Victoria Crystal, Geologist, Paleontologist, Podcaster

Victoria collecting fossils in the field

Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Victoria developed a passion for paleontology by frequently exploring the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. She later got her bachelor’s degree in geology from Colorado College and her master’s degree in geology and paleontology from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Victoria’s research focuses on understanding ancient ecosystems from the Late Cretaceous period (the time of the dinosaurs) and the early Paleocene (the time just after the extinction of the dinosaurs). She uses two different approaches to do so:

 1- Geochemistry – She measures the carbon and oxygen isotopes in fossil dinosaur teeth to learn about what the dinosaurs were eating and drinking. Tooth enamel is made up of several different elements, including oxygen and carbon. When the tooth enamel is made inside the body, the oxygen ingested by an organism from its drinking water is incorporated into the chemical structure of the enamel. And the carbon in the tooth enamel comes from the food the organism eats.  In this case, Victoria is looking at the teeth of herbivorous dinosaurs, so the food is plants. Victoria is interested in where the dinosaurs are getting their water and food. She asks questions like, “are dinosaurs drinking water from large rivers that flow down from mountains? Or are they drinking water from ponds and streams on the floodplain? And are the plants they are eating close to the banks of these water sources or are they farther away?”  

Victoria using a rock saw to collect fossils out of very hard sandstone

2 – Paleobotany – She also measures the size and shape of fossil leaves to determine what the average temperature was when the leaves were alive and how much it rained at that time. This helps her to determine what the climate was like in the past. She is also curious about how plant communities recovered after the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. This is the extinction that famously killed the dinosaurs, but also about 60% of plant species in North America went extinct too. So when she looks at the size and shape of fossil leaves to learn about the climate of the past, she also analyzes how many different types of leaves there were. This helps her to answer questions like, “how soon after the extinction did plant communities start to increase in diversity (meaning number of plant types)? How soon after the extinction did we start to see forests and rainforests in North America?” 

Along with geology and paleontology, Victoria is also passionate about education and STEM outreach. She is a certified Environmental Educator and has spent summers teaching science and leadership at the Keystone Science School and the Logan School for Creative Learning in Colorado.  She is also the host of the podcast Ask a Scientist, in which she interviews scientists asking them questions written by elementary and middle school students. She encourages everyone, including aspiring scientists, to be curious about the world around them and to always ask questions.

Victoria using a dremel drill to sample dinosaur tooth enamel
Podcasting!

Looking at past phosphorus accumulation in a Florida lake offers new insight on recent cultural nutrient enrichment

A Holocene Sediment Record of Phosphorus Accumulation in Shallow Lake Harris, Florida (USA) Offers New Perspectives on Recent Cultural Eutrophication

by: William F. Kenney, Mark Brenner, Jason H. Curtis, T. Elliott Arnold, Claire L. Schelske

Summarized by: Mckenna Dyjak

What data were used?: A 5.9 m sediment core was taken in Lake Harris, Florida using a piston corer (a technique used to take sediment samples, similar to how an apple is cored). Lake Harris is a subtropical, shallow, eutrophic body of water (rich with nutrients) located near Orlando, Florida.  

Methods: The 1.2 m sediment core is long enough to provide the complete environmental history of Lake Harris. However, the core must be interpreted first. In order to do so, the core was first dated using lead isotope 210Pb and carbon isotope 14C. The next steps involved using proxy data (preserved physical characteristics of the environment) to determine net primary productivity (the concentration and accumulation rates of organic matter), lake phosphorus enrichment (three forms of phosphorus), groundwater input (concentration and accumulation rates of carbonate material, like limestone), macrophyte abundance (e.g., sponge spicules), and phytoplankton abundance (e.g.,diatoms).

Results: The study found that Lake Harris began to fill with water in the early Holocene (~10,680 calendar years before the present) and transitioned to a wetter climate in the middle Holocene. The transition is indicated by a change in carbonate to organic sediments; a higher amount of organic sediments would suggest an increase in rainfall needed to support the plant life that would become the organic matter. A low sedimentation rate indicates that the lake was experiencing oligotrophication (depletion in nutrients) through the Holocene until around the 1900s. After the 1900s, there were increased sedimentation rates (Figure 1. A, B, D, and E) which indicates cultural eutrophication (increase of nutrients in bodies of water). Phosphates and nitrates from common fertilizers and other human activities (which is why it’s called “cultural eutrophication”) can allow algae (e.g., diatoms) to grow rapidly and reduce the amount of oxygen in the lake. An increased sedimentation rate can be used to determine whether a body of water is in a state of eutrophication, because the amount of phytoplankton (such as diatoms) would increase in accumulation. Total phosphorus accumulation rates can also indicate eutrophication.

Figure 1. Sedimentation rates for (A) bulk sediment, (B) organic matter, (C) CaCO3, (D) total phosphorus, (E) diatom biogenic silica and (F) sponge spicule biogenic silica versus core depth. Near the top of the core we can see a significant increase in A, B, D, E, and F which provide evidence for cultural eutrophication (increased sediment rates).

Why is this study important?: This study shows that, without being disturbed, Lake Harris was prone to becoming depleted in nutrients, the process of oligotrophication. The complete change of course due to human activities (i.e., fertilizer runoff) is more detrimental than was previously considered. This study showed that throughout the environmental history of Lake Harris there was never a sign of natural eutrophication, but rather that of oligotrophication. 

The bigger picture: Cultural eutrophication is a serious problem plaguing many aquatic systems and has serious consequences such as toxic algae blooms, which can have far reaching effects like on the tourism industry in Florida! The extent of damage caused by human activities is shown in this study and can help us understand how lakes responded in the past to the introduction of cultural eutrophication.  

Citation: Kenney WF, Brenner M, Curtis JH, Arnold TE, Schelske CL (2016) A Holocene Sediment Record of Phosphorus Accumulation in Shallow Lake Harris, Florida (USA) Offers New Perspectives on Recent Cultural Eutrophication. PLoS ONE 11(1): e0147331. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0147331

Understanding how climate change affects predator-prey relationships in snails and clams

Climate-mediated changes in predator-prey interactions in the fossil record: a case study using shell-drilling gastropods from the Pleistocene Japan Sea

Tomoki Chiba and Shinichi Sato

Summarized by Baron Hoffmeister

What data were used? This study used a predator-prey analysis of drill holes found on fossil bivalve (clam) shells produced by gastropods (snails) found in the Oga Peninsula off the coast of Japan.

Methods: This study used computer analysis on fossil assemblages of bivalves to determine the location of predatory drill holes and the species of bivalves which indicated whether they are warm water dominant or cold water dominant species. The location of the drill holes on the bivalve shells was also analyzed to determine different predatory gastropods (Figure 1).

Figure 1. These are photographs of two predatory drill holes taken from a microscope. Section A-C is a predatory drill hole located on the center of the shell, and section D-F is a drill hole located on the shell edge. These two different types of predation patterns indicate two separate predatory gastropod species. Image from Chiba and Sato (2016).

Results: This study showed that drilling predation was influenced by the change of sea surface temperatures and sea level due to glacial-interglacial climate cycles. A glacial period occurs due to cool temperatures and glacial advancement, and an interglacial period occurs when glaciers retreat and sea level rises due to warming temperatures. As warm water currents decrease, so does the presence of warm-water predator gastropods. This causes them to shift their range, therefore changing rates of predator and prey interactions. In this study, predation slowed as seawater temperatures decreased and in turn found that this moderated the predation pressure between the gastropods and bivalve prey. This study also found that predator and prey interactions in a shallow-marine ecosystem are likely to weaken with cooling temperatures and strengthen with warming temperatures.

Why is this study important? This study indicates that predator-prey relationships can be used to help interpret changing climates and the implications it has on ecosystems. This study also notes that ocean climate variability has large implications of range shifts which can be used to interpret how organisms respond to changing climate conditions.

The big picture: The information found in this study can be used to help interpret current-day climate change and its influence on predator-prey relationships in relation to the biogeographical distribution of species due to ocean temperatures. This is useful for identifying ecosystems globally.

Citation:

Chiba, T., and Sato, S. I.. (2016). Climate-mediated changes in predator-prey interactions in the fossil record: a case study using shell-drilling gastropods from the Pleistocene Japan Sea. Paleobiology 42(2), 257–268. doi: 10.1017/pab.2015.38

Niklas Hohmann, Master student in Paleobiology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? The best part are the findings that completely contradict your intuition! Discussing these findings with other scientist and finding out where and why the intuitions failed are the moments where I learn most. I always loved these learning moments that spark curiosity, so aiming for a career in science was a natural thing to do.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?  I study how parts of dead animals such as mussel shells are turned into fossils. This sub-discipline of paleontology is called “taphonomy”, which is Greek and roughly translates as “the science of burial”. The focus of my research to find out how much information about past environments is lost when fossils form. Some shells might for example be very fragile, so finding few fossils of them is not necessarily evidence that they did not play an important role in the past ecosystem.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Before 1950, very little information about ecosystems was collected. This makes it difficult to assess the impact humans had on nature simply we do not really know how nature looked like 500 or 1000 years ago. By developing tools to reconstruct these ecosystems from fossils, I hope to contribute to the understanding how nature looked like in the past so we can better protect it for future generations.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? All data I use was previously published by someone else and I compile it from the literature for specific questions I am working on. Typically this would be information about shells that were found in a drillcore, their material properties that were determined in a lab experiment, and the environmental conditions where the core was taken.

Aside this empirical data, I borrow concepts from chemistry, physics, and different branches of mathematics for modeling. This can lead to interesting analogies: The way shells are distributed in the sediment is similar to the way heat is migrates through a solid medium, which is in turn tightly connected to particle movement.

The effect of sediment input on shell abundance in the sea floor. When sediment input is low, many old shells will be found at the sediment surface. Typically the ages of shells found at the same place differ by hundreds of years, a phenomenon called time-averaging. When sediment input is high, shells are buried quickly, which protects them from destructive processes close to the surface.

How has your research have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? A lot of scientists that depend on access to labs were having troubles getting their work done due to the social distancing measures. Also many of the side jobs that are crucial for students were not available anymore, which put a lot of financial pressure on them.

My research has not been affected much, but all the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 have strengthened my belief that science communication should be a central part of scientific practice.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? If you’re already in academia: Don’t specialize too early and look for a mentor you get along with. In general: stay curious and ask all the questions. Especially the ones you think are stupid.

Mima-like Mounds of South-Central United States: A Remnant of Late Holocene Droughts?

Relict nebkhas (pimple mounds) record prolonged late Holocene drought in the forested region of south-central United States

Christopher L. Seifert, Randel Tom Cox, Steven L. Forman, Tom L. Foti, Thad A. Wasklewicz, and Andrew T. McColgan

Summarized by Isaac Pope

Introduction: Even before their first geologic description in the nineteenth century, the Mima Mounds of the Puget Lowland have captivated the human mind. The elliptical dome shapes of the millions of regularly spaced mounds have defied explanation (figure 1), yet these mounds appear to be a globe phenomenon. Across prairies on North America and other continents, mounds resembling the Puget Lowland Mima Mounds (termed “Mima-like mounds”) have incited geologists to propose a host of forces from earthquakes to flooding rivers and even rodents as explanations for these enigmatic mounds (Johnson and Burnham, 2012; Tucker, 2015). Because of the diverse settings in which these mounds are found, some researchers have suggested a single cause of all Mima-like mounds is unlikely, opining that instead a variety of forces may have been the cause. Amid this debate, six scientists have proposed that the Mima-like mounds of south-central United States are the remnants of a geologically recent drought.

The Data: Locally known as pimple mounds, the Mima-like mounds of south-central United States are found on flat benches near rivers and streams across Arkansas, Oklahoma, and nearby states. While some may be currently or historically forested, most mounded areas appear to have originally been prairies or open areas within forests. The mounds are underlain by bedrock or a subsoil pan relatively impervious to water seepage, which may be one reason for the general lack of forests in mounded areas.

The Methods: The research team cored three prairies in Arkansas and Oklahoma to analyze the grain size and potential age of the mound material, collecting six cores of each sampled mound and one core in the low area adjacent to the mound. Four of the mound cores were collected on the North, South, East, and West axes of the mound and a fifth was taken in the center. Taken in a specialized metal pipe, the sixth was collected near the central core for luminescence dating, a method of dating the extent of time since a silicate mineral such as quartz has been buried by observing its reaction with light. Some of the mounds in one of the prairies were also measured using laser-scanner surveying technology to evaluate the asymmetry of the mounds.

Figure 1. The Mima Mounds of the Puget Lowland (Washington) have baffled geologic interpretation for over a century. Numbering in the millions, these dome-like mounds can be found on a number of prairies in the Puget Lowland, while other similar mounds (Mima-like mounds) have been identified across the world. Notice the trees and trail for scale. Photo by the author at Mima Prairie Natural Area Preserve.

The Results: Often steepest on their northwestern slope, the mounds were found to be composed primarily of silt and sand, being coarsest towards the northwest. Luminescence dating indicated that the mound sediment had been deposited within the past several thousand years during the Holocene with age increasing with depth.

Implications: The asymmetry of mounds both in their shape and composition suggest that they are nebkhas or coppice dunes, which commonly form in sub-arid areas as shrubs capture sand and silt in windy conditions. The origin of these Mima-like mounds as relict nebkhas supports extended droughts in south-central United States through middle and late Holocene, which was dominated by winds trending towards east or southeast.

A Broader Perspective: The identification of these Mima-like mounds (“pimple mounds”) as nebkhas provides insight not only into the local paleoclimate but also the potential origin of some Mima-like mounds. The mounds of south-central United States are one of the only local datasets spanning the middle and late Holocene, thereby recording information on the duration and extent of past droughts in the region. It is also possible that other Mima-like mounds, such as the classic mounds of the Puget Lowland, are also nebkhas, although more recent research indicates that a wind-based model for mound formation in the Puget Lowland is unlikely due to the extensive cobbles and boulders among the mounds (Pope et al., 2020). Further study of the nebkhas of south-central United States may continue to reveal information for solving one of the most baffling mysteries of geology

Citation: Seifert, C.L., Cox, R.T, Forman, S.L., Foti, T.L., Wasklewicz, T.A., and McColgan, A.T., 2009, Relict nebkhas (pimple mounds) record prolonged late Holocene drought in the forested region of south-central United States: Quaternary Research, vol. 71, p. 329-339, doi: 10.1016/j.yqres.2009.01.006.

References:

Johnson, D.L. and Burnham, J.L.H., 2012, Introduction: Overview of concepts, definitions, and principles of soil mound studies, in Burnham, J.L.H. and Johnson, D.L., eds., Mima Mounds: The Case for Polygenesis and Bioturbation: Geological Society of America Special Paper 490, p. 1–19.

Pope, I.E., Pringle, P.T., and Harris, M., 2020a, Investigating the Late-Glacial Tanwax Flood—A Lithologic Study of Sediments in Selected Mounded Terraces in the Puget Lowland: Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs. Vol 52, No. 6, doi: 10.1130/abs/2020AM-358073.

Pope, I.E., Pringle, P.T., and Harris, M., 2020b, The Tanwax Flood at Mima Prairie: Preliminary Results Supporting a Debris Flow Origin of the Mima Mound Sediment: Centralia College Eighth Annual Capstone Presentation Day.

Tabbutt, K. 2016, Morphology and spatial character of the Mima Mounds, Thurston County, Washington: Northwest Scientific Association, 87th Annual Meeting, p. 91.

Tucker, D., 2015, Geology Underfoot in Western Washington: Missoula, MT, Mountain Press Publishing Company, 333 p.

Isaac Magallanes, UChicago Ph.D. Graduate Student

Photo taken at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico in the summer of 2018. I was helping with the GABI RET 2018: The North American Connection.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? As a scientist, I enjoy traveling and meeting/learning from people with a diversity of research interests. When I was a kid, I was always curious and interested in the world around me. I would watch PBS shows like NOVA and Nature with my dad. It didn’t matter to me whether I was learning about giant baleen whales or tiny African ant colonies, I enjoyed it all.  Although I was never able to visit a museum or attend a science camp during my childhood, the time spent with my family watching these programs laid the foundation for what would eventually become my passion and career path as an adult.

Although my parents fostered my interest in science, I never saw myself becoming a scientist. I believed I would grow up and do manual labor like my father. As a kid I would often assist my dad with an odd job or install carpet with my brother in law on the weekends. I did not see myself going to college, much less applying for graduate school.

Had it not been for the encouragement from my parents and high school English teachers, I would not have attended Cal State Fullerton as an undergraduate. Although I began my academic journey as an English major, I found myself becoming more interested in science. During this time, I enrolled in Geology 101 to fulfill a gen ed requirement and met my undergraduate advisor Dr. James Parham. He presented the course material in an accessible manner by using local examples when discussing geology and paleontology.

This class became the spark I needed to change my major and embark on the academic journey I am on today. He has and continues to be a great mentor and friend.

Photo taken in Washington Park near the University of Chicago.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?   To be concise, I study ancient vertebrate organisms and the processes that shape their morphology (shape). The term morphology can refer to many different things but I when use it I mean the shape of bones. Throughout my journey this has taken many forms.

As an undergrad, I described a new species of extinct fossil walrus from Southern California. My research also summarized the diversity and geographic distribution of fossil walruses as a group during the last ~18 million years.

As a masters student at the University of Florida, my research focused on studying paleoecology and reconstructing the dietary preferences of extinct mammal herbivores (horses, camels, rhinos, and elephant ancestors) from North Central New Mexico that lived ~16.9-6.7 million years ago.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? It largely depends on the project, but I primarily rely on museum collections. In some cases, I have collected fossils for my own research through field work, but often I hop on to other student’s field expeditions to lend a helping hand. Camping and hiking are some of the many perks of being a paleontologist that I enjoy.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science? In addition to conducting research, I also enjoy participating in scientific outreach. As a student, I have visited K-12 classrooms as a science expert, helped develop lesson plans with teachers, and participated in many pop-up museum events. This is due in large part because my master’s advisor and mentor, Dr. Bruce MacFadden, actively encouraged me to always think about the broader impacts of science.

Recently, I have been working with the “Cosplay for Science” team (of which I am a founding member) in developing unique pop-up museum experiences that bridge the gap between science and pop-culture. My favorite part about being involved with “Cosplay for Science” is getting to attend comic-cons and discuss how science inspires our favorite comic-books, movies, books, video-games, and TV shows. Be sure to check out our Instagram (@cosplayforscience) and follow us for more info on cool pop-ups and interesting content from our contributors!

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? I would say to not be hesitant in seeking new opportunities and experiences. When I began doing research at Cal State Fullerton, I felt like I was entering a whole new world. At first it was overwhelming, but I soon realized that I was not alone and found a strong support group in my lab mates and advisor. These relationships have continued through the years and served as great resource. Science is very fun, but it can also be hard, having the right team around you can help make the journey more enjoyable and fulfilling!

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Behind the Storm: How Climate Change Affects Women’s Empowerment in Africa and Asia

A Qualitative Comparative Analysis of Women’s Agency and Adaptive Capacity in Climate Change Hotspots in Asia and Africa

by: Nitya Rao, Arabinda Mishra, Anjal Prakash, Chandni Singh, Ayesha Qaisrani, Prathigna Poonacha, Katharine Vincent, and Claire Bedelian

Summarized by: Lisette Melendez

What data were used? This study focused on the lives of 25 women from geographically different areas in Africa and Asia, including deserts, mountains, and deltas. Even though their cultures and livelihoods differed, they were connected by one phenomenon: climate change. Climate change is something that affects humanity as a whole, but the most severe impact will be felt by our vulnerable communities. As summers grow hotter and droughts increase, those whose livelihoods depend on natural resources will face extreme adversity in the coming years.

Figure 1: A map of all the areas that were surveyed in this study.

Methods: The focal point of the study was to investigate how a woman’s agency – or ability to make meaningful and strategic decisions – was impacted by her surroundings. During field research, each woman was interviewed and their livelihood, exposure to environmental risks (like cyclones, flooding, and storm surges), and societal standing were charted. Then, conditions like material possessions, supportive legal systems, and environmental stress were analyzed in each situation to measure the impact each had on the given woman’s life.

Results: With climate change leading to inconsistent rain and extreme temperatures, land becomes infertile and inadequate for farming. Men often migrate away in search of better job opportunities, and while this presents as a source of empowerment for women, with the chance of increasing their involvement in managing money, the research shows it was actually a burden. One young woman noted, ‘Men can easily migrate for work whereas we have to stay here (at home) to take care of the family’. The women were often left alone to provide food for their children and maintain the crops and pay the bills. Even in states with relief programs for floods and droughts, women were often excluded from receiving aid – reinforcing cultural norms that disadvantage women globally. The same trend can be seen in the United States right at this very moment, with up to 90% of women and minority business owners being excluded from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Environmental stress overshadowed the benefits women received from becoming a greater part in household decisions and in the workforce. Why? Because climate change has destructive consequences for the environment in which these women base their lives on. The struggle to simply survive in barren fields forces women to work harder, in poorer conditions, and for lower wages.

Figure 2: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

Why is this study important? This study provides vital information for governments to implement effective social programs for their citizens. It advances conversations about gender equality on the international stage and urges leaders to commit to gender equality when drafting important documents like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.  

 The big picture: The negative environmental impacts of human-driven climate change are now inevitable: global temperatures will continue to rise, droughts will become more prevalent, and storms will intensify. It is important, now more than ever, to ensure that countries have the necessary social programs that can effectively help people sustainably adapt to the changing environment. Resources and adaptation strategies must be made available to the communities that are most vulnerable to fluctuating circumstances. 

Citation: Rao, N., Mishra, A., Prakash, A. et al. A qualitative comparative analysis of women’s agency and adaptive capacity in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 964–971 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0638-y

Jarrett McDowell, Fossil Enthusiast

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

I have almost always been interested in science, ever since I was a little kid. I used to like to do “magic” science tricks at home like putting a bar of soap and pepper in a bowl and showing how I could make the pepper float away from the soap. Science for me was always good at explaining the reason behind why certain things happened the way they did. To be honest, that is my favorite part of being a scientist. I am able to help people know why something is the way it is or at least come up with hypotheses as to why.

What do you do?

I am a teacher and an amateur paleobotanist, a person who likes to study fossil plants. The field of paleobotany is like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle except you don’t know how many pieces your puzzle has, you don’t know if all your current pieces belong to the same puzzle or different puzzles, and some of your pieces have been torn, bitten, or smudged. You seldom find a plant that has been fossilized in its entirety. You usually find a leaf here, a stem there, maybe some roots over there, and a sporangium over here. Chances are each part has also been given its own genus name or species name because the person who found the part did not know if it belonged to one of the other parts. Over time paleobotanists work together to try to link all these parts together and show that they belonged to one plant or multiple plants.

The sporangium of a prehistoric lycopod that was used in reproduction in the Carboniferous.

What methods do you use to engage your audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science? 

I think the best way to teach science is you have to make it relevant to whomever is listening. Children like science because they are naturally curious about the world around them. The question is, how you can you make it relevant to their lives? I loved my soap and black pepper magic experiment because it involved two things I had in my house and I regularly saw. With fossil plants, it’s a bit more difficult but I can still show kids a fossil and then show them the nearest living relative of that ancient plant. The Ginkgo tree is a great example of this because it is a living fossil and many of its ancient relatives have similar leaves that are easily identifiable.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution? 

I have not done any research as of late, but my previous research aimed to clarify evolution of lycopods in North America. Essentially I was trying to show that multiple species and genera of lycopods were all the same plant. This would help in the study of plant evolution and prehistoric ecology because it would help us learn more about the biodiversity that lived in these Carboniferous swamps. From a societal perspective, it’s important because I think it is always good for people to know about the natural history of the land they live on.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

My advice to any aspiring scientist is know that setbacks will happen. Things won’t always go the way you want them to go and that’s perfectly okay. I thought I would go into college, get perfect science grades, and be on to the next stage of my life. I was wrong. I found science classes to be very challenging and my undergraduate GPA showed it, although I was a great researcher and I loved the classes. Because of my not-so-stellar grades, I graduated with my Bachelor’s and tried out other careers because I thought I was not fit for paleontology. I worked as a pharmaceutical auditor for a while then seven years as an ESL/EFL teacher abroad (ESL/EFL- English as a second/first language). I was good at both jobs but I felt unfulfilled because these weren’t careers that I wanted but jobs that I was just good at. This led me to start pondering what I really wanted in life for several months until I realized that I wanted to return to the field of paleontology. After asking around and researching different graduate programs, I settled on one that I wanted to attend. To sum up, my advice is to know that setbacks will happen. You can plan as much as you want but things may not go accordingly.

Climatic variations over the millennia analyzed for predicting future climatic variability

Little Ice Age climatic erraticism as an analogue for future enhanced hydroclimatic variability across the American Southwest

by: Julie Loisel, Glen M. MacDonald, Marcus J. Thomson

Summarized by: Baron Hoffmeister

What data were used? This study used climate data from climate proxy databases and dendrochronology  along with computer software for modeling climate patterns  

Methods: This study used climate proxy data in conjunction with computer modeling and simulation software to determine hydroclimatic variability (i.e. the change in water conditions) in the North American Southwest.

Results: This study found that in the North American southwest is prone to variable climate conditions such as drought, as well as rapid snowmelt and severe rainstorms that can lead to flooding. Hydroclimatic variability in the southwest has not remained constant over the past one thousand years. In fact, there was high climate variability in the North American southwest during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA; i.e. a period of warm climate that lasted from 950 c. to 1250) and the Little Ice Age (i.e. a period of cooling right after the MCA lasting until about 1850). Results show that the Little Ice Age had a higher amount of variability than the Medieval Climate Anomaly (see Figure 1). This was confirmed using climate data from tree ring growth analysis (i.e. the space between rings indicates the amount of growth) obtained by the North American Drought Atlas, a network of climate data points covering North America (figure 2), as well as climate proxy data from the El Junco diatom index from the Galapagos Islands. A diatom is a single-celled alga with cell walls made of silica. The oxygen used to make the silica is preserved in their shells and can be helpful climate proxy data.

Figure 1. This is a time series that displays annual climate variations based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index (i.e. climate data regarding precipitation and temperature). There is greater variability in the Little Ice age than the Medieval Climate Anomaly, and this can be seen by the bar graph at the bottom of the figure. This bar graph indicates the number of years where variability is above the 90th percentile.

This study also compared climate proxy records from fossil-coral oxygen isotopic records from Palmyra island in the tropical Pacific that recorded El Niño Southern oscillation patterns. El Niño Southern Oscillation is a weather pattern that has irregular periods of variation in wind and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific. Records of these weather patterns can be found in assemblages of certain coral fossils which serve as indicators for sea surface temperatures from the past. These were all analyzed and compared with the El Junco diatom index, and tree ring growth data using computer software. The researchers found a correlation between the El Niño Southern Oscillatory system and drought amplitude in the North American southwest increasing hydroclimatic variability. Also, with recent weather patterns, the computer simulations suggest that a ‘warm Little Ice Age’ scenario with high hydroclimatic variability accompanied by periods of warm and dry conditions is likely to occur sometime during the 21st century. 

Figure 2. The black border is the southwestern portion of North America being considered for this study. The black squares are climate data points provided by the North American Drought Atlas.

Why is this study important? This study shows how past climate change can help us understand how climate can change in the future and what the effects of that might be. In the North American southwest, hydroclimatic variability can lead to floods and drought impairing proper land management. Without experiments like this, climate change and its global effects cannot be understood. The results produced from this study can be used as a model for developing other climate reconstruction models.  

The big picture: This study explores the potential for climate variability modeling using historical climatic data as a reliable indicator for future climate predictions. It is important to be able to understand these historical climate events and weather patterns along with their effects on environments. Successfully being able to do this can lead to well-rounded land and water resource management in the face of climate change. 

Citation: Loisel, J., Macdonald, G. M., & Thomson, M. J. (2017). Little Ice Age climatic erraticism as an analogue for future enhanced hydroclimatic variability across the American Southwest. Plos One, 12(10). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0186282

Integrating Diversity in a Palaeontology Class

Kristina here–

I’ll preface this entire post by saying that I identify as a straight, cis, white woman, and I recognize that I still have a lot of learning and work yet to do when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of my professional as personal life

I’ve been involved in diversity initiatives in my department, including organizing a speaker series aimed at addressing gender disparity in my department. In 2016, we lost our only female geology faculty member (out of a faculty of ~50 people). This meant that most of our undergraduate and graduate students would never get the chance to interact or learn from a female role model and professor during their geology degrees. In response, a group of female graduate students launched an initiative to create a speaker series (the Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series) to bring female geoscientist experts to the department so that students still had the chance to interact with and learn from female role-models and world-class experts in geoscience. Fast forward to today, and several women have been hired as faculty in the department, and we have expanded the series to directly address representation of other groups, specifically racial, and mental or physical disabilities. It has been a rewarding and challenging experience, and I have learned so much. So when I had the opportunity to teach a class of my own in the department, recognizing I might still be one of the only female teachers they might have during their degrees, I wanted to try and incorporate some of these lessons and experiences into the classroom.

Data from Bernard and Cooperdock (2018), showing who was awarded geology PhDs in the United States since 1973.

Integrating Inclusion into the Curriculum

The class I taught was Introduction to Invertebrate Palaeontology – a required second year class for geology and palaeontology majors. For most, this class was either the first biology, or the first palaeontology class of their degrees. I already had some course materials available from the previous instructor, and our course syllabi and learning objectives had to be approved by our department. So how was I to include a new topic that wasn’t necessarily “integral” to the course goals? It was really easy! I just included diversity as a course topic and created an extra credit assignment! I also included a diversity statement in my syllabus. For a nice example of a diversity statement to include on your syllabus, see this example by Dr. Rowan Martindale (University of Texas Austin).

In terms of class time, I dedicated about 5 – 10 minutes once a week to a diversity in geoscience topic. I showed the students some recent research and statistics on diversity in geoscience, introduced some of the terminology used (e.g., representation, intersectionality, implicit bias), and shared data from a paper by Bernard and Cooperdock (2018), which gives breakdowns of the number of Ph.D.’s awarded by race and gender in the U.S since 1973, showing little progress towards achieving diversity in 40 years. Another awesome topic I was able to include by chance was showing the class a documentary that was being offered for free on International Women and Girls in Science day. The Bearded Lady Project made a 22 min doc about challenging the stereotypes of what a palaeontologist looks like. The documentary interviews female palaeontologists about their experiences and some of the discrimination they have faced in their careers or in the field. I showed the short doc in class and then gave the students a chance to discuss some of their thoughts on the documentary. The class really enjoyed it!

Showcasing Diversity with “Student Choice” Extra Credit Assignments

I created an extra credit assignment to encourage students to learn about geoscientists who have made important contributions to the field, but perhaps haven’t received the attention or recognition that others have, such as Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, or Charles Lyell. I asked students to tell me about “non-traditional” (as in, not straight white men) scientists they felt were important role models or had made important contributions to science. I tried to leave the assignments as open-ended as possible so that students could be creative with their choice of person (e.g., could be living or dead), but just asked they include 3 – 5 facts, a picture of the person or their research topic/discovery, and their references. They could turn in the assignment as a document or slide, and if they gave me permission, I would then share it with the class. I also said that each week, I would present a choice of my own if no one handed in an assignment. This was to try and encourage the students to hand in assignments earlier in the term before their choices were selected by myself or another student. It also allowed us to plan to showcase certain scientists during important relevant events, such as Black History Month, and Pride Week.

The idea of this assignment was to encourage student creativity, expose students (and myself) to new and/or important faces and discoveries in science, and allow us all the opportunity to learn something new about the history of our discipline. Importantly, I wanted this to be a student-driven list. I wanted to know the students’ perspectives on who they thought were important people in geoscience and palaeontology. For copyright and security reasons, I won’t include student names or their assignments, but I will offer the names and a bit of info on some of the people the students and I chose to highlight (in no particular order):

      1. Geerat Vermeij – Dr. Vermeij is one of the world’s leading palaeontologists and experts in malacology (the study of molluscs) and predation. He is a professor at UC Davis, and has won numerous awards for his ground-breaking research, including a MacArthur Fellow. He has published several books (in addition to hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers), including Privileged Hands, and A Natural History of Shells, which are great reads for scientists and non-scientists alike! Dr. Vermeij has been blind since the age of three, but still conducts both field and lab research. I chose Dr. Vermeij as an example for the class of the kind of scientist they might choose, as I admire Dr. Vermeij’s research.

        Dr. Geerat Vermeij. Source – geology.ucdavis.edu
      2. Mary Anning – Known as the “mother of palaeontology”, Mary Anning was a fossil hunter in 19th century Britain. Her discoveries include the first Plesiosaurus, ink sacks in belemnites (cephalopods), the first British pterosaur, and was the first to attribute coprolites as faeces. Despite all of her knowledge and contributions to the field, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman.

        Mary Anning portrait by B.J. Donne
      3. Franz NopcsaNopcsa was a 19th century Transylvanian aristocrat, palaeobiologist, explorer, and ethnographer, and was open about his homosexuality, traveling with his partner, Bajazid. He was a pioneer in the field of palaeobiology, and came up with the concept of Island Dwarfism. He was also an early supporter of plate tectonics and the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. Unfortunately, he was faced with financial difficulties and physical illness which led to him tragically killing Bajazid and himself.

        Baron Franz Nopcsa
      4. Florence Bascom – Dr. Bascom was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1893, and only the second American woman to receive a Ph.D. in geology. Dr. Bascom went on to be the first woman to work for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), first woman elected to the council for the Geological Society of America (GSA), and founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

        Florence Bascom
      5. Tilly Edinger – Dr. Edinger was the founder of palaeoneurology, the study of the relationship between braincases, skulls, and the brain. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Frankfurt in 1921. Dr. Edinger achieved much during her career, and won numerous awards and recognitions for her contributions to palaeontology. She also served as the President of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology (1963 – 1964). As a Jewish woman in Germany during WWII, she had to work in secret, and eventually fled to London, and then the U.S., where she spent the rest of her career. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s life and legacy, please visit our Who is Tilly Edinger page, and consider donating to our Tilly Edinger Travel Grant for students and avocational scientists!

        Tilly Edinger
      6. Louis Purnell – Purnell was the first African American curator at the National Air and Space Museum. However, before working at the National Air and Space Museum, he worked as an invertebrate zoology specialist and expert in fossil cephalopods at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, but experienced a lot of racism and academic jealousy at the museum and was passed over for promotions, and he left for the National Air and Space Museum.

        Louis Purnell (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
      7. Lisa White – Dr. White is the Assistant Director (Education and Outreach) at the University of California Museum of Paleontology. She is a micropalaeontologist and geoeducation expert, and has been instrumental in directly tackling issues of racial diversity and geoscience education opportunities for minorities. Dr. White has run several programs, including SF-ROCKS which supports geoscience outreach to children and minorities communities in San Fransisco, and has won GSA’s Bromery Award for education and service work advancing minorities in science.

        Dr. Lisa White (ucmp.berkeley.edu)
      8. Bolortsetseg Minjin – A world-renowned leader and advocate for Mongolian palaeontology, Bolortsetseg Minjin has been instrumental in protecting Mongolia’s fossil heritage, addressing fossil poaching, and providing palaeontology education opportunities to Mongolians. She founded the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, and has won numerous international awards for her work, including a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Ramond M. Alf Award.

        Bolortsetseg Minjin (Thea Boodhoo)
      9. Cameron Muskelly – I included Mr. Muskelly as an example of a young avocational scientist who is making amazing strides in palaeontology and outreach, and is an advocate for not only Black geoscientists, but those with mental disabilities and autism in science. Mr. Muskelly has accomplished much for education and outreach in geoscience and palaeontology in his home state of Georgia, and recently won the Katherine Palmer award from the Paleontological Research Institution for his outstanding contributions to the field as an avocational palaeontologist. Read more about Cam on Time Scavengers on his Meet the Scientist blog post!

        Cameron Muskelly
      10. Riley Black – Author of the books My Beloved Brontosaurus, The T. rex Handbook, and Skeleton Keys, Black is a well-known popular science and palaeontology writer. In 2019, Black came out as transgender, and has been an advocate for LGBQTIA+ voices in palaeontology, writing an article called “Queer Voices in Paleontology” for the journal Nature, which outlined the challenges faced by queer palaeontologists, as well as her personal experiences on the struggles of transitioning and fieldwork. Read more about Riley on Time Scavengers on her Meet the Scientist blog post!

        Riley Black (@TheSplash)

I’ll end by saying that I have a lot more growth I’d like to do in terms of being a better ally and advocate for diversity in science, but this was a really fun and rewarding experience that the students and I really enjoyed, and I would definitely do again. One additional resource that I have found really helpful is this recent article by Dr. Christy Visaggi: Equity, Culture, and Place in Teaching Paleontology.