Antarctica School

School participants and instructors gathering to look over cores from Antarctic

Dipa here – 

This summer a few members of the UMass Micropaleo Lab traveled to Texas for the first ever International Ocean Discovery Program-Past Antarctic Ice Sheet (IODP-PAIS) Antarctic School at Texas A&M University! This program allows scientists from all over the globe who research Antarctica to come together to study the marine sediment cores stored at the IODP Core Repository. 

During our week at the repository, our mornings were filled with lectures and real-life activities led by geoscientists who have sailed on previous drilling cruises. We learned from them what shipboard life is like, how drill cores are taken, what problems can arise while drilling in Southern Ocean around Antarctica, and how to interpret the clues within the drill cores. To explore those clues, we were divided into mini-research teams and each given a core section from a prior expedition to analyze. Each afternoon we rotated among different core analysis stations: how to make and analyze microscopic smear slides, how to describe the macroscopic features of the core section, how to gather and interpret paleomagnetic and density data on the core sediment, how to scan core sections for key trace elements and improve your paleoenvironmental interpretations using element abundance data, and how to develop a timeframe for your core section (chronostratigraphy). Putting this all together, we were able to map a pattern of ice advance and retreat over where the drill core was taken. Since the core sections we were studying came from expeditions, we were able to double-check our data and interpretations against the published results and see how successful we were–my group was able to match the chronostratigraphy of the original study! 

Gathering the density profile of our core section.

I was excited to learn so much and gain so many new friends at the Antarctic School, but my excitement was tempered by being the only woman of color in the program. I was ashamed to learn that an international program participant could not attend because they were not granted a U.S. visa in time: the American visa process is extremely biased, and as an international organization the IODP should use their agency to help all invited participants attend, regardless of their countries of origin. It is not enough to non-racist in today’s society–we must be actively anti-racist. I think international STEM research programs such as this one should hold spots specifically for students of color, students with disabilities, and other folks who are traditionally marginalized and underrepresented in STEM to attend. Programs like this are critical for early-career scientists to network with each other and the leading scientists in the field, and without holding doors open for marginalized students, how else will diversity in STEM increase? 

The X-ray fluorescence scanner used to identify trace elements in the sediment cores
Group photo of IODP/PAIS Antarctic School participants and instructors
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Dipa Desai, Paleoclimatologist & Educator

Dipa working in Colorado with the National Park Service.

What do you do?

I am a paleoclimatologist, and I study the ecological and environmental effects of climate change using the fossil record. Specifically, I research how the Ross Ice Shelf in West Antarctica responded to temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations slightly higher than what Earth will experience in the next several decades. The Ross Ice Shelf is currently the largest mass of floating ice in the world, and West Antarctica is currently melting faster than the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet–what’s going to happen when this much ice melts into the ocean? How will melting affect regional plankton communities, the base of marine food webs? When that much freshwater is added to the ocean, what happens to ocean currents and circulation? I’m interested in answering these questions and using research outcomes to improve environmental policies and climate change mitigation strategies.

I’m also an educator! I spent the last two years in the classroom teaching 5th and 6th grade STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) classes, and I informally teach when I participate in STEM outreach events and programs. I plan to use my research as a model to teach the next generation of voters and environmental stewards about their planet’s historical and future climate change, and inspire the next generations of diverse, innovative STEM professionals. As an educator, I have seen how disparities in access to educational opportunities disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants and non-native English speakers, and other traditionally oppressed and disadvantaged groups. As a member of these communities, I see a lack of representation and inclusion in STEM professions, and a gap in scientific literacy in our policymakers, so I want to use STEM education to affect greater social and political change.

What do you love about being a scientist?

I love learning about the Earth’s past–being the first person ever to see a fossil since its deposition, using clues in the fossil record to understand and imagine what the Earth looked like millions of years ago, and making connections to predict what our world will look like in the future. However, my favorite part of the job is telling other people about what I do! I can see folks light up when I mention I study fossils, and it’s cool to see how many people grew up wanting to become a paleontologist, just like me! I think most people believe paleontology doesn’t have any real-world applications but in reality, paleontology offers a unique perspective to understanding the modern environment. When I tell students, I see them get excited about science and all its possibilities: I remember when I judged the MA State Middle School Science Fair once year, a participant was amazed that you can use fossils to study climate change, and she asked what else can we study using fossils? It is exciting to share my career with youths, especially those who look like me, because their idea of what a paleontologist looks like and does changes when they meet me.

Describe your path to becoming a scientist. 

As a kid I loved dinosaurs and exploring outside, so I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist from an early age, but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get here. Growing up as a child of undocumented immigrants, our family faced housing, food, and financial insecurities, so college seemed beyond our means. However, I received the Carolina Covenant Scholarship to become the first person in my family to attend college, and I studied Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Fun Fact: Time Scavengers Collaborator Sarah Sheffield was my teaching assistant for Prehistoric Life class!). I completed a B.S. in Biology, and minors in Geological Science, Archaeology, and Chemistry.

While I was an undergraduate at a large research institution, I didn’t have a dedicated mentor or the cultural capital to know I should pursue undergraduate research as a stepping-stone to getting into graduate school. After graduation, I pursued research opportunities with the National Park Service in Colorado and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where I got the chance to conduct independent research projects, help excavate and catalog fossils, and teach local people about their community’s paleontological history. While in Panama, I became fluent in Spanish and wondered how I could use my new experiences and skills to communicate complex STEM concepts to broader audiences. I transitioned to teaching middle school for the next two years; I taught hands-on STEM classes to 5th and 6th graders in the largely immigrant community of Chelsea, Massachusetts. I enjoyed giving my students educational opportunities that will help them in the future, and the challenges my family faced in my childhood prepared me as an educator to understand how my students’ personal lives affected their learning in my classroom.

The experiences I pursued after my undergraduate career gave me the skills and clarity needed to develop and pursue a graduate research degree. I’m currently working on my Master’s/Doctoral joint degree in Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

How do you communicate science? How does your science contribute to understanding climate change?

For my graduate research, I’m studying how warmer-than-present paleoclimates affected Antarctic ice cover and the paleoecology of the surrounding ocean. Specifically, I study the Miocene Climatic Optimum, when global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were slightly higher than they are today, and close to what we expect to see at the end of the century. Studying the deep sea records of this time period reveals how microfaunal communities (i.e. foraminifera) reacted to a rapidly warming global climate, and how changes in Antarctic ice cover impacted sea level and ocean circulation; this can be applied to improve climate models and future environmental policies.

I want to bring my research to public audiences through in-person, multilingual outreach at museums, schools, and other educational institutions, and through online media to make climate science accessible and improve scientific literacy. Using multimedia, interactive, and open-access platforms to communicate science not only reaches more people, but also fits the needs of many different learning populations; this is why I believe STEM disciplines need to move away from the traditional format of communicating findings in paid science journals and articles.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Mistakes are the first steps to being awesome at something.

Try as many new experiences as possible.

Identify what skills you need to do the job you want, then identify opportunities that will give you those skills.

Find a career that you enjoy, you are good at, that helps others, and hopefully makes you some money along the way.

Volunteering at Amherst Regional Middle School

Dipa here-

This past December, I got the opportunity to share my research and interests in climate change with a group of curious middle schoolers at Amherst Regional Middle School in Amherst, Massachusetts!

Amherst Regional Middle School during a beautiful New England fall day.

The school partners with University of Massachusetts Amherst Graduate Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) organization to connect graduate researchers to middle school students through 20-minute Science SoundByte presentations. The 7th and 8th grade students get to enjoy the presentations during their lunch times and learn about a variety of STEM research. As for me, I get to practice explaining my research and sharing my interests to the next generation of researchers.

An example of a fossil ammonite that I used for my outreach with the middle schoolers.

While I was planning my presentation I knew I wanted to get these students thinking about climate change, since it is a problem that affects them too. The students talked with each other and then shared out what they knew about climate change, sea level rise, and their impacts on the environment–they knew so much! To explain how I use fossils to study climate change in the past, I gave the students marine fossils (fossil shark teeth, mollusks, ammonites, and corals) and asked them to draw the organism and its habitat. Did it live in the reef, open ocean, at the seafloor, or in the water column? If these fossils were found in the same location, what does this say about sea level over time in that place?

The students had fun getting to touch and look at fossils, and they worked together to solve how much sea level rose over time for the activity! It was great to be back in front of a class and talk to students about their interests in STEM and how we can work together to understand modern climate change.