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!
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 🙂
Lightning or elevator talks are a great way to practice quickly sharing your research or work. Elevator talks are just as they sound, use the amount of time an elevator ride takes to share your research with another person. This is usually about 1-3 minutes, sometimes less! You can think of it sort of like a TV or radio commercial about what you do.
So, you want to make sure to share your science in a way that is not confusing to people in other scientific or academic fields. You want your research to be understandable to everyone, not just people that work on the same stuff as you. I find it helpful to pretend I’m talking to my mom who has a general understanding of what I work on but doesn’t particularly need to understand all of the minute details.
Below is my first official lightning talk. Since this is a video, I was able to include additional images and even an extra supporting additional video clip. I plan to produce a few a semester to practice communicating whatever my current research may be!
Here are some tools to begin crafting your own elevator talk!
As I briefly discuss on my research page, here, part of my main research focus is to better understand respiratory structures of extinct animals. I’ve embedded a video on how I actually go about doing this. I’m using acetate peels to trace the structures through the body. These are essentially thin slices that allow us to section or take pieces of the fossil bit by bit. There is a general agreement about where the respiratory structures of blastoids (called hydrospires) connect to the exterior of the body. This means I can find this location on the inside to find the structures.
Once I have identified the structures, I can trace each one! I use a drawing pad and it can actually be quite relaxing tracing the folds. But it takes a lot of time and we have thought about figuring out how to make the computer do it for us but in some cases the outline is faint or you can see extra folds that are not actually part of the layer you are on. This happens when the slices of the fossil are taken not exactly perpendicular to the long body axis. The slices that I am working with were made in the 1960s and were done by hand so it is common that they are not exactly perpendicular.
In the video below you can see me tracing the hydrospire folds on a slice of Pentremites pulchellus. Once we trace all of the folds we were interested in, we can hide the images of the slices and all that remains are a series of stacked line drawings. We use another program to create the three dimensional structures.
Citation: Dexter, T.A., Sumrall, C.D., and McKinney, M.L 2008. Allometric strategies for increasing respiratory surface area in the Mississippian blastoid Pentremites. Lethaia, 42, doi: 10.1111/j.1502-3931.2008.00110.x
Adriane here, reporting once again from the beautiful Tasman Sea!
You may recall from my previous post that I am currently sailing the RV JOIDES Resolution (the JR), a research vessel equipped with a drill rig that is used for scientific ocean drilling. During these scientific expeditions aboard the JR, a team of about 30-35 scientists and several crew members (the JR can hold a maximum of 130 people) drill sediment from the seafloor. Everyone on the ship has a job to do, and in this post I’ll explain what my role is while sailing in the beautiful Tasman.
I am sailing as a planktic foraminifera biostratigrapher (click here to learn more about what that means, and here to read more about how we use fossils to tell time) or someone who uses fossils (‘bio’) to tell time from the rock record (‘stratigraphy’). Altogether, there are 9 paleontologists on the ship. Some of us are here to tell the other scientist what age the sediments are that we’re drilling into, and some are using fossils to interpret paleobathymetry, or the water depth of the Tasman Sea at different times in Earth’s history.
Every scientist’s role on the ship is vastly important, but the first thing everyone wants to know as sediment cores are being drilled and brought onto the ship is how old this sediment is. This is important for a few different reasons: 1. There are specific intervals in Earth’s history that we (the scientists on the ship) want to drill into; 2. With age, we can tell what was going on in the geologic past in the Tasman Sea and further interpret the plate tectonic movements and environments when the sediment was deposited, and 3. We can modify our drilling plan including changing out the drill bits, slowing down the drilling, or speeding up the drilling process to best capture key intervals in Earth’s history. Thus, being a biostratigrapher is initially a very important job, and one that can affect the drilling operations on the ship. That’s why there are four main fossil groups that we use to tell time: the calcareous nannofossils (which are REALLY tiny), the planktic (and in this case, the benthic) foraminifera, siliceous radiolarians, and pollen spores. All of the fossil groups are important to have, as there are intervals in the cores where one or two fossil groups may disappear, or there may only be planktic foraminifera in one sample, etc.
But enough about biostratigraphy, now to show and tell you the entire process we go through when we receive a core on the ship!
The first thing that happens when a core is pulled up onto the core deck is that an announcement is made, such as ‘Core on deck!’. I then put on a hard hat and safety glasses and grab a bowl to collect the core catcher sample (the end piece of the core that literally keeps the sediment in the pipe as the core is brought back to the surface). The core catcher sample is the very last 10 centimeters of the core that is given to the paleontologists to analyze for age. The technicians bring the core from the drill floor to the core deck, where the core is cut into sections. While the core is being cut, another technician is given the core catcher to disassemble, remove the sediment, and give to the paleontologist.
Once I have the sample, I take it back inside to process. If the sediment is very soft, I simply rinse it over a screen to remove small particles (refer to my previous ‘From Mud to Microfossils: Processing Samples’ post). But recently on the expedition, the sediment we are recovering has been very hard. In this case, the core catcher sample is cut into thin slices using a rock saw, then small pieces are shaved off of a slice using a sharp-edged tool. These smaller pieces are crushed with a mortar and pestle for a few minutes.
The sediment is then rinsed over two screens: a 2 millimeter (mm) screen to hold back the larger particles, and a 63 micrometer (μm) screen to catch the microfossils. The >2 mm rock pieces are then crushed again until there is enough particles in the 63 μm screen to analyze for planktic foraminifera. The sediment, which we call the residue at this point, is then put into filter paper on a stand to drain out the extra water. The filter paper and residue are then put onto a hot plate to dry (yes, there have been a few times when the paper has burned!).
After the residue is dry, it is put into a small plastic bag with a label indicating exactly where it came from within each core. At this point, the residue is ready for analysis! At my desk, I have a microscope, a small tray, very small paintbrushes for picking very small fossils, a jar of water, and green food dye. Because the microfossils that I look at are made of calcite, they are very bright under the lights in the microscope. Dying the fossils a green color cuts down on the reflectance of light off the foram’s shells, and enables me to see the details of the fossil necessary to identify it to the species level.
There are usually many different planktic foraminiferal species in each sample, but there are only a few that I usually look for that tell me about the age of the sediment. These are called ‘marker species’. The geologic time at which a marker species evolves or goes extinct has been calibrated by previous scientists before me over several decades, so when I find a species, or when a species suddenly disappears, I have a chart that I use to look up when that speciation or extinction event happened.
Once I have a datum (reference point of time) and an age estimate for the residue sample I’m looking at, I write this information on a big white board in the paleontology lab. All of the other scientists look at this board frequently to determine the age of the sediment that is being brought up.
Education and Outreach Aboard the JR
Every IODP expedition has an education outreach coordinator that sails with the crew and scientists. This person’s job is to blog, post photos on social media outlets (Facebook), and conduct ‘Ship to Shore’ linkups. These are scheduled events with colleges, university, and K-12 schools where the education outreach coordinator gives the viewers a live tour of the ship and the activities that are going on. Because every expedition is funded by public monies from several countries, it is our responsibility as scientists to engage with the public and tell you all what we’re doing and what we’re learning. I’ve participated in a few ship to shore linkups already, and have really enjoyed talking with students of all ages about fossils, what we’re finding in the Tasman Sea, and how we use the fossils to tell time!
If you are an educator and want to participate in a Ship to Shore video event, click here to sign up!
Ciao! Greetings from beautiful and sunny Urbino, Italy! For two weeks earlier this summer, I participated in the 10thInternational School on Foraminifera at ESRU Urbino. This workshop covers all aspects of foraminifera, from their modern ecology to their evolution since the Cambrian. The school is truly international as we not only have expert lecturers from all over the world, but also students representing more than 12 countries.
I was only 1 of 4 students from the U.S. I have made friends with fellow micropaleontologists from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Israel and Russia and have enjoyed getting to hear what life is like as a scientist and micrpaleontologist in other parts of the world. This also means that for the most part, instead of learning any Italian I have been helping other students improve their English, something I am happy to do since English is the most prominent language of science. Each day we have lectures in the morning and in the afternoon, we look at samples and specimens under the microscope. This is great because everything we learn from lecture is reinforced with real forams and slides! As I am a Cretaceous and planktic person, my favorite lecture was biostratigraphy with Maria Rose Petrizzo. During lecture, we went through the important evolutionary changes in the planktic record and in the afternoon for our lab exercises we had just 10 minutes to pick different morphotypes from residue. Instead of speaking in terms of species, for foraminifera we speak in terms of ‘morphotypes’ this simply means we use shape (morphology) to define them. I had a lot of fun with this!
I also really enjoyed the lectures on modern planktic forams. The coolest thing I have learned is that although there is a lot we don’t know about forams in the past, biologists studying modern forams are still puzzled by these amazing protists. There are many questions surrounding their reproductive cycle, feeding habits and general ecology that biologists are still working out.
I learned a lot, but I must say the best part of the trip is the other scientists and foram enthusiasts I am meeting and getting to know. We live, work, and eat together and are forming relationships and networks that I’m sure will last through our careers. We already have plans to meet up at the big forams meeting next year in Scotland!
Until the end of September, I am sailing aboard the research vessel JOIDES Resolution in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. I’m one of 33 scientists working on the ship, as well as staff and drillers. Altogether, there are 127 people aboard, working together as a community to make sure the ship functions, it’s clean and tidy, and that we’re conducting excellent science.
The JOIDES Resolution
The JOIDES Resolution, or JR for short, is one of the most important research vessels sailing the seas today. The ship itself was built in 1978 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and runs off diesel, but generates its own electricity and has desalination equipment. Thus, we are never short of lights, power, or water. The ship was built for scientific ocean drilling, and has a drill tower mounted on it, called the derrick. Surprisingly, the ship can recover sediment from the seafloor through a maximum water depth of 27,000 feet! A few years back, the JR was in dry port for two years while it was being updated. Now, the ship has lab spaces for all kinds of scientists, with cutting edge equipment and machines to analyze the sediment cores that we recover from the seafloor.
Life aboard the ship is absolutely amazing! There are three meals provided for us everyday, and a few coffee machines scattered around. In addition, there are always cookies, snacks, and coffee in the mess hall. Another great feature about life on the ship is that the staff here does everyone’s laundry! In short, I’m getting spoiled by not having to cook, clean, or worry with laundry. But on the other hand, I am working 12 hour days every day until the end of September, where we will disembark the ship in Tasmania.
The scientists work in two shifts so that we are continuously working 24 hours. The night shift is from midnight to noon, and the day shift from noon to midnight. I’m on the day shift, which was pretty easy to adjust to by going to bed later and getting up later. After our shifts end, there are plenty of things to do aboard the ship. The JR has its own movie room with a big screen TV, a pool table, and a nice collection of books. There is also a and a lounge with computers connected to the internet. We can’t get internet on our personal laptops because we have limited bandwidth available on the ship, most of which is used to conference with schools all over the world (we have two people sailing with us whose job is specifically to do education outreach through video chats, movies, and virtual meetings).
Scientists stay two to a room, where there is plenty of storage space, two closets, and a bunk bed. In the room is also a sink. Two rooms share a bathroom, which is located in the center of the rooms. The rooms never feel cramped, because the two scientists in the room work opposite shifts. But my favorite part about the ship is not the limitless cookies or fancy coffee machine; instead, it is the sense of wonder and amazement that come with being surrounded by ocean. When I am off shift, I love to sit at the picnic table at the front of the ship and watch the ocean, especially when we’re moving on a cloudless, bright night. The stars are unreal, as are the sunsets!
Interested in reading more on the work Adriane is up to? Check out these news articles about the project: