A First to Remember

Hello, it’s Lisette, a geology student who’s had the honor to take multiple classes with Dr. Sheffield!

I would like to talk about my summer undergraduate research experience through the Leadership Alliance at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. The program itself is called the Summer Research – Early Identification Program, and it was the first REU that I’ve ever applied to, and it really was a summer to remember! By the end of this article, I hope to convey why the Leadership Alliance is an amazing program that professors should encourage undergraduate students, especially those from underrepresented minorities, who have an interest in research to apply!

Scenery around Brown University.

So, what is the program exactly? The SR-EIP serves as an opportunity for undergraduate students to conduct research at an academic institution and receive career mentoring simultaneously in order to curtail the shortage of underrepresented minority groups earning PhDs. During my first week in the program, I attended various seminars that stressed the importance of diversity in STEM as well as coached us on the leadership skills necessary to advance in any field one pursues. We met and learned the stories of some truly amazing women in the STEM field, including Dr. Medeva Ghee, the executive director of the Leadership Alliance. She told us about how she was the first woman to intern at a company she applied for during her undergraduate career and how this spurred her drive to make science a more inclusive discipline for everyone. These workshops would continue throughout my stay at Brown twice a week during group meetings and after weekly dinners. My particular favorite was the one where a group of graduate students and professors at Brown discussed their afflictions of imposter syndrome because it was such a relief to know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

On the first day, I met the professor who was going to guide me on my first research experience, Dr. Mustard, as well as the graduate student who was there to support me: Alyssa Pascuzzo. They were monumental during my summer because they offered endless support and encouragement. Dr. Mustard continually checked up on my progress and was always excited to hear about the new skills I had learned. We also had weekly meetings where we would go over scientific articles about the polar caps of Mars and he would teach me more about the world of academia, including how to make the most out of conferences and the various paths one can take to land a career in research.

Presenting at my first research conference.

In tandem, I cannot overstate how important and motivational Alyssa Pascuzzo was throughout the summer and beyond! Every single day she was there with me, guiding me throughout the research process but still allowing me the freedom to choose my own project and how to go about it. She taught me how to use ArcGIS and MATLAB and showed me resources on how to become more proficient at both. I really appreciated how she would take the time to send me even more scientific articles about what I was studying and made sure to go over them afterwards for clarity and understanding. She also served as a grounding friend in a completely new environment and was always there for advice and encouragement. She helped me create my first research poster and stayed late to help me practice my presentation for the Leadership Alliance National Symposium. Even now, longer after summer has passed, she still serves as an exceptional mentor. And I think that’s what makes the Leadership Alliance such a great program for underrepresented students: it truly fosters a sense of community and belonging in those just starting their path in the intimidating yet exciting world of research. You have the opportunity to make so many long-lasting connections with people both inside and outside of your field of interest, and all of the members are open and thrilled to help you make the most of your experience.

If you know any undergraduate student (or are one yourself!) who has expressed interest in research, I sincerely hope you encourage them to apply for the Leadership Alliance. Their program covers a wide range of research areas (including humanities and social sciences through the Leadership Alliance Mellon Initiative) and builds a strong network of mentors that one has for life. We can aid in the diversification of the research workforce together!

 

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How to Train Your Postdoc

Adriane here-

In this post, I want to talk a bit about the excellent transition I had from a PhD candidate to a Postdoctoral Fellow. There are far too many horror stories of postdocs not being comfortable in their position, with their advisor, or at their university. Here, I’ll outline some of the things that my mentor and the faculty at Binghamton University have done that are stellar. I hope this post will serve as a short guide for postdoctoral advisors.

My office door leading into my lab. My office is in the back through another door.

First, some background. I met my current postdoc mentor while I was a PhD student at UMass Amherst. She was doing her postdoc there, and we overlapped by a year. She was then hired at Binghamton as a professor. Binghamton University, which is part of the SUNY (State University of New York) system, is located in the Southern Tier of New York, and is home to a large majority of first generation undergraduate students (students whose parents did not pursue higher education). Recently, Binghamton implemented a new postdoctoral fellowship program to retain and hire more women and folks from marginalized backgrounds into faculty positions, called the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship (PDPF).

When the applications for 2019’s PDPF were open, my now-mentor contacted me to see if I would be interested in applying. She and I overlap in several research areas, and not only that, Binghamton has been without a paleontologist on campus for over 20 years! So it made sense that I apply: I could collaborate with my mentor, but I would also fill a much-needed research and teaching gap at the university. There were several applicants that applied for the position through the Geology department, but mine was the one chosen to be put into the final pool of applicants from many departments on campus. I was one of 82 applicants at the university level, and was awarded one of the two coveted PDPF positions.

My office, where I finished writing the large majority of my dissertation and where I live part-time (I’m kidding, sort of). My windows overlook the campus garden, so in my opinion, I have the best office on campus!

OK enough background. Onto what you came here to really read. The PDPF is an excellent postdoc by itself, as it provides me with a stipend (living expense, it’s more money than I’ve ever made in my life), as well as an additional $13,000 per year for travel and research expenses.  The position is for 2 years, with (hopefully) the option to transition to a tenure-track professor position.  But during my postdoc, I’ll also have access to health insurance for myself  and my husband, as well as retirement options, etc. In short, the PDPF allows me the money to succeed and pursue the research that I’m interested in. That alone is stellar!

But the way the faculty and entire department have treated me has been even better. When I arrived at Binghamton a full 4 months before my position began (so my spouse could find work sooner), they already had an office and lab set aside for me (and my name was already on the door)! Having my own space allowed me the room to really dig into and finish my dissertation, and now that I’m officially a postdoc, I have the space set up to have students work with me.

As soon as I arrived at Binghamton, I was made to feel like one of the faculty (remember, I was still a graduate student still when I arrived, still working on my dissertation). I was invited to and attended faculty meetings, which have really allowed me to grasp onto the inner workings of the department and university. During one meeting, our department head asked me what my opinion was on a matter of importance. It was strange, being the only woman in a room full of men, being asked what my opinion was and being listened to. But it was AMAZING! Being valued as a contributing member of the faculty has really helped me feel at ease and valued here.

From the start of my postdoc, I have also been given advice by the faculty on how to succeed and become competitive for a tenure-track position. Part of the PDPF is that the postdocs are trained to be competitive for tenture-track professor jobs, and will hopefully be hired into the SUNY system. My department head has given me a ton of advice already, and we have talked several times about ways in which I can stay on as a professor after my postdoc position ends. Tenure-track jobs are competitive, especially in STEM fields, but knowing that the faculty here are rooting for my position to turn permanent and coaching me along the way has been amazing. Especially since I am no longer considered a student, I feel hesitant about the future and unsure of what I should do, so having this tutelage and mentoring from my peers is incredible.

Brachiopod fossils from the fossil collections stored in my lab. All of the specimens have detailed location information and labels, which will make digitally cataloging them later much easier!

One thing I can’t help but mention is that Binghamton also has a very well-kept secret: they have a superb fossil collection that is not cataloged. And guess where this collection is? That’s right; IN MY LAB! When I arrived, I was told the eight wooden cabinets that lined one wall of my lab contained old specimens, and they were planning to be donated. One weekend, I looked through every drawer, and realized how amazing the collections were! Brachiopods, trilobites, eurypterids, mollusks, microfossils, they were all there and untouched for likely decades. I asked if I could keep them, and our department head said ‘Sure!’. So I’m also now a curator of the Binghamton University Fossil Collection (it’s not an official research museum collection yet, but I plan to get it to that point one day with the help of students).

My mentor is also especially amazing. She has been nothing but supportive since I arrived, and I hear from her at least once a week that she’s so glad I’m here. She has also included me on research meetings with her PhD student, and will add me as a coauthor on their publications (I have expertise on their project and have given input). Likewise, I will include her and her PhD student on my projects. We are in total agreement that science should be collaborative, and we will help our students succeed in whatever way we can.

These are just the major examples of how I’ve been included into the Binghamton University campus community. But I can’t help but think how STEM fields would be different if all postdocs, and graduate students, were treated the way I have been. Would we have higher retention of marginalized folks? Would more students pursue STEM degrees if the pay was more competitive and they had access to health insurance? What if all universities created postdoctoral fellowship programs like Binghamton? If they did, within a few years how many more women and people from marginalized groups would be in professor positions? Imagine.

My hope is that more postdoctoral fellowships like mine are adopted by other universities in the near future, and that a more sound and secure structure is created for graduate students as well.

Links to learn more about Binghamton’s program & other similar programs:

Larry Collins, PhD Candidate, Geoscience Education Researcher

Me after collecting pyrite concretions in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? Hi!  My name is Larry Collins and I am a PhD Candidate at Washington State University in Pullman, WA.  As a freshman at Mansfield University, I took Physical Geology with Dr. Chris Kopf and he ignited my true passion for geology.  Dedicating time and energy into instruction was what Dr. Kopf did and this made me even more excited to learn about the processes that affect and shape our earth.  After five years of teaching high school earth science, AP Environmental Science, and Ecology, I wanted to pursue graduate education so that I could share this passion with future educators.   

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?  In my master’s program, I was part of a large project that examined pieces of pyrite that were found within the Demopolis Chalk outside of Starkville, MS.  We were attempting to understand the origin of these pieces of pyrite and what they could also tell us about earth’s early atmosphere. While I enjoyed this project, my true passion was understanding more about how people think and learn about the earth.  These are the exact types of questions that Geoscience Education Researchers (like me) tackle. Specifically, my interests are in the nature of science and assessment. I study how students develop an understanding of the nature of science throughout their undergraduate careers and I develop my own instruments and assessments to accomplish this research goal.  I also study performance-based assessments can be used as tools for learning in order to improve geological literacy. 

Pyrite concretions within the Demopolis Chalk. The chalk outcrops are Late Cretaceous in age.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general?Understanding the nature of science is important for when someone encounters new scientific data or media in the news, on the web, or during a scientific presentation.  The ideas that folks holds about the nature of science are linked to their willingness to accept scientific ideas such as climate change and evolution which have been labeled as controversial.  Understanding how students develop conceptions of the nature of science also ensures that they will understand how new knowledge in science develops and be more accepting of ideas that have been deemed as controversial. 

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? I use interviews, performance-based assessments, and surveys with students in order to collect evidence of their understanding of the nature of science.  I draw on my past instruments such as the VNOS and VASI developed by Lederman, Lederman, Schwartz, and colleagues to also inform my work.   

At the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous, here I am leading a workshop on performance-based assessments.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists? As a first generation scientist, I would say that you should always apply for any opportunity that you hear of.  Apply even if you feel like you are not good enough for it because imposter syndrome is a real thing and a lot of us in academia have it!  You never know the great opportunities (such as graduate research opportunities) that can come your way by putting yourself out there. It may be tough, but always reach out to scientists that you respect and admire…a lot of them are friendly and always willing to share their career paths with you!  

A Brief Overview of Findings in the Newly Exposed Day Nunatak Region of Antarctica

Stratigraphy, sedimentology and paleontology of Upper Cretaceous deposits of Day Nunatak, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica

By Thomas S. Tobin, David Flannery, and Francis J. Sousac

Summarized by Michael de Koter. 

What type of data were used? Newly exposed outcrop on Day Nunatak, a region of sedimentary rock in Snow Hill Island of Antarctica, which was previously inaccessible to the sediments and fossils in the area. Most of these fossils were collected from off the ground, but where possible, they were extracted from in situ (in place). Aerial photography allowed for three-dimensional reconstruction of the area to track glacial ice movement. Hand samples collected in the field underwent petrological and SEM (scanning electron microscope) analysis to determine composition and characteristics.

Methods: Helicopters were used to access the field site where samples were collected by hand from trenches and outcrops. Structure by motion models were also created using data gathered by helicopters equipped to carry out three dimensional analysis. XRD (X-ray diffraction) analysis, petrological analyses via light and electron microscopy, and stable isotope analyses were carried out to learn more about the samples collected from Day Nunatak. 

Results: Overall, the fossils and sediments found and tested in the newly exposed outcrops of Day Nunatak are very similar to samples found in previous studies done on nearby Seymour Island of Antarctica. However, the mode of fossil preservation is variable across these outcrops, with fossils being more prevalent and found in pale concretions in Day Nunatak. For the majority of Snow Hill Island, reddish concretions around fossils are more common, though they occur in a lower frequency. No new species were discovered amongst the fossils in the newly exposed area of Day Nunatak. There was an abundance of Gunnarites collected to represent ammonite fossils from the area. Furthermore, there were no new species of mollusks or other types of fossils identified in the samples collected. Most of the sediments of the Day Nunatak sight are composed of quartz-rich sandy-siltstone that play host to carbonate concretions and well-cemented sandstone.

Satellite imagery taken of the Day Nunatak sight in reference to the larger region of Snow Hill Island. From these pictures, it is clearly seen that the exposed section of rock at Day Nunatak has been steadily growing in area over the last fifty years, with the largest exposed area occurring at the date nearest to the present day.

Why is this study important? The study of newly exposed segments of Antarctician stratigraphy allows for a more comprehensive geological history of the region to be created. Fossils and sediments found in the area- especially those that match other nearby regions of Antarctica- provide a wider range of evidence to link identical beds in different geographical areas together more thoroughly and, in so doing, provide a more comprehensive understanding of the region and its history.

The Big Picture: As more of the glacial ice in Antarctica is melting away as a result of global temperature rise, areas previously inaccessible to geologists for study will become more and more available to study. These changes in the observable regions of the continent will allow for stratigraphically relationships to paint a larger picture of the geologic history of the area. This study is one of the first of such that will be possible as glacial ice continues to recede. Thus far, the data demonstrates regional trends in biostratigraphy that are traceable across much of the larger area surrounding Day Nunatak, which helps to paint a more accurate cross section than was available even ten years ago.

Citation: Tobin, T.S., Flannery, D. and Sousa, F.J., 2018. Stratigraphy, sedimentology and paleontology of Upper Cretaceous deposits of Day Nunatak, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Cretaceous Research84, pp.407-419.

Western Mass Youth Climate Summit

Shaina here –

All around the world we are seeing youth rising up and getting involved in advocating for a stable climate. They are organizing, striking, building community, and educating themselves on the science and the policy considerations that we need to achieve these goals. In Western Massachusetts there are a variety of youth led organizations, and there are community partnerships supporting them. One of these in the Western Mass Youth Climate Summit (WMYCS) which is co-organized each year by Mass Audubon Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. This event brings together teams of students from regional middle and high schools, as well as home school students, for a series of workshops to learn about climate topics and to design action plans for their schools and communities. The action plans are then implemented over the following year. The conference planning is in part led by youth and supported by students from local colleges. To make it accessible there is no cost for attendees,  meals are provided, and each team is given travel stipends. I have been lucky enough to be able to lead workshops at the summit over the past two years and to see these passionate students in action.

Day 1

The first day took place at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in mid November. The venue itself is an inspirational setting as it is a completely green building with rain water collection that is used to water the native plant species growing on site, composting toilets, a solar roof, and more. This day was filled with workshops and summit attendees could choose whichever interested their team most during any given timeslot. The workshops offered included food for the climate, decreasing food waste, energy efficiency, cooler communities, citizen science, climate games, song writing, and a tour of the living building. There was also a keynote address on youth activism, a live music performance, and an entirely vegan, climate-friendly lunch provided by a local business.

Workshops are encouraged to be interactive and to provide a takeaway that students can reference while considering their action plans during the month leading up to the second day of the summit. My workshop was on Food for the Climate, as requested by the student team who planned what workshops they wanted to see offered. It focused on how agricultural emissions fit into the larger picture of overall emissions, types of greenhouse gases generated and what causes them, how land use change factors in, and more. To save paper my takeaway was posted online as a resource links page with copies of the slides and links to the sources for all images in the slides.

Day 2

The second day took place the next month, in mid December, at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary. The students started the day watching a video on the youth climate delegation attending COP25, the UN Climate Summit taking place the same week. They also took workshops on climate communication and sustainable farming. A portion of the day was spent with each student team strategizing about their climate action plan and then presenting the plans to everyone. Many of the team’s presentations focused on common themes relating to the workshop topics. These included things like increasing energy efficiency in their schools, instituting carpool programs, reducing the amount of meat served in the cafeterias, and reducing waste. It will be exciting to see what they are able to accomplish over the next year.

I’m grateful that a program like this exists in my community. It is a great opportunity for students to learn about climate change and create community centered, youth driven action plans to tackle the issues affecting them. I really appreciate that the design of the event is always done with youth input so that the topics they are most interested in are the ones they get to learn about. As we head into an uncertain climate future it is more important than ever that everyone be involved in planning the transition and advocating for their communities, especially the youth who are inheriting a mess then had no part in creating.

Cretaceous Fossils of Mississippi

An Exogyra oyster from the Ripley Formation.

Cam here-

On June 3rd and June 4th of 2019 I traveled to Tupelo, Mississippi with another fellow fossil collector to collect Cretaceous marine fossils. This was the first time I have collected fossils dating back to the Mesozoic Era. The first location we visited was part of the Ripley Formation in Blue Springs, Mississippi. The Ripley Formation was deposited a few million years before the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs about 71 million years ago. During this time, Mississippi was submerged under a shallow sea, and North America was cut by a large inland seaway known as the Western Interior Seaway. Mississippi’s Cretaceous oceans were teeming with life. The most common fossils found were oysters and clams that were plentiful in those ancient seas.

A view of the Ripley Formation field site.

The largest oyster found in the Ripley Formation was Exogyra costata. Other fossils found in that rock unit were marine snails called Turritella vertebroides, which were the most well preserved fossils from the Ripley Formation. Another common fossil unearthed as we dug under the Ripley Formation and approached the Coon Creek Formation were crab carapaces. One species of crab that I found reach to about 5 inches in length. I was nearly in shock as I was excavating it from its silty tomb. After we spent a few hours collecting, we began to wrap up our fragile finds in tin foil and put them in crates for safe transportation back home. Our last site we visited was an open field with exposures of the Demopolis Chalk Formation. This rock unit is a few million years older than the Ripley Formation. Nevertheless, this rock unit is rich in marine fossils.

It was in the beginning of summer and it was about 90 degrees, but what we were out looking for were shark teeth. In order to search for them we had to get on our hands and knees and crawl on the white hot ground. As uncomfortable as it may seem, this is how some of the best fossils are found. When collecting fossils the best thing you need to have is patience. After about 4 minutes of searching I saw something brown and shiny glinting in the sun. It was my very first Late Cretaceous shark tooth! The tooth belonged to the genus Squalicorax. This was about a 7 foot shark that swam the seas of Mississippi about 75 million years ago. It wasn’t long before I came across my second shark tooth, but it wasn’t as complete. Besides fossils we both found beautiful iridescent crystals of the sulfide mineral marcasite. After we spent an hour searching for shark teeth and other marine fossils in the Demopolis Chalk we decided to call it a day and head back to Huntsville, Alabama to start the next day of adventures.

A large crab collected from the lower Ripley Formation.
A Squalicorax tooth found in the Demopolis Chalk Formation.
All of the Cretaceous marine fossils I collected from Mississippi.

Zoliswa (Zoe) Nhleko, Ecologist

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

My favorite part about my job is working with amazing wildlife most people don’t get to see on a daily basis or even in their lifetime. And the scenic landscapes I get to work in. My love for wildlife started when I was in primary school and part of an environmental club that met once a week at the local museum. 

What do you do?

I do research on large mammals. Right now it’s specific to white rhinos. I am investigating how rhino poaching is and may continue to affect rhino population dynamics like recruitment, where they are distributed in the landscape and their behavior.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society and animals in general?

Most rhino populations are at risk of extinction if the poaching goes on unabated. My research hopes to contribute towards means to biologically save the species. There is only so much we can do to stop poaching, but maybe there is much more we can do in our biological management of the species to allow them to grow at maximum rates in order to withstand the poaching onslaught. Lessons from rhinos could be used on other species facing poaching.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

Some of my data like long term population estimates came from long term monitoring programs like aerial rhino censuses which are done every year in my study site. Data on how poaching affects behavior and physiology came from field work I conducted myself. I ran an experiment using sound playback and camera traps for the behaviour component and collected white rhino poop samples for the physiology question. 

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

Science comes in all shapes and sizes, there is space for everyone. Find what you are passionate about and look up people who work in that field and reach out for advice. Some of the projects/jobs I have done have come through reaching out to people in the field that were strangers but soon became valuable connections. 

Plankton Photo Shoot Part III: Creating Plates

Adriane here-

This post is the third and final in a series I’ve written about taking scanning electron microscope images of my fossil plankton (‘Plankton Photo Shoot‘) and how I process those images in photo editing software (‘Plankton Photo Shoot II: Creating the Perfect Image‘). Here, I will show you all the purpose of these images and the editing process, and how these are useful to other scientists in my field!

Now that all my SEM images are cleaned up (meaning, the background is removed, the edges of every images are cleaned up, and each file is saved as a high-quality PNG file), it’s time to create plates! I’m not talking about dinner plates that you would eat off of; rather, when we talk about plates in paleontology, we mean a page of high-quality fossil images that showcase the features of our fossils.

A plate of vertebrate fossils, specifically those from an ancient penguin species. This is the plate caption: “FIGURE A5. Undescribed vertebrae and ribs referred to Kupoupou stilwelli n. gen. et sp. 1-7, vertebrae, NMNZ S.47339; and 9 and 10, ribs, NMNZ S.47339. 8, an incomplete vertebra, is part of NMNZ S.47302, associated with the larger Chatham Island form. Scale bar is equal to 10 mm.” This plate has a white background, as do most plates that showcase bones (the darker bone colors stand out better against white backgrounds). Image from Blokland et al. 2019.

Plates are published in scientific journals as part of journal articles, and usually include a scale bar (so others know how large or small the fossil is), a number or letter beside each image on each plate, and a description underneath the plate with each image’s genus and species name. Plates can also contain other important features to help other scientists identify the specimens, such as arrows and labels pointing out specific parts of the fossil. For my dissertation, I had to create plates of my fossil plankton to show other scientists how I was identifying each species, and they will be used as a reference for others so they too can identify species. In total, I created 29 plates of fossil foraminifera for my dissertation!

The first thing I do when I create a new plate is to create the template. I create all my plates in Adobe Illustrator, and I always give my plates a black background. I also go ahead and add a bit of white space below the plate, and a text box within the white bit, so I can create the plate caption as I add images. Below is an image of the template, with the black background and white space for the caption.

A screenshot of Adobe Illustrator with my blank plate template.

Next, I add in numbers where the fossil images will go. I like to create plates that have 5 rows and 5 columns, so a total of 25 images. Putting in the numbers before the images helps me align everything on the template, and it makes creating the caption that will go under the plate much easier. For example, when I add the image next to 1, I then add in the fossil information right in the caption.

Screenshot of the template with numbers added.

Now for the fun part: adding in the fossil images! All of my images are stored in separate file folders on my desktop, and each are labeled with the species name and the section from where it came within a drilled sediment cores. I just open the folder, grab the cropped image that I want, and plop in onto my template. I also plop in the original image file along with the cropped images. I do this because the original image has a scale bar, the information that tells people how large (or in my case, small) the fossil is.

The template in the background, with the cropped fossil image (left) and the original SEM image (right). Notice the scale bar in the original image at the bottom (100 microns, or um).

Because the original image and cropped images are the same size, all I need to do is trace the scale bar with a white line, delete the original images, then place the scale bar underneath the cropped image.

I trace the scale bar from the original image so it is just a white bar, and place that under the cropped fossil image. I also rotate the cropped image.

Once I have the cropped image and scale bar on the template, I then re-scale them (or just make them smaller) to fit beside the appropriate number on the template. I then go ahead and add in the image’s genus and species, and location information below in the white space.

The cropped image and scale bar are re-sized together to keep them at the same proportion. The image is then placed beside the appropriate number, and the location information is added into the caption at the bottom of the template.

I do this 24 more times to create a full plate of foraminifera images!

A screenshot of the final plate, with the complete caption underneath. I can then save just the template and fossil images as a PNG file, insert them into a document, then copy and paste the caption underneath of the image.

This process is tedious, and it is very detail-oriented, but it was one of my favorite things to create during my dissertation! There’s nothing I love more than flipping through pages and pages of my printed plates containing foraminifera images to admire the diversity of shapes and sizes. The beauty of the foraminifera are on full display, and it’s sometimes still hard to believe that all the wonderful shells are created by single-celled protists!

 

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

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!