Southeastern Geological Society of America Meeting

Jen and Cam here –

Cam ready to present his poster!

This past March we attended the Southeastern Geological Society of America Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Adriane and Jen set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money to support Cam’s travel to the event. This endeavor resulted in a fully funded conference for Cam – and his first professional geology conference experience. If you are interested in reading the abstract we submitted click here.

Cam presented a poster on our use of the #FossilFriday hash tag on social media. His poster was on Thursday morning and he was constantly busy! The data we collected to assess the success of the hash tag was from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Analytics. We looked at how many people the Fossil Friday posts reach and then how many people interacted with the posts – this includes shares, reactions, comments, and clicks on the post. The metrics are slightly different for each social media platform. We also wanted to see if these posts were increasing traffic to the site or if the engagement was mostly constrained to the social media platforms.

These posts are often our highest performing posts – meaning they reach a large amount of people and many of these people interact with the content. So we gathered all of the social media data, calculated a rate of engagement for each post on each platform, and then compared this to our overall site traffic data from Google Analytics. We found that this hashtag did not bring more traffic to our website, even though they are reaching many people outside of our normal community.

This was the very first scientific conference I (Cam) was able to have the pleasure of attending. It was also the first time I did a poster presentation. At the beginning I was quite nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from SE GSA. It wasn’t until I met Jen Bauer that I become comfortable. I did practice sessions with Adriane and Jen many times via Google Hangouts, but I still had a difficult time explaining the information on the poster. When the day for me to present my poster came, I was excited and yet still nervous. I did a practice session with Jen early in the morning and I finally felt confident and motivated. While at GSA I met so many paleontologists. Many of the paleontologists I met already knew me from my constant activity on social media. This just shows how many positives outcomes can come from social media and networking. I didn’t feel out of place at GSA either. Everyone was so nice and welcoming. It was like a big family. There was also a good amount of diversity as well. There was a great amount of scientists with so many different research backgrounds. I received many encouraging words and advice as well.

Crocodile lower jaw (Galvialosuchus) from the collections at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History.
Crocodile lower jaw (Galvialosuchus) from the collections at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History.

On the last day at SE GSA I was invited by my good friends and paleontologists Bobby and Sarah Boessenecker to the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History which is part of the Charleston College to check out the fossil preparation lab and the vertebrate fossil collections. The cetacean (whale, dolphin, and porpoises) fossils were absolutely stunning. I was able to see Dr. Boessenecker clean a whale skull still encased in matrix (rock or sediment that the fossil was found in) that has not yet been published. I was told that the whale was not only a new species but it probably belonged to a new group as well. It’s not everyday you get to see a new species of fossil organism being cleaned right in front of you. Overall, my first GSA trip was great and I can’t wait to embark on other scientific conferences in the future.

Check out Cam talking more about his experience here:

We (Jen and Adriane) hope that one day we can provide more opportunities like this for up-and-coming geologists and paleontologists through Time Scavengers! It was a whirlwind of a few days but Cam greatly benefited from the experience of engaging and networking with so many professionals. He has a wide network of friends on Facebook and many people were very excited to see him in person! One Facebook friend even brought him supplies for his outreach work.

Jen recorded herself describing the poster, check it out here:

I, Jen, also brought several students up from the FOSSIL project to talk about work they have been doing analyzing social media as a tool for reaching audiences online. The two project interns spoke about their work with Instagram. Sam Ocon examined how we can evaluate Instagram stories for their success (abstract here). So thinking about how many people watch a story through to completion and if users interact with the different engagement tools. Mary Jane looked at what sort of Instagram content performs best in terms of posts (abstract here). This has been worked on by our colleagues for some time on Facebook and Twitter so we used their work as a baseline and determined that posts that have informational content and opportunities to visit a museum, apply for job, etc. do the best in terms of users stop to interact with the post, share the post, and so on. MacKenzie spoke about his work with creating YouTube videos and if there was a type of video that performed better in the first 30 days (abstract here). His data was a little all over the place but in general the shift in creating shorter more information filled videos has been beneficial for the channel.

A few of our shark friends came up with us too from the department you can read their abstracts here and here.

It was really great getting to see some old friends from the University of Tennessee at the meeting. I got to catch up with a lot of close geology friends. These small meetings are so excellent and I really enjoy helping prepare students for their first academic conference!

MacKenzie presenting his talk on the FOSSIL YouTube channel!
Sam presenting her poster on Instagram stories!
Mary Jane presenting her poster on Instagram post content!

Dr. Laurie Brown, Geophysicist and Paleomagnetist

Dr. Laurie Brown getting ready to drill a 2.5 million year old lava flow in southern Patagonia, Argentina.

How did you become interested in science?

I always enjoyed the outdoors, growing up outside a small town in upstate New York.  Camping trips with my family took me to many national parks and the wonders of the Western US.  In 8th grade I had a great Earth Science course, which I loved, but I somehow did not connect it as a career path.  I went off the Middlebury College in Vermont to enjoy the mountains and skiing, but majored in Math because it was easy for me.  By Senior year I decided to take a Geology course as an elective (because I liked mountains) and by the second week I was hooked!  It was initially the idea of working outdoors in wild and scenic places that attracted me, but I soon learned there were wonderful scientific problems aplenty.  It was 1968 (yes, I am of that generation!) and the concept of Plate Tectonics was just emerging.  Luckily, I had a wonderful professor teaching the year sequence of Physical and Historical Geology and he brought into class the latest scientific discoveries and made the course exciting and provocative.  He also encouraged me to go to Grad School with my one year of Geology, but lots of Math, Physics, and Chemistry, and the rest is history!

What do you do?

I have been a University professor for 45 years, the last 5 as Emeritus.  Being a professor at a major research university means you do many things, all at the same time!  I taught courses in Geophysics at the undergrad and grad level, as well as other courses needed by my department including Oceanography, Field Methods, Field Mapping, Physical Geology, and Tectonophysics.  I mentored students at all levels, both those in my classes and those working in my lab.  I ran a research program including Masters and PhD students where we worked together both in the field and in my paleomagnetism laboratory.  And, as is common in academia, I did a considerable amount of service for my department, my university, and my profession.

Paleomagnetic cores from Patagonia, cut and labeled, and ready to be measured!

What is your research?

I study the Earth’s magnetic field as it is recorded in earth materials- the field of paleomagnetism.  When rocks form – igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic –they are able to retain a record of the current magnetic field within magnetic minerals (magnetite and hematite primarily) in the rock.  Samples can be collected from these rocks millions of years later and the original field measured for both direction and magnitude.

Field aspects of my research involve collecting oriented samples from in situ outcrops and locations.  Currently I work mostly with hard rocks, both young volcanic flows and ancient metamorphic rocks.  I drill samples from these units using an adapted chain saw with a 1 inch diamond bit, water-cooled to preserve the diamonds.  Usually 8-10 cores are drilled at each site (lava flow or outcrop) and all are oriented in place with a sun compass.  This produces many samples; my current project in southern Patagonia involves 120 separate lava flows, and over 1000 cores!  Paleomagnetic studies also can be done on sedimentary rocks, also drilled in the field, and on lake and ocean cores, where samples are collected from the sediment once the cores are split open.

Measuring basalt cores on the cryongenic magnetometer in the Paleomagnetic Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Laboratory measurements are performed on a cryogenic magnetometer in my Paleomagnetism Laboratory here at UMass.  It only takes a few minutes to measure the magnetization in a single sample, but a number of tests for stability and reproducibility are required before the data can be interpreted.  Samples are demagnetized in a step-wise fashion using either high temperatures (up to 700°C) or alternating magnetic fields.  We often measure other magnetic properties of the samples, including magnetic susceptibility (measured both in the field and on lab samples) and hysteresis properties.  Microscopic work or SEM studies help us to identify the carriers of the magnetization.

Current Projects.  I am working at both ends of Earth history as current projects include a major study of paleomagnetic directions from young (< 10 myrs) lava flows from southern South America.  These rocks are being used to investigate how the Earth ’s magnetic field varies in the Southern Hemisphere over the last 10 million years.  Other projects are looking at very old rocks in northern Canada where I study the variations in magnetization in a piece of ancient lower crust, now exposed at the surface, and studies of 900 million year old intrusive rocks in southern Norway that are helping us reconstruct the Earth at a time when all the continents were together in a supercontinent called Rodinia.

Magnetic susceptibility meter on a 1.8 billion year old dike intruding 2.2 billion year old metamorphic rocks, Athabasca Granulite Terrane, northern Canada.

How does your research contribute to climate change and evolution?

Paleomagnetism is able to contribute to studies of climate change, evolution, and the history of the Earth by providing additional methods to both correlate sequences and unconnected outcrops, and by providing additional information on geologic age.  The geomagnetic time scale of normal and reversed polarities is well established, and using this magnetostratigraphy enables us to date sedimentary sequences, and to identify similar sequences in other locations.  Measuring the paleomagnetism of deep-sea cores is so well established that the large drilling ships have on-board magnetic laboratories.  Although I am not doing this kind of magnetic work at present, many other labs are, providing important constraints on the timing and correlation of climatic proxies and many parts of the fossil record.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Persevere!  Find that special part of geoscience that intrigues you and work hard to be the best you can at it.  Take all the various opportunities that are available to you, and see where you go!  There will be ups and downs, but as a career the Geosciences provide many positive and productive possibilities.  With over 50 years of activity in the Geosciences, I can easily say I have never lost my joy of working with and on the Earth and the many interesting problems and challenges it provides.  You, alone, may not solve all the problems facing our planet, but you will greatly contribute to our knowledge of the Earth – its evolution, its history, and its constantly changing environment.  And, along the way, you will interact with a number of other awesome scientists, get to see much of the world, and provide a rewarding and enjoyable career for yourself.

Plankton Photo Shoot Part II: Creating the Perfect Image

Adriane here-

This post is a follow-up to one I wrote previously called ‘Plankton Photo Shoot‘. In that post, I described how I take images of my fossil plankton using a scanning electron microscope, or SEM. But that was really just the first phase of taking images. In this post, I’ll talk a bit about what I do with the SEM images once I have them, and how I clean them up.

After I have SEM images, I save them to a few different folders. When taking images of fossil plankton, we usually take several pictures of the same specimen: one of the spiral side, the umbilical side (think of this as your back and front), and one of the side view of the specimen. After the images are organized into the appropriate folder that corresponds to the side of the plankton I took an image of, I then begin the editing process!

This is a screenshot of an image of a plankton species called Globorotalia tumida. Here, the image is imported into Adobe Photoshop.

The first thing I do is open the image I want to work with in Adobe Photoshop. Once imported, I then use the ‘Quick Selection’ tool to draw an outline around the fossil. I do this so I can copy and past just the image of the fossil into a new document and cut out the background. One I have the fossil isolated, then the real fun begins!

This is another screenshot of the fossil isolated from the background using the ‘Quick Selection’ tool in Photoshop.

The first thing I do with an isolated fossil image is to zoom into the image. The reason I do this is because I want to inspect the image to see how well the ‘Quick Selection’ tool worked. Sometimes, if an image does not have a lot of contrast, or the background looks the same color as the fossil, some of the background will be included in the selection. If this happens, I then use the Eraser tool to go around the outside edges of the image. This makes the image more crisp and defined!

This is what the fossil image looks like when I zoom into the image at 400x magnification. The edges already look quite good, but notice there is a small gray ‘halo’ around the image, which is especially apparent on the left side.

This is what the image looks like after using the eraser tool on the edges of the image. You can’t tell too much, if any, of a difference, but it does help give the image a bit more definition! I also delete the white background before I save the image as a .PNG file type (.PNG files don’t have a background, which is great because then I can put the image against any color background I want to later).

The final image! From here, the image is saved as a .PNG file for later use!

And that’s it! I now have a beautiful fossil image that will be used later in a publication! Of course I have to repeat this process for each fossil (which, right now, I have over 200 to edit!). Stay tuned for Part III of Plankton Photo Shoot, where I’ll show you how these images will be displayed in a publication for other scientists!

Studying Paleontology Communities on Social Media

Jen here –

A good portion of the FOSSIL Project team are in the UF College of Education and I’ve been trying to learn all that I can about studying learning in digital spaces. A recent grad, Dr. Lisa Lundgren, worked to determine who were the members of the myFOSSIL online community. She developed a taxonomic system to describe who was interacting on myFOSSIL. I’ve been a participant within the community since 2014 when it began so I have been really interested in her work. One of the primary goals of the project is to connect professional and amateur paleontologists. I wrote about her defense on my personal blog, which you can find by clicking here.

So, now that Lisa has produced a framework (Paleontological Identity Taxonomy (PIT), read more here) to begin examining and analyzing the community the education team is really diving into it. I was asked to join one of the projects they are working on to analyze a year’s worth of Twitter data. The idea being to explore who major contributors are on Twitter in relation to FOSSIL. Are there certain people that may catalyze interactions? How do these people fit into the taxonomic framework that has been previously established?

This project is using both qualitative and quantitative methods. In my normal work, I primarily use quantitative work to assess various things in my chosen fossil group. Diving into the qualitative work was a bit challenging at first but really interesting once I fully understood what I was doing. We were working to classify users within the FOSSIL Project’s Twitter community. This involved going through each person’s Twitter biography to determine how they fit into the PIT. Such as, in their bio do they identify as a scientist? What type of scientist? Or are they a member of the public? If they are a member of the public do they have an interest in fossils? I haven’t had much exposure to how different scientists study learning or communication so I’m really excited to be part of this project. Lisa will be presenting results at the upcoming 10th International Conference on Social Media & Society Conference in Toronto this summer.

As Time Scavengers continues to grow as a community, we need to make sure we understand how to analyze all of the data we have been collecting and if there are best practices for different types of questions we are asking! I have made valuable connections within the education team that have already shown to be beneficial as Adriane and I are teaming up with Lisa on a manuscript right now!

Meet the Museum: McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture

Jen here –

Outside the McClung Museum with Monty, the Edmontosaurus!
The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture is located in Knoxville, Tennessee on the University of Tennessee campus. The museum is open from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Monday through Saturday and 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm on Sunday. The museum is free to the public with special paid events. There are a variety of education opportunities from pre-K to lifelong learners, click here to find out more. Inviting you into the museum facilities is large metal Edmontosaurus, a delightful hadrosaur (duck billed dinosaur) named Monty. The museum has regular ‘Family Fun Days’ and an annual ‘Can you dig it?’ event to celebrate geology and archaeology. Read about the most recent Can you dig it? event by clicking here and check out the McClung’s event page by clicking here.

The McClung Museum has several permanent exhibits and one rotating exhibit. Please look through their exhibit archive by clicking here to see the upcoming, special, permanent, and past exhibitions!

Jen in the Geology Gallery with the fossil summer camp group!
On the main level you can explore the Geology & Fossil History of Tennessee from 500 million years ago until the most recent Ice Age all while a mosasaur hangs from the ceiling above you. Around the corner you can explore Archaeology & the Native Peoples of Tennessee through a variety of artifacts and interactive displays based on more than 65 years of research done at UT. By entering through a pyramid doorway you are transported to Ancient Egypt: The Eternal Voice where you can explore the interested culture of the ancient people of the Nile valley. The last exhibit on the main level is the Decorative Experience that explores art as one of the unifying elements of human culture.

Heading to the lower level there are several more excellent exhibits. Tennessee Freshwater Mussels showcases the biology and diversity of these creatures and this provides and excellent look into the impressive malacology exhibits the McClung houses. This exhibit is almost hidden around a corner but is a must see! The Civil War in Knoxville: The Battle of Fort Sanders follows along a main hall way and details the aspects of the war that took place in Eastern Tennessee. Many of these sites are historical markers and are easily accessible around town. The last permanent exhibit is Human Origins: Searching for our Fossil Ancestors. This exhibit is compact and filled with valuable information and specimens. Difficult concepts are easily explained through engaging diagrams and exhibits.

Follow them on social media for updates and upcoming event details: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Read our other posts that mention the McClung Museum:

Dr. Benjamin Gill, Geochemist

Fieldwork in the Clan Alpine Range of Nevada. This work was part of an NSF funded study on the changes in paleoceanography in response to climate change during the Early Jurassic.

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

What I love most about being a scientist is being able to follow my curiosity. It’s a privilege to be able work on things that I’m genuinely excited about. I’ve always been interested in the world around me. This probably was first sparked by outdoor trips (camping, hiking, etc.) that my dad took me on when on I was a kid. Specifically, I got interested in geology because my childhood best friend’s dad is a geologist. He took us on trips to collect rocks and minerals; I liked it and my friend was let’s say less enthusiastic about it.

Field work on the Middle Cambrian Wheeler Formation in the Drum Mountains of Utah. This study was to examine the environmental conditions that led to the preservation of an exceptional fossils deposits in this formation.

As a scientist, what do you do?

I study the history of environmental change on our planet in order to determine what was behind this change and its consequences. I mainly do this by looking at the chemistry of the sediments and rocks that were deposited/formed during these time intervals. The chemistry of these materials allows us to reconstruct chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere in the long-distance past.

What data do you use in your research? 

Much of my research involves working with geochemical data obtained from sediments, fossils and sedimentary rocks. Specifically, in our laboratory at Virginia Tech, we have instruments that can measure the amount and the isotopes of (atoms with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons) carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. However, my students and I don’t just stick to the laboratory — we frequently go into the field to collect samples. In fact, this summer we will be out in Nevada and Alaska collecting samples and data in the field.

Field team for 2018 for our study of the end-Triassic mass extinctions in Alaska. Front row, left to right: Jeremy Owens (Florida State University), Theodore Them (College of Charleston, former PhD student from our lab group), João Trabucho-Alexandre (Utrecht University). Back Row left to right: Me, Martyn Golding (Geological Survey of Canada), Andrew Caruthers (Western Michigan University), Yorick Veenma (Utrecht University), and Selva Marroquín (Virginia Tech, PhD candidate in our research group).

It is also important to point out that much of the work I do involves collaborating with colleagues with a variety of specialties: paleontologists, sedimentologists and mineralogists to name a few. Combining all these different types of data allows us to make more integrated and robust scientific interpretations.

Drilling core from Chattanooga Shale in Tennessee for a study on the Late Devonian mass extinctions. In the foreground is Matt Leroy, PhD candidate in our research group. We were collecting these rocks as part of one of a of his research projects.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

 

Studying past events informs us about how our planet responds to past changes in the climate and environment. In other words, understanding these past events helps us understand how the Earth may change in the future. Many of the events my lab group studies involve times of rapid or serve climatic and environmental change and mass extinction events.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be wrong. One of my mentors in graduate school says that 99 percent, if not all, of your scientific interpretations are going to be wrong. This isn’t an excuse to be ignorant, but all you can do is to come up with the best explanation with what you have.

Hiking to a field site in Alberta with graduate students from my lab group. This work was part of an NSF funded study on the changes in paleoceanography in response to climate change during the Early Jurassic. Left to right: Theodore Them, Angela Gerhardt and me.

Amazon Tree Mortality

Figure 1. Examples of dead and alive trees monitored in the Central Amazon.

Amazonian rainforest tree mortality driven by climate and functional traits

Izabela Aleixo, Darren Norris, Lia Hemeric, Antenor Barbosa, Eduardo Prata, Flávia Costa, & Lourens Poorter

The Problem: Climate scientists are constantly learning and sharing new details about climate change and its possible effects in the future. However, many of the impacts of climate change have already surfaced and revealed the fragility of our ecosystems. Recently, scientists have observed increasing tree mortality in tropical forests, which are some of the most biodiverse and ecologically important places in the world. Could tree mortality be another consequence of climate change–one that’s happening right now? This study by Aleixo and others (2019) explores this possible connection between modern climate change and downfall of tropical forests.

What data were used? This study uses monthly climate and tree mortality records along with about 50 years of observational data in the Amazon rainforest. Climate data include precipitation, temperature, and humidity. Tree mortality data is categorized by specific traits such as wood density (soft or hard), successional position (when a species colonizes a new area), and leaf phenology (deciduous or evergreen).

Figure 2. a–d, Variation in tree mortality (a), precipitation (b), temperature (c) and humidity (d). When analysing the variation in mortality within years, we found that 19% of all deaths occurred in January (analysis of variance, d.f. = 11; P < 0.001). Interestingly, January is one of the wettest months of the year, suggesting that waterlogged soils and storms may enhance mortality. Monthly values (circles), averages (black lines) and 95% confidence intervals (dashed grey lines) over the study period (1965–2016) are shown.

Methods: Aleixo and others (2019) tracked global climate and tree mortality in an area of the Amazon rainforest monthly for one year. They looked for increased tree mortality that aligned with variations in the climate data. They also examined tree mortality of different species traits during significant climate events in the past 50 years. These events include climate anomalies like El Niño or La Niña (click here to learn more about these).

Results: This study found that Amazon tree mortality is driven by climate, but the relationship is complex. For example, droughts can lead to immediate or slow tree death, depending on the mechanisms at play. Additionally, if a tree has harder wood, it is less likely to die during a drought. Aleixo and others (2019) also found that weather events like low rainfall or high temperatures can either immediately enhance tree mortality or cause increased mortality up to two years later. Similar outcomes are associated with years where El Niño or La Niña are particularly extreme. Various species traits may protect trees from dying under certain weather or climate events, but no single Amazon species is completely safe from the effects of climate change.

Why is this study important? As our climate continues to change and weather events become more extreme, the future of our forests remains uncertain. Even the most biodiverse and ecologically robust regions in the world are susceptible to the effects of climate change. This study provides a modern framework for us to understand those effects. From this, scientists can refine dynamic global vegetation models that predict how forests will respond to climate variability in the future.

Citation: Aleixo, I., D. Norris, L. Hemerik, A. Barbosa, E. Prata, F. Costa, and L. Poorter (2019), Amazonian rainforest tree mortality driven by climate and functional traits, Nature Climate Change, 9(5), 384-388, doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0458-0.

Figure 3. Comparisons of the ratios of annual mortality for different functional groups of species, calculated using two classes of wood density (that is, the mortality of soft-wooded species (0.30–0.69 g cm−3) divided by the mortality of hard-wooded species (0.70–1.10 g cm−3)), successional position (that is, the mortality of pioneer species divided by the mortality of late species) and deciduousness (that is, the mortality of evergreen species divided by the mortality of deciduous species) over 52 years and during 5 years of highest peak mortality (the 1982, 1992 and 2016 El Niño droughts, the 1999 La Niña wet year and the 2005 NAO drought). The black line shows where the ratio is equal to 1 (that is, the mortality rate of the two classes is the same). The results of a Pearson’s chi-squared test are shown. Asterisks indicate a significant result (P ≤ 0.05). Annual mortality rates were higher for pioneers compared with late-successional species, for soft compared with hardwood species, and for evergreen compared with deciduous species. When the mortality rates of the functional groups were compared between normal and extreme years, pioneers experienced much higher mortality rates than climax species in the two El Niño and La Niña years. Soft-wooded species experienced much higher mortality rates than hard-wooded species in the El Niño 1982 year. Evergreens experienced much higher mortality rates than deciduous species in the NAO year.

Meetings and Management

Jen here –

I started my postdoc position at the Florida Museum of Natural History this past August and my time is split between two projects. One is with the FOSSIL project, a social paleontology project with the goal of connecting all levels of paleontologists (enthusiasts to professionals and all of those in between), and the other is with the Thompson Earth Systems Institute where I do a whole variety of different things from coordinating events, researching collaborators, and helping grow the team and institute.

Something many of us are not taught during our graduate programs is best practices for project management. I think of myself as a highly organized person. I use Google Calendar, Todoist, and other organizational tools to keep me on task. But it is still incredibly hard to separate my two projects, and it’s made more confusing since our teams have significant overlap. I’m on more projects than just these two, other research projects that also take up some time. So my weeks usually have several two hour meetings and many one hour meetings. A few weeks ago was particularly bad with each day having a two hour meeting with several one hour meetings surrounding them. I usually stay at work from about 8:30-4:00 pm, so about 7.5 hours. It doesn’t leave a lot of spare time to get work done when I spend time in meetings. I’ve been learning a lot about how to use 30 minute blocks for power productivity.

Each week, I organize my to-do list for all of my various projects and try to prioritize what I can get done quickly or efficiently compared to other tasks. I do my best to get these tasks done around my meetings and save the longer or more intense work tasks for when I have much longer. If I have a lot of things that require intense concentration, i’ll stay home and work on it for an entire day. Obviously, this is not ideal for many people but I am most comfortable at home so can be highly productive.

Is this something we should be trained for in graduate school? It is something I think of often and have had several conversations on Twitter about this exact issue. Some said they sought out courses at local community colleges to augment their formal training. Others went to workshops in different colleges during their graduate program. Since I’m working full time and doing several other projects in my ‘free’ time, I haven’t been able to find something that will fit into my schedule. It is also hard as my position is not permanent, so I have flexibility but different flexibility from permanent positions.

Tools that I use for productivity and management:

  • Google Suites: Content and project document organization, calendar
  • Hootsuite: Social media organization
  • Slack: Team and project communication
  • Todoist: Personal to do lists

UMass Undergraduate Research Conference

This year’s pamphlet for the 25th Annual UMass URC! This is the first year the conference has gone ‘green’, meaning the program is now in a downloadable app instead of printed.

Adriane here-

Every Spring, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has a one day event for undergraduate students to present their research, called the UMass Undergraduate Research Conference. This year was the conference’s 25th anniversary. During this event, over 1,000 undergraduate students from the commonwealth’s 28 public colleges and universities come to UMass to present the research they have been conducting, in the form of posters, e-posters, and talks. The conference is open to the public, and is totally free. In addition, the conference is open to students in any and all disciplines, such as Anthropology, History, Nursing, Sociology, Kinesiology, Social Work, and Political Science, just to name a few. The conference is set up so that there are eight sessions, each 45 minutes long, where students present their posters or e-posters (entire 45 minutes) or give talks in sessions (each talk is 15 minutes long, so three per session).

This year, the undergraduate student I have been working with, Solveig, presented her research on the northwest Pacific Ocean. In addition, there was one other student, Kurt, who also presented his research on reconstructing temperatures from sediments in the high northern latitudes. Both of our UMass students did great, and were continuously talking with professors, the public, and other students about the research they have been working hard on this past year.

A row of poster presentations. Altogether, there were probably around 6 to 8 rows of posters!

While our UMass students were presenting, I walked around to chat with students about their research. In short, I was totally blown away by all the cool research being done at campuses across Massachusetts! The first student I talked to was from the nursing school here at UMass. She compiled data that has already been published to quantify how nurses and doctors introduced themselves to their patients. Interestingly, her findings suggested that not every nurse or doctor likes to introduce themselves by their first and last names, as they felt this might give away too much information, and might lead their patients to distrusting them more.

The second student I talked to developed a survey to assess how much trust the public has in their family, community, local government, and national government and agencies with respect to climate resiliency. She surveyed adults in western Massachusetts from a more liberal demographic and found some interesting results. Firstly, she found that people are willing to trust their family, friends, neighbors, and local governments more than national government agencies. This result is a bit off-putting because money for remediation after natural disasters comes mainly from national agencies, not local communities. Secondly, the results from the survey indicate that when it comes to investing in climate resiliency, people would rather put funding towards cleaner energy sources. This is interesting because making a switch to clean energy is something that should be done to curb climate change rather than a resiliency effort.

Solveig presenting her poster to our UMass Geosciences professors.

The third student I talked to had built a model for where clean energy plants should be built in Mexico. This student was in the Department of Engineering, and his data and  models could be given to policy makers to help them determine where to build such plants. From this student, I also learned that Mexico has very ambitious national sustainability goals. They plan to generate 35% of their electricity from clean energy sources by 2024, and 50% by 2050! The last students I chatted with were working with moths to determine how their bodies change during metamorphosis. The students put moth larvae (pupa) into a machine that determines the lean mass and total body fat of small animals in a non-invasive way. I had never heard of such a technique, but here at UMass, there is a lab that uses this technology to scan birds to determine how much body fat they lose during migration. These students were the first to ever use the technology on moths! The students first began the study by keeping the pupa in the machine for a few days. They then injected the pupa with hormones to make the animal’s body think it is a certain time a year, and will thus begin the process of metamorphosis. The machine measures the amount of body fat throughout this process until the pupa hatches into an adult moth. They found that the process of metamorphosis takes a lot of energy, and thus uses up a lot of fat. The undergraduate students are writing up the results of their findings for a journal, which will eventually be published!

All in all, this was a wonderful experience for the undergraduate students that attended and presented. They received crucial feedback on their projects, and were asked questions by professors outside of their respective departments. Because members of the public were also there, the students had to think about how to talk about their research to non-scientists. I would love to see such a conference at other large state universities, as this was a wonderful event for everyone who attended!

Alex Lyles, Karst Resource Technician, US Forest Service

As an avid outdoorsman, getting my degree in geology was the best decision I have ever made. Because of this degree, I currently work as a geology field technician with the US Forest Service in Southeast Alaska. My job focuses on the conservation of karst, a landscape characterized by soluble (easily dissolved) bedrock that often contains caves, sinkholes, springs, and complex subsurface hydrologic networks. Karst ecosystems are exceptionally productive for wildlife, but also sensitive to runoff caused by logging, road building, waste management, and farming. My position in Alaska mostly focuses on potential logging units, since that is the main economic driver and logging near karst features often produces sediment runoff that can inundate karst systems and cause adverse hydrologic, biologic, and ecologic effects on the forest ecosystem.

I first came to southeast Alaska the summer after my senior year of undergrad, having been offered an exciting GeoCorps internship as a cave guide through a partnership with Geological Society of America (GSA) and the US Forest Service. This position, located on Prince of Wales Island, greatly helped me solidify and communicate my passion for geology, particularly the intricate workings of karst geology. I always highly recommend GeoCorps internships to budding geologists and environmental scientists because they expose those with little-to-no experience to potential environmental work in the public sector. It was my GeoCorps position that allowed me to meet Dr. Jim Baichtal, the Forest Geologist for the Tongass National Forest. Jim values my good attitude and enthusiasm for geology and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping, and brought me back to Alaska as a field technician in the beginning of 2017 when I finished my undergraduate degree.

I have remained in this occupation since, and am gearing up to begin my third field season as a Karst Technician in Alaska. While this position is not research-based, I have had extensive opportunity to study the quaternary history of southeast Alaska, focusing on regional to local-scale glacial geomorphology to decipher ice flow patterns during the late Wisconsin Glaciation, which I presented a poster on at the annual GSA conference in 2017. I also know that my job as a tech has greatly sharpened my understanding of geomorphic processes and how they tie into the greater ecology, especially concerning karst landscapes. Much of my position also involves extensive aerial photography interpretation of vegetation and geomorphology prior to entering the area of reconnaissance to determine the “hot spots” for karst features. Aerial photo interpretation has become somewhat less necessary since the recent acquisition of half-meter resolution Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) imagery, considering that most caves, sinkholes, and springs are readily apparent upon inspection of the bare earth digital elevation model (DEM). The LiDAR makes my work easier and less likely for me to miss features, but hardly puts me out of a job, seeing as most of these features still need to be field verified and observed by a specialist to determine their significance and role in the landscape before the area undergoes any land management activities.

Left: An image of the bare earth DEM LiDAR hillshade showing a mountain lake draining into a sinkhole. Right: The same area, but with a sink fill function ran through ArcMap and converted to polygon contours to better show the detailed drainage pattern of the feature.

As a field tech, I use GIS every day, mostly centered on geologic and karst vulnerability mapping. We use a High-Medium-Low system to describe the vulnerability of the karst terrain; with High being the areas immediately adjacent to, in the direct watershed, or overtop karst features and cave systems, Medium being the expanse in between high vulnerability areas, or “karsty” areas with a low hydrologic head, and Low being karst areas without features directly leading to the subsurface, these are often covered by thick glacial till (sediments left behind by glaciers) or underlain by less soluble bedrock. No logging activity can occur over areas of high vulnerability karst. My field partner and I will enter units with GPS devices to determine this classification and I use our location data and DEM interpretation to update the “karst layer” that is used by land management specialists in the region. The Tongass karst program serves as a management model for many of the National Forests in the country, so playing a key role in the program has been a great honor and learning experience for me.

Alex enjoying a splendid day hiking through muskegs to get to a reconnaissance area. Photo credit: Brooke Kubby

Working in such an amazing place has definitely had an impact on me. My confidence as a geologist has grown, my navigation skills and competence in hiking rough terrain have developed, I am more comfortable handling responsibility, and my passion for geology and ecology develops every day that I spend contemplating geomorphic processes and geologic history. I believe that I have been especially fortunate to have these experiences, but I would not have gotten to where I am if I hadn’t taken initiative and fully thrown myself into the internships that were available. I now conduct the hiring and interviews for the same GeoCorps position that first brought me here. During college, I was unsure which branch of geology was right for me. It took getting out into the field and immersing myself into a unique environment before I realized exactly where my passions lie, and how I could fit them into the working world. I now plan on attending graduate school this fall for karst hydrogeology, a subject that I would not necessarily have seen myself pursuing 5 years ago. My advice to young geoscientists is to seize opportunity when it presents itself, and dig for opportunity when it doesn’t. Get out of your comfort zone and keep an open mind about how geology plays a role in the world. And finally, when you are applying to jobs or internships, make sure that you give each application your complete effort and attention, even if it might not exactly align with your interests at the time.