Interning at a Paleontology Lab

Haley here –

A Busycon coactatum, or Turnip Whelk, specimen.

I recently started interning with Dr. Sarah Sheffield (one of Time Scavenger’s collaborators and USF professor) at the University of South Florida (USF)! As a high school senior, this has been an extremely influential experience to me. With Dr. Sheffield, I have been learning how to catalog fossils, and I have been slowly (but surely!) entering the USF collections to an online database (MyFossil). Along with learning how to photograph and catalog fossils, I have been able to learn about graduate and undergraduate research, sit in on a college level course, learn about fossil identification and photography (1), and meet some amazing people.

I was able to have this internship experience through a class called Executive Internship that is offered to seniors at the high school I attend. This class spends the first nine weeks teaching career skills like writing a resume and cover letter, interview etiquette, and effective communication. Throughout the first nine weeks, we are encouraged to research various career paths that interest us and speak with people working in those careers. By the end of the nine weeks, we are expected to have secured an internship. The school partners with various businesses (such as the Florida Aquarium) in order to ensure that students have options. Some students use these connections, while others choose to intern with businesses they have been to before or reach out to family and friends for suggestions. Others -like myself- email everyone they can think of to see what they would think about having a high school intern. I was fortunate enough that one of the people I reached out to suggested that I speak with Dr. Sheffield, and I was even more fortunate that Dr. Sheffield found a project that she wanted to start and was willing to allow me to help. After everyone has secured an internship and we have completed the first nine weeks of class, all of the interns are given permission to sign out of school instead of attending Executive Internship class. In exchange for essentially leaving a class before school ends, all of the interns are required to record an average of five hours per week in our internship and complete a weekly log. Other than the hour requirement and log, internship schedules and tasks vary for each student.

I can not say when I first became interested in paleontology and geology, but this internship experience has only helped my interest grow. When trying to explain why I wanted to study those fields, my mom helpfully explained that I had “always been a rock girl” which sums it up pretty well. From family trips to North Carolina when I was in elementary school, I became fascinated by the variety of gems and minerals you could find. As I took more science classes, I learned about crystal structures and how various formations occur. In a public speaking class, I was able to pick any topic I wanted and ended up falling into a rabbit hole of the history and changes of paleo-illustration. I think part of what draws me to these fields is how seamlessly they integrate with so many other fields. From chemistry and biology, to history or art, there are so many aspects of paleontology and geology that can combine with other fields. In any case, there is always something new to learn and something to dig deeper into that can reveal so much. This is only highlighted by my experience sitting in on Dr. Sheffield’s class. The class addresses the evolution of life on Earth, but reaches implications of what we truly define as Homo sapiens, the history of paleontology in the United States, biomechanics (how organisms move), and much more.

Bryozoan encrusting on a Busycon carica (Knobbed Whelk) specimen.

When I started my internship, I was unsure what to expect. I am a high schooler, and I was going to be working with a college professor to begin a new project. I was excited to learn, but I can say that I definitely did not expect to come home and tell my parents that I wished there were more Anadara (2) specimens because they were the most fun to photograph. I learned the conventional lighting angles to use for fossil photography, how to measure various shells, and the information needed to catalog fossils. Properly labeled fossils soon became a valued commodity after some specimens only had labels like “bivalve”, “east coast”, or “recent” specimens. To catalog the specimens, I have been using the MyFossil database. It is an extraordinary website that allows museums and researchers to share their specimens so that they are available world-wide. It is amazing to know that I can catalog a specimen and see it appear online next to a trilobite specimen from China and a shark tooth from California. MyFossil has an important feature that allows specimens with detailed information (classification, dimensions, geochronology, and locality) to be marked research grade. This allows MyFossil to function as both a free online museum and as a valuable tool to researchers.

Learning how to catalog fossils entails learning about fossils just from exposure. I have learned about the variety of features of shells and how they function for each species. In order to revise some entries to make them research grade, I have used a website called Macrostrat. By looking up geochronology based on lithostratigraphy or formation, I have begun to recognize the common  rock units of various sites in Florida. I have been able to learn more about fossil features by asking how to denote various characteristics like boring. A notable specimen of snail had a bryozoan encrusting (3). By cataloging fossils and asking about them as I do, I have learned much more than what I expected to learn from the cataloging labels.

This internship has been a great learning experience. I was admittedly unsure of what I wanted to do in college, other than the fact that I wanted to do something with geology and fossils. Interning has allowed me to learn, discuss projects with others, and see the sheer variety of research within the USF School of Geosciences. This, paired with everyone’s enthusiasm for their research, has helped me see the kind of environment that I want to be a part of. It has been an opportunity that has allowed me to gain a better understanding of the college experience, and it has allowed me to have hands-on research experience in the field that I love. I look forward to expanding what I have learned even more through the rest of my internship!

A First to Remember

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

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

Scenery around Brown University.

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

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

Presenting at my first research conference.

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

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

 

Plankton Photo Shoot Part III: Creating Plates

Adriane here-

This post is the third and final in a series I’ve written about taking scanning electron microscope images of my fossil plankton (‘Plankton Photo Shoot‘) and how I process those images in photo editing software (‘Plankton Photo Shoot II: Creating the Perfect Image‘). Here, I will show you all the purpose of these images and the editing process, and how these are useful to other scientists in my field!

Now that all my SEM images are cleaned up (meaning, the background is removed, the edges of every images are cleaned up, and each file is saved as a high-quality PNG file), it’s time to create plates! I’m not talking about dinner plates that you would eat off of; rather, when we talk about plates in paleontology, we mean a page of high-quality fossil images that showcase the features of our fossils.

A plate of vertebrate fossils, specifically those from an ancient penguin species. This is the plate caption: “FIGURE A5. Undescribed vertebrae and ribs referred to Kupoupou stilwelli n. gen. et sp. 1-7, vertebrae, NMNZ S.47339; and 9 and 10, ribs, NMNZ S.47339. 8, an incomplete vertebra, is part of NMNZ S.47302, associated with the larger Chatham Island form. Scale bar is equal to 10 mm.” This plate has a white background, as do most plates that showcase bones (the darker bone colors stand out better against white backgrounds). Image from Blokland et al. 2019.

Plates are published in scientific journals as part of journal articles, and usually include a scale bar (so others know how large or small the fossil is), a number or letter beside each image on each plate, and a description underneath the plate with each image’s genus and species name. Plates can also contain other important features to help other scientists identify the specimens, such as arrows and labels pointing out specific parts of the fossil. For my dissertation, I had to create plates of my fossil plankton to show other scientists how I was identifying each species, and they will be used as a reference for others so they too can identify species. In total, I created 29 plates of fossil foraminifera for my dissertation!

The first thing I do when I create a new plate is to create the template. I create all my plates in Adobe Illustrator, and I always give my plates a black background. I also go ahead and add a bit of white space below the plate, and a text box within the white bit, so I can create the plate caption as I add images. Below is an image of the template, with the black background and white space for the caption.

A screenshot of Adobe Illustrator with my blank plate template.

Next, I add in numbers where the fossil images will go. I like to create plates that have 5 rows and 5 columns, so a total of 25 images. Putting in the numbers before the images helps me align everything on the template, and it makes creating the caption that will go under the plate much easier. For example, when I add the image next to 1, I then add in the fossil information right in the caption.

Screenshot of the template with numbers added.

Now for the fun part: adding in the fossil images! All of my images are stored in separate file folders on my desktop, and each are labeled with the species name and the section from where it came within a drilled sediment cores. I just open the folder, grab the cropped image that I want, and plop in onto my template. I also plop in the original image file along with the cropped images. I do this because the original image has a scale bar, the information that tells people how large (or in my case, small) the fossil is.

The template in the background, with the cropped fossil image (left) and the original SEM image (right). Notice the scale bar in the original image at the bottom (100 microns, or um).

Because the original image and cropped images are the same size, all I need to do is trace the scale bar with a white line, delete the original images, then place the scale bar underneath the cropped image.

I trace the scale bar from the original image so it is just a white bar, and place that under the cropped fossil image. I also rotate the cropped image.

Once I have the cropped image and scale bar on the template, I then re-scale them (or just make them smaller) to fit beside the appropriate number on the template. I then go ahead and add in the image’s genus and species, and location information below in the white space.

The cropped image and scale bar are re-sized together to keep them at the same proportion. The image is then placed beside the appropriate number, and the location information is added into the caption at the bottom of the template.

I do this 24 more times to create a full plate of foraminifera images!

A screenshot of the final plate, with the complete caption underneath. I can then save just the template and fossil images as a PNG file, insert them into a document, then copy and paste the caption underneath of the image.

This process is tedious, and it is very detail-oriented, but it was one of my favorite things to create during my dissertation! There’s nothing I love more than flipping through pages and pages of my printed plates containing foraminifera images to admire the diversity of shapes and sizes. The beauty of the foraminifera are on full display, and it’s sometimes still hard to believe that all the wonderful shells are created by single-celled protists!

 

Writing a large NSF grant

Andy here –

Writing grants is a big part of doing science. While some science can be done with just a clever idea and data that already exists, it’s more common that we have to go do something. We might need to travel to collect some samples, so we’d need to pay for the train, flights, gas for a car, or even just food. We could need to do some chemistry, which costs money for reagents, time on thousands-or-million-or ten’s of dollar machines, or just beakers! We could also just need to pay our salary while we spend time identifying little tiny fossils, or we could want to pay a student to do it. That last bit is important: Science is a career, and for some folks, they need to bring in grants or they don’t get paid.

How we write grants is not something we talk much about, outside of the occasional (well-earned) whining on social media. It’s a lot of work, and getting them is tough. Here’s a little feeling of what it’s like to write a large grant.

The first thing is to have an idea. Now, not just any idea works. You’ve got to have an idea that: A. you think is exciting, B. others think is exciting, and C. everybody agrees is important. A ‘fishing expedition’, where you might get something neat but you’ve got no clear hypothesis to test, doesn’t work. Even just having a clear hypothesis isn’t enough. You really need to have an idea that has some important impacts for your field and usually society.

I mostly work with science that’s under the purview of the National Science Foundation (NSF) (or in the UK, National Environmental Research Council, NERC). Some of my friends work with grants from US Environmental Protection Agency or the US Department of Energy, or work for the US Geological Survey. What you work on sometimes governs the types of grants for which you can apply, how they are formatted, and the amount of money. To get a grant from the NSF you have to first have an idea that fits one of their ‘Calls for Submission’. My last grant was under the call: EarthCube Science-Enabling Data Capabilities

The most important part of the grant is a 15 page proposal. The proposal lays out the idea. It then supports it with specific language about how we’re going to accomplish that idea, including timelines, deliverables, and back-up plans of what we’re going to do if something doesn’t work. These documents usually need multiple sections, tables of locations, maps, graphs, theoretical diagrams, and a lot of times there’s even unpublished data which supports the hypothesis but just isn’t enough to publish yet. There are also lists of who is going to work on the grant, all of the referenced papers, explanations of how we’re going to coordinate so that we’re getting the maximum amount of science progress out of the money. Usually these things end up being extremely densely written with sub-sub-sub-headings. Ours wasn’t to specifically do science, it was to augment the capabilities in a few systems that existed, so that somebody could come later and do science. Since we’re creating this new thing, I’m hoping that it’s going to be us, since we’ve ostensibly got the jump on everybody, but the goal of open science is to make the data work for all of us. 

The proposal is only the fun part though, planning out how you’re going to do all the science. We also have to prepare a detailed budget that accounts for every dollar we’re asking for, and then a separate document that justifies why we’re spending it. Ours was 5 or so pages. We also had to write a list of all our collaborators for the last 5 years, supply our 5 most relevant papers and then 5 others, where we work, ‘synergistic activities’ (which is a fancy way of saying outreach or community-service type of activities). We had to prepare a 2 page summary of how we’re going to make our data publicly available (this was really easy for us since that’s the whole point of our grant). If there’s more than one person from the same institution proposing this idea, then they all need to list their collaborators, their papers, and so on. Then, if we’re working with another institution, they have to do all of that as well. Each University submits their own budget, justification, all of the co-principal investigators (folks proposing this work) have to list their collaborators, papers, and on.

For our grant, I’m the “Lead Principal Investigator” which means that I’m quote-unquote in-charge. It also means that I’m most liable if this thing fails, which would mean that I’m far less likely to get another grant any time soon (I should point out that I’m only able to be in charge of this because I’m affiliated with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia as well as the University of Bristol). The grant primarily includes the University of Wisconsin and Texas A&M University, so they had to do their own budgets, and all of that. There’s also work being done at the a few other universities, a non-profit, and a programming company. Those folks just had contracts they had to draw up, but they were budgeted for on the primary universities budgets. All of those contracts had to be submitted alongside the grant.

Still not done though! We also had to get letters from everybody tangentially involved that was mentioned in the grant. So, we mentioned that we’d invite two other scientists who are experienced in similar things to one of the workshops we’re going to have. We had to have a letter from each of those people, as well as anybody else involved, which meant quite a few others.

Then, once you’re all done with that, the Grants Certification and Authorization office has to approve all of the information you’ve put in, and check your math on the budgeting. Sometimes that office requires weeks of lead time, so not only do you have to do all of the above, you have to do it early! Even more confusing, different institution’s grants offices work completely different, which can get very frustrating if you move around constantly, like many early career academics. Finally, and this part is a little sad, they get to push the button and submit. And then the other primary institutions do that too.

There’s a whole, long, parallel story about how proposals are reviewed and then how they decide on to whom to give money.

All of this is in the hopes that you are one of the one out of five proposals funded. They also usually cut your budget, even if they fund you. If you don’t get funding, you get 3 descriptions about why your ideas wasn’t good enough to fund. All in all, the above is several months worth of work, so it’s basically a high-risk/high-reward process. Even if you do have an amazing idea (like we did!), there’s a low probability of success on the first try (we only succeeded on our second try).

Collection Management

Jen here – 

A graphic I made for Science-A-Thon this year explaining what a collection manager actually manages!

I recently started a new position as a Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology (UMMP). I am in charge of taking care of the invertebrate fossil collection, which are housed at an off campus facility with all of the other natural history museum collections (anthropology, zoology, and the herbarium). My position involves a lot of moving parts. I took over for someone who had moved the collection twice in the past several years – which is an astronomical endeavor. I have started with working to get a lot of paperwork organized. Specifically the loan paperwork. Research museums loan out specimens to other institutions and borrow specimens from other institutions! Usually there is a lot of paperwork associated with this but not everything is always organized or clear. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working to make sure I know who has specimens of ours and trying to reach out to others to return specimens. I’m nowhere near done but I have a good handle on the last decade, which I consider a victory!

I have recently employed several undergraduate students to help me get a better handle on what is actually in our collection. All of the type and figured specimens are in our local database but they were entered from the card catalog rather than examining the specimens and specimen labels. So, we want to make sure all the information matches and update it if it doesn’t! We are also working to take images of the types to attach them to the specimen records. This is a huge task and I am happy to have some help. 

Here is a peak inside one of the cabinets! The drawers are filled with specimens and how we store them is important for the longevity of the fossils and materials!

I also have been organizing the collection, after the move there were lots of boxes and pallets with miscellaneous fossils and I’m working to figure out what is what. Some of this was easy, some of it involved going through some really nasty old news paper that was used as packing material decades or even a century ago. It’s really important that the collection stay clean because the specimens are housed in compactor shelving. Meaning that if you are trying to get to one area you may have to move other cabinets and it can be difficult to try to look in different time periods or collections at the same time.

Part of my job includes bringing people into the collection. This could be researchers to study the different animals in the collection or conduct geochemical analyses or even high school students looking to pursue a career in paleontology. Every week I have at least one visitor, which is great for the collection. Next week, two folks from the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department are coming to explore some of our Cenozoic material as they are interested in understanding the ancient climate along the eastern coast of the United States. To do this, they use shells from the collection to reconstruct what the environment may have been like!

Research Trip to the Smithsonian

Sarah here-

Recently, I went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for a few days for some research (image 1)! This was an especially exciting trip because I got to see the BRAND-NEW Fossil Hall exhibits that the curators and staff have been working on for years (image 2)!!

My main goal for going to the collections was to make a personal database of the specimens present at the Smithsonian that belong to the groups I’m currently working on, echinoderms called Diploporita and Rhombifera and make notes of my own for future projects I’d like to start. For example, many of the specimens at the Smithsonian had unusual preservation, so I was thinking about possible projects for myself and for future research students to look into why these fossils were preserved the way that they were. I took photos of many of the specimens so that I’d have a good reference for later, too (image 3).

Image 1. Here I am with my visitor’s badge! This badge lets me get into the collections areas.
Image 2: This is an advertisement for the brand-new Fossil Hall at the Smithsonian on the side of a bus stop on Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C.
Image 3: This is a typical setup for fossil photography. I was taking photos of a fossil called Holocystites, a common echinoderm fossil from Silurian rocks of Indiana.

My main goal for writing this post, however, is to show you what it’s like to work at a museum! Museums are amazing places to go and learn and have fun, but it’s a totally different experience to go to a museum to look at its exhibits, as opposed to going to look at the collections. The exhibits at the Smithsonian, the halls filled to the brim with amazing rocks, fossils, and artifacts, only make up a teeny tiny percentage of what’s actually stored in the museum. So, without further ago, here’s the behind the scenes tour!

So, while the exhibits are absolutely beautiful and show off magnificent tales of Earth’s history, the collections areas show off something completely different but equally beautiful: the rows and rows of cabinets that are chock full of fossils just waiting to be studied (Image 4)! Every time a scientist publishes a paper on a fossil, that fossil has to be put in a public museum so that it can be studied by other people in the future (this isn’t always true, but almost all journals require that you put your fossils in a public museum). Some of the fossils in those collection rooms are absolutely beautiful and totally worthy of being put in an exhibit (image 5), but so many more, while they aren’t as “perfect”, give us insight into scientifically interesting questions.

Image 4: Look at these cabinets! Each drawer is FILLED with fossils! This is just one of the many rows of echinoderm fossils.
Image 5: Just look at this gorgeous crinoid fossil!!! This crinoid (called a sea lily) belongs to Echinodermata, the group that includes modern day sea stars. One of these fossils was likely made during a storm event, where a living creature was buried alive quite suddenly- it’s how we see such beautiful preservation of its many body parts.
Image 6: This exhibit shows how echinoderms have modified their ability to attach to surfaces and feed throughout time, from over 500 million years ago to modern day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, I want to show you a little bit about the Smithsonian’s exhibits! I want to show you my favorite new exhibit. You guessed it-it’s about echinoderms! This new exhibit shows the changing body types we see in these fossils throughout geologic time (image 6). They also did some really great work on an Ice Age exhibit and the megafauna that lived there (like mammoths, the Irish Elk, large sloths). It was tied in really well with learning about how climate change has affected life on Earth in the past and life on Earth now!

Finally, I want to show you around the exhibits you might not have noticed at the Smithsonian- the floors and bathroom counters! Since this is the nation’s most famous natural history museum, you know they have to have some good geology in their building materials! The main staircases that run through the museum are marble (metamorphosed (meaning, it was put under a lot of heat and pressure) limestone). Marble often leaves us clues about how it was metamorphosed by leaving behind stylolites. Stylolites are deformation features-meaning, the marks that rocks leave behind when they’re being squished by geologic processes. They often look like little squiggly lines! Check out the epic stylolites in the marble staircases of the Smithsonian (image 8)! Finally, here is a column that is made out of a rock called a metaconglomerate, which is a metamorphosed conglomerate (image 9). To put that into normal words, a conglomerate is a sedimentary rock that’s made up of large pieces of material (like pebbles or larger) all jumbled together. A metaconglomerate is simply one that has been deformed from heat and pressure! You can tell that this column been metamorphosed by how the large pieces of rock look like they’ve been stretched out and bent in weird directions.

Image 7: Here is the ground sloth they have on display! Ground sloths are some of my favorite non-echinoderm fossils. It’s hard to comprehend just how big they were, especially when you compare them to sloths today!
Image 8: Here are stylolites from the staircases of the museum! My foot for scale in the bottom corner.
Image 9: A column made up of metaconglomerate, which is a conglomerate that’s been subjected to heat and pressure. Bonus: look at the floors this column is sitting on top of! Gorgeous!

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