Sandy Kawano, Comparative Physiologist and Biomechanist

Who am I?

I am a nerd who turned a lifetime fascination in nature documentaries and monster movies into a career as an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, where I get to study the amazing ways that animals move through different environments and then share these discoveries to students through my role as a teacher-scholar.

How did I become a scientist?

To explain how vertebrate animals became terrestrial, I have to study the evolutionary changes that spanned the transition from fishes to tetrapods which is recorded through the anatomical changes that are left behind in fossils, such as these specimens from the Field Museum.

My career started off a bit rocky when I was rejected from the four-year university programs I applied to in high school. I wanted to become a wildlife biologist to maintain biodiversity and this roadblock made me question whether I was good enough to pursue what I loved. The thought of being a university professor hadn’t crossed my mind yet but I knew that I needed a college degree, so I attended community college where my chemistry professor explained how research helps solve mysteries. I loved puzzles, so I thought “why not?”. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, and was lucky to work with excellent professors who helped me conduct research and inspired me to study how the environment affects animal movements. I did temporarily work as a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during this time, but research made me realize that I could study the maintenance of biodiversity through the lens of evolution and ecology. With my mentors’ support, I completed a Ph.D. at Clemson University and earned post-doctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Royal Veterinary College. In 2017, I started a tenure-track position at California State University, Long Beach.

What do I study?

One of the aims of my research is to compare how fins and limbs allow animals to move on land and two key players in this story are the African mudskipper (Periophthalmus barbarus; left) and tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), respectively.

My research combines biology, engineering, and mathematics to reconstruct animal movement by piecing together how muscles and bones produce motion. I deconstruct how living animals move so I can build computer models that reverse-engineer the ancient movements of extinct animals. One of my goals is to figure out how vertebrates (animals with backbones) went from living in water for hundreds of millions of years as fishes to moving onto land as tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). I enjoy studying animals that challenge the norm, such as ‘walking’ fishes, because they open our eyes to the amazing diversity on Earth and help us learn from those who are different from us. Here’s to nature’s misfits!

What would I have told younger me?

I would encourage anyone interested in science to explore diverse experiences and treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, whether it be about yourself or the world around you. We often treat obstacles in our lives as affirmation that we are not good enough, but it is not the obstacles that define us but the way in which we respond to those obstacles. These struggles can push us to grow stronger or approach questions with new and creative perspectives. There are many equally important ways to be a scientist and there is no single pathway to becoming a scientist, so enjoy your adventure!

Follow Sandy’s lab updates on her website and Twitter account!

FUTURES: European Researchers Night

Andy here-

A few weeks ago I took part in FUTURES: European Researchers Night (@FUTURES_ERN). FUTURES occurs all over the EU (300 cities, 24 countries), but locally was put on by several universities (University of Bristol, University of Bath, Bath Spa University) to highlight the contributions of the European Union to science in the area. There were storytelling functions, programs where you could walk to different locations with scientists talking about their research, and even the wonderfully British “Tea with a Researcher”. One of the odd things about science is that in a few key ways I count as a quasi-European researcher now that I’m affiliated with (work for) a European University. I’m also funded by the UK government through the Natural Environment Research Council. This is all despite being American. I originally wasn’t going to take part in this because I was supposed to be at a meeting, but a family circumstance required me to stay in town. Luckily, a local children’s museum was close enough and a few folks from the School of Earth Sciences had organized a display already. Because I was supposed to be in London, I had no part in the planning or creation of anything. As somebody who knows how much time can go into those, it was very nice to just come in and talk to folks.

Photo from Dr Vittoria Lauretano (@vit_lau). Only part of the 1 Kg of CO2 balloon collection is visible. I tend to dress down at events like this, my shirt says “Life uh finds a way” and has two Jurassic Park-style Velociraptors on it, and I lean into informality and humor. I find that helps me combat some stereotypes of scientists (stuffy, humorless dudes in white coats), and can defuse some of the tension while I’m describing how drastic climate change is for coral bleaching, hurricanes (which is what I was talking about here), human health, droughts, and on.

There were several different parts to the display. We had three jars with different levels of CO2 and lamps demonstrating the greenhouse effect. The jar and lamp setup worked surprisingly well, considering the numerous other variables, but by the end of the evening I think the seals gave out and the pure-CO2 temperature jar had equalized with the others. There were also several banners we could use in the background to talk about the different effects that climate change has on the Earth and us, including one that described the different fluxes of CO2 into the atmosphere (~28% from power, ~28% from transportation, etc.). Lastly, and the most conversation-starting, was a collection of food with a representation of how much carbon goes into the air. The best part was that there was a set of balloons each representing 1 kg of carbon. For each item then, there was a sheet of paper with how much carbon is emitted during production, then graphically represented as a bunch of balloons. So, if 3 kg of carbon is emitted, there were 3 clutches of balloons. It led to discussions of how much meat production emits, if it’s better to eat local or in season, and how much CO2 different modes of transportation emit. The balloons were key for many people, as they took a difficult problem to represent (atmospheric gas) and made it visual.

The entire display worked better for adults than it did for kids. In part, it’s tough to communicate climate change to kids… that’s not accurate. It feels really bad to talk about climate change to children. They’re too young to do anything about it; they can’t vote, they have little control over  their eating habits, they can’t control how they get around, but mostly because it’s not their fault. Climate change is a problem that we and our parents and their parents have caused, and it sucks to be the one to tell kids about what’s going to happen when they’re adults. Also, we were across the aisle from a virtual reality blood vein, so tough for jars of gas to compete. Bringing climate science to kids relies on props: cores, fossils, etc.; bringing it to adults can use that, but you can also talk about the real and very scary challenges that we will face due to climate change.

 

Fun with Foraminifera

Audrey here-

This summer, I will graduate from with a bachelor’s degree in Geology, and then begin a Master’s program in Elementary Education. My favorite thing about being a Geology student was the fact that we had so many opportunities to learn in hands-on settings, from taking field trips to just getting to hold different rocks and fossils in the lab. As a future educator, this experience showed me exactly how important it is for science instruction to involve meaningful and tangible experiences for students, not just lectures. For the last few months, I have been working on an independent study project with two graduate students, Jen and Maggie. To combine my passion for education with my love of geology, we decided to assemble a set of resources that educators can use to effectively integrate fossils into the K-12 classroom as an educational tool.

Why foraminifera?

Paleontology education is a great way for students of all ages to learn about Geology. The use of fossils makes learning fun and hands-on. For many students, the thought of fossils brings to mind images of giant dinosaur skeletons. However, most of the fossils discovered by paleontologists are very small!

For frame of reference, we took photos of real foraminifera on a penny! Notice Abe’s nose!

Microfossils like foraminifera, or forams, have so many exciting uses for the scientific community. These planktonic marine organisms are usually the size of a grain of sand. They’re small, but mighty! Due to their small size, it can be difficult and expensive to effectively teach about forams in most classrooms. Typically, a microscope would be required to view them, but the cost of this technology is prohibitive for most school settings. Even if microscopes are present in the classroom, it can be difficult to be sure that all students are able to see and identify the specimen through the lens. In our lab, we have a set of enlarged plaster models of forams that are used to teach about the various foram morphologies (shell shapes). I think these models make great tools for teaching about microfossils, but first we needed to make them accessible for science classrooms.

Implementation

Here I, Audrey, am scanning some of the foraminifera models.

By using a 3D laser scanner, we were able to make digital 3D copies of our models. With access to 3D printing technology, anyone who has these digital files can print out their own set of foram models! All of the scans that we made are able to be accessed on an amazing website called myFOSSIL. This website is a platform for social paleontology, which means that anyone can share their 2D and 3D images of fossils. These images can also be accompanied by educational resources like lesson plans. The website is completely free to use, and you are not required to set up an account in order to view any of the fossil samples. Find our 3D fossils by clicking here!

Foraminifera in the classroom

To go along with our foram models, we created several lesson plans to guide educators through these resources. All of the lesson plans are written in order to be used with a variety of age groups. The subjects include introductory information about forams, an ecology lesson, and a high-school focused lesson on paleoclimatology. We even wrote one lesson that focuses more on English Language Arts (ELA) skills for younger students, by discussing science content, and diversity in science, through an ELA lens. The goal with these lessons is for each to be accessible to a wide range of ages and ability levels. For middle and high school students, there are a wide range of expectations for students to understand science concepts. These are outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards, and cover topics from earth science, to biology, and even engineering. These were a little easier to touch on in our lessons because 6-12 grade students have distinct and exciting milestones that they are expected to reach in their scientific development. However, for K-5 grade students, science classes are more about setting a foundation to build upon later. For this reason, elementary lessons about forams focus more on teaching students to think, research and communicate like a scientist would, using Common Core Standards as a framework. The amount of detail that each teacher decides to go into on science concepts can vary by age, ability, and other factors that we could talk about all day. However, having the opportunity to do hands-on activities with data and fossil models is a great opportunity, and a lasting experience. While high school classes might focus on more formal research projects, elementary classes could dress up like scientists to tell their classmates and parents about what they learned. There are so many possibilities!

Big Picture

As a science teacher in training, this project was tremendously helpful for me in thinking about the expectations that I might have for my future students and planning for the ways that I could differentiate these resources to be exciting and educational for students across all ages and abilities. I also think that using these lessons in any classroom would help other teachers to delve into the ways that we teach students to think of themselves. Some of our students are encouraged to pursue science from a very early age, others are not. With these resources, there are fewer barriers to accessing science education. On a large scale, this could be an amazing stepping stone for a future generation of scientists. On a small scale, I feel like I was able to better myself by working on this project, and I hope you enjoyed hearing about it.

Field Work on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Part 2

Part 2: An Attempt at Science

Megan here-

If you haven’t read Part 1 of my Greenland field work experience, check it out here! If you have read it, you’re probably wondering what research we actually worked on for those three chilly weeks. What were our research goals? What type of data did we collect? And how did we collect that data? To answer those questions, I give you Part 2: An Attempt at Science.

The University of Wyoming and University of Montana’s glaciology group has become highly involved in Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) research over the past decade. Because the ice sheet has become of critical importance in our warming climate, many scientists are trying to better understand the dynamics of the GrIS. Our collaborative group asks questions such as, how does meltwater move through the ice sheet? What mechanisms are involved in ice sheet movement? Or, what conditions lay beneath the ice? Answers to these questions help us to better understand GrIS dynamics in a changing climate.

Figure 1. Glaciers are divided into different regions based on the processes and conditions of those areas. The ELA is the equilibrium line altitude where there is no net accumulation or melting. The ablation zone is at lower altitudes and defines the margins of the ice sheet where melting occurs. In contrast, the accumulation zone defines the area where there is net accumulation of snow. Within this zone is the percolation zone, where there is some melting and we see extensive layers of firn.

For this field season, we were mostly concerned with the first of those questions. More specifically, we ask: what is the fate of meltwater in the percolation zone? To better understand what the percolation zone is, let’s take a look at the different regions or zones of a glacier (Figure 1). Any glacier (or ice sheet) is divided into two main parts: the ablation zone and the accumulation zone. The ablation zone defines the lower elevations where there is net melting. In other words, over a year-long period this region has lost mass. The opposite is the accumulation zone. Here, there is net gain in mass due to snowfall. These two zones are divided by the equilibrium line altitude (ELA) where the amounts of accumulation and melting are equal. This may seem straightforward at first glance, but a rather unusual region exists within the accumulation zone. Just higher in elevation than the ELA, there is a section of the glacier where snow melts and percolates into the firn. Firn is just altered and compacted snow. We’re curious about the fate of meltwater in the percolation zone’s firn. When snow melts to water, does it flow into the firn and refreeze? Does it percolate all the way down to the glacial ice layers? Or does it runoff toward the terminus (“the snout”) of the glacier and reach the ocean?

Figure 2. We used a hot water drill to penetrate the upper 100 meters of the firn at our study site. The drillstem is attached to a long hose, which carries hundreds of gallons of hot water from a tub to the borehole. As the hot water is blasted at the cold firn, it melts the firn and creates a borehole.

To answer these questions, we used a variety of research techniques that look at the structure and temperature of the firn throughout the full depth of the percolation zone, which is thought to be less than 100 meters thick in this area. The five principle tools we used were coring, hot water drilling, videography, temperature sensors, and radar. Coring involves extracting long cylinders of snow, firn, and ice from the ground below us, and then logging the densities and structures of the core. To reach greater depths than with coring, we used a hot water drill to inject hot water into the ground and create a borehole (Figure 2). Once we had a completed 100-meter borehole, we extended a video camera down the hole to visual identify interesting structures (e.g. ice layers) in the firn. In both the hot water-drilled boreholes and the boreholes remaining from coring, we installed long strings of temperature sensors that measure and record the firn temperatures at increasing depths. These temperature data will be recorded for the next year or two, so we will return next summer to collect the data. The final technique we use, ground-penetrating radar, provides insight into the firn layers below our feet. By transmitting radio waves into the ground and then receiving the waves, we can observe variations in firn density and estimate water content. Together, these five techniques provide a means to better understand the behavior of meltwater in the percolation zone.

Before arriving in Greenland, I was highly intimidated by all of the research techniques we had planned to use. I had never been involved in a full field season, never cored or drilled firn, and never even stepped on a glacier for that matter. However, I found that the best way to learn something is to actually just try doing it. With the guidance of a patient and knowledgeable advisor, I learned more than I thought was possible in three short weeks. Being in the field provides such an excellent opportunity to take an immersive approach to science: living, working, and learning in the presence of what you study.

Joy Buongiorno Altom, Geomicrobiologist

Figure 1: My very first expedition to Svalbard for collecting mud! The Arctic is especially vulnerable to ecosystem changes with continued climate warming. To understand these changes, we head up to 79 degrees North and look at carbon-cycling microbes to gain insight into their ecological structure and function.

My love for science was born freshman year of college when I was encouraged to ask questions about nature and began reading books about the evolutionary origin of life and the cosmos. Through reading, I found that science is the best tool that we have to understand the world around us and that we should never stop asking questions of our origins. However, big questions related to evolutionary histories, for example, require the collaboration and contribution of multiple different fields of science and so, I set out on an educational journey that would allow me to grow my scientific toolbox to encompass skills across multiple disciplines. My background in zoology taught me perspective on communities and how ecological linkages between different species can play crucial roles in how an ecosystem functions. I then delved into geoscience to gain an understanding of how organisms interact with their physical and chemical environment. Now, I evaluate sediment microbial communities and their contribution to biogeochemical cycling of nutrients with genomic sequencing analyses.

Figure 2: Example of a microbial network analysis from sediment in Svalbard. Each little symbol is a different type of microorganism, and lines connecting each symbol indicates that they share either a positive (solid) or negative (dashed) relationship. Colors indicate relatedness (same colors = same family history) and different shapes indicate how they eat. These networks can help us identify novel relationships between microorganisms and generate hypotheses about what is causing a positive or negative relationship.

I am currently using my cross-discipline training to paint a complete picture of microbial communities in Arctic sediments. My goal is to make useful contributions to models aimed at describing how continued climate warming will affect carbon cycling in the Arctic Circle. It is currently unknown if the biological feedbacks associated with glacial retreat and warming surface ocean temperatures will lead to a net carbon sink (removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) or net source (contributing to atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions). To answer these questions, I collect environmental DNA and RNA from sediments in different fjords all over Svalbard alongside geochemistry measurements. I employ microbial network analyses to find links between community members and geochemistry to unravel the hidden drivers behind microbial abundance and community composition. With genomic sequencing data and cutting-edge bioinformatics tools, I evaluate the carbon cycling potential within nearly complete microbial genomes collected from these sediments and then computationally map their genes to RNA activity in the environment. We are finding that spatial gradients in the amount and quality of organic matter control metabolic potential of sediment microbial communities.

Figure 3: Beautiful mud core. The mud in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard is a rusty red color because of the surrounding iron-rich bedrock geology. Bands of black are where iron oxide minerals form when chemical conditions are just right. The combination of sediment accumulation and biogeochemical reactions causes this lovely tiger-striped appearance.

Pursuing a career in science has allowed me to travel the world, meet new and interesting people, experience cultures different from mine, and cultivate relationships that will prove invaluable for future collaborations. I love what I do, and encourage anyone who wants to pursue a career in science to do it! My advice to aspiring young scientists is to identify a mentor you trust early on that will guide you through tough times of self-doubt that may arise, or provide strong letters of recommendation.

Follow Joy’s research and work on Twitter by clicking here!

2017 Hurricane Season Changes Lizard Population in Turks and Caicos

Hurricane-induced selection on the morphology of an island lizard
Colin M. Donihue, Anthony Herrel, Anne-Claire Fabre, Ambika Kamath, Anthony J. Geneva, Thomas W. Schoener, Jason J. Kolbe & Jonathan B. Losos

What data were used? Individuals of Anolis scriptus were captured and specific measurements (such as total length, length specific bones, longest toe on fore- and hindlimb, area of toepad) were taken of each lizard along with pictures. In the initial survey study, 71 lizards were captured and measured and in the post-hurricane study, 93 lizards were examined.

Five lizard individuals undergoing the wind behavior experiment. In the first frame for each lizard you can see that they all have the same perch tactic on the dowel as the leaf blower is turned on. By the second or third frame, it is observed that their hindlimbs are starting to have air flow under them and by the third or fourth frame their back legs have completely detached from the perch. These are the lizards that were captured after the hurricanes occurred and have larger toepads and decreased femur lengths.

Methods: After taking measurements of all lizards, a multivariate analysis of covariance was completed. This type of analysis is used when a question has many variables (in this case all of the different measurements) and you want to know if there is a significant difference between the measurements. So the researchers in this case wanted to know how different the measurements taken before Hurricanes Irma and Maria were from the measurements taken after. In addition to this statistical analysis, a behavioral study was completed to see how the observed changes in predominant body type were beneficial in withstanding hurricane force winds. This elegant study was comprised of placing a lizard on a wooden dowel surrounded by a net and padding to catch the lizard as it was blown off the dowel. A leaf blower was then turned on and “wind speed” gradually increased until the lizard could no longer hold on to the dowel.

Results: After completing the statistical analyses, it was found that the morphologies (shape) of A. scriptus on these two islands were significantly different from the morphologies of the individuals measured prior to the hurricanes. Two of the most notable changes was the increase in size of toepads on both the fore- and hindlimbs, and the decrease in femur (thigh bone) length. These changes in morphology are what led the researchers to predict that these surviving lizards had a better clinging ability. The results of the wind behavior test show that all lizards clung to the dowel in the same way with their femurs jutting out. As wind speeds increased the hindlimbs lost their grip on the dowel first, suggesting that their hindlimbs catch wind and ultimately pull them off of their perch.

Why is this study important? This study is important because Anolis lizards are known to be good examples of adaptive radiation (evolving to be better suited for many different ecological roles) and this is the first study where researchers were able to study two populations immediately preceding and shortly after two hurricanes devastated the islands they initially studied.

The big picture: Big picture, this study is important to understanding how small island populations react to severe weather events. The researchers were able to determine that this was a natural selection event because even though there was variation in morphologies, the trends all show this shift to being better suited to hold onto a perch in high winds. The next question that is addressed in this paper is whether or not this will be a permanent adaptation or if the previous level of morphological variation will be able to return. The answer to this question lies with the lizards just as much as it lies with climate change. As the Earth’s climate continues to warm and weather events continue to become more extreme and more frequent, researchers and inhabitants of these islands may see permanent shifts in the morphologies of the organisms on these islands as they adapt to be able to survive these weather extremes.

*All lizards were returned to their habitats unharmed after their capture and the following experiments*

Citation: Donihue, C. M., A. Herrel, A. Fabre, A. Kamath, A. J. Geneva, T. W. Schoener, J. J. Kolbe, J. B. Losos, 2018. Hurricane-induced selection on the morphology of an island lizard. Nature, 1-8. Data from study.

Teaching Controversial Subjects in a Conservative Area

Andy here-

Political polarization, the ever-widening divide between Right and Left in the US, is an obvious problem. We have lost our ability to communicate with one another: using different sets of ‘facts’ to back up our arguments, with the ‘facts’ depending on our side of the political spectrum. The internet has in large part facilitated this fracturing. One can spend 10 minutes on Google to find support for anything that they believe. For example, Youtube videos link to increasingly conspiratorial videos, pushing us farther apart. This loss to our collective conversation is damaging in most arenas, even in the classroom or lecture halls. When a collection of outright lies masquerading as facts meets science, it causes problems. When a student population has firmly-held beliefs in concepts that are simply not true, as a facet of their personal values or beliefs, this presents a difficult and unique challenge for an instructor. I was a visiting assistant professor in a conservative area, dealt with these issues, and hope to provide some help for those who are walking into a similar task in this post.

I loved teaching at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), enjoyed my time with both my students and colleagues. Some of this is going to read as if I was combative the entire time I was at SHSU. I wasn’t. I truly enjoyed interacting with my students (and most liked interacting with me, from reading my evaluations), especially the ones who thought about topics differently than I do. College is supposed to be about exposure to new ideas, after all. I find it difficult to let people believe in materially incorrect things however, especially when they’re detrimental to their lives, and to my own or my family’s lives. SHSU is in a very conservative area in East Texas, and my introductory, general education course covered both climate change and evolution. Covering these subjects meant that the students signing up for “Historical Geology” as an easy science credit got a more ‘controversial’ course than they expected.

To say that climate change or evolution is controversial is imprecise. Both subjects, scientifically, are not controversial, especially at the introductory level. Evolution is a multifaceted theory that is accepted by scientists and there are no competing arguments; this has been understood for 150 years. Scientists also agree that the climate has been changing for decades, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a potent greenhouse gas since Svante Arrhenius calculated the extent to which increases in CO2 can cause heating in the atmosphere (he was alive in 1859-1927). Both subjects, unfortunately, are controversial in the public’s eye. Today, 29% of the American public believe scientists do not agree that humans have evolved over timeand 32% reject the scientific fact that is human-caused climate change (and 24% are uncertain!). Walker County, TX, which SHSU is in, has 7% lower acceptance rate than the national average. When I asked my students if scientists agree or do not agree that evolution is a fundamental process describing change through time, ~20% said scientists did not agree. To say that my classes were comprised of more conservative students, with strong personal beliefs, than an average introductory science course in the US is probably accurate.

Teaching these particular students about climate change isn’t simply because it’s course material–it’s vital for them specifically. My second week of teaching was canceled entirely by the university because of the impact to the region by Hurricane Harvey. SHSU is a 45 minute drive from Houston, and areas of the town were closed. Many students were commuting from the south, and some had to miss additional classroom time. One individual had to miss many Fridays that semester because he was working on fixing his mother’s house. Climate change has a direct impact on that region, will continue to have a direct impact, and these students should be fully cognizant of their choices when acting as consumers or citizens. There is an irony to a region economically-driven by oil production reaping the consequences of climate change. That, however, doesn’t mean that the population should suffer

Flooding in Houston, Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The hurricane caused unprecedented flooding which displaced 30,000 people from their homes, causing more than $125 billion in damages. Image by urban.houstonian

Educating a student population with strongly held personal beliefs counter to course material doesn’t work well with traditional teaching methods. We not only have to teach students the material that they need them to understand for the course (past greenhouse gas changes, radiative forcing, proxy data, feedback mechanisms, etc.) but we also have to convince them of barefaced reality. We have to convince them that, no, scientists aren’t lying to them or the public. We have to convince them that we’re not in the pocket of ‘big-environment’, reaping the benefits of ‘big’ grants. We have to recover their idea that there can be legitimacy of the scientific process. If you say the words ‘climate change’ to someone of a Right ideology, they are likely to not listen to what you say afterwards because you’ve been written off as ‘far-Left’. How do you teach when your students might react that way?

A Hybrid Teaching Approach

Instructors, professors, and educators have to engage in science communication rather than teaching. Not entirely, but to a degree that can be uncomfortable. To explain: Science communication is sharing scientific results with the non-expert public. It relies heavily on a ‘values-based’ model, which is empirically more effective than the older ‘information-deficit’ model. The information-deficit model said that “People just don’t know enough, so if I explain what I know, they’ll agree with me.” That’s standard teaching. The professor explains the subject, the students take notes, everybody agrees the professor is telling the truth and that the professor has the most thorough understanding and information. The information-deficit model assumes that facts win, which simply isn’t the case.  We resist facts that don’t conform to our strongly held beliefs. It doesn’t work if everyone does not agrees that the professor has authority in the subject. If a large enough number of the class think the professor is a member of a global conspiracy of attempted wealth redistribution, then the information deficit model falls completely apart. If the information-deficit model worked, then no one walking out of a (properly taught) high school biology course would believe intelligent design or creationism. That’s simply not the case.

The values-model says that the communicator (professor, instructor, educator) establishes shared values with their audience and communicates with them in a back-and-forth exchange.  They then explain why a scientific concept is important to them, and why it should also be important for those who share the same values. That’s not teaching, in the purest sense, because it’s broader than just pure information conveying. That’s also not possible in the lectures we frequently find ourselves teaching.

Let’s assume that our goal is to take students who are uncertain about climate change, or don’t believe that evolution has occurred through time, and get them to accept scientific truths. Information-deficit isn’t going to get us to students accepting the truth, if we’re dealing with a resistant population. While not all of my students were resistant, I like to ‘swing for the fences’ and get everybody to understand concepts. Past students said they liked the ‘nobody left behind’ classroom ethos I set out. The values-model is uncomfortable for scientists, in particular. A scientific-upbringing, like one has while you get a Ph.D., prizes the ultra-rational and eschews ‘values’ for data (click here for a discussion about science being inherently political). 

Blending both the values-based and information-deficit models of teaching might be the right approach. We need to communicate information, but if we demonstrate to students why the subject matters, how it fits with their previously held ideas, or even provide space for them to blend their faith with known biology, then we move them away from irrational, ill-placed skepticism.

I had these concepts gnawing at the back of my head while I was teaching my introductory course (Historical Geology). There was one particular moment that help me see a blending as the correct way forward. In class I occasionally asked students to submit anonymous questions to me on note cards about either impending or just-covered subject material. I’m one of the only research-centric scientists these students might ever meet, and I know from conversations with students that they have questions that weren’t covered in the course. Sometimes I answered the note card questions in lecture alongside the regular material, like in my climate lectures. Other times they exchanged cards with 5 other people, then the last person decided if they wanted to ask that now-anonymous question right then. At the end of my evolution section I got the question “What are your values?” from a student. I used my answer to that question as my first slide when discussing climate change.

That’s me sharing a value that most folks should share: that truth is important, something that we should respect. I used it to set the stage for a series of lectures on climate change that talks primarily about the mechanism and past examples, but also talked about climate models, future projections, and why we’re still arguing about it.

The following are my suggestions for how to teach a subject that folks in your classes think is controversial.

Basic Structure

I opted for an overt structure to the roughly two weeks that I discussed climate change. I went methodically through a series of questions, going from “What can change climate?” to “Has climate changed in the past?” and “Why might it matter?”. Touching back to the objections that folks have to climate change and systematically explaining why they are wrong is useful, and makes a really compelling way to organize your lectures. Just be sure not to reinforce the incorrect material by stating it as a statement, rather phrase them as questions. So, you shouldn’t say things like “‘Climate changes all the time, so it doesn’t matter if it does now’ is wrong”, instead it should be “Has climate changed in the past? Yes, but here’s why that’s important”.

Spend Time with Contrarian ‘Evidence’

I had a student bring up a conspiracy theory: the Rothschilds were funding research in climate change and if the research came up counter to human-caused climate change they’d bury it. The student then brought up a ‘fact’ which I’d never encountered before, which they said had been buried by the Rothschilds company. The fact was counter to a huge amount of real research. All I was able to do in the moment was to explain the way things really are, but if the student has decided that the underlying data is falsified it’s difficult to counter. Since then, all I’ve been able to find is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory from the Napoleonic Wars and a Democratic DC Council member talking about how the Rothschilds control the weather. I still do not know where the student got their ‘fact’. I feel like I was under prepared to handle that interaction.

The index card activity that I mentioned above allowed me time to prep for these kinds of questions from my students, when I ask them for questions for the next lecture. I prompt them with “What’s a question that you’ve always wanted to ask a climate scientist? Something you heard about that sounds wrong or is confusing?”. On the spot, it’s difficult to do the due-diligence of tracking down the source of the student’s misconception. A student in another class wrote a question about Al Gore’s prediction of a sea-ice free Arctic Ocean by a certain deadline. The student missed several key points; it was about Arctic summer ice, Gore is not a scientist, the actual analysis Gore got that from was correct, Gore just used the most pessimistic number rather than the scientists preferred value, etc. Those aren’t facts I keep in my head, but I was able to collate them and present them one-after-the-other as a way to dismantle that piece of misinformation.

One way to view the interactions is as an accidental “Gish Gallop”. Dwayne T. Gish was a debater of evolutionary biologists. He was infamous for his rapid-fire objections to evolutionary science. He would place a simple objection, “There are no transitional forms,” and then another and another, then the scientist would need to explain why that’s clearly not true. The explanation requires a great deal more time. Any unanswered objection is then assumed by the audience to be correct. Such is the way in these classes. If you don’t clarify or correct a student’s point, that point is assumed to be correct, at least by the students you’re trying to reach the most, the ones that don’t accept the legitimacy of climate or evolutionary science.

In an ideal world a student would say, “Did you know crazy-thing-X?” and you respond, “I saw that somewhere, but that’s completely wrong because of A-B-C-D, and have you considered that person-backing-X does so because of E-F-G?”. It’s easier to catch something out of left field if you have some knowledge of the outfield.

Consider Your Approach

Telling somebody to their face that they’re an idiot for voting for somebody might be both cathartic and true sometimes, but it’s not that effective. Changing minds doesn’t involve hurling epithets, even if the president and his supporters are doing it (please see section My Perspective below for an important caveat). Scientists have facts on our side. Proving your point without literally cursing the name of the current president during a lecture in class is more effective than adding “*&@^ Trump”. Are you just venting your own frustration or are you trying to actively convince these folks who are wrong to join the correct side? By all means, force your students to grapple with the underlying long-term consequences of their voting choices, if they voted for him, but do it in the most effective way possible. Yelling at them is just going to stop them from listening.

An example: three students and I are having a conversation that explicitly turns to voting for Trump*. One student voted for Trump because Trump was going to redistribute wealth to the little guy, the other voted for Trump because Trump was going to engage in trickle-down economics (a failed style of economic policy that gives taxes breaks to the ultra-wealthy that then increases economic benefit down the class structure [it fundamentally does not work]). I tried to make sure they realized that they voted for him for polar opposite reasons, and that at least one of them had to be wrong about what Trump would do in office. Just like we try to do in education: making them walk down the path themselves, providing a guiding hand when necessary, and not just telling them, is more effective than yelling it at them (I’ll admit I laughed at the idea that trickle-down economics would actually be effective, but it took me by surprise).

I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the students perceived me as the messenger. I am originally from the Northern Midwest, where “hey guys” is a gender-nonspecific greeting for a group. In Texas it’s “y’all”, which is actually gender-nonspecific, unlike guys which is just used as nonspecific while being male. It’s very easy to adopt regionalisms accidentally or when it appeals to you for good reason. I’m living in the UK now and I’ve no reason to start saying trousers but I have. I fought the “y’all” change because it felt like the students would perceive me trying to co-opt their language to be more like them, which if you add me trying to push them away from strongly held viewpoints, would lead to resentment.

*This happened without me trying to get the conversation there. I try to discuss the political issues with my students, not the individuals involved in politics, when possible.

Talk Politics

One of the questions that stuck out in my mind most from the folks who already accepted and had seemed like they might have a solid understanding of climate change was “Why do some people not believe in climate change?”.

Besides the word ‘believe’ in there, it’s a really astute question. Why is it? The physical basis is solid and fairly simple. The question ends up being more of a social science question. Leaving that unanswered though, falls into a serious trap. If you’re presenting the physical science of climate change you leave questions in your students’ minds. They know there’s another side to the ‘debate’. While the ‘there are two sides to every story’ journalism trope has plenty of faults, we’re conditioned to expect to hear the other side’s opinions. So cover it! Without it you seem like you’re trying to obfuscate.

Explain how the Pope, the U.S. Department of Defense, and all oil companies have statements affirming that climate change is real. Go to Open Secrets and show them where the lobbying money goes (mostly Republicans, with the occasional Democrat from an Oil state like North Dakota). Talk about the fight to remove lead from gasoline (which has a great connection to the age of the Earth), or talk about cancer and tobacco litigation.  I also try to explain to students about the Dunning-Kruger effect and how confident non-experts can be when discussing topics (which explains the bulk of the internet). Explain how you can simply say the words “Climate change” to someone on the right and they erect a mental wall, not hearing anything after. Explain that the divide on climate change acceptance can be attributed strongly to political party. It is scientifically shown that climate change is a a political issue . By ducking the question you’re doing a disservice to your students.

Judging Pseudo-scientific crap (fact checking?)

A basic understanding of how to engage in sniffing out pseudoscience is useful these days. There are folks peddling all sorts of incorrect information, and students should be inoculated to that. It’s certainly relevant to climate change, where on social media stories about how climate change is all faked go viral very quickly. Giving students a primer on how to suss out lies, misinformation, and disinformation is important in your class and literally every other!

Individual Actions vs. Community Actions

Lastly, while this might lose your conservative students, it’s important to discuss with your students the actions that can be taken. While individual actions are useful and important, we all have our roles to play in conservation, those individual actions aren’t going to solve anything by themselves. The issue in climate change isn’t solved by one, two, or a hundred people starting to recycle (though that is a good end), it’s systemic change that is required to fix this problem. The end goal of doing this is to motivate the students to vote or to engage with their policy makers in some fashion. Them driving less is important, but the impact is not of the magnitude that we need.

I’m deeply uncomfortable with advocating for individual solutions. As a physical scientist teaching a physical science course at a public institution, it’s not really my purview to go into what solutions are politically feasible, unless asked. I explain the situation, I go through some of the solutions we have, and the implication is that the most effective one is to get involved politically. Because it is. That’s the solution to the community action; to involve the community in solving the problem.

My perspective

All of this has been from my individual perspective. I’m a straight white dude in my thirties. I look, and probably outwardly project, a more traditional set of values than I actually hold. That affords me a whole lot of privilege in certain situations. Particularly in conservative areas there’s a baseline respect that comes with students having to call you ‘Sir’, ‘Doctor’, or ‘Professor’. It works, I think, really well to act as a Trojan horse for these students as someone who is not immediately othered within their views. For example, I don’t appear as and am not queer, so there aren’t quick barriers thrown up that my views or perspective is from ‘one of them’, similar to how when the words “climate change” are used, conservative individuals ignore the rest of the argument made.

So your mileage may vary. This advice may not work, some might actually be horribly counter productive for somebody who doesn’t have a similar background or the assumed respect that goes with being a white, male professor. I chose to keep my preferred pronouns out of my email signature while at SHSU, because that’s a clear sign I’m a lefty. Part of my privilege is that it’s not a life-and-death or job-or-no-job situation for me to fight for those rights. I don’t have the level of righteous anger of someone marginalized, targeted, or worse by our government, which allows me the privilege to not having to worry about getting into many possible unsafe situations. I opted to not engage on some issues in my first semester teaching, and to only deal with very specific battles. Making sure that I taught my course material, including those viewed as political, as effectively as possible seemed like a good first step.

 

 

Prof. Richard Damian Nance, Structural Geologist

Type locality of the 460-440 million-year-old megacrystic Esperanza granitoids, Acatlán Complex, southern Mexico.

I am a field-based structural geologist and I have been in love with geology for as long as I can remember. If you like a good “whodunit” then geology is an endless delight. All science is about inquiry and analysis, but geology is more than this – it involves the imagination. Like a good detective novel, geology provides incomplete evidence that must be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing to come up with a story or, in my case, a picture of the past.

My interests lie in plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle, and the influence of these global processes on crustal evolution, mantle circulation, climate, sea level and the biosphere. To tackle such a wide field requires a broad geological background. I am interested in any evidence in the rock record pertaining to the Earth’s changing geography with time. So I collect data on structural kinematics, magmatic environments, depositional settings and provenance, and metamorphic history. I also date rocks and analyze their chemistry and isotopic signatures. I even collect fossils! In this way I try to interpret the geologic history of broad regions so that I can reconstruct past continental configurations and thereby evaluate the causes and effects of Earth’s moving continents and the long-term geologic, climatic and biological consequences of their episodic assembly into supercontinents.

Paleogeographic map of the Rheic Ocean, which separated the southern continents (Gondwana) from the northern continents (Laurentia and Baltica) for much of the Paleozoic Era. The map attempts to reposition the continents in Early Silurian time, about 440 million years ago.

This “big picture” approach to geology suits me well because there is really no aspect of the science that doesn’t fascinate me. For me, geology has not just provided a fantastic career, it has been a lifelong passion. When I joined the Humphrey Davy grammar school in the UK at the age of 12, I came under the spell of a truly exceptional teacher by the name of Bob Quixley. Mr. Quixley taught geography, but his real delight was geology and his enthusiasm for the subject, and the blackboard artwork he crafted to convey it, were addictive. For a period of five years, he had us captivated and, in testament to his influence, no fewer than five of my classmates and I went on to university and careers in geology.

It was a decision I have never questioned. Geology embraces everything that makes a career rewarding. It is important, it matters to both science and society, it is varied and interesting, it takes place in the field and the classroom as well as the office, it pays well and, most of all, it is a lot of fun!

A dangerous game. Checking my undergraduate field mapping 35 years later on a UN-sponsored international field trip to Cornwall and the Lizard ophiolite (a piece of ocean floor linked to the Rheic Ocean) in SW England.

What, you might ask, have supercontinents to do with anything that society cares about? Well, what we don’t grow, we mine, and plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle play a vital role in the search for mineral deposits and energy resources. They also help us understand the natural environment, the distribution of our water resources and the origin of geologic hazards. They additionally influence Earth’s climate and so help us to determine what happens when climate changes, and whether the climate change we are witnessing today is of human origin or a natural phenomena. And this just touches the surface.

So if you are studying geology or think about doing so, I strongly encourage you to continue. I have never met a geologist who didn’t love what they were doing, and to be paid to do what you love is worth a fortune!

The Bay of Fundy, Part 2

High tide at the Sea Caves in St. Martin, New Brunswick. Far out in the distance are quite large caves, but you can’t see them due to the high tide!

This is the final post in the series of the geology of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. To recap for those of you who might not have read my first post, I documented all the geology I saw recently on a vacation my husband and I took to Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. This is the second post all about the geology of the Bay of Fundy! This one, though, will talk about the famous rocks of the bay and how they got the unusual shapes that made them famous. Remember, the Bay of Fundy is famous because it has the highest tides on Earth.

Scenic photo of an overlook at the Fundy National Parkway

So what do these tides do to the rocks? To answer this, let’s first go to St. Martin, to the famous Sea Caves. You might be looking at this first image and think “what caves!”? Well, this first image is taken at high tide, so the caves are almost entirely underwater. High and low tide were separated by about six hours, so we saw high tide, admired the lovely scenery, and drove to see the Fundy Trail Parkway, a park that you can drive or hike the entire way through for some GORGEOUS scenery. There are spots to pull over and get out, hike short distances, or just look out from a cliff to see some beautiful sites. Here’s a picture overlooking the Bay of Fundy – remember, these lovely coastlines were largely created by the formation, movement, and melting of glaciers.

Low tide at the Sea Caves in St. Martin. This is taken at the same distance from the caves as the image from high tide.

We returned to the Sea Caves to see it at low tide-take a look! This picture is from the SAME spot, give or take a few feet. This photo should show you the height and amount of water moved by tides every day in the Bay of Fundy. The presence of these caves is due to mechanical weathering-literally, the waves associated with the tides coming in and out are quite strong and they break down the rocks. Thousands of years of these waves have created immense caves and crevasses. Once you are able to walk across the seafloor at low tide, you can truly appreciate just how incredibly large these caves are and just how strong the tides are! Here’s an image of me inside one of the caves!

I’m standing at the very back of one of these sea caves!
As we walk across the seafloor, you can see how large these cave systems really are-they’ve been created by thousands of years of strong wave action, something we call mechanical weathering.

There’s one last thing I want to point out about these tides-the effect that they have on living creatures! Snails and barnacles live in high abundance all over the area affected by low tide and these creatures find incredible ways to survive when the low tide means that they aren’t covered by water! Snails will gather in small cracks in rocks where water will pool; barnacles will form more in shadier areas, so the rocks will remain more damp than those exposed to the sun. Sometimes, snails will hang on to a piece of algae just to survive until the water comes back! Check out this image of a snail holding on for dear life!

Snails have methods to survive low tide-this snail is clinging to a piece of algae to survive until the water comes back into the area. This picture makes me think of Jurassic Park and the famous line “Life, uh, finds a way”

Now, let’s travel north to Hopewell Park, where the most famous rocks from the Bay of Fundy are. First, let’s look at the difference between low and high tide. These images are taken just about 4 hours apart. So the rock you see here was broken off from the cliffs due to chemical weathering-water percolating through cracks and breaking them apart. But, the odd shape that you see now, where the rock is much narrower on the bottom-that’s due to mechanical weathering. Wave action over thousands of years has caused these shapes to form. These rocks CAN fall without warning (and have, even recently), so park rangers are always making sure to look for signs of instability.

Low tide at Hopewell Rocks. These rocks are HUGE!

To really experience high tide, my husband and I signed up to kayak through these rocks. To say that the waves here were strong is an understatement! The waves were cresting at just under 4ft-so imagine sitting down on the beach front-you’d be completely covered (if you were curious, kayaking in 4ft waves and high winds was a blast, but also a little terrifying!)! Here’s an up close picture of that same rock you saw in the previous two pictures, from the kayak! Now you can really see where the rock is narrowed at the base-the line between the narrow and wider part of the rock marks the highest the tides can go.

High tide at Hopewell Rocks. Park rangers have to close this off quickly when the tide starts coming back in, to prevent people from being swept in the strong waves.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! I think one of the most important things I can say here is that this trip made me rediscover my love of geology. Sometimes, when you work long hours every day as a geologist, it can become a little hard to remember just why you love it. If you’re feeling that way, I encourage you to get out and go explore for a little while- a few hours, or even a few months, if you can!

An image of the rocks from the kayak at high tide. Take a look at how wave action has shaped this rock, from how it narrows at the base and has a large crack in the center.

Picking Foraminifera for Stable Isotope Analyses

Adriane here-

I am beginning to finish one of my dissertation chapters, which means I am starting on a new research project! But first, let me explain (for those who may not know) what a dissertation is: A dissertation is a compilation of three papers, or as we in academia call them, chapters. Each chapter is meant to eventually be published in a scientific journal, as each one is a separate research project or study. Some PhD programs may be different, but at my university, we usually have 3 chapters in our dissertations; in other words, in order to gain a PhD, we have to conduct 3 separate research projects.

Sea surface temperature map of the northwest Pacific Ocean (see inset map at top left). Here, the major ocean currents are labeled by white arrows. The Kuroshio Current flows along the eastern coast of Japan, where it meets the cold-water Oyashio Current. Around 35 degrees north, the Kuroshio Current flows into the Pacific Ocean, where it becomes the Kuroshio Current Extension. The three sites I’m working with are plotted on the map (Sites 1207, 1208, and 1209).

The new project that I am beginning is to reconstruct the ‘behavior’ of the Kuroshio Current Extension. This current, which I’ll call the KCE, is a western boundary current. Western boundary currents flow along the western edge of ocean basins. The KCE flows along the east coast of Japan, on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. Western boundary currents are quite important because they transport really warm waters from the equator northward to higher latitudes. This warm water that is transported towards the poles provides water vapor to the atmosphere. Thus, these currents, to some extent, control weather patterns (such as rain). But western boundary currents, and especially the KCE, are very important areas for wildlife as well. Where the KCE is forms what is called an ecotone. An ecotone is a region where two biological regions come into contact. Here, within the KCE, species that live in warm waters are able to mix with species that live in cooler waters. This makes for a very diverse (a lot of different species) area within the KCE. Even corals, who can only tolerate warmer waters, are found at their furthest poleward extent in the KCE region. And associated with corals and coral reefs are fish and their predators. So, the KCE region is an important region to local Japanese fisheries.

By now you might be wondering why all this background on the KCE matters. Because the area within the KCE is so important from a climate, biological, and economical perspective, it’s important to understand how the current will behave (shift to the north or south, increase or decrease transport capacity) under climate change. Right now, we have direct measurements of the KCE that indicate the current is beginning to slowly shift northward. But how much will the current shift? How will this affect the food chain in this region? To begin answering these questions, geoscientists often go back in time to investigate these systems during times of elevated global warmth. Thus, I will be reconstructing the sea surface temperature at three sites that cross the KCE during a more recent warm period in Earth’s history, called the mid-Pliocene Warm Period.

In 2001, there were three sites in the ocean that scientists collected sediment cores from. These three cores were collected to the north of, directly under, and to the south of the modern-day position of the KCE. I’m using sediment taken from the cores collected at these three sites to reconstruct the position of the current from 5 to 2.5 million years ago. But how will I do this?

When a specimen of Globigerinoides ruber or Globigerinoides obliquus is found from a sediment sample, it’s picked out with a paintbrush and some water and plopped into this labeled slide. The numbers at the top are the sample number.

To reconstruct sea surface temperatures, we need to measure stable isotopes of carbon and oxygen (read more about these two proxies on our ‘Isotopes’ page). Namely, oxygen is the most commonly used proxies to reconstruct temperature, and carbon is more commonly used to determine how productivity (or, more simply, how many nutrients were in the water column) through time. We measure isotopes of carbon and oxygen from the shells of planktic foraminifera.

This is one of the small weighing trays I use to weigh the specimens that are picked from the sediment samples. Each tray has a number associated with it (see sticker at bottom right).

The first step in this study is to ‘pick’ planktic foraminifera. This means that within each sediment sample within my 5-2.5 million year time interval, I sprinkle sediment into a tray and, with a paintbrush, literally pick out a certain species of foraminifera. The species that I’m using in this study is called Globigerinoides ruber. I just call them ‘rubers’ for short. This species of foraminifera is useful because it is still alive (extant) in today’s oceans, and because of that, scientists know exactly where this species likes to hang out in the water column. Rubers live in the upper part of the surface ocean, so they effectively record the conditions of the ocean’s surface, which is great!

Once I have picked out enough specimens from a sample (which ranges from 10 to 20), I weigh the specimens in an aluminum tray on a very sensitive scale. I need about 150 micro grams of rubers per sample for a good isotopic measurement.

After I have weighed the specimens, I then take my paintbrush and put them, one at a time, into a small plastic vial that is numbered. I also have a spreadsheet where I record all of the information, such as the number of specimens picked per sample, the empty weight of the aluminum tray, the weight of the tray and specimens (so that I can then calculate the weight of just the specimens), and the vial number that corresponds to each sample.

Plastic snap-top vials that each have a number. After the specimens are weighed in the aluminum trays, I then transfer them to these vials. I’ll mail these to another university, where the specimens will be analyzed.

I put the specimens in a vial with a very tight snap-cap because I will send all my samples to another university for isotopic measurements. We could do the measurements at my university, but the machine that we use to do this is not properly calibrated to make measurements off of foraminifera. But lucky for me, I have some awesome collaborators that do have machines that are finely tuned to take isotopic measurements from foraminifera!

Once vialed, the samples will be mailed off to the University of Missouri for isotopic measurements. It usually takes anywhere from 1-3 months for my collaborator there to run all my samples. When he is finished, I’ll receive a spreadsheet with the measurements. I’ll plot these data through time. Then, the fun part: I get to make interpretations about my data! I’ll use these data to track changes in the KCE through time, and also to correlate evolution and extinction events of planktic foraminifera to changes in sea surface temperature through time!