Charlotte Hohman’s GSA Connects Experience

Charlotte holding conference name tag for GSA

This year, I attended my first National Geological Society of America meeting, now called GSA Connects. It ran several days from October 10th — 13th, and over 3,000 people attended, representing many different subsets of geology and related fields. There was a virtual option, but I attended the in-person conference hosted in Portland, Oregon, at the Oregon Convention Center. There were talks, posters, and a plethora of booths from different schools and organizations, along with many different networking opportunities provided by the Geological Society itself.

My poster was accepted and assigned to the advances in paleontology session on Wednesday the 13th, but I did attend the whole duration of the conference. Although I am a Montana State University undergraduate student, the research I presented was in association with the Western Science Center (WSC) in Hemet, California. The WSC had a booth at the conference, which I helped out at. They were speaking on their broader impacts initiative, where they give researchers the ability to do outreach about their own research by having an exhibit at the WSC.

I was also attending the conference as a student ambassador for the Paleontological Society. I worked at the society’s booth during the conference, speaking with professionals and students about the journals, scholarships, and conference opportunities available through society memberships. At the booth, I was able to speak to Paleo Society mentors and other student ambassadors about my plans and struggles within the field and was able to get feedback and suggestions on how to continue to successfully move forward within the field.

Charlotte preparing a Lake Elsinore specimen

As I mentioned, there were also professional resources provided by the Geological Society— one of the resources that I took advantage of was the CV and resume reviews. I am a junior in college at the moment and am starting to look at summer internships. Many applications require a CV, so I brought mine in for a review. I got some very helpful feedback on how to improve the formatting, have worked on it some more, and am quite happy with how it’s been turning out.

Many schools also had booths at the conference. I plan on going to grad school, so being able to speak to school representatives and current students was extremely helpful. I am still working out if I want to do a master’s or apply straight to Ph.D. programs after finishing my bachelor’s, so seeing what is available and having those conversations makes me feel like I’ll be able to make a more informed choice.

I was also able to attend talks related to the research I’m doing at Montana State University, which focuses on dromaeosaurid dinosaurs. Due to the pandemic, in-person conferences and museum visits were largely put on hold, and I was not able to meet with other people working on the same family of animals. The conference finally provided that opportunity, and I was able to discuss my research in detail and receive constructive feedback. The feedback I received allowed me to ask questions about my own project that I otherwise may not have thought of and has given me many ideas on how to evaluate and strengthen my claims.

Charlotte doing a livestream about her poster before the session begins.

As I stated earlier, however, the work I was presenting at the conference was not my university research, but rather the work I’ve done in association with the Western Science Center. The focus of my presentation was the disappearance of megafaunal animals in Southern California during the end Pleistocene (Ice Age) extinctions with a focus on horses. Horses disappeared from California at or near the end of the Pleistocene, along with most other large mammals— but the order of disappearance of the large mammals in the Southern California region isn’t well documented. Lake Elsinore is a naturally occurring lake in Riverside County, California. During the 2017-2019 excavations of a housing development in Lake Elsinore, numerous fossils were exposed by mitigation company VCS Environmental. These finds included large mammals, small animals, invertebrates, and wood. The site dates to around 14,600 — 14,800 years before present. The fossils are consistent with other Late Pleistocene fossil assemblages from Southern California, with the large mammal bones belonging to camels, bison, and mastodons— but no horses! This is extremely odd— Its absence is likely not due to habitat preference, as horse fossils are found in abundance across many different Southern California sites, from the Mojave desert to the famous La Brea Tar Pits. Its absence from Lake Elsinore is likely not due to a sampling bias because of the number of well-preserved fossils recovered from the site. My co-author Dr. Alton Dooley and I suggest that the absence of horses could be perhaps attributed to the start of their disappearance happening before the extinction of mastodons and camels and the disappearance of bison from Southern California.

Charlotte doing photogrammetry to build a 3D model of a Lake Elsinore specimen

I was grateful for all the people that stopped by and listened, and I had multiple constructive conversations with other scientists. I was able to speak to other paleontologists, several geologists, and even a geoarchaeologist. These conversations allowed me to discuss multiple aspects of the site, which I found incredibly helpful.

This was by far the largest conference I had ever been to, and although all the people and interactions could be a bit overwhelming at times, I learned so much about possible paths in the field, made good connections, and am excited to continue working on my research both at the university, the museum, and in the future in general.

Charlotte Hohman, Paleontology Undergraduate and Student Researcher

Charlotte Hohman in the lab making a list of important features on a dromaeosaurid upper jaw (maxilla) bone for her research.

My name is Charlotte Hohman, and I’m a 3rd-year undergraduate at Montana State University.  I am majoring in earth sciences, with a concentration in the field of paleontology. There are  many different aspects of the field that one can be involved in, including but not limited to  research, fossil preparation, education, outreach, fieldwork, digital reconstruction, and art. I  love many different aspects of the field and am using my student years to gather experience in  those aspects and learn from a variety of mentors to prepare me for a career in the field. 

Charlotte Hohman in the lab with a museum curator comparing a broken hip bone of an unidentified hoofed animal to that of Camelops

I first became aware of paleontology as a scientific field in 2018 when I began volunteering at  the Western Science Center (WSC). In California, you need 40 hours of community service to  graduate high school, and I knew the museum was taking volunteers, so I signed up. I started  as a docent the summer before my senior year. In September 2018, the director had me  identify some Ice Age rodent fossils. He asked me to find a way to categorize the fossils, and I  ended up coming up with a categorization method meant to make predictions about the  ancient environment of the site during the Ice Age. The director thought the method looked  interesting and asked me if I wanted to present at a conference. I presented my preliminary  results my senior year of high school at the 2019 Geological Society of America Cordilleran  meeting, where I realized that I definitely wanted to pursue paleontology professionally.  

Since then, I have continued to do research. I conduct student research at Montana State (and  its affiliated museum Museum of the Rockies (MOR)) and the Western science center. I have  co-authored two publications: one on the Pacific mastodon’s (Mammut pacificus) geographic  range (McDonald et al., 2020), and one on the prehistoric horses of the Cajon Valley Formation  of Southern California (Stoneburg et al., 2021). My three in-progress manuscripts focus on how  dromaeosaurids (raptors) grew into adults, horses in southwestern North America during the  Ice Age, and my continued work on the aforementioned rodents! 

Figure 1: the upper jaw of a Pacific mastodon (Mammut pacificus) from eastern Montana. This jaw tells us that this species of mastodon lived further east than we previously thought. From McDonald et al., 2020.
Figure 2: Teeth from horses that lived in Southern California around 18.0–12.7 million years ago. From Stoneburg et al., 2021.

But as I mentioned, paleontology is so much more than research, and I am involved in multiple  other aspects of the field as well. I have been able to go on digs in New Mexico in Cretaceous  rocks (79 million years old), and in Southern California in Miocene rocks (15 million years old). I  prepare fossils at both the MOR and WSC, and have been fortunate enough to clean the fossils  of whales, sauropods, bison, and more!  

Charlotte Hohman in the lab taking photos of a fossil in a plaster jacket on a cart to build a 3D photogrammetric model.

At the WSC, I make casts, molds, storage cradles, and create 3D models of fossils. All these  lab skills are important for the sharing of research— open-access digital models allow  researchers from around the globe to view your specimens. Casts and 3D prints are great for  outreach and education. I believe that sharing the science is equally as important as doing it,  which is why I am also active in scicomm, or science communication. Science communication  can be online, like on social media, or in-person, like at outreach events. For the WSC, I am the  illustrator of their children’s book series on scientific papers for kids. I run my own educational  account on Instagram, along with managing social media for other paleontology-focused  organizations. Many people have a natural interest in prehistoric animals, so I use science  communication about prehistoric life as a way to draw people in and introduce them to many  different concepts within earth science and biology. 

I plan on doing a Ph.D. when I am done with my bachelor’s and would like to work in a  museum setting one day, to be able to continue to do research, while continuing to share and  teach others about earth history.  

Charlotte Hohman at an outreach event talking to a couple with lots of ice age fossils laying out on a table in front of her
Charlotte Hohman at an outreach event talking to a couple with lots of ice age fossils laying out on a table in front of her


Charlotte Hohman stands in front of badlands dressed for fieldwork, including hat and backpack
Charlotte Hohman stands in front of badlands dressed for fieldwork, including hat and backpack


Charlotte Hohman sits using a mallet and chisel on rock surrounding bone at a field site in the desert
Charlotte Hohman sits using a mallet and chisel on rock surrounding bone at a field site in the desert


Charlotte Hohman uses an air scribe on the rock surrounding ribs of a fossil bison skeleton to free the ribs
Charlotte Hohman uses an air scribe on the rock surrounding ribs of a fossil bison skeleton to free the ribs


Charlotte Hohman stands on a bench inside a museum helping paint a mural of a Cretaceous forest with two other people
Charlotte Hohman stands on a bench inside a museum helping paint a mural of a Cretaceous forest with two other people


Stoneburg, B. E., McDonald, A. T., Dooley Jr, A. C., Scott, E., & Hohman, C. J. (2021). New  remains of middle Miocene equids from the Cajon Valley Formation, San Bernardino National  Forest, San Bernardino County, California, USA. PaleoBios, 38. 

McDonald, A. T., Atwater, A. L., Dooley Jr, A. C., & Hohman, C. J. (2020). The easternmost  occurrence of Mammut pacificus (Proboscidea: Mammutidae), based on a partial skull from  eastern Montana, USA. PeerJ, 8, e10030.