Field Camp: An Introduction & Personal Experiences

In geology, fieldwork includes the direct observation, description, and sampling (or additional analyses) of rock outcrops, rock exposures, other geological features, and landscapes in their natural environment. To prepare geoscientists for field work, undergraduate geoscience students are often required to take field camp. Field camp can be an important component of geological studies, offering opportunities for collecting data and fine – tuning observation and mapping skills that students may be introduced to in the lab. While some argue that field camp is a critical part of an undergraduate geology degree, field camp can be quite exclusionary and should not be a requirement for a degree. That being said, there are numerous advantages and challenges of partaking in field camp or conducting field work. Here, we share our perspectives on field camp and our experiences, as well as share some ideas about how you can win money to attend field camp. 

Basics of Attending Field Camp

Field camp provides an opportunity to get hands-on experiences in sample/specimen collection and develop mapping skills. Essentially, it is a practical application of all of the coursework you have taken as a geoscience student .

Some field programs connect with other institutional programs at a shared ‘base camp’. This promotes networking and relationships to be built outside of your field cohort. For example, Jen was based at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association and a field camp from Houston was also residing there during the summer. Although work was largely separate, we ate meals together and shared common facilities. Some field camp programs accept external applicants, which promotes meeting new peers and experiencing the field together.  

Field course requirements can vary greatly by program and in some cases, field courses are not a requirement of the program. Some programs require six credit hours in field work which may be held over a six week long field camp. Additionally, some field camps and courses have prerequisites, which could include more specialized courses such as sedimentology, stratigraphy, or structural geology. Another aspect to keep in mind is the cost of field camp. Some field courses are quite expensive and do not provide financial assistance. Some courses require you to get your own transportation to the base camp, which requires additional resources and logistical planning. As field courses are commonly six weeks, attendees must take off work reducing their income and available time. Other costs include any gear you must purchase to safely attend. 

In a lot of cases, universities and colleges may have some source of funding to help their students attend field camp. These funds are, in most cases, provided by alumni donations that help cover a large chunk, but not all, of the students’ field course expenses.

There are also a few scholarships and grants you can apply to to attend field camp. Here a few examples of such awards:

Personal Experiences

Whitney Lapic, attended as an undergraduate with Mount Holyoke College

Field camp was not offered at my undergraduate institution, Mount Holyoke College. My program did offer a class which was based on a trip to Death Valley that was held over spring break every other year, but this was the closest thing we had to a field course. At the time, I did not think that seeking out a field camp would be worthwhile as I was not going into a subdiscipline that was field work intensive. That being said, I still wanted to gain field experience – and I believed that the experience was a requirement for me to get into graduate school. 

My greatest concern for field work was being able to physically keep up with the group and I know that this fear, and the cost of field camp, greatly deterred me from attending. I was however, extremely lucky to have been accepted as an exchange student at the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K. for a semester and decided to take some time to create my own miniature field excursions while abroad. After plenty of research, I organized a series of trips to the nearby Gault Clay formation in Folkestone, which was a brief and inexpensive bus trip away. Here, I was able to work at my own pace (while trying to beat the tide) and gain experience in collecting, preparing, and identifying fossil specimens from start to finish. While this was by no means a replacement for a field course, it still introduced me to new challenges and allowed me to gain experience on my own time. It certainly helped that I was in a location of my choosing, so it was of significant interest to me. 

Linda Dämmer, attended as an undergraduate with University of Bonn (Germany)

I studied Geosciences at the University of Bonn (Germany). The system there works a bit differently from many US geology programmes: Almost all courses, with just a few exceptions, had a mandatory field work component. These field trips ranged from a few hours used to visit a little stream nearby and practice different methods to estimate the amount of water flowing down the stream per hour, to traveling abroad to spend 10-14 days practising geological mapping or learning about regional geological features. I’ve probably participated in close to 20 field trips during my undergraduate studies, I visited Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Bulgaria during these excursions as well as many sites in Germany. Except for the far away field trips (Bulgaria and Spain) where we had to pay for our flights, these were generally fairly low cost, since the university covered the majority of the expenses, most of the time the students had to pay about 50€ (approx $60) or less as a contribution. There have been people who were unable to attend the mandatory field trip components of the programme, for a variety of reasons (for example pregnancies or disabilities), and they usually were able to instead do a different activity such as written assignments instead. In addition, for many courses more than one field trip option was offered, because taking an entire class on a field trip at the same time doesn’t work well. So based on interests, schedules and financial situation, everyone could often choose between different field trips, that would all count for the same course. I have learned so much during each field trip. Seeing geological/environmental features ‘in the wild’ has helped me tremendously to deepen my understanding of the processes involved and I’m very grateful for these experiences. But they also – and maybe even more so – helped me understand my physical boundaries and how far I can push myself, they helped me improve my organisational skills and made me a better team player. I think these are probably the real advantages of doing field trips, the actual content can probably also be learned in other ways. But the vast majority of the field trips also turned out to be lots of fun, even when you’re sitting in a tiny tent with two other students while it has been raining for the past 4 days and everything you own is completely wet and muddy, when you’re hiking through the mountains and your mapping partner is about 65% sure they’ve just heard what sounded like a wild boar behind you, or when you’re sweating and getting sunburned while trying to find your way back to the campsite in the spanish desert without any landmarks, there’s always something to laugh about and other people to help you out on when you think something too hard. Like that one time I managed to lose my field notebook at an outcrop and only noticed after a 90 minute hike to the next outcrop. I was already exhausted and really wasn’t looking forward to hiking back and forth again to get my notebook, but thanks to a friend volunteering to go with me, I managed to do it (that’s the day I learned to take a picture of every page of my notebook after every outcrop AND to save the pictures online as soon as possible).

I think it’s absolutely worth it, if you’re able to join field trips, I recommend you do it. 

I’d like to briefly discuss a different aspect about this though. All of the things I said are only true if you go with the right people. While I’ve not experienced too many negative situations during field trips myself, I’m aware that some people have not had a great time during field trips. For example, because the majority of geologists on this planet still consist of cis male people, who might not understand that menstruating or having to pee in the field can be a challenge for AFAB people, it might be difficult or embarrassing having to argue in front of the entire class that someone needs a break. Sometimes you also find out the hard way that the nice professor isn’t actually as nice as you thought when you have to spend 24h per day for an entire month with them instead of just attending their lecture for 2h every Tuesday morning. 

I’m still recommending everyone to join as many field trips as possible, but if you can, make sure there’s at least one person you already know and trust among the other participants. Having friends with you will make it a much better experience, in many ways.

Jen Bauer, attended as a graduate student with Ohio University 

I have an undergraduate degree in biological sciences and an earth science minor. The minor program did have a field component but it was only a week long trip to the Ozark area. This was  a nice precursor because I understood what a much longer version would entail. I completed my field camp during my MS program at Ohio University. It was my first summer and was run through Ohio University, so I didn’t have to apply for other programs. I could simply enroll in the course. At this time the course had two parts: (1) a two-week component that was focused near Athens, Ohio and in the nearby West Virginia mountains (this was meant to help us get accustomed with techniques in the field prior to being ‘released’ into the wild; and (2) a four-week component that was largely based at Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association. I completed this field course that summer and really enjoyed the experience at large. My biggest concern was being comfortable in the field and being able to keep up with my field partners. I trained regularly for a month in advance – cardio and weight training, which was certainly a little over the top. I had no trouble keeping up. I did not have the best field clothes due to not having money to purchase anything too expensive. This did not hinder me in the slightest. Since I went as a graduate student, my experience was a little different from those that attend as undergraduate students. I went in fully expecting full nights of rest and I worked hard so that I wouldn’t have to pull all nighters. I cannot function well on lack of sleep, let alone hike and map an area if I am exhausted. I made very conscious choices to be mindful of this. I still got my maps in on time and did very well in the course. My advice for folks heading to field camp would be to be confident in your abilities and know your weaknesses – you can’t be good at everything and it’s ok to lean on your field partner. Also, don’t forget to enjoy the experience. It’s a practical application of all of your knowledge up until that point. I had a lot of fun seeing structures and trying to infer them while drawing the maps. 

Maggie Limbeck, attended as a graduate student with the University of St. Andrews

My undergraduate institution (Allegheny College) did not require field camp for graduation because we were able to incorporate a lot of field trips/field work into our classes. All of my upper level courses either had weekend field trips around the area (Western Pennsylvania, Catskill Mountains in NY, West Virginia) or had multiple lab weeks that were designed around field work. We were also required to take a seminar course that had a week-long field trip to a further destination (my year went to Sapelo Island, GA), where we could really practice our geology skills as a capstone course. 

When I got to grad school, it was considered a deficiency that I had not been to field camp and I needed to go in order to graduate with my Master’s. I ended up going to Scotland for field camp and even though it was an international field camp it was priced similarly to attending one in the United States (read a previous post on Field Camp in Scotland). Because I was going to be doing field work in a chilly, wet climate I did spend a fair amount when purchasing a raincoat, rain pants, and boots to make certain I would stay dry and warm during long days in the rain. These purchases, while expensive, did keep me happy and dry as it rained for weeks while I was there! Going as a graduate student was an interesting experience because many of the other students bonded by staying up late working on their maps and/or going out to party – I on the other hand was working to make sure I could go to bed at a decent hour and be up early enough for breakfast and to make my lunch for the next day. Having an awareness of how you work best and function best is really beneficial because you are setting yourself up to be successful (and there are probably other students wanting to keep a similar schedule as you that you can work with!), but do make sure you do take advantage of some of these later nights, they are really help bond you to the other students and will make working with different groups of people a little easier. One other piece of advice: don’t be scared to speak to the instructor if you aren’t feeling well, are hurt, or need some adjustments made. We had a specific cooking group for those with dietary restrictions or preferences and those who were not feeling well for a day were given different activities to complete. It might be little things (in our case, my group hated the mustard that was being purchased for lunches!) but it’s important to talk to your instructor so you aren’t stuck in a situation that could potentially be dangerous for you!

Sarah Sheffield, attended as an undergraduate with Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute

I went to UNC Chapel Hill, which does require a field camp for their geosciences B.S., but did not offer one themselves. So I went to field camp at the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute. I had to pay for out of state tuition for two credits (it was a two week program), which was expensive, but I gained a lot from the program. I flew to Montana and met the other participants, many of whom I still talk to a decade (!!!) later.  This field camp was unusual for a geoscience degree, in that there was no mapping or structural component. However, I did learn skills such as: locating potential fossil sites; jacketing vertebrate specimens; and vertebrate fossil identification, among other things. I enjoyed my time and highly recommend it if you have the opportunity! The major downside to field camp was cost: the tuition was difficult to cover, but it wasn’t the only consideration. I did not have access to good field gear, which meant that my time in the field was not as comfortable as it could have been (e.g., my shoes were not really appropriate for strenuous field work; good boots are arguably one of the most important pieces of gear for a field scientist!). See if you can find used, quality gear on sites like eBay, Craigslist, etc.-sometimes you can find gems for really reasonable prices! 

My M.S. institution did not originally count this field camp as a field credit, due to the lack of mapping and structural geology components. However, the department chose to waive the requirement in the end in order to not have a graduate student in their undergraduate field camp. My Ph.D. institution simply required that I do field work during my Ph.D., which I did in Sardinia, Italy during my second year there. I only mention this because my field camp at BBPI may not count at other institutions as a traditional field camp credit, so you’ll want to check with your institution.  

As a paleontologist, I find that I did not need a full field camp to become a successful geologist. My research takes place in both the field and in museums, with more of an emphasis on museums. As I write this, I have been unable to do field work for a few years due to a severe ankle injury, so I am grateful that the geosciences field is becoming more broad, so that more folks who may not be able to do field work for many reasons can do so! 

Kristina Barclay attended as an undergraduate with the University of Alberta

I took my undergraduate degree in Paleontology at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I was required to take 3 field classes (1st and 2nd year geology, 4th year paleontology), and another one of my classes included a field trip (4th year paleobotany). I also took an invertebrate zoology class at Bodega Marine Lab (UC Davis) as a grad student, but as I was already working/living at the lab, I didn’t have to spend any extra money (other than tuition), but other students had to pay for lodging/meals. The 1st and 2nd year geology field camps I took at the U of A were 2 – 3 weeks tours across Alberta and B.C., mostly consisting of mapping exercises in the Rocky Mountains. Our paleo field schools were within the city, so we could go home every day, which was nice after a day of digging in the snow/mud in April! For the 1st and 2nd year field schools, we stayed in hotels or cabins. At the time, a lot of the costs were funded by oil and gas companies, so there weren’t too many extra expenses incurred by the students (other than tuition). That said, field gear is expensive, and as a 1st year, buying expensive waterproof notebooks, rock hammers, hand lenses, sturdy hiking boots, and field clothes was a little hard on the budget! Although, many years later, I still own and use a lot of those things, so some were very useful investments if you’re going to continue to do field work.

One thing I’d say is that it’s not worth buying the really expensive field clothes or rain gear because one tumble on rocks or rogue branch, and they get shredded. Field gear doesn’t need to be pretty or brand-named – I buy $10 rain pants because I know I’ll destroy them anyway (and I’ve had one of those pairs last me 10 years). The other challenge was that I paired with two men for the trip (we were marked as groups and stayed in the same cabins). They were good friends of mine and I was fortunate enough to trust them, but as a smaller woman, keeping up with them and finding a private spot to “go” outside was a little bit of a challenge! Thankfully, there were usually spots with trees, but I’ve done a lot of fieldwork with men where there was no cover, so trust is key. I tend not to drink coffee when I’m in the field and just stick to water to minimize unnecessary trips to the bathroom. You don’t want to short-change yourself on water in the field, though, so just make sure you are open and honest with your group about your bathroom needs (menstruating folx, especially). Field camps can be tiring, cold, and a pile of work, but they are absolutely awesome experiences and a chance to visit some amazing, remote places. They also gave me the confidence and experience to be able to conduct and lead independent field work in grad school, which might not be necessary for everyone, but is an important part of my research. Make sure to take lots of pictures and notes (good note taking is so important) and enjoy the experience!

Geosciences programs should drop the GRE, here’s why.

Adriane here-

For a few years now, there has been a debate raging in the science community: Should admissions at universities and colleges drop the requirement that students need to take the GRE for graduate schools? This is a conversation that has been steeped in inherent and implicit biases, data, and a gross misunderstanding of how standardized tests impact students. In this piece, I won’t go into details about how our own biases affect the decisions we make and opinions we form. Rather, the purpose of this post is to pull together the available data that show that the GRE is, in fact, an ineffective tool to predict the success of graduate students. To further this narrative, there are also personal stories from people who have taken the GRE included in this post.

Here is a list of US-based Geology/Geography programs that have dropped GRE.

The GRE

First, a bit of background about the GRE test. The GRE, which stands for Graduate Record Examinations, is a standardized test that students take who are applying for graduate schools, including law and business school. The GRE itself is created by ETS, a company that touts itself as creators of ‘some of the most well-known and widely used educational assessments in the world’. There are different types of GRE tests, called Subject Tests, depending on what the student wants to focus on as their career path: Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. There is no subject test currently for the geosciences, so students who wish to pursue a graduate degree in this field just take the General Test. 

The General Test is broken down into 3 major categories: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Each of these categories is supposed to test the student’s ability to draw conclusions from discourse and reasoning, summarize text, and distinguish major from minor points, measure the ability to understand, interpret, and analyze quantitative information, apply mathematical skills to problem-solve, and measure critical thinking and writing skills. These are just a few things the GRE is designed to measure, as stated on their website (https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/). 

To take the GRE test, there is, of course, a fee involved. The current prices to take the test as of July 1, 2020 are as follows:

Australia $230
China $231.30
India $213
Nigeria $226
Turkey $255
All other parts of the world $205

(All data from https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/fees/)

Students cannot take a GRE test anywhere. There are specific testing centers that distribute the GRE, and they do so about 3 times a year in September, October, and April for the United States, but can be variable depending on other countries. Often, the testing centers are located in larger cities, away from more rural areas. The test itself takes about 3 to 3.5 hours, and students are not allowed to bring any snacks or drinks into the testing center with them. These restrictions are variable and can be more or less strict depending on the testing center. 

After the student has taken the test, they receive part of their scores right away. The written portion of the exam is scored by a group of panelists who later give them the score on the written portion. The student then must immediately decide if they want to send those scores to the graduate schools they are applying to. The student doesn’t have to send their scores to any school if they don’t want to or feel like they need to retake the test. If you don’t send the scores at this time, it does cost extra to send them at a later time. Scores are reported on a scale from 130 to 170 in 1 point increments for the verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning part of the exam, and from 0 to 6 in half point increments on the analytical writing portion.  

Although the student can choose to send their test results to multiple schools, it does cost an additional $27 to send scores to additional schools. As stated on ETS’ website, these requests for additional scores are not refundable, cannot be canceled, nor can they be changed. 

The Data

From the above section, it should be clear that the GRE test is serious business, as it costs quite a bit of money to take, takes a large amount of time, and is largely uncomfortable (seriously, no snacks?!?). The test is supposed to be an indicator of student success in graduate school, but there have been studies published that say otherwise. In addition, there are problems with the test, as it is not an equal predictor of success for men and women, nor among underrepresented groups. In this section, I’ll summarize some of those studies and their major findings.

The GRE as a Poor Predictor of Graduate Student Success

First, let’s start with the obvious assumption that the GRE test does predict success of upcoming graduate students. One of the earliest studies looking at the predictive power of the GRE was by Dunlap (1979). This study found that the best predictor a student success was the student’s performance on the basis of faculty interviews and undergraduate GPA. The GRE was a weak predictor of success. Dawes (1971) showed that GRE scores can be good predictors of grades and faculty evaluations, but only for first-year graduate students’ performance in psychology. Another study by Wood and Wong (1992) showed that the GRE, by itself, accounted for slightly less than 10% of the variation in the criteria of graduate performance against which the GRE was validated. This study also only looked at psychology students. A more recent assessment of student GRE scores as predictors of success in psychology departments was conducted by Sternberg and Williams (1997). These researchers at Yale University asked graduate student advisors to rate their graduate students on their analytical abilities, creative abilities, practical abilities, research abilities, and teaching abilities. The researchers also computed the students’ first-year, second year, and combined GPAs on a scale of 4 (high pass) to 0 (fail). Similar to the Dawes (1971) study, the data from Sternberg and Williams (1997) indicated that the GRE was a modest predictor of grades, but only for the students’ first year in graduate school. The GRE scores were not found to be useful in predicting other arenas of graduate performance, such as analytical, creative, practical, research, and teaching abilities.

Similarly, a study conducted by researchers looked at the predictive power of GRE scores in construction management programs in the United States. The study, conducted by Wao and others (2016) tried to correlate the success of graduate students (success meaning they finished their degree within two years and not drop out). They, too, found that the GRE scores were not correlated with graduate student success, and thus recommended that admissions committees should reassess requiring the GRE scores at all. 

Personal Stories & Experiences

In high school, I was not a great student, and did terrible in math classes (my high school math teacher once told me to get away from his desk when I asked for help because I was ruining the signal on the TV while he watched basketball, DURING CLASS). When it was time for me to take the GRE, I was already working 20-30 hours per week to put myself through community college and help my family with expenses. I had to take a day off of work, paid $200 for the exam, and had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest testing center. I was so nervous about taking the test, I sweat the entire time even though the room was chilly. At the end of my exam, my scores didn’t meet the minimum most graduate programs required (300 points). I ran to my car, crying, and called my mom telling her I had failed. I couldn’t really afford to take the test again, but I did so twice more. I received about the same scores all three times, but in the end, I was out over $600 that I needed for school and my family. Today, I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow, and have personally grown and accomplished so much during my short academic career. No, the GRE was not a predictor of my success, but rather highlighted the fact that I came from an area with subpar high schools and from a family with lower socio-economic status. 

Adriane Lam, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Binghamton

I an above average high school student, I didn’t significantly apply myself because I was easily distracted and often bored in class. But I did my work, just not to the best of my ability. I never was a strong test taker, and didn’t have excellent ACT scores (25). I went on to a local public institution and really did awful my first year. I was NOT able to coast through like I did in high school. This means I bombed my first year of my undergraduate studies. I spent the next 4 years (I spent 5 as an undergraduate) working to raise my GPA. I graduated with a 2.86 GPA. I have to reiterate that I am a terrible test taker, I get so anxious, my study habits were variable and awful. I struggled. I didn’t know that I could even ask for help until the last few years when I found supportive mentors. I dreaded the GRE, I got workbooks, flashcards, and even recorded myself reciting definitions of terms so I could listen to myself on my commute to work and school. The testing center wouldn’t let me bring in tissues or chapstick and said I could either take in my sweater or I had to take it off because I couldn’t take it off in the testing center. These are all comfort items for me and I felt naked and uncomfortable heading into the testing center. I took the exam and I got an okay score, around 1200 (I took the old version). One of my mentors said I needed to take it again because that wasn’t competitive. So, regardless of the expense, I scheduled another test. I did worse. This was a waste of my time and money, neither of which I had an abundance of. Today, I am a collection manager at an established museum and research institution – regardless of my GPA or GRE scores, I managed to achieve my goals.

Jen Bauer, Ph.D., University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

My story is from applying to PhD programs in 2013, both involving schools in the top 10 Earth Science PhD programs. At one I was told by the PI I was waitlisted because of my scores (which I can only assume meant my GRE scores, my GPA was a 3.8), only to then be admitted 1 week before the decision deadline after others had declined and I had accepted elsewhere (which was rather embarrassing). I was later told by the (junior) PI that he seriously regretted waitlisting me, which was quite humiliating. The second program was told when I visited informally before applications were due that there was a ‘formula’ involving GPA, quant and writing score that was unofficially used. I was below the threshold, told to retake the GRE before applying, all while trying to finish my MS degree. Knowing there was a threshold I needed was incredibly stressful.

-Anonymous

I actually had a very positive experience with the GRE even if I’m not convinced of its utility as an application requirement overall. I’m also concerned about what standards are replacing it and how inequality is built in those too. Before applying to a geoscience grad program, I was nervous about “belonging” and being successful in the field. I didn’t do science undergrad, I was a little older, and black. Hitting the marks on my GRE helped reassure me that I was in fact qualified and belonged. I’m not sure how much my score actually factored in to my admission. Re the test itself, I bought an inexpensive test prep book (could have got it at library too), took it at a location walkable from my home, easy peasy. Test location was at an HBU so even that was encouraging. Largest drawback for me was the cost of the exam itself. That’s just one experience and if the data says the test is a useless barrier, then I trust the data. I always felt weaker in school on the quantitative side of things. The GRE wasn’t a class. It’s not math I’d apply in my field. It was a nut to crack, something to persevere and figure out. That’s something I do in my PhD, everyday. That’s how the GRE helped me feel ready.

-Shannon Valley

I went to undergrad on a full needs-based scholarship, because my family had no money to send me to college. I worked part time jobs, sometimes more than one during a semester, through all 4 years of college. I wanted to apply to grad school, and spent nearly a month’s pay signing up for the GRE. Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to the GRE, my grandfather died quite unexpectedly and I ended up needing to reschedule it because my mother needed help cleaning out his house out of state. I had to pay an extra $50 to reschedule (which wasn’t easy to scrape up). It took me over an hour and a half by bus to get to the exam because they didn’t offer the test where I went to undergrad (they still don’t)-they offered it in a city a short distance away, but without a car, I had to rely on public transportation. This added a lot to the stress of the day, seeing as the exam started at 8AM. 

The amount of money it cost me to take this exam left me struggling to afford food, toiletries, and medical bills. I then had to figure out how to pay for the steep fees for the applications themselves. I didn’t know that you could send your scores for free *if* you did it the day you took the exam until I was already taking it. Because of that, I had to resend my scores after the exam for even more extra fees (I want to say $10 per school to send an email with my scores, but I can’t remember what the costs were back in 2010). 

I got into grad school (M.S.) with a relatively low score in the quantitative section. Frankly, between taking 5-6 classes, extracurricular activities, and working (my senior year, I taught a lab section of a course for pay, tutored athletes, and worked as an office assistant in a music department all at the same time), I didn’t have any time to study for the GRE. I used an old copy of the GRE study book from the library when I had a free hour or two, but I didn’t study as much as I could have if I hadn’t been working. 

 I took it again when I applied to a Ph.D. program- I only did this because a mentor of mine told me I’d never get into a Ph.D. program with my quantitative scores (I scored in the 99% in the qualitative/literature section,  but everyone said that didn’t matter in the STEM fields). I, again, had to spend just over two hundred dollars (my monthly take home pay as a student was around $850-$900/month, so this was tough to do, mind you). I had a car this time, but still had to drive an hour each way to take the test. This time, I was able to get a study book that I found from a thrift store and I was able to do a little bit better in quantitative, but not enough that it was worth the extreme stress I went through trying to figure out how to pay for the exam. Today, I’m an assistant professor at a university that has a significant number of low income students and the costs for the GRE have only gone up since I took it, while wages haven’t changed with those rising costs. I want to see a world where my students don’t have to forfeit time to study just so they can save up enough to take the test. 

 –Sarah Sheffield, Ph.D. The University of South Florida 

As someone who grew up taking standardized tests every year starting in 4th grade, I have always been a good standardized test taker, (other kinds of exams not so much, my test anxiety really didn’t start until my undergrad when I felt that my scores would really determine my future) so the idea of the GRE didn’t bother me. At the time, it very much just felt like another annoying step to be able to apply to graduate programs. However, since the exam wasn’t offered in the same city that my college was located in, I had to drive 40 minutes to the exam after my classes ended that day to sit in a freezing cold cubicle with noise cancelling headphones to block out the sound of anxious typing from all the other students taking the exam with me. 

One thing I did appreciate about the exam was knowing my quantitative and qualitative scores immediately after finishing the exam. I knew that my quantitative score would be my lowest (hello, math insecurities) but did hope that it would be a competitive score-an arbitrary number in my head that I had gotten from looking up “acceptable GRE scores for paleontology programs” on Google. My quantitative score was lower than what that number in my head was, but on my way out the door I made the decision that knowing how I test in math and how much better I would need to do to raise that score even a few points was not worth the stress and the $200 to retake the exam. I was 100% comfortable with this decision, but still nervous that my score might deter universities from accepting me for my Master’s. While the scores did not prevent me from being accepted into a Master’s program, I do think that they played a role in some of my rejections from PhD programs because they were schools with strict cut offs on GRE scores. However, I was accepted into a PhD program and have yet to see the need for anything I learned specifically to do well on the GRE. 

Maggie Limbeck, PhD student, University of Tennessee

Additional Reading

Articles/Commentary

Peer-reviewed Literature & References Mentioned

Devonian of New York: Schoharie and the Helderberg Group

Adriane here–

When I was a PhD candidate at UMass Amherst, I was the teaching assistant for our geology department’s Historical Geology class. Every spring, weather permitting, we would take our students on a weekend field trip to upstate New York, to visit rock formations and outcrops that were of Ordovician to Devonian (~450 to 385 million years ago) age. These outcrops and rocks contain abundant fossils, but there was one outcrop in particular that I always found to be the most fascinating: the Middle Devonian rocks exposed near Schoharie, New York.

Now that I am a postdoc at Binghamton University, I’m only about 1.5 hours away from this incredibly cool outcrop! A few weekends ago, my husband and I decided to take a short road trip to go fossil collecting here, as it was the perfect activity to do during a pandemic (limited to no interactions with other people, ample outside time, but also close enough to home). Unfortunately the day was incredibly hot, and we were only able to stay for about half an hour before we felt as if we were roasting. Regardless, we brought home so cool finds, namely a slab of invertebrates, some brachipods, a horn coral, and a sponge!

The outcrop exposed near Schoharie is well-known to local fossil and mineral clubs and fossil enthusiasts. The location is secluded and quiet, there is a long and wide shoulder for parking, and the outcrop itself is set off the road a bit, which is great for students and kids! The outcrop itself is located on Rickard Hill Road, just east of the town of Schoharie.

Google Map of Schoharie, New York, with the location of the outcrop denoted by the yellow star.

The rocks here are part of the Helderberg Group, which are composed of limestones that were deposited in a shallow sea during the Middle Devonian. There are three rock formations that are present: the Coeymans Limestone, Kalkberg Limestone, and Becraft Limestone. The Coeymans Limestone is the oldest formation here. It is a medium to coarse grained limestone which is massively bedded, meaning the rock layers, or beds, themselves are quite thick. Fossils are present in this formation, however, because the formation is massively bedded, the fossils are hard to get out of the rock and are less easily eroded.

An image of the Rickard Hill Road outcrop. The Kalkberg Formation is the rock that makes up the slope of the outcrop which you can walk on and collect fossils. On the right side of the image, the small cliffs are mainly composed of the Becraft Limestone. Image from http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~kwilson/Devonian/DevSites/Schoharie/Schoharie.htm

The Kalkberg Formation lies above the Coeymans, and is described as a thin to medium bedded limestone. This means the individual rock layers within the formation are smaller and not as thick as those observed in the Coeymans Limestone. This formation also contains shale layers, a very fine-grained rock. This formation was likely deposited in a deeper-water setting than the Coeymans Limestone. Several different species and types of fossils are found in the Kalkberg, including animals such as corals, conularia, bryozoa, crinoides, brachiopods, trilobites (which are very rare), bivalves, gastropods, and even straight-shelled cephalopods. When you get out of you car at the outcrop, the Kalkberg Formation is what you are walking on!

 

My pentamerid brachiopod from the Becraft Formation. The lines visible on the surface are from glaciers that flowed across this brachiopod, which was cemented into the rock!

The Becraft Formation is the youngest of the three formations exposed at the Schoharie outcrop, and sits atop the Kalkberg Limestone. Similar to the Coeymans Limestone, the Becraft is a more massively bedded, coarse-grained limestone that was likely deposited in shallower waters than the Kalkberg Limestone. Because this formation is more resistant to weathering, it forms the small cliffs at the outcrop location. This formation contains fossils, but again, because it is more massively bedded, the fossils are not always as easily eroded out from the rocks. Other collectors have found fossils such as crinoids, brachiopods, gastropods, and bivalves.

One of the things I absolutely love about the Becraft Formation is that it contains glacial striations at the top of the cliffs! Glacial striations are grooves left in rocks when the glaciers covered much of northern North American about 15,000–20,000 years ago. Striations are commonly found on metamorphic, sedimentary,and igneous rocks, and help geoscientists know which way the ice flowed. But that’s another fun story for later. One of my all-time favorite fossil finds came from the top of the Becraft Formation: a pentamerid brachiopod that was carefully sliced in half by glaciers, that contains glacial striations! The brachiopod was likely preserved as a whole specimen with two valves, much like a clam has two parts to its shell. The glaciers eroded just enough of the formation and brachiopod to cut it perfectly in half. Incredible!

A slab of limestone containing quite a few fossils, including brachiopods, bryozoa, and bivalves!

If you are in the area, I highly recommend stopping at the Rickards Hill Road outcrop and visiting the Helderberg Group. Collecting here is fun for all ages, is open to the public, and fossils are almost guaranteed 🙂

Additional Resources

Fossil digs in Upstate New York: 5 Good Places to Search
Lower Devonian Fossils near Schoharie, NY
USGS Helderberg Group 

 

 

 

 

 

Counting Deep Sea Sediments

Adriane here–

As paleontologists and paleoceanographers, sometimes the analyses we do involve complex equations, time-consuming geochemistry, or large amounts of computational time running models. But every now and then, we gather data using a method that is simple and fast. Today, I want to talk about one such method that I use quite often in my research. These data are called biogenic counts.

In previous posts, I’ve written about the deep-sea sediments I use in my research, such as sampling the cores we drilled from the Tasman Sea, and processing these samples once they are back in the lab. Each sample, which is stored in a small vial and represents 2 cm of the core (or 10 cubic cm of material), contain pieces of hard parts of plankton and animals, as well as minerals. These minerals and biogenic pieces, then, can tell us about our oceans and the life it held millions of years ago.

Biogenic count data is just that: I dump the sediment samples onto a tray and count the number of ‘things’ that are in that sample to determine the percentage of each ‘thing’ there. ‘Things’ in the sediment fall into a couple different categories: benthic foraminifera (foraminifera that live on the bottom of the seafloor), planktic foraminifera (foraminifera that float in the upper part of the water column in the open ocean), echinoderm spines (the hard parts of things like star fish and sea urchins), foraminifera fragments (pieces of foraminifera shell that are broken), sponge spicules (the hard parts of sponges that look like spiked glass), and I also make note of any minerals that are found in the sample. In one day, I do about 10 samples, which doesn’t seem like much but adds up everyday!

Below I’ll go  over the exact steps I take when performing biogenic counts:

A) An image of one of my jarred samples. B) The microsplitter used to split samples. Notice that the sample being poured in is split between the two cups on either side.

First, I take the jarred sediment and split the sample using a micro-splitter. A micro-splitter is a tiny contraption that equally ‘splits’ the sediment into two holders. Because each sample contains tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of particles, there’s no way we could count all of that! So instead, splitting the sample down to a reasonable number of particles allows us to more accurately and quickly count the number of particles in each sample, which we can then use to get a percent of each ‘thing’ (e.g., benthic foraminifera, fragment, echinoderm piece) in each sample.

Generally, I try to split the sample until about 300 particles remain in one of the cups. This can take splitting the sample anywhere between 3-9 times, depending on how much sediment is in each sample to begin with. Once I have the ~300 particles, I then sprinkle them evenly onto a picking tray (a metal tray with a grid on it). I then count the number of each ‘thing’ on the picking tray. I keep count of each ‘thing’ using a counter, which makes the process very fast and easy!

An image of my picking tray with the sample sprinkled on it. Some of the major components, or ‘things’, in the sediment are labeled. Most of them are planktic foraminifera, which can be very small or larger. There are a few benthic foraminifera, several fragments, and only one piece of an echinoderm spine. Generally, planktic foraminifera are most common in these samples.

Once I have this information, I then put them into a spreadsheet to plot the data. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is, why we do this and gather the biogenic count data. It’s actually very useful! We can use the percentages of each ‘thing’ in the sediment to calculate the ratio of planktic to benthic foraminifera. This tells us something about dissolution, or if the bottom waters were corrosive and dissolved the fossils, as benthic foraminifera are a bit more resistant to this corrosion than planktic foraminifera. I also calculate the planktic fragmentation index, which is another ratio which also indicates dissolution (the more dissolved a foraminifera is, the easier it is to fragment).

Thus, the biogenic count data is a quick but extremely useful method to determine the percent of each ‘thing’ in a sample, which can be used to infer something about the corrosive nature of bottom waters, which in turn can tell us something about ocean circulation from millions of years ago!

 

 

 

Fossil Friday Chat

Jen & Adriane here – 

Not long ago we were invited to talk about Time Scavengers with our friends Gabe and Brittney who are staff at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology and the Western Science Center, respectively. Every Friday for the past few months Gabe and Brittney host two chats with folks about their research and educational projects! These discussions start with a brief presentation explaining science or projects or ideas to the audience as it is streamed live on Facebook. Then Brittney collects audience questions and we have a discussion at the end of the talk!

We talked about different aspects of Time Scavengers, most importantly the three foundations for which our site is built upon: Science Literacy, Science Identity, and IDEA+J (inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, and justice). We also discussed briefly what we have done so far and what we would like to accomplish in the future! If you are interested in learning more please check out our slides by clicking here or watch the full presentation as it is still available on Facebook by clicking here

It can be tricky giving a talk with two people, but we made it work! We met a few times before our presentation date with Gabe and Brittney. The first few meetings were to outline the talk and decide on what information we wanted to share and how to structure that information. Then, we began to build the slides. This is always the fun part, as we get to look through our data and pick out fun graphics and images of ourselves and our team. Lastly, we went through and decided who would present which sections of the talk. Jen did the introduction, we both talked about our backgrounds, then Jen continued to discuss the more in-depth introduction slides and overview of Time Scavengers. Adriane then talked through the Science Literacy section, Jen the Science Identity section, then Adriane presented the IDEA+J section and our future goals slide. Lastly, Jen wrapped up the talk with our acknowledgements slide. We think this worked quite well, as we both were able to split the talking time. The questions our audience members asked were excellent, and really made us stop and think! We had a ton of fun throughout the entire process, and very much appreciate the opportunity Gabe and Brittney gave us to talk about Time Scavengers and share our love of science communication!

Gabe and Brittney have decided to keep doing these chats for the foreseeable future so please follow the Western Science Center and Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology on Facebook (names are linked) to get notifications!

Giving a Talk… In Ireland!

Adriane here,

Admittedly, the title of this post is a bit misleading; I didn’t actually go to Ireland to give a talk, in the midst of a pandemic. Rather, I was invited to discuss my research, path into science, and science communication by a graduate student, Luke O’Reilly, at the University College Cork through video conferencing software.

The University College Cork Wednesday Webinar banner

Luke recently began his journey into outreach by establishing a virtual seminar series for the graduate and undergraduate students and professors in his community, as a way to come together and continue learning about topics related to marine science. Luke’s endeavors have been highly successful; not only are those in academia participating, but also members of the general public! To date, about 300 people have signed up to tune into the talks! You too can sign up for this seminar series by clicking here.

Most of the talks to date have included folks presenting their research using figures and text on slides in a ‘traditional’ talk format. But Luke indicated that he wanted to do a more free-form format, to see how that worked with his audience. We both agreed that a lighthearted, off-the-cuff talk would be fun for us both, and we hoped this format helped our audience engage more with us and participate. Neither of us had done such a presentation in this format before.

The social media advertisement Luke made for my talk. He takes the time to craft one for each of his weekly speakers!

To prepare for this talk, I didn’t spend copious amounts of time making a slide show or modifying figures. Instead, I pulled up videos, images, Google Earth, and some slides from previous talks I’ve given. This way, I was able to screen share these resources with the audience when certain topics were touched upon. Personally, this format and style was really fun, kept me on my toes, and allowed me to share a lot of information pretty quickly. Luke indicated he received positive feedback about the talk format as well from audience members!

The topics we covered ranged all over the place, which was really fun! We began by just talking about living at sea for 2 months, and what that is like. I showed the audience a drill bit I had with me, and also showed a short video explaining how we conduct drilling in the middle of the ocean. Topics also then ranged from foraminifera and their ecology, the importance of the Kuroshio Current Extension to the Japanese fishing industry, how this massive current may change under human-induced warming, and we even touched on the topic of tectonics! Audience members asked questions throughout the talk via typing them into a chat box. Luke and I paused for questions throughout the talk, which really allowed for some more in-depth discussion of topics. We also had an additional Q & A session at the end of the presentation.

The cool thing about working in science communication is that I am always learning from other people, and this experience was no different. From experimenting with this talk format, I realized that mixing things up and doing something in a different way can be hugely successful. So take chances! Be bold! You never know how successful an endeavor will be until you try.

You can watch some of the recorded UCC Marine Geology Lectures here on YouTube!

 

Advice for Nomadic Academics (or, Moving is Hard)

Jen, Adriane, and Sarah here-

Entering the academic world and starting graduate school often means moving away from your family and loved ones and starting a new adventure. Each program, position, or job often comes with an associated move. We hope to share our successes and failures navigating moves and the burdens that come with them.

Jen [Illinois > Ohio > Tennessee > Florida > Michigan]

I have had four major moves (to new states) and three minor moves (local moves). Each move presented different challenges and experiences. My first move was from my home in Illinois to Ohio University to start my MS. This was about 6 hours from my mom’s house and we simply packed her Highlander and that was it. I had found a furnished (shared) apartment so I didn’t need any furniture and was able to fit everything else into her vehicle. I did not have a car of my own at this time and she drove home the following day after helping me unload the vehicle. 

I did another move within Athens on my own to an unfurnished (shared) apartment. I took a few trips to bring a futon mattress but didn’t really have any other furniture items. A hiccup – probably an issue with most college towns – is that lease signing happens so early! So I had about a 1 month gap between leases and it just so happened I would be at field camp. So I moved all of my apartment into the lab for storage (thanks, Hannah and Alycia!) and then when I returned I moved into my new apartment. At this stage, I was borrowing my mom’s highlander and did the move(s) on my own. I had a small foldable dolly that I had gotten for ~20 bucks at Ace Hardware. Both of these moves were very inexpensive since I had essentially no furniture. I slept on a futon mattress on the floor of my second Athens apartment.

My move to Knoxville, Tennessee took more planning and was more costly. I was able to fill the Highlander (thanks mom!) with most of my belongings from Athens but I had obtained a futon mattress and a few extras like lamps and storage containers. Not everything fit into the Highlander, but Jeb (my partner) was willing to drive down separately with me and was able to fit the rest into his sedan. After we got situated in Knoxville, Jeb went back to Athens and I drove up to Chicago to get some furniture from my mom’s house since I now had an apartment but no furniture. My mom and I rented a cargo van from Enterprise and I drove the van and she drove the Highlander back down to Tennessee. We had the van for about a week so I could also buy a bed and bed frame (woo adult life) and then Nancy (mom) drove it back to Chicago. This totalled ~$700 for gas and van rental for the week. There are certainly cheaper ways to do this but this is what worked out for us at the time. After two years in the apartment, Jeb and I decided to move into a house in Knoxville. We found this house on Craigslist and for the in-town move, his mom drove up with their truck and helped us move everything.

Myself, our two cats, and Jeb on the way up to Michigan from Florida.

The next move was to Gainesville, Florida where I got a postdoc at the Florida Museum of Natural History. I also was accepted to participate in a month-long workshop just before the postdoc was set to begin. So Jeb and I moved a trailer full of our stuff to Gainesville when he dropped me off at the workshop (a ~8.5 hour drive but ~10 in with the trailer). Our Subaru’s battery died on the way down, which was a difficult adventure (thank you nice Georgia man). We then stayed around looking at some local apartments. I eventually got an email from a current grad student there with an available house for very cheap – rented out by old staff and faculty of UF. The house was about 10 miles outside of town (a bit of a hike on my bike) but we couldn’t beat the rental price. The day my workshop was ending, Jeb drove down another trailer and our cats to the house. He had to pack it on his own and it was difficult. He arrived ~2:30 am and we had to start unpacking because we needed an empty trailer to pick up our stored belongings the following morning. This can be summed up by Jeb saying: ‘watch out there’s a bag of knives in the back’. The 6×12 trailers were ~$50 for a few days so we did that for two trips. We used Uhaul for both the trailers and storage – when you rent from them you can get a month of free storage!!! Take advantage of this program!!

Now that I had made it all the way south, it was time to head back to the midwest. We moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan from Gainesville at the end of August 2019. This time we rented a 20 foot U Haul truck with a trailer to pull the Subaru. We got the U Haul 3 days in advance to pack it best we could – yes this was more money but we desperately needed the time to get everything situated. We drove 14 hours the first day with two cats in the cab of the truck and spent the night at a Super 8 that we had selected for the giant parking lot… that was full when we arrived at 11:30 pm. The hotel was a complete crap hole and we slept and got up and drove another 7 hours to Ann Arbor. This one I budgeted out and recorded all of the expenses. Here is the breakdown: U Haul = $1110.56; Gas = $229.85; Food = $14.82; Hotel = $55.05 for a total of $1520.28. We obviously didn’t eat a lot and were very exhausted when we got up to Ann Arbor. Most recently, we did a more local move from Ann Arbor to Chelsea, about 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor. This was unfortunately during the stay at home order. We were able to rent an in town U Haul for about 24 hours. For whatever reason we went with the 10 foot truck, which required three roundtrips and several in our Subaru as well. We did all the packing and unpacking on our own, washed our hands a lot and did our best to be socially distant during the move. The truck cost $136.61 and gas was ~$16 for a total of $152.61. 

Other things to consider: deposits, some companies require first and last month rent, changing electrical can have a processing fee, setting up internet services has a fee, cleaning supplies, don’t forget a new shower curtain (we did multiple times).

Sarah [North Carolina > Alabama > Tennessee > Florida]

Moving regularly can really have a big impact on you, especially since it’s easy to feel isolated in academia and it’s expensive (especially on a graduate student budget!). Jen covered a lot of the details I would have, with moving truck logistics and costs, so I’ll try and focus on other aspects of moving to consider! 

With each of my major moves to new states, I did so as cheaply as possible, since I was a graduate student/recently graduated graduate student for all of them. I did so by moving in a cargo van or the smallest possible moving truck. This was made easier by not taking a lot of furniture with me when I moved. I went to thrift stores the week I moved to town and purchased things like tables, chairs, bookshelves, etc for cheap and sold them what I could or donated them when I moved again. Usually, I could afford to get all the furniture I needed for under $100-$150, which was way easier and cheaper than it’d be to rent a bigger truck to haul it hours away. 

The major concern when I move is my pets- if you didn’t know, I have a LOT of pets. My partner and I have fostered for a few different animal shelters and we have quite a few of our own and some fosters that ended up just staying with us permanently. So moving can quickly become a hassle, so I’ll give you a breakdown of the things you might need to think about! I’ve never flown with my pet (I have too many and I have pets that most airlines don’t generally allow on board), so I can’t give you advice on that! I always drive with mine! Here’s a picture of all of my critters that I’ve moved with!

Sarah’s pets, from top left to bottom right: Here are my guinea pigs, Iris, Annie, and Cassie (Iris and Cassie were permanent fosters through the Knoxville Guinea Pig Rescue), my dogs Piper and Boon, and bunnies Leo and Josie. Missing from this image are my many other foster bunnies, guinea pigs, and even a gerbil!

Do you have pets that could be not allowed in a rental agreement? I have a pitbull- mix, which can often be discriminated against in rental houses and apartment complexes. While I don’t agree with these policies, I can’t do much to change them. When moving to Tampa, I spent a lot of time trying to find apartments that did not discriminate and I did eventually find a good one. We contacted a real estate office that helped with apartment rentals and they gave us a list of apartments that didn’t have restrictions. A lot of apartments will also discriminate against “exotic pets” (i.e., anything outside of a cat or dog). 

My best advice in this situation is to call and talk to them before you move in. I called a number of apartments and talked to them about my bunnies (I have two-Leo and Josie, 8.5 year old siblings). Most of the apartments were willing to waive that restriction when I explained that my bunnies were litter trained. I was also able to get the pitbull restriction waived when I was in town and made appointments to meet the apartment managers. Piper won them over in a minute with her endless affection!

Do you have more pets than a rental agreement usually allows? This can be a tough one! Again, if you feel comfortable, just call your apartment. I called in advance and explained that while we had two dogs, we also had two small bunnies and a guinea pig, all of whom were litter trained or lived in a hutch and wouldn’t have access to the rest of the apartment. My new apartment said that was fine, while others said no (so I didn’t rent from them).

Do you have money for pet deposits and monthly pet fees? Many places charge pet deposits that can be hundreds of dollars and monthly additions to rent. Make sure you can afford those charges before the move.

Look for vets BEFORE you move! If you can, make sure to find a vet that you think you’ll like before you move. This is *especially important* if you have a pet that isn’t a cat or dog, since not all vets are required to treat critters like bunnies, guinea pigs. This is so important because you never know when an emergency will happen! One of my bunnies had an emergency medical situation when we first moved here, and I had luckily already scoped out an emergency vet that could see bunnies. Call the vet office before hand to make sure they’re accredited (i.e., the AAHA- the American Animal Hospital Association) and to make sure they have someone who can provide help with your pets’ specific conditions, if they have any. It can be really scary not to have a vet identified in an emergency!  Tip: does your local university have a vet school? They may have a clinic you can use!

Have at least a month of supplies stored, just in case. This is super important because critters don’t always tolerate change well! Make sure to have enough food, litter, and other needed supplies so that you can keep their lives a bit steadier while you move to a new place. Sometimes, you may need to take a few days to figure out where to get supplies in your new town (or, like in my case, 2017 Hurricane Irma came just a few weeks after we moved to Florida and we needed to have a bit extra on hand!)

Make sure to be extra patient with your pet. Moving is tough and it’s a lot harder when you don’t know what’s going on. Make sure to praise your pet, give them extra attention and treats. Consider giving them a new, special toy to distract them. Be patient if they forget their manners and use the bathroom inside- sometimes, stress can make your pets react weirdly. With my dogs, we had to move them to a separate room when we were loading the truck so they didn’t see it, which kept them calmer. If you know your pet is nervous, ask your vet if there’s a good medication option to help them get through the car ride.

Adriane [Virginia > Ohio > Virginia >Massachusetts > New York]

Jen and Sarah have already given you great advice above related to pets and moving fees, so I’ll keep this brief and provide some additional advice. First of all, I hate moving. My family moved a lot when I was younger, and as a consequence I feel like I don’t really have a ‘family home’ when I think back to my childhood. So when I move, the feelings of anxiety and unsteady home life come flooding back. Here, I’ll give you some insight into how I deal with moving. 

When I moved to Massachusetts, it was just my husband and I. We had rented a U-Haul truck with a car trailer. My husband drove the truck towing his car, and I drove our Jeep with our two cats crated in the back. We did the drive from Virginia to Massachusetts in one day; it took 14 hours and it was HELL. We were all tired, but luckily our hotel in MA was nice. I had researched hotels near our new apartment extensively, as I knew we needed one with a large parking lot, a free breakfast (that’s always my requirement for a hotel; if I’m paying to stay with you, feed me), and of course they had to be pet friendly. We stayed at a Howard Johnson with two queen beds, which I hoped the cats slept on their own bed. No, they slept with us (ok, it *was* super cute). The next day, we drove to our new apartment and moved in. We had trouble moving in our couch (our apartment was on the third floor, with a narrow stairwell), but lucky for us a neighbor helped (we became and still are to this day good friends). 

Spice, my Maine Coon cat, in her crate during the move. Her face captures all of our feelings about moving.

I really came to love our Massachusetts apartment, which really became our community and home. Therefore, when I got the postdoc offer from Binghamton University in New York, my excitement soon turned to anxiety when I realized this would require another move. However, in my offer package, the university would cover moving costs up to $3,000. I took full advantage of this. I hired a moving company for our moving day, and we were able to move 3.5 hours away from Amherst, MA to Binghamton, NY in one day. Whew! The cost came to a bit over $2,900 but under $3,000. If I can help it, I will never move again without hiring movers. Just be aware, with moving reimbursements from universities, especially public universities, the state may require an invoice or bill of lading. I did not realize this when I moved, my moving company has been unresponsive when I try to get in touch with them, and therefore I’m still waiting for my moving reimbursement from New York state today.  

As mentioned, I become super stressed when I move. Here’s some things I did before our move to NY from MA that helped with the stress:

  1. I tried to pack a box or two every day for a month before we moved. This allowed me to organize stuff and carefully pack all my valuable things (read: fossils). 
  2. I carefully labeled boxes with their contents, and grouped boxes with similar contents together. This way, when we moved, the movers kept together all the kitchen stuff, office boxes, etc. It made unpacking easier as well. 
  3. I Googled Binghamton (where we were moving to) and made a mental list of things I wanted to try, do, and places to visit when we got there. I find that if I have something positive and fun to look forward to, this reduces my anxiety greatly. I also feel more comfortable visiting or moving to a place the more I know about it beforehand. 
  4. I visited my favorite shops and stores in Amherst, and brought those foods, wine, and beer with us to our new home. It was nice to have these things with us in New York, as they were small comforts and gave us, oddly, a sense of peace.
  5. I talked about my anxieties about my moving anxieties with my husband, and cried a lot. I have a thing where I stop talking about things that bother me, which will just increases my anxiety about an issue and causes me to cut myself off from those around me. It’s super unhealthy, I know, but I made a conscious effort to reach out and share my fears with my partner about moving. This helped my mood immensely, although it didn’t totally dissipate the anxiety. If you are like me, I would also strongly suggest visiting a therapist to share and work through anxieties about moving (I probably should have). 

How to Train Your Postdoc

Adriane here-

In this post, I want to talk a bit about the excellent transition I had from a PhD candidate to a Postdoctoral Fellow. There are far too many horror stories of postdocs not being comfortable in their position, with their advisor, or at their university. Here, I’ll outline some of the things that my mentor and the faculty at Binghamton University have done that are stellar. I hope this post will serve as a short guide for postdoctoral advisors.

My office door leading into my lab. My office is in the back through another door.

First, some background. I met my current postdoc mentor while I was a PhD student at UMass Amherst. She was doing her postdoc there, and we overlapped by a year. She was then hired at Binghamton as a professor. Binghamton University, which is part of the SUNY (State University of New York) system, is located in the Southern Tier of New York, and is home to a large majority of first generation undergraduate students (students whose parents did not pursue higher education). Recently, Binghamton implemented a new postdoctoral fellowship program to retain and hire more women and folks from marginalized backgrounds into faculty positions, called the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship (PDPF).

When the applications for 2019’s PDPF were open, my now-mentor contacted me to see if I would be interested in applying. She and I overlap in several research areas, and not only that, Binghamton has been without a paleontologist on campus for over 20 years! So it made sense that I apply: I could collaborate with my mentor, but I would also fill a much-needed research and teaching gap at the university. There were several applicants that applied for the position through the Geology department, but mine was the one chosen to be put into the final pool of applicants from many departments on campus. I was one of 82 applicants at the university level, and was awarded one of the two coveted PDPF positions.

My office, where I finished writing the large majority of my dissertation and where I live part-time (I’m kidding, sort of). My windows overlook the campus garden, so in my opinion, I have the best office on campus!

OK enough background. Onto what you came here to really read. The PDPF is an excellent postdoc by itself, as it provides me with a stipend (living expense, it’s more money than I’ve ever made in my life), as well as an additional $13,000 per year for travel and research expenses.  The position is for 2 years, with (hopefully) the option to transition to a tenure-track professor position.  But during my postdoc, I’ll also have access to health insurance for myself  and my husband, as well as retirement options, etc. In short, the PDPF allows me the money to succeed and pursue the research that I’m interested in. That alone is stellar!

But the way the faculty and entire department have treated me has been even better. When I arrived at Binghamton a full 4 months before my position began (so my spouse could find work sooner), they already had an office and lab set aside for me (and my name was already on the door)! Having my own space allowed me the room to really dig into and finish my dissertation, and now that I’m officially a postdoc, I have the space set up to have students work with me.

As soon as I arrived at Binghamton, I was made to feel like one of the faculty (remember, I was still a graduate student still when I arrived, still working on my dissertation). I was invited to and attended faculty meetings, which have really allowed me to grasp onto the inner workings of the department and university. During one meeting, our department head asked me what my opinion was on a matter of importance. It was strange, being the only woman in a room full of men, being asked what my opinion was and being listened to. But it was AMAZING! Being valued as a contributing member of the faculty has really helped me feel at ease and valued here.

From the start of my postdoc, I have also been given advice by the faculty on how to succeed and become competitive for a tenure-track position. Part of the PDPF is that the postdocs are trained to be competitive for tenture-track professor jobs, and will hopefully be hired into the SUNY system. My department head has given me a ton of advice already, and we have talked several times about ways in which I can stay on as a professor after my postdoc position ends. Tenure-track jobs are competitive, especially in STEM fields, but knowing that the faculty here are rooting for my position to turn permanent and coaching me along the way has been amazing. Especially since I am no longer considered a student, I feel hesitant about the future and unsure of what I should do, so having this tutelage and mentoring from my peers is incredible.

Brachiopod fossils from the fossil collections stored in my lab. All of the specimens have detailed location information and labels, which will make digitally cataloging them later much easier!

One thing I can’t help but mention is that Binghamton also has a very well-kept secret: they have a superb fossil collection that is not cataloged. And guess where this collection is? That’s right; IN MY LAB! When I arrived, I was told the eight wooden cabinets that lined one wall of my lab contained old specimens, and they were planning to be donated. One weekend, I looked through every drawer, and realized how amazing the collections were! Brachiopods, trilobites, eurypterids, mollusks, microfossils, they were all there and untouched for likely decades. I asked if I could keep them, and our department head said ‘Sure!’. So I’m also now a curator of the Binghamton University Fossil Collection (it’s not an official research museum collection yet, but I plan to get it to that point one day with the help of students).

My mentor is also especially amazing. She has been nothing but supportive since I arrived, and I hear from her at least once a week that she’s so glad I’m here. She has also included me on research meetings with her PhD student, and will add me as a coauthor on their publications (I have expertise on their project and have given input). Likewise, I will include her and her PhD student on my projects. We are in total agreement that science should be collaborative, and we will help our students succeed in whatever way we can.

These are just the major examples of how I’ve been included into the Binghamton University campus community. But I can’t help but think how STEM fields would be different if all postdocs, and graduate students, were treated the way I have been. Would we have higher retention of marginalized folks? Would more students pursue STEM degrees if the pay was more competitive and they had access to health insurance? What if all universities created postdoctoral fellowship programs like Binghamton? If they did, within a few years how many more women and people from marginalized groups would be in professor positions? Imagine.

My hope is that more postdoctoral fellowships like mine are adopted by other universities in the near future, and that a more sound and secure structure is created for graduate students as well.

Links to learn more about Binghamton’s program & other similar programs:

Plankton Photo Shoot Part III: Creating Plates

Adriane here-

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

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

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

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

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

A screenshot of Adobe Illustrator with my blank plate template.

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

Screenshot of the template with numbers added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Benefits of Community College: Personal Stories and Examples

Adriane, Rose, Shaina, and Jen here-

Here in the United States, community colleges are two-year institutions that cater to students in or just out of high school and people who are returning to college for a degree. In some areas, local high schools partner with community colleges for students to participate in special technical classes to expand their skill sets. This can include mechanical courses, film and editing, and much more. In short, community colleges are higher-education institutions that can provide workforce training and which offer several classes that are considered ‘core courses’ at four-year institutes and universities. Core classes include such topics as history, math, art, and science, with electives and options within each of these topics. Students who attend community colleges often transfer to a four-year university to complete their undergraduate degree, which takes another 2+ years depending on their degree. In some states, community colleges have agreements with universities that allow students a guaranteed transfer if the student meets certain requirements. 

Community college provides a fantastic option for students who finish high school and don’t quite know what their career path will be, for working folks who need flexibility in choosing courses and schedules, and for others in the community who might just want to take a course or two on something they are interested or passionate about. The very attractive aspect of community college is that class sizes are often smaller, the professors and teachers have more time to dedicate to students, several classes are available as online courses, and the on-campus classes may have several different times to fit the schedules of working students and adults. And bonus, similar to large four-year universities, many community colleges offer athletic and recreational teams for you to join! 

Regardless of all the pros to community colleges, there is still a perceived stigma surrounding them. 

The purpose of this post is to share some of our experiences with community college to break down the stigmas and negative perceptions surrounding community colleges by highlighting our own experiences in community college. We argue that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the structured training, guidance, and mentorship we received at our respective community colleges. 

TL;DR: Benefits of Attending a Community College

  • Attain a higher GPA after high school
  • Increase knowledge in certain subjects that were not taught sufficiently by a high school
  • Increase self-esteem in an academic setting
  • Build a support network of professors, teachers, and other students
  • Flexible schedule
  • Ability to take as few or as many (with limits) courses as you feel necessary
  • Opportunity to explore different career paths and options through diverse course offerings
  • Determine if a career is right for you
  • Affordable compared to a 4-year institution
  • Local students can live at home and save money on living expenses that would be incurred at a 4-year university
  • Take courses while simultaneously attending a 4-year university and have those credits transfer
  • Federal and state grants often cover the full cost of tuition (in and out of state)
  • Most professors also teach at a 4-year university or have in the past, and can offer advice to students pursuing a BS/BA degree and higher
  • Some professors may have worked in industry or in a non-academic position, and can offer advice to students pursuing these career paths
  • Some states offer a guaranteed admission program from community college to 4-year universities 
  • Some community colleges have exchange programs, offering students international experiences 
  • Because so many adults go back to school, the range of ages and life experiences in a classroom is very enriching and diverse

Adriane 

I started in community college the fall after I graduated from high school. I knew after graduating that my grades were not competitive enough for a 4-year college, and that I would likely do terrible on the GRE exams. My high school education was also not the best. I didn’t learn algebra as well I should have, and I was often bullied and had low self-esteem, which fed into doing poorly in my high school classes. I would often skip high school to go to the movies with my friend, or went riding my horse by myself (both were likely bad ideas). So attending my local community college was the best option for me. In addition, I also did not know what I wanted to do for a career. I thought that perhaps I wanted to be an artist (graphic art and design), or go into the medical field (even though medical stuff grosses me out), or even be a machinist like my dad (which would have been a really fun career, to be honest). 

Around the time I graduated high school, my mom was going through a divorce and was raising my little sister. I got a job in a retail store, and helped my mom with my sister, getting her on and off the bus everyday, and I was also able to help pay bills and help with groceries. Attending community college was great because I was able to work, help out around my home, and still take courses. My local community college, called J Sargeant Reynolds in Richmond, Virginia, had very flexible class schedules which worked great with my work and home schedule.

It was also at J Sarge that I found the career that I am currently in. I had to take science electives, so I took Geology. I figured I always loved rocks and fossils, so why not? During the first semester, our instructor took us to a local creek, where we collected fossils from ~15 million years ago! I was totally hooked. So I took another geology course, and it was during this course that I knew I wanted to become a geologist. Community colleges in Virginia have a guaranteed acceptance program with several state 4-year universities: if your GPA is high enough after graduating with an associate’s degree from a community college, you are guaranteed admission into a 4-year university. My grades were above a 3.5 at the time I graduated, so I was automatically accepted into James Madison University. Most of my credits transferred, so I was able to finish my geology bachelor’s degree in 3 years. 

Rose

I started at Green River Community College after graduating high school. I was primarily homeschooled through high school, but took a few electives at my local public high school (choir, Shakespeare, a cooking class). One of these classes was an education class. I loved kids but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a classroom teacher, so my teacher at the high school suggested I start at the community college first. Our local CC has a well-respected education program, so if I did decide to go on to get a teaching degree I shouldn’t have any problems transferring and would be well-prepared. If I decided I didn’t want to pursue a teaching degree, I would have an associate’s degree in education, which would allow me to work as a paraeducator. Other advantages of this option were that I could live at home and save money. Because tuition was lower here than other colleges, I was also able to get Pell grants and state need grants that covered my full tuition.

I loved my classes because there were always a variety of people in them. There were students like me straight out of high school, high schoolers in the Running Start program, people coming back to school after many years to finish college or find a new career, and folks from the community who were just interested and taking the class for fun. My CC also had a large and well-known international exchange program. Students from many East Asian and European countries came for a year to study abroad in the US. For example, my chemistry lab partner one quarter was from China and my class partner was from Belgium! My lab partner in geology was Dutch, and while he didn’t go on to get a degree in geology we both decided it was our favorite class ever and still keep in touch via social media today.

Shaina

I started attending Manchester Community College the fall after graduating from high school. Growing up I knew I wanted to be an astronomer, but unfortunately my high school had very few options for math and science courses and most of the ones they did have were taught by sports coaches and not particularly beneficial so I ended up taking the excellent history and social science classes offered instead. This, combined with my prevalence for skipping school, meant that I was not prepared to apply to a four year institution after graduating, especially in the field I wanted to study. 

I ended up signing up for community college almost on a whim and was instantly thrilled with the options for classes I could take— I was able to take astronomy, could finally start learning math for real, and even had a wide variety of fun and useful classes like photography, women’s health, and even Philosophy of Lord of the Rings! I made a ton of friends, got straight A’s, and built the foundation for transitioning to a four year school. When the time came to apply to schools during my second year I had a great support network of professors who wrote me letters and helped me get into the astrophysics program I had dreamed of. I never could have done it without my experience at MCC to help set me on the right path.

Jen

Unlike Rose and Adriane, I didn’t start out at a community college. I went to a 4-year university straight from high school, I grew up in an area with a lot of state universities and picked one close to home. My high school had close ties with our local community college, the College of DuPage (COD). I had friends that would take classes there when they had moved passed what my high school offered or to get more technical training. There was a program where students could be at our high school for half the day and the other half would be spent at COD in a special program. 

I attended community college through a summer course – calculus. I was trying to stay ahead of my studies, to remain on track to graduate on time but couldn’t afford (time and money) to go to a summer class at my 4-year institution while working. The class was something wild like 3 hours every day starting at 7 am. The class size was incredibly intimate, maybe 25 students in the room for a month long course. At my 4-year institution all general courses were over 100 students during the lectures. The smaller course setting enabled me to meet new people, feel comfortable asking questions, and really foster a strong relationship with my peers and the material. I struggled with precalculus my first year of undergraduate — when I excelled at it in high school. This was incredibly frustrating and really made me feel like I would fail calculus. Community college helped me realize where I learn best — small settings where I feel comfortable. 

Not long ago, my mom returned to college by starting a program at COD. She had been a stay at home mom for almost 20 years and needed to get back into the workforce. She took courses over several years to become a medical biller and coder. 

If you are interested in going back to school, taking courses, or beginning at a community college, click the link below to find a community college near you in the continental U.S.: Community College Finder