Ecological impacts of mass extinctions with data from the fossil record

Quantifying ecological impacts of mass extinctions with network analysis of fossil communities

By A. D. Muscente, Anirudh Prabhu, Hao Zhong, Ahmed Eleish, Michael B. Meyer, Peter Fox, Robert M. Hazen, and Andrew H. Knoll

Summarized by: Paul Ward. Paul Ward is a geology major at the University of South Florida. Currently, he is a senior. Once he earns his degree, he plans on taking the GIT and plans to work in the hydrology field. When he is not working on geology, he likes to go fossil hunting and cook.

What data were used: Data were collected using the Paleobiology Database on fossil occurrences, taxonomy, and diversity across mass extinction events through geologic time 

Methods: Using network theory (essentially, it means we treat fossil occurrences as complex and interconnected-like how many fossils interacted together in paleoecosystems) and the Paleontological database of fossil occurrence, taxonomy, and diversity over time, they compiled all of this data to show co-occurrence of fossils with a custom application that was made in python, a coding language. The results were then analyzed in RStudio.

Results: The data that was acquired during the project was compiled to create a record of fossilized species from the paleontological database to determine how communities are affected by ecological change. Using this dataset, it was shown how communities rise and fall during a mass extinction event (figure 1). The data that was acquired also shows the different severities on ecology of each extinction: for example, the Permo-Triassic extinction had an extremely severe negative impact on ecology, whereas other extinctions were not nearly as severe. Through the data it was also observed that the Devonian extinction importance was underestimated in the severity of the event. The data showed that it is close in severity to the K-Pg extinction event where it was previously a whole rank lower than observed in this study.

This diagram depicts the amount of diversity through geologic time; note the five mass extinctions and how they affected diversity differently. This graph is showing the “total swing” in diversity- the larger the peak, the more effect that it had on biodiversity.

Why is this study important: The significance of the data that was compiled shows us how the different taxa react to the severity of the extinction event and the selectivity that an event may have affected different communities compared to others. The data can also show us how these different extinctions affect ecological variation when compared (e.g., the Permo-Triassic had a negative impact on reef-building organisms, which when they go extinct, causes a significant ecological collapse). 

The big picture: This data analysis is important for the larger paleobiology community, due to the ability to show trends that occurred in the different geologic ages. With this, what is known about the causes of previous extinction events can show how different species react to different adverse conditions. With the example of coral ecology, we can better estimate how Earth’s ecosystems will react to climate conditions today from anthropogenic influences. 

Citation: Muscente, A. D., Prabhu, A., Zhong, H., Eleish, A., Meyer, M. B., Fox, P., Hazen, R., Knoll, A. (2018). Quantifying ecological impacts of mass extinctions with network analysis of fossil communities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, (20), 5217. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/10.1073/pnas.1719976115

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American Geophysical Union (AGU) 2019 Fall Meeting Reflection: 1st Time Poster Presenter

Luke Varner here – 

A picture of me eagerly ready to talk about volcanoes during my poster presentation time-slot.

This past fall I attended my first conference and concurrently presented my first research poster at the conference. The meeting attended was the AGU 2109 Fall Meeting in San Francisco where I presented research on the deadly pyroclastic currents of the June 3rd 2018 eruption at Fuego, Guatemala. During the course of this experience there are many things I learned along the way that I feel are important for a first-time meeting attendee or poster presenter/preparer to consider and plan for.

Start Early

Abstract submissions for conferences are often due several months in advance of the conference. When you submit your abstract you may or may not have all of the data you plan on including in your final poster presentation. This is ok, but you definitely need to make sure the initial abstract you submit generally resembles the research you represent on your final poster presentation. In my case we only had a small fraction of the data we used on the final poster at time of the abstract submission.

Picking up our lanyards on day 1 of the conference required a little bit of waiting. To avoid the line you can have them mailed to you early.

The financial obligation that may come with conference attendance is also important to consider. The AGU registration alone for an undergrad was over $200, of which, I paid out of pocket for. However, if I were to have applied for a travel grant through the university, or with the American Geophysical Union themselves, I most likely would have been able to attend for free. If you are a first time attendee to the AGU meetings and apply for their travel grants you get special consideration. Registration and travel accommodation costs can add up quickly so be sure to explore all avenues of possible assistance. Ask colleagues if you are working under a grant as there may be funding available for you.

Plan Your Conference

It is very important to know what to expect when you get to the conference. The AGU Fall Meeting had over 40,000 attendees so you can quickly be overwhelmed if you don’t have a plan. Have a loose schedule of events and presentations you wish to attend while there. 

Network

One of the biggest advantages a conference offers is the ability to network with other researchers. Know what researches are involved in topics you have an interest in and be prepared to ask them questions. This is also a great time to represent yourself to potential researchers looking to take on a graduate student. You will be able to discuss in-person with these researchers where you normally would be restricted to email conversations.

Have Fun

Public transit in San Francisco made getting around town very simple during the trip.
Taking a break from the conference, I went exploring downtown San Francisco and admired the beautiful architecture along the way.

For me the conference was the first large geology conference experience I ever had. I admittedly was initially hyper-focused on my poster presentation and learned to just enjoy the experience a little more over time. The presentation of yourself and your research in a professional manner is important. However, it is just as important to be excited by what it is you are doing at the conference and to have fun while doing it. Make sure to explore the city/area too while you’re visiting. 

 

Working From Home

Kristina here-

With students, faculty, and staff all switching to work from home, I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences on what it was like to do the majority of my Ph.D. remotely. 

I live three hours from my university, so I have been working from home for the better part of three years now. In fact, I only spent two semesters on campus in my first year taking classes. Then I spent a couple of semesters abroad running an experiment at Bodega Marine Lab. Since then, other than a few short field trips, I’ve been working from my two-bedroom apartment in rural Alberta, Canada. Below are a few of the things I’ve learned working from home.

However, the most important thing to keep in mind when reading any of these sorts of posts is that everyone is different, and what worked for me might not work for you. 

Keep Your Space Clean

I am a very tidy person, and if I know I have chores to do, or things are messy, I have trouble working without feeling distracted. If mess doesn’t bother you, great. I envy you. But if you’re like me and have a tendency to “procrasti-clean”, I recommend keeping on top of your chores and cleaning so as to avoid the temptation/distraction of cleaning. I typically either end or start my workday by cleaning. Not doing a full clean, but just doing one task a day, like vacuuming a bedroom, cleaning the kitchen, doing a load of laundry, or cleaning the bathroom counter, and cycling through them regularly. Spending that 5 – 15 minutes a day keeps everything clean, so I have no excuse not to focus on work.

Your Work Space

Battlestation Gastropod – one of many work stations

This is one area where I feel like my advice might be different. I’ve never really created a work space for myself. My work space has just depended on my tasks. We have a desk and office chair set up in each of our two bedrooms, and while I often worked in the more “office-like” one, I was just as content to work from the kitchen table, couch, or even one of the beds. This was partially because my cat, who loved to hang out with me in the “office”, died unexpectedly and I found it painful to work in that space without him. But I also like the variety. I have sciatica, so switching up how I’m sitting is helpful. I also live in Canada where the days in the winter are very short, so I move with the sun to the place with the best lighting.

So, while having a dedicated office space might work for some, don’t feel bad if you like moving around. Taking advantage of sunlight and soaking up those rays (or avoiding glare) will mentally help your workflow. If you have to work around a partner or roommate (my husband has currently taken over the “office”), work together and communicate your needs clearly so that you can make a plan that is fair to everyone. If you can’t move around, have things that make you happy and calm within eyesight. For me, this is the plants and bird feeders outside our windows.

Invest in a Whiteboard

Whiteboard and colored markers are the best

I purchased a large whiteboard (~2 x 3 feet) when I started writing my dissertation, and my only regret was that I didn’t do it sooner! I also invested in a bunch of colored whiteboard markers because color coding helps me organize my thoughts. I like to think of my whiteboard as my rough notebook/sketchpad. The ability to jot down ideas or diagrams, and easily erase or modify them is so helpful. Sometimes if I am struggling with an idea, I’ll write it out again and again, erasing or modifying as necessary. Once I have it the way I want it, I’ll either write it down in my notebook, type it into a word document, or make the figure on my computer. We get so used to having access to whiteboards at a university that this was one tool I couldn’t live without.

Making a “Plan”

I use the word “plan” loosely here, because no matter what plan or tasks you set out for yourself, it’s hard to stick to those goals exactly, so flexibility here is key. Working from home is tough, and not everything will go perfectly, even for someone seasoned like myself. Mentally, not beating yourself up if everything doesn’t go how you expect is important for your productivity. Not every day will be great. But by trying to keep some of your same organizational tools, this will help you feel more normal and productive, especially in a work space that is also your home. Again, this is one of the reasons I love my whiteboard. If I have to change the plan, it’s super easy to do so, and there’s no “evidence” of the change (unlike if you wrote something down with a pen).

Write out everything you need to get done, and organize it how you see fit. I color code tasks and sort them by day of the week. I usually have fewer and fewer tasks towards the end of the week because I know stuff from the previous days with inevitably trickle over. I also tend to repeat tasks several days in a row in case I don’t get to them on one day, or they take longer than I expect. Google Calendar is another friend. If you have other organizational tools you use, keep implementing them. Having structure (but one that allows some flexibility) is really important.

Creating a “Routine”

Again, try to be flexible here because some days are going to be harder than others. But if you can keep your regular routine going, that should help. For me, it’s setting an alarm and having breakfast and coffee with my husband. He likes to watch the news, but sometimes this stresses me out, so if I know I’m not feeling the news that day, I’ll go do something else, like clean, or play with the cat. Once the breakfast dishes are done, it’s time to work!

I like to start out the day by making a “to do” list on my whiteboard, and I will prioritize those tasks. I will then always try to make myself do the most difficult task first because if I can accomplish that, it will energize me for the rest of the day because at least I did something productive! For most of us, that task is probably writing. I’ve noticed that the days where I’ve been most productive are the days where I’ve started out with an hour or two of writing and reading articles in the morning. Even if I only manage to get a paragraph written, I will be more productive with other tasks if I know I got something on the page. Forcing yourself to write daily will also help the task of manuscript/thesis/dissertation writing seem much more manageable. It doesn’t matter if the writing is “bad”, getting it on the page is the hardest part.

Studious kitty Widget

Taking regular breaks is also important. For me, I’ll work for a couple of hours, then play with my cat for a bit, work some more, and then make lunch. I like to have a hot shower as my mid-day break because 1) pajamas and housecoats in the morning are awesome, 2) I need to stop and stretch my legs to avoid sciatic issues, and 3) I usually have an idea I need to mull over by mid-day, and thinking about it in the shower/tub is helpful. Then I will work again for a couple of hours, take another break to play with the cat, and then keep working. Because I live in Canada, I didn’t really feel like going outside for walks most days during the dead of winter, but now that it is “nicer” outside (not -20º C), I will usually go for a walk in the afternoon. I also have a bike trainer that I try to use, but I will admit that when I was deep into my dissertation-writing stages, I didn’t use it as much as I should have. If you have an activity tracker, these are helpful in maintaining an active routine. I wish I’d invested in one sooner. But the important thing is to not beat yourself up if you can’t keep up with a physical routine every day. 

One other thing I’ll say about routines is that having something to take care of is really helpful. Even if it is just a houseplant or a bird feeder, having some sense of responsibility to take care of something will help. For me, it’s a cat and plants. Pets will have routines that you might be forced to follow, whether it’s taking them for walks, or just feeding and cleaning up after them. When our cat died unexpectedly, working from home suddenly became a lot harder, so my sister bought me a bunch of plants and that helped. I also make a patio garden in the summer. My husband eventually convinced me to get another cat, and while I was very resistant, I’m glad we did it. She’s very active, so we have to play with her for at least a half hour every night before bed, or she’ll keep us up. She also has natural rhythms that start to shape your day.

Put Distractions Away

Very helpful coworker May.

This is an obvious one, but easier said than done. For me, it’s my phone and email. I try to check my email only once an hour, and will leave my phone in a different room. If TV becomes a temptation, I will go and work in a different room away from the TV. Food is another easy distraction. I try to have set meals and snack breaks. I allow myself breakfast, lunch, and two snack breaks during the day. I can take these whenever I want, but I normally only get two. I try to drink lots of water, coffee, and tea throughout the day instead. I can take as many water or tea breaks as I want. If I’m having a stressful or long day, I will add a third snack break in too. I try not to be too hard on myself – writing requires fuel! Planning out groceries, especially snacky foods, is important when working from home. You’re going to need and want snacks, so make sure they are at the ready, but try to be mindful of snacks and build them into your routine.

Maintain Regular Communication and Accountability

Whether it’s your PI, boss, or a trusted mentor, maintaining a regular line of communication is really important to help you feel like you are keeping to some kind of schedule. While communication is a two-way street, your advisor might be juggling their own responsibilities, especially in such an unusual situation, so the responsibility is on you to be clear in what you need. Ultimately, it’s your degree/project. In my advisor’s lab, we had weekly lab meetings which I joined via Skype. I also talked with my advisor at least once every two weeks on the phone for a couple of hours to keep him updated, work through any problems, and talk about goals for the upcoming weeks. These meetings were something that I initiated (although he’d check in regularly). Again, it was my degree, so it was my responsibility. When you are working remotely, people can’t see what you are doing, so having a dedicated time to share and update your supervisors is important, both for them to see how you are doing, but also for you to maintain some accountability. Having regular communication is also key to avoid feelings of isolation.

Practicing Self-Care

Yoda I crocheted for my advisor – BEFORE the Mandalorian existed

Set aside time each day to relax or do something you enjoy. Again, obvious, but sometimes challenging when you work and live in the same space. For me, when my husband stops working, I do too (most of the time, anyway). We will make supper together, watch TV for a bit, and I will knit or crochet. He might go for a run and I’ll go for a walk. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll take an extra long lunch break, or do some baking. In the summer, I like to work on my patio garden and go for bike rides. I also volunteer for a couple of organizations where I write or post content for their social media platforms. I’m also trying to institute bedtime reading.

Basically, if there’s something that makes you happy, make sure to dedicate time for it each day. Build it into your routine.

If It’s Not Working, Don’t Force It

Not everything will work, so be kind to yourself. I’ve been working from home for years now, and I still have days where I feel like I get next to nothing done. If I feel like I’m having a bad day, there are a few different things I will try. The most important thing is not to force yourself to do something if it doesn’t feel like it’s working. It won’t work and you’ll just end up feeling miserable. For example, if I am struggling with writing a discussion section, I’ll try to switch to writing or editing something easier, like the methods or results. If I’m not feeling the writing at all, I will switch to an easier task, like working on some R code, data entry, or even backing up and organizing my files. Whatever makes you feel like you’re still getting something accomplished, because even backing up data is important (speaking of, have you backed up your data recently? If not, stop reading this and go do it now!).

My sad little patio garden.

If all else fails, it’s OK to take a big break, or even quit early sometimes. The grad-school/academic guilt can be tough sometimes, but if you’re feeling that lousy, you probably really need the break. And you’ll probably be more productive the next day. Put it this way: how many 12+ hour days have you put in? Probably quite a few. So if you have a day where you only get 2 or 3 hours of work done, it will all balance out in the end. After my cat died, I hardly did anything other than binge RuPaul’s Drag Race for a month. But I still defended on time, and passed with flying colors. Even if you have a lousy couple of days, or maybe even a couple of weeks, my best advice is the saying: “Be like a dog. Just kick some grass over it and move on.” Be patient with yourself. Tomorrow is a new day.

Lastly, try to enjoy it. Go to bed early. Sleep in. You don’t have to commute anymore! Cuddle pets or loved ones. Call your long-distance bestie or family member. They’re probably lonely too. And don’t forget: you will get the work done, and you get to do it in your comfy clothes!

Nick Smith, Paleontologist

I am a paleontologist interested in the evolutionary history and systematics of Paleozoic echinoderms (i.e. sea stars, sea urchins, and sea lilies). I am currently working with one of the five echinoderm groups that persisted through the Paleozoic all the way to modern day, the brittle star! Brittle stars look similar to starfish, but their arms appear clearly separate from their body (central disk). Brittle stars originated during the Early Ordovician (approx. 485–480 million years ago) and diversified pretty quickly throughout the early Paleozoic. Unfortunately, there is a large, (nearly 60 million year!) gap in our knowledge of brittle stars from the beginning of the Mississippian to the beginning of the Mesozoic, and it has remained that way for the past 30 years. Because brittle stars are made up of thousands of individual skeletal elements, finding fully articulated brittle star skeletons to expand our understanding of their life histories is challenging.

Figure showing the difference in shape between brittle stars (left) and starfish (right). Notice the difference in how the arms appear separated from the central body in brittle stars, but as an extension of the body in the starfish. Images taken from Science Photo Library and jaxshells.org.

To remedy this challenge, I am utilizing a technique that has primarily been used with Mesozoic and Cenozoic aged brittle stars that focuses on the use of morphologically significant (differently shaped) elements from the arm. Skeletal elements of brittle star arms have been proven to be taxonomically significant, meaning that we can identify different genera of brittle stars based on these arm pieces. I collect these skeletal elements by sieving (washing and sorting by size) weathered down shale from Mississippian aged sediment located in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Finally, I compare the individual elements with articulated skeletons in museums to assign species names to my elements. I can then use that knowledge to fill in the gaps of our understanding of late Paleozoic brittle stars.

This is an image of the individual skeletal elements from the brittle stars I work with. The skeletal elements on the left half of the image are lateral arm plates (plates that hold the spines of a brittle star), and the skeletal elements on the left are vertebral plates (plates that core the arm of brittle stars). Image taken from Smith and Sumrall, 2019.

My fascination with science and the natural world was when I first completed an animal dissection during the 7th grade. I, however, took a more non-conventional approach to studying geology and paleontology. I first started college shortly after graduating high school with a degree in biology and quickly failed out. It would not be until after I took a break from school and returned to school that I truly understood what I wanted to do with my life. After taking an introductory physical geology course, I realized how I could incorporate my love for geology with my love for organismal biology.

My favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to expand our knowledge of the world and the ability to inspire the next generation of scientists! I have had the opportunity to visit places I never imagined I would have the opportunity to visit, learn new techniques to explore the fossil record, and have met and worked with some of the most brilliant minds from all over the world. As a gay cis male in the geosciences, I hope to be able to inspire the next generation of great minds and promote diversity in all STEM fields!

My advice to young scientists is that you should never think your ideas are not worthy. Search, inquire, and explore what you find interesting and then share that knowledge with the world! Realize that it is ok to fail and understand that there is power in failure. Do not give up! Above all else, communicate with other scientists and establish a set of friends/peers that you can share ideas with, ask for assistance when needed, and laugh and cry with.

Follow Nick’s updates on his Research Gate or on Instagram, @nick_smith_28!

A First to Remember

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

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

Scenery around Brown University.

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

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

Presenting at my first research conference.

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

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

 

How to Train Your Postdoc

Adriane here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Collins, PhD Candidate, Geoscience Education Researcher

Me after collecting pyrite concretions in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summarized by Michael de Koter. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Mass Youth Climate Summit

Shaina here –

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

Day 1

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

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

Day 2

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

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

Cretaceous Fossils of Mississippi

An Exogyra oyster from the Ripley Formation.

Cam here-

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

A view of the Ripley Formation field site.

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

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

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