Ron Fine, Citizen Scientist

The picture that appeared on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer in April, 2012, presenting “Godzillus” to the public with Prof. Carlton Brett (center) and Prof. David Meyer (right).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?

From my earliest memories I have always had an interest in dinosaurs and fossils. I grew up in Bellbrook, Ohio, where I spent many a day playing in the creeks in Magee Park and the Sugarcreek Reserve. Both were loaded with fossils from the famous Cincinnatian series of the Ordovician. While collecting fossils is my absolute favorite, I’ve always been fascinated by science and nature in general, with interests in biology, geology, minerals, astronomy, engineering and physics, as well as art, cooking and photography.

What do you do?

I have a degree in Landscape Architecture, but I work as a mechanical designer in the aerospace industry. Currently, I design tools that are used to build jet engines. I create the 3D models and drawings, which are used to make the tools.

While I haven’t as yet spent much time doing my own research, I’ve been blessed to help the professionals with numerous papers based on specimens I collected. I love and collect all fossils, so I’ve not concentrated on any particular group or type. I feel this has been advantageous, as it gives me more opportunities to work with the various scientists who do have areas of specialty. Lately, I’ve been working with Dr. Alycia Stigall on brachiopods. In the past I worked with Dr. Roger Cuffey on bryozoans, and Dr.’s Carlton Brett and David Meyer on Godzillus. As a member of the Dry Dredgers, the oldest fossil club in North America, I get to contribute regularly. I take meeting photos for the website, bring in specimens for others to examine, and occasionally write something for the newsletter or website. I also volunteer, and am an exhibitor, at Geofair every year, and occasionally play fossil tour guide at local parks or give presentations with my portable fossil display.

Playing fossil field guide to teacher Brian Dempsey and fifteen students from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, in Acton, MA, at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio in May, 2017.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?

I have a talent for finding rare, unusual or exceptional fossils. I bring these specimens to the attention of the professionals so that they can be properly studied, and sometimes, they are used to write a scientific paper and are deposited in a museum or university collection for future scientists to study. Godzillus has been my best effort so far. It actually became very famous! I collect everything prodigiously. The quality specimens are made available to professionals for research projects, and the rest is given to the Dry Dredgers to make the fossil kits that fund club activities, or given to school kids.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Your life will be far richer if you pursue your interests. Find others who share your passions, join a club, volunteer. You won’t regret it!

William Heimbrock, Amateur Paleontologist

Webmaster Bill Heimbrock at a Dry Dredgers meeting at the University of Cincinnati (Photo by Ron Fine).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? How did you become interested in science?

I’m an amateur paleontologist. That makes me a time traveler. I like traveling through time.

I see sequences of stratigraphic layers that represent ancient sea floors all in about the same place, but in different instances of time. Sometimes I’ll pull over at a road cut in Northern Kentucky and see the remains of animals and plants that lived 450 million years ago. And yet, I can easily picture myself in the late Ordovician Period. These animals were alive and swimming in a warm shallow sea.

As I climb the road cut, ascending through the rock layers, I am going forward in Ordovician time at a rate of thousands of years per second. I stop on a ledge. Time freezes. I see meter-length ripple marks in the bedrock that extend across the ledge as if I’m standing on a sea floor with wave action winnowing the silty bottom.  I’m astonished with the variety of fossilized animals still resting in exactly the same spot where they once lived.

The event of these creatures’ death is also recorded beneath my feet. I’m compelled to learn more. How did they die? Was it something they ate? I feel I can answer those questions using scientific methods.

Bill Heimbrock checking the strata on a popular road cut in southeastern Indiana before a Dry Dredgers field trip.

We have such power now as amateurs in many areas of science. Human beings are naturally curious. Even as a young child I conducted experiments and recorded my results. My neighbor told me that when I was young, she saw me conduct an experiment to verity the speed of sound. I stood at one end of our cul-de-sac, shouted, and ran super-fast (a technical term), stopped abruptly with unprecedented precision and listened for my shout. You can guess that I didn’t succeed in verifying the speed of sound that day, but it’s the spirit of trying that counts. I was inquisitive at an early age. I knew that science facts are verifiable and ready to be revised and improved by all of us. We are all amateur scientists!

What do you do?

Dr. Carlton Brett at the University of Cincinnati Geology Department shares his knowledge with Bill Heimbrock and other aspiring paleontologists. Collaboration between professors and members of the Dry Dredgers enhance both amateur and professional paleontology projects. Everyone benefits.

Professionally, I program large-scale computer systems. But at home I collect fossils as a hobby. This hobby has become my way to contribute to the field of Paleontology and to education.

I started out in the late 1980’s just collecting fossils for recreation in my local streams and fields. I love getting out there and listening to the birds and finding evidence of our ancient past. It’s a great pastime I highly recommend.

It wasn’t long before I wanted my efforts to be worth more than just recreation. So I joined the Dry Dredgers fossil club based at the University of Cincinnati. I met knowledgeable educators and other amateur and professional paleontologists who could use my fossils for teaching and research. They taught me a great deal, which made my daily fossil collecting much more enjoyable.

Bill Heimbrock has headed the production of the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits since 1992. These kits educate the public, provide teachers with a much needed resource and help fund the advancement of paleontology.

I was also able to give my extra fossils to the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits and benefit both the club and education. They sell bags of 12 Ordovician fossils “From the Hills of Cincinnati” at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science gift shop. The money goes into the club’s general fund which feeds paleontological research grants and projects while the kits help schools and fellow fossil enthusiasts.

I quickly became chair of the fossil kit committee. Now 27 years later, Kimberly Cox and I sell the Dry Dredgers fossil kits in park and museum gift shops around the area and donate some kits and loose fossils to teachers, schools and outreach facilitators.  Fossils used in our fossil kits are currently screened for scientific importance so that each fossil is put to the best use. Some may be deposited into a museum collection. I want collectors who give Cincinnati fossils to the Dry Dredgers to know their donation will benefit educational outreach and/or the science of paleontology.

An extra-large road cut in Maysville Kentucky exposes countless “instance in time” sea floors. Fossil sites like this are a time traveler’s dream – and an exciting reality for fossil hunters.

Another big part of my educational outreach efforts is the Dry Dredgers website, which I designed and have updated since 1998. We are fortunate to have a number of Dry Dredgers who have contributed all types of information about our late Ordovician fossils for the website. You will see me at all local Dry Dredgers field trips taking photographs of the fossils people find and helping identify the specimens. See my field trip reports here.

How does your  research and outreach contribute to the understanding of paleontology?

I’ve always hoped that in this short life I could make a dent in the advancement of mankind. We pop into this world, have just enough time to look around and figure a few things out, pass on what we’ve learned and then pop out of existence.

For the last 20+ years, I have been gathering information and fossils from dozens of fossil sites in the Cincinnati area in the hope that it will advance our body of knowledge on Earth’s ancient past. In addition to educating the public with our  Dry Dredgers website and building classroom fossil kits, my collection of Ordovician sediment and microfossils are helping professional paleontologists advance our knowledge of the evolution of nacre (mother-of-pearl) in mollusks and our understanding of the deposition of phosphate, an essential mineral for our existence.

Bill Heimbrock identifying fossils on a Dry Dredgers field trip. He takes photos and includes the identifications on his field trip reports.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Ask questions. Our society often discourages “questioning” accepted wisdom. Don’t let that stop you. Questions are how new knowledge is obtained. Be inquisitive and find out more than what others know. Discover things for yourself. Be an amateur scientist!

You can learn more about Bill Heimbrock’s amateur paleontology adventures on myfossil.org!

Cam Muskelly, Citizen Scientist and Paleontology/Geology Educator

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?

Collecting fossils from Lower Carboniferous (Upper Mississippian) rocks from Huntsville, Alabama

My favorite part about being a citizen scientist is that I get to talk to and meet different people of all ages who want to know what lies in the Earth’s rocks. There were many things that drew me into the fields of paleontology and geology. One of the main reasons was my exposure to a teacher’s fossil collections while I was in the 2nd grade. I knew what fossils were but I had never actually held one at the time. At this time, a 4th grade teacher invited me and a friend (who was also interested in fossils) to her classroom to look at her fossil collection.

She pulled out a drawer and inside were various kinds of fossils. She had fossil specimens such as trilobites, plants, shells, and even a dinosaur coprolite (fossilized feces). She gave me a crinoid stem that she found in the Fort Payne Formation of Tennessee and thus began my journey into paleontology and later geology.

What do you do?
I provide lectures and communicate with the public about paleontology and geology. I have given talks in museums, geological societies, schools, and other events about the various topics in geology. My main focus is in historical geology and deep time geology. I try to communicate with the public about how vast geological time is by using the telltale signatures in the fossils and rocks around you. I have keen interests in early Earth and the remnants of that time as well as Paleozoic and Mesozoic paleontology and geology. I also discuss things such as the fossils that have been found in the state I live in, Georgia.

How do your efforts contribute to the betterment of society in general?
Fossils and rocks are key to the Earth’s long history. In order to understand how we as a species will survive the next few million years on this planet we call home, we have to look into how life and the factors affecting life have evolved through time. As the great geologist Charles Lyell once said, “The present is key to the past.” I constantly have my head buried in scientific literature and read what others have built on and even how it has changed based on new data that has been collected by scientists across the world.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?

Fossils through geologic time table set up for Science/Technology night for Puckett’s Mill Elementary school in Dacula, Georgia

When I communicate to the the public, I always stress the understanding of deep time and the importance of that concept. The concept of deep time isn’t new. It has been known since the days of James Hutton (1726-1797). Deep time is the vast expanse of time locked inside the rock and fossil record. When we think of time we normally think in terms of minutes or seconds. Geologists talk about time in the order of thousands, millions, or even billions of years. It is hard for average person to grasp such an immense scale of time. I try to make this more understable by setting fossils in chronological order to give people a idea on how fossils and environments change through each interval of the geological time scale.

I also use the “Pen Method”. Let’s say I order a new set of ink pens from the store. I open the top of the pen and on it is a small plastic ball to protect in pen from drying out. If you take all of human existence and crunch it up, human existence would fit on the plastic ball of the tip of a new pen. That would be example on how small we are in the vast geologic history of planet Earth.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Never ever give on up on what you are passionate about. There is more than one way to become a paleontologist. Let nothing get in your way. Find opportunities around you and take advantage of them. Communicate with scientists and ask questions. Learn how to to read the secrets that are locked in the rocks. Even the smallest secrets can tell you a huge story of a lost world.

Jessica Cost, Fossil Collector and Citizen Scientist

Greetings, Time Scavengers. When I was contacted to participate in this week’s Meet the Scientist blog my immediate thought was on my lack of qualifications. I hold no PhD, no Masters, and I am not currently employed in any science field. What I do have is a lifelong appreciation for science and an obsession for collecting fossils.

A windblown selfie at one of my favorite collecting locales in the Lower Bangor Limestone.

I collect fossils mainly around northern Alabama, a region rich in Lower Carboniferous aged limestone (~350 million years ago). This started innocently enough by helping a friend gather landscaping rocks several years ago. I found a rugose horn coral that day and have never stopped looking down. I attended a paleontology group meeting out of Birmingham, Alabama for some guidance in identifying some of my early finds and through that paleontology group, I met a mentor. Studying under and hunting with that mentor is where I discovered a love for fossil echinoderms.

Echinoderms are fascinating. One of the longest-lived group of invertebrates on this planet and they are still around. That sand dollar you find on the beach or that starfish you spy in a tidal pool has a looong history! And there is still so much research to be done. Debate lingers on the exact origins of the crinoid (my personal echinoderm favorite.) Research on starfish and brittle stars is underrepresented and there are so many undescribed species.

Amateurs like me depend on that research, in the form of scholarly articles to help us identify our fossils as much as the paleontologists depend on us amateurs to provide them with viable specimens to study. I have donated to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in the past and one day will donate my whole collection at large. I just haven’t finished the collection yet. Fossil collecting is like playing Pokemon, but with genera of crinoids.

I suppose the main point of my ramblings thus far is to challenge you guys to find your passion, find a mentor along the way to teach you, and take that passion even further than I have. I look forward to reading your future articles!

To follow Jess Cost’s collecting adventures on her Instagram account, click here!

Jack W. Kallmeyer, President, Cincinnati Dry Dredgers

Jack at the 75th Anniversary Meeting of the Dry Dredgers.
It has been my pleasure to be President of the Dry Dredgers since 1988. This group of amateur paleontologists in existence since April of 1942 just recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. Personally, I am a retired mechanical engineer but am now enjoying my work as an avocational paleontologist.

Part of what I do now is volunteer work at the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Geier Collections and Research Center. There I work in the Invertebrate Paleontological Collections as one of a number of assistants to the curator doing curating, cataloging, organizing and identifying specimens in the research collections. Working in the collections is educational and exciting but I also do my own research in paleontology.

My interests in paleontology have always been varied but one theme consistent throughout has been my desire to know more about a fossil than what the scientific name happens to be. A number of my projects, all based upon self-collected specimens, have ended up in publications in various journals of paleontology. My most recent published work concerned my discovery of a new species of crinoid (sea lily) in the Cincinnatian: Deepwater occurrence of a new Glyptocrinus (Crinoidea, Camerata) from the Late Ordovician of southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky: revision of crinoid paleocommunity composition, Kallmeyer and Ausich, 2015, doi: 10.1017/jpa.2015.72.

Jack in search of Hebertella.

Although I have specialized in the fossil crinoids from this area for a long time, they are not my only interest. I am currently working with two professional paleontologists and another member of the Dry Dredgers at a site that preserves abundant Stromatoporoids (a kind of sponge with a hard skeleton during life). Just as I had done with my interest in crinoids, I had to learn about these creatures by reading and studying the available professional literature and by talking to professional paleontologists who study these animals. This particular group of animals has been problematic for years in that no one knew of any modern equivalents for comparison. Recently a modern group of sponges called sclerosponges has finally provided some basis for comparison. Although not the same as stromatoporoids, they are similar enough to help us understand the ancient forms.

My fascination with stromatoporoids in general is that they are poorly known. My particular study concerns those within a restricted range in a geologic formation known locally as the Elkhorn. The preservation of the stromatoporoids at this site is unique within the Upper Ordovician in this area in that they are silicified (preserved with silica replacing the original skeletal material) rather than the more common preservation in calcite. The preservation has also retained much of the original internal structure that is used to identify these animals to a specific species. Most stromatoporoids in the Upper Ordovician are preserved in calcite and the internal structures have been recrystallized into an amorphous featureless mass. Mamelons (rounded cone shaped protrusions) on the surface of the stromatoporoids in the study layer are almost completely worn flat. In the living animal, mamelons were the structures supporting flow of water and waste products out of the sponge.

An example stromatoporoid called Lebechia. The white scale bar on the left represents 10 mm and the black scale bar on the right represents 5 mm.

Study of this site and the stromatoporoids preserved there will ultimately reveal the environment in which they lived. The exposure is alternating shales/mudstones and limestone type layers that will tell us about the original water depth and water chemistry. The fossils we are studying have their bases on a siltstone layer. This layer is capped by a tan shale layer about 150mm thick that is itself capped by a dark gray 30mm thick shale. The tan shales represent influx of muds and clays from areas far to the east originating from storm surges. The dark gray material represents muds high in organic content.

Initial examination by professional paleontologist Carl Stock (University of Alabama) indicates that the stromatoporoids in these strata represent two different species and perhaps two different genera in the Family Labechiidae. Further study is required to answer many questions: what was the source for the silica that allowed silicification of the stromatoporoids; does the silicic preservation give clues to the original composition of the stromatoporoids (calcite or aragonite); what caused the nutrient rich dark gray layer to form; what set of conditions caused the erosion of the mamelons on the exterior of the stromatoporoids in this layer?

The discovery and publication of information or fauna that is new to science is one of my favorite parts of doing research. There is always a great sense of accomplishment when the field work and detective work of literature research comes together to answer some unresolved question. My advice to anyone interested in the earth sciences is to follow the path that drives your passion for learning. By doing this, regardless of your field, you will do your best work and derive the greatest sense of accomplishment.