The Benefits of Community College: Personal Stories and Examples

Adriane, Rose, Shaina, and Jen here-

Here in the United States, community colleges are two-year institutions that cater to students in or just out of high school and people who are returning to college for a degree. In some areas, local high schools partner with community colleges for students to participate in special technical classes to expand their skill sets. This can include mechanical courses, film and editing, and much more. In short, community colleges are higher-education institutions that can provide workforce training and which offer several classes that are considered ‘core courses’ at four-year institutes and universities. Core classes include such topics as history, math, art, and science, with electives and options within each of these topics. Students who attend community colleges often transfer to a four-year university to complete their undergraduate degree, which takes another 2+ years depending on their degree. In some states, community colleges have agreements with universities that allow students a guaranteed transfer if the student meets certain requirements. 

Community college provides a fantastic option for students who finish high school and don’t quite know what their career path will be, for working folks who need flexibility in choosing courses and schedules, and for others in the community who might just want to take a course or two on something they are interested or passionate about. The very attractive aspect of community college is that class sizes are often smaller, the professors and teachers have more time to dedicate to students, several classes are available as online courses, and the on-campus classes may have several different times to fit the schedules of working students and adults. And bonus, similar to large four-year universities, many community colleges offer athletic and recreational teams for you to join! 

Regardless of all the pros to community colleges, there is still a perceived stigma surrounding them. 

The purpose of this post is to share some of our experiences with community college to break down the stigmas and negative perceptions surrounding community colleges by highlighting our own experiences in community college. We argue that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the structured training, guidance, and mentorship we received at our respective community colleges. 

TL;DR: Benefits of Attending a Community College

  • Attain a higher GPA after high school
  • Increase knowledge in certain subjects that were not taught sufficiently by a high school
  • Increase self-esteem in an academic setting
  • Build a support network of professors, teachers, and other students
  • Flexible schedule
  • Ability to take as few or as many (with limits) courses as you feel necessary
  • Opportunity to explore different career paths and options through diverse course offerings
  • Determine if a career is right for you
  • Affordable compared to a 4-year institution
  • Local students can live at home and save money on living expenses that would be incurred at a 4-year university
  • Take courses while simultaneously attending a 4-year university and have those credits transfer
  • Federal and state grants often cover the full cost of tuition (in and out of state)
  • Most professors also teach at a 4-year university or have in the past, and can offer advice to students pursuing a BS/BA degree and higher
  • Some professors may have worked in industry or in a non-academic position, and can offer advice to students pursuing these career paths
  • Some states offer a guaranteed admission program from community college to 4-year universities 
  • Some community colleges have exchange programs, offering students international experiences 
  • Because so many adults go back to school, the range of ages and life experiences in a classroom is very enriching and diverse

Adriane 

I started in community college the fall after I graduated from high school. I knew after graduating that my grades were not competitive enough for a 4-year college, and that I would likely do terrible on the GRE exams. My high school education was also not the best. I didn’t learn algebra as well I should have, and I was often bullied and had low self-esteem, which fed into doing poorly in my high school classes. I would often skip high school to go to the movies with my friend, or went riding my horse by myself (both were likely bad ideas). So attending my local community college was the best option for me. In addition, I also did not know what I wanted to do for a career. I thought that perhaps I wanted to be an artist (graphic art and design), or go into the medical field (even though medical stuff grosses me out), or even be a machinist like my dad (which would have been a really fun career, to be honest). 

Around the time I graduated high school, my mom was going through a divorce and was raising my little sister. I got a job in a retail store, and helped my mom with my sister, getting her on and off the bus everyday, and I was also able to help pay bills and help with groceries. Attending community college was great because I was able to work, help out around my home, and still take courses. My local community college, called J Sargeant Reynolds in Richmond, Virginia, had very flexible class schedules which worked great with my work and home schedule.

It was also at J Sarge that I found the career that I am currently in. I had to take science electives, so I took Geology. I figured I always loved rocks and fossils, so why not? During the first semester, our instructor took us to a local creek, where we collected fossils from ~15 million years ago! I was totally hooked. So I took another geology course, and it was during this course that I knew I wanted to become a geologist. Community colleges in Virginia have a guaranteed acceptance program with several state 4-year universities: if your GPA is high enough after graduating with an associate’s degree from a community college, you are guaranteed admission into a 4-year university. My grades were above a 3.5 at the time I graduated, so I was automatically accepted into James Madison University. Most of my credits transferred, so I was able to finish my geology bachelor’s degree in 3 years. 

Rose

I started at Green River Community College after graduating high school. I was primarily homeschooled through high school, but took a few electives at my local public high school (choir, Shakespeare, a cooking class). One of these classes was an education class. I loved kids but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a classroom teacher, so my teacher at the high school suggested I start at the community college first. Our local CC has a well-respected education program, so if I did decide to go on to get a teaching degree I shouldn’t have any problems transferring and would be well-prepared. If I decided I didn’t want to pursue a teaching degree, I would have an associate’s degree in education, which would allow me to work as a paraeducator. Other advantages of this option were that I could live at home and save money. Because tuition was lower here than other colleges, I was also able to get Pell grants and state need grants that covered my full tuition.

I loved my classes because there were always a variety of people in them. There were students like me straight out of high school, high schoolers in the Running Start program, people coming back to school after many years to finish college or find a new career, and folks from the community who were just interested and taking the class for fun. My CC also had a large and well-known international exchange program. Students from many East Asian and European countries came for a year to study abroad in the US. For example, my chemistry lab partner one quarter was from China and my class partner was from Belgium! My lab partner in geology was Dutch, and while he didn’t go on to get a degree in geology we both decided it was our favorite class ever and still keep in touch via social media today.

Shaina

I started attending Manchester Community College the fall after graduating from high school. Growing up I knew I wanted to be an astronomer, but unfortunately my high school had very few options for math and science courses and most of the ones they did have were taught by sports coaches and not particularly beneficial so I ended up taking the excellent history and social science classes offered instead. This, combined with my prevalence for skipping school, meant that I was not prepared to apply to a four year institution after graduating, especially in the field I wanted to study. 

I ended up signing up for community college almost on a whim and was instantly thrilled with the options for classes I could take— I was able to take astronomy, could finally start learning math for real, and even had a wide variety of fun and useful classes like photography, women’s health, and even Philosophy of Lord of the Rings! I made a ton of friends, got straight A’s, and built the foundation for transitioning to a four year school. When the time came to apply to schools during my second year I had a great support network of professors who wrote me letters and helped me get into the astrophysics program I had dreamed of. I never could have done it without my experience at MCC to help set me on the right path.

Jen

Unlike Rose and Adriane, I didn’t start out at a community college. I went to a 4-year university straight from high school, I grew up in an area with a lot of state universities and picked one close to home. My high school had close ties with our local community college, the College of DuPage (COD). I had friends that would take classes there when they had moved passed what my high school offered or to get more technical training. There was a program where students could be at our high school for half the day and the other half would be spent at COD in a special program. 

I attended community college through a summer course – calculus. I was trying to stay ahead of my studies, to remain on track to graduate on time but couldn’t afford (time and money) to go to a summer class at my 4-year institution while working. The class was something wild like 3 hours every day starting at 7 am. The class size was incredibly intimate, maybe 25 students in the room for a month long course. At my 4-year institution all general courses were over 100 students during the lectures. The smaller course setting enabled me to meet new people, feel comfortable asking questions, and really foster a strong relationship with my peers and the material. I struggled with precalculus my first year of undergraduate — when I excelled at it in high school. This was incredibly frustrating and really made me feel like I would fail calculus. Community college helped me realize where I learn best — small settings where I feel comfortable. 

Not long ago, my mom returned to college by starting a program at COD. She had been a stay at home mom for almost 20 years and needed to get back into the workforce. She took courses over several years to become a medical biller and coder. 

If you are interested in going back to school, taking courses, or beginning at a community college, click the link below to find a community college near you in the continental U.S.: Community College Finder

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Mason Hintermeister, Aspiring Paleontologist

August 2018: Mason in Red Hill, PA searching for Late Devonian vertebrates.

What do you do?

I’m an aspiring paleontologist. I take trips by myself or with fellow fossil hunters to various sites and collect ancient remains. The best of these fossils are always made available to the Calvert Marine Museum where they can be stored and studied in perpetuity. I also spend a lot of time communicating paleontology both online and in person. I manage a page of Facebook called “Pedantic Palaeontology” where I talk about what I’m following in the world of paleontology. I frequent Facebook groups and The Fossil Forum, offering identification of fossils and answers to paleontological questions whenever they arise. I attend many paleontological clubs and meetings in my area, where I interact with both those new to the field and those who have been in it far longer than I. I’m lucky to be located in Maryland, which has an astonishingly rich paleontological record, so I have the opportunity to introduce people to a wide range of spectacular fossils. Recently, I had the opportunity to give a presentation to the Natural History Society of Maryland on the topic of Giant Threshers and their evolutionary significance.

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

All sciences face a constant struggle to communicate their importance and their findings to a general audience. The emergence of social media provides an invaluable platform for the dissemination of all sciences, including paleontology. Everyday hundreds of people go to a Facebook group to ask a question about paleontology or to get something they have found identified. Giving them a concise but informative answer can be all it takes to get them excited about the subject. Likewise, taking the time to have a conversation with a child, with an interested adult, or with a group of people can make all the difference. The more people who understand the relevance and the wonders of our natural world, the better humanity can progress as a whole.

January 2019: Mason prior to giving a talk on Giant threshers at the Natural History Society of Maryland

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

I cannot remember a time when science failed to captivate me. Fortunately, my parents were keen enough to realize this and fed my passion from a young age. While other small children were begging their parents to put on another cartoon, mine were slipping another documentary into the DVD player. However, it wasn’t until middle school when I figured out what science I wanted to pursue. An earth science teacher decided to take interested students on a fossil hunting trip. After that, I was hooked. That summer, I took an online course in paleoanthropology, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. There are few feelings in this world that compare to being the first person to lay eyes on an organism which hasn’t seen daylight for millions upon millions of years. It’s like reading ancient drama. The players may have perished long ago, but the stories persist in stone.

What advice do you have for other aspiring paleontologists?

Being an aspiring scientist myself, I have realized the true importance of cooperation in science. In order to progress in this field, I have had to build the confidence necessary to ask for help from those already in the field. Every expert was once an aspiring scientist, and the vast majority are happy to help budding scientists, interested amateurs, or anyone with a curious mind. So go ask that question, strike up that conversation, and feed your curiosity.

Check out Mason’s Facebook page ‘Pedantic Palaeontology‘ here!

Drastic variation of cetacean (whale) fossils during the Neogene and Early Quaternary Periods

Stratigraphic Paleobiology of an Evolutionary Radiation: Taphonomy and Facies Distribution of Cetaceans in the last 23 Million Years

Stefano Dominici, Simone Cau and Alessandro Freschi

Summarized by Laura Martins. Laura Martins is a senior geology student at The University of South Florida. She plans to attend a Master program in Geophysics in the spring semester of 2021 out west. She dreams to work in seismological networking. She mostly spends the free days with her son and husband in different adventures such as visiting national parks, springs, Disney, and road trips!

What data were used? The study surveyed over 255 published  papers associated with Neogene (~23-2 million years ago) cetacean (whales, dolphins, porpoises) fossils within a global context (excluding ones found in Southern America, due to a lack of fossil evidence)

Methods: All individual specimens found in the survey were sorted and classified by facies (rock type that represents certain environments) and time intervals (Miocene to Pleistocene Epochs) of deposition. The research also included the number and the preservation quality of bones per skeleton of each example. Even though South American fossils were predicted to have high quality preservation setting due to its hypoxic/anoxic depositional environments, it was set apart because of its lack of even distribution during the Neogene. The study collected a total of 255 specimens with absolute age data and 117 specimens with sedimentary facies data.

Results: The collected data was plotted in two graphs; the first represents the distribution of fossil over time intervals and the second shows the relation between facies (environments) vs time. These illustrations indicate a slight increase of cetacean fossils during the Miocene, followed by a vast increase during the Pliocene. However, by the early Pleistocene, the number of fossils dropped significantly. Consequently, the study conveyed that the highest abundance of cetacean fossils were collected in offshore marine mudstones and sandstones facies, whereas the lowest amount was related to shoreface sandstone facies. It implies that very shallow and very deep waters are not the greatest environments for preservation of these fossils. The study found that offshore mudstone and delta sandstone facies have the highest amount of bones per skeleton, suggesting that these facies are good preservation sites for cetaceans, due to high rates of sedimentation (deltas) and low-pressure settings (offshore) that would minimize decay and scavenging of the organisms. Finally, the research suggests that the remarkable drop off of cetacean fossils in the early Pleistocene might be affected by taphonomy factors (meaning, taphonomy might be making the drop in diversity more severe than it actually was). 

A, Distribution of amount of cetacean’s fossils (%) in a time interval. B, Distribution of amount of cetacean’s fossil (%) over different facies.

Why is this study important? Cetaceans are the largest living marine animals that have ever lived. Through their fossil record, we can understand how their modern and extinct diversity and be explained by variations in taphonomy, taxonomy, loss of habitat, environment, climate and even massive extinction events. The study of this variation on the fossil record allows for the analysis of decay, preservation and environment settings of these large mammals, as well as the relationship of cetaceans with ecosystem changes, enabling the construction of evolutionary pattern trends.

The big picture: The study suggests that the peaks with the highest amount of cetacean fossils during late Miocene and Pliocene are correlated with an optimum climate. The vast drop of fossil localities during the late Pliocene accords with an extinction age. However, it is necessary to highlight that all of the evidence might be affected by taphonomy factors, such as scavengers contributing to loss of tissue and disarticulation.

Citation: Dominici et al. (2018). Stratigraphic paleobiology of an evolutionary radiation: taphonomy and facies distribution of cetaceans in the last 23 million years. Fossilia, Volume 2018: 15-17. https://doi.org/10.32774/FosRep-Pal.20.1810.051517

Participating in Science-A-Thon

Jen & Adriane here – 

This year we participated in Science-A-Thon. Science-A-Thon is a five day celebration of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and everyone who identifies as a scientist is welcome to participate. Each day you share your science goings-on, including  conducting research, data crunching, or any major discoveries you made. The goal of Science-A-Thon is to show the public what scientists do in any given day, and also what a scientist looks like! Posts from Science-A-Thon are tagged with #DayOfScience so anyone can find them on social media platforms. 

In addition to a global sharing of science, the organization also does a fundraiser to contribute to support women in science. They raised over $14,000 in 2019; check out the fundraiser here: Science-A-Thon 2019. This year, the money went to three major charities: Earth Science Women’s Network, Girls Who Code, and Society of Women Engineers.

Jen’s Experience

I was particularly interested in sharing aspects of my new job as Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. Many people don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes in museums. Many of us have visited natural history museums but this is only what is on display. The display specimens are usually a very small number (<1%) of the actual holdings of a museum. I work at a research museum, so we share specimens with our public facing museum but my job includes helping to facilitate research. So my visitors are usually scientists wanting to look at very specific specimens. These specimens are very important and are not put on display because their scientific value is more important.

I shared pieces of my day on my Twitter (@paleoJB), Instagram (@jenebauer), and Tumblr (phylojenny.tumblr.com). The whole goal being to bring folks into the collection that is not really as accessible as the public museum. My job can be pretty variable. Some days I spend a lot of time on the computer doing paperwork, entering data into our database, or checking specimens against our database. Other days we get a donation and I am helping organize the new specimens that came in or I am putting away miscellaneous specimens that had been misplaced or were hiding out in my office. 

An example of Jen’s post where she breaks down a task she was doing on one of the days! Sometimes there are fun finds like really old newspaper clippings!

Adriane’s Experience

Like most of the end of 2019, I was working on my dissertation during Science-A-Thon. But I think it’s important to show that sometimes, the path to becoming a doctor isn’t all classes and science experiments. Much of my science journey is sitting alone in front of my computer, trying to write up the results of those experiments and data generating and collecting I did years ago. It’s not glorious, but it’s an essential part of what a scientist does. All of those fancy papers we publish all begin as crappy drafts (well, at least mine begin that way) that require lots of time editing, polishing, and re-writing. 

One of my #DayOfScience Twitter posts for Science-A-Thon written while I was working on a dissertation chapter.

Anyway, I showcased a bit of this writing process (without going into too many details) and some posts about what I do as a scientist during my Science-A-Thon posts. I only posted on Twitter (you can find my posts by searching ‘@ForamWhisperer #DayOfScience’) as this was my first year participating and I was still getting the hang of Instagram. Overall, I think it went well but I will definitely do more posts next year! More than anything, I also enjoyed following along with other scientists’ posts to see what they do in a typical day, and learn more about my friend’s and colleague’s research. So Science-A-Thon isn’t just for the public, but rather a fun annual event that allows me some insight into other scientists’ worlds as well!

Keep an eye out for next year’s event by following Science-A-Thon on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or checking their website, it will occur annually in October! 

Fossil Collecting In Maryland

The beach at Matoaka Cabins, near low tide. The waves were brutal as a storm was overhead, with high wind gusts.

Adriane here-

It’s no secret that one of my favorite hobbies and past-time outside of researching fossils is fossil collecting for fun. So when I went home over Thanksgiving 2019, of course I took it as an opportunity to visit one of my favorite fossil localities, Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. I dragged my mom and two siblings with me on this overnight adventure, and it was a blast!

These cliffs are exposed along the east coast of the US, and are a part of Westmoreland State Park which I’ve written about previously. They contain beautiful fossil of late Neogene age (Miocene to Pleistocene, about 23-0.01 million years ago). The cliffs in Maryland contain the same age fossils, and the rocks and sediments are part of the Chesapeake Group (the name given to the group of layers that the fossils are contained in). There are several beaches in the area that member of the public can hunt at, but I’ll just go over a few sites we visited.

The first place we visited was Calvert Cliffs State Park. The park has a moderate entrance fee ($5 in state, $7 out of state), but it’s totally worth it. There are bathrooms here, along with a playground for kids (although, we all had a blast on the merry-go-round, to the point of almost puking). It’s a great place for families to visit with nice facilities. The trail to the beach is about 1.8 miles down a gentle slope, and towards the end of the trail there is a low-lying land where we saw several species of ducks and aquatic plants. At the mouth of the trail, there is a wooden bin with a variety of sifters for visitors to use to find fossils. The beach is flanked by the cliffs on either side, which are roped off. The cliffs are an excellent place to collect, however, they are and can quickly become wildly unstable, with huge blocks falling with enough velocity to seriously injure someone standing below. We found a few small shark’s teeth here, and some gastropod (snail) molds in the rocks. Nothing phenomenal.

Some of the shells at Matoaka Beach. Most are broken and battered, but hiding amongst them are undoubtedly tons of smaller shark teeth and other treasures!

The next place we visited was called Brownies Beach. Here, the beach is much longer, and at low tide, you can probably walk the beach for quite a while. Be warned, though, because like Calvert Cliffs, this stretch of beach is also prone to falling blocks. We spent quite a while here, and again, all we found were a few small shark teeth (scroll down for a video of my brother finding an incomplete tooth). There wasn’t a fee during the winter, but it did seem the beach has a fee during the summer.

One of the tanks at Calvert Marine Museum., with horseshoe crabs and a turtle. The tank next to it contained crabs, starfish, and sharks, all species that are native to the Chesapeake Bay.

The next day, I took everyone to Matoaka Beach Cabins. This was a really cool spot! The beach is privately owned, with the owners charging folks a mere $5 to access the beach all day. In addition, you can rent cabins here steps from the beach! The beaches are long and are not underneath the cliffs. We had a blast here, but at this point, we were in the midst of a huge rain storm that was hitting the east coast. We were drenched within the hour, and had to give up hunting for the rest of the day. We found another few shark teeth, some smaller pectens (clam) shells, and a dead pelican that I refused to let my siblings take back to my car. This beach is somewhere I’d love to revisit, especially at low tide. The shell line was wide, with several larger shells visible in the waves (the heavier teeth and fossils tend to be found with the same weight rocks, so finding larger rocks indicates the potential of finding larger fossils).

After leaving Matoaka, we then visited the Calvert Marine Museum. Being a paleontologist, I’ve visited a lot of museums, but this little museum remains one of my top five favorites. It combines the history of the region with paleontology and biology. For that reason, I’d recommend visiting the museum first. They have amazing display cases of the fossils found along the cliffs, so you can have an idea of what you’re looking for. You will also gain an appreciation of the rich wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay, and the native peoples that used to live here. Bonus, the museum also has three otters that are incredibly entertaining, as well as tanks of live horseshoe crabs, turtles, crabs, and fish species that are common in the bay.

For a list of fossils you can find in this region, information on the rock layers, and a list of all the beaches and their admission prices, check out the Fossil Guy’s website.

If you are on Facebook, I recommend joining the Fossils of Calvert Cliffs Maryland group. They share collecting advice, recommendations for beaches, and favorite restaurants. I consulted with the group before planning my trip, and several members gave me great food and beach recommendations!

Inclusivity and Sustainability in Conference Food

Shaina here –

The boxes were provided food at a conference that didn’t have ingredient labels so I couldn’t risk eating it.

Many conferences have meals built in for attendees and whether it be daily lunches or a special event dinner organizers need to take inclusivity and sustainability into account when choosing the food. There are several religious, ethical, and medical food needs that are common and taking these into account would be a great place to start if conferences want to provide accessible food.  This article focuses on the types of food served and how accommodations are managed by organizers. There are additional needs around the serving of food that are not addressed here, but links for more information are provided at the end.

A lot of networking opportunities at conferences tend to center around food. Events such as ‘networking lunches’ and ‘happy hours’ are geared toward giving people opportunities to meet others in the field. These events tend to attract a lot of attendees with the promise of food. However there are many people who end up being left out of events like this due to a lack of accessibility in the food options. For many of us it can be yet another time when we don’t feel included or comfortable attending. Often when we don’t show up no one notices we aren’t there, or they don’t know why we didn’t attend. When we do show up we are left awkwardly navigating everyone trying to help us find things we can have (that don’t exist) or feeling hungry while everyone around us is eating. 

The few conferences that do attempt to address this tend to take the path of promising to provide food accommodations if dietary needs are expressed in advance. This is a nice gesture, but in my personal experience it rarely works out in practice. Over the last four years, despite being asked for my dietary needs many times, only one conference ever actually met them. We can do so much better. A better alternative would be to ensure that all food at the conference was as accessible as possible to begin with. In addition to providing food that all attendees will be able to eat it is long past time that conferences center sustainability in the food offerings. 

When accessible food isn’t provided it is a burden on people who need it. 

How much, just in food, I need to pack for a conference even when the difference days they are providing food.
How I need to carry my backpack with my normal stuff and a full separate bag just with the food I need for the day.

Those of us who need food accommodations are often left struggling to find food and missing large portions of the conference in order to go in search of locations we can eat at. At one conference I was asked for my dietary needs in advance but then not provided any food during the daily lunches that were included in my registration fee. The closest restaurant I could eat at was 40 minutes away. I cried from exhaustion and low blood sugar when I found out how far I needed to go to get food after a long day of sessions. I regretted signing up for the conference at all. I also missed all of the evening sessions and networking events. At another conference I could find no food anywhere near the conference. I ended up spending a huge amount of time going back and forth to my hotel room to heat up frozen dinners since they were the only thing I could find at a local grocery store. I can’t stay any place that doesn’t have a fridge and microwave due to all of my dietary needs and an almost total inability to eat out at restaurants. This often costs more money and puts me further from the conference venue.

Talking about how your conference is more accessible because you provide accommodations is performative if those accommodations don’t actually exist.

In my experience I am most likely to be asked in advance for dietary needs at conferences that are small and that have inclusivity and accessibility as stated aims of the conference. In one instance the organizers of a conference I attended were speaking at a second conference I attended. Their talk was about inclusivity and they mentioned in their slides that they provide food accommodations. Except that they had not provided me accommodations when I had attended their conference just a month earlier, despite having asked in advance. I ended up having a low blood sugar event and having to leave the conference during the networking lunch to go buy a bag of chips at a gas station to avoid passing out. It didn’t feel great to see them bragging about their accommodations on Twitter (and getting tons of accolades as well).

In addition students and early career scientists attending conferences are often on an extremely limited budget and already struggling to pay travel and attendance fees. To have to pay for food on top of it- especially if they already had to pay built in conference attendance fees to cover meals that they won’t be able to eat- is a large financial burden.

Sustainability needs to be considered in conference food offerings.

The scientific consensus is clear that plant based diets are one key component in confronting the climate crisis. All food should be plant based and for accessibility all food should be 100% plant based. However plant based diets are not the only consideration. With 30% of all food being wasted food waste must be considered as well. Compost bins should be available and throwing things out should be discouraged. If possible avoid disposable plates and non-compostable containers. When possible food should be sourced locally from independent businesses or food co-ops to minimize emissions from transport and support local businesses.

Demand side mitigation potential from diets. It is from the IPCC SRCCL report.

How can conferences do better?

Strive to make your food as universally accessible as possible.

If you ask for attendees dietary needs you need to actually accommodate them or to reach out in advance to let people know you cannot provide accommodations that meet *all* of their needs. Please try to just provide accessible food from the start to minimize the need for accommodations. Think of it as universal design for food.

Strive to have all food be accessible from the start by having all food served be kosher, halal, vegan, and free of the most common allergens (such as milk, eggs, gluten, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish). Having an entirely vegan menu to begin with solves a lot of problems from the start since it already means the food will be accessible to folks who are allergic to eggs, fish, shellfish, dairy, it means many religious dietary needs will already be covered, and it is more climate friendly. Vegetarian food options do not solve nearly as many problems as vegan meals do since they are still inaccessible to people with many of the needs listed.

If you do need to provide food that is likely inaccessible for many attendees and have to go with just trying to provide accommodations then ensure that the food for the accommodations is easy to find and efficiently distributed. It is no fun to wait in long food lines when you know there likely isn’t anything for you at the end of them and that your meal might be stored somewhere else.

Help attendees prepare in advance by being transparent about what will be offered. 

If the conference provides meals have a complete list of what will be offered, including ingredients, available on the website in advance so that people can prepare. It is not sufficient to say ‘lunch provided’. Conferences should already have a page with accessibility information covering topics like closed captioning, wheelchair accessibility, restrooms, etc. Food accessibility information should be included on this page.

Provide ingredient labels on all food provided. 

During food serving times make sure there are clear labels and ingredient lists that people can check for themselves. This makes a huge difference to folks who need it. At one conference I attended they had asked for dietary needs in advance but when the food was served during the networking lunch no one knew the ingredients in any of the pre-packed lunches. There was one that sounded like I could potentially have it from the food title, but without the ingredients someone like me with an autoimmune disorder can’t risk it.

Minimize the greenhouse gas footprint of the food, reduce food waste, and disposable items.

Take steps to minimize the use of disposable containers, eliminate food waste, and ensure sustainability. Track the emissions reductions and waste reductions you are able to make so that you can help other conference organizers make the same changes.

This is not a definitive list.

In addition to the suggestions here regarding type of food served there are other considerations discussed in the links below, such as the configuration of how food is served (please no buffets) and considerations for the serving of alcohol (less alcohol or no alcohol is preferred).

Providing universally accessible food to the most attainable extent possible can go a long way to making attendees at your conference feel more comfortable and included. As we strive to make conferences more accessible for all attendees ensuring that everyone has access to food is one step that I would love to see more conferences take.

Success stories

I can count on one hand the number of times I have been provided with food at conferences, workshops, or seminars over the last 5 years. It is hard to describe how strange it feels to actually be given food. I feel so included when it happens. It is hard for me to understand that most people experience this normally. One time was when I taught at the Western Mass Youth Climate Summit. They had food that was all vegan and several choices (not only did I have food, I had options!!!) for gluten free options. Here is a photo of that lunch. The food was provided by a local business owned and operated by people of color. I used the same business (Pulse Cafe) when I got food for an event I was hosting. I made sure all options were vegan, gluten free, and kosher. The main allergen we needed to warn people of was a peanut sauce that was in separate containers. I had folks come up to me after the event to say it was the first time they had ever attended an event on campus they could eat at. It was one of the only events for me as well, and it only happened because I insisted on it and personally handled all of the coordination around food.
In our department beginning of the semester party food accessibility has been an ongoing issue. I have attended around 10 start of semester parties and despite requesting food accommodations each time I have only been provided with food once and I had to do the order on my own and pick it up myself. The graduate program director has seen my struggle and starting last semester we began collecting info on who in the department needed accommodations. It turned out to be over a dozen people, most of whom had been just quietly not participating in events with food. Providing food everyone can have from the start can go such a long way to making people feel welcome and included. Often when the majority of people are happily eating something like pizza those of us who are left out just go unnoticed and it feels hurtful. There are easy ways we can help change this if we just put in the effort.

Here are some resources for further reading on creating accessible conferences.

Writing a large NSF grant

Andy here –

Writing grants is a big part of doing science. While some science can be done with just a clever idea and data that already exists, it’s more common that we have to go do something. We might need to travel to collect some samples, so we’d need to pay for the train, flights, gas for a car, or even just food. We could need to do some chemistry, which costs money for reagents, time on thousands-or-million-or ten’s of dollar machines, or just beakers! We could also just need to pay our salary while we spend time identifying little tiny fossils, or we could want to pay a student to do it. That last bit is important: Science is a career, and for some folks, they need to bring in grants or they don’t get paid.

How we write grants is not something we talk much about, outside of the occasional (well-earned) whining on social media. It’s a lot of work, and getting them is tough. Here’s a little feeling of what it’s like to write a large grant.

The first thing is to have an idea. Now, not just any idea works. You’ve got to have an idea that: A. you think is exciting, B. others think is exciting, and C. everybody agrees is important. A ‘fishing expedition’, where you might get something neat but you’ve got no clear hypothesis to test, doesn’t work. Even just having a clear hypothesis isn’t enough. You really need to have an idea that has some important impacts for your field and usually society.

I mostly work with science that’s under the purview of the National Science Foundation (NSF) (or in the UK, National Environmental Research Council, NERC). Some of my friends work with grants from US Environmental Protection Agency or the US Department of Energy, or work for the US Geological Survey. What you work on sometimes governs the types of grants for which you can apply, how they are formatted, and the amount of money. To get a grant from the NSF you have to first have an idea that fits one of their ‘Calls for Submission’. My last grant was under the call: EarthCube Science-Enabling Data Capabilities

The most important part of the grant is a 15 page proposal. The proposal lays out the idea. It then supports it with specific language about how we’re going to accomplish that idea, including timelines, deliverables, and back-up plans of what we’re going to do if something doesn’t work. These documents usually need multiple sections, tables of locations, maps, graphs, theoretical diagrams, and a lot of times there’s even unpublished data which supports the hypothesis but just isn’t enough to publish yet. There are also lists of who is going to work on the grant, all of the referenced papers, explanations of how we’re going to coordinate so that we’re getting the maximum amount of science progress out of the money. Usually these things end up being extremely densely written with sub-sub-sub-headings. Ours wasn’t to specifically do science, it was to augment the capabilities in a few systems that existed, so that somebody could come later and do science. Since we’re creating this new thing, I’m hoping that it’s going to be us, since we’ve ostensibly got the jump on everybody, but the goal of open science is to make the data work for all of us. 

The proposal is only the fun part though, planning out how you’re going to do all the science. We also have to prepare a detailed budget that accounts for every dollar we’re asking for, and then a separate document that justifies why we’re spending it. Ours was 5 or so pages. We also had to write a list of all our collaborators for the last 5 years, supply our 5 most relevant papers and then 5 others, where we work, ‘synergistic activities’ (which is a fancy way of saying outreach or community-service type of activities). We had to prepare a 2 page summary of how we’re going to make our data publicly available (this was really easy for us since that’s the whole point of our grant). If there’s more than one person from the same institution proposing this idea, then they all need to list their collaborators, their papers, and so on. Then, if we’re working with another institution, they have to do all of that as well. Each University submits their own budget, justification, all of the co-principal investigators (folks proposing this work) have to list their collaborators, papers, and on.

For our grant, I’m the “Lead Principal Investigator” which means that I’m quote-unquote in-charge. It also means that I’m most liable if this thing fails, which would mean that I’m far less likely to get another grant any time soon (I should point out that I’m only able to be in charge of this because I’m affiliated with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia as well as the University of Bristol). The grant primarily includes the University of Wisconsin and Texas A&M University, so they had to do their own budgets, and all of that. There’s also work being done at the a few other universities, a non-profit, and a programming company. Those folks just had contracts they had to draw up, but they were budgeted for on the primary universities budgets. All of those contracts had to be submitted alongside the grant.

Still not done though! We also had to get letters from everybody tangentially involved that was mentioned in the grant. So, we mentioned that we’d invite two other scientists who are experienced in similar things to one of the workshops we’re going to have. We had to have a letter from each of those people, as well as anybody else involved, which meant quite a few others.

Then, once you’re all done with that, the Grants Certification and Authorization office has to approve all of the information you’ve put in, and check your math on the budgeting. Sometimes that office requires weeks of lead time, so not only do you have to do all of the above, you have to do it early! Even more confusing, different institution’s grants offices work completely different, which can get very frustrating if you move around constantly, like many early career academics. Finally, and this part is a little sad, they get to push the button and submit. And then the other primary institutions do that too.

There’s a whole, long, parallel story about how proposals are reviewed and then how they decide on to whom to give money.

All of this is in the hopes that you are one of the one out of five proposals funded. They also usually cut your budget, even if they fund you. If you don’t get funding, you get 3 descriptions about why your ideas wasn’t good enough to fund. All in all, the above is several months worth of work, so it’s basically a high-risk/high-reward process. Even if you do have an amazing idea (like we did!), there’s a low probability of success on the first try (we only succeeded on our second try).

New Species of Bryozoa discovered in Lake Valley Formation

Bryozoan Fauna of the Lake Valley Formation (Mississippian), New Mexico

By: Andrej Ernst, Karl Krainer, Spencer G. Lucas

Summarized by: Johnathan Cook. Johnathan Cook is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of South Florida. He spent most of his life involved in missionary work overseas in Argentina. After graduating from an Argentine high school, he returned to the United States to receive his Associates Degree from Hillsborough Community College before transferring the University of South Florida. He is set to graduate in December of 2019 and plans to pursue a career in hydrogeology and water management.

What data were used? Bryozoans (aquatic colonial organisms that survived by filtering nutrients from the water they live in) that had been overlooked in previous studies of the Mississippian-age Lake Valley Formation were re-examined by researchers. They also took a fresh look at the environment they were found in to help gain a better understanding of past climate and how the environment has changed through time. Researchers also looked at the type of sediment and the size of the grains to determine the prevalent geologic processes at the time of its deposition.

Methods: The researchers examined the layers (also called members) of the Lake Valley Formation, noting sedimentary structures and characteristics. Bryozoans specimens were made into thin sections and studied through binocular microscopes to determine the genus and species of each specimen found (which is the only accurate way to determine bryozoan taxonomy).

Results: The study of this area found there to be ten species of Bryozoa in the rock record, one of which had been previously overlooked. The studied samples were taken from two members of the formation and indicate changes in the environment. The older layer, named the Andrecito Member, showed deep marine conditions which were quiet and calm, while the younger layer, named the Tierra Blanca Member, showed shallower conditions with higher energy. The characteristics of these two members are good indicators of environmental conditions present during their creation. The deep conditions of the Andrecito member suggest transgression (meaning sea level was high or rising) and the shallow conditions of the Tierra Blanca suggest regression or sea level falling. The species found in these environments demonstrated physical characteristics in support of this hypothesis. Bryozoans in the calmer environment had thinner branches, whereas those in higher energy were thicker.

A main tool used to help determine the genus and species was
measuring the spacing between structures-the zoaria (individual animals in a single colony) in the bryozoan fossil specimens. This was done under the microscope, as these measurements are quite small.

Why is this study important? This study shows further diversification of a fossil type thought to be well understood, as well as the importance of understanding the stratigraphy in combination with fossils to construct a picture of the processes that formed our continent. These specific species are endemic to North America and can give us an idea of the evolution of climate and its effect on North American rocks.

The Big Picture: The discovery of the diverse fossils along with the sedimentary layers provides a reminder that science is not infallible but often misses details that can alter our understanding or hypotheses of past life. How creatures adapt says a lot about the environment they inhabited and with every new data, we can create a clear and more accurate picture of the past. It is important to remember that a hypothesis is not set in stone but can be edited or even disproved as more data are collected.

Citation: Andrej Ernst, Karl Krainer, Spencer G Lucas. Bryozoan Fauna of the Lake Valley Formation (Mississippian), New Mexico. Journal of Paleontology, 92(4), 2018, p. 577–595.

Mark Yu, Paleoceanographer, Isotope Geochemist, and Marine Geologist

Mark in front of the R/V JOIDES Resolution in Punta Arenas, Chile. The JOIDES Resolution brings together Earth scientists from around the globe to investigate processes underneath the marine sediments. This cruise, JR100 Chilean Margin, was focused on Patagonia climate and ocean circulation in the last ~150 Ka.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

The field I am specializing in, paleoceanography/paleoclimatology and biogeochemistry, represents the complex interplay between the lithosphere (Earth), hydrosphere (oceans), biosphere (life), and atmosphere. These immense variables pose great challenges in interpreting our geologic record and requires us to form interdisciplinary collaborations throughout departments. As I progressed in my studies from undergraduate work at the University of Rochester to graduate research at the Rutgers University, my mind is slowly teasing out the meaning of these variables as I attempt to decipher changes to ocean chemistry for my dissertation. In short, my love affair for science is grounded on the ability to form intellectual bridges across all fields and geographic locations while unraveling Earth history.

What do you do?

As a paleoceanographer, my goal is to decipher changes in ocean chemistry/circulation through isotopic and elemental ratios of calcareous organisms known as foraminifera that inhabit various depths of the water column. My dissertation is focused on the tropical thermocline, the upper part of the water column that is defined by a massive decrease in temperature from the mixed layer and where much of the productivity in the ocean occurs.

A scanning electron microscope image of planktonic foraminifera, Gs. ruber, used by Mark in his research. This sand sized calcareous protist inhabited the surface layer of the water column thousands of years ago

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

The geochemical data I analyze are trapped within the calcareous shells of foraminifera that are preserved in the sediment record at the bottom of ocean basins. Marine geologists undertake global expeditions on the drill boat, namely the R/V JOIDES Resolution, and other vessels to survey and core deep into the sediments. Once I have identified and picked the desired foraminiferal species, I analyze them on mass spectrometers where isotopic and elemental ratios are measured. In turn, each isotopic and elemental ratio provide us with variables in the ocean such as temperature, ice volume, productivity, ventilation, etc.

How does your research contribute to understanding climate change?

As the Earth changes with anthropogenic warming, the oceans serve as the largest buffer in dampening its effects. However, understanding how ocean circulation, ventilation, and productivity responds to temperature and carbon dioxide fluctuations is vital for our model predictions. My dissertation extends to Marine Isotope Stage 5e (MIS 5e) in the Indian Ocean. This was the last warm period (or interglacial period, as scientists call warm times within a time that is generally cool) similar to today around ~125 Ka and elucidating oceanographic properties in the sediment record will allow us to parametrize monsoon dynamics for societal and ecological implications.

Mark onboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson in the Argentina Margin with a multicore drilling apparatus. This cruise was focused on seismic surveying and shallow coring operations to decipher water mass geometry and erosional processes in the underwater canyons.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Be curious, observant and ask questions. No question is a dumb question. Likewise, remain skeptical and challenge assumptions. Not every answer is set in stone. The dogma written in textbooks are continuously being challenged and reworked by scientists. Find a few great mentors – people who you aspire to be and will provide you with the time and expertise to show you the ropes. Lastly, find your passion in life and run off with it.

Follow Marks updates on his website, LinkedIn, or Instagram!

Understanding and Dating Primate Fossils

100 years of primate paleontology 

By: Richard F. Kay 

Summarized by Ethan Schimpf. Ethan Schimpf is a geology major at USF. He graduates in December of 2019. Upon graduation, he plans to move to Idaho and get a job in the mining field. During his free time he like hunting, fishing, and working on cars.

What data were used? 336 different primate species have been identified through the discovery of fossils as of 2017. Most of these fossils are found in North America and consists of jaws and teeth. 

Methods: This study used amino acid traces left in the fossils to date major changes in primate evolution, like when the split between New World Monkeys and Old World Monkeys occurred and when the split between humans and chimpanzees likely happened. 

Results: Some major traits used to differentiate the two major types (New and Old World) were the shape of the skull and the ability to walk on two legs. This major split occurred around 30 million years ago. With the advancement of technology over the past 100 years, humans are able to study fossils on the molecular and genetic level. The fossils are analyzed for changes in amino acid chains. This allows them to see the evolution of the DNA itself over time. Being able to witness this enables a more accurate timing to be assigned to major changes in primate evolution. In using this process, it was discovered that chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor about 5 million years ago. It was also discovered that the genetic molecular evolution rate would slow down as the species grew to a larger body mass as well as a larger brain size.

This graph shows the increase of fossils found within the last 100 years, starting with the first to be described, Adapsis, in 1821. With the abundance of fossils that have been found, scientists have been able to learn a lot more about the evolutionary history of the group that includes humans.

Why is this study important? Over the last 100 years the number of primate fossils being discovered has increased dramatically. The amount of primate fossils is still very low compared to other organisms and the quality of fossils is low. When putting together the evolution of primates through the fossil record, a major distinction was made between Old World Monkeys and New World Monkeys. The New World monkeys consist of shrew and lemur type primates, while the Old world Monkeys included groups like gorillas and chimpanzees. A later a common ancestor was found between humans and chimpanzees. This study allows us to date when major splits occurred during primate evolution. Through the examination of primate fossils major distinctions between common ancestor could be discovered and dated.

The big picture: The geographical distribution of different primates is thought to be due to the changes in sea level over time. At times of low sea level, land bridges formed and allowed primates to travel to different land masses. Then, when the sea levels rose,  primates became stuck in certain areas or separated from other populations of species. The timing of major primate evolution can be dated to similar times of higher seas when species were forced to remain in a particular area. This forced isolation resulted in the gain and loss of traits and, ultimately, new species forming. When dating the different primate fossils, changes in the DNA can be linked to major environment changes due to Earth’s changing climate.

Citation: Kay, Richard F. 100 years of primate paleontology. American journal of physical anthropology 165.4 (2018): 652-676.