I study changes in past climate using fossils, focusing on climate 500-450 million years ago during an event called the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (or GOBE). The GOBE represents one of the largest and longest diversification events (where a huge number of new species evolved) in earth history. Many scientists, including myself, are trying to understand the role of climate on the GOBE. Leading into the GOBE, the earth was very warm, warmer than we would expect for animal life. During the peak of the GOBE, the oceans appear to have cooled to temperatures slightly warmer than what we see today.
For my research, I use microfossils known as conodonts. Conodonts are extinct animals that are similar to hagfish or lampreys. We usually don’t find the whole conodont animal, but rather their “teeth” are left behind. We use these “teeth” (known as conodont elements) as a proxy for understanding climate. This is because conodont elements preserve the changes in different oxygen elements (known as isotopes) within the ocean. The ratio between these oxygen isotopes (16O and 18O) can be measured and a temperature can be calculated. While some scientists will collect rocks that contain conodont elements themselves, I receive conodont elements from paleontologists who have done previous research using conodont elements.
So, why do scientists like myself study past climates? By studying climates in the distant past, we can better understand how our climate is changing now. Scientists who create climate models use past climate data to better their models and studying periods of time when the earth was vastly different than our own allows climate modelers to test the limits of their models.
Outside of research, I am a teaching assistant for the University of Missouri geology field camp. Many geology programs require a field course where the students spend some amount of time learning how to recognize different rocks within the field and how to place them onto a map. The University of Missouri takes students to the Wind River Basin near Lander, Wyoming to learn these skills, as well as a fantastic trip to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I was a student at this field camp myself back in 2016 and have been a teaching assistant there for the past two field seasons. The geology in this region is absolutely stunning and makes a wonderful field area for our students to learn stratigraphy and mapping. Geology gave me the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Spain and Portugal, as well).
One of my favorite things about being a scientist is having the opportunity to share what I do with a variety of people. I participate in many outreach events and tell the general public about paleontology. Many students are not exposed to geology or paleontology in school, but these outreach events allow students (and their families) to learn about the earth. While I was never exposed to outreach events such as the ones I participate in now, I was fortunate enough to take earth science courses during high school, as well as an introductory geology course at my local community college. Looking back, however, I was always interested in the processes that governed the earth, from rocks to meteorology to biology.
There is no one true path to entering a science field. Many of us started out wanting to enter different field (I myself originally wanted to go into film). Community college is a great place to start your journey, particularly if you are unsure what field you want to major in. If you are in college, take a variety of courses. If you find a science course that you enjoy, don’t be afraid to take similar classes. Find a field that you enjoy doing and pursue it.
On being non-binary in science
Recently, I came out as non-binary. I do not identify as male or female, but somewhere between the two. While there are a growing number of scientists who identify as LGBTQIA+, finding other scientists in your field can be quite difficult. However, there is a growing effort for science organizations to provide opportunities for LGBTQIA+ people and many organizations are adjusting their policies to protect against gender identity discrimination. This is a huge step forward, as some states and cities do not provide such protections. Some scholarships and awards that I had previously applied for or considered applying for are women-specific, as women are, generally, poorly represented in science. However, some of the organizations I have talked to are willing to open their applications for non-binary/agender/genderfluid people, as they are also poorly represented in science.
As a grad student, my peers are generally accepting of my gender identity. My professors (and most importantly, my advisor) have accepted my gender identity and have made every effort to adjust their language regarding my pronouns (they/them). The occasional slip up does happen (even by me!) and I do my best to correct people.My biggest worry is how my gender identity will affect my future career. Will the hiring committee be accepting or will they look the other way because I do not conform to their ideas of gender? As I continue my journey, my hope is to find more scientists like myself at different points in their careers and learn how they have overcome the obstacles they have faced.
What do you do?
As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida I am in the process of undergoing the absorption of the necessary geologic common knowledge about Earth processes to become a geologist. In addition, I’m also learning the approaches and disciplines necessary to perform scientific observations and investigations that are required to do research and field work for my future endeavors in geology.
What is your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.?
I haven’t yet been afforded the opportunity to plan my own research or collect my own data. I have, however, taken a deep interest into volcanology, geochemistry, and petrology while assisting a graduate student and a research volcanologist with their investigations of the evolution of magma bodies. This has allowed me to use their geochemical analysis data retrieved from rock samples. During this time, I have applied calculus and statistics to the geochemical analysis data to form a geochemical model that describe the degree of crystallization that would result in those rock formations. The data sets for these rock samples were collected via electron microscopy.
How does your research contribute to climate change, our understanding of evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?
The research I have assisted with could help in both economical and societal benefits by helping understand how and where mineral deposits may form. In addition, it helps describe the geologic history (via rock formation) of an area or region which is of benefit to all.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My favorite part about being a scientist is the opportunity that it provides to get out and question the how and why of things in the natural world. There are so many stories to be told about time (both deep and recent) that haven’t been told yet. Being a scientist offers the opportunity to contribute to both the scientific and non-scientific community by offering the possibility to help spread more understanding of the Earth’s natural processes. In my opinion, this is part of what helps keep alive the awe-inspiring wonder and “magic” about the Earth.
What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
Even though I am 36 I would still be considered a “young” scientist myself in the sense that I am new to the field of geology. However, I can give the advice that if you have the desire to seek out to become a geologist, or any discipline for that matter, don’t hesitate to go for it. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance from your peers and fellows. The amount of support and guidance I have been given so far in my journey by professors and fellow students has helped guide and inspire me. In my experience, most individuals in the wide umbrella of geoscience are more than willing to help if they are capable.
What are your experiences with returning to school at a later age and what were the driving forces behind this decision?
My reasons for returning to school were quite simple. I made some foolish life choices as young student graduating high school and ultimately lacked direction in my life for many years. After spending more than a decade in the landscaping industry I couldn’t escape the feeling of being wholly unsatisfied with my career. I finally reached a point where I was not excited about what my career path was. Three years ago, I set out to seek a new direction. I asked myself the question, “What is the thing that I enjoy doing the most in life?” and followed that question with another; “Is it possible to find a career that would place you directly in that activity or surroundings. My answers were, without a doubt, that I felt most at home while being out in the natural world as I am a hiker and backpacker who has always loved exploring the beautiful environments and monoliths you can find across the globe; and that as a geologist I could choose a focus that would provide me an opportunity to both be placed in the outdoors and to help expand knowledge and understanding of these places I loved so much. So, the choice was clear. Three years ago, I re-enrolled into community college and finished AA before transferring to USF to seek my BS in geology. The experience has extremely gratifying while also very challenging. Being a now 36-year-old adult meant that I had a many more personal responsibilities and bills than most of my fellow students. It can be a challenge to find enough time to fit in all my duties as an employee, as a son, and as friend while continuing to uphold my studies. Regardless, I always try to keep the end goal in mind and remind myself that this is all a part of the process. The greatest benefit I have received from returning to school is the gift of being able to stay focused on my goals. Since I have already experienced the oft confusing timespan of young adulthood, it is much easier for me to not get off course due to the perceived necessity of over indulgence in social gatherings in which I see many young students struggle with. I’m here to trust the process and enjoy the ride.
Follow Luke’s geology experiences by checking out his blog: click here!
I am a nerd who turned a lifetime fascination in nature documentaries and monster movies into a career as an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, where I get to study the amazing ways that animals move through different environments and then share these discoveries to students through my role as a teacher-scholar.
How did I become a scientist?
My career started off a bit rocky when I was rejected from the four-year university programs I applied to in high school. I wanted to become a wildlife biologist to maintain biodiversity and this roadblock made me question whether I was good enough to pursue what I loved. The thought of being a university professor hadn’t crossed my mind yet but I knew that I needed a college degree, so I attended community college where my chemistry professor explained how research helps solve mysteries. I loved puzzles, so I thought “why not?”. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, and was lucky to work with excellent professors who helped me conduct research and inspired me to study how the environment affects animal movements. I did temporarily work as a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during this time, but research made me realize that I could study the maintenance of biodiversity through the lens of evolution and ecology. With my mentors’ support, I completed a Ph.D. at Clemson University and earned post-doctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Royal Veterinary College. In 2017, I started a tenure-track position at California State University, Long Beach.
What do I study?
My research combines biology, engineering, and mathematics to reconstruct animal movement by piecing together how muscles and bones produce motion. I deconstruct how living animals move so I can build computer models that reverse-engineer the ancient movements of extinct animals. One of my goals is to figure out how vertebrates (animals with backbones) went from living in water for hundreds of millions of years as fishes to moving onto land as tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). I enjoy studying animals that challenge the norm, such as ‘walking’ fishes, because they open our eyes to the amazing diversity on Earth and help us learn from those who are different from us. Here’s to nature’s misfits!
What would I have told younger me?
I would encourage anyone interested in science to explore diverse experiences and treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, whether it be about yourself or the world around you. We often treat obstacles in our lives as affirmation that we are not good enough, but it is not the obstacles that define us but the way in which we respond to those obstacles. These struggles can push us to grow stronger or approach questions with new and creative perspectives. There are many equally important ways to be a scientist and there is no single pathway to becoming a scientist, so enjoy your adventure!
Howdy! Today I want to share with you some of my journey to get to where I am in grad school. I am currently finishing up a master’s degree in geology, but I didn’t always plan on going to grad school, or even going into science.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, some of my favorite books were the ones on earthquakes and volcanoes, which were both very real geologic hazards in the area I lived. Someone gave me a book on identifying rocks and minerals and I started a rock collection with rocks I found down by the river or in my parent’s driveway. My grandpa loved rocks and geology and taught me how to identify various rocks and minerals and even pan for gold with sand and gravel he brought back from the Mojave desert in California.
However, by the time I got to high school I was struggling with algebra and higher level science classes and didn’t think I had what it takes to be a scientist. There were no high school level geology classes offered at that time and I didn’t even know that “geologist” was an actual job title. I discovered that I was really passionate about education and helping folks with special needs so I decided to go into special education.
After high school, I started at nearby Green River Community College (GRCC) so I could save money by still living at home. In the spring of my second year I had to take a science elective and ended up in Geology 101. I could write a whole post on how important geology classes at community colleges are, but I’ll save that for next time. This class quickly became my favorite class from my time at GRCC. The professor focused on how geology can be useful in our daily lives by framing each unit in terms of local geologic hazards to consider when buying a house or how to know what geologic processes have occurred when looking at a landscape. This made geology seem very interesting and relevant.
Now that I knew what geology was all about and what geologists do, I started seriously considering a career as a geologist. I loved the idea of studying the earth and the processes that formed it and are still shaping the landscape today. I especially loved learning about different hazards that affect people’s lives in different places in the world and how geologists can help prepare for and mitigate after disasters. The accelerated pace of college classes seemed to be what I needed to finally figure out higher level math, and I was actually enjoying my algebra and chemistry classes. I started paying attention to geology stories in the news and was in my professor’s office almost every day to talk about a recent earthquake or a cool rock I had found, etc. I decided to pursue a BS degree in geology after finishing at community college and looked into quite a few undergrad programs from Alaska to Ohio. I settled on Central Washington University, about an hour and a half from my childhood home, but on the other side of the Cascade Mountains so I got to experience a totally different type of climate and landscape. In the CWU geology department, every class that could had at least one field trip, and often more. There were good examples of almost every type of geologic process within a couple of hours of our university. I loved every class I took there and it seemed like every day was constantly reaffirming that this was where I was supposed to be. Even the informally dubbed “weed-out classes” I loved, which I was assured was the whole point: if you loved even the classes with 4 hour labs and 25+ hours of work outside of class time, slogging through all kinds of geology problems, then you were in the right spot.
When I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree and pondering what was next, I thought that I wanted to go to grad school, but not just yet. I had been in college for 5 years at that point and felt like I needed a little break. But then I attended a national Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver, BC during the fall of my senior year. This is one of the biggest conferences for geologists every year, and there were scientists from all over the US and the world and from every branch of geology. I saw so many cool projects and was so inspired by all the interesting geology that I decided I wanted to be a part of that as soon as possible. When I got back I did some research and started sending e-mails to professors I was interested in working with. I didn’t get a single response to my first round of e-mails and was kind of discouraged. But I still really wanted to get in on some cool geology research so I sent out a second round of e-mails to completely different professors and heard back from all of them within a couple days! I was so excited to begin this journey and immediately started the application process, took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and waited eagerly for acceptance letters. I got in to two of the four schools I ended up applying to. I had a choice between living in Tennessee or Alabama, but decided I wanted to be closer to the Great Smoky Mountains (a dream destination since my childhood) so I went with Tennessee.
I moved to Knoxville and started my master’s in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was prepared for an adventure, but even this one didn’t go the way I thought it would. My first project didn’t quite pan out the way I thought and I ended up switching projects and advisors toward the end of my first semester. This is way more common than you hear about…I have several other friends who switched advisors or projects as well. Sometimes it’s a personality or advising style issue, or sometimes the project itself is just not a good fit. The thing I had to keep reminding myself during this time was that it wasn’t a failure to change projects and not do what I thought I was going to, it just meant it wasn’t a good fit for me.
So I was on to my new project: contributing to a geologic map of a local area on Mars. Before starting this project, I didn’t know scientists even had the data to do geology on Mars! I was a little disappointed to not be doing field geology on Earth, but I thought this was a great opportunity to learn something new and expand my skills in geology and mapping. I discovered in undergrad that I loved mapping and structural geology (faults and earthquakes and how rocks move and deform). This project combined both by allowing me to map structural features on Mars and try to figure out a little about how they formed and contributed to the landscape in my study area. Throughout my time on this project I have come to appreciate the
I’ve been on this project for two and a half years now and I’m nearly done and thus began pondering again: what’s next? I applied to lots of jobs in geology or related fields and got only one phone interview. This is fairly common, but it’s still difficult not knowing what’s next. Then over Christmas break I remembered that in undergrad I had considered someday being a librarian. I am really passionate about reading and writing, about the community spaces libraries provide, about making information available and accessible to all. I had sort of pushed this idea to the side while pursuing my master’s in geology, as a “someday dream”. Now that I was almost done with my geology studies, I decided maybe “someday” was actually “now”. I did some research, talked to friends who were librarians, and sent more e-mails to professors. I ended up applying and being accepted to the Information Sciences program at UT to start in Fall 2018. I am so excited to explore the possibilities of combining my passion for geology and information: some potential jobs include positions at state geology libraries, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) library, national labs, or as a subject librarian at academic libraries.
I wouldn’t be where I am, academically speaking, if it weren’t for a couple factors: my stubbornness, drive to succeed, love of fossils and learning, and support of my family and advisors. But here, I want to talk about how important my advisors have been and still are in my academic life.
I’m a first-generation student meaning that neither of my parents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Since grade school, I knew I would attend college, as my mom never said ‘If you go to college…‘; rather, our conversations regarding my education began with ‘When you go to college…‘. As I grew older, I knew college/university wasn’t the only career path for me, but to attain my goals and dreams, I knew I would need to one day go to graduate school. But first, I had to get through high school and an undergraduate program.
I had a hard time in high school, as I was constantly bullied for being the shy, quiet nerd. I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and every chance I got, I skipped class to go ride our horses. Predictably, my grades suffered. By the time graduation rolled around, I knew I didn’t have the GPA to get into college; in addition, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I began taking classes at my local community college, and long story short, I fell in love with geology as soon as I took my first class. By the time I graduated magna cum laude from community college, I was accepted into James Madison University in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
At first, I felt out of place, as everyone in the Geology department at JMU knew one another and had formed friendships. I felt like an outsider, a feeling that was amplified by being a first-generation student and a transfer student. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one: other students in my program also came from community colleges! Still, my confidence in my ability to conduct science and be a great student were low. University classes were a different type of beast compared to community college courses, and the pressure was on.
As I moved through my geology program and took more classes, my confidence started to build. As a student in the Geology department, I was required to do undergraduate research. I was both excited and nervous about this, but knew it was going to be a challenge that would make me a better candidate for graduate school. By the second year into my degree, I had taken a paleoclimate and paleontology class. I absolutely loved both, and wanted to do a research project that included fossils and revealing something about our Earth’s oceans. The opportunity arose when one of the department’s professors, Dr. Kristen St. John, sent out an email with an opportunity to construct a foraminiferal biostratigraphy from deep sea sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. I leapt at the opportunity! I still remember the day I approached Kristen to tell her I was interested in conducting research with her. I think my face got red just talking to her, and I had to convince myself for a good 10 minutes that I should talk with her before I actually did.
I did start doing research with Kristen, and it went extremely well! I loved learning all the different species of foraminifera, and would spend hours at the microscope. I remember one day, Kristen came into the lab and told me I was working and researching like a Master’s student. I was over the moon excited to hear this, because it gave me hope that I would, and could, succeed in graduate school! Kristen was a very encouraging advisor, meeting with me weekly to chat about research and helping me find relevant papers. She, along with our department head Dr. Steve Leslie, even took me to the United States Geological Survey in Reston, VA one day to meet with a planktic foraminifera specialist! After this, Kristen introduced me to her good friend and collaborator, Dr. Mark Leckie, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was able to go to UMass as an undergrad and work with Mark for a few days to conduct stable isotope analyses. It was an awesome experience, as I was able to network with two scientists outside of JMU. I was, and forever will be, grateful to Kristen for investing her time in me to make me a better scientist and more confident researcher.
By the third Fall I was at JMU, I attended my first big geology meeting where I presented my undergraduate research. It was here that had also set up meetings with potential graduate school advisors. I was still torn between majoring in paleoclimatology or paleontology, so I had contacted professors working in both fields. My heart was set on going to UMass to work in Mark’s lab, but at the time, his lab was full and he didn’t have funding. I was crushed, but carried on. I met with several professors at the meeting, all of whom were encouraging about pursuing an MS degree with them at their university. One of the other professors I met with at the meeting was Dr. Alycia Stigall, who was a friend of my undergrad professor Steve. I sat down with Alycia for about 20 minutes, and instantly liked her (read her ‘Meet the Scientist’ post here).
My last year in undergrad, I ended up applying to about 6 universities for graduate school. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get in, as my confidence was still lower than most students’. The day I got the email from Alycia that I was accepted in her lab and the Ohio University program as a fully-funded teaching assistant, I cried with joy! I moved to southeastern Ohio the following Fall to start my life as a Master’s student specializing in paleontology. It was here, at Ohio University, that I met Jen.
Working with Alycia and with her other graduate students was an amazing experience. At JMU, I never had confidence in my math skills, but after taking a few classes at Ohio, I was doing statistics and learning how to code. I taught my first paleontology labs, and even helped Alycia create a new class for the department. In addition, I was able to publish my first paper during my first year, and present research at an international meeting. I flourished working alongside Alycia, as I felt totally comfortable in her lab and with her. Most of the other graduate students in the lab were from divorced, low income, and/or conservative families, so we had a lot in common. I didn’t feel like an outsider, and often talked with my lab mates and Alycia about my home life.
But it wasn’t just that I was comfortable at OU, I had a mentor, an advisor, a colleague, a friend, and a role model all in one. Alycia was the role model I needed at this time in my life. My fiance and I were talking seriously about marriage and about the future, and I wasn’t sure how this would work while I was in graduate school. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to balance work and life, and moreover, even have a life outside of grad school (at this time I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD). But Alycia assured me I could have both a successful career and home life. She herself was (and still is) amazing at balancing her academic and home life. It was because of Alycia I knew I, too, could be an awesome scientist with a family.
By the time I graduated from Ohio University, my confidence was soaring. I knew I could do anything I wanted to, mostly because I had been trained to critically think, problem solve, and had a killer work ethic. That spring of graduation from OU, I had been accepted to the PhD program at UMass Amherst in Mark’s lab (remember Kristen’s friend I worked with from undergrad?). Life has a funny way of working out, as I never thought I would ever get the chance to work at UMass. But here I am!
When I first started at UMass, I was scared to death. I wasn’t as confident my first year at the university as I had been at Ohio University for a few different reasons. First, this was the first R1 university I had attended (R1’s are universities that grant MS and PhD degrees, and generally have large and intense research programs). Second, I felt like an outcast (again) with my slight southern accent, coming from a lower-income family, and being a first-generation student. Third, I had totally switched interests from invertebrate paleontology in the Ordovician (~450 million years ago) to working in the field of Neogene (~15 million years ago) paleoceaonography (although I will always consider myself a paleontologist first before a paleoceanographer). I had a lot to learn, on top of a lot of work. But I persevered, asked a LOT of questions, and continued on.
Lucky for me, Mark is just as great an advisor as Kirsten and Alycia, something I am very grateful for. When I wanted to go on a scientific ocean drilling expedition, Mark worked closely with me to craft a well-thought out application (I did get accepted, read about my experience here and see above image). He also gave me the opportunity to build and teach an upper-level geology class, an experience that most graduate students don’t get. Through teaching and researching, I have regained my confidence, and know once again that I can do anything I put my mind to.
So, there are a few words of advice I have from my university experiences for any student wondering how they’ll make it in grad school and/or with low confidence:
Find an advisor that you can trust, and that you click with. In my opinion and experience, this was the most important factor when choosing a graduate program and advisor. My close relationship with my previous and current advisors are one of the reasons I’ve succeeded as a graduate student.
Find a mentor. Advisors and mentors are not equivalent. Advisors will help you through your education, but mentors are guides who will help you navigate life. Some advisors are also mentors, while others are not. Other times, mentors come in the form of lab mates and friends. Both advisors and mentors are crucial to survival in graduate school.
Find your people. Make friends in and outside of your department. Being a student is hard, and finding friends to commiserate with and draw inspiration from are essential.
Believe in yourself. This is cheesy, and easier said than done, but change begins with you. When you start being confident in your abilities, you’ll find your confidence will increase over time. Also, reading A LOT of published literature helps here too.
When you are able to, be the mentor/advisor for younger versions of yourself. By helping students from all backgrounds and identities gain confidence in themselves and learn how to conduct research, we can all make STEM fields more accessible and welcoming to all.