Research Experience for Undergraduates Program

Please welcome our guest blogger Colby!

Colby here- 

This was the day that we helped the Audubon Society research horseshoe crabs. WIth me are my mentors, Ricardo and Stephanie. The beach we were on had an amazing view, and Stephanie told me that not far away was a ferry for whale watching. Though the location was lovely, the beach was really dirty. There were many fishermen, so we had to walk carefully as to not run into their lines, step on a dead fish, or step on the trash littering the beach. To research the crabs, we counted the number of them present in the white box. We placed the box in the shallow water every ten steps. The society uses this information to maintain population surveys.

Last spring, I was accepted into an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program titled, “Systematics and Evolution of Arachnids” hosted by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). In January, I had gone to my advisor and asked if there were any internships available at museums. At first it did not seem very promising, but I soon found out about REU programs. These are internships available to students that are hosted at all types of institutions (universities, museums, etc.) in a variety of subjects. After filling out the online application for the REU at the AMNH, I waited weeks with anxiety for any response back. I am currently a geology student, and though this was advertised a biology project, I was able to use my undergrad research in paleontology to highlight that I had experience in both fields. I wrote my application with the intent to appear willing to learn, enthusiastic, and hard-working to compensate for my lack of biological research experience. I had never worked with molecules, and was nervous this would hurt my chances, but in the end this was not the case, and I feel lucky that it was not. After a couple of phone interviews, I was lucky enough to be offered the position, and for ten weeks of the summer I was housed at Columbia University on the upper west side of Manhattan while conducting research at the museum. I really love museums, so the chance to work for one, even temporarily, was a lot of fun.

This is me at the main entrance to the museum. I really love that entrance, because when you go through the rotating doors, the tall ceiling gives you the feeling you’re in a special place. Inside is a long necked dinosaur standing up, with a smaller version of itself following close behind. On the other side of the room is some kind of meat eating dinosaur, posed for an attack. A scene is implied: the mother herbivore is protecting her baby from danger. However, I heard from people this scene was highly inaccurate. I don’t mind the inaccuracies, though, because from the stairs where I’m sitting one can look into the very top windows and see the head of the sauropod, even at night. The sheer size always made me smile!

During the majority of my time in New York, I undertook a research project focusing on a mysterious order of arachnid called, “Ricinulei”, or, “Hooded-tick spiders”. These animals are very rare in collections and very understudied. There are currently less than 100 documented species worldwide, with only three genera or groups. Many of the specimens are either old, broken, or females which are not useful in identifying new species. Ricinulei are highly sexually dimorphic, meaning some features are only visible in males. There are certain characters that only appear in the males of the species, while all females look the same. For example, one character is the bulkiness of Leg II, in females this leg is the same width and length as the others. Luckily, the AMNH has a large collection, so this project is possible. My project was split into two parts: the first was to undertake a taxonomic revision of a monophyletic group belonging to the genus Ricinoides, including describing several new species. The second project focused on creating a phylogenetic analysis of Ricinulei using molecular data (DNA). The resulting phylogenetic tree I produced is the most comprehensive so far for this group of arachnids. This research will be published with me as an author through the museum’s own journal. 

This was taken at the bug eating event I attended in Queens. In addition to sampling all kinds of insect themed foods, there was a table set up with an “insect petting zoo”. This tarantula is housed in the museum usually, but she was brought along with other office pets to interact with guests. In addition to holding and kissing her, I held grasshoppers, caterpillars, millipedes, a scorpion, and an amblypygin. My favorite was this spider, because it had been my goal to hold one all summer. I admit I was nervous at first, but as soon as she climbed on my hand I got over my fear. At the end of a tarantula’s feet are two small, retractable claws used for traction. On your hand, it feels like a little tickle and makes them a lot less threatening.

Knowing the research I did was meaningful made this summer very rewarding. It has left me with more confidence in regards to my professional skills. I feel that I contributed real science to the museum and after surviving the schedule and work-load, I feel more able to complete homework and projects on time. I also gained a new perspective on what is expected of me from my professors and someday my boss. I now know what a real taxonomic paper should look like, and during my time in undergrad I hope to publish a paper of my own. The trust my mentor instilled in me is really encouraging, even though the work was hard. I was expected to participate in writing the paper that my mentor intends to publish, and I took all of the pictures that will be used in paper. I was also expected to give a final presentation during a symposium attended by many members of the museum staff. 

In addition to the research project, I went to events outside of work that will leave me with fond memories forever. One day, I traveled to a small island off the shore of Manhattan in order to document horseshoe crab mating habits with the Audubon society. Once, I attended an event at the Explorer’s Club, a group dedicated to actually exploring to the ends of the earth. I even spent one evening eating bugs prepared by a Brooklyn chef. I got to meet museum staff, including Neil Degrasse Tyson and Mark Norell. I made connections with my mentors and many other people that I will carry with me as I head into the future. I got to meet the other students in the program, friends I hope to have for years to come. We spent much of our free time in our neighborhood or exploring the city. Our badges allowed us free admission to almost every museum in New York and I spent a relaxing day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, I found the original William: a hippopotamus statue of which there is a replica at McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee’s campus where I am a student. Our dorm was located one block from the St. John’s Cathedral of the Divine. This is one of the oldest churches in New York and is very beautiful. I spent many nights sitting on the stairs watching the sky and the people. There was small, Hungarian pastry shop I miss dearly- they had the best salted caramel cake. 

I encourage other students to apply to REU programs or any other internships like it. This summer has given me a lot of encouragement as I finish my undergrad classes as well as provided guidance as I plan for grad school. Though REUs are often times very selective, institutions that host the programs are plentiful and applying to multiple programs will increase the chances of finding the right fit. I had a lot of fun this summer and hope that more students can have their own experiences.

This is me working in the Microscopy lab. This is the room I become most familiar with during my summer, the Nikon camera room. The camera is able to take a series of pictures going from top to bottom, layers the images over each other, and puts the finished product into focus. With this camera, I took many pictures comparing the differences in species and showing unique characteristics. To image a Ricinulei, we filled a petri dish with glass beads and then poured in ethanol. The ethanol keeps the animal preserved, and the beads keep it steady. Under the dish we laid a piece of paper to make the background white. Later, the beads will be photoshopped out of the pictures and they will be ready for publication.

Traveling Fossil Exhibit at the Fernbank Science Center

Cam here –

I love to educate the public on how important geology and paleontology are. Two Saturdays every month I volunteering my time at my local science center to set up of table of samples of fossils and other geological. I started volunteering for the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia back in 2016. Rick Spears who is a paleoartist and the designer for the science center invited me to give a talk for Earth Science Week.

Half a billion years laid out on a single table by the use of various fossil specimens from my personal collection.
Fossils and rock specimens on display from the Mesozoic Era.
The Cenozoic era with mostly mammalian fossils on display
The Censozoic era with mostly mammalian fossils on display.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I gave two main talks, one on trilobites and the other on crinoids. Everyone seemed to really enjoy looking at specimens. I find it very important that everyone has a chance to touch and pick up a fossil. Some fossils in museum are behind glass and in storage tucked away. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make sure that children and even adults have the chance to touch and hold fossil specimens. Children are natural born scientists; they love to touch and interact with things in their environment. For example, that could be a child picking up a rock off the ground or catching and freeing lizards.

Rock and Mineral Specimens on display.

I switch up my exhibits a lot. I love to teach about deep time and how vast the fossil record is. I do this by setting my fossil specimens in chronological order. Each specimen has its own label card and the period in which that fossil is from. This is gives visitors a perspective of old our planet is and the various geological events that happened during that time the fossil plants and animals were alive at the time. People are blown away when they learn that a stromatolite fossil that I have on display is 3.4 billion years old! Not a lot of people have the opportunity to hold the oldest fossil on earth. Each Saturday I switch from the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. I could also lay out the entire 4 billion years of earth on the same table at once as well!

I don’t just feature fossils as well. I exhibit rock and mineral specimens as well. In fact, that will be my next exhibit coming up in a few weeks! Adults and parents learn about the various rocks and minerals that are found in Georgia. They get to touch the oldest rock in Georgia which is 1.2 billion years old! Again, not a lot of people have the opportunity to interact with the oldest rock in Georgia. They even get to hold the oldest crustal rock on earth which is the Acasta Gneiss. This rock is 4.2 billion years old. It is always a pleasure to see a person walk away with a smile knowing that were able to hold the oldest rock on earth. It makes me feel that I am making a difference with 1 fossil or rock sample at a time.

Ashley Ramsey, Staff Geologist for Geosyntec Consultants, Inc.

Professional Headshot.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist, why I chose science, and particularly why I decided to be an environmental consultant, is that the field is constantly changing, and there is always something new to learn, discover, or develop. Through my obtaining my undergraduate geology degree at Baylor University and my masters geology degree at The University of Tennessee, I was never sure what career path to take, but I knew that I liked to learn and do so at a very quick pace. Since beginning my consulting career just over one year ago, I have had the opportunity to study a multitude of contaminant impacts and remediation techniques for groundwater, porewater, soil, and sediment. Not only this, but every day I am fortunate to collaborate with scientists across the United States on a daily basis.

Step 1, wear proper PPE😊 Work can be a bit messy sometimes, but that’s half of the fun, right?!

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
As a consultant at Geosyntec I conduct environmental contaminant investigations and remediations concerning chlorinated solvents, petroleum, metals, pesticides, and/or emerging contaminants. These contaminants are sourced from many historic and modern day industrial activities like dry cleaning and petroleum storage and sales among many others. My work over the last year and a half has been on sites located across state of Florida and have involved in soil, sediment, porewater and groundwater monitoring and sampling; contractor oversight; permitting; and the development and execution of proposals, remedial designs, and reports.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
My work provides knowledge to clients and the public about the state of their environment and what steps we can actively take to better it. As environmental consultants we conduct investigations to ensure environmental contaminants are not migrating away from their source and that concentrations are not increasing. This work is extremely important as it ensures no harm is coming to the members of our community from the investigated contaminants as they go about their day to day lives.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Keep at it! Sometimes you will have no idea which path to take and may become overwhelmed by those around you who already have their path determined. Take on a new project, study a new field, take that random class or field trip. By exploring every possible avenue, you will find your niche.

Measuring surface and pore water temperatures to provide a line of evidence for groundwater upwelling in a Jacksonville Creek.

How much ice does Antarctica lose during warm times in Earth’s history?

Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials
David J. Wilson, Rachel A. Bertram, Emma F. Needham, Tina van de Flierdt, Kevin J. Welsh, Robert M. McKay, Anannya Mazumder, Christina R. Riesselman, Francisco J. Jiminez-Espejo, Carlota Escutia
Summarized by Time Scavengers collaborator Adriane Lam

Figure 1. An elevation map of Antarctica with a) the major regions labeled and b) a zoomed-in view of East Antarctica. The location of the sediment core (named U1361A) is denoted by the pale yellow dot. Image from Wilson et al. (2019).

Brief Summary: Today, sea level rise due to increasing global average temperatures is a huge threat to low-lying, coastal, and island communities. Sea level is rising, in part, from ice that is melting on Antarctica and Greenland. To understand how much sea level may rise in the near future, scientists look to the geologic past, when global temperatures were much warmer than today or close to the temperatures predicted for the coming decades. In this study, scientists looked at how much ice was lost from the Wilkes Subglacial Basin of East Antarctica during a time when global average temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial values. They find that during these warmer periods, called interglacials, there was significant ice that melted from East Antarctica, and contributed to sea level rises. Thus, in the future, the ice melting from East Antarctica will contribute more to sea level rise than we previously thought.

Data used and Methods: Sediment from a deep-sea core drilled from the continental margin of East Antarctica was used in this study (Figure 1). From this sediment core, the authors analyzed the different types of sediment contained within the core through time. From the changes in sediments, the scientists could tell how much erosion was occurring. They also looked at the neodymium (Nd) isotopes from the sediments. Nd isotopes are a good way to also trace where the sediments in the core were coming from, so the scientists could determine not only how much erosion was taking place within East Antarctica, but where the eroded sediment was coming from. Increased erosion and a shift in the Nd isotope records indicate increased glacial melt and ice retreat on East Antarctica, thus the authors could tell through geologic time when and approximately how much the ice melted.

Results: Over the past 800,000 years, Earth’s climate has oscillated between cooler (glacial) and warmer (interglacial) periods (read more about this on our CO2 page). During some interglacial periods (times when the climate was warmer), the scientists found that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet began to erode the rock on which it sits and melted significantly. This led to increased sea levels within a world that was less warm than today.

Why is this study important? This study places new approximations on how much melting from East Antarctica could occur in a warming world, and how much that could raise sea level. Climate scientists think that if all the ice on East Antarctica were to melt, it would lead to approximately 53 meters of sea level rise globally! With the data from this study, it will provide new constraints on melting ice in a warming world, which will be incorporated into climate models of the future climate. This data will be given to policymakers to help us best prepare and mitigate the consequences of climate change.

Citation: Wilson, D. J., Bertram, R. A., Needham, E. F., van de Flierdt, T., Welsh, K. J., McKay, R. M., Mazumder, A., Riesselman, C. R., Jimenez-Espejo, F. J., and Escutia, C., 2019. Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials. Nature 561, 383-386.

 

Hobbies are important!

Sarah, Jen, and Adriane here-

Ever wondered what a scientist does for fun? Many people are surprised to find out that people who do science are into just about every single hobby that can be done! I think shows like the Big Bang Theory, that paint scientists as really nerdy and incapable of doing non-science related things, can make people think that scientists are really like that in real life (some of us are! Definitely nothing wrong with that- but scientists are a pretty diverse group of people). Why are hobbies important, though? Well, hobbies keep me sane. They give me a chance to take a break, completely, from work and do something challenging and fun. They give me a chance to make new friends outside of science and give me things to look forward to, when work gets tough.

So what kind of hobbies are scientists into? Well, we here at Time Scavengers wrote a group post so you could see the the types of stuff we get up to in our spare time.

Sarah

The three trilobites I’ve cross stitched so far! (This is my very first attempt at any form of embroidery-I’m pretty proud of them!

My favorite thing to do is read! I have a challenge with myself–I read at least 50 books a year. I don’t have a favorite genre, really. I’ll read just about anything: fiction, classics, memoirs, young adult–I just like reading stories of other people’s lives, whether they’re real or fictional. I read every night before I go to sleep and I always have an audiobook that I listen to while I’m vacuuming, walking to class, or driving in the car. Right now, as this post is being written, I’m rereading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and listening to Tara Westover’s Educated (both super good–highly recommend!). I’ve read books for fun for as long as I can remember. Little known fact about me- I was on a competitive reading team in middle school aka I was super cool and not at all nerdy.

I’m also really into crafts. My mom is an art teacher, so she taught me how to do a lot of different crafty things (even if I inherited none of her skill). I love to paint, decoupage, and create all kinds of things. Recently, I decided to take up learning how to embroider. So far, I’ve cross stitched a few different trilobites to hang up in my office! Around my house are the relics of old craft projects that I’ve made and am probably way too proud of.

Another project of mine that I’ve taken up is learning American Sign Language. I’ve always wanted to learn and I recently decided that there was no time like the present. So, for the past year, I’ve been taking online classes through my local community college and spending time on weekends with the Tampa Deaf community to learn how to communicate via sign. It’s been a total blast and I’m hoping to keep learning!

Photo: the three trilobites I’ve cross stitched so far! (This is my very first attempt at any form of embroidery. I’m pretty proud of them!)

Jen

Jen at Graham Swamp Conservation Area where she was biking and checking out dredged sediment from the beach. Fossils galore!!

My favorite thing to do is be outside. After working for any amount of time the only thing that really refreshes me is getting some sunlight and air. Most of my work involves sitting at my computer so I constantly get burned out from staring at my screen. These days I do a lot of biking both on long greenways on my road bike and on trails on my mountain bike. Jeb even made some nice trails on our property in Gainesville – almost two miles! I used to do a lot of trail running when we lived in Knoxville but would have to take long breaks to offset my shin splints, which would get really painful at times. I also like to examine the wildlife – what’s around me and do I know what it is? iNaturalist allows me to figure out what the things are that I’m unfamiliar with. They have a more ‘fun’ app called Seek that has monthly challenges and can identify organisms as you sort of pan over them with your camera! It’s a lot of fun to explore and learn and the same time.

I also knit scarves, I don’t do fancy patterns or anything besides scarves because the point of knitting, to me, is to clear my mind and keep my hands busy while we are watching TV or just relaxing. I choose to knit Harry Potter scarves because I love the series!! I first started knitting them almost a decade ago and have a little Etsy shop where people can purchase them if they want to. They are also really warm, I started making them when I lived in Chicago and it’s just a funny joke that I keep moving south and keep making them.

I have many other hobbies but those are the two that I really enjoy the most. I read books but not as avidly as I once did and it’s much harder for me than it used to be, I suppose it’s because my mind wanders more easily to get all of my other tasks done. I do yoga a lot, play with my cats, garden, play Pokemon Go, blog, and chat with old friends.

Adriane

Adriane and Scimmitar!

As I’m in the last year of my PhD and frantically trying to finish my dissertation, I don’t have as many hobbies as I should. Much like Sarah and Jen, I do enjoy reading novels (mostly fiction to balance out the serious-ness of sciencing), playing Pokemon Go, blogging, and hanging out with my cats and husband. When the weather is nice, I also enjoy hiking around western Massachusetts (there’s no shortage of awesome views here!). My husband and I have also taken up biking, which has been great incentive to get us out of the house and doing something physical! Often in the summer and fall, we bike down to a market down the road a bit for ice cream.

Honestly, my most guilty pleasure right now is Netflix and HBO, and cooking. There is nothing I love more than to come home after a long day at work (I’m currently averaging about 9-10 hour days in the lab, so when I come home, I don’t feel like doing much) and plopping onto the couch with my kitties and husband. I love to cook and experiment with different recipes, so I usually cook about 5-6 days a week. After that, my husband and I watch the latest TV obsession, which is usually a series (yes, we’re sad Game of Thrones is over, but hey, that leaves more time for re-watching other beloved series like Dexter!).

The aforementioned hobbies (if you call watching TV a hobby) are not always my ideal ways to pass the time, so I’ll let you all in on a little secret: I LOVE old cars! Before I left home for graduate school, my dad and I would work on my 1971 Mercury Comet, which my husband wittily named ‘Halley’ (like Halley’s Comet, get it?). My dad bought the car for me as my high school graduation gift, and we’ve been working on it ever since. My dad is a huge car nerd as well. He’s a machinist by trade, but I’ve never met anyone who knows as much about cars as him. He has rebuilt several engines, installed exhaust systems, rebuilt carburetors, you name it. Since I’ve had Halley, we’ve put in a new engine (a 306 cubic inch compared to the 289 that was in it), new rims, and lockers on the rear (lockers make both back tires spin at the same time). Eventually, I’d like to make the car a 4-speed, install bucket seats, and give Halley a paint job, as currently she is 3 different colors. As you can imagine, antique car restorations are expensive, so this is not an ideal hobby to have whilst one is in graduate school on a limited budget.

Adriane and her mom having an archery competition.

My other hobbies that I absolutely love to do but cannot in this phase of my life are gardening, horseback riding, tending chickens, and shooting (rifles and recurve bows). After that last sentence, you probably now realize that I was raised in the country and am a bit of a redneck. Currently, my mom takes care of my horse, Scimmitar, who I have had and ridden since I was in grade school. Scimmi is a 31-year-old Egyptian Arabian who has more spunk than any older horse I’ve seen. When I go back home to Virginia, I still take him on trail rides through the woods with my mom, my sister, and our other horses. My sister and mom love chickens as much as I do, and still have 8 as pets. The chickens are all different breeds, and are mostly used for bug control in the yard and a source of eggs. Recently, my mom did teach her hen how to play the xylophone! My mom is the one who actually got my husband and I hooked on shooting recurve bows. She learned from her friend, and actually taught a few classes at her local sporting goods store. Archery is great because it forces you to clear your mind and focus on your body. It’s a great stress reliever, way to build muscle, and learn to focus your attention. I enjoy shooting rifles with my dad and brother, but those are pretty noisy and not quite as good for centering yourself like archery 🙂

Ian Forsythe, Invertebrate Paleontologist and Undergraduate Researcher

Ian with a  brachiopod shell.

I study ways we can tell species apart based on their morphology (the structure and shapes of their hard parts).  For my research, I use the fossils of brachiopods (marine animals that resemble clams) from the Upper Ordovician period (around 450 million years ago). I collect the majority of my data from fossils in museum collections but collect fossils in the field when I can’t find what I need in an existing collection. While the applications of my research may not be readily apparent it is actually applicable to a variety of things.

 Species are the fundamental unit we use to classify organisms and being able to tell them apart is an important skill. Being able to identify species based on morphology is a necessary step in many studies of evolutionary processes, climate change, ecology, and patterns of biodiversity (the numbers of species present on the Earth through time). This is even true for biologists studying modern animals! While modern biologists define species as members of a population that can actually or potentially interbreed in nature it isn’t reasonable or even possible to conduct breeding experiments for every animal on Earth. Therefore, from a practical standpoint morphology is the best way to identify species whether you study fossils or living organisms.

Images of Rafinesquina brachiopods, which Ian works on. Here, the specific shell features of this brachiopod are highlighted and labeled. These features are part of the brachiopod’s morphology, or shell shape and structure. Image from OrdovicianAtlas.org.

When I was five, I started collecting marine fossils from rocks near my home. The fact that where I lived used to be under the sea was amazing to me. Although I had an interest in science at a very young age, I didn’t consider it as a career until much later. It was a book I read my freshman year of college (Wonderful Life by Stephen J. Gould) that inspired me to pursue paleontology professionally. It is a story about the bizarre creatures that lived in the sea over 500 million years ago and the scientific struggle to understand them. My experience with science has been fascinating and rewarding in more ways than I can describe, but I have to say that my favorite thing about being a scientist is learning new and exciting things every day.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring scientists, it would be that it is never too late to pursue a career in science. All kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds become scientists and many of them start out pursuing other things (I started college thinking I would be a writer). If you are getting ready to start college and unsure what degree you want to pursue, try taking some courses at a community college. There are so many fascinating fields in science it can be hard to know which one is right for you and community college is a wonderful place to get a feel for what you may want to pursue.

Carmi Milagros Thompson, Invertebrate Paleontologist

Fun in the sun at Haile Quarry – fossil collecting tools at hand.

I have always been interested in science – when I was young, my mom would take us on the Metro to go visit all of the Smithsonian museums. My favorite was always the Natural History Museum (and I was lucky to go back as a research intern after I finished my undergraduate degree- but I digress). Growing up, I felt a lot of pressure to have a good career that paid well (doctor, engineer, lawyer, as the refrain goes)…so I was miserably going through a pre-med track, until I took a geology class…partially by accident, partially just to take all the sciences. I knew that I had to become a geologist from the first lab session where we scrambled down a hill to look at some Coastal Plain outcrop. Paleontology was also a mistake, but a happy one – a long story for another time! .

I think of my work as being similar to that of a librarian. Instead of books, I work with things that have been dead for (usually) millions of years. My job, as a collections manager, is (broadly) to organize and maintain holdings of fossil invertebrates (aforementioned dead things), so that people who are asking all kinds of questions about past life on Earth can quickly and easily access material. In addition to that, I supervise a rotating cast of interns and volunteers. When I’m lucky, I get to do field work (looking at fossils in the wild) with the rest of our research group – usually in Florida, but sometimes all over the country. No two days are ever the same – there are long stretches of identification and reorganization, of course, but most weeks are packed with visitors, curation, and more.

Behind the scenes at the Natural Museum of Natural History

In my “free time,” I guest contribute to the Neogene Atlas of Ancient Life (working on the scaphopods gap right now), coordinate and participate in outreach events at the museum and around the state, manage affairs for the Florida Paleontological Society as the secretary, maintain the invert paleontology collection website, and work with the Paleontological Society Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I am also working on a few personal research projects: a virtual collection tour (release date early fall), systematics and paleoecology of fossil cephalopods from Florida, and paleoecology of offshore molluscan fauna from the mid-Atlantic United States in sediment cores collected for beach nourishment. 

I was once described as “active on Twitter,” so I’ll plug that too  (see link at end of article) – my goal there is to promote our museum specimens and highlight different activities in which I participate – say hi if you’d like! 

ADVICE (as a young person who gets a lot of advice – here’s a brief summary!)

Digging for oysters in the Florida Panhandle.

In terms of paleontology specific advice, keep your options as open as possible – paleontology is certainly a competitive field, but there are many ways to pursue it as a career (there is a good blog post here about it!). For general career advice, find your support team – mentors, classmates, other professionals…people who will cheer you on throughout your successes and support you when things aren’t so great. And, this is such a geologist thing to say, but keep it all in perspective – there are going to be really tough times and problems that seem like they are impossible in the moment (everyone struggles), but think of the long term. Things usually have a way of working themselves out, often in surprising ways. I find that success usually outweighs the many, often-invisible failures along the way. 

If you want to keep up with Carmi check out the Florida Museum’s Invertebrate Paleo or Twitter @bibibivalve.

The Climate is Changing, and it’s Getting Personal

Megan here-

The Ilulissat Art Museum, which opened in 1995, was originally the colony governor’s residence that was built in 1923. Today, it’s home to around 50 works by Emanuel A. Petersen as well as rotating exhibits by local Greenlandic artists.

The Ilulissat Art Museum is a charming red house with robin’s egg blue trim nestled up against a grassy hillside in the town of Ilulissat, Greenland. Almost 5,000 people live in this seaside town, including the art museum’s cheerful and friendly curator. His face lights up at the prospect of new visitors, and he enthusiastically greets us as we enter. This kindly curator shows us around the museum, offering us a wealth of knowledge about the paintings and the artists. He tells us that the lower level is primarily for paintings by Emanuel A. Petersen, a Danish painter who spent time in Greenland in the early 20th century. His paintings depict tranquil yet breathtaking scenes of the landscape surrounding Ilulissat and other Greenlandic villages. Many show icebergs stoically floating in the fjord, and tall, snowy mountains colored pink from the alpenglow. Some paintings have boats and kayaks out at sea, while others depict sleds led by teams of thick-coated dogs. While each scene may be different, each of Petersen’s paintings is so uniquely Greenland. 

It’s no wonder Petersen produced enough paintings to fill an entire floor (not to mention the 150+ pieces of his artwork at the museum in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk). The landscape around Ilulissat is an alluring contrast of rounded green hills and blue-white icebergs. No more than 20 kilometers inland, the Greenland Ice Sheet spills out into channelized outlet glaciers like Jakobshavn Isbrae–the fast-flowing ice stream that produces the icebergs occupying Ilulissat’s fjord. Up and down the coast of Greenland, glaciers flow from the ice sheet and fill the valleys and fjords with ice.

Many local Greenlanders travel over this ice, including our friendly museum curator. He has a team of six sled dogs–which we’re told is a relatively small team–that pulls his sled across snow and ice. For years, he and his wife have been traveling with their sled dogs to a spot along the margin of the ice sheet. There, an outlet glacier flows into a water-filled valley with rocky hills forming the sides. Just a few years ago, the curator and his wife arrived at this spot and were met with a great surprise: a barren, rocky island protruded from the water in the middle of the channel. Had they never been there before, this would not have seemed odd. But this was a brand new island that was recently uncovered as the nearby glacier retreated up the fjord. Up until then, that spot had been covered with ice year-round, and no one had known that a small rocky protrusion lay beneath. 

I was fascinated by his story and as I listened, I mentioned the words “ice retreat.” At that, the curator’s eyes lit up and with both passion and relief, he said, “Exactly.” It was clear that he needed us to understand his personal relationship with climate change. This was the first time I had met someone who has been so directly affected by warming temperatures and melting glaciers.

The island hasn’t made it on all the local maps yet, but it now has a name that means something like “the bald one” in English. In fact, this isn’t the only new island that has been uncovered by retreating ice. In the past twenty years, Steenstrup Glacier in northwest Greenland has also revealed a handful of new islands (2014 article, 2017 article). The effects of climate change in Greenland are complex–both for the ice sheet, the people, and the wildlife. In some cases, melting ice actually benefits certain Greenlandic industries like mining, fishing, or tourism. But shifts in these industries pose new problems and controversy. This guide to climate change in Greenland discusses what a warming climate means for people and for animals, and what new challenges may arise. Whether you’re a museum curator in Greenland or you’re somewhere else in the world, the effects of climate change will become more complex, more personal, and more prevalent. The burden of our future climate may seem daunting, but there are some small, every-day changes we can make to lessen our negative impacts. Check out this BBC article, Ten simple ways to act on climate change, to see how you can make a difference.

Jakobshavn Isbrae is the large outlet glacier that produces a vast quantity of icebergs that fill the Ilulissat Icefjord. Here, icebergs large and small fill the deep fjord and slowly flow past the town of Ilulissat and into Disko Bay.

Glaciology Lab Work

In our cold room, we calibrate temperature sensors, perform deformation experiments on ice, and sometimes store permafrost samples for other lab groups.

Megan here-

On the counter sits a collection of wrenches, some small and others large enough that you need two hands to use them. Next to those, thin colored wires are twisted and curved in a seemingly random fashion. Long winding cables are strung out across the floor, and every meter a small electronic device protrudes from the smooth sheath. 

This is the glaciology lab. There are no bubbling beakers, or round-bottomed flasks, or venting chemical hoods here. Our common perception of a laboratory does not hold up in the glaciology lab. Instead, this space is where my advisor and his students build the intricate instruments that we use in the field. We build temperature sensors the size of a stick of gum, data loggers that record measurements throughout long winters on the Greenland Ice Sheet, and 3D printed objects to refine our products.

Working in this lab and learning to build devices that we use in the field has been both challenging and intriguing. Since my advisor is the real expert in electronics, my job is largely finicky and repetitive tasks–but tasks not without rewards. For instance, I may spend the entire day putting electrical tape over exposed wires on the long cables that we use to measure temperature in the ice sheet. Sure, the task becomes monotonous, but I know I’m working on a really exciting project and the small jobs I do end up helping us better understand the thermal structure of areas within the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Almost every instrument we use is custom-made in our lab. Because of that, we often need materials that are a specific size, shape, and flexibility. For that, we have the 3D printer.

Another of my duties is measuring out these long, winding cables that we eventually lower into a borehole (a drilled hole) in the ice sheet. This usually involves bringing a coil of cable into the hallway outside of the lab, and then stringing it out until it reaches 100 meters. As the hallway is only about 40 meters, there’s a bit of zig-zagging involved. I then have to mark it every one meter with tape and a Sharpie. Again, very monotonous. But I remind myself that the end of this very long cable will be 100 meters (that’s almost 330 feet!) below the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and to me, that’s very cool.

Before beginning my master’s degree, the only experience I had with building electronics was high school physics. Essentially I had a background in following my teacher’s directions for making a mousetrap-powered toy car. Believe me, nothing special. While I may not be able to completely design and build science-worthy instruments by myself yet, I have already learned so much about electronics and applied physics. I’ve also learned that being a scientist isn’t just being an expert in your field, but rather building a skill set in a variety of disciplines to help you succeed in your particular field. Much of my experience as a glaciologist has actually been learning how to be a physicist who just really likes working in cold places.

Laura Speir, Paleoclimatologist

Laura Speir sitting in front of the instrument they use to analyze oxygen isotope ratios to understand climatic changes. Much of the work Laura does involves lab work as opposed to field work.

I study changes in past climate using fossils, focusing on climate 500-450 million years ago during an event called the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (or GOBE). The GOBE represents one of the largest and longest diversification events (where a huge number of new species evolved) in earth history. Many scientists, including myself, are trying to understand the role of climate on the GOBE. Leading into the GOBE, the earth was very warm, warmer than we would expect for animal life. During the peak of the GOBE, the oceans appear to have cooled to temperatures slightly warmer than what we see today.

For my research, I use microfossils known as conodonts. Conodonts are extinct animals that are similar to hagfish or lampreys. We usually don’t find the whole conodont animal, but rather their “teeth” are left behind. We use these “teeth” (known as conodont elements) as a proxy for understanding climate. This is because conodont elements preserve the changes in different oxygen elements (known as isotopes) within the ocean. The ratio between these oxygen isotopes (16O and 18O) can be measured and a temperature can be calculated. While some scientists will collect rocks that contain conodont elements themselves, I receive conodont elements from paleontologists who have done previous research using conodont elements.

So, why do scientists like myself study past climates? By studying climates in the distant past, we can better understand how our climate is changing now. Scientists who create climate models use past climate data to better their models and studying periods of time when the earth was vastly different than our own allows climate modelers to test the limits of their models.

Outside of research, I am a teaching assistant for the University of Missouri geology field camp. Many geology programs require a field course where the students spend some amount of time learning how to recognize different rocks within the field and how to place them onto a map. The University of Missouri takes students to the Wind River Basin near Lander, Wyoming to learn these skills, as well as a fantastic trip to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I was a student at this field camp myself back in 2016 and have been a teaching assistant there for the past two field seasons. The geology in this region is absolutely stunning and makes a wonderful field area for our students to learn stratigraphy and mapping. Geology gave me the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Spain and Portugal, as well).

One of my favorite things about being a scientist is having the opportunity to share what I do with a variety of people. I participate in many outreach events and tell the general public about paleontology. Many students are not exposed to geology or paleontology in school, but these outreach events allow students (and their families) to learn about the earth. While I was never exposed to outreach events such as the ones I participate in now, I was fortunate enough to take earth science courses during high school, as well as an introductory geology course at my local community college. Looking back, however, I was always interested in the processes that governed the earth, from rocks to meteorology to biology.

There is no one true path to entering a science field. Many of us started out wanting to enter different field (I myself originally wanted to go into film). Community college is a great place to start your journey, particularly if you are unsure what field you want to major in. If you are in college, take a variety of courses. If you find a science course that you enjoy, don’t be afraid to take similar classes. Find a field that you enjoy doing and pursue it.

Laura Speir at Grand Teton National Park during the University of Missouri Geology Field Camp during the 2019 field season. Laura and other staff members take students to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park to learn about the regional geology of Wyoming.

On being non-binary in science

Recently, I came out as non-binary. I do not identify as male or female, but somewhere between the two. While there are a growing number of scientists who identify as LGBTQIA+, finding other scientists in your field can be quite difficult. However, there is a growing effort for science organizations to provide opportunities for LGBTQIA+ people and many organizations are adjusting their policies to protect against gender identity discrimination. This is a huge step forward, as some states and cities do not provide such protections. Some scholarships and awards that I had previously applied for or considered applying for are women-specific, as women are, generally, poorly represented in science. However, some of the organizations I have talked to are willing to open their applications for non-binary/agender/genderfluid people, as they are also poorly represented in science.

As a grad student, my peers are generally accepting of my gender identity. My professors (and most importantly, my advisor) have accepted my gender identity and have made every effort to adjust their language regarding my pronouns (they/them). The occasional slip up does happen (even by me!) and I do my best to correct people. My biggest worry is how my gender identity will affect my future career. Will the hiring committee be accepting or will they look the other way because I do not conform to their ideas of gender? As I continue my journey, my hope is to find more scientists like myself at different points in their careers and learn how they have overcome the obstacles they have faced.