Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Adriane, Jen, or another collaborator will post here biweekly to showcase what they did over the past week or so. The goal being to show what exactly goes into being a scientist. It’s not always fun field work or museum trips, often we are rummaging through data or staring into a microscope!
All of us have taken wildly different journeys to get to where we are today. I’d like to share part of mine with you all and emphasize the importance of undergraduate research. Although I am currently in a geology PhD program I started out as a Biological Sciences major. When I started my undergraduate career I wanted to become an orthodontist – this slowly changed to medical examiner to I have no idea. The spring semester that I was supposed to graduate I took a course in the Earth and Environmental Science Department to fulfill my last 300-level course requirement. The course was “Introduction to Paleontology” with Dr. Roy Plotnick. I immediately became enamored with the content and scheduled a meeting to talk with him. He offered me a research assistant position to work in his lab and I accepted. I decided to stay for an additional year to get a minor in Earth and Environmental Science.
I did not know much about undergraduate research when I started out my new position as research assistant. Roy had several projects going on at the time. I started in on one working to assess how a specific type of brachiopod interacted with the seafloor. This involved me using a force gauge to measure the amount of force required to push the creature into various types of sediment. I also explored a specific type of crinoid holdfast (the part that secures them to the seafloor) and how it acted almost like an anchor. Roy gave me the freedom to explore the experimental process. He had a variety of tools and materials to experiment with and I was able to build different types of holdfasts and use the force gauge to drag them through different types of sediment. This was not only fun but it was a huge boost in my confidence. I was conducting my own experiments and collecting data.
I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in paleontology. I had become very interested in the extinction dynamics of the Late Devonian. I did an independent study with Roy examining the changes in cephalopod diversity during this dynamic time. I began applying for graduate school in all the wrong ways. I attempted to contact faculty members but they weren’t very good at emailing me back so I would go ahead and apply rather than attempt to contact them again. This mostly resulted in me losing a lot of money on applications. Many of the faculty I applied to work with simply had no funding for students that year. One day Roy brought in an article that was recently published in GSA Today by Dr. Alycia Stigall. This article was titled, Speciation collapse and invasive species dynamics during the Late Devonian “Mass Extinction” and, of course, sparked my interest. I exchanged several emails with Alycia before applying (late) to her program. A few months later I was accepted to work with Alycia for the fall of 2012. Thus, beginning my long journey through graduate school. Without the random chance encounter with Roy during my undergraduate career, I would not be where I am today. His encouragement, support, and enthusiasm provided the best working environment for me to officially become a scientist.
Not all undergraduate research experiences result in positive experiences as mine did. By reaching out to faculty members and participating in different research projects you will quickly find out what you like and dislike! There is no harm in talking to faculty or graduate students about your research interests. It is very likely that they have similar interests or know people that do.
Sarah here –
If you’re applying to graduate school, have recently started, or are even a year or two into your program, I’m sure you’ve gotten tons of advice from professors, current students, the internet, random strangers, all over. I hope you’ll read this, anyhow-I hope that my advice will be a little different from the others from whom you’ve already listened.
1. Find friends (and colleagues!) From the minute you step into higher education, it can feel very isolating. You take classes with the same people; you research with an even smaller group of people; often, you don’t even know other graduate students from outside your department. It’s a big change from undergrad to grad school, for sure, and even more than that, oftentimes, graduate students are pressured to compete with one another. It’s the sad truth, but there are limited resources-your advisor’s time, grant money, etc.-our first instincts are to compete with everyone around us to get ahead. In reality, there will always be a little bit of competition, no matter what. But what is often missed is that graduate school doesn’t have to be this a lot of the time-nor should it be. You’re surrounded by some of the best and the brightest around. Why not take this opportunity to learn from them?
If I had to pick the most important relationship I made out of graduate school, it wouldn’t be with my advisor, with my committee, or with contacts I made at conferences. It was my labmate, Jen. She and I traded every single piece of our written work back and forth and we edited them mercilessly until they were flawless-grant proposals, emails, papers, job applications, you name it. We encouraged each other through all of our applications, even though we applied to all of the same ones-and many times, one of us was chosen while the other wasn’t. We’ve come up with research project ideas for the other, and some that we could collaborate together on. While we were competing for the same grants, we never actively competed against one another and put the other down. As a result, I have a wonderful friend, an editor, and an irreplaceable research collaborator, all in one. When graduate school felt unbearable, I’d turn to Jen for help, and without fail, I’d feel like I could handle it again. This relationship is so important; academia is hard. You need someone that you can trust and someone who can remind you of how far you have come-everyone needs some kind of support-don’t struggle by yourself. Everyone is struggling, even if they don’t say it. Be that uplifting person for someone else-be humble, be kind, and build a supportive community for you and your fellow classmates.
2. Find a hobby! Many of us feel like hobbies take away from the whole reason we’re in graduate school-to learn! We need to read papers and research and teach (and sleep-but only if we’ve finished work!). This is probably the worst thing you can do for yourself. Grad school is isolating enough-don’t further push yourself into a bubble. Find a hobby-a club, a new sport, anything-to join. Go every week. Don’t make exceptions, even if you feel like you’re just too busy-make your one or two hours a week just as mandatory as your classwork. Make friends outside of your department and even-dare I say it?-outside of academia! I didn’t do this during my master’s degree-I spent two years at the office from 7AM-9PM most days (including the weekends). I was lonely, miserable, and as a result, I don’t think I performed as well as I could have. During my Ph.D., I took up Middle Eastern dancing-once or twice a week-I made many new friends, learned a new skill that had nothing to do with geology, and most importantly: it gave me something to look forward to every week: a reward for surviving another week of graduate school. My second hobby, which wasn’t something I did in a group, but was so healing all the same: reading for fun. I made both of these a priority during my Ph.D. I read for fun 15 minutes a night before bed (yes, even on nights I went to bed at 4AM) and always went to dance class. You’d be surprised what having hobbies can do to restore your happiness and sanity.
3. Do some outreach! I’m a paleontologist-this means that I get to spend my days talking about dinosaurs and playing in the dirt (even though I don’t study dinosaurs). This means that I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to talk to countless K-12 classrooms and to fossil collecting clubs. A lot of people view this as a waste of time, that it might take away precious time from research-sure, you could look at it that way. But here’s what I got out of it: by all of these interactions-from working with girls’ after school groups to teach them confidence, to talking to families about the rocks they had collected, I learned to talk about my science in very understandable terms to all kinds of people. Communication isn’t a very easy skill-many of the scientists I meet at conferences, even scientists within my discipline, have a hard time explaining their research, even to other scientists. We forgot that if other people can’t understand your work, you’re not doing the best job that you can. My work with kids and non-scientist adults has given me so many opportunities to try different explanations and pictures so that I can talk to just about anyone about what I do-this has even helped me learn how to speak to scientists outside of my discipline. Also, consider what got you interested in science-a lot of us will remember learning about dinosaurs or volcanoes or something that really excited you. When you talk to these kids, you’re showing them that they, too, could become the next generation’s scientists. If you’re a woman, or a person of color, a veteran, a person with a disability, or someone who is LGBT-this can mean even more to kids who might not have had any idea someone like them could ever become someone like you. So go call an elementary school or find a local group that you can go share your love of whatever it is that you study-it will make you a better communicator and you might just be the inspiration for the next amazing person in your field. I know when I’m stressed or even sometimes really considering whether I made the right career choice (who hasn’t wondered that in academia?), being able to share my love of fossils with people who think dinosaurs are just as cool as I do is one of the best things to remind me that I am doing the thing I love most on Earth. Share your passion! You won’t regret it.
Grad school can be an amazing experience, as much as it can be a very stressful one. Remember to take time for yourself, share your love of science, find colleagues that support you, and try to be that uplifting person for someone else. It’s worth it.
Adriane here, reporting once again from the beautiful Tasman Sea!
You may recall from my previous post that I am currently sailing the RV JOIDES Resolution (the JR), a research vessel equipped with a drill rig that is used for scientific ocean drilling. During these scientific expeditions aboard the JR, a team of about 30-35 scientists and several crew members (the JR can hold a maximum of 130 people) drill sediment from the seafloor. Everyone on the ship has a job to do, and in this post I’ll explain what my role is while sailing in the beautiful Tasman.
I am sailing as a planktic foraminifera biostratigrapher (click here to learn more about what that means, and here to read more about how we use fossils to tell time) or someone who uses fossils (‘bio’) to tell time from the rock record (‘stratigraphy’). Altogether, there are 9 paleontologists on the ship. Some of us are here to tell the other scientist what age the sediments are that we’re drilling into, and some are using fossils to interpret paleobathymetry, or the water depth of the Tasman Sea at different times in Earth’s history.
Every scientist’s role on the ship is vastly important, but the first thing everyone wants to know as sediment cores are being drilled and brought onto the ship is how old this sediment is. This is important for a few different reasons: 1. There are specific intervals in Earth’s history that we (the scientists on the ship) want to drill into; 2. With age, we can tell what was going on in the geologic past in the Tasman Sea and further interpret the plate tectonic movements and environments when the sediment was deposited, and 3. We can modify our drilling plan including changing out the drill bits, slowing down the drilling, or speeding up the drilling process to best capture key intervals in Earth’s history. Thus, being a biostratigrapher is initially a very important job, and one that can affect the drilling operations on the ship. That’s why there are four main fossil groups that we use to tell time: the calcareous nannofossils (which are REALLY tiny), the planktic (and in this case, the benthic) foraminifera, siliceous radiolarians, and pollen spores. All of the fossil groups are important to have, as there are intervals in the cores where one or two fossil groups may disappear, or there may only be planktic foraminifera in one sample, etc.
But enough about biostratigraphy, now to show and tell you the entire process we go through when we receive a core on the ship!
The first thing that happens when a core is pulled up onto the core deck is that an announcement is made, such as ‘Core on deck!’. I then put on a hard hat and safety glasses and grab a bowl to collect the core catcher sample (the end piece of the core that literally keeps the sediment in the pipe as the core is brought back to the surface). The core catcher sample is the very last 10 centimeters of the core that is given to the paleontologists to analyze for age. The technicians bring the core from the drill floor to the core deck, where the core is cut into sections. While the core is being cut, another technician is given the core catcher to disassemble, remove the sediment, and give to the paleontologist.
Once I have the sample, I take it back inside to process. If the sediment is very soft, I simply rinse it over a screen to remove small particles (refer to my previous ‘From Mud to Microfossils: Processing Samples’ post). But recently on the expedition, the sediment we are recovering has been very hard. In this case, the core catcher sample is cut into thin slices using a rock saw, then small pieces are shaved off of a slice using a sharp-edged tool. These smaller pieces are crushed with a mortar and pestle for a few minutes.
The sediment is then rinsed over two screens: a 2 millimeter (mm) screen to hold back the larger particles, and a 63 micrometer (μm) screen to catch the microfossils. The >2 mm rock pieces are then crushed again until there is enough particles in the 63 μm screen to analyze for planktic foraminifera. The sediment, which we call the residue at this point, is then put into filter paper on a stand to drain out the extra water. The filter paper and residue are then put onto a hot plate to dry (yes, there have been a few times when the paper has burned!).
After the residue is dry, it is put into a small plastic bag with a label indicating exactly where it came from within each core. At this point, the residue is ready for analysis! At my desk, I have a microscope, a small tray, very small paintbrushes for picking very small fossils, a jar of water, and green food dye. Because the microfossils that I look at are made of calcite, they are very bright under the lights in the microscope. Dying the fossils a green color cuts down on the reflectance of light off the foram’s shells, and enables me to see the details of the fossil necessary to identify it to the species level.
There are usually many different planktic foraminiferal species in each sample, but there are only a few that I usually look for that tell me about the age of the sediment. These are called ‘marker species’. The geologic time at which a marker species evolves or goes extinct has been calibrated by previous scientists before me over several decades, so when I find a species, or when a species suddenly disappears, I have a chart that I use to look up when that speciation or extinction event happened.
Once I have a datum (reference point of time) and an age estimate for the residue sample I’m looking at, I write this information on a big white board in the paleontology lab. All of the other scientists look at this board frequently to determine the age of the sediment that is being brought up.
Education and Outreach Aboard the JR
Every IODP expedition has an education outreach coordinator that sails with the crew and scientists. This person’s job is to blog, post photos on social media outlets (Facebook), and conduct ‘Ship to Shore’ linkups. These are scheduled events with colleges, university, and K-12 schools where the education outreach coordinator gives the viewers a live tour of the ship and the activities that are going on. Because every expedition is funded by public monies from several countries, it is our responsibility as scientists to engage with the public and tell you all what we’re doing and what we’re learning. I’ve participated in a few ship to shore linkups already, and have really enjoyed talking with students of all ages about fossils, what we’re finding in the Tasman Sea, and how we use the fossils to tell time!
If you are an educator and want to participate in a Ship to Shore video event, click here to sign up!
Sarah here to write about the slightly less fun, and the certainly less glamorous, side of science: becoming gainfully employed as a scientist after graduate school. My experiences are within applying to academic jobs (visiting professorships, tenure track professorships, postdoctoral researchers, museum curators, etc.). Academic job applications are quite a bit different than many other job applications. Here’s the step-by-step breakdown of how to apply to an academic job:
1. Look for openings. Academic jobs are few and far between. A lot of the times, there are many more people applying than there are jobs in academia (essentially, universities or museums). Therefore, competition is stiff! To keep this from getting out of control in length, we’re going to keep this post about professor jobs. When a department decides they need a professor in a new area of research (like paleontology), they’ll make a request to the university. They’ll explain to the university why they need a paleontologist-what types of research they will bring to the department, what classes they’ll teach, what graduate students they’ll recruit, etc. The university will typically send all of the proposals they get in a year to the university board that will approve or deny the requests. Let’s say we’re approved for our paleontology hire-yay! We’ll send out a job advertisement for the position with a basic list of what the department would like to see (For example: “We seek a paleontologist for a tenure track position starting next fall. The candidate will be expected to develop a thriving research program, mentor graduate students, and teach courses”). This means that your college professors probably had little or no choice in where they moved for their jobs. It all depends on what university wants a professor in your field at the right time.
2. Apply! Great! We have a cool job to apply to-what do we do to prove to them we’re the perfect person for the job? First, you write a cover letter. The cover letter is a one-two page document that is a brief overview of who you are, what your qualifications are, and why you think you’re the very best person for this job. Next, you write a teaching statement (or a teaching philosophy). This covers your general philosophy on how you view teaching-do you use active learning and hands-on examples? How do you grade students-by exams, projects, both? You talk about the types of classes you can teach at that university and the classes you’d like to add to their roster. This can be a few pages in length. Next comes your research statement -teaching is only a part of what university professors do; you’re expected to do a lot of research (that is hopefully funded by scientific agencies, like the National Science Foundation). Your research statement should talk about all the research you currently do-it should be framed as “the big picture”. For example, my research statement talks about how I study long-term trends in evolution and how evolutionary trends might be tied to climate change in the fossil record. Your research statement should cover where you think you’ll get external funding for research and new projects you’d like to get to in the future! Your C.V. (the academic resume) is the last thing that is typically required. It lists all your publications, grants, classes taught, outreach, and more, so the interviewers can learn more about what you do. Some universities require different statements in addition to your teaching and research, like a diversity statement. A diversity statement covers your commitment to supporting all people in your field and how you will help students from different backgrounds succeed.
3. Interview! A committee of professors will read all the statements and compile a “short list” of a varying number of applicants. This short list will be contacted-a lot of the times, they’ll ask for letters of recommendation for the people who made the short list. A typical interview will consist of a Skype or phone interview. They’ll ask questions about your research goals, your teaching style, why do you want to work at that school, etc. If they decide you’re one of their top candidates, they’ll then invite you (and 2-4 others, typically) to come to a campus interview.
4. Campus visit! The campus visit (one that I’ve made a few times) is a really weird kind of job interview-it starts when someone picks you up at the airport (typically a professor) and ends whenever you get returned. The interview day can last all day (I have had two that were 13 hours long). You meet with as many professors as can be met with, have lunch with students or more faculty, give a talk about your research to the department, and sometimes a second talk, a teaching demo, so they can see how good you’ll be at instructing their students. You’ll have a formal sit down interview with the search committee at some point during the day, too.
5. Accept?! Congratulations! You’ve earned yourself a job! Now, you need to negotiate the terms: salary, money for start up (this means the equipment you want to buy for your research), a university position for your spouse, if you need one, moving expenses, teaching load, and more. If this position isn’t a good fit for you, you might not want to take it, even if jobs are hard to come by. Weigh your options and make the best decision for yourself.
It can take many years for a scientist to earn a tenure-track faculty position. Very few scientists are able to attain this type of position immediately after graduate school. But that doesn’t mean you should not try and tenure track positions are not for everyone. There are some industry positions available for people who obtain a Ph.D.
Sarah is currently working at the University of South Florida where she has a position as a visiting faculty member. She and Jen are currently compiling application packets for this upcoming cycle.
Ciao! Greetings from beautiful and sunny Urbino, Italy! For two weeks earlier this summer, I participated in the 10thInternational School on Foraminifera at ESRU Urbino. This workshop covers all aspects of foraminifera, from their modern ecology to their evolution since the Cambrian. The school is truly international as we not only have expert lecturers from all over the world, but also students representing more than 12 countries.
I was only 1 of 4 students from the U.S. I have made friends with fellow micropaleontologists from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Israel and Russia and have enjoyed getting to hear what life is like as a scientist and micrpaleontologist in other parts of the world. This also means that for the most part, instead of learning any Italian I have been helping other students improve their English, something I am happy to do since English is the most prominent language of science. Each day we have lectures in the morning and in the afternoon, we look at samples and specimens under the microscope. This is great because everything we learn from lecture is reinforced with real forams and slides! As I am a Cretaceous and planktic person, my favorite lecture was biostratigraphy with Maria Rose Petrizzo. During lecture, we went through the important evolutionary changes in the planktic record and in the afternoon for our lab exercises we had just 10 minutes to pick different morphotypes from residue. Instead of speaking in terms of species, for foraminifera we speak in terms of ‘morphotypes’ this simply means we use shape (morphology) to define them. I had a lot of fun with this!
I also really enjoyed the lectures on modern planktic forams. The coolest thing I have learned is that although there is a lot we don’t know about forams in the past, biologists studying modern forams are still puzzled by these amazing protists. There are many questions surrounding their reproductive cycle, feeding habits and general ecology that biologists are still working out.
I learned a lot, but I must say the best part of the trip is the other scientists and foram enthusiasts I am meeting and getting to know. We live, work, and eat together and are forming relationships and networks that I’m sure will last through our careers. We already have plans to meet up at the big forams meeting next year in Scotland!
Today I’m going to talk about what I have been up to this past week. I recently traveled to Gainesville, Florida to participate in a workshop at the Florida Museum of Natural History through the myFOSSIL program. I’ll be writing up a full education and outreach post on that soon but check out my blog for photos by clicking here! After the workshop I was fortunate enough to spend time with some of my family in Tampa.
This week I have gotten zero research done. Sometimes this happens and it’s okay but it’s also very stressful. Work doesn’t stop while you are away so emails pile up and you may miss deadlines if you aren’t very careful. During my family time I had to organize a session for an upcoming conference with one of my mentors, work on Time Scavengers, help my project collaborator email teachers, and work on my job application packets. This was pretty minor as I don’t have any serious deadlines coming up. But I feel guilty about not working more even though this was my personal time to spend with my family.
Once I got back to work I spent several hours cleaning out my emails, catching up with my peers, and running to various meetings around campus. I also got to help one of our faculty members move her freezer full of animal parts (mostly cow… I think…). Things seemed to keep piling up one after another! It didn’t take us very long but one of her coolers was stolen so we had to pack up frozen bits into a large container in the back of her truck! Everything worked out well but man it was a weird morning! How do you get back to a regular week after a week of total chaos? Well, one day at a time I’m taking the weekend to relax and periodically finish catching up on work from the last week or so. I contact my friends and family that I haven’t been able to speak with a lot lately. This helps ground me and remind me that work should not be all consuming!
I’ve been really fortunate to get to speak with Adriane a LOT while she has been on her cruise. She is learning so much and meeting amazing people! Unfortunately, she has a bit of a cold but is on the mend. We miss having our weekly Google Hangout about Time Scavengers but are so grateful we can still communicate.
I hope this posts reminds people that self-care is vital for a productive life! Take time for yourself and it’s okay if your week is filled with meetings, travel, and bits of dead animals.
Until the end of September, I am sailing aboard the research vessel JOIDES Resolution in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. I’m one of 33 scientists working on the ship, as well as staff and drillers. Altogether, there are 127 people aboard, working together as a community to make sure the ship functions, it’s clean and tidy, and that we’re conducting excellent science.
The JOIDES Resolution
The JOIDES Resolution, or JR for short, is one of the most important research vessels sailing the seas today. The ship itself was built in 1978 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and runs off diesel, but generates its own electricity and has desalination equipment. Thus, we are never short of lights, power, or water. The ship was built for scientific ocean drilling, and has a drill tower mounted on it, called the derrick. Surprisingly, the ship can recover sediment from the seafloor through a maximum water depth of 27,000 feet! A few years back, the JR was in dry port for two years while it was being updated. Now, the ship has lab spaces for all kinds of scientists, with cutting edge equipment and machines to analyze the sediment cores that we recover from the seafloor.
Life aboard the ship is absolutely amazing! There are three meals provided for us everyday, and a few coffee machines scattered around. In addition, there are always cookies, snacks, and coffee in the mess hall. Another great feature about life on the ship is that the staff here does everyone’s laundry! In short, I’m getting spoiled by not having to cook, clean, or worry with laundry. But on the other hand, I am working 12 hour days every day until the end of September, where we will disembark the ship in Tasmania.
The scientists work in two shifts so that we are continuously working 24 hours. The night shift is from midnight to noon, and the day shift from noon to midnight. I’m on the day shift, which was pretty easy to adjust to by going to bed later and getting up later. After our shifts end, there are plenty of things to do aboard the ship. The JR has its own movie room with a big screen TV, a pool table, and a nice collection of books. There is also a and a lounge with computers connected to the internet. We can’t get internet on our personal laptops because we have limited bandwidth available on the ship, most of which is used to conference with schools all over the world (we have two people sailing with us whose job is specifically to do education outreach through video chats, movies, and virtual meetings).
Scientists stay two to a room, where there is plenty of storage space, two closets, and a bunk bed. In the room is also a sink. Two rooms share a bathroom, which is located in the center of the rooms. The rooms never feel cramped, because the two scientists in the room work opposite shifts. But my favorite part about the ship is not the limitless cookies or fancy coffee machine; instead, it is the sense of wonder and amazement that come with being surrounded by ocean. When I am off shift, I love to sit at the picnic table at the front of the ship and watch the ocean, especially when we’re moving on a cloudless, bright night. The stars are unreal, as are the sunsets!
Interested in reading more on the work Adriane is up to? Check out these news articles about the project:
Our department recently moved into a new building and our rock room is not yet set up! The rock room serves as the go-to room for getting messy within the department. This can vary by project – you can be cutting samples with the rock saws, polishing samples, or washing sediment. I recently collected a lot of sediment in 5 gallon buckets that needs to be sieved. Some of it is for a fossil summer camp hosted through the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. Since the rock room isn’t ready to be used just yet, I’ve started sieving in my backyard! Sieving is useful for separating out different sizes of fossils. It helps you find the very small microfossils and smaller pieces of fossils that may not preserve together.
I usually let the sediment soak in water for a few days this helps get dirt particles and grass off the rock. I can rinse it by simply pouring out the top part of water. I usually fill it up several times and knead the sediment while I do this. For this specific project I’ll just use 3 sieve sizes: 4mm, 2.5mm, and 1 mm. At the summer camp we will be focusing on the larger fossils that we can pick out with our eyes rather than the microfossils! I start with the bucket full of sediment and plop some of the wet slop into the sieve. I then pour water over the sediment and shake the sieve until all that is left in the sieve is the material that cannot fall through the mesh. I usually give it another rinse and then dump it out in the small bucket. Everything that was smaller than the sieve mesh fell through into the other 5 gallon bucket.
Once the original bucket is empty, you can swap buckets and go to the next sieve size! Since I’m trying to get this sediment pretty clean I will soak the smaller bucket in water and rinse it several times and then let it dry! Usually, I would be very careful to keep all the different sieve sizes separate but I’m going to recombine this sediment once I’ve given it a good clean. The summer camp students will re-sieve the material and examine their findings in each sieve size!
On July 28th, I will board the scientific drilling ship, R/V Joides Resolution, to spend 2 months in the Tasman Sea! This expedition, through the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) will recover sediment from the seafloor between Australia and New Zealand to learn more about the plate tectonics behaved in the geologic past and the climate and ocean history of the Tasman Sea. A group of scientists were chosen to participate on this expedition, all have a very specific job to do while at sea. My job is to look at the tiny fossils, planktic foraminifera (also called ‘forams’) recovered from the sediment, identify them, and tell everyone else how old the sediment is. This technique of using fossils to tell time is called biostratigraphy. Thus, I am sailing as one of four planktic foraminferal biostratigraphers on the ship.
Preparing for an expedition like this is no small task. In fact, it’s downright terrifying! I will be working for 2 months straight on 12 hour shifts, and will be around some of the best scientists of my time. I am certain I will learn a ton of new information, but it can be intimidating knowing you will, as a student, be working with such great scientists.
So, how does one prepare for an expedition of this magnitude? First and foremost, I am staying positive and reminding myself that this is a remarkable experience! Second, I have been reading scientific papers where the research focuses on microfossils from the Tasman Sea, and putting these important papers on an external hard drive to take with me on the ship. Third, my lab and I made a ‘Biostrat Book’, where I combined three different zonation schemes, or ways to tell time using planktic foraminifera, for use on the ship. This document also contains tons of pictures of important foram species that we use to estimate time.
But it turns out the best place to look at and learn different species of forams was right here, in the lab of my advisor! My advisor, Mark, has collected sediment samples from all over the world, and has amassed quite the collection of planktic forams. So as part of my training, I sorted all of our samples first by species, then by age. This collection will serve as references for me to practice identifying all the foram species!
And finally, the last way I’m preparing for this expedition is by relying on the support and positivity from my peers and lab mates, both previous and current members (I lovingly call them my paleo brothers and sisters). Several of my advisor’s former students have sailed aboard the Joides Resolution, so their advice and support has been invaluable to me!
Stay tuned for more updates from my time in Australia and aboard the Joides Resolution!
I work with tiny microfossils, called foraminifera, that accumulate on the seafloor. Here, I’ll show you how I, and other paleontologists that work with microfossils (micropaleontoloigsts) acquire our fossils!
All of the sediment cores that have been drilled since the late 1960’s are kept in one of three core storage facilities (core repositories) located at universities around the world. The University of Bremen, German currently stores 154 km (95.7 miles!) of cores; Kochi University in Japan has 111.2 km (69 miles) of cores; and Texas A&M University in the USA currently houses 132 km (82 miles) of sediment cores. Samples from any cores stored in any of the three repositories can be requested by scientists, and usually arrive in the mail within a few weeks! But let’s back up a bit and talk about where the sediment samples come from.
For my research, I recently requested samples from three cores stored at Texas A&M University. The cores I requested samples from were drilled from the northwest Pacific Ocean (see the sea surface temperature and site location map on the ‘Our Research Explained‘ page). On the left is what a core looks like. All cores, after being drilled and pulled back up onto the drill ship, are cut in half. One half of the core is photographed and kept as a sort of reference, and the other half is used for research (we call this the ‘working half’).
The core pictured here was drilled from Leg 198 (all of the major drilling expeditions are given a number), Site 1208 (the specific site that has coordinates attached), Hole A (in a number of cases, more than one core will be drilled from the same location to ensure the scientists get enough sediment, or recovery). The last number, 21X, is the core number and the letter corresponds to the drill bit that was used to drill it. Because this is Core 21, that means that there are 20 cores younger, or that were drilled before, this one. This core was cut into 4 sections, each approximately 150 centimeters in length, plus the core catcher, which is the last bit of core brought up. Notice the white square of styrofoam labeled ‘PAL’ in the core catcher; this was the sample taken out of the core that was given to the paleontologists on the scientific expedition to determine the age of this sediment.
OK, now back to the samples! My samples arrived within 2 weeks in 3 large boxes. Notice the samples are just chunks of mud. First, I (with the help of my husband) sorted the samples according to what site they were from (1207, 1208, or 1209).
Then, I put the chunks of mud in glass jars and dried them in a low-temperature oven in our lab. This is done to evaporate any water from the mud so we can weigh the samples. After the samples are dried and weighed, they are put into bottles with water to break the mud apart (I call these bottles of mud my ‘Mud Milkshakes’). Notice the labels on each bottle: these indicate which site the sample is from (in this case, all are from Site 1208), the core (the samples in these bottles are from cores 24 and 25), the core section (the third number), and the depth from the top of that section where the sample was taken (125-127 and 127-129, measured in centimeters).
The samples soak for about a week and are then sieved over a small screen. The screen is small enough to let very tiny particles of clay through, but not the microfossils I’m interested in. The sieved samples are then put back into glass dishes and dried. When completely dry, the microfossils are put into small glass jars. Notice the jars are also labeled just like the bottles to indicate the exact location in the cores the sample was taken. This is very important information to know, as later in my research, I convert depth in the core to age (more on that later)!