Applying to Grad School II: Preparing your CV

Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional students), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to network with potential graduate advisors, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the second post in the series on how to prepare and structure your CV for graduate applications.


Adriane and Jen here –

A good starting point for gearing up to find a STEM* (science, technology, engineering, math) graduate program is to get your Curriculum Vitae (CV) looking good. There are a variety of ways to do this in a handful of programs that may or may not give you templates. When emailing people about working with them in the future it is customary to include your interests and your CV so they can look at your experience. A CV should document all of your academic credentials, accomplishments, outreach and service, publications (of all types), and more! Read this online resource to learn more about how CV’s and resumes differ.
*because we are all geoscience majors, the advice that follows is mostly applicable to STEM majors, check out CVs of people in your field by looking on their websites & research gate!

The additions to your CV all depend on what you are applying for and wish to do. If you are interested in a museum position, it’s a good idea to add when you have worked with collections, in what capacity, and for how long. Similarly, if you are applying for tech positions in a lab make sure you list out the equipment you have experience with and what you did with the machines. When applying for graduate schools specifically, what you really want to show is that you have a good, solid education, and that you are hard-working and can achieve tasks and goals.

We’ll go over some sections that should be included on your CV, but here are some general tips that apply to the entire document:

  • List the most important information first (Education, Professional and Work Experience), then go from there
  • Make sure the date for each item is very obvious and clear; provide a range of dates (e.g., 2013–2015), a year (e.g., 2016) or a specific semester (e.g., Fall 2015) for each item
  • Use italics and bolding, but do so in a manner that is appealing and does not distract from the overall appearance of the document
  • Make sure the text and any bullet points are aligned correctly throughout the entire CV
  • Use language that can be understood by the general public and doesn’t contain too much jargon; you don’t know who will be reviewing your application
  • Pick one font and stick with it
  • Using different sized fonts throughout is ok, but like italics and bolding, be sure this doesn’t distract from the overall look of the document
  • List your achievements (and other chronological things like community outreach, mentoring, etc.) in order from most recent to oldest last

As a disclaimer before diving into this post, we have been at the academic game for a long time. Do not feel discouraged if you don’t have as many lines on your CV. There are a million opportunities for you to expand your horizons and engage in research, award nominations, grants, and much more as you continue along your academic journey!

Document Header

The heading on your CV should include your name, address, and contact information. Generally, your name can be in a bigger font so the reader is drawn to that first. You can list your home address, or the address to your university. I, Adriane, always include my phone number, email address (make sure it’s a professional email address), and my website URL. It is important to make sure you are using the designated header space on your document, as this ensures you have more space on each page of your CV. There are settings that allow you to have a different header on all subsequent pages so the first can be large and then you can switch to just your name so the person reviewing it doesn’t lose track of whose CV it is. Here’s an example of a formal header:

I (Adriane) also jazzed up my CV by adding in images of fossils that represent the two major time periods I work in. Stylistic features like this may be considered as unprofessional by others. So, ask those in your lab group or your supervisor/advisor for their input before doing something like this.

Education

The first section of your CV should be all about your education. Here, you’ll specify where you attended high school (or leave it off, it’s up to you) and the college and/or university you attended for your undergraduate degree. Within this section you can also include your overall GPA. If you are attending graduate school to further your e.g., geology undergraduate degree, you can also put your major GPA. I, Adriane, did this when applying for graduate programs because my total GPA was low, but my geology GPA was pretty high. Within this section, also be sure to include the dates for which you attended each institution. If you did an undergraduate thesis or research project, you can even include that information in this section. Here’s an example:

An example of Adriane’s Education section from her CV with her undergraduate thesis and advisor information included.

After this section, you can tailor your CV sections to best fit you, the position you are applying for, and your experience. As an undergraduate, it’s important you showcase your experiences and capabilities.

Professional and Work Experience

The next section on your CV could be ‘Professional and Work Experience’. Here, you can add in any formal or informal positions you have held. For example, if you volunteered as an undergraduate teaching assistant, you could add that to this section. If you held any jobs, add those as well! Jobs that showcase team building, management, and other useful life skills are important to add even if they aren’t relevant to your target job or career. Some academics will tell you to leave off jobs that don’t have anything to do with the degree you are seeking in graduate school. I, Adriane, still include the two assistant manager retail positions I held while going to community college. I worked hard at those jobs, and including them on my CV (hopefully) signals to others that I have leadership experience and have extensively worked in teams to accomplish tasks. Both of these qualities are important in academia, although they are hardly talked about. Adding in these other professional experiences also helps fill out your CV if you are really early in your career path or haven’t found a position that will pay you for your scientific expertise  (as many lab positions are volunteer based).

Peer Reviewed Publications and Conference Abstracts

One of the next important sections you should include on your CV is any abstracts you authored or were included on for academic meetings. If you contributed to a peer-reviewed publication go ahead and include it here. It’s important to be consistent with the style you cite publications and abstracts in this section because it can look messy or be confusing otherwise. This section highlights that you’ve been involved with research, and have practice presenting your research to the scientific community. If you don’t have research experience, don’t fret! Many undergraduates who apply to graduate programs don’t have that experience just yet, and that’s ok!

An example of Jen’s Publications section from her CV, this is a subheader specifically for Peer reviewed articles. In this same section she includes a separate subheader for Conference abstracts.

If you have any other types of reviewed literature you can also include it in this section. Maybe you helped edit something for a companies big annual report or contributed to a local journal or newsletter. Writing is a really difficult skill to acquire and if you can showcase you have been practicing that is great!

Funding and Awards

Next, list any funding you have received for any research projects, events, or clubs/associations you were involved with. You can title this section something like ‘Funding Awarded’. This section shows your future graduate school advisor that you can win money (a very important skill in STEM fields). In the heading, be sure to include the total amount of money that you’ve won to date. Each item in this section should also include the amount for each award. It may not seem like it, but if your college/university has helped you pay for attending a meeting, that’s money you should include in this section as well!

An example of a funding section from Adriane’s CV. Notice the total amount won is included in the heading, and then each item has its own funding amount.

If your CV is not super filled up it’s totally fine to combine sections. I, Jen, often suggest students to include funding and awards together – the heading could be funding and awards, achievements, whatever you think best describes what you are putting in the section. When you end up with more funding and/or award success it makes sense to split them into two sections so you can keep track of things. I called my Awards and Honors and also included any instance where I guest lectured for faculty members. I didn’t have another good place to put it in my subheaders so this seemed reasonable to me.

Example of Jen’s Awards and Honors section on her CV, which includes departmental and club awards as well as guest lectures for departmental classes.

Relevant Coursework

The next section you could include on a CV is any relevant coursework. For example, when I, Adriane, applied to paleontology programs, I included all the courses I took that were related to paleontology in any way (biology, invertebrate paleobiology, stratigraphy and sedimentology). Here, you can include the semester you took the course, and even a short two-sentence description of the class. If you gained specific skills in the class, it is best to include that in the short blurb. If you took a mineralogy course and also had the opportunity to prep and analyze samples for XRF or XRD, include that information!

Other Relevant Experience

The next section of your graduate school CV could include a section titled ‘Field Experience’ (or ‘Field and Lab Experience’, or ‘Lab Experience’). This section highlights the work you’ve done in the field/lab, when you did that work, and a short description of what it was you did. This section shows your future graduate school and advisor that you know your way around the lab or have experience doing science outdoors. Again, if you don’t have this experience, it’s not a huge deal!

An example of how to write and format a ‘Field and Lab Experience’ section on a CV. If you also have experience working with museum collections, include that in this section as well!

I, Jen, have titled a similar section more broadly as ‘Research Experience’. Here I include when I worked with (1) specific fossil collections; (2) specialized equipment or instruments; (3) any other things that may not have fit within the job descriptions listed above but may be useful for potential advisors or PI’s to know about.

Example of a ‘Research Experience’ section in Jen’s CV. Simple and concise phrases indicating what I did when then people can match it to specific time periods in my academic training.

Academic and Community Service

After you’ve highlighted your education, work experience, the research you’ve done, and your coursework, there are a few other sections you can include on your CV if you have the experience. If you’ve won an award as an undergraduate student, include that in a section titled ‘Awards and Honors’. If you are part of an organization, for example, president of the Geology Club, that can be included in a section titled ‘Academic Service’. Academic Service is any activity you do within the science community as a volunteer. This differs from Volunteer Experience as these are things done outside of academia. While we’re talking about it, do include a section on your CV where you highlight any volunteer or outreach experiences you have. This could be as simple as talking to a K-12 class about science, or helping at a rock and fossil sale.

Professional Memberships Organizations

The last section on your CV should be titled ‘Professional Memberships and Organizations’. This is where you will list all the clubs, organizations, and associations you are a part of. This shows that you are an involved and active member of your scientific and local community, a networking skill that will become even more important in graduate school!

Other Potential Headers

The National Science Foundation has a series of headers in their short format CV requirements and I, Jen, have worked to adopt some of the language that this large organization uses. So, I have a big header called ‘Synergistic Activities’ this includes, programmatic events I organized, ways I engage my community, professional development opportunities that I’ve participated in, professional service, mentoring experience, and invited talks and lectures. Now, that’s a whole lot of stuff but the header is something that people may specifically look for when they are analyzing your CV.

I also have a section called ‘Courses taught as instructor of record’. This is handy when applying for teaching positions because right off the bat they can see that I have taught a full course and have experience in front of a class. I have another section for ‘Collections Curated’ this is for specimens that I took care of or managed in some way. As I was applying for museum and faculty positions, it was to by benefit to include this section and showcase what I had done.

Example from Jen’s CV of the language used to describe the collections curated during my various positions.

Summary

Our last bit of advice is to seek out help with your CV! Reach out to your classmates, a trusted professor, or a graduate student for feedback. Your CV will likely go through several iterations until you end up with something you are happy with. Also, attend any resume or CV-building workshop on your campus or in your community if you can. You’ll likely receive additional advice than what we provided here, and also get really great feedback from others on your CV. And remember, your CV is a living document, meaning you should continually update it anytime you achieve something!

Applying to Grad School I: Paying for Your Graduate Degree

Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional student), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to network with potential graduate advisors, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the first post in the series on various ways you can get paid to attend graduate school in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.


Jen, Adriane, and Sarah here –

Attending graduate school is an exciting prospect, but you can quickly become overwhelmed with deadlines, things to do, but mostly by the expense of it all. It’s no secret that today’s college undergraduate students are facing increasing tuition costs along with inflated interest rates on loans. Within public 4-year universities and colleges alone, tuition and fees rose on average 3.1% per year from the period of 2008 to 2019. Even within 2-year public colleges (such as community colleges), tuition and fees rose on average 3.0% per year within the same period of time! For student loans, interest rates range from 4.5% to as high as 7%, and that interest is usually compounding (meaning you will pay interest on the interest that your loan accrues over time). It can seem like there’s no way to escape college and obtain an education without paying dearly for it, especially if you want to attend graduate school right or soon after your undergraduate degree.

But fear not, there are several ways in which you can avoid taking out loans while pursuing a graduate degree, both MS and PhD. Since we are all geoscience majors, the advice and information we provide herein is more applicable to graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Below, we discuss a few options to reduce the cost of attending graduate school. We also are very transparent about the debt we accrued during our undergraduate degrees and how that compounded over time. But mainly, we want to explain how you can get paid (yes, you read that correctly!) to go to graduate school.

First, we’ll discuss the different types of assistance you can be granted to go to graduate school. We’d like to stress that we do not advocate for paying for graduate school out of your own money if you’re majoring in a STEM field*, as you should be able to get an assistantship to pay for your tuition and provide a stipend (living expenses)**.
*we’re uncertain about non-STEM fields-please look for good resources to help you understand how tuition waivers and stipends work in other fields!
**some STEM industries will pay for their employees to go back to graduate school. This is an awesome option, but not available to everyone.

Assistance within the University

Teaching Assistant

Teaching assistants (TA for short) are graduate (MS and PhD) students who are paid to help teach classes and labs at their university. For example, Adriane taught Historical Geology lab sections at UMass Amherst, and had a blast doing it (so many cool field trips!). As a teaching assistant, you will also be involved with setting up experiments for labs, grading students’ assignments, helping on field trips, or even leading your own field trips! Being a teaching assistant can be a ton of work, but it is a great way to make money and sharpen your skills as an educator (important for folks who want to continue teaching in any capacity after their degree). There may also be opportunities to continue working as a TA over the summer, as these jobs usually do not include summer stipends.

Teaching assistantships often include tuition remission, meaning you are not expected to pay for your education. This is important when you are looking for graduate positions in the university. You want to ensure that you are receiving a stipend and tuition remission. Even though you are getting your education paid for there often are still associated fees you have to pay each semester. These fees can range from 100’s to 1000’s of dollars every semester and cover transportation, athletic, heath, and building fees on campus.

Research Assistant

As part of her RA as a master’s student, Adriane helped curate and digitize a fossil collection at Ohio University.

A research assistant (RA) are graduate students who are funded to do research or work on some aspect of a project. Usually, the money to fund an RA comes from the student’s primary academic advisor, or it could come from some other professor in the department. In most cases, an RA is only funded during the academic year, but it’s not uncommon that money for an RA is budgeted to fund the student over the summer. For example, Adriane and Jen were each funded for an entire year from their MS advisor’s NSF (National Science Foundation) grant, where they were able to build a website while working on their own research. The benefit of RA positions is that they are usually more flexible as to when you can get your work done. When Adriane was doing her MS degree as a research assistant, she would spend an entire two days of the week doing RA stuff, that way she had huge chunks of time to focus on her research. The downside to being an RA is that you don’t receive teaching experience or get to interact with students in a formal setting. This isn’t a huge deal, as there are usually opportunities to help professors out teaching their courses while they are away at conferences, doing field work, etc.

 

Internal University or Departmental Fellowships

Internal fellowships (and grants) are small to large pots of money that you can win from within your university or college. You have to do some research and keep up with deadlines on these because often they have specific requirements. While Jen was at UTK there were several extra fellowships you could apply for as a graduate student. Some were specifically for MS students others for PhD students – some were mixed! One was only for students in their first year and one was only for students in their last year. Jen was fortunate enough to apply for an receive a fellowship through the university to fund the last year of her dissertation. This allowed her to reduce her teaching load and focus more on writing. You can read about it by clicking here.

External Funding Options

External fellowships

There are fellowships, like NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP for short)-you write a proposal for the research you want to work on and submit it. It’s reviewed by experts in the field you want to specialize in. These are incredibly competitive across a national or even international scope, but they are great ways to fund your research! Often, you have to apply to these either before you begin your graduate program or early into your program, so look into it as soon as possible!

There are other options to acquire competitive fellowships, often to finish off your dissertation without being restricted by teaching or other responsibilities that take time away from completing your projects. NASA has a program that graduate students can apply for, but there are restrictions – you already have to be enrolled and your project has to fit whatever the theme of their solicitation is that cycle. Adriane won a similarly competitive fellowship for foraminiferal research, which you can read about by click here.

Tuition Remission/Waivers

In some jobs and careers, your employer will reimburse your tuition costs. These are often to benefit your employer, as investing in your education and training will make you a more well-rounded and specialized employee in your field. The amount that your employer will reimburse you also varies; some may provide 50% remission or 100%. This amount can also vary depending on the number of courses you take during your graduate career. If you think your employer offers tuition remission, it is best to have an open and honest conversation with them about how much they will reimburse you for, and how many classes or credits they will cover.

The Cost of Graduate School: Examples

Below is an outline of how each of us paid for our undergraduate, masters (MS), and doctor of philosophy (PhD) degrees.

Jen

Jen exploring Ordovician life with young minds at the Paleontology summer camp at the McClung Museum.
Undergraduate: Once I left home I was given access to funds from my parents that I could use to pay for school. I lived in the dorms my first two years which used up a lot of this money. I then moved into an apartment and took up three part-time jobs (lifeguard, gym manager, research assistant) to maintain my living and school expenses. This allowed me to save the remainder of the money in my college fund and use it to move to Ohio for my MS program.
MS: My first year at Ohio University I was a TA. My first semester I taught lab for Introduction to Paleontology and my second semester I taught Intro to Geology and Historical Geology. My second year I was on an NSF grant as an RA and worked on the Ordovician Atlas project for Alycia. Both summers I was awarded summer pay through this NSF project. My pay at OU was ~$14,000/year. My student fees at OU were ~$600/semester (summer was less like ~$200). Instead of taking out loans I took advantage of a loophole and paid late. There was a payment system but it cost extra. There was no fee (at the time) for simply paying a month late. It took some serious budgeting but was possible to slowly save for these extra fees.
PhD: I was a TA all four years at UTK and taught a variety of classes: Intro to Paleontology, Earth’s Environments, Earth, Life, and Time, Dinosaur Evolution. During my time here my department stipend was $15,000 and I earned another $5,000 annual award from the university. I was able to split my pay over 12 months rather than 9 months. I was also able to work extra jobs over the summer at the university to augment my pay. Year 1 I was TA for a 4-week summer course for an extra $1000. Year 2 I taught a 4-week summer course as instructor for $3000. Year 3 I taught governor’s school (4-week program for high school students) for $2000. Year 4 I taught a paleontology summer camp at the local natural history museum for $500 (but also had the fellowship, where I got $10k but was reduced teaching so only received $7.5k from department).

Sarah

Undergraduate: Full need based scholarship (shout out to UNC Chapel Hill for making my education possible!). My scholarship covered everything but summer school for the most part and I was hired as a federal work study student to pay for books and other necessities. I worked other jobs at the same time-I worked as a geology tutor and a lab instructor, namely, to cover other needs (medical care that wasn’t covered by insurance, transportation, etc.). I took out $7,000 in federally subsidized (i.e., interest doesn’t accrue until you begin paying) to cover summer classes and a required field camp.
MS: I was paid as a half RA/half TA for one semester. I worked the remaining 3 semesters as a full TA teaching 3–4 lab courses per semester (I was paid extra to teach in the summer). My base pay was $14,000/year in Alabama. I worked as a tutor for the athletics department one summer to help pay for groceries. I did not take out loans for my degree, though I was not able to save much money.
PhD: I was an RA on my advisor’s NSF grant for 2 years and a TA for two years. I also worked as a TA or a full course instructor for 3 of the 4 years. My base pay was $15,000/year in Tennessee. I took out $15,000 total in federally unsubsidized loans (i.e., loan interest began accruing immediately) to cover unexpected medical, family, and car emergencies. I also did small jobs, like tutoring individual students, helping professors, and babysitting to make a little extra money-my PhD department had a rule that we weren’t allowed to work outside tax-paying jobs on top of our assistantships.

Always looking to find that extra dollar in graduate school.

Adriane

AS (Associate of Social Science): I spent four years in community college, and lived at home while doing so. I worked 20–30 hours a week at a retail store to pay for courses and books. My grandmother did help me significantly during this time, so I was able to save up a bit for my BS degree when I transferred.
Undergraduate (Bachelor of Science): I took out loans for 3 years worth of classes and research at a public 4-year university, in total about $40,000. I received a research fellowship ($3500) to stay and do research one summer. I still worked at my retail job the first summer and on holidays to make some extra money.
MS: The first year I was a teaching assistant and my stipend was about $14,000 for the year. Over the summer, I won a grant from the university ($3000) that covered rent and living expenses. The second year I was a research assistant and made about the same as I did the first year. I think I took out about $5,000 worth of loans to help cover university fees and supplies.
PhD: Throughout my first 3.5 years, I was funded as a teaching assistant making $25,000 the first two years, then was bumped up to $28,000 the third year (the teaching assistants at my university are in a union, so we won a huge pay increase). For the last year of my PhD, I won a fellowship (click here to read about it) from a research foundation ($35,000) that pays for my stipend, research expenses, and travel to research conferences. Early in the degree, I took out about $5,000 worth of loans to help cover fees and supplies.

Microplastics Alter Plankton Poop

Microplastics alter feeding selectivity and faecal density in the copepod, Calanus helgolandicus

Rachel L. Coppock, Tamara S. Galloway, Matthew Cole, Elaine S. Fileman, Ana M. Queirós, & Penelope K. Lindeque

Summarized by Adriane Lam

The Problem: There is a growing body of research that shows that microplastics, tiny (1um-5 mm) pieces of plastics, have made their way into the deepest reaches of our oceans and are being ingested by marine life. Microplastics ingested by animals have been shown to cause adverse health effects to them, but as consumers of marine animals, these same microplastics are making their way into our diets. As yet, we do not know the exact ways in which microplastics can affect human health on longer time scales.

Zooplankton, which are small animals and protists that float in the water column and feed on primary-producing phytoplankton, are an important link between phytoplankton and other, larger animals. Zooplankton make up the base of the food chain, and are the main food source of marine mammals such as blue whales.

Different species of copepods.
Different species of copepods.

One type of zooplankton is especially common in our oceans today. Copepods are marine crustaceans that are found in nearly every freshwater and saltwater habitat. In addition to being an important food source, copepod poop is an important part of the biological pump. In other words, these animals’ poop transports atmospheric carbon dioxide (which is trapped in organic matter, or fixed carbon) to the seafloor, where it is stored in seafloor sediments.  The poop also provides important nutrients to other animals that live within or on top of these sediments. Copepods have been shown to ingest microplastics in the wild. The ingestion of microplastics by copepods may alter the way in which these animals select their food. And of course, if microplastics are being ingested, they are also being exported to the seafloor in fecal pellets. This study was designed to look at how microplastics alter how copepods choose their food and how the ingested plastic materials affect the sinking rate of copepod poop.

Methods: In this study, the scientists grew three species of microalgae (all that copepods like to feast on) in the lab and spiked it with different types of microplastics. The microplastics included things such as nylon, which is commonly found in clothing, especially active wear, and polyethylene, which is the most commonly-used plastic in the world (it is used to make shopping bags, shampoo bottles, and toys, to name a few uses).

The microalgae with microplastics was then fed to the copepods back in the lab, where the amount of microplastics ingested. The fecal pellets from the copepods were then collected and rinsed over a screen. To determine if microplastics contained in the poop affected the sinking rate of the pellets, the scientists dropped the pellets into cylinders filled with filtered seawater. They marked where the pellet was in the cylinder every 40 mm. To determine how different each pellet sank with microplastics, the scientists also measured the rate at which copepod poop without microplastics fell through the water column. When the poop reached the bottom of the cylinders, they were taken out and examined under a microscope. This way, the scientists could count the number of plastic pieces in each pellet.

Results: The scientists found that copepods preferentially liked to eat microplastics in a smaller size range (10-20 um), with a preference for the polyethylene over nylon fibers. When the copepods were exposed to microplastics, they preferentially did not eat as much algae. In addition, the copepods shifted their preference for one species of algae over others. Nylon fibers impeded ingestion of algae that was a similar size and shape to the microplastics. The scientists think the copepods associated algae of similar size and shape with microplastics, and thus avoided eating that algae species in an attempt to avoid plastic consumption.

Images of the contaminated copepod poop. Image a contains nylon fibers, image b contains polyethylene spheres, and image c contains polyethylene spheres.

The study confirmed that fecal pellets that contained both polyethylene and nylon particles were slower to sink through the water column. There was a difference in sinking rates between poop that contained more polyethylene, a denser microplastic, compared to nylon, a less dense material.

Why is this study important? This study is one of several that highlight the ways in which plastics are negatively affecting our food chain in the marine realm. The reduced sinking rate of fecal pellets may also affect the rate at which carbon dioxde, a major greenhouse gas, can be removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesizing algae who are then eaten by zooplankton. If fecal pellets are left to float for longer, there is also a higher potential of the microplastics being re-ingested by other zooplankton through coprophagy (ingestion of fecal pellets). On long and short timescales, the decreased export of poop and fixed carbon dioxide to the seafloor may have large consequences, as plastic within poop could keep more carbon from being exported and stored on the seafloor.

Citation: Coppock, R. L., Galloway, T. S., Cole, M., Fileman, E. S., Queirós, A. M., and Lindeque, P. K., 2019. Microplastics alter feeding selectivity and faecal density in the copepod, Calanus helgolandicus. Science of the Total Environment 687, 780-789. Online.

Plankton Photo Shoot Part II: Creating the Perfect Image

Adriane here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johanna M. Resig Fellowship: Honoring a Wonderful Foraminiferal Researcher

Adriane here-

Johanna Resig’s graduation photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Amherst Elementary Science Night!

Solveig at the fossil table. Here, she is telling kids and parents about whale baleens. Visible on the table is a walrus vertebrae and a piece of a whale vertebrae (the large, plate-sized fossil).

Adriane here-

Recently, I participated in the first-ever Amherst Elementary Science Night. This event, held at one of the local middle schools in Amherst, Massachusetts, was designed to introduce elementary-aged children to the different areas of science. Several professors, graduate, and undergraduate students  from the University of Massachusetts Amherst attended to help out with fun activities for the kids! Several professors and students from our department also attended to teach the kids about aspects of geology. Of course, I was there to tell anyone who would listen about the wonderful world of paleontology and showcase different fossils.

The event was held in the cafeteria space of the middle school, which was divided into two areas. The first area included tables with activities and fun science stuff for the younger kids. The second area was for older kids, with more advanced science activities. Altogether, there were eight of us from the geology department who attended, with three of us (me, Solveig, and our advisor, Mark) who were in the younger section with a table full of fossils!

Helen working with kids at the core table. In front of her is an image of a sediment core.

At our fossil table, we brought specimens from the three major time periods: the Paleozoic to show people what early life looked like, the Mesozoic (or time when the dinosaurs were alive), and the Cenozoic (the time after the dinosaurs went extinct to today). Some of the awesome fossils we brought along were stromatolites (fossil cyanobacteria), brachiopods, a piece of a Triceratops dinosaur bone,  a ~350 million year old coral fossil, coprolite (fossil poop), a mammoth tooth, whale ear bone, a piece of whale baleen, and a modern coral (to compare to the fossil coral). Of course all the kids wanted to touch the dinosaur bone, and the mammoth tooth is always a big hit! But my favorite part of the night was asking kids what they thought the coprolite was. Most didn’t know, whereas other kids would throw out a guess. When I told them it was fossil poop, almost all immediately started giggling, and some even made some really funny faces! It was great fun!

In the second room, two of our UMass Geoscience professors (Bill and Julie) and three other graduate students (Helen, Hanna, and Justin) ran two other tables. Julie and Helen did an activity in which they taught kids about sediment lake cores, and the different types of sediment layers in cores that can be used to interpret Earth’s ancient climates. To do this, they rolled different-colored Play-Doh into thin layers and stacked them into bowls. The different colors represented different sediment layers on the seafloor or lake bed. The kids then took their own ‘cores’ from the Play-Doh using segments of clear plastic straws! Helen and Julie also had images of real sediment cores laid out on the tables so the kids could see what these look like.

Justin (foreground) and Bill (background) at the sandbox.

Next to Julie and Helen’s table was Bill, Hanna, and Justin. They brought along our sandbox, which we use in our classes to illustrate how faults are made. The sandbox is a bit more complex than it sounds: the box is wooden, with clear plastic sides. One side of the box has a hand crank, which will push the side of the box towards the other, thus pushing the sand in front of it. The sandbox is meant to demonstrate plate tectonics, specifically what happens when one tectonic plate moves towards another. The sand represents the upper layer of our Earth’s crust. To begin, we fill the sandbox with a neutral-colored sand, then add a thin layer of blue sand, another thin layer of neutral sand, and a second layer of blue sand. Then, when we crank the handle and the sand is pushed, it creates tiny ‘faults’ that can be seen in the sand layers. This is always a fun activity for the kids (and our students!), and is a great way to communicate how an otherwise complicated geologic phenomenon occurs.

The event only lasted about two hours, but we all interacted with several kids, their siblings, and parents! Doing outreach activities like this is always fun, and reminds me of when I was younger and excited about the natural sciences. For us scientists who do a lot of serious work, events like these are important reminders of why we love doing what we do, and share that passion with others around us.

 

Plankton Photo Shoot

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

Adriane here-

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

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

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

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

The stub mounted to the stage inside the SEM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

How fast can life recover after a mass extinction?

Morphospace expansion paces taxonomic diversification after end Cretaceous mass extinction

Christopher M. Lowery and Andrew J. Fraass
Summarized by Adriane Lam

The Problem: There is no doubt that species today are going extinct due to human activities, such as habitat loss, climate change, and the introduction of invasive species that take over areas. For example, the Florida Panther used to range throughout the southeastern U.S., but due to humans expanding into their habitat, they now only occupy a mere 5% of their former range. Polar bears are also facing loss of their habitat due to melting ice and snow caused by human-induced warming. But if humans were to disappear tomorrow, how long would it take for Earth’s flora and fauna to bounce back to the number of species before humans were here? This is a hard question to answer, but to begin to quantify this, paleontologists can use the fossil record.

In this study, the scientists looked at the time before, during, and after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event that took place ~66 million years ago. This was one of the largest mass extinction events in Earth’s history, where about 75% of all species on Earth went extinct, including the non-avian dinosaurs. It is also an important mass extinction event to study because the event that wiped out all those species was very rapid. During other mass extinction events in Earth’s history, the extinction events themselves took on the order of millions to hundreds of thousands of years (read more about extinctions here).

An overly-dramatic image of dinosaurs during the end-Cretaceous mass extinction about 66 million years ago.

The rate at which humans are altering the Earth today is unprecedented to any climate change event in the geologic past (see our ‘CO2: Past, Present, & Future’ page for more details). Thus, scientists need to compare the rate at which we are losing species today under a very fast climate change scenario to another event that was also very fast. Therefore, studying the end-Cretaceous mass extinction is particularly valuable: it was a very quick event and one that is most comparable to the rate at which we are losing species today.

Data Used: In this study, the scientists used the fossil record of planktic foraminifera to see how long it took for life to recovered after a mass extinction event, the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Planktic foraminifera are single-celled protists (not animals) that live in open-marine environments. They have occupied our oceans for the past ~165 million years. These protists produce a calcium carbonate (same material seashells are made of) shell, or “test,” that grows to be about the size of a grain of sand. When the foraminifera die, its shell sinks to the seafloor. Over millions of years, these shells are preserved at the bottom of the ocean. Making the fossil record of planktic foraminifera an archive of extinction and evolution events for the past 165 million years of Earth’s history! The scientists who conducted this study used this amazing fossil archive to see how long it took these marine protists to return to pre-extinction levels after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

Figure 1. The number of planktic foraminifera species (=diversity estimate) from 80 million years ago to 50 million years ago. The end-Cretaceous mass extinction occurred at the end of the Cretaceous, and can be identified by the major drop in diversity at this time. ‘Throw back’ indicates species that survived the mass extinction event and gave rise to new species; ‘Spinose’ indicates species of foraminifera that evolved to have spines; and ‘Symbiont bearing’ indicates species that have photosymbionts (algae that live on the spines of certain foraminifera).

Methods: As part of his master’s project, Andy Fraass compiled a database of first and last occurrences of planktic foraminifera species. First and last occurrence datums are often used in paleontology to examine how long in geologic time a species existed. The authors used these data to examine when planktic foraminifera species evolved and went extinct (Figure 1).

This dataset collected, but left unpublished until this paper, also included measurements of the species’ tests, such as the number of chambers in the shell, how quickly the chambers expanded from the earliest chamber to the last, etc. From these measurements, the authors calculated test complexity. This is a metric that shows how ‘complex’ planktic foraminifera shells became through time. For example, a species with a simple shell might have simple chambers arranged in a spiral pattern. A more complex species might have a more extreme test (Figure 2).  The test complexity of each species was then given a score, with 1 being the simplest, and 4 being the most complex or extreme.

In foraminifera, the shape of the test can be assumed to have some sort of relationship to the organism’s life strategy, or its niche, basically. A species’ niche is where and how it can live and interact with the environment. For example, humans occupy a broad range of niches: our technology allows us to live in very hot to very cold climates. On the other hand, polar bears have a very narrow niche. These animals only live in the tundra biome in the Northern Hemisphere on the ice and hunt seals. A specific foraminifera might only live at a particular depth in the ocean, or in water that’s above or below a certain temperature, or in regions with a certain abundance of food, etc. These niches are the scaffolding on which species diversity is built.

During a mass extinction event niche spaces are often completely disrupted or destroyed along with the species that occupy them. Thus, paleontologists have hypothesized that after an extinction event, the number of species cannot simply bounce back to what it was before, but the number and size of niche spaces has to be rebuilt first. This may cause the observed delay in the recovery of species after mass extinction events. This paper provided the first test of that hypothesis with real data.

Figure 2. Some examples of a morphologically simple (images A and B) and complex (images C and D) planktic foraminifera. For the simple forms, A is Muricohedbergella monmouthensis, B is Muricohedbergella holmdelensis. Notice that these shell are very simple, with chambers added to the test in a spiral pattern. The complex forms include C, Hantkenina alabamensis and D, Morozovella velascoensis. Both of these species start out with smaller chambers in their shells, with larger and more complex shaped chambers added. In addition, Hantkenina alabamensis (C) also has very prominent spines that jut out of the test. All images from pforams @ mikrotax.

Because the shape and characteristics of a planktic foraminifera’s shell is related to its niche, the authors used average test complexity of all the foraminifera that were alive at different points in time to reconstruct how many niches were occupied by forams before and after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Higher average complexity suggests a wider variety of niches were occupied, while lower complexity suggests that fewer niches existed.

Results: The authors found that there was a huge drop in the number of species after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction (Figure 1), which was not a surprise and something we have know about for a while. But the other finding was that along with a huge drop in the number of species was also a huge drop in the test complexity (Figure 3). It took about 5 million years for test complexity to reach the levels it was at before the mass extinction event. That’s a really long time!

Figure 3. The results of the test complexity index (TCI) plotted against time. The horizontal black lines indicate how long each planktic foraminifera species lived through time, and their position on the y-axis (TCI) indicates how complex their test was. The red line is the median of this data, and the black line is the mean. At the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, both the red and black lines drop, but then begin to increase slowly. It takes about 5 million years for TCI to increase to pre-extinction levels.

Another interesting find is that test complexity increased before species diversified. That is, new niches were created faster than new species to fill them after the mass extinction event. This study shows that before a lot of new species can evolve, there need to be a few species that evolve and open new niche spaces first.

Why is this study important? Today, humans are having a huge effect on the ability of species to survive on our planet. Through destruction of species’ habitats and niche space, we are pushing more and more species to the brink of extinction. Importantly, there are also thousands of species that have already gone extinct from human activities (such as the Tasmanian Tiger, Passenger Pigeon, Sea Mink, Caribbean Monk Seal, Quagga, Elephant Bird, Haast’s Eagle, and many more). If we keep causing animals to go extinct, we may see a loss of biodiversity that rivals those of mass extinctions that have taken place in the geologic past. But until now, we didn’t really know how long it took for new niche spaces to be filled and how that would affect how fast new species can fill those niche spaces.

This study gives us a clue: it may take as long as 5 million years after a mass extinction event for new niche spaces to be created. It then takes additional five million years for diversity, or the number of species, to rebound to pre-extinction levels. The bottom line is that it takes 10 million years for the biosphere to recover from a mass extinction event. This means that even though humans have been on Earth for a very short period of time (geologically speaking), we will have a huge impact on the flora and fauna, even if we were to disappear tomorrow.

Citation: Lowery, C. M., and Fraass, A. J., 2019. Morphospace expansion paces taxonomic diversification after end Cretaceous mass extinction. Nature Ecology & Evolution https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0835-0

Additional News Coverage:

 

A Rare and Exciting Fossil Deposit Causes Excitement and Contention in the Paleontological Community

A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota

Robert A. DePalma, Jan Smit, David A. Burnham, Klaudia Kuiper, Phillip L. Manning, Anton Oleinik, Peter Larson, Florentin J. Maurrasse, Johan Vellekoop, Mark A. Richards, Loren Gurche, and Walter Alvarez

Summarized by Jen Bauer, Maggie Limbeck, and Adriane Lam, who also comment on the controversy below

What data were used?

Data used in this study were identified from a new site, which the authors call Tanis (named after the ancient Egyptian city in the Nile River Delta), in the layers of rocks called the Hell Creek Formation. This formation is famous amongst paleontologists because it contains lots of dinosaur fossils from the late Cretaceous (about 66 million years ago). In this study, scientists found a new layer of fossils within the Hell Creek Formation that is unlike anything paleontologists have seen before. Those who found the site examined the rock’s features and fossils, which includes densely packed fish fossils and ejecta from the Chicxulub meteoric impact. The Chicxulub impact is what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct, and finding a layer of rock that was deposited minutes to hours after the impactor struck Earth is a very rare and exciting find.

Methods

This study included a variety of approaches. The rock features (called sedimentology) and fossil features of the Tanis area and event deposit are described to determine what caused this deposit in the first place. The authors also identified other pieces of evidence to aid in better understanding the situation at hand. Ejecta deposits were described as well, in comparison to ejecta deposits that are found closer to the impact site in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

Results

Figure 1. The extremely well preserved fossils from the Tanis site. (A) Shows a partially prepared plaster jacket with partially prepared fossil freshwater fish. Next to an ammonite shell with mother of pearl preservation (that’s the pretty iridescent part that is enlarged). (B) Shows how the large amount of specimens were oriented in the rock and the inferred direction of flow estimated from the rock and fossils at the site. (C) Photograph taken in the field showing the tightly packed fish, fossilized in a clear orientation. This is figure 7 in the paper, click here to see the other figures.

Much of the sedimentology can be related to other aspects of the Hell Creek Formation in southwestern North Dakota that is an ancient river deposit that has some marine influence. In the Cretaceous period, central North America’s topography was very low which allowed for a seaway to form. This was called the Western Interior Seaway, and was home to a diverse number of animals such as plesiosaurs, mososaurs, large sharks, and ammonites. Several rivers likely drained into the Western Interior Seaway, much like the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf of Mexico today.

From studying the characteristics of the rocks within the Tanis site, the authors of the study concluded that this site was part of one of the rivers that drained into the Western Interior Seaway long ago. When the impactor struck Earth in the Yucatan Peninsula, it send huge waves (tsunamis) into the Western Interior Seaway and into the rivers that drained into the seaway. These huge waves pushed fish, ammonites, and other creatures into the seaway and into the rivers. The Tanis site is one such place where these animals that were pushed into the rivers were deposited and preserved. But not only were marine animals preserved at the site, but also land plants, such as tree limbs and flowers.

The fossils found in the Tanis deposits are all oriented in the same direction, indicating that they have been aligned by flowing water. The abundance and remarkable preservation of these fossil fishes and tree limbs suggest a very rapid burial event (the best preserved fossils are often the ones that experience very quick burial after death). The orientation of the fossils at the site along with the mix of marine and terrestrial life further supports that these fossils were deposited from very large waves from the asteroid impact disturbed this region.

Within the Tanis deposit there are also ejecta spherules, microkrystites, shocked minerals, and unaltered impact-melt glass. These are features that are commonly associated with the Chicxulub Impactor. When the impactor struck Earth, it was so hot it melted the underlying rock, sending tiny bits of molten rock into the atmosphere. These bits of molten rock quickly cooled and eventually fell back down to Earth, where today they are found all over the world. Today, these ejecta spherules and impact melt-glass all mark the huge end-Cretaceous mass extinction event that occurred 66 million years ago.

Why is this study important?

The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K/Pg) extinction event is one of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinction events (click here to read more about extinction). Like many extinction events, it is often difficult to determine the specific causes of mass destruction. However, the K/Pg extinction event is unique because scientists have many lines of evidence that a huge impactor struck Earth, sending clouds of ash and gas into Earth’s atmosphere. The new Tanis site that the authors uncovered preserves a snapshot into this catastrophic event.

This finding is very important because scientists know better understand what happened directly after the impactor hit Earth. In addition, several new species of fish have been discovered at the Tanis site, which will be important for additional studies about fish evolution through time.

Citation:

DePalma, R.A., Smit, J., Burnham, D.A., Kuiper, K., Manning, P.L., Oleinik, A., Larson, P., Maurrasse, F.J., Vellekoop, J., Richards, M.A., Gurche, L., and Alvarez, W. 2019. A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1817407116

What’s all the commotion about?

It’s not every day that paleontologists make the national news, but this paper and the article written about it in the New Yorker (click here) caused a lot of commotion within the paleontological world. This is a great and potentially groundbreaking find, however, what caused the commotion was the sensationalist attitude of the New Yorker piece that left a lot of paleontologists uncomfortable. So what’s the big deal here? We break down a few (not all) of the issues with this article:

1. Breaking of Embargo

Although the published study is very exciting and will add greatly to our knowledge about the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event, the media hype around the study was handled very poorly for several reasons. All published studies go through peer review. This is when a paper is sent out to multiple other scientists who read the article and make sure that it is scientifically sound and is a good piece of science based upon other good science. During this waiting period while the paper is going through peer review or being finalized with publishers, the authors should avoid talking with popular media or publicizing their paper. When publishing in academia there is a period of time (embargo) where access to the findings of a paper is not allowed to the public. This is for a variety of reasons, having to do with copyright transfer, finances to support the journal or publisher, and more.

The New Yorker press article was released almost an entire week before being available for the community to examine. This means that the embargo was violated.

The reason embargos exist is to give journalists and the researchers they talk to some time to look at fresh findings and determine what the story is, whether it’s worth telling, and if there’s anything suspicious about what’s presented. – Riley Black (Slate article)

2. Paleontologists as Rough-and-Tough Dudes (and Unusual Folks)

The New Yorker article was also controversial because it framed paleontologists as belonging to a narrow demographic (read: white men who love the outdoors). Not all of us in paleontology are men, not all of us are white, and not all of us came into geology loving the outdoors (see the great diversity of folks working in paleontology on our ‘Meet the Scientist’ blog). Paleontologists have had to work very hard to break through the stereotypical conception of what we do and who we are, and this article did not help to address the great diversity of scientists working in the field of paleontology.

In addition, the New Yorker article only quoted and interviewed other male scientists, many of whom have been working in the field for decades. The article left out the voices of women and early-career researchers who have made valuable contributions to the field of paleontology. For more on this, read the Slate article by science writer, Riley Black “It’s Time for the Heroic Male Paleontologist Trope to Go Extinct”.

This article also reinforces the “lone-wolf” stereotype of geologists and paleontologists-a man going out west, few to no other people around, and spending his days looking for paleontological treasure. This image is perpetuated through the article because the author chose to continually highlight the privacy and secrecy asked by the De Palma. While this is certainly an attitude held by some paleontologists, the reality is that the majority of us work in teams. Time Scavengers is run by a large team of people and so is our research! Like working in any field, we all have our strengths and better science happens when we invite people to work with us who have different strengths and can help us.

Lastly, the article frames paleontologists in a not-so-flattering light. In one paragraph, the article states “…I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people).” Firstly, what does unusual even mean? The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) fields are full of intelligent, diverse, and colorful folks from all walks of life. To imply that any one branch of science has ‘its share of unusual people’ is unfair and regressive.

3. Dinosaurs as the Star of the Show

Paleontology is not just diverse in terms of the people who work in the field, but also in terms of the different types of life that we work with. For example, our Time Scavengers team, we have folks who work with fossil plankton and echinoderms. In fact, most paleontologists work with invertebrates- animals that do not have backbones, or any bones at all. Some of the most foundational findings in paleontology are based on the fossil record of invertebrates and early vertebrates. Regardless, most of the public’s fascination lies with dinosaurs (we understand, they were gigantic, ferocious, and unlike anything that’s alive today).

However, this fascination with dinosaurs can lead to over exaggeration of studies and sensationalizing, which is exactly what happened with this article. The published study of the Tanis site only mentions one dinosaur bone out of all the fossils found. The real story here is about the wonderful assortment of fish, tree, and flower fossils, some of which are completely new to paleontologists.

Another article by Riley Black that gives more of a spotlight to the amazing fish found at the locality, “Fossil Site May Capture the Dinosaur-Killing Impact, but It’s Only the Beginning of the Story.”

Dr. Steve Bursatte, Paleontologist at University of Edinburgh commented on both the New Yorker article and the PNAS article on his Twitter account, click here to read more. He comments on the broken embargo and how the New Yorker article sensationalized the ‘dinosaur’ side of the story.

4. Proper Handling of Museum-Quality Specimens

The article that was published in the New Yorker raised a lot of concerns within the paleontology community regarding the handling and storage of the fossils that were found at the Tanis site. It is clear from the article that DePalma had a bad experience early on with fossils that he had loaned a museum not being returned to him, however, by maintaining control over the management of his specimens, it undermines those people working in museums who have degrees and years of experience handling fossil and other specimen collections. Anyone who has borrowed specimens from a museum knows the immense amount of paperwork that goes in on all ends to make sure the specimens leave a well documented trail.

Jess Miller-Camp, Paleontology Collections Manager and Digitization Project Coordinator at Indiana University commented on the New Yorker article and addressed her concerns as a museum professional, click here to read her Twitter thread. She comments on the process of loaning specimens to and from museums and proper ettiqute. Read her thread to learn more about this and why museums should be asked to comment.

In 1997, a T. rex nicknamed Sue was sold at a Sotheby’s auction, to the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, for more than $8.3 million.

This quote is misleading. No museum would have adequate funds to secure Sue. The California State University system, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and other individual donors aided in purchasing Sue for the Field Museum. The Field Museum rallied resources to ensure this valuable specimen remained in a public institution.

In addition to proper storage and archiving of fossils, one of the key tenets of any kind of scientific research is reproducibility– how well can other scientists replicate the results that you got. In paleontology, being able to look at the exact same fossils that another scientists looked at is a key part to reproducibility, as well as allowing the science of paleontology to advance. Whenever a paleontologist finds something they think is “new” to science, or is a really important find (special preservation, currently undocumented here, etc.) if you want to publish a paper on that fossil, the fossil needs to be placed in a public institution like a museum or a similarly accredited fossil repository. This way, future scientists are able to track down that fossil you published on and continue working on understanding it, or using it in other studies. Keeping fossils that are published on in museums is also critical because it ensures that that fossil has a safe place to be stored after being worked on and is less likely to be lost in an office or lab space!

5. Respecting the Land and Indigenous People

In the field of paleontology, people, who are more often than not white, venture into another country or a part of the ‘wilderness’ to find fossils and sites that are completely new and never-before-discovered or seen. These lands that contain fossils were owned by indigenous people long before Europeans arrived in North America, and were likely known about centuries before. Often, when sensational popular science paleontology articles are published, the authors leave out the voices of indigenous people and respect for their land. In the New Yorker article, there was no mention of the indigenous people that lived in the Dakotas, or how their ancestors perceived the dinosaur and fish fossils in the area. To frame amazing paleontological finds as being in desolate wastelands is harmful and erases the narratives of people who have lived in these lands for centuries.

For a more thorough discussion on this topic, click here to read the Twitter thread by Dr. Katherine Crocker.

 

Click here to read a article written by Dr. Roy Plotnick in Medium that also summarizes the issues and causes of commotion surrounding this astounding find.

Teaching Science Communication to Biology students

Adriane here-

This semester, I was given the opportunity to do something new: lecture to an undergraduate Biology writing class about how to communicate science to non-scientists! I was invited to speak to this class because the professor knew about my education outreach and blogging experiences with Time Scavengers.

One assignments the class had to do was summarize a published scientific paper for the general public. So I thought it would be a good idea to put together a short slide show for the students about who I am, how I got involved in science communication, and an overview of Time Scavengers. I also told the students about some of the lessons I’ve learned as a science communicator, and some best practices. Although there are several tips and tricks for writing for the general public, here are the four I chose to focus on:

  • Science writing for the public should be the opposite of formal scientific paper.
  • Explain figures in the figure caption, even if it is repetitive with the text
  • Use figures that are simple, labeled, and not too overwhelming
  • Reduce the jargon- include explanations and define any jargon words that are used
The students working on their summaries.

The paper the students summarized was about the amount of microplastics, or very small pieces of plastics, that are found in the southern part of the Marianas Trench. The paper and it’s findings are very important because it highlights the fact that our plastic waste is making it into the farthest reaches of our oceans, into the food chain, and affecting our wildlife. So it was a great paper for the undergrads to practice their science communication skills. There was only one catch: they could only use the ‘ten hundred’ most common words from the English language to write their summaries, thus ensuring they couldn’t use any science jargon words. This was done on the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, which allows you to type text directly into a word box, but notifies you if you use a word that is not part of the 1,000 most common words.

When we began the activity, the students were a bit frustrated at first, as words such as ‘ocean’, ‘Earth’, and ‘salt’ aren’t words they could use! But then, they got creative and began coming up with ways to explain some of the more difficult concepts!

Needless to say, this was a really fun activity that resulted in quite a few laughs! I was impressed at how well the students’ summaries really captured the messages in the paper they were summarizing. This activity really highlighted the fact that we (scientists) don’t have to use large jargon-y words to get across important messages!

Below are some of the students’ summaries:

“Lots of small pieces of things you would find all around you are in deep water where they are hurting animals. Deep water animals are hurt when they eat things that they should not eat. People put these man made things in the water and they break down into small pieces that shouldn’t be eaten. There are lots of different things that can break down, and they’re in bags, computers, phones, clothes, and food packs in stores. The small pieces are all around the animals, and they are eating them all the time. People are worried and are finding lots of truth saying that this is going to make the animals die and hurt how they act with each other and what they eat. It also makes them sick because they can’t get bad things in their body out, and can’t make important things that help the brain and body talk to each other. People lost a lot of the bad things that are in the water, and we have now found them in the really deep water, and it is hurting animals in both deep and upper water now.”

“The fine pieces thrown away by human after using are getting into the deep water and hurting the animals that live in the deep water. Many kinds of these used pieces are found in different places of the water, even in the deepest part. This is because that the pieces on the top of the water would go deeper when the land shakes or water moves. Studying these piece can help us better understand them and clean them from the water, keeping animals save in their home.”

“Humans use a lot of stuff that eventually finds its way into the water. These small pieces of stuff start on land and eventually move to the water where it takes a lot of time to break down. Eventually this bad human stuff finds it’s way to the deep parts of the water where it is not supposed to be. Animals living in the water can easily be hurt and get sick by this bad human stuff. With this stuff in the water it will be very hard to take away. In order to keep a lot of life, humans must do something to clean the water. Clean water will help human life as well.”

“We studied problems in bodies of water like bad things on the ground under water. Further down we go, more build up of the bad things is seen. The deeper down in the water, the worse the problem is. Many pieces of bottles and other man made things sit and bother surrounding life. Another problem that was presented in the reading was the ground taking in the man made things-which makes it harder for animals to eat, breathe, and live. The changes that have happened because of the man made things are still not known and being looked into.”

“A big problem that is growing is making the bodies of water, and what lives there, sick. These bad things are small and can be found more in deep water. Humans are bad because they are not safe with throwing away these things so it hurts water animals by making them sick. The well-being of water and animals needs to be helped by humans. Cleaning up water is good, as well as watching what is put into water to stop the problem before it happens. Water is very important to human and animal life, so bad things being put into bodies of water needs to stop. ”

“Lots of small pieces of things you would find all around you are in deep water where they are hurting animals. Deep water animals are hurt when they eat things that they should not eat. People put these man made things in the water and they break down into small pieces that shouldn’t be eaten. There are lots of different things that can break down, and they’re in bags, computers, phones, clothes, and food packs in stores. The small pieces are all around the animals, and they are eating them all the time. People are worried and are finding lots of truth saying that this is going to make the animals die and hurt how they act with each other and what they eat. It also makes them sick because they can’t get bad things in their body out, and can’t make important things that help the brain and body talk to each other. People lost a lot of the bad things that are in the water, and we have now found them in the really deep water, and it is hurting animals in both deep and upper water now.”

Humans placed too many bad things like bags and bottles in the deep water. This, in the end, hurts the tiny animals living in the water. If this goes on, it will even hurt our entire home later on. We first thought that the bad things were only near the top of the water, however it seems that the bad things are even in the deepest parts of the water as well. The people who study this are explaining how they found this out in this paper.