the entire process enjoyable. I think it is also important to be well rounded and have a strong foundation in all science topics.

The Black Hand Sandstone of Ohio

Kyle here –

Geology is the physical manifestation of time. The rocky foundations of our planet are the consequence of billions of years of natural processes, many of which continue today. The record of this extensive history is visible not only as layers of rock, but also in what is missing. Although often unnoticeable on human timescales, steady erosion by wind, water, and ice is a tremendous force over millennia. And across millions of years, entire mountain ranges can be uplifted, ground down to their roots, and the resulting sediments compacted into rock and uplifted into mountains anew.

By definition, gorges and canyons are among the best places to view the results of erosion, often combining exposed bedrock with more superficial—but no less interesting—features carved by running water. The bedrock may also record evidence for its own intriguing origin, adding more layers to the story (pun only half intended). The American West is well known for such exposures, the Grand Canyon foremost among them, but the East and Midwest also have their share, most cutting through Paleozoic strata: Letchworth Gorge and Niagara Gorge in New York, the Kentucky River Palisades and Red River Gorge in Kentucky, and many others.

Ash Cave, a spectacular rock shelter in Hocking Hills State Park. Unlike a true cave, rock shelters represent superficial erosion of a rock body. They typically form where stronger rock overlies softer rock. The softer rock erodes more readily than the overlying rock, forming an overhang.

Ohio has a number of notable gorges, many easily accessible to visitors within regional or national parks. Clifton Gorge, in John Bryan State Park near Dayton, cuts through Silurian strata that are age-equivalent to those at Niagara Falls. Numerous small gorges and valleys near Cleveland slice through Upper Devonian, Lower Mississippian, and Lower Pennsylvanian rocks, including the great Cuyahoga Valley (and its eponymous National Park). And south-central Ohio is home to the Hocking Hills, where great sandstone cliffs form ridges, gorges, and natural bridges within a lush, relatively undeveloped forest.

The Upper Falls at Hocking Hills State Park.

Situated near the western edge of the Allegheny Plateau, about 45 miles (~70 kilometers) southeast of Columbus, the Hocking Hills expose shales and sandstones of Late Paleozoic age. Unlike the northern and western regions of Ohio, this area was not beveled flat by glaciers during the Pleistocene and thus retains a rugged topography. Hocking Hills State Park, as well as a variety of other nearby nature preserves and local parks, is the iconic centerpiece of this scenic area, a popular destination for hikers and other nature enthusiasts. The park contains numerous gorges, waterfalls, “caves”, and cliffs, all worn out of a picturesque orange to tan sandstone.

This rock is the Black Hand Sandstone. Early Mississippian in age (roughly 355 million years old), the Black Hand is a coarse, sometimes conglomeratic quartz sandstone. It is massive in nature, without many discrete beds or major changes in its consistency. However, a number of features are visible at some localities, including cross-bedding, the angled bedding of ancient ripples or dunes, and graded beds, where layers of coarse pebbles transition upward into layers of smaller pebbles and then into sand, an indication of sorting by water.

Large scale cross-bedding in the canyon walls near Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park. Cross-beds indicate directional movement of sediment as ripples or dunes migrate over time.
Prominent liesegang banding in the Black Hand Sandstone at Clear Creek Metro Park, southeast of Lancaster and not far from the Hocking Hills.

Another common feature of the Black Hand is liesegang banding, concentric, sometimes twisty patterns of rusty staining. In contrast to cross-bedding and graded beds, which show evidence of what was going on at the time when the sand was deposited, liesegang banding formed much later, as groundwater percolated through the sandstone, carrying iron and other minerals with it. These minerals precipitated out of solution over time, forming the colorful bands. This can be seen as a form of weathering, rather than rock formation, though the distinction is rather blurred in this case as the bands can comprise lumps and stringers that are more resistant than the surrounding sandstone.

Cedar Falls at a trickle. Though deceptively calm in this photo, the falls rushes whenever there is rainfall, as evidenced by the smoothly carved sandstone channel.

A number of waterfalls that cascade through the local gorges, including the Upper and Lower Falls near Old Man’s Cave as well as the nearby Cedar Falls. These falls have cut smooth channels into the Black Hand.

A roadcut near US Highway 33 south of Lancaster, exposing the grey-ish shales, siltstones, and fine sandstones of the upper Fairfield Member of the Cuyahoga, capped by the orange basal Black Hand.

Geologists consider the Black Hand Sandstone a member of the Cuyahoga Formation. The sandstone’s lower contact is apparently erosional, with the sandstones of the Black Hand cutting down into the shales and siltstones of the Fairfield Member of the Cuyahoga Formation below. Meanwhile, the top of the Black Hand is capped by thin conglomerate, the Byrne Member of the Logan Formation. The Logan is also sandstone-rich, but less massive than the Black Hand below and may have been deposited in deeper water.

The tall cliffs downstream of Old Man’s Cave impose their shadows on the gorge below.

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the origin of the Black Hand. One suggests that it is a part of a great delta, deposited offshore in the shallow sea that blanketed the midcontinent during the Mississippian. Another proposes that the Black Hand is in fact a channel itself, formed in an estuary or river that carved its way through the underlying strata during a brief episode of low sea level. In either case, the relatively large and well-worn quartz pebbles and sand that make up the sandstone must have come from land to the east, near what are today the Appalachian Mountains. Research on this matter is ongoing at the Ohio Geological Survey and elsewhere.

Black Hand Sandstone in Black Hand Gorge, Licking County, Ohio. No swimming!

While Hocking Hills may be the most famous exposure of Black Hand Sandstone, it is by no means the only one. The name was coined for prominent exposures of the rock along Black Hand Gorge on the Licking River east of Newark, Ohio. (The Gorge itself is so-named for a Native American petroglyph featuring a large black hand that was once emblazoned on one of its sandstone walls; sadly, this rock art was destroyed by 19th century construction in the Gorge. The name may also be spelled Blackhand, but the split version is preferred herein.)

Thus Black Hand Gorge is the type locality of the Black Hand Sandstone, the primary place that geologists should refer to when determining what the Black Hand Sandstone is, what it correlates to, and other questions. Although the process of naming rock units is now codified by the rules of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, rock units were less rigorously defined in the 19th and early 20th century. Additionally, some localities that once provided excellent exposures are now gone, naturally weathered away, covered by vegetation, flooded, or destroyed by later human development.

The trail through Black Hand Gorge. This exposure is actually man-made, blasted in the 1800s for a railroad that once ran along the gorge. It is near a quarry complex adjacent to the natural gorge. The Black Hand Sandstone was once widely used as a building stone.

Fortunately, the Black Hand is still well exposed in its type area, easily accessible from a hike-bike trail that follows the Licking River through the gorge, passing sandstone cliffs, fallen boulders, and old quarries. In addition to the Gorge itself, nearby roadcuts afford excellent views of the sandstone cliffs to casual observers.

True Black Hand Sandstone is only exposed in Ohio. However, some other sandstones in nearby states are believed to be of a similar, perhaps even equivalent, age, including the Burgoon Sandstone of Pennsylvania and the Marshall Sandstone of Michigan. Elsewhere, such as in northern Kentucky, the same timespan is represented by shales and is much thinner. It is sobering to note that the time period that forms towering cliffs in central Ohio is elsewhere represented by just a meter or so of mud or, in others, by nothing at all.

An imposing cliff of Black Hand Sandstone along Ohio State Route 16 east of Newark, Ohio, not far from Black Hand Gorge itself.

Similarly scenic sandstone gorges are exposed throughout the Midwest, including the previously mentioned Red River Gorge in Kentucky and Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. However, these sandstones are typically younger in age than the Black Hand, often Pennsylvanian, deposited as the American midcontinent sea was shrinking into oblivion.

Massive section of Black Hand downstream of Cedar Falls in Hocking Hills State Park, probably tens of meters high. But this is nowhere to be seen when you leave the Black Hand outcrop area, perhaps evidence that its deposition was restricted to channels in a specific region.

Sampling Tasman Sea Sediment Cores

Adriane here-

One of the rooms in the College Station, TX core repository. Cores are stacked from the floor to the ceiling. The cores that are loaded onto the carts are waiting to be sampled. Cores that were drilled in the 1960’s as recently as this year are stored in this facility!

Back in January, I was in College Station, Texas on a trip related to the scientific ocean drilling expedition I was on last summer (see my previous posts about ship life and my responsibilities on the ship as a biostratigrapher). Part of the trip was dedicated to editing the scientific reports we wrote while sailing in the Tasman Sea, and the other part of the trip was spent taking samples from the sediment cores we drilled.

While we were sailing in the Tasman Sea, our expedition drilled a total of 6 sites: some in shallow waters in the northern part of the Tasman, and some in deeper waters towards the southern end of the sea. In total, we recovered 2506.4 meters of sediment (8223 feet, or 1.55 miles) in 410 cores.

The cores were first shipped to College Station, Texas from the port in Hobart, Tasmania. Eventually, they will all be stored at the core repository in Kochi, Japan. While they were in Texas, several of the scientists from the expedition met up to take samples from the cores for their own research into Earth’s climate in geologic time.

Here, we are taking samples from sediments that are more firm. We’re using 10 cubic centimeter (cc) plastic scoops, which is one of the standard sample sizes for paleoceanographic studies.

I requested samples from two of the six sites we drilled in the Tasman Sea. All of my samples are younger than about 18 million years old, in the period of geologic time called the Neogene. All in all, I requested about 800 sediment samples! Not all of these samples will be used for one project. Instead, they will be used in several different projects, such as to determine evolutionary events of planktic foraminifera in the Tasman Sea and investigate changes in sea surface temperatures during major climate change events of the past.

Another team of researchers working on an older section of a core. In general, the older (deeper below the seafloor) the sediments, the harder and more compacted they are. The sediments in this core are so compacted, we had to use hammers and chisels to get out samples.

To begin sampling, students who work at the College Station core respository set up cores at each workstation. There were 6 workstations: one for each site that we drilled. A team of 3-4 scientists were assigned to each station to sample the cores. We had approximately 1 week to take ~14,000 samples! Luckily, I was able to sample one of the cores from which I requested samples from!

Every workstation had all the materials that we need to sample: gloves, paper towels, various tools (small and large spatulas, rubber hammers, and various sizes of plastic scoops). In addition, each station was also given a list of all the samples every researcher had requested for a specific site. This way, we could cross the samples off the list as we took and bagged them.

My team, which consisted of two other scientists that I sailed with, Yu-Hyeon and May, began sampling the youngest part of our assigned site. Because these sediments were located right at or below the seafloor, they were very soupy! As we moved through the cores (back into time), the sediments became less soupy, and eventually pretty hard. We never encountered sediments that were so hard we had to use a hammer and chisel to get out the samples, but other teams did.

From left to right: Yu-Hyeon, May, and I holding up one of our cores from the Tasman Sea.

After scooping/hammering out the samples, we then put the samples into a small plastic bag. These bags were then labeled with a sticker with information that includes what site the samples came from, the core from which is came from, the specific section in the core, and the two-centimeter interval in that section. This way, the scientists know exactly at what depth (meters below sea floor) the sample came from. It is crucial to know the depth at what each sample was taken, as depth will be later converted to age using various methods (for one using fossils as a proxy for age, see my post about biostratigraphy)

Because the sediments my team and I sampled in were so soft, and we had requested a lot of samples from the core we were working with, we were able to quickly take a lot of samples! I could only stay and sample for two days (I had to fly back to UMass to teach), but in that time, my team and I took so many samples, we broke a record! We currently hold the record for most sediment samples taken in one day at the Gulf Coast Repository in College Station!






Teaching effectively for all students

Sarah here –

I’m in my first year of teaching at the University of South Florida. I’ve had almost 700 students come through my classroom, just in my first two semesters! I wanted to write a little bit about what I’ve learned about making my lectures work for students of all different backgrounds. USF is a wonderful place to do this because our students come from every background imaginable! We have students from nearly every country on Earth, every native language, religion, socioeconomic and veteran status, etc. imaginable! It’s one of the things I love most about USF- I get to learn all about the world through my students. This unique community also presents me with the opportunity to make my lectures and my teaching style accessible to students who are English language learners (ELLs)-you may have referred to these students as ESL (English as a second language) in the past-educators have moved away from using that term because many students are actually learning English as a third and even fourth language! A large percentage of USF students are classified as ELLs-and they come from all over the world! Just in the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with students from Brazil, Venezuela, Nigeria, Germany, Finland, Russia, China, Japan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and more.
The introductory course I teach-History of Life-is very heavy in scientific jargon, no matter how you slice it (e.g., the names of dinosaurs, geologic time periods, etc.), so I’ve been working with my ELL students to help them feel more confident in the class. I’ve listed some of the methods I’ve found useful below!

Essay questions

All of my exams have short answer components, where they have to take scientific evidence and present conclusions. I write 2-3 questions per lecture topic and post them as a discussion board on Canvas (or Blackboard, or any sort of other online gradebook/digital classroom environment). I have seen dramatic improvements in the confidence levels of ELL students, as well as native English speaking students, when handling the essay portions of the exam. Allowing them to practice their communication skills in advance has allowed them to excel. I never tell the students which questions I am choosing for the exam, but this way, students can post their answers on the discussion boards, so that I can spend a few seconds working with them one-on-one. It might seem like a lot of work, but truthfully, it’s only about a ½ hour out of my week, usually.

The geologic time scale

To help students learn these very odd words more easily, I have located geologic time scales in as many languages as possible. Students who speak languages, especially, that aren’t rooted in the Roman alphabet have found that it is much easier to make connections with these terms. (The ICS has a bunch of those time scales listed here)

A vocabulary list

As a rule, my exams are not about vocabulary. Meaning, my multiple choice or essay questions are not asking you to define terms-students have to use the terms to explain phenomena we see in the geologic record. However, the amount of vocabulary in a science class is daunting for many, so one way that I can boost students’ confidence is to provide a list of vocabulary I expect them to know (e.g., Tyrannosaurus, Devonian, albedo) so that they know on the exam what words they will be expected to know.

An example of one of my slides with the term defined (this day, I had a  Star Wars themed lecture).

Posting unfamiliar terms on the PowerPoint slides

I generally don’t use too much text on my slides-but I do make sure to put the topic of the slide, any scientific words, and image descriptors on the slides (or at least in the notes). This helps students who may feel overwhelmed with just trying to figure out vocabulary words merely from me saying them out loud (English words really aren’t the easiest to spell, are they?)

Using familiar words

I’m still working on this one, for sure. I try to make sure that my lectures and my exams use common words. For instance, I have used words like ‘hypothetical’ and ‘plummet’ before on exams. ELL students who might be unfamiliar with some of these words can often feel overwhelmed. I do my best to a) make sure students know that they are welcome to ask me to define non-vocabulary words b) provide alternatives to these words on the test (for example-hypothetical (imaginary)) or c) avoid using words (e.g., use “drop sharply” instead of “plummet”) that might add to the stress of exam day.

Only assign videos that have great subtitles

I have my students watch a number of documentaries to learn more about certain materials. However, I have noticed that a number of videos posted on, for example, YouTube, might not have reliable captions, making it very difficult for ELL students to fully capture the science presented.

Use the microphone

My classes are big-my largest is just under 200 students. I am not a very loud person, usually, but if I need to, I can make myself heard for a 75-minute lecture. However, many students find it harder to understand words if they cannot hear them as loudly and as clearly. Using a microphone relieves the stress of many students. Even if you feel that you are loud enough, still consider using the microphone! (Bonus-this is also a huge help for hard of hearing students).

These techniques are meant to help my students feel more confident about their knowledge in my class. By making these small changes, I have found that my class is much more accessible to a larger percentage of the class and that students are giving me better and more detailed answers and they are able to make higher-level scientific deductions-which is what any science instructor wants, right? As an added bonus, many of these methods are also very helpful to students from any background who aren’t so confident in their writing skills, or who missed class due to illness or emergency, or to students with accommodations (e.g., ensuring that there are captions on videos and that your PowerPoint slides have image descriptions) also allows Deaf and hard of hearing students to have full access to your class, too! I hope that I can continue to make my classes more accessible-if you have any tips, please feel free to comment below!

Bradley Marciniec, Interpretive Park Ranger

Brad taking a selfie on Stout Grove Trail!

I do not have any educational background in a science. Instead, I have a background in video editing. Working in that field taught me how to piece together a story. I use that skill as an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service. My job is to take the research that scientists have gathered and explain it to visitors in a way that is easier to understand. I do this by giving guided tours and presentations. I also pass along this information through informal interactions with the public while staffing a visitor center desk or walking along a trail. I try to find a way to connect visitors to the natural, historic, and cultural resources of a park. When a visitor can relate to a resource, they are far more likely to understand the facts we present to them, and in turn care about the resource. Rangers help make these connections with the use of story-telling, analogies, and metaphors. Through informal interactions with the public, we can learn more about what a visitor might value. This helps us choose the facts and ideas to present to the visitor to help them better connect with the resource.

Being an interpretive ranger gives me the opportunity to meet and educate people from around the world.

Explaining climate change and evolution to visitors is part of the job as well. Using interpretive techniques, we are given the opportunity to spark the interest of someone who may deny or simply not understand these concepts. That spark will hopefully lead visitors to research these topics themselves after their visit.

In my experience so far, I have worked at Redwood National and State parks, which contains some of the last 5 percent of old growth coast redwood trees in existence. These are the tallest trees in the world! Most visitors are surprised to hear that the park also contains 40 miles worth of coastline as well. We are lucky to have a fantastic team of scientists with various backgrounds working for the park. Whether it is a question about the redwood canopy, the coastline, or any other ecosystem in the park, interpretive rangers are always reaching out to these scientists as a resource.

My favorite thing about being an interpretive ranger is knowing there is always something new to learn about the park I am representing. I am always excited to develop a new educational program to present, or sneak in an extra fact into a conversation with a visitor. Seeing a visitor’s awestruck reaction lets me know I have done my job correctly and keeps me passionate about my work.

For people interested in a position as an interpretive ranger, I would recommend you start volunteering with your local forest preserves or museums. You can also find work through volunteer.gov. Interpretive certifications can be earned through the National Association for Interpretation and the ProValens Learning program. Never be afraid to ask questions! Rangers want to talk to you and would love to give you advice.