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.

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.

myFOSSIL eMuseum

Jen here – 

Much of my time at the FOSSIL Project has been spent toward working on the myFOSSIL eMuseum. This is a place where fossil collectors can upload their personal fossil collection with all of the associated data they collect in the field. I have been working with our web developers to create a structure on the back end of the website that follows museum standards for the data. This means that there is an underlying language that is associated with the data entered into the website. This language is the same on myFOSSIL as it is in the databases used by museum professionals to curate their physical specimens. 

myFOSSIL eMuseum landing page where you can choose to explore the fossil collections of others or 3D fossils.

If a collector uploads a fossil specimen with really excellent associated data this information could be shared with the broader scientific community. Similar to community science projects like iNaturalist and eBird that have mechanisms in place to verify your data and then they send it to a data aggregator called GBIF. GBIF collects data from many sources and allows users to download these data and use it in their own research or to explore the data. 

On iNaturalist and eBird, other community members chime in on the data you input and help verify the information. In order for your specimen to be sent off to GBIF, it needs to be confirmed by outside parties. In this same way of thinking, I have assembled a team of volunteer curators that are active members of the myFOSSIL community with their own expertise to help curate the specimens on the myFOSSIL eMuseum to validate and improve the specimen information. We have much fewer specimens being uploaded than iNaturalist and eBird so having a team of curators checking specimens as they are uploaded to the site is not a terribly daunting task. 

Since the curators are examining digital data rather than that of a physical specimen, we have some specific requirements. The most important being the images of the specimen. This is acting as a digital specimen so we can use it to confirm the classification, geologic context, and location information with other online resources. 

This will be a sustainable way to continue to curate specimens once the grant funding has expired. Position terms for assistant curators are two years, so after the two years the members will reassess and determine if there are other volunteers with expertise that will benefit the collection. 

Sign up and upload your own fossil collection! There are also places on the website and app for you to get help with identification (What is it? Group or What is it? Forum) or just explore other users fossil collections! 

An example of my myFOSSIL specimens page where all of my uploaded fossils appear!

 

Antarctica School

School participants and instructors gathering to look over cores from Antarctic

Dipa here – 

This summer a few members of the UMass Micropaleo Lab traveled to Texas for the first ever International Ocean Discovery Program-Past Antarctic Ice Sheet (IODP-PAIS) Antarctic School at Texas A&M University! This program allows scientists from all over the globe who research Antarctica to come together to study the marine sediment cores stored at the IODP Core Repository. 

During our week at the repository, our mornings were filled with lectures and real-life activities led by geoscientists who have sailed on previous drilling cruises. We learned from them what shipboard life is like, how drill cores are taken, what problems can arise while drilling in Southern Ocean around Antarctica, and how to interpret the clues within the drill cores. To explore those clues, we were divided into mini-research teams and each given a core section from a prior expedition to analyze. Each afternoon we rotated among different core analysis stations: how to make and analyze microscopic smear slides, how to describe the macroscopic features of the core section, how to gather and interpret paleomagnetic and density data on the core sediment, how to scan core sections for key trace elements and improve your paleoenvironmental interpretations using element abundance data, and how to develop a timeframe for your core section (chronostratigraphy). Putting this all together, we were able to map a pattern of ice advance and retreat over where the drill core was taken. Since the core sections we were studying came from expeditions, we were able to double-check our data and interpretations against the published results and see how successful we were–my group was able to match the chronostratigraphy of the original study! 

Gathering the density profile of our core section.

I was excited to learn so much and gain so many new friends at the Antarctic School, but my excitement was tempered by being the only woman of color in the program. I was ashamed to learn that an international program participant could not attend because they were not granted a U.S. visa in time: the American visa process is extremely biased, and as an international organization the IODP should use their agency to help all invited participants attend, regardless of their countries of origin. It is not enough to non-racist in today’s society–we must be actively anti-racist. I think international STEM research programs such as this one should hold spots specifically for students of color, students with disabilities, and other folks who are traditionally marginalized and underrepresented in STEM to attend. Programs like this are critical for early-career scientists to network with each other and the leading scientists in the field, and without holding doors open for marginalized students, how else will diversity in STEM increase? 

The X-ray fluorescence scanner used to identify trace elements in the sediment cores
Group photo of IODP/PAIS Antarctic School participants and instructors

Building a Research Poster

Jen here –

Creating a poster for class, a workshop, or a professional conference can be a daunting task. No matter what I’m creating the poster for, I try to stick with a simple and clean background and then once the organizational structure is in place, start to fill it in. This usually results in huge changes as I progress through the content but that’s okay!

Before getting started on your poster there are a few major things you should think about:

  • What program do I want to make my poster in? Google Slides integrates well with Google Sheets (free), Microsoft Powerpoint is pretty easy to manipulate (not free), and Adobe Illustrator is excellent for really detailed work (not free). There are many other programs, such as Canva (free), that offer lots of integration for images, line drawings, and more.
  • Who is in your audience? This will help you tailor language, depth of content, and figure detail on your poster.
  • Are there poster requirements? Size can be dramatically different and it’s always easiest to start with the biggest poster allowed and cut it down if you don’t need the space.
Here is what I mean by ‘boxes’! A template I made in Google Slides to help guide students in poster making. The boxes shapes may change as the poster develops but you have to start somewhere!

Generally, I like to work with boxes. Boxes help keep the organization of the poster nice and tidy. A major title box at the top that includes your poster title, authors, affiliations, and abstract number (if relevant). I usually aim to have the title in 72 point font and then everything else is a bit less. Having your regular text between 18-24 point font is a pretty good range and headers somewhere in the 40s-50s.

The rest of the poster is subdivided into larger boxes for each part of your project. These generally include but are not limited to: Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusions, and Acknowledgments. Obviously, science and other projects don’t fit neatly into these categories but it’s a good starting place and titles can always be changed! It often helps just to get something on the page and then you can modify things later.

It’s always good to make sure your poster can stand alone when you aren’t there to walk viewers through the content. This means I usually include introductory or background text to help set the stage for the reader and reduce the text throughout the rest of the poster. This means shorter text, phrases, or bullets through the methods and results to concisely walk the reader through your content. Full sentences can be useful for discussion, conclusions, and/or broad implications of your work but sometimes bullets are plenty! Once you get to creating, it should be clear how much or how little you need to say.

Don’t forget to include references and people who have helped you out in your acknowledgments section. If people are interested in how you phrased something they may want to look up a reference that dives more deeply into the content. You can use regular in-text citations on your poster or superscripts to keep it neat and tidy. It’s good to include funding, departmental (internal or external) equipment that helped with analyses, and anyone who helped you run the machines or gain access to specimens!

Here is a non-research based poster I recently presented. I made this in Canva and really used their graphics to build the poster. The colors and font also align with the FOSSIL Project’s brand guidelines.

The other major thing about posters is color schemes. Sometimes your supervisor or department may urge you to use school colors, this is fine but make sure you are following brand/logo policies (because they are confusing and there are a lot of rules). I like to throw in a lot of color wherever I can. It may be because I work on fossils and they are gray and often dreary-looking but I do believe that if your poster is visually appealing at first glance it will draw people over to you!

Quick Tips and Tricks

  • Make sure to include your affiliation (organization or institution)
  • Include logos of institutions or funding that helped support your project
  • Use colors that you like but that also help draw people to your poster
  • Send it to your friends and co-authors to edit before finalizing it
  • Always save it as a pdf when you send it off to be printed
  • Sometimes printing can take long, make sure you have enough time
  • Have fun, posters are an excellent networking opportunity

If you click here you can go to a template Sarah and I made when we were teaching a summer course. You can save a copy of this template to your Google Drive to play around with the different elements.

Climate Science Day on Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

Shaina here-

Have you ever wished there were more scientists involved with politics or politicians who were more informed about science? I certainly have. So when an opportunity to travel to Capitol Hill to get training on how to meet with legislators about climate science- and to actually meet with their offices- presented itself I jumped on it. Policy proposals that impact science are happening around us all the time and the best way for scientists to help ensure that policies are backed by science and support the scientific process is for us to get involved. There are many different programs through various scientific societies that provide training to student scientists and early career researchers on how to communicate their work to policy makers. The specific program I participated in is called Climate Science Day and is coordinated by 12 different scientific societies. The training took place at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in March 2019 and my participation was sponsored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The objective is to provide a non-partisan way for us to meet with congressional staff, begin building relationships with offices, and learn about some of the work that is currently being done on the Hill.

In total thirty five early career scientists participated and we were broken into teams of three based on geographic region. My teammates were Logan Brenner from Columbia University and Heather Sussman from SUNY-Albany, and our team leader was Lexi Shultz the Vice President of Public Affairs at AGU. Together we met with 7 congressional offices from Massachusetts and New York. To prepare us for the meetings we had a webinar and informational packet to go through in advance of the trip. These materials covered how Congress is structured, what the differences are between the Senate and the House of Representatives and how that impacts the work each side does, what the important committees relating to climate change are, and how to effectively communicate during meetings. They also emphasized the unified ask of “support, communicate, and use in policy discussions and decisions the scientific community’s consensus on climate science.” When we arrived in DC we had one day to attend a training at AAAS, meet our teammates, and prepare our materials for the next day’s congressional visits.

We had a limited time to prepare for our meetings. We all arrived the day before the meetings were to take place and attended a training at AAAS where we learned how to conduct a congressional visit, heard from a panel of staffers, and met our teammates and team leaders. To have a successful meeting you need to be knowledgeable about who you are talking to. Meetings rarely happen with the legislators themselves, instead they are usually with congressional staffers. The staffers are usually people with scientific backgrounds and occasionally they are themselves early career scientists interning as fellows sponsored by various professional organizations to learn more about the connections between science and policy. They are also very important to getting things done on Capitol Hill and are instrumental in carrying out the work that happens in the offices. Their time is extremely valuable and it is important to speak to them as though they are highly knowledgeable about these topics- because they are!- and to express your gratitude for their time. My three favorite staffers we met with were all fellows and had backgrounds in teaching, solar development, and marine biology!

The most valuable part of the training was the breakout sessions with our teams to decide what our specific asks were from each office and who would lead each meeting. Having a specific ask is very important as this is the action step you are hoping to convince your representative to take. The ask varies based on what you think your member of Congress is likely to want to do and what actions they have taken in the past. For members who are less engaged on climate issues asks should revolve around getting them to commit to becoming more involved. For us one of the offices we met with was of a Rep Katko (R-NY-24). We noticed in looking through the committees he was on that he was the only member of the New York delegation not on a specific environmental committee. We chose our ask for that office to be for him to join that committee. In the meeting at that office we spoke to his staffer about environmental issues that are a concern in his district, how climate change can exacerbate them, and how his work in joining this committee could benefit his constituents. For congressional members who are already active on climate issues we first thanked them for being leaders on such a pressing issue and then asked of them to go a bit farther, for instance by giving a floor speech on recent climate publications put out by government scientists such as the Fourth National Climate Assessment, or co-sponsoring a piece of upcoming environmental legislation. For members in our own local districts, we included in our asks invitations for them to come visit our research labs and perhaps do a public event with us to bring light to scientific work on global issues happening in their local districts and policy work they are doing to advance solutions.

Shaina (center right) and other CDI fellows outside of Senator Markey’s office.

On the day of the meetings we donned our business attire and convened on Capitol Hill. Logan and Heather each led two of the four meetings with the NY offices and I led the three meetings with MA offices. First up was Rep. Clark of MA’s 5th congressional district. It went very well and was the perfect meeting to ease us into the day. We met with a staffer who was a fellow with a background in education. She was eager to hear about our work and said Rep. Clark would likely be happy to complete our ask of giving a floor speech. One of the highlights of our day was meeting with Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-6) who we requested join SEEC, the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, chaired by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY-20) which is one of the most active and effective congressional committees on environmental matters. Later in the day we met with Rep. Tonko’s office and they mentioned that they had just received a call from Rep. Meng asking to join his committee! This was a huge win for us as it meant that Rep. Meng had already acted on our ask just an hour or so after meeting with her office. Another highlight of the day was meeting with the Legislative Assistant for Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY-13). He was very interested in connections between social justice and climate change and how to improve the health and wellbeing of the people in his community, while providing them with good jobs, and working to combat climate change all at once. We ended the day at MA Senator Markey’s office where we met with two staffers who were fellows just out of graduate school- one was a marine biologist and the other worked on solar development and sustainability. We had a great conversation on scientists and scientific data that are being used to craft legislation for the Green New Deal.

The two days on Capitol Hill were a whirlwind of meeting new people and learning how scientists and policy makers can work together to make substantive change. If you want to get involved in communicating with your legislators, check with the scientific societies you are a member of to see if they have trainings coming up. You can also reach out on your own to your local legislators and offer your expertise and knowledge for policy work they are currently doing. In addition if you ever find yourself in Washington DC you can also ask for a meeting yourself if you would like to share your science and find ways your work and expertise can benefit their offices. With so much work needed in developing concrete actions that will help implement a global transition to a climate friendly world we will need everyone getting involved and offering to help in any way they can. You have so much to offer, so get out there and start making it happen!

Plankton Photo Shoot Part II: Creating the Perfect Image

Adriane here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying Paleontology Communities on Social Media

Jen here –

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

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

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

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

Johanna M. Resig Fellowship: Honoring a Wonderful Foraminiferal Researcher

Adriane here-

Johanna Resig’s graduation photo.

I’ve done a lot of stuff during my time here at UMass Amherst, probably too much stuff (including building this website with Jen and collaborators, which is definitely something I have no regrets about!). Because of the amount of teaching, outreach, and large research projects I’ve done and continue to do, my PhD, which is funded by my department for 4 years, will take an extra year. However, my funding runs out at the beginning of May 2019.

It’s not uncommon for a PhD degree to run over the 4 year mark; in fact, it’s really quite common. But how to sustain oneself for this extra time is the tricky part. There is money available to graduate students to support us in our final year(s) of our degree through fellowships and grants. These are often very competitive and hard to win, but totally worth applying for. So I decided to apply for a fellowship to fund the remainder of my time here at UMass.

The fellowship that I applied for is through the Cushman Foundation for Foraminiferal Research, an organization specifically for scientists who work with fossil plankton. The organization has been around for quite a while, and its members include professors, researchers, and students from all over the world. The Foundation is great because they have several grants and awards for students, to fund their research and travel to local, regional, and international meetings.

A photo of Dr. Resig and her pet cat! I was thrilled to find this photo, as I too am obsessed with foraminifera and cats!

The Johanna M. Resig Foraminiferal Research Fellowship is named after its namesake, who was a life-long foraminiferal researcher and editor of one of the most prominent journals for foraminiferal research, the aptly-named Journal of Foraminiferal Research. Johanna was born in Los Angeles, California on May 27, 1932. She  found her love for geology at the University of Southern California, where she received her Bachelor of Science in 1954 and her Master of Science in 1956. After graduation, Johanna went to work for the Allen Hancock Foundation. There, she studied foraminifera that live off the southern coast of California. In 1962, Johanna was awarded a Fullbright grant, a very prestigious award that gives money to scholars to study abroad for a few years. With this grant, Johanna continued her research at the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany. While in Germany, she earned her PhD in natural science in 1965. Once she had her doctorate, Dr. Resig began a professorship at the University of Hawai’i as a micropaleontologist in the Institute of Geophysics. She was the first woman recruited in the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics, and remained the only one for several years. She was a professor at the university for over 40 years, where she published over 50 articles and book chapters on foraminifera. Dr. Resig published mainly on benthic foraminifera (those that live on the seafloor) as well as planktic foraminifera (those that float in the upper water column). She worked with sediments from all over the world, and also used the shells of foraminifera to construct geochemical records of our oceans. During her career, Dr. Resig described and named five new species of foraminifera and even a new Order! Dr. Resig was not only known for her research, but she was also a dedicated mentor and teacher at the University of Hawai’i. While there, she taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students in her courses, and mentored about a dozen graduate students. When Dr. Resig passed away on September 19, 2007, her family gave funds to the Cushman Foundation in her name, and thus the Johanna M. Resig Foraminiferal Research Fellowship was established.

Interestingly, my PhD advisor, Mark,  worked with Dr. Resig during her career. They sailed together on a large drillship called the Glomar Challenger, which took sediment cores of the seafloor for scientists to study. During an expedition together to the western equatorial Pacific (called ‘Leg 130’), they were both micropaleontologists (scientists who use tiny fossils to interpret the age of the sediments and reconstruct the ancient ocean environments). Mark is a huge fan of country music, and he recalled that he loved to play country music on the ship while the scientists were working. One song he was particularly fond of, ‘All My Exes Live in Texas’ by George Strait, was deemed entirely comical by Johanna! Mark describes Johanna as a dedicated scientists, a wonderful micropaleontologist, and someone that was a joy to be around.

A group photo of the scientists who sailed on Leg 30 in the western equatorial Pacific Ocean in 1990. Dr. Johanna Resig is circled in red.

The fellowship named after Dr. Resig will support the remainder of my time as a PhD student at University of Massachusetts Amherst. The money will be used as stipend (which is a fancy academic word for income), but it can also be used for analyses and lab expenses and travel to conferences. One way in which I’ll use the money is to pay an undergraduate student to process sediment samples that I will use in my next research project. This way, I’ll get a jump-start on my next project, and a student will be earning money doing science. They will also learn more about the samples that are collected as part of scientific ocean drilling. It’s totally a win-win situation, and I feel that by using part of the fellowship to mentor and help the next generation of students, I am honoring Dr. Resig’s memory and her commitment to mentoring and advising.

 

 

Plankton Photo Shoot

The SEM I use to take images of my foraminifera. The open part is looking into the chamber, which becomes a vacuum when the machine is on and running.

Adriane here-

I do a lot of research for my PhD, and some of that research is painstaking and tedious. But some aspects of research are just downright fun! Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite parts of my research: taking very high-resolution and close-up images of my fossil plankton, foraminifera!

Because the fossils I work with are so small (about the size of a grain of sand), we need a very unique system to take high-quality and close-up images of them. To do this, people who take images of microfossils use scanning electron microscopes, or SEM for short. An SEM uses electrons reflected off the surface of the fossils to create an image. To do this, the interior of the SEM is a vacuum, and the fossils need to be coated with a conductive material. At our university, we use platinum to coat our fossils.

A close-up image of the stub. This is after the slide was coated in platinum, thus the reason why everything looks dark grey. The copper tape at the top of the image helps to reduce charging and increase conductivity within the SEM.

The first thing I do before I can take images of my fossils is to pick out specimens that I want to photograph. These are then placed onto a small, round piece of double-sided sticky tape. The fossils are so tiny, I can fit tens onto one small piece. This sticky piece is then placed onto a glass slide. We call the fossils, tape, and glass a ‘stub’. Once all the fossils are in place, I then put the stub into a coating machine. This machine coats all the fossils with a very thin layer of platinum while in the presence of xenon gas. The entire process is very quick (about 30 minutes at most). Once the specimens are coated, they’re ready for imaging in the SEM!

The stub mounted to the stage inside the SEM.

The SEM itself is a rather large contraption, but incredibly amazing! The entire machine is operated from a computer that sits on a desk beside the SEM, so everything is pretty self-contained and right there. The first thing I do after coating is to mount the stub on the stage within the SEM. This is simple: it involves taping the stub to a metal piece, which in turn fits snugly onto the stage element of the SEM.

Once in place, I then slide the door to the SEM shut and vent the machine. Venting means I push a button on the computer, which tells the machine to begin creating a vacuum inside its chamber. This process takes about ten minutes or so.

Here, I’m  focusing on a smaller spot on the image.

After the chamber inside the SEM is under vacuum, I can then begin the process of photographing my fossils! Everything from this point forward is operated using software on a desktop computer that talks to the SEM. Just like a camera, the images have to be focused before taking the actual picture. This can be either very easy, or very tedious. There are several factors to determining how the image looks on the screen: are the levels balanced, is there charging on the fossils that’s causing a disturbance, the distance of the stub fro’m the camera, etc. There are controls on the computer program that allow the user to make changes and adjustments as necessary.

An image of one of the whole foraminifera shells. This image was taken at 198 times magnification. Remember, these shells are the size of a grain of sand, so the SEM really allows us to see all the beautiful details of the shells!

I find that the best way to focus the image is to zoom in very close to the fossil I want to photography. In this case, ‘very close’ means zooming in more than 2,000 times or more, so I’m really getting up close and personal with the fossils! I use a technique where I select a small window of the entire image, and use the tools in the program to tweak and focus the image in that smaller box. This is a faster way to focus, and when I’m happy with the results, I can apply the changes made to the small area to the entire image.

Once the settings are adjusted and correct for my fossils, I can then get through taking images pretty quickly! Each image includes a scale bar to indicate the size of the fossil and the magnification, which is helpful and necessary to include with each fossil picture. For this project, I was very interested in taking close-up images of the surface of my specimens, and also taking a side-view of the shells (quite unfortunately, this means I had to break open some foraminifera shells once placed on the stub and before coating).

This is looking at a broken piece of a foraminifera shell! Those tiny holes are where it’s spines used to be when the plankton was alive and floating in the water column.

Once all the images are taken, I can then download them onto a thumb drive  and work with them on my own computer. This involves using other photography programs such as Adobe Photoshop to crop the fossil images and place them onto a black background.

Although the process of taking SEM images of fossils is incredibly fun, it’s also vastly important for research. I will include images of all my fossils in a publication. This way, other researchers will know how I tell one species apart from another, and the different characteristics of each plankton species. Ideally, I’ll have pages and pages of fossil images, called plates, included with my publications!