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!
One of the famous first stories of modern geology involves the publishing of a geologic map of England by William Smith in 1815. This was one of the first geologic maps made by a geologist doing fieldwork, which often involves camping out in an area for a few days, weeks, or months to find out as much as possible about the area to be mapped. Geologists walk around the area to be mapped and take measurements of what types of rocks are there, how thick each layer is, whether they are tilted or faulted, etc. They may also take samples of the rocks to do chemical tests or look at them under a microscope. Field geologists look at the morphology (shape) of the landscape in order to map the locations of ridges, depressions, and other features and determine the processes that formed them.
My experiences in geology as an undergraduate major were largely field-based, going on many field trips to various places and taking notes and measurements at different locations. But how do you make a map when your field area is on average 140 million miles (225 million km) away from Earth? I had never considered studying geology in a field area anywhere other than Earth, but shortly after starting my master’s degree I had the opportunity to work with a team of collaborators to create a geologic map of a small region on Mars. Geologists can now create maps of planets, moons, and asteroids using high-resolution images from spacecraft orbiting Mars, Mercury, the Moon, and many other bodies in our solar system. I was excited to begin this project, but first I had to learn a whole new set of skills than what I had used in field camp as an undergrad.
There are several software programs scientists can use to make maps using images and other types of geospatial data. These software programs are collectively called Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS software is used in many different fields for different kinds of projects and analyses. For example, biologists might use GIS to make maps of where certain species of animals live in relation to cities, lakes, highways, etc. Geologists might use GIS to produce maps showing the location of certain types of rocks or geologic features.
For my master’s project, I used a mosaic (several images digitally “stitched” together) of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) Context Camera (CTX). To identify a feature in these spacecraft images, it needs to be big enough to have at least two pixels across it each way (so a minimum 2×2 grid). CTX images of Mars have a resolution of 6 meters (m) per pixel, which means they can be used to find features about the size of a large room. When I upload these images into my GIS program, I can zoom in and out to see features better. When I find a feature that looks interesting, I can mark its location and shape by making a new “layer” and drawing on the image. I use different layers for different types of features, and each layer can be turned on and off so I can see where different features are in relation to each other.
My first step in mapping was actually not mapping, but reading lots of previously published papers about the geology of my study area and about the particular type of feature I wanted to map. I am mapping a type of ridge on Mars called a wrinkle ridge. This ridge is formed by tectonic contraction and is found in layered igneous or sedimentary rock units. Once I had read as many papers as I could find on wrinkle ridges and made several tables summarizing the various types of information on them, I could finally start mapping. It took quite a while for my eyes to get used to looking at these images and to pick out the features I was looking for. However, wrinkle ridges have several common distinguishing characteristics, mentioned in many published papers, that I used to double-check my visual identification. When I had gone over my whole study area several times and marked any feature I thought could possibly be what I was looking for, I went over it again and narrowed down the number of features using my list of common characteristics. Learning to identify wrinkle ridges and other features visually is a good skill and I spent a great deal of time trying to do so. However, it is also important to make my results understandable and reproducible by other scientists. Thus I need to be able to clearly show how I identified a feature as either a wrinkle ridge or not. With my list of common characteristics, I decided how many of them would be required to determine if a feature is a wrinkle ridge, and within those determined to be wrinkle ridges I further divided them by how many characteristics they had into certainty levels: Certain, Probable, and Possible. This process allows my work to be reproduced or at least easily followed by any future scientists studying the same type of features.
I’ve been working on this project for about two years now and while it’s been a lot of hard work and tired eyes, it so rewarding to see my map finally coming together. While I’ve been mapping one type of feature, other scientists in my research group have been mapping different types of features and we are about to put them all together and make one complete map. When we have all our mapping together on one map, it will be published as an official United States Geological Survey (USGS) geologic map. Stay tuned!
A dissertation defense can come in many forms but in essence the point is to showcase your research from the past several years of your career. Our department has a three chapter format for dissertations and, usually, these are each publications that have already been published, recently been submitted, or will soon be submitted. Even though you have completed a lot of difficult, complex scientific work, you still have to cater your defense to your audience.
If you don’t cater your talk to your audience, they will quickly lose interest and zone out. You want to make sure to engage and not talk over their heads. So my dissertation had a lengthy, jargon-rich title, “Respiratory Structure Morphology, Group Origins, and Phylogeny of Eublastoidea”. Rather than titling my defense talk with this ridiculous title, that would only excite a few people, I chose something simpler and more effective: “Phylogeny as a Tool in Paleobiology”. From this you can get an understanding that I am talking about paleobiology (=ancient life) and using phylogeny (=evolutionary histories) to test research questions.
The paleontology group in our department is quite small, two faculty and a handful of students. There is a larger sedimentology group that understand fossils quite well but much of my department lacks an understanding of the fossil record (in great detail) and don’t necessarily understand how to read tree/branching diagrams. Knowing this, I started the talk with a few sentences on the overall importance of my talk, why anyone (even my mom) should care about the talk and then I spent time on background information. Information on the group I use to test questions, how we read tree diagrams, and what kind of patterns we look for within the trees.
I then split my talk into three sections that were similar to my dissertation chapters. Since I was focusing on using phylogeny as a tool in deep time, I left out some of the other complex methods that would have taken away from the overall theme of the presentation and focused on the evolutionary histories and what they could tell us about these animals in the past. I made sure each slide had enough text but not too much – viewers get invested in text and think they should read it, which often takes away from what you are actually saying. I also made sure to include visually appealing images – I still haven’t mastered color blind palettes so if you have suggestions please let me know. These images had to start simple and get more complex and I had to make sure to explain each of them thoroughly.
For all talks I give, I write up a corresponding script (thanks, Alycia!). Writing a script helps me organize my talk and gives me an idea of what I want to say during the presentation. I practice a lot – because I know that I won’t get nervous if I *know* what I’m going to say. The first several times I practice I read directly off the script, trying to get used to saying the words and using the slides to visually demonstrate what I am saying. I practice at least a handful of times and usually by myself, I get nervous with only a few people in the room so it throws me off! Everyone is different so I suggesting finding the best way for you to practice so you are confident, maybe it’s with a group of people or maybe it’s by yourself!
Hints for giving successful presentations:
Know your audience
Have someone look through your slides or watch your talk to make sure your organization of the talk makes sense
Use a laser pointer or animations but not like a crazy person, move the laser slowly, and don’t have things flying from all directions on your slides
Be confident, you are likely one of the experts in your field, discipline, topic, whatever and the audience wants to listen to you or else they wouldn’t have come
Back in January, I was in College Station, Texas on a trip related to the scientific ocean drilling expedition I was on last summer (see my previous posts about ship life and my responsibilities on the ship as a biostratigrapher). Part of the trip was dedicated to editing the scientific reports we wrote while sailing in the Tasman Sea, and the other part of the trip was spent taking samples from the sediment cores we drilled.
While we were sailing in the Tasman Sea, our expedition drilled a total of 6 sites: some in shallow waters in the northern part of the Tasman, and some in deeper waters towards the southern end of the sea. In total, we recovered 2506.4 meters of sediment (8223 feet, or 1.55 miles) in 410 cores.
The cores were first shipped to College Station, Texas from the port in Hobart, Tasmania. Eventually, they will all be stored at the core repository in Kochi, Japan. While they were in Texas, several of the scientists from the expedition met up to take samples from the cores for their own research into Earth’s climate in geologic time.
I requested samples from two of the six sites we drilled in the Tasman Sea. All of my samples are younger than about 18 million years old, in the period of geologic time called the Neogene. All in all, I requested about 800 sediment samples! Not all of these samples will be used for one project. Instead, they will be used in several different projects, such as to determine evolutionary events of planktic foraminifera in the Tasman Sea and investigate changes in sea surface temperatures during major climate change events of the past.
To begin sampling, students who work at the College Station core respository set up cores at each workstation. There were 6 workstations: one for each site that we drilled. A team of 3-4 scientists were assigned to each station to sample the cores. We had approximately 1 week to take ~14,000 samples! Luckily, I was able to sample one of the cores from which I requested samples from!
Every workstation had all the materials that we need to sample: gloves, paper towels, various tools (small and large spatulas, rubber hammers, and various sizes of plastic scoops). In addition, each station was also given a list of all the samples every researcher had requested for a specific site. This way, we could cross the samples off the list as we took and bagged them.
My team, which consisted of two other scientists that I sailed with, Yu-Hyeon and May, began sampling the youngest part of our assigned site. Because these sediments were located right at or below the seafloor, they were very soupy! As we moved through the cores (back into time), the sediments became less soupy, and eventually pretty hard. We never encountered sediments that were so hard we had to use a hammer and chisel to get out the samples, but other teams did.
After scooping/hammering out the samples, we then put the samples into a small plastic bag. These bags were then labeled with a sticker with information that includes what site the samples came from, the core from which is came from, the specific section in the core, and the two-centimeter interval in that section. This way, the scientists know exactly at what depth (meters below sea floor) the sample came from. It is crucial to know the depth at what each sample was taken, as depth will be later converted to age using various methods (for one using fossils as a proxy for age, see my post about biostratigraphy)
Because the sediments my team and I sampled in were so soft, and we had requested a lot of samples from the core we were working with, we were able to quickly take a lot of samples! I could only stay and sample for two days (I had to fly back to UMass to teach), but in that time, my team and I took so many samples, we broke a record! We currently hold the record for most sediment samples taken in one day at the Gulf Coast Repository in College Station!
Teaching about climate change this year took a toll on me. I’m normally a resilient and fairly hopeful person, but diving into the current and future impacts of climate change commonly leaves a person shell-shocked. How do climate scientists cope with existential dread?
Scientists are people too. Some of us are young, many of us have kids. It is difficult to stare this problem in the face day in and day out, without feeling like you are watching a slow motion train wreck, with your elected officials stepping on the gas rather than using the brakes. I’ve decided that I’m going to share those feelings with other people. We’re starting with the current impacts. A second post will follow with the basics of climate modeling, and finishing with what we think will happen next.
What follows here is a small, incomplete collection of current climate-driven impacts and assorted links to other information. I’ve tried to keep it to just impacts that are established in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These are things that science can firmly establish as happening right now due to climate change.
Hydrological (Water) Cycle
We can currently say there are substantial changes to where and how rain and snow fall because of climate change. These changes have altered our ability to use water, both in quantity and quality. If we look at Michigan as an example, it has an increase in yearly precipitation of 2/3 of an inch per decade since 1960. Massachusetts has seen >1 inch per decade (data here). Other states are not as lucky, and are currently seeing a decrease (e.g., California). Our freshwater is increasingly contaminated due to both low (drought) and high (flood) conditions in many locations in the US. 10% of counties are currently under high or extreme risk of a water shortage.
We, as humans, are at the start of these changes as well.
If you’re curious what the US government has to say about water use changes, click here for the National Climate Assessment Water Use (from 2014) page. It also has very scary maps!
IPCC:In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality (medium confidence).
Click here to explore the National Climate Assessment site’s findings from 2014 on water supplies.
We can also say that animals, plants, and other organisms have had responses to climate change. Coral reefs are the easy and moderately better-knownconnection, what with nearly 50% of the Great Barrier Reef corals dead in the northern section. Polar bears are similarly simple. With the arctic warming faster than the globe, 3/19 tracked polar bear populations are shrinking, while we don’t have enough data to say anything about the other 9/19. At least one of the ‘stable’ populations has shrunk since 25 years ago (stability is a ~12 year average). More warm winters mean more ticks in moose territory. A warmer West coast means stressed salmon. And so on.
While a projection (estimation based on current data), which I’m trying to save until later, click here for a map visualizing how species will need to move to maintain their proper habitat in a climate-shifting world.
IPCC:Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change (high confidence).
Climate change also has a negative effect on crop growth. Unlike what Lamar Smith has written (R-TX, head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology), we do not expect there to be a benefit of increased CO2 in plant growth. Temperature effects far outweigh the small growth boost of higher CO2, and will lead to decreased seed yields. Climate change will shift where things grow; in some areas of India that used to get more snow there are new potato crops growing now with the milder winters. That’s good, but it’s quite the outlier. Wheat, rice, maize, soybean, barley and sorghum all respond negatively in rising temperature. Wheat production has already dropped 5.5%, and Maize by 3.8%. That is with our limited (in the face of what is projected) temperature changes so far.
Click here for an article by Scott Johnson that goes into more detail.
IPCC:Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence).
Extreme Weather Events
Climate change also increases the chances of having extreme weather events. Importantly, we can’t say that an individual hurricane is directly a result of climate change. We can say, however, that they are more likely. We can say that they’re made stronger, when they do happen. Harvey and others aren’t because of climate change but they’re more likely to happen and be worse because of it. Storms like Harvey, or Maria, or Irma, or Ophelia (which even hit the UK!) are more likely, and therefore more frequent, because of our warmer world.
Wildfires (click here for more details) are also made more common, due to drier conditions in some areas. So are floods, where there’s an increase in precipitation. And heatwaves. And on, and on.
This will obviously stress our systems to care for those affected. Given this summer and fall, I shouldn’t really need to back up that claim with supporting data.
IPCC:Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence).
Climate change has cost us money, and it will likely continue to cost us. We can say this with a high degree of certainty. Wildfires, floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, all have a monetary cost. The insurance industry is well aware of the increasing trend in the costs, and so keeps track. We can divide the cost of these natural disasters into things that will be altered by climate change (wildfires, floods, storms, droughts, so on) and those not affected by climate change (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.). This acts as a nice check against our buildings being more expensive, disaster relief being more expensive, or something like that. When we do this, all of the climate-related costs are increasing dramatically (click here for more details), while those not affected by climate change are only increasingly slightly. The number of climate-related (or extreme-weather) disasters is increasing, while the number of earthquakes is flat.
IPCC:Direct and insured losses from weather-related disasters have increased substantially in recent decades, both globally and regionally.
Ocean Temperature Changes
Many of the ocean acidification impacts are similar or work alongside the impacts of increases in ocean temperature (click here for more details). Two examples: Corals bleach primarily due to temperature and their ‘skeletons’ fall apart in response to the pH. Similarly, when temperature rises, krill reproduce in smaller numbers. Krill are a key part of the food chain for things that people find cute, like penguins, seals, and many whales. Together, if those larger animals are stressed or starve, their predators die too.
Warmer water also expands, so a warmer ocean means that sea-level rise occurs more as well. This can magnify the storm surges, amplifies the effect of the melting glacial waters, and is generally a very bad thing.
Oh yeah, and the rate that the ocean is warming is accelerating.
Many things have changed in the oceans due to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The first is that the ocean has absorbed quite a bit of that carbon dioxide. The pH has changed by 0.1 units since the industrial revolution. pH scales are not linear, so this actually is a 30% increase in acidity.
Marine life obviously feels this massive change. Because they are smaller and more fragile, larval stages of various organisms or plankton feel the effects first. While there are other things at issue (though research is working on detangling the others: water quality issues, low oxygen, or changes in diseases, etc.), the current rash of losses in the oyster industry are at least partially due to changes in acidity. The oyster industry is a $100-million-a-year industry. Click here for more details.
Corals, too, are stressed. Coral bleaching is due to temperature, but the material that corals make their skeletons out of is susceptible to acidification. It makes it harder for them to reproduce, grow, and live. They also dissolve and erode faster under higher amounts of acid.
There are currently more than a million other species living in coral reefs, making reefs some of the greatest spots of diversity on Earth.
Sea Level Rise
Sea level has risen between 10-25 centimeters. Because much of the coast is really flat, that means much more area has been lost than it appears. We think that the loss to property values is between $3-5 billion a year. In structural loss, it is $500 million. We spend a lot of money to keep the coast where it is too; like the $14 billion Louisiana is expecting to put into coastal barriers along the Mississippi River delta. In other areas, the coast just erodes and land disappears into the ocean. Click here for more details.
Click here for a neat NOAA page that lets you see what happens as sea level rises.
We know sea level rise also has a cost on communities and lives. An entire community, Shishmaref in Alaska, has lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet of land in 35 years. Other communities, Kivalina, Newtok, Shaktoolik, and others (31 in total) need to be moved according to the Army Corps of Engineers. At least one community has voted to move to the mainland, but without funding to move, cannot.
Climate change is a volume knob for social justice issues. That volume knob is sensitive.
Communities that are marginalized (have less political power, less money, etc.) are far more at risk in a changing world. If you have less power in society, odds are that a society under stress from climate change will be less likely to support you in the face of needs (even a lesser need) of a more powerful,other group.
This is referred to as ‘Climate Justice’. The People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. (2017) was a wonderful example of how this has been embraced. From what I could tell, there were far more people there interested in social justice (indigenous communities, religious communities, etc.) than the scientists or folks who allied themselves with science at the march. It’s called the People’s Climate March for a reason. Click here for the NAACP’s page on Climate and Environmental Justice.
There is no clearer example than what happened and is currently happening in the US in 2017. Puerto Rico is not a state. Florida and Texas are. The US response to Puerto Rico which, again, is a part of the United States of America is the textbook example of this. Puerto Rico does not have representation in the federal government, so is ‘less important’ from a hardline (and inhumane) political point of view. The differing response from the federal government is a direct and obvious example of this IPCC finding.
IPCC: Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and from multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development processes (very high confidence). These differences shape differential risks from climate change.
Climate change is currently changing the water cycle, changing how water resources can be accessed. We’ve seen that animals and plants are already shifting their habitats due to climate change. A specific, but very human-centric part of that is how crops are and will respond. Harvests, in bulk, are down for many of our grains. Climate change has already cost us lots of money, and will continue to.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, climate change is currently felt by disadvantaged peoples disproportionately. The US response to Puerto Rico which is a part of the US is the textbook example of this. Puerto Rico does not have statehood, so is ‘less important’ from a hardline (and inhumane) political point of view.
We cannot, scientifically, say that Maria and Harvey and Irma and Ophelia are because of climate change. Attribution is difficult due to the statistics involved. We can however say that the scientific prediction for what happens in a warmer world is larger, more damaging and frequent storms. That is what we experienced in 2017.
Science has a rather odd role in society. Its achievements form the very foundations of modern civilization, yet, to many, science might as well be magic, obscure and inexplicable. Popular culture tends to make scientists seem like haughty priests in an ivory tower, keepers of arcane knowledge, augurs of great portents, and babblers of dead languages and incomprehensible jargon.
Time Scavengers hopes to change that impression by showing that scientists are ordinary people and science is not as unfamiliar or unapproachable as it might initially seem. While some disciplines may have sizeable barriers to entry—think molecular biology or high energy particle physics—others are far more accessible, particularly ornithology (as “bird watching”), astronomy (as “stargazing”), and, of course, geology and paleontology (as “fossil collecting”). Indeed, these fields are indebted to hundreds of years of contributions by experienced naturalists who were amateurs in name only.
For what is an amateur but someone who takes up their passion solely for its own sake? Paleontology is often known as a “gateway drug” for science, and with good reason: it’s hard not to be entranced by immense dinosaur skeletons at a museum, or fossil shark teeth glistening on a beach, or an ancient coral reef eroding out of a neighborhood construction site. Fossils spark the imagination. Wherever there are fossils, there are people inspired to collect them.
And wherever there are fossil collectors, chances are there is also a local fossil club. Cincinnati is one such place. Built on the banks of the Ohio River and surrounded by 450 million year old shales and limestones packed with a wealth of fossils, the city has a strong tradition of amateur paleontology. Curious locals have been collecting brachiopods, bryozoans, trilobites, cephalopods, and other Ordovician fossils from Cincinnatian outcrops since the 1800s. Many published their findings and became nationally and internationally recognized geologists.
This legacy of citizen science lives on today in the form of the Dry Dredgers. Founded in 1942, the Dry Dredgers are the oldest fossil club in the United States, having recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of their founding in April of 2017. The club was formed in close collaboration with the geology department of the University of Cincinnati, a relationship that continues to this day.
Like most other amateur paleontology societies, the Dry Dredgers has regular field trips and meetings. The latter are held on the campus of the University of Cincinnati monthly during the school year, usually on the evening of the last Friday of the month. Free and open to the public, the meetings typically follow a consistent structure.
First, a Beginners Class convenes before the main meeting, providing basic paleontological instruction to new members and children. The more experienced members also frequently show up early to socialize with their friends. Light food and drink is usually available. Collectors share their recent finds, try to identify unusual specimens, and tell a few tall tales. The desks are always piled with fossils and fossil literature, open for all to see.
At the designated time, the club President calls the meeting to order. They then proceed to introductions, where new members and visitors tell who they are, where they’re from, and what made them decide to attend the meeting. After this rigorous interrogation, the President begins the night’s entertainment with the door prize raffle, a random giveaway of small fossils, minerals, books, and other geological paraphernalia.
Then the main program commences: a lecture by a graduate student, professor, distinguished amateur, or other interesting character. The talks are usually an hour or so in length, focusing on a particular aspect of the speaker’s research or experience. Some are travelogues, slideshows of faraway mountain ranges and mouth-watering fossil deposits. Others focus on a particular fossil or group of fossils—trilobites and echinoderms are persistent favorites. And yet others can be quite technical, delving into PhD-level research on paleoecology and taphonomy. Whatever the topic, the audience invariably grills the speaker with a host of questions at the end of the lecture.
Following the lecture, the meeting wraps up with additional business. Any professional paleontologists in attendance give a report of what they are doing: papers published, students graduated, classes taught, conventions attended, and the like. Upcoming events and other miscellaneous things are announced. Then the meeting is gaveled to an end.
Some hardy members stay long after the meeting proper, socializing late into the night. Fossils are shared, bragged about, and identified. Any remaining refreshments are consumed. Plans are made for future excursions. The last people typically trickle out around 11:00 PM, tired but satisfied.
Unfortunately, chances are that you may not live near Cincinnati. However, many other fossil clubs are scattered across the United States, from North Carolina to Texas to California and almost every state in between. The FOSSIL Project has compiled a list (click here) of dozens of such organizations. Chances are, there’s one near you!
Last summer, I participated in a scientific ocean drilling expedition (check out my previous posts here and here). More simply, I spent two months on a ship in the Tasman Sea, recovering sediment cores from the seafloor. We drilled the newly-named continent of Zealandia to determine the geologic history of the now-submerged continent. I sailed with about 30 other scientists from different backgrounds, which means that we learned a ton from the cores we recovered and learned a lot from one another.
But all this new knowledge is useless if it isn’t written up and available to other scientists. So while we were on the ship, we wrote up our findings in documents we call ‘Site Chapters’. A site is what we call each new location where we drill. The scientific results from each site will eventually be published into chapters available online to the public.
While we were on the ship, the scientists had only a limited time to spend writing up their site chapter sections (every different group on the ship contributes a different section to the chapter; for example, as a paleontologist, I was only responsible for writing up the chapter section that deals with fossils). This writing time-crunch often leads to good, but not great, writing and figures. Thus, there comes a time after the expedition when some of the scientists that sailed together meet up for a week and thoroughly edit all the chapters.
At the end of January, the science party, including myself, met at Texas A & M University in College Station, TX. The university is home-base to the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), the program through which our expedition was organized and funded. Not all the scientists attend this ‘editorial party’, as only about 1 to 2 scientists from each group are needed. For example. there are two paleontologists (myself and another researcher from Italy) out of the original ten paleontologists that sailed working on the fossil-specific section for our site chapters. All in all, there was about 12 of us edition our chapters.
We spent 5 days in a room together, with access to all of our files and figures that we typed and created on the ship. In the room with us were 4 support staff, whose sole job it was to support us in any way they could. For example, they helped us edit figures, they gave us access to additional files that we needed, and they edited our chapters for grammar and spelling. The support team also formatted the chapters to a very specific style.
So why spend all this time on editing, drafting, and formatting a bunch of science-y stuff? There are several reasons! First, all IODP expeditions are paid for via taxpayer dollars, so the science that we do at sea and our major findings should be made available for public consumption. We anticipate that our chapters will be published online, available to everyone for free, in February 2019. Second, there is a diverse group of scientists that sail on the ship, and thus a diverse (and global) following of other scientists that are interested in what we did and what we found while at sea. Publishing our finding lets others interested in our science know what we collected, the age of the material, and if there is anything they could possibly work on in the future. The chapters also serve as a record and database (there will be an online database of findings as well) for others.
Editing is hard work, so it was important to take regular breaks and have some fun. Luckily, the weather was warm (or at least warmer than in Massachusetts) and sunny! Our lunches were catered everyday, and a few of us often went on walks around campus. Lucky for me, the limestone blocks that are used as walls around campus were filled with fossils, which provided me plenty of entertainment!
I just got back from a whirlwind trip to the University of Iowa to do research in their paleontology repository. This collection is very interesting because it is a massive fossil collection that is actually housed in a geology department rather than a museum. That might seem weird to you, but it was a really nice environment to do research in. Their collections manager, Tiffany, has a small army of undergraduate students that are working with her to help maintain the collections, so the repository has a really nice homey feel to it. Museum work can be a little lonely at times (often you are the only person working in a small room surrounded by fossils), so having Tiffany and her undergrads pop in from time to time to chat was a nice break from research.
So, just what do paleontologists do when they go to a museum to do research? Well, the simple answer is: we look at fossils. For any project that we are working on, seeing as many individual fossils of the same species or even same group gives us a better idea of what is “normal” for that organism. Your research question(s) will determine what in particular you are looking for or paying attention to on each fossil. So for my group that I’m working on, paracrinoids, I’m paying a lot of attention to details around the mouth, differences in plate shape (the plates that make up the body of the animal), and if there is any organization to their plating. This involves a lot of close up work with a microscope to look at these features and careful note taking about what I’m seeing. The data that I collect at museums has to be detailed so that when I get back to my university I can recall specimens and use that data in my analyses. Sometimes if we are lucky, we get to take some specimens back to our universities to keep working on them, but more often we just have our notes and photos to go off of. So our time and work at the museums is invaluable!
Research weeks at museums are really long, but the time flies by! You are hyper-focused on your research and your fossils. Even when you are not at the museum working, you are in your hotel catching up on the work that you are missing at home. Between looking at the specimens, taking notes, taking pictures, and trying to find patterns in what you are looking at, the days just fly by. But, I always like to save a little time for myself to wander around the exhibits and look at other specimens in the collection because you are surrounded by wonderful fossils! But for as long and hard as a week researching at a museum can be, the trips are always fun and you come away having learned a lot!
The annual Geological Society of America Meeting is a gigantic academic conference for all fields that connect with the geological sciences. This year they had a record number of abstracts totaling 4,900! That is a lot of science from a whole lot of scientists. I have a few favorite things about large meetings like this: (1) you get to reconnect with old friends and collaborators; (2) you get to meet so many new friends and collaborators; (3) you learn at rapid speed through the 15 minute talks. Topics ranged from early life, the intersection of geology and archaeology, to planetary sciences.
This year I brought an undergraduate researcher with me who presented her poster on Sunday, I ran a session on Monday, and then I presented a poster on Time Scavengers Wednesday afternoon. So, I had a very full conference but it was so fun getting a handful of Time Scavengers together at the poster! We were able to get five Time Scavengers together for a photo. It’s difficult working a project working so far away from everyone but it was fun catching up with everyone.
I purchased business cards printed before the meeting so we had information to hand out to people interested in the site. I gave away about half of the cards I purchased, so roughly 250 cards! I got a ton of positive feedback from scientists, educators, and students. Poster sessions are always very intimate ways of receiving a ton of feedback quickly. Unlike with oral presentations where audience members can maybe squeeze in one or two questions, poster presentations allow for more detailed conversation. This year they had an additional poster session so we set up at 8 AM and had a session from 9:30-11:30 AM and again from 4:30-6:30 PM.
Check out the recording of the poster presentation below:
Maggie and I have been working with an undergraduate student, Audrey, to come up with a project for her last semester at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Audrey is a geology major and has an additional concentration in early childhood education. I’ve had a project that I’ve been absolutely dying to get started and I thought, what a perfect candidate for this endeavor.
Last year when we were packing up the department collection, I found these really beautiful large foraminifera models. Coincidentally, Audrey actually helped us pack these specimens up. As we know from reading Adriane’s research section (here), foraminifera are microfossils. We use microscopes to see these very small creatures. Microscopes are difficult to use in a classroom setting because even if you set them up in focus, it is very easy for someone to accidentally put it out of focus or move the slide. This makes it difficult for each student to have the same experience.
By having gigantic models, we can discuss details or shapes of these forams without having to look under a microscope. So, the project idea is to use our 3D laser scanner to create digital 3D models of these super big foraminifera models. Audrey will develop lesson plans that will incorporate these specimens into them. The ultimate goal will be to make the object files that contain the digital fossils and accompanying lesson plans available for teachers to download for free online.
We have done a few test scans and to see the exact specifications we should use for the models. In order to get the details of the specimens you have to rotate the model so that the areas where it’s being held on the stand can also be scanned. You can then combine the different angles into one model. The digital fossil can then be manipulated and moved around in 3D space. Now that the semester is wrapping up we will begin to scan these models more often so Audrey’s project can take off running next semester.
We are both writing up National Science Foundation (NSF) proposals. A proposal is a submitted document to any money granting agency. If the proposal is approved, the scientist(s) or educators who submitted the proposal is then awarded a grant in the form of money. Jen is submitting a grant for postdoctoral fellowship programs (postdocs are commonly 1-3 year appointments where you are further trained in research and writing after receiving your Ph.D.), and Adriane is writing up a full proposal with her advisor and colleagues to get funding for part of her dissertation (the document that is written for fulfillment of a Ph.D. program).
But before we go into the parts of an NSF proposal and how they are written, a bit more background about what these things are. In short, large grants (such as NSF or NASA) are the necessity of a researcher’s life. They are really large grants, usually on the order of ~$30,000 to sometimes over $2 million, that fund a scientists’ research, salary, and often the salary of their graduate students. There are different NSF programs; these can be thought of as different categories to which you can submit a proposal to. For example, Adriane is submitting a proposal to Marine Geology & Geophysics, a program that is great at funding all sorts of paleoceaonographic research.
If the scientist who wins the grant works at a university, the university takes part of the grant money for operating costs. This is fair, as the scientists use electricity, water, etc. in their labs, and the university also employs people to clean the buildings and grounds. Because the money from NSF grants comes, in part, from taxpayer monies, the entire review process a submitted proposal will go through is very rigorous. The granting agency wants to be sure taxpayer dollars are going towards research that will lead to the betterment of society in some way, or will fill a knowledge gap in the sciences that will open the doors for further research and development.
OK, now back to the parts of an NSF proposal:
Although we are submitting for very different purposes the format is relatively similar. There is a project summary that is a one page summary of your entire project. This is basically a one-page summary of your proposal, what you bring to the scientific community, and how you will provide something to the public through your work.
The project description is the full proposal that includes an introduction/background, your objectives and goals, the methods you will use, and the significance of the project. In addition, it includes lots of images and tables to justify why you want to do the science. Depending on the program you are submitting to there may be other things you need to incorporate into the project description. For example, Jen had to include an institution justification, professional development, and career training into her fellowship applications. To put this simply, why should you go where you are proposing to go – what does the school have that will help you succeed is the institution justification. Professional development means how will Jen grow as an academic while at the proposed institution – with details of projects or other mentoring opportunities. Career training goes hand in hand with professional development, this could be workshops or certificate programs that Jen can enroll in while at the proposed institution.
Although the primary portion of the proposal is the project description, there are a series of additional files you must compile. The budget justification is a place to outline a detailed budget for the proposed project and explain what the funds are being used. Biographical sketches of the submitting members are required as well. This is a short summary of your education, training, publications, and other activities usually fit onto two pages. Collaborators and affiliations must be outlined as individuals that will not be asked to review your proposal. During the rigorous review process, NSF wants evaluation of proposals to be as unbiased and fair as possible, so they ask for a comprehensive list of all collaborators over the past several years. The data management plan outlines what will happen with all the data collected. This is particularly important because a key aspect of science is reproducibility (=the ability to reproduce another scientists’ results using their data).
So, there are a lot of pieces to writing an NSF proposal, and a lot of time goes into writing one! But probably the most important aspect to come out of research funded by the public is the ability for researchers and scientists to give back to the public in some way – whether that be through volunteering, lectures and teaching, or making fun websites to explain the science we are most passionate about so that everyone has access to our information 🙂