The Importance of Mentors and Advisors Through My Academic Career

Helping to bring in a core aboard the RV JOIDES Resolution, Summer 2017. It took many years of training and several awesome advisors for me to get to this point in my life, where I could participate in super cool science and be a confident researcher!

Adriane here-

I wouldn’t be where I am, academically speaking, if it weren’t for a couple factors: my stubbornness, drive to succeed, love of fossils and learning, and support of my family and advisors. But here, I want to talk about how important my advisors have been and still are in my academic life.

I’m a first-generation student meaning that neither of my parents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Since grade school, I knew I would attend college, as my mom never said ‘If you go to college…‘; rather, our conversations regarding my education began with ‘When you go to college…‘.  As I grew older, I knew college/university wasn’t the only career path for me, but to attain my goals and dreams, I knew I would need to one day go to graduate school. But first, I had to get through high school and an undergraduate program.

I had a hard time in high school, as I was constantly bullied for being the shy, quiet nerd. I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and every chance I got, I skipped class to go ride our horses. Predictably, my grades suffered. By the time graduation rolled around, I knew I didn’t have the GPA to get into college; in addition, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I began taking classes at my local community college, and long story short, I fell in love with geology as soon as I took my first class. By the time I graduated magna cum laude from community college, I was accepted into James Madison University in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

At first, I felt out of place, as everyone in the Geology department at JMU knew one another and had formed friendships.  I felt like an outsider, a feeling that was amplified by being a first-generation student and a transfer student. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one: other students in my program also came from community colleges! Still, my confidence in my ability to conduct science and be a great student were low. University classes were a different type of beast compared to community college courses, and the pressure was on.

As I moved through my geology program and took more classes, my confidence started to build. As a student in the Geology department, I was required to do undergraduate research. I was both excited and nervous about this, but knew it was going to be a challenge that would make me a better candidate for graduate school. By the second year into my degree, I had taken a paleoclimate and paleontology class. I absolutely loved both, and wanted to do a research project that included fossils and revealing something about our Earth’s oceans. The opportunity arose when one of the department’s professors, Dr. Kristen St. John, sent out an email with an opportunity to construct a foraminiferal biostratigraphy from deep sea sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. I leapt at the opportunity! I still remember the day I approached Kristen to tell her I was interested in conducting research with her. I think my face got red just talking to her, and I had to convince myself for a good 10 minutes that I should talk with her before I actually did.

Kristen (left) and I at my first Geological Society of America meeting. Here, I was presenting my undergraduate research.

I did start doing research with Kristen, and it went extremely well! I loved learning all the different species of foraminifera, and would spend hours at the microscope. I remember one day, Kristen came into the lab and told me I was working and researching like a Master’s student. I was over the moon excited to hear this, because it gave me hope that I would, and could, succeed in graduate school! Kristen was a very encouraging advisor, meeting with me weekly to chat about research and helping me find relevant papers. She, along with our department head Dr. Steve Leslie, even took me to the United States Geological Survey in Reston, VA one day to meet with a planktic foraminifera specialist! After this, Kristen introduced me to her good friend and collaborator, Dr. Mark Leckie, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was able to go to UMass as an undergrad and work with Mark for a few days to conduct stable isotope analyses. It was an awesome experience, as I was able to network with two scientists outside of JMU. I was, and forever will be, grateful to Kristen for investing her time in me to make me a better scientist and more confident researcher.

By the third Fall I was at JMU, I attended my first big geology meeting where I presented my undergraduate research. It was here that had also set up meetings with potential graduate school advisors. I was still torn between majoring in paleoclimatology or paleontology, so I had contacted professors working in both fields. My heart was set on going to UMass to work in Mark’s lab, but at the time, his lab was full and he didn’t have funding. I was crushed, but carried on. I met with several professors at the meeting, all of whom were encouraging about pursuing an MS degree with them at their university. One of the other professors I met with at the meeting was Dr. Alycia Stigall, who was a friend of my undergrad professor Steve. I sat down with Alycia for about 20 minutes, and instantly liked her (read her ‘Meet the Scientist’ post here).

My last year in undergrad, I ended up applying to about 6 universities for graduate school. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get in, as my confidence was still lower than most students’. The day I got the email from Alycia that I was accepted in her lab and the Ohio University program as a fully-funded teaching assistant, I cried with joy! I moved to southeastern Ohio the following Fall to start my life as a Master’s student specializing in paleontology. It was here, at Ohio University, that I met Jen.

Me, Jen, and Alycia at an outcrop in Estonia. This was my first international geology meeting.

Working with Alycia and with her other graduate students was an amazing experience. At JMU, I never had confidence in my math skills, but after taking a few classes at Ohio, I was doing statistics and learning how to code. I taught my first paleontology labs, and even helped Alycia create a new class for the department. In addition, I was able to publish my first paper during my first year, and present research at an international meeting. I flourished working alongside Alycia, as I felt totally comfortable in her lab and with her. Most of the other graduate students in the lab were from divorced, low income, and/or conservative families, so we had a lot in common. I didn’t feel like an outsider, and often talked with my lab mates and Alycia about my home life.

But it wasn’t just that I was comfortable at OU, I had a mentor, an advisor, a colleague, a friend, and a role model all in one. Alycia was the role model I needed at this time in my life.  My fiance and I were talking seriously about marriage and about the future, and I wasn’t sure how this would work while I was in graduate school. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to balance work and life, and moreover, even have a life outside of grad school (at this time I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD). But Alycia assured me I could have both a successful career and home life. She herself was (and still is) amazing at balancing her academic and home life. It was because of Alycia I knew I, too, could be an awesome scientist with a family.

Me, Steve (from JMU!), Steve’s PhD advisor, Stig Bergstrom (me and Jen’s ‘Paleo-Grandpa’), Alycia, and Jen at the geology meeting in Estonia.

By the time I graduated from Ohio University, my confidence was soaring. I knew I could do anything I wanted to, mostly because I had been trained to critically think, problem solve, and had a killer work ethic. That spring of graduation from OU, I had been accepted to the PhD program at UMass Amherst in Mark’s lab (remember Kristen’s friend I worked with from undergrad?). Life has a funny way of working out, as I never thought I would ever get the chance to work at UMass. But here I am!

When I first started at UMass, I was scared to death. I wasn’t as confident my first year at the university as I had been at Ohio University for a few different reasons. First, this was the first R1 university I had attended (R1’s are universities that grant MS and PhD degrees, and generally have large and intense research programs). Second, I felt like an outcast (again) with my slight southern accent, coming from a lower-income family, and being a first-generation student. Third, I had totally switched interests from invertebrate paleontology in the Ordovician (~450 million years ago) to working in the field of Neogene (~15 million years ago) paleoceaonography (although I will always consider myself a paleontologist first before a paleoceanographer). I had a lot to learn, on top of a lot of work. But I persevered, asked a LOT of questions, and continued on.

Conducting field work in Colorado with Raquel and Mark.

Lucky for me, Mark is just as great an advisor as Kirsten and Alycia, something I am very grateful for. When I wanted to go on a scientific ocean drilling expedition, Mark worked closely with me to craft a well-thought out application (I did get accepted, read about my experience here and see above image). He also gave me the opportunity to build and teach an upper-level geology class, an experience that most graduate students don’t get. Through teaching and researching, I have regained my confidence, and know once again that I can do anything I put my mind to.

So, there are a few words of advice I have from my university experiences for any student wondering how they’ll make it in grad school and/or with low confidence:

  1. Find an advisor that you can trust, and that you click with. In my opinion and experience, this was the most important factor when choosing a graduate program and advisor. My close relationship with my previous and current advisors are one of the reasons I’ve succeeded as a graduate student.
  2. Find a mentor. Advisors and mentors are not equivalent. Advisors will help you through your education, but mentors are guides who will help you navigate life. Some advisors are also mentors, while others are not. Other times, mentors come in the form of lab mates and friends. Both advisors and mentors are crucial to survival in graduate school.
  3. Find your people. Make friends in and outside of your department. Being a student is hard, and finding friends to commiserate with and draw inspiration from are essential.
  4. Believe in yourself. This is cheesy, and easier said than done, but change begins with you. When you start being confident in your abilities, you’ll find your confidence will increase over time. Also, reading A LOT of published literature helps here too.
  5. When you are able to, be the mentor/advisor for younger versions of yourself. By helping students from all backgrounds and identities gain confidence in themselves and learn how to conduct research, we can all make STEM fields more accessible and welcoming to all.

Reducing your carbon footprint

Sarah here –

Scientists are increasingly concerned with climate change. You might feel helpless, as you watch the news-you see images of awful pollution, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers and to me, it can be overwhelming! We all know how to cut carbon emissions- drive our car less (or buy a hybrid car!), support renewable energy, and get solar panels for our houses! However…if you’re like me and you live in an area where you can’t really get by without a car and you may not have the means to do much about getting a hybrid or solar panels, this advice may not be so helpful. So today’s post is dedicated to SUPER EASY WAYS to reduce your carbon footprint. Spoiler alert: many of these will also save you money! Double win!

1. Stop buying paper napkins! Paper alone makes up approximately 16% of US landfills. You can cut down on the number of napkins that you contribute to a landfill by purchasing a one-time set of cloth napkins. I made the switch a year ago! I spent about $30-50 a year in paper towels and napkins for 2 people. I purchased a $13 set of napkins 2 years ago, and haven’t bought another napkin since. I toss them in the wash with my regular laundry and I love them! They also make my not- so-fancy meals of cereal and toast feel even fancier! Try this set by clicking here.

Sarah gave Jen are reusable Pokemon snack bag not long ago that Jen uses regularly to bring snacks to work!

2. Stop buying dishwashing sponges! Sponges are seriously one of the most germy things in our house-many studies have shown that the average sponge holds more bacteria than your bathroom- and, as an added detriment, you have to throw them out pretty frequently. I just discovered an awesome alternative: silicone sponges that are antimicrobial AND dishwasher safe! I wash all of my hand washable dishes with them, clean my sinks and counters, and pop them in the dishwasher-no waste and I feel so much better that they’re not harboring bacteria. Try this set by clicking here.

3. Invest in silicon freezer bags! So, one of the hardest things for me is to reduce my need on plastic-I’ll admit it! One of the best things I’ve discovered on my journey to make small efforts that add up to a lot are silicon freezer bags. They have completely replaced single use freezer bags for me! I buy my food in bulk and freeze them in separate bags-these silicon bags are airtight and keep my food frozen nicely. When it’s time to thaw them out, I just take the bag and wash it in hot water or the dishwasher (yes, this even works with meat like chicken!). The bags were a little pricy-about $20- but I haven’t bought freezer bags in just under 2 years. Consider the savings-each set of freezer bags is about $3-5, depending on where you get it. If you bought a set of freezer bags even once every two months, you’re still looking at a LOT of money saved! Better yet, I use these bags to pack sandwiches, hold jewelry when I’m traveling, and store leftovers from dinner. Try these – click here.

4. Cut down on meat just a little bit-especially beef! Cows actually burp a little bit of methane when they eat-which is all of the time! Our reliance on beef is a major cause for carbon emissions across the globe. Consider eating more turkey and chicken, or, better yet- just cut down on meat once or twice a week! There are so many excellent dinner choices that are vegetarian (and those meat substitutes you can get in the freezer aisle are actually pretty darn delicious now!) Added bonus- it can cut down on your grocery bill, even by removing meat from your diet a few times a week!

Sarah’s silicon freezer bags!

5. Reduce your takeout packaging. Takeout food waste can exceed the amount of carbon emissions that cars produce each year! Next time you’re at a restaurant, request that they don’t give you a straw (think about using reusable ones, like these), don’t take more than a few paper napkins, ask that they don’t give you more condiments than you need, refuse the plastic bag they put the food in, and try not to do the carry out option as much and eat there, to cut down on the packaging that has to be used! Any reduction in waste will help.

6. Don’t use plastic grocery bags! Bring your own OR, if you don’t buy that much, refuse a bag altogether. Many stores (like Target) will give you a small discount for bringing your own reusable bags! You can even replace the plastic produce bags at the store with these – click here.

Remember, being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to be incredibly stressful. These small changes in my life have really cut down on my waste consumption. Please, do your best to reduce your carbon footprint-and enjoy all the money you’ll save with some of these tips! None of these tips were sponsored- I use all of these in my own life and love them! Statistics and general facts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kelly Dunne, Project Engineer


Inside a signal cabinet, using the controller to adjust signal timings at an intersection.

I am a project engineer with a B.S. in civil engineering and an M.S. in traffic engineering, working in the transportation department of a large suburb (150,000 residents). My responsibilities are diverse: overseeing the operation of the city’s 100 traffic signals, addressing and mitigating traffic safety and congestion concerns, reviewing commercial and residential development plans, studying parking trends in the downtown, implementing bicycle routes, meeting with residents, and managing construction projects.

My previous position was as a design engineer for a transportation engineering firm. Working for a consultant is the more typical civil engineer career path. This involved a lot of design work for new roadways, intersection expansions, bike paths, and roundabouts. There was a mixture of creativity (what’s the best way we can solve this traffic congestion?) with traffic engineering principles (at a given design speed, how long should the left turn lane be?). There was also a lot of CAD work: a good engineer needs to be able to produce constructable plan sets that meet the state transportation department’s standards. I eventually left this job because I wanted to have more ownership of projects and to be able to focus on one community instead of various project locations spread throughout the state.

The software in the Traffic Management Center is connected to traffic signals throughout the city and displays information in real-time. Live cameras are used to observe traffic conditions.

Working in the public sector is a unique challenge for an engineer because it involves many non-technical duties such as presenting project updates to City Council or explaining city ordinances to residents, but still requires a technical background. While there is limited design work as compared to a consulting firm, the satisfaction in creating something from nothing is still present when crafting new policies or establishing long-term development plans. A big part of the reason I set myself on this career path was because I wanted to be able to help the public. My role directly impacts the lives of tens of thousands of people. While it’s definitely behind the scenes, the things I do on a daily basis serve to make residents’ lives safer, more economical, and less frustrating.

My favorite part about being an engineer is knowing about day-to-day things that most people don’t ever stop to consider. Do you know that a traffic signal doesn’t detect a vehicle by weight, but because a car’s metal disrupts the electromagnetic field of a sensor in the pavement? Or do you know that roadways function as ancillary drainage systems and are actually designed to flood after a heavy rainfall in order to keep the water from getting into basements? Or that installing four-way stop signs at intersections can actually increase overall speeding in neighborhoods?

For any young people interested in a career in engineering, I would encourage you to not be intimidated. Engineering has a reputation for being a challenging major in college, but it’s not impossible and it’s not only for the whiz kids. If you find something that interests and excites you, don’t let the fear of failing hold you back. Determination, passion, and attitude will help you reach your goals.

Dino Tracks, Conglomerates, and High School Students; Oh My!

Adriane here-

Serena and I with one of the dinosaur trackways. The tracks are next to our hands on the left side of the image.

This post is about an education outreach field trip I participated in a few weeks ago. Usually when I go out in the field, I’m either teaching undergraduate geology majors, or with my advisor and lab mates to collect samples for research. This trip was a totally different experience for me, my advisor, Mark, and my lab partner, Serena: we took 18 high school students on a day-long field trip to three stops in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts! I was really excited for this trip, as I do not get to work specifically with high school students very often. The group we took out in the field was a science club from Holyoke High School in Holyoke, MA. This group of students was very diverse, with most coming from Hispanic backgrounds, some of mixed race, and several that spoke Spanish as well as English. But it wasn’t their diverse backgrounds that intrigued me the most, it was their sense of community and friendship, how they treated one another like siblings instead of classmates. This made spending time and getting to know the students all the more special, and made for an amazing day out in the field!

Mark explaining to the students how we concluded that this area was once an ancient lake. If you look carefully, you can see fossil ripple marks in the center of the image!

The students started their day with hot chocolate at 8 am before we  picked them up and whisked them outdoors! Our first stop of the day was at the Dinosaur Tracks along Route 5 in Holyoke, MA. Here, over 100 dinosaur tracks are preserved in the Early Jurassic (about 200 million years old) Portland Formation accessible to the public. We talked about the paleoenvironment (the ancient environment) of the area and how the tracks were preserved. In short, the rocks here were deposited along a lake edge, where the dinosaurs would visit for a cool drink. The students were excited by the tracks and the beautiful views of the Connecticut River.

Our second stop of the day was a famous outcrop in the valley called Roaring Brook. This spot is really fun as it’s on the eastern border fault that formed in the Early Jurassic as the supercontinent Pangaea was beginning to rift apart. It was at this spot that the Earth’s crust was pulled apart, causing a block of crust to drop down relative to the blocks to the east and west. This formed the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts as it is known today. Roaring Brook is characterized by massive blocks of igneous and metamorphic rocks that are found beside sedimentary rocks called conglomerate. The waterfalls at Roaring Brook are made of the conglomerate, which the students had a wonderful time climbing over!

The students exploring the conglomerate rocks at Roaring Brook.

After Roaring Brook, we took the students to University of Massachusetts Amherst, where we work, to one of our more famous dining halls. The students loved this (and quite frankly, it’s always a treat for us to eat here, too!), and it gave me and Serena a chance to chat with the teachers.

Our last stop of the day was the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. This is one of my favorite natural history museums, partly because it holds the world’s largest collections of dinosaur footprints as part of its Hitchcock Ichnology Collection. The students were given a personalized tour around the museum by one of the curators, where they learned about mammoths, mastodons, sedimentary structures, and of course, dinosaurs!

The students are given a brief overview of the Beneski Museum before looking around. Smilodon (a Pleistocene saber-toothed tiger) is in the foreground.

At the end of the day, I found myself reluctant to say goodbye to the students, and eager to work with them again. Before we dropped the high schoolers back at their campus, we gave them a survey to determine if our field trip was successful (did they learn science, did they have fun) and if they had any suggestions on how to improve future trips. Through this survey, we found out that only a few students had ever been on a field trip. This surprised me at first, as I remember going on field trips throughout my K-12 education. Talking with the teachers, however, gave me a more grim picture: public education funding is limited, and has become more so over the years. This is happening in all public education systems across the country. Teachers’ jobs are becoming harder because of these funding issues, but the real losers in the situation are our students. This field trip made me realize how important working with public school students is, as they and their teachers need all the help and support they can get in these times of public education budget cuts.

Thus, we in the UMass Geosciences department are planning another field trip with the students in the Spring to go fossil collecting in New York. Ideally, this will lead to a long-term partnership between the science educators in public school systems and our university.

Editing Science Chapters

Adriane here-

The sign in front of the IODP building in College Station, Texas, on the Texas A & M University campus.

Last summer, I participated in a scientific ocean drilling expedition (check out my previous posts here and here). More simply, I spent two months on a ship in the Tasman Sea, recovering sediment cores from the seafloor. We drilled the newly-named continent of Zealandia to determine the geologic history of the now-submerged continent. I sailed with about 30 other scientists from different backgrounds, which means that we learned a ton from the cores we recovered and learned  a lot from one another.

But all this new knowledge is useless if it isn’t written up and available to other scientists. So while we were on the ship, we wrote up our findings in documents we call ‘Site Chapters’. A site is what we call each new location where we drill. The scientific results from each site will eventually be published into chapters available online to the public.

While we were on the ship, the scientists had only a limited time to spend writing up their site chapter sections (every different group on the ship contributes a different section to the chapter; for example, as a paleontologist, I was only responsible for writing up the chapter section that deals with fossils). This writing time-crunch often leads to good, but not great, writing and figures. Thus, there comes a time after the expedition when some of the scientists that sailed together meet up for a week and thoroughly edit all the chapters.

At one point, I was working on our Biostratigraphy sections with two laptops! Thankfully, we were supplied plenty of snack and coffee to keep us motivated, as we had to be alert and pay attention to every little detail while editing!

At the end of January, the science party, including myself, met at Texas A & M University in College Station, TX. The university is home-base to the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), the program through which our expedition was organized and funded. Not all the scientists attend this ‘editorial party’, as only about 1 to 2 scientists from each group are needed. For example. there are two paleontologists (myself and another researcher from Italy) out of the original ten paleontologists that sailed working on the fossil-specific section for our site chapters. All in all, there was about 12 of us edition our chapters.

We spent 5 days in a room together, with access to all of our files and figures that we typed and created on the ship. In the room with us were 4 support staff, whose sole job it was to support us in any way they could. For example, they helped us edit figures, they gave us access to additional files that we needed, and they edited our chapters for grammar and spelling. The support team also formatted the chapters to a very specific style.

Beautiful echinoderms stuck in the limestone building blocks on the campus! Yes, I did try to get them out; no, I was no successful.

So why spend all this time on editing, drafting, and formatting a bunch of science-y stuff? There are several reasons! First, all IODP expeditions are paid for via taxpayer dollars, so the science that we do at sea and our major findings should be made available for public consumption. We anticipate that our chapters will be published online, available to everyone for free, in February 2019. Second, there is a diverse group of scientists that sail on the ship, and thus a diverse (and global) following of other scientists that are interested in what we did and what we found while at sea. Publishing our finding lets others interested in our science know what we collected, the age of the material, and if there is anything they could possibly work on in the future. The chapters also serve as a record and database (there will be an online database of findings as well) for others.

Editing is hard work, so it was important to take regular breaks and have some fun. Luckily, the weather was warm (or at least warmer than in Massachusetts) and sunny! Our lunches were catered everyday, and a few of us often went on walks around campus. Lucky for me, the limestone blocks that are used as walls around campus were filled with fossils, which provided me plenty of entertainment!


Diving into the Ordovician Sea

Maggie here-

My workstation while I was in Iowa at the Paleontology Repository. I spent a lot of time using a microscope to look at specimens and typing notes about each one on my computer. Color coded spreadsheets are my favorite way to organize all of this information!

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to the University of Iowa to do research in their paleontology repository. This collection is very interesting because it is a massive fossil collection that is actually housed in a geology department rather than a museum. That might seem weird to you, but it was a really nice environment to do research in. Their collections manager, Tiffany, has a small army of undergraduate students that are working with her to help maintain the collections, so the repository has a really nice homey feel to it. Museum work can be a little lonely at times (often you are the only person working in a small room surrounded by fossils), so having Tiffany and her undergrads pop in from time to time to chat was a nice break from research.

Picture of the paracrinoid Canadocystis tennesseensis. This is the mouth of the animal that has a strange S shape to it. Most paracrinoids look very different from one another (even their mouths are different!) but we can still get a lot of information about them and how they relate to one another by looking at their shapes and different characteristics.

So, just what do paleontologists do when they go to a museum to do research? Well, the simple answer is: we look at fossils. For any project that we are working on, seeing as many individual fossils of the same species or even same group gives us a better idea of what is “normal” for that organism. Your research question(s) will determine what in particular you are looking for or paying attention to on each fossil. So for my group that I’m working on, paracrinoids, I’m paying a lot of attention to details around the mouth, differences in plate shape (the plates that make up the body of the animal), and if there is any organization to their plating. This involves a lot of close up work with a microscope to look at these features and careful note taking about what I’m seeing. The data that I collect at museums has to be detailed so that when I get back to my university I can recall specimens and use that data in my analyses. Sometimes if we are lucky, we get to take some specimens back to our universities to keep working on them, but more often we just have our notes and photos to go off of. So our time and work at the museums is invaluable!

Image of the Repository in Iowa-all of these cabinets are full of different fossils from different places. This is the part of museums that most people never see, but so much of a collection is stored behind the scenes waiting for researchers to come look at them!

Research weeks at museums are really long, but the time flies by! You are hyper-focused on your research and your fossils. Even when you are not at the museum working, you are in your hotel catching up on the work that you are missing at home. Between looking at the specimens, taking notes, taking pictures, and trying to find patterns in what you are looking at, the days just fly by. But, I always like to save a little time for myself to wander around the exhibits and look at other specimens in the collection because you are surrounded by wonderful fossils! But for as long and hard as a week researching at a museum can be, the trips are always fun and you come away having learned a lot!

Aaron Woodruff, Paleontologist

Aaron standing in front of a mastodon skeleton at the Illinois State Museum.
I am a vertebrate paleontologist, meaning that I deal in the fossils of ancient back-boned animals. I obtained my degree in paleontology from East Tennessee State University and I currently work as a lab technician at Georgia Tech. My primary research interests are paleoecology and ecomorphology of Cenozoic mammals. In the broad sense, paleoecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environments across prehistory. Ecomorphology is the study of the relationship between an organism’s physical adaptations and its lifestyle. For example, cheetahs are famously the fastest land animals alive today. To become such good runners they have evolved, among other adaptations, lightweight skeletons with long legs and flexible spines. The general lifestyle and behavior of an extinct animal may, therefore, be predicted by comparing its physical adaptations to that of a modern relative or to that of an otherwise comparably proportioned species. Back to the Cheetah example, several species of extinct cats and cat-like predators have been found to have possessed similar body proportions for active sprinting, suggesting that these animals hunted in a similar fashion.

Aside from my paleontological research, another great passion/occupation of mine is paleoart: the artistic representation of a prehistoric organism or environment. Paleoart is a valuable tool for communicating paleontological information to both scientists and non-scientists. We are more likely to process and memorize information presented to us in image format than through text. I personally find great enjoyment in reconstructing animals which no modern human has ever seen alive. It really feels like I am bringing these animals back to life. Furthermore, accurate paleoart is a good way to pull in audiences and raise interest in paleontology. Ask any paleontologist or enthusiast what first sparked their interest in fossils and ancient animals, and most of them will no doubt reference images from a favorite book from their childhood, a museum mural, sculpture, movie or documentary which featured life reconstructions of prehistoric animals. That’s paleoart! Some of my own artwork may be seen on my personal blog Life in the Cenozoic Era in which I talk about various animals from the Age of Mammals.

As a paleontologist, the best thing I can hope for is a large sample size to work with. This can be somewhat difficult in paleontology because fossils, by their very nature, are generally few and far between and are often damaged or incomplete. Whenever possible, having access to a large sample of a given extinct animal is ideal for ontogenic, demographic, and morphological studies among other areas. For my thesis project I was lucky enough to have access to a HUGE collection of fossils belonging to an extinct peccary from a Missouri cave site. Because I had thousands of bones from dozens of individuals to work with, from fetuses up to elderly individuals, I was able to learn some very interesting things about the peccary population from that locality. Another important resource is a good comparative collection of modern and extinct animals for reference. Being able to visit other research facilities or borrow specimens on loan is also a major aspect of acquiring data.

Map showing the location of the Bat Cave fossil site within the state of Missouri (top-left), the most complete Flat-headed Peccary skull from Bat Cave (bottom-left), a mounted skeleton from the American Museum of Natural History (top-right), and life reconstruction by me (bottom-right).

The research we are doing at Georgia Tech involves analyzing the bones of small mammals and looking at how the community composition changes through time. Small vertebrates are good indicators of local climatic conditions because they are generally confined to a small area; many of the smaller rodents never venture farther than 30 to 100ft from their nest in a single day. An elephant can simply walk up to 50 miles per day in search of an area that suits it better should environmental conditions fall outside of its comfort zone. A vole simply cannot do this, and is thus confined to a narrower range of environmental factors. From examining the Natural Trap Cave microfauna we are finding that the local climate has fluctuated greatly over the past 20,000 years. At various intervals the region was home to animals which are adapted to the high desert conditions which characterize the region today, in another layer we may find species that are indicative of wetter or less arid conditions, while in yet another layer we may see animals which should be more comfortable in colder environments farther north.

Repelling ~80ft into Natural Trap Cave to excavate Pleistocene-age fossils.
My favorite part of being a scientist is that I am always learning new and interesting things. I find it very humbling and gratifying to know that my research will contribute to the collective knowledge of the general public. Being able to learn through personal research, exchange knowledge and ideas with other scientists, and to teach what I have learned with other people are all things that I appreciate about my career. Another thing I enjoy is being able to travel to conferences and field sites where I am able to intermingle with other paleontologists and keep up to date with the latest discoveries. My advice to young scientists is go to conferences or local events whenever possible. Volunteer or participate in outreach programs at museums or universities. Also, reach out to professionals for advice or to just satisfy your curiosity. Many paleontologists, myself included, are very active on social media and are happy to chat about our research, share information, etc.

Follow Aaron’s blog Life in the Cenozoic Era or follow his updates on Twitter by clicking here.

How Did Horses Get to Just One Toe?

Mechanics of evolutionary digit reduction in fossil horses (Equidae) *
Brianna K. McHorse, Andrew A. Biewener, Stephanie E. Pierce
Summarized by Time Scavengers contributor, Maggie Limbeck

What data were used? This study used metapodials (toe bones) from 12 fossil horse genera as well as from a tapir (herbivorous mammal that looks similar to a pig, but that also has an odd number of toes) to collect data. The metapodials were imaged in cross sectional views to determine load strength (how was weight distributed among the main three toes of fossil horses and the one toe of recent horses) and geometry of the metapodials.

Methods: The metapodials from the fossil horses and tapir were micro-CT scanned (3D x-ray scanning, like the human procedure but on a smaller scale) and the images were manipulated to see the cross sectional area and other views using the open source program ImageJ with the plugin BoneJ. The images were then measured and corrected for evolutionary changes using the open source statistical software, R. Estimates for bone stress were calculated using a toe reduction index (TRI), reconstructed body weights, and angle of metapodial during ground reaction at two speeds of forward locomotion. Additionally, the amount of stress that the metapodials could support was estimated using beam mechanics (an engineering process that looks at how much stress a hypothetical beam could withstand before bending and/or breaking).

Results: Looking at the geometry of the metapodials, it was determined that as the fossil horses grew in both size and weight, their need for four front and three back toes was decreased, and as such the digits gradually decreased to one on all four limbs. For the stress experiments, as the fossils moved forward in time to recent horses, it is seen that the amount of stress that can be placed on metapodial III (what we see expressed as the hoof) increases through time and the dependence on the two metapodials on either side of digit III decreases. This statement is true for both front and back metapodials at both a moderate speed (trotting) and performance (acceleration, jumping).

Figure 1. Image of the toe reduction index (TRI) shown across a phylogenetic tree (evolutionary tree) with the cross sectional view of the metapodial being analyzed. Based on the TRI it is apparent that there is a gradient for toe loss and that there is only one genus of horse, Equus, that truly has one toe. You can also see that for those early horses that still had side toes that the shape of the toe in cross section has a much different shape and therefore still needs side toes to some extent.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it supports two hypotheses that were held about digit reduction in horses. That a) the increased body mass of horses selected for a single, strong metapodial and b) that as horses grew taller, the cost of speed from the side toes outweighed their use in stabilization. This also contradicts the commonly held belief that horses experienced digit reduction as an adaptation to the replacement of forests by grasslands.

The big picture: The big picture here is sort of two-fold. Digit reduction in tetrapods (four-legged creatures) has been of interest to many scientists because as tetrapods emerged onto land 5, 8, even more digits was the ancestral state for these organisms. As we see today, that is not the case. The vast majority of the organisms that we think of have 5 or less digits on their hands and feet, so we want to understand what drove the process of digit reduction in every animal. Second, this study highlights that it is important to keep testing hypotheses even if they have been held for a while. The additional lines of evidence provided by this study give more credibility to two commonly held hypotheses while continuing to falsify the common explanation for digit reduction in horses.

Citation: McHorse BK, Biewener AA, Pierce SE. 2017. Mechanics of evolutionary digit
reduction in fossil horses (Equidae)
. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284: 20171174.

*all samples in this study were fossils, no live animals were used

I love introducing students to geology

Sarah here –

I was recently asked a question during a job interview- which level of students do you most enjoy teaching and why? I thought for a minute and then gave my answer-introductory level students-and the entire panel seemed surprised, which gave me the idea to write this post. Right now, I am a visiting faculty member at a huge university-my entire job is to teach a lot of classes every year. These classes can range from graduate seminars, upper level geology classes, to introductory level classes, where the majority of the students are only there to get their core requirement classes out of the way.

Don’t get me wrong- I love teaching and working with graduate students and geology majors. It’s a blast to work with students who care so much about the material already and who have a thirst to learn more. But what I really love teaching-and the teaching that I find to be the most impactful- is teaching those intro classes.

One of Sarah’s awesome introductory geology students, Kelsey, with her super creative timeline of Earth history.

Nearly 90% of the students in my intro classes will never take another science class again. Most of them, on day one, probably don’t even want to be there-I am told by the students quite often that they’re terrible at science, or that they don’t have any interest in the subject, or even that they have learned some terribly untrue things about science (many of my students come in believing that science and religion are at odds with one another and can’t coexist peacefully-not true at all!). So why do I love teaching them? Quite simply, I am presented with an awesome challenge-to change their minds about science. With every semester, I am given the gift to encourage sometimes hundreds of students to explore the beautiful world of science. I get to show students volcanoes that burn bright blue because of the sulfur in the lava and show them reconstructions of how we think the earliest and weirdest of our ancestors might have lived. I get to help them learn to take a few pieces of evidence and draw conclusions and expose them to a new way of thinking. Geology is an incredibly fun and exciting science and to see intro level students get so engaged and passionate- and to let them see how passionate you are about this subject (seriously, I’ve gotten teaching evaluations that have said “too enthusiastic about science” before)- is a feeling that just can’t be beat.

However, this is also such an incredible responsibility- we have to teach them how science truly works and how to spot bad science, which is increasingly prevalent, in popular culture. We have a responsibility to help them see how their actions, like not recycling, have a direct affect on the people with whom they share the Earth. These classes help students form their opinions on the issues shaping our world today-is GMO food safe? Why do we care if evolution is taught in the classroom? Do we really need to be concerned about climate change? If this is likely the only science class they’ll take, this might be the only time they’ll ever learn how to form their ideas about the scientific issues facing our world-and most importantly, found their opinions based on scientific evidence. If, in a decade or so from now, at least a few of my students think back to their intro geology class with Dr. Sheffield and remember that they should really use those reusable shopping bags or that they might know how to correct someone’s misguidance on climate change or evolution, then I will have helped make a difference. And what could be better?

I wish I had had such an eloquent answer during my interview- but if I could go back, I’d say this: teaching these introductory classes is one of the most important things that we can do as scientists. Don’t take the responsibility you have to inspire a whole generation of enthusiastic and scientifically literate students lightly!

Ancient hydrothermal seafloor deposits on Mars

Ancient hydrothermal seafloor deposits in Eridania basin on Mars
Joseph R. Michalksi, Eldar Z. Noe Deobrea, Paul B. Niles, and Javier Cuadros
Summarized by Mike Hils

What data was used? High resolution imaging and spectroscopy data about mineralogy and geology

Methods: Used data from instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite currently orbiting Mars:

    HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) was used to define the ancient basin boundaries and to inspect the types of features and rocks located in the Eridania basin. HiRISE is a camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter than can resolve objects to about a foot long on the surface of Mars.

    CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) to study the minerals and rocks found in the Eridania Basin. Materials bounce light off of them in a consistent pattern and energy, and spectrometers can analyze that light and identify the material on Mars’ surface.

Results: The Eridania Basin was probably up to 1.5 km (0.9 mi) deep, and flowed into a canyon named Ma’adim Vallis. Images from HiRISE show that the western half of the basin consists of massive stone that lacks bedding planes and has eroded into buttes and mesas. The basin would have held about as much water the Caspian Sea on Earth currently does. This basin is shaped different than many of the other Martian basins, and it is thought that a covering of ice kept sediment from settling on the bottom. A comparison of the craters in this part of the basin suggest that these rocks are about 3.77 Ga (G = giga, SI prefix for billion, a = annum, Latin for year) old.

Analysis from CRISM found evidence of minerals and rocks associated with deep ocean water on Earth, including iron and magnesium rich clays, serpentinite, carbonates, and chlorides. For example, serpentinite, a metamorphic rock that looks like green marble, forms when basalt reacts with warm, deep sea water. Carbonate minerals are common on Earth in the form of limestone, marble, seashells, and corals. The authors suspect that the carbonate formed due to hydrothermal interactions. Chlorides, such as salt (sodium chloride), form on Earth when water evaporates.

Map of the Martian terrane with colors indicating highs (orange) and lows (blue) of an ancient sea. The data points in the legend are minerals that were identified at each location.

Why is this study important? This study is important in two ways. First, one idea for the origin of life on Earth is that it developed around hydrothermal vents in the ocean. Although ancient rocks have been found suggesting such environments in the past, they have been significantly altered by weathering and metamorphism, and vital information has been lost. Martian sites, which haven’t been altered nearly as much as Terrestrial ones, might be a good proxy for understanding early environments on Earth. Secondly, the identification of such sites on Mars could provide key places to look for signs of life on Mars.

The big picture: Understanding how life began is a huge problem that scientists in many fields are exploring. Life may have evolved on Earth, or it may have arrived here from some other body. The identification of hydrothermal environments on Mars would allow scientists to gain a better understanding of hydrothermal environments on Earth as life was evolving and try to see if life could have started here. This would also allow astrobiologists to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars.
Two other bodies in our solar system may harbor life around hydrothermal vents. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are both covered in salty water capped with ice, and both experience tectonic activity due to the gravitational pull from their host planets. In addition, organic molecules (chemicals made mostly of carbon that are often associated with organisms) have been detected in water escaping from Enceladus. If life could have evolved in hydrothermal environments on Earth and Mars, it is likely Europa and Enceladus both host extraterrestrial life now.

Citation: Michalski, J., Dobrea, E., Niles, P., Cuadros, J. 2017. Ancient hydrothermal seafloor deposits in Eridania basin on Mars. Nature Communications, 8:15978. doi: 10.1038/ncomms15978