The Ilulissat Art Museum is a charming red house with robin’s egg blue trim nestled up against a grassy hillside in the town of Ilulissat, Greenland. Almost 5,000 people live in this seaside town, including the art museum’s cheerful and friendly curator. His face lights up at the prospect of new visitors, and he enthusiastically greets us as we enter. This kindly curator shows us around the museum, offering us a wealth of knowledge about the paintings and the artists. He tells us that the lower level is primarily for paintings by Emanuel A. Petersen, a Danish painter who spent time in Greenland in the early 20th century. His paintings depict tranquil yet breathtaking scenes of the landscape surrounding Ilulissat and other Greenlandic villages. Many show icebergs stoically floating in the fjord, and tall, snowy mountains colored pink from the alpenglow. Some paintings have boats and kayaks out at sea, while others depict sleds led by teams of thick-coated dogs. While each scene may be different, each of Petersen’s paintings is so uniquely Greenland.
It’s no wonder Petersen produced enough paintings to fill an entire floor (not to mention the 150+ pieces of his artwork at the museum in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk). The landscape around Ilulissat is an alluring contrast of rounded green hills and blue-white icebergs. No more than 20 kilometers inland, the Greenland Ice Sheet spills out into channelized outlet glaciers like Jakobshavn Isbrae–the fast-flowing ice stream that produces the icebergs occupying Ilulissat’s fjord. Up and down the coast of Greenland, glaciers flow from the ice sheet and fill the valleys and fjords with ice.
Many local Greenlanders travel over this ice, including our friendly museum curator. He has a team of six sled dogs–which we’re told is a relatively small team–that pulls his sled across snow and ice. For years, he and his wife have been traveling with their sled dogs to a spot along the margin of the ice sheet. There, an outlet glacier flows into a water-filled valley with rocky hills forming the sides. Just a few years ago, the curator and his wife arrived at this spot and were met with a great surprise: a barren, rocky island protruded from the water in the middle of the channel. Had they never been there before, this would not have seemed odd. But this was a brand new island that was recently uncovered as the nearby glacier retreated up the fjord. Up until then, that spot had been covered with ice year-round, and no one had known that a small rocky protrusion lay beneath.
I was fascinated by his story and as I listened, I mentioned the words “ice retreat.” At that, the curator’s eyes lit up and with both passion and relief, he said, “Exactly.” It was clear that he needed us to understand his personal relationship with climate change. This was the first time I had met someone who has been so directly affected by warming temperatures and melting glaciers.
The island hasn’t made it on all the local maps yet, but it now has a name that means something like “the bald one” in English. In fact, this isn’t the only new island that has been uncovered by retreating ice. In the past twenty years, Steenstrup Glacier in northwest Greenland has also revealed a handful of new islands (2014 article, 2017 article). The effects of climate change in Greenland are complex–both for the ice sheet, the people, and the wildlife. In some cases, melting ice actually benefits certain Greenlandic industries like mining, fishing, or tourism. But shifts in these industries pose new problems and controversy. This guide to climate change in Greenland discusses what a warming climate means for people and for animals, and what new challenges may arise. Whether you’re a museum curator in Greenland or you’re somewhere else in the world, the effects of climate change will become more complex, more personal, and more prevalent. The burden of our future climate may seem daunting, but there are some small, every-day changes we can make to lessen our negative impacts. Check out this BBC article, Ten simple ways to act on climate change, to see how you can make a difference.
On the counter sits a collection of wrenches, some small and others large enough that you need two hands to use them. Next to those, thin colored wires are twisted and curved in a seemingly random fashion. Long winding cables are strung out across the floor, and every meter a small electronic device protrudes from the smooth sheath.
This is the glaciology lab. There are no bubbling beakers, or round-bottomed flasks, or venting chemical hoods here. Our common perception of a laboratory does not hold up in the glaciology lab. Instead, this space is where my advisor and his students build the intricate instruments that we use in the field. We build temperature sensors the size of a stick of gum, data loggers that record measurements throughout long winters on the Greenland Ice Sheet, and 3D printed objects to refine our products.
Working in this lab and learning to build devices that we use in the field has been both challenging and intriguing. Since my advisor is the real expert in electronics, my job is largely finicky and repetitive tasks–but tasks not without rewards. For instance, I may spend the entire day putting electrical tape over exposed wires on the long cables that we use to measure temperature in the ice sheet. Sure, the task becomes monotonous, but I know I’m working on a really exciting project and the small jobs I do end up helping us better understand the thermal structure of areas within the Greenland Ice Sheet.
Another of my duties is measuring out these long, winding cables that we eventually lower into a borehole (a drilled hole) in the ice sheet. This usually involves bringing a coil of cable into the hallway outside of the lab, and then stringing it out until it reaches 100 meters. As the hallway is only about 40 meters, there’s a bit of zig-zagging involved. I then have to mark it every one meter with tape and a Sharpie. Again, very monotonous. But I remind myself that the end of this very long cable will be 100 meters (that’s almost 330 feet!) below the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and to me, that’s very cool.
Before beginning my master’s degree, the only experience I had with building electronics was high school physics. Essentially I had a background in following my teacher’s directions for making a mousetrap-powered toy car. Believe me, nothing special. While I may not be able to completely design and build science-worthy instruments by myself yet, I have already learned so much about electronics and applied physics. I’ve also learned that being a scientist isn’t just being an expert in your field, but rather building a skill set in a variety of disciplines to help you succeed in your particular field. Much of my experience as a glaciologist has actually been learning how to be a physicist who just really likes working in cold places.
I study changes in past climate using fossils, focusing on climate 500-450 million years ago during an event called the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (or GOBE). The GOBE represents one of the largest and longest diversification events (where a huge number of new species evolved) in earth history. Many scientists, including myself, are trying to understand the role of climate on the GOBE. Leading into the GOBE, the earth was very warm, warmer than we would expect for animal life. During the peak of the GOBE, the oceans appear to have cooled to temperatures slightly warmer than what we see today.
For my research, I use microfossils known as conodonts. Conodonts are extinct animals that are similar to hagfish or lampreys. We usually don’t find the whole conodont animal, but rather their “teeth” are left behind. We use these “teeth” (known as conodont elements) as a proxy for understanding climate. This is because conodont elements preserve the changes in different oxygen elements (known as isotopes) within the ocean. The ratio between these oxygen isotopes (16O and 18O) can be measured and a temperature can be calculated. While some scientists will collect rocks that contain conodont elements themselves, I receive conodont elements from paleontologists who have done previous research using conodont elements.
So, why do scientists like myself study past climates? By studying climates in the distant past, we can better understand how our climate is changing now. Scientists who create climate models use past climate data to better their models and studying periods of time when the earth was vastly different than our own allows climate modelers to test the limits of their models.
Outside of research, I am a teaching assistant for the University of Missouri geology field camp. Many geology programs require a field course where the students spend some amount of time learning how to recognize different rocks within the field and how to place them onto a map. The University of Missouri takes students to the Wind River Basin near Lander, Wyoming to learn these skills, as well as a fantastic trip to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I was a student at this field camp myself back in 2016 and have been a teaching assistant there for the past two field seasons. The geology in this region is absolutely stunning and makes a wonderful field area for our students to learn stratigraphy and mapping. Geology gave me the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Spain and Portugal, as well).
One of my favorite things about being a scientist is having the opportunity to share what I do with a variety of people. I participate in many outreach events and tell the general public about paleontology. Many students are not exposed to geology or paleontology in school, but these outreach events allow students (and their families) to learn about the earth. While I was never exposed to outreach events such as the ones I participate in now, I was fortunate enough to take earth science courses during high school, as well as an introductory geology course at my local community college. Looking back, however, I was always interested in the processes that governed the earth, from rocks to meteorology to biology.
There is no one true path to entering a science field. Many of us started out wanting to enter different field (I myself originally wanted to go into film). Community college is a great place to start your journey, particularly if you are unsure what field you want to major in. If you are in college, take a variety of courses. If you find a science course that you enjoy, don’t be afraid to take similar classes. Find a field that you enjoy doing and pursue it.
On being non-binary in science
Recently, I came out as non-binary. I do not identify as male or female, but somewhere between the two. While there are a growing number of scientists who identify as LGBTQIA+, finding other scientists in your field can be quite difficult. However, there is a growing effort for science organizations to provide opportunities for LGBTQIA+ people and many organizations are adjusting their policies to protect against gender identity discrimination. This is a huge step forward, as some states and cities do not provide such protections. Some scholarships and awards that I had previously applied for or considered applying for are women-specific, as women are, generally, poorly represented in science. However, some of the organizations I have talked to are willing to open their applications for non-binary/agender/genderfluid people, as they are also poorly represented in science.
As a grad student, my peers are generally accepting of my gender identity. My professors (and most importantly, my advisor) have accepted my gender identity and have made every effort to adjust their language regarding my pronouns (they/them). The occasional slip up does happen (even by me!) and I do my best to correct people.My biggest worry is how my gender identity will affect my future career. Will the hiring committee be accepting or will they look the other way because I do not conform to their ideas of gender? As I continue my journey, my hope is to find more scientists like myself at different points in their careers and learn how they have overcome the obstacles they have faced.
Academic job interview season is always upon us and we wanted to give some perspective from our experiences. We have done phone interviews, Skype interviews, and in person interviews. More recently I, Jen, have had the opportunity to be on the other side of the table and do the interviewing. All of these experiences have given us a lot to think about and we would like to reflect on some of it for you all.
Prepping for an interview
Jen: To prepare for interviews I had a series of steps. First, I would do some research on the university/museum/organization to figure out what their mission, goals, and vision are. I could use this information to figure out if I was a good fit and what about my own career goals align with theirs. I then go to the department/group website to get a sense of who might be interviewing me, in many cases you will get a list of people ahead of time. I would think about questions they may ask and answer them on a note sheet and then come up with a list of questions to ask them.
Adriane: I was interviewed for two postdoctoral positions, and one tenure-track job. For the job, I did basically what Jen outlined above. I did research on each person in the department, such as where they went for graduate school, their most current and previous research interests, and any major on and off campus activities they were involved in. I then created a document with all of this information, with each page dedicated to that person. On that same sheet of paper, I also wrote down specific questions for each person. This way, I had everything I needed for talking to one person on one page, and I could also take notes. This method sounds like a lot of work (it really wasn’t), but it paid off immensely. Often, these on-site/campus interviews are tiring and you’ll be extremely nervous; do anything and everything ahead of time that will make the experience easier for yourself!
Below are some questions we encountered during job interviews (these were asked of us specifically for visiting or tenure-track professor positions):
Some questions you should prepare to answer:
Why do you want to work here?
How would you/your research contribute to this department/job?
What do you need (such as equipment) to do research in this department?
What courses could you teach in our department?
How could you involved our students in your research program?
How could you collaborate with our faculty in this department?
Provide an example of an effective teaching method you use in the classroom.
Describe your research.
Describe how you teach/your teaching strategies.
Outline a syllabus for a class you would teach (or they might ask you to do this for a specific class).
Questions you should prepare to ask*:
How does the department support you (grad, faculty, staff) in your role?
What would the ideal candidate for this position bring to the department?
What sort of funds are available for students to engage with research or projects?
Are students encouraged to travel to conferences? Are there funds to help them?
Am I encouraged to travel to conferences?
What sort of internal funding support is available for my research?
Are there departmental service requirements and what would they be for my first year?
Do faculty support each other’s work? Is this a collaborative environment?
A good one to end on: Do you love living and teaching here, and why?
* It is always good to ask these questions to multiple people to see how answers vary within the department.
Jen: These are the most awkward for me. I take a lot of queues from facial expressions to keep conversations moving, so trying to figure this out without seeing is tricky. It also is harder for me to listen closely and take notes without the visual queues of someone speaking to me. My suggestion would be to wear headphones so you don’t have to hold up your phone, this will allow you to quickly take notes as people are speaking to you. Since you can’t tie names to faces, it’s best to have a list of people who will be speaking to you ahead of time so you can refer back to their speciality or position during the call.
It may be worthwhile to use an online transcription feature like in Google Docs you can use Voice Typing. You’ll have to have the call on speaker but then you will get all of the questions people ask relayed in front of you. This is the other thing I struggle with – recalling multipart questions when on a call. Often you can’t write them down quick enough so you forget! But having a way to visualize the question again would be greatly beneficial and keep things moving.
Skype/Video Call Interviews
Jen: I prefer these setups because having a visual of the interviewers really helps me. They can also be very awkward though – depending on the set up. Often, you will be projected onto a larger monitor and be interviewed by a conference room full of people. I have been interviewed by 1 to 6 people. This is tricky because if there is not a separate microphone it can be incredibly hard to hear the people interviewing you. That is okay, just be sure to notify them – they will likely ask if you can hear them and include something like, ‘you are a little faint’ or ‘could you speak up some’. These people will have a set of questions to ask you and often they will go around the room as certain people may have specific questions they are posed to ask each candidate.
This can make it hard to identify who is who. I usually make a drawing of names or initials around a table so I can refer back to my cheat sheet of notes about the people interviewing me. This then helps place the people in the context of their role at the institution – which is super easy to forget when you are quickly being introduced to five people sitting around a table who are only ½ an inch high.
Be sure to have a quiet area to do the interview. Wearing headphones with a microphone ensures that they can hear you and hopefully you can hear them. I would also recommend a plain background or something simple so that the people interviewing you don’t get distracted and you are the main focus. I would try to have your face centered on the screen as much as possible without being cut off at the top or bottom of the screen.
Similar to the phone interview, I would have a notebook adjacent to you so you could quickly take down some notes during the interview. Also, you can more easily use the ‘take a drink of water’ trick when they can see you drinking – unlike on the phone. If you need a second to ponder an answer to a question- take a sip of water and reflect then respond.
Adriane: In addition to what Jen said above, you should also find out ahead of time the format for the interview. For example, one of my postdoctoral interviews over Skype was in the format of about 10 minutes for a presentation and 20 minutes of questions and talking. This was helpful to know in advance, as I could prepare what I wanted to talk about and use slides to do so through screen sharing. Another important step you should take is to test your equipment before the actual interview with trusted friends or colleagues. I tested my Skype and screen sharing capabilities twice with friends. I’m really glad I did because the second time, my sound went out! Luckily I figured out the problem and was able to fix it far in advance.
Because I work in a lab with several other people and I needed to be at my computer for the interview, I sent around an email to my lab mates to let them know the date and time of my interview. I also put a sign on our lab door that read ‘Interview in Progress’ so people wouldn’t run into our office during that time.
Jen: On campus interviews for faculty or staff positions can be much more involved. I’ve done two two-day campus visits and one one-day visit. Depending on the type of position you will likely be invited to give a talk – or two! These can be about a specific aspect of your research, your proposed research program to bring to the institution, your teaching experience and course offerings, or teach a course so they can observe you at the head of the classroom.
Prepare your mind: These are marathons. You will likely have a packed schedule of 30 minute meetings with all sorts of people. It is perfectly within reason to ask similar questions to a variety of people – in fact, you absolutely should! It will give you an idea of who is maybe talking up the department versus the reality of the situation depending on the answers you receive.
Prepare your talks: Before starting, know your audience – meaning who are you speaking to? A room full of people who will understand exactly everything you say? That’s highly unlikely. Prepare background information to catch people up to speed. I have a set of background slides I constantly use to help people understand phylogenetic trees and how to read them. It’s best to set up your audience to understand your talk rather than to just spew information at them.
Ask your colleagues, peers, friends, supervisors, anyone who recently went through the job interview life to send you their slides to see a structure or to set up a time to chat with you. I was advised to include citations for as many of my publications as possible on the slides. Showcase work done with undergraduate researchers to show the audience your commitment to their student body.
Extra things to bring: For my first on campus interview I tired to be really prepared. I often don’t travel well so I made sure to bring aspirin and tums. I also tend to not sleep well or get cramps from sitting funny on the airplane so I always carry Icy Hot or similar muscle relaxer when I travel. Bring things that you need to be comfortable because you are likely to experience some discomfort.
I always had a water bottle with me, I get really dehydrated so I figured this would help. None of the interviews I have done allowed flex time for bathroom breaks. This means you often have to request to use the bathroom or get a refill of water – you definitely should request these breaks!! It helps to just be quiet for a few minutes in a cold place before jumping back into conversations.
Adriane: For my on-campus interview, I did basically what Jen outlined above. I did research on each person in the department, such as where they went for graduate school, their most current and previous research interests, and any major on and off campus activities they were involved in. I then created a document with all of this information, with each page dedicated to that person. On that same sheet of paper, I also wrote down specific questions for each person. This way, I had everything I needed for talking to one person on one page, and I could also take notes. This method sounds like a lot of work (it really wasn’t), but it paid off immensely. Often, these on-site/campus interviews are tiring and you’ll be extremely nervous; do anything and everything ahead of time that will make the experience easier for yourself!
Second, I took the time to really get to know the department through news articles, their website, and through colleagues (our department head and one of my friends did their undergrad at the college I interviewed at, so they were great resources!). I did this while watching TV at night, and it became kind of fun. It also paid off, as I was able to ask questions about events and initiatives at the college which got people talking more.
Third, I’ll emphasize what Jen said above about knowing your audience and preparing for your talks. When I did my on-campus interview, I was asked to do a teaching demonstration and a research talk. The college where I interviewed was undergraduate-only, so I knew I had to tone down the complexity of my research. I’ve taught a ton of undergraduates, so the teaching demonstration was fun and easy. I spent the most time on my job talk, which involved modifying figures that I had previously made, culling out very jargony words specific to my field of research, and providing enough background information for a general audience. I also used graphics to explain my science. I create a lot of geochemical data, which are basically just squiggly lines plotted against geologic time. To make the interpretations from these squiggles more appealing and contextual, I created models of my interpretations. These models likely won’t become published in a paper because I don’t have enough data to support them, but they were perfectly fine to illustrate my science and communicate that to a more general audience. After my talk, even the biologists who sat in said they understood everything and thought my research was really cool! So taking the extra time and effort to readily and easily communicate your science in well worth it!
Fourth, be prepared for your schedule to get shifted around. My on-campus interview was during the Deep Freeze of early 2019, when temperatures in Michigan got into the -40’s with windchill. This led to the college closing, which rarely happened. This also meant that my two talks, instead of being on two separate days, were 30 minutes apart. I was totally fine with this, as I had practiced both talk to the point of almost boredom, and I had practiced them back-to-back (just by chance).
Lastly, just be yourself and have fun! I’ve received A TON of interview advice over the years, but this has to be the best one. For every interview I’ve had, I just go in being myself and bring my full enthusiasm for my science. For the talks I gave during my interview, I made them fun not just for my audience but for myself as well.
As far as packing for the interview, I packed several different outfits (I tend to change my mind a lot, so I wanted to give myself some flexibility and freedom on wardrobe choices). I have curly hair, and have to use mousse otherwise I look like a Chia pet. I didn’t want to check my bags in the airport for fear they’d get lost, which meant I couldn’t take my beloved mousse brand. So I spent a few hours tracking down a travel-sized mousse I could take with me the week before I left. I even tested it out beforehand to make sure I was happy with it. So, don’t be afraid to take the extra time and initiative to pack what you want and what will make you comfortable. I’m so glad I didn’t try any new hair products while I was interviewing, that would have just added to the stress. I also bought myself a new leather bag that made me feel like a professional and adult. Just having this helped my self-confidence, and it allowed me to be more organized (I tend to just throw everything into my bookbag).
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself during your interview. It just so happened that while I was traveling to the interview, I started my period. For me, this means ibuprofen every 6 hours or else I feel dead. So I made sure to tell folks that I needed to use the restroom when I had to, and also when I needed to get back into the department head’s office to grab more Advil from my bag. There’s no reason to pretend your not a human with basic needs during these interviews, so don’t be afraid to ask for bathroom breaks, water, or whatever else you need!
Jen: While I was at the University of Florida, I helped with the hiring process for two positions. The first was a staff position with over 50 applicants apply to join our core team. Our core team is really small, there are only five of us and three of us were part time. So we all evaluated each of the 50+ candidates, this means we looked through the submitted materials and online form. We had requested each applicant include a resume, cover letter, and list of references. Since there were so many candidates, those that did not follow instructions (such that they missed one of the required documents), we excluded their application. We used the original job advertisement to look for specific aspects that the candidates could help us with and ranked them but this was only part of how we determined best fit. We also took into account education versus experience, how well laid out the resume was, and how well written the cover letter was.
From this we pulled out just over a handful of candidates to investigate further. First, we re-read application packets and then we called their listed references to ask them a series of questions. We decided upon the questions we would ask ahead of time so that each of us got the same information – or close to it – for each candidate. We then hosted Zoom interviews with all the candidates that passed our reference check. This was usually about 45 minutes on our end 30 minutes on the candidates end. Something that is hard to avoid were technical issues. The first candidate we couldn’t get projected up onto the big TV so we all had to strain our eyes to see them on a laptop – we had to do this with the remaining candidates as well to be fair.
But it brought up some key things – be front and center with a plain background behind you. This will help the interviewers be able to see you very clearly. Use a microphone outside of the one in your computer, this greatly cuts down on background noise and the interviewers are likely in an echo-y room so anything you can do to reduce it will be easier on them. Speak slowly and deliberately, there is not a rush and when you speak fast (not always avoidable) sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Mostly because there are a few people in a large room trying to focus on a small screen – it’s a bad situation.
We then had a meeting to decide upon the top candidates to bring to campus for an in-person interview. We spent half a day with each candidate working to get to know them better. We had a group discussion where other members of the museum staff could come mingle and ask questions and then a more formal interview with the core team. These were more conversation led with a few major points we wanted to make sure to hit along the way. These points could be items from the candidates resume or cover letter that we wanted more information on or from something in the first interview that we needed clarification on.
Hopefully these hints are helpful and best of luck on the job market!
“Do you have vacation for three months?” “Do you even work when classes aren’t in session?” These questions get asked an awful lot to people who are in academia.
Sometimes, it can seem like that! Academia, for all of its unusualness, is a great place to work if you value schedule flexibility, especially when classes aren’t in session. As a matter of fact, as I type this on a Tuesday morning, I’m working from home in my pajamas!
There is a misconception that a professor’s job ends when the semester ends-this couldn’t be further from the truth! So, what do we do during the summer? It varies, depending on our specific positions, but my experience so far has been from someone with a high teaching load (3 lecture courses/semester)
Catch up on scientific literature! During the semester, it can be hard to block off time to read new scientific papers to see what new ideas have been published and to develop ideas on my research further.
Update lectures for next semester! Science changes quickly-this means that professors have to continuously update material to teach students. This summer, I’ll be updating material from my lectures that reflects new understanding of different topics. For example, new research about dinosaur evolutionary relationships that has been published in the past year or two means I need to update my slides on that material!
I also take time during the summer to edit assignments, exams, and lecture material that didn’t quite work the way I wanted it to. I take notes during the semester of the parts of lectures that weren’t engaging enough, or exam questions that may not have been entirely clear. This way, I can be much more prepared for the classes I teach every semester! Many professors also develop new courses during the summer, if they’ll be teaching new courses.
Catch up on service projects! This depends very much from person to person, but academic service is a big part of our jobs that often goes unseen by the public. Many of us serve on committees for professional organizations (e.g., The Paleontological Society). I serve on a grant committee that does the bulk of the work in early summer each year, so I spend a week or so reading grant proposals for researchers undertaking new paleontological research.
Conduct research and field work! During the summer, I have a lot of unscheduled time, which means I can take trips to museums or out to the field without too many scheduling difficulties. Some academics take their entire summer to travel, others only a little bit of time. It really depends. This summer, I won’t be traveling too much-probably only one or two short trips to collect data.
Write papers and grant proposals! The summer is a great time to write and submit papers, as well as grant proposals, both of which are required of a lot of academics. It’s easier to block off time to write when classes aren’t in session. During the summer, I like to write in different places than I do during the semester-instead of my office, I’ll write in coffee shops or at my house for a change of scenery.
Catch up on training! This summer, I’m taking a four-part course through the university to learn how to become a better ally for my LGBTQ+ students, as well as a course in learning how to be an ally for undocumented students. Personally, I like being able to do this during the summer so I have more free time to reflect on what I have learned and think about how to incorporate what I have learned in my classes for the upcoming semester.
Take a break! My schedule during the semester is often jam packed with classes, student appointments, and more. During the summer, I take a little more time to catch up on “life”- go to dentist appointments, run errands, and take some more time to play with my dogs and enjoy my hobbies.
This list is by no means complete, I’m sure, but hopefully you can get a sense as to what academics work on when they aren’t teaching classes! Hope all of you academics out there are having a productive and relaxing summer!
As part of the North American Paleontological Convention, there was a teacher workshop all about sharing digital resources in paleontology. This was hosted by the FOSSIL Project (which employs Jen) and iDigBio with many participating partners. We advertised the workshop about two months in advance and had a webpage with information for the applicants – we were targeting local California teachers. The primary goals were to (1) Raise awareness of resources available for teachers associated with digitized paleontological collections; (2) Connect teachers with a network of professionals, to help them develop and implement collections-based curricula; and (3) Increase confidence in teaching about global change and evolution using fossils.
The day was structured in seven hour blocks. Each presenter had ~20-30 minutes to introduce the platform, provide background content, and explain the utility of the resource. This was then followed by a ~30 minute activity using the resource. We wanted the workshop to allow educators to immediately take content back to their classroom to employ but it’s always best to do a test run so the educators and facilitators can brainstorm modifications or limitations within their own classrooms. You can see a full agenda for the day by clicking here.
We were specifically involved with the presentation on the Digital Atlases of Ancient Life. When we were working on our MS degrees with Alycia Stigall we were both employed as an RA on this project for one year. Jon Hendricks led off our hour block with a presentation explaining the atlases that are available, the Digital Encyclopedia of Life (DEAL, a free online textbook), and the Virtual Teaching Collection. Alycia followed with a short presentation on Paleozoic life and assessing ancient ecosystems. And then we used the Virtual Teaching Collection to work to identify some of the major animal groups that were around during the Paleozoic. We helped facilitate the lesson and answered any questions the educators had.
We also led our own presentation later on using myFOSSIL tools in the classroom. Sadie Mills led off with an overview of myFOSSIL and all of the capabilities of the website and mobile app. Adriane followed with a presentation on how foraminifera are the most awesome creatures to ever float on Earth. And then we walked through a lesson on using foraminifera as a tool to think about morphological shape and how they may have lived in different environments, and we provided other lessons for the teachers to think about forams as a tool for understanding climate change.
Overall, the workshop was a huge success and the participants really learned a lot and got to have lots of in depth conversations with facilitators! All the materials from the workshop can be found on the myFOSSIL website.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
I love trying to understand the paths that organisms took throughout evolutionary history, so I really like studying fossils in order to understand modern animals. I grew up loving dinosaurs as a kid and I guess I just never grew out of that phase, but I’ve always been interested in pretty much all animals- fossil and living. When I was an undergrad, an opportunity arose to participate in a short field course in Costa Rica about bat ecology. I brought it up to my parents and they didn’t say yes, but they didn’t say no either, so I applied and ultimately was able to travel to Costa Rica and spend three weeks in the rainforest studying bats. During my Master’s degree I started to merge my interest in bats with my interest in paleontology and ultimately ended up where I am now: studying bat paleontology and evolution.
In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
I study the evolution of mammals shortly after the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs. My main focus is on the paleontology of bats and other small, insectivorous mammals- creatures like shrews and hedgehogs- during the first two intervals of time following that extinction: the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. Bats are a particularly interesting group to work with because they show up suddenly in the fossil record at the beginning of the Eocene epoch, about 56 million years ago, and they are almost instantly found worldwide. We have no idea where they came from or what their ancestors looked like.
How does your work contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general?
Powered flight has only evolved four times in the history of life: in insects, pterosaurs (the flying reptiles that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs), birds, and bats. So evolving flight is really hard to do, but it unlocks a lot of opportunities for the animals that can do it. Unfortunately, we don’t know as much about how bats achieved flight as we do about how birds did. There’s no equivalent of Archaeopteryx for bats, so there is still debate as to the closest relative to bats. There are more species of bats than any other mammals except rodents, and bats do everything from pollinating tropical forests to controlling crop pests. The ability to fly clearly helped bats become some of the most successful mammals on the planet, but since we don’t know what they evolved from, we have no idea how they became such specialized creatures.
What data do you use use for your research?
Since the earliest bats known from the Eocene look pretty much like modern bats, a lot of my research has focused on little insectivorous animals from the Paleocene Epoch. A lot of mammals from that time period are known only from their teeth. This is less challenging than it sounds because mammal teeth are very diagnostic, sometimes even down to the species. In particular, I’m focusing on one group of insectivorous mammals known mostly from their teeth called nyctitheres. There has been some thought that they might be related to bats, but that has never really been tested explicitly. So I spend most of my time looking at tiny nyctithere and bat teeth under a microscope in order to conduct a thorough analysis of their relationships.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Be curious about everything, even if it isn’t super closely related to the field you are interested in. I love going to talks about things like ecology and genetics, and I end up learning a lot that I can apply to my field. Or I learn things that help me understand what my fossil animals would have been like when they were alive, how they interacted with their environment, and how they evolved.
Also, get involved and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most scientists I know really like what they study and they are happy to talk to students who are interested. When you get to college, reach out to professors and ask if you can get involved in doing research in their lab. But don’t feel bad if you don’t know something. No one can know everything about a particular field, no matter how long you study it. So ask people if you don’t understand what they are talking about, or a phrase or concept that they used- there’s no shame in that.
Keep up with Matt’s updates by checking out his website by clicking here.
Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional students), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to craft an email to a potential advisor, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the fourth post in the series on how to effectively interview with a potential graduate school advisor.
Adriane and Jen here-
This post is all about interviewing for and visiting potential graduate schools as an undergraduate student in your senior year or as someone deciding to go back to college. This can be a VERY scary process, as it involves talking with high-profile scientists in your field of study and answering questions about your science, education, and interests. Below is some advice from our own experiences, some things you should do to prepare for an interview and/or on-campus visit, and some questions we were asked by potential graduate school advisors.
First, there are several different types of interviews you may be asked to do as a student. In-person, online (usually through a video chat platform such as Google Hangouts,Skype, or Zoom), on-campus, or on the phone.
In-person interviews can be done through a visit to the potential advisor’s campus or at a meeting that you are both attending. You should request an in-person meeting at a conference during your first few email exchanges with a potential advisor (see our “Applying For Grad School Part III: Emailing Potential Advisors”). Simply, conference meetings are easiest when you set them up beforehand. When I, Jen, was looking for PhD programs, I requested to meet with three potential advisors at the large geology conference the fall I was applying to programs. This allowed me to also meet with other lab members – students and postdocs – so that I could ask them questions about their experiences with the advisor.
I, Adriane, asked to meet with two potential advisors at a large geology conference I was presenting research at during my senior year of undergrad. I told each person when and where I was presenting, and asked them to come there to talk with me. I did this so they could get a clearer picture of what my research was, and so they could ask me questions about my goals and such. I had two potential advisors come by my poster (both also had excellent feedback), but one was busy during that time. Instead, she and I sat down together and chatted informally for a few minutes.
Some things I, Adriane, did to prepare for our sit-down meeting at the conference was print out a copy of my poster and my CV to give to my potential advisor. I also had a notebook with me and several pens to take notes (because if you only take one pen, it’s sure to die or be dead). I also dressed appropriately for each interview, meaning I wore something comfortable but also professional.
In some cases, the institution or advisor will help support your visit to their university, most after you have had an in-person or phone interview first. Many universities have funding to bring out PhD students, but not MS students – this is entirely school dependent. It is within reason for you to ask if there are funds to help offset travel, especially if it is not easy (or cheap) for you to get to the university. Current students will often host you as their guest so you can have more in depth conversations with someone in the program. Just note that most schools will reimburse you for your travel- meaning you will, unfortunately, have to front the costs for travel.
Once I, Jen, was accepted into a program – I requested a visit to the campus. My visit ended up being in February and I was close enough to drive the 5 hours. I stayed with a current student (Sarah) so there were no lodging expenses and was able to get my gas mileage reimbursed. Visiting the campus was eye opening, I got to see students working in their spaces, talk with all sorts of faculty, and get a general feel for the atmosphere of the department. For the on-campus visit, I came prepared with some questions for students, faculty, and my potential advisor and ideas about projects I may be interested in. Remember, you are interviewing the school and you should question everyone you come across about their experience. If you have specific needs, make sure the school will provide them for you.
I, Adriane, did two on-campus interviews for my MS degree. I was invited to visit after I did in-person interviews at the geology meeting, and had been accepted to one of the schools. Both visits were nerve-wracking, but I highly recommend, if possible, doing an on-campus interview with your potential advisor. Doing so made me realize which advisor was the best fit for me and my career goals, and which school and city I would be most comfortable in.
Online interviews are very similar to in-person interviews. There’s a few extra steps you should do to prepare for your online interview before the big day:
Test out your equipment. Make sure the microphone, camera, and software all work before the interview. In fact, do this at least a week prior, as this will give you time to troubleshoot any issues that may arise
Find a quiet space to interview. Noises in the background will distract yourself as well as the potential advisor
Make sure the background is clear. Excessive clutter behind you (posters, books, shelves, other humans, etc.) will cause a large distraction. You want your potential advisor to focus on you, not your cat swatting flies or something in the background
To me, Adriane, phone interviews are the worse. I like to be able to see the person I’m talking to, as I respond better to visual cues. When you’re doing a phone interview, just be sure to find a quiet spot where you have good service and won’t get interrupted. Also, be sure to listen closely, as you don’t want to cut off, talk over, or interrupt the person interviewing you.
TL;DR: Preparing for an interview regardless of the format (online, phone, in person)
Start by exploring the faculty and student page of the institution you are interested in, write down people that are somehow related to your interested and include a bullet of their interests and any questions they may be able to help you with. Jen suggests asking the same question multiple times to see the variation in responses – it can be very telling! You can bring a folder, clipboard, portfolio, notebook – whatever you are able to best take notes on.
Ask faculty at your current institution if they know people there or have any suggestions on people to meet with that may not be on your list.
Decide how you are most physically comfortable. Jen usually wears dark jeans and a nicer sweater or shirt but is uncomfortable dressing up so often chooses not to.
If you are doing a visit, be sure to have a separate list of questions for grad students – you will likely be taken to lunch or have some alone time with a few students. This is an opportunity to request honest feedback about how they are supported by the department and university. I, Adriane, made my decision on which MS program to attend based mostly on answers and experience from graduate students.
If you are doing a virtual meeting make sure to get to a quiet place, use headphones, and try to have as plain of a background as possible with minimal glare. It seems silly but it can distract the person on the other end and you want them to be fully tuned into you!
Interview questions we were asked (at conference meetings and during on-campus interviews):
What is the bedrock under (current undergrad institution), and what is its age? (These questions are meant to test your geologic skills and knowledge, so any variant of this could pop up)
Why are your GRE scores so low? (This really is not an appropriate question, but some professors are bold enough to ask anyway – Jen was asked this during her visit to UTK and Adriane during her visit to a NC school)
What are some of your personal goals during your (MS/PhD) degree?
What are your research interests?
Describe your research experience.
Would you be comfortable teaching in a lab or classroom setting? Do you have teaching experience?
One last note, it is hard to remember this but the department is trying to sell itself to you. They want excellent students to help increase their output numbers. At some points you’ll realize it sounds like an info-mercial. They want you to choose them, even if you don’t have other options (don’t tell them that) they will still try to recruit you.
Please welcome Carmi, a new guest blogger here at Time Scavengers!
Carmi here –
In April, I was one of the trip coordinators for the spring meeting of the Florida Paleontological Society. The Florida Paleontological Society is a collection of professionals, amateurs, and every fossil enthusiast you could possibly imagine from all around Florida- and beyond! The society’s mission is to encourage and educate people on Florida’s rich paleontological history.
Usually, trips consist of field collecting (all over the state!), a series of talks given by paleontologists, and a silent auction, with many fossil goodies. In addition to being a member of the society, I also serve as the secretary, which means that I organize membership applications, coordinate trip logistics, and edit the newsletter… among other things.
The first evening of the trip is typically a dinner with all the members who have arrived early for the meeting. It is an optional event, but it acts as a time for folks to catch up and discuss topics of interest with each other. Following dinner, and a good night’s rest, we set off to the quarry to begin the day’s work.
The formation where we looked for fossils is the lower Miocene Torreya Formation (roughly 23 million years old), a limestone deposited when Florida’s sea levels were much higher. This unit is generally thought to be marine, though there is discussion as to the exact nature of the depositional environment – if you are curious to dive into the literature, GeoLex (one of my favorite ways to compile background literature on a geologic unit) has more publications on the Torreya Formation.
After we had our brief geologic and faunal overview, we set down the hill to begin the search. With the constant rain over the days leading up to the trip, the trip leaders were concerned that getting stuck in the clay rich sediments would be an issue – thankfully, the folks from the mine had smoothed out a portion of the road so that access to the collecting site was not too difficult. Small spoil piles were everywhere, full of all kinds of marine fossils, from shark teeth to impressions of different clams and snails.
One fun fact about the site: while many mines in Florida process material for road base (the material that makes up the highways that transport Floridians all over the state), this mine collected and refined clays used in the production of kitty litter!
The evening portion of the meeting took place at the Florida Geological Survey, who graciously accommodated dinner and our evening events. I gave a talk on my current research project – fossil cephalopods from the Cenozoic of Florida. Victor Perez, a graduate student at the Florida Museum of Natural History, was the other invited speaker and spoke on his dissertation research. Finally, the Assistant State Geologist, Harley Means, gave a talk on the history of the survey, and the services that the survey provides to the citizens of Florida!
After the talks, Harley led interested members throughout the survey, highlighting their museum of Florida fauna and amazing library. Inside the library, there were publications on geology of Florida as well as geology from all around the country. Not only does having these publications assist with understanding of similar earth systems elsewhere, but it acts as a way for state surveys to keep in touch and keep aware of developments in geologic mapping and other functions across the country.
Following the tour of the survey, the silent auction began. Items donated by club members were laid out on tables and folks would silently bid on what they found interesting or loudly dissuade others from bidding on these purchases. All the proceeds from the silent auction support student research in paleontology. My strategy is usually to team up with someone on a pile of publications – last year I won a vintage paleontology textbook, and this year I picked up a copy of my beloved Pliocene Mollusca, by Olsson and Harbison (which is another post entirely). After fierce competition, the auction items went home to various members – almost everyone left the auction with something exciting and new.
Of course, the activities were not over for the officers of the society – there was clean-up and then a board meeting the following day. However, trip participants agreed that it was a great experience.
Much of my time at the FOSSIL Project has been spent toward working on the myFOSSIL eMuseum. This is a place where fossil collectors can upload their personal fossil collection with all of the associated data they collect in the field. I have been working with our web developers to create a structure on the back end of the website that follows museum standards for the data. This means that there is an underlying language that is associated with the data entered into the website. This language is the same on myFOSSIL as it is in the databases used by museum professionals to curate their physical specimens.
If a collector uploads a fossil specimen with really excellent associated data this information could be shared with the broader scientific community. Similar to community science projects like iNaturalist and eBird that have mechanisms in place to verify your data and then they send it to a data aggregator called GBIF. GBIF collects data from many sources and allows users to download these data and use it in their own research or to explore the data.
On iNaturalist and eBird, other community members chime in on the data you input and help verify the information. In order for your specimen to be sent off to GBIF, it needs to be confirmed by outside parties. In this same way of thinking, I have assembled a team of volunteer curators that are active members of the myFOSSIL community with their own expertise to help curate the specimens on the myFOSSIL eMuseum to validate and improve the specimen information. We have much fewer specimens being uploaded than iNaturalist and eBird so having a team of curators checking specimens as they are uploaded to the site is not a terribly daunting task.
Since the curators are examining digital data rather than that of a physical specimen, we have some specific requirements. The most important being the images of the specimen. This is acting as a digital specimen so we can use it to confirm the classification, geologic context, and location information with other online resources.
This will be a sustainable way to continue to curate specimens once the grant funding has expired. Position terms for assistant curators are two years, so after the two years the members will reassess and determine if there are other volunteers with expertise that will benefit the collection.