I first became interested in science without ever realising that it was science the interested me. My parents used to show my brother and I nature documentaries on TV, and I found the natural world fascinating. I wanted to find out more about it and began reading everything I could. I thought dinosaurs were fantastic from an early age (I still have a full collection of the Dinosaur! Magazine series in my parents’ loft, including all the trading cards) and this developed into a broader interest in palaeontology through membership to Rockwatch. The thing I love most about being a scientist is the detective work. The act of discovery – finding things out that noone has seen or realised before, gathering evidence and coming to your conclusions, constructing a story to tell others about what you’ve found – is very exciting.
My research is varied, ranging from the description of species of ancient sea scorpions and horseshoe crabs to studying patterns of extinction across different habitats during biotic crises. At its core, my work seeks to understand what drives the evolution of new animal forms and how animals evolve to successfully invade new environments, such as moving into freshwater from the oceans or when arthropods first moved on to land. This work explores the fundamental mechanisms by which evolution operates and can tell us how past species have adapted to environmental changes. Understanding how organisms have adapted to new environments in the past can help us interpret how organisms today are likely to respond to our current climate change.
Most of my work focuses on fossil arthropods, particularly eurypterids (sea scorpions) and xiphosurids (horseshoe crabs), aquatic relatives of arachnids (spiders, ticks, scorpions, etc.). My data comes directly from the fossils, and so I have built almost all my datasets completely from scratch. I gather most of it from museum collections – there are so many fossils that have never been described, and many eurypterid species have not been looked at since their original description over a hundred years ago. Museum collections are an invaluable scientific resource and critical to the continued success of all natural sciences. I also communicate science regularly with two of my colleagues, Amanda Falk and Curtis Congreve, on our podcast Palaeo After Dark. The podcast is more of an informal reading group discussion, and stemmed from our desire to keep talking to each other regularly about science as we moved off to do different jobs in different parts of the country. We only have a couple of goals; show that scientists are people with interests beyond science, and to not talk about our own research. We tend to be a bit too technical for general audiences, but I know people that have our discussions on while they are stuck working alone in the lab for company, and it’s nice to know that we can provide that sort of support for people.
For anyone who wants to be a scientist (and believe me, anyone can be a scientist), my main advice is to stay curious. If you can, read about things that interest you. The more you read, the more you will find that interests you.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist is going into the lab, doing an experiment, and discovering something that nobody else knows. My uncle was in grad school when I was a kid. He studied fracture mechanics in metals, or crackology, as I like to call it. I visited his lab and he showed me his million-dollar microscope. He was getting a Ph.D. so I decided I would, too. I wasn’t interested in engineering. I liked watching nature shows on PBS and biology in school. In high school, I learned about DNA replication. DNA has directionality and can only be replicated in one direction but there are two strands held together in the opposite direction. When you separate the DNA there isn’t enough space to copy the other strand. The cell solves this problem by making short sections of DNA of the strand that is facing the opposite direction and then gluing them together. These are called Okazaki fragments and I thought that was cool. Also, in that class, my teacher showed us statistics on how many people get undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. degrees and all the different careers you could do with those degrees. So at 16, I decided to get a Ph.D. and do research in biochemistry. I searched for schools that had strong undergraduate research in a real biochemistry program. I didn’t want chemistry and biology class, but a dedicated program. Once I did start a biochemistry project, I decided that wasn’t for me. Biochemistry involves reducing reactions to their bare minimums, but life isn’t like that. So, I traded the cold room and purified proteins for genetics. I like asking the questions and having the cells tell me the answers.
In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
I investigate why genetically diverse individuals respond differently to the same stress, usually a chemical. Every chemical is a poison in the right dose but also can be a medicine. Water is essential for life is also toxic in high doses. Drowning is a leading cause of premature death. The stress response is a complex reaction. The first thing that happens is that cell growth is arrested. It’s like if your house is on fire. Once you see the fire, you don’t finish washing the dishes and then find the fire extinguisher. There are common responses to stress and then there are specific ones. To find out how the cell’s response to a specific stress, we exploit genetic variation within a species. I compare cells that can successfully deal with the stress to ones that can’t and determine what are the underlying differences that govern that. Depending on the stress we sequence genomes, measure the changes in gene expression or proteins. We work on yeast because in general people don’t appreciate being poisoned and don’t reproduce as fast as in the lab. Yeast have a generation every 90 minutes. Yeast are fungi and are more related to us than to bacteria. They have important applications in baking, brewing, and biotechnology. Yeast share many biochemical pathways with us and so by studying them, we can then extrapolate that to humans. In my lab we are working on glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical, and copper nanoparticles, a novel antimicrobial material.
What are your data and how do you obtain them?
I am an experimental geneticist. We have tens of thousands of different yeast strains in the lab. Most of these yeast come from other labs. The yeast community is generous, and these are all freely shared. To understand how RoundUp resistance occurs in nature, we also collect yeast from different environments. We have several sites with different RoundUp exposures. We started with a reclaimed strip coal mine, a state park, and the university organic farm. We have taken the public and students from local public schools to collect samples from these areas. We bring the samples to the lab and teach them how to coax the yeast out and then purify their DNA so we can sequence them. We thought that the mine would have the highest frequency of RoundUp resistant yeast because they spray that area every year with RoundUp. The park has been a state park since the 1930s and RoundUp was invented in the 1970s. RoundUp is a synthetic herbicide and not included in the list of herbicides and pesticides permitted on organic foods. We were completely shocked when we found that the organic farm had the highest number of RoundUp yeast and the mine had the fewest. There could be several explanations. One is that the yeast weren’t specifically resistant to RoundUp but whatever genetic changes that had been selected togave it a selective advantage in that environment also conferred resistance. When we further investigated the histories of these sites we came up with another idea. The organic farm wasn’t always an organic farm. Two decades ago it was a conventional farm and from that previous exposure, the yeast became resistant and never lost it. The state park routinely uses RoundUp to combat invasive plants. There is also a power line that spans the canyon and they use helicopters to spray RoundUp so that trees don’t grow into the power line. The mine is used as a study site to find genes that are important for trees to grow on poor soil so that biofuels can be made. They started that study the year before I started collecting yeast so only a year of exposure was not enough to select for resistance. So now we have an even better study. We can go back every year to the mine and collect yeast. We can track RoundUp resistance as it happens.
How does your research contribute to the betterment of society in general?
We are exposed to and consume chemicals every day. Differences in how we respond to those chemicals in part depend on small differences in our genome. We use these genetic differences to find out how cells are metabolizing chemicals successfully and survive or unsuccessfully and die. When the human genome was sequenced, we thought that all its secrets would be unlocked. While tremendous advances in biomedical research could only have been done with this information, there is so much that we don’t know how to read. It’s like finally getting the keys to the entire library but all the books are written in a language that you taught yourself and they’re words that you don’t know how to translate. Based on a sequenced genome, we are not yet able to predict a person’s medical conditions or how a person will respond to drugs. The chemicals that we study are important agricultural and industrial chemicals. With the overuse of herbicides, we are now facing RoundUp resistant weeds. We don’t know how to combat this because we only partially understand how weeds become resistant. The active ingredient in RoundUp inhibits a biochemical pathway that plants, bacteria, and yeast have but humans do not. Therefore, it has been challenging to study possible effects of RoundUp exposure in humans. All known acute poisonings have been from the inactive ingredients and not the glyphosate. However, chronic exposure is time-consuming and complicated to study. We are using yeast to determine if there are other biochemical targets of RoundUp in yeast that humans may have. These studies can’t be done in plants because RoundUp exposure is lethal and prevents the synthesis of nutrients but yeast can be supplemented with the nutrients that RoundUp suppresses. Other chemicals like MCHM have limited toxicological information. Several years ago, a massive chemical spill contaminated the water supply in West Virginia. It caused headaches, nausea, and rashes and nobody knew why. MCHM changes how proteins fold and doesn’t have a specific target like RoundUp. By using this chemical we are studying how changes in protein folding regulate metal and amino acid levels in the cells. Fungal infections are difficult to treat because they are immune to antibiotics. Antibiotics work because they exploit fundamental differences in the metabolism of bacteria from humans. Yeast are more closely related to humans so there are fewer druggable targets. Copper is an effective antifungal material, but it is expensive, and metal has several drawbacks. By incorporating copper into cellulose-based nanoparticles, cheap, moldable, and biodegradable materials can reduce food spoilage and infections from medical devices.
What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
Be prepared to fail. Failure is an opportunity to learn. In the example of the RoundUp resistance, the results were the opposite of what we thought. We can’t change the results, but we did further investigation and found an even more interesting story. I think of this as lost keys. My keys are always in the last place that I look. Why? Because I stop looking when I find them. If you think you know the answer, you stop searching. There is so much to discover and so many connections of which we are not aware. By challenging how you think about something you can overcome your assumptions and chip away at the unknown.
Head to Jen’s faculty page to learn more about her and her research by clicking here.
I always enjoyed the outdoors, growing up outside a small town in upstate New York. Camping trips with my family took me to many national parks and the wonders of the Western US. In 8th grade I had a great Earth Science course, which I loved, but I somehow did not connect it as a career path. I went off the Middlebury College in Vermont to enjoy the mountains and skiing, but majored in Math because it was easy for me. By Senior year I decided to take a Geology course as an elective (because I liked mountains) and by the second week I was hooked! It was initially the idea of working outdoors in wild and scenic places that attracted me, but I soon learned there were wonderful scientific problems aplenty. It was 1968 (yes, I am of that generation!) and the concept of Plate Tectonics was just emerging. Luckily, I had a wonderful professor teaching the year sequence of Physical and Historical Geology and he brought into class the latest scientific discoveries and made the course exciting and provocative. He also encouraged me to go to Grad School with my one year of Geology, but lots of Math, Physics, and Chemistry, and the rest is history!
What do you do?
I have been a University professor for 45 years, the last 5 as Emeritus. Being a professor at a major research university means you do many things, all at the same time! I taught courses in Geophysics at the undergrad and grad level, as well as other courses needed by my department including Oceanography, Field Methods, Field Mapping, Physical Geology, and Tectonophysics. I mentored students at all levels, both those in my classes and those working in my lab. I ran a research program including Masters and PhD students where we worked together both in the field and in my paleomagnetism laboratory. And, as is common in academia, I did a considerable amount of service for my department, my university, and my profession.
What is your research?
I study the Earth’s magnetic field as it is recorded in earth materials- the field of paleomagnetism. When rocks form – igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic –they are able to retain a record of the current magnetic field within magnetic minerals (magnetite and hematite primarily) in the rock. Samples can be collected from these rocks millions of years later and the original field measured for both direction and magnitude.
Field aspects of my research involve collecting oriented samples from in situ outcrops and locations. Currently I work mostly with hard rocks, both young volcanic flows and ancient metamorphic rocks. I drill samples from these units using an adapted chain saw with a 1 inch diamond bit, water-cooled to preserve the diamonds. Usually 8-10 cores are drilled at each site (lava flow or outcrop) and all are oriented in place with a sun compass. This produces many samples; my current project in southern Patagonia involves 120 separate lava flows, and over 1000 cores! Paleomagnetic studies also can be done on sedimentary rocks, also drilled in the field, and on lake and ocean cores, where samples are collected from the sediment once the cores are split open.
Laboratory measurements are performed on a cryogenic magnetometer in my Paleomagnetism Laboratory here at UMass. It only takes a few minutes to measure the magnetization in a single sample, but a number of tests for stability and reproducibility are required before the data can be interpreted. Samples are demagnetized in a step-wise fashion using either high temperatures (up to 700°C) or alternating magnetic fields. We often measure other magnetic properties of the samples, including magnetic susceptibility (measured both in the field and on lab samples) and hysteresis properties. Microscopic work or SEM studies help us to identify the carriers of the magnetization.
Current Projects. I am working at both ends of Earth history as current projects include a major study of paleomagnetic directions from young (< 10 myrs) lava flows from southern South America. These rocks are being used to investigate how the Earth ’s magnetic field varies in the Southern Hemisphere over the last 10 million years. Other projects are looking at very old rocks in northern Canada where I study the variations in magnetization in a piece of ancient lower crust, now exposed at the surface, and studies of 900 million year old intrusive rocks in southern Norway that are helping us reconstruct the Earth at a time when all the continents were together in a supercontinent called Rodinia.
How does your research contribute to climate change and evolution?
Paleomagnetism is able to contribute to studies of climate change, evolution, and the history of the Earth by providing additional methods to both correlate sequences and unconnected outcrops, and by providing additional information on geologic age. The geomagnetic time scale of normal and reversed polarities is well established, and using this magnetostratigraphy enables us to date sedimentary sequences, and to identify similar sequences in other locations. Measuring the paleomagnetism of deep-sea cores is so well established that the large drilling ships have on-board magnetic laboratories. Although I am not doing this kind of magnetic work at present, many other labs are, providing important constraints on the timing and correlation of climatic proxies and many parts of the fossil record.
What is your advice for aspiring scientists?
Persevere! Find that special part of geoscience that intrigues you and work hard to be the best you can at it. Take all the various opportunities that are available to you, and see where you go! There will be ups and downs, but as a career the Geosciences provide many positive and productive possibilities. With over 50 years of activity in the Geosciences, I can easily say I have never lost my joy of working with and on the Earth and the many interesting problems and challenges it provides. You, alone, may not solve all the problems facing our planet, but you will greatly contribute to our knowledge of the Earth – its evolution, its history, and its constantly changing environment. And, along the way, you will interact with a number of other awesome scientists, get to see much of the world, and provide a rewarding and enjoyable career for yourself.
What is your favorite aspect about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
What I love most about being a scientist is being able to follow my curiosity. It’s a privilege to be able work on things that I’m genuinely excited about. I’ve always been interested in the world around me. This probably was first sparked by outdoor trips (camping, hiking, etc.) that my dad took me on when on I was a kid. Specifically, I got interested in geology because my childhood best friend’s dad is a geologist. He took us on trips to collect rocks and minerals; I liked it and my friend was let’s say less enthusiastic about it.
As a scientist, what do you do?
I study the history of environmental change on our planet in order to determine what was behind this change and its consequences. I mainly do this by looking at the chemistry of the sediments and rocks that were deposited/formed during these time intervals. The chemistry of these materials allows us to reconstruct chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere in the long-distance past.
What data do you use in your research?
Much of my research involves working with geochemical data obtained from sediments, fossils and sedimentary rocks. Specifically, in our laboratory at Virginia Tech, we have instruments that can measure the amount and the isotopes of (atoms with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons) carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. However, my students and I don’t just stick to the laboratory — we frequently go into the field to collect samples. In fact, this summer we will be out in Nevada and Alaska collecting samples and data in the field.
It is also important to point out that much of the work I do involves collaborating with colleagues with a variety of specialties: paleontologists, sedimentologists and mineralogists to name a few. Combining all these different types of data allows us to make more integrated and robust scientific interpretations.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
Studying past events informs us about how our planet responds to past changes in the climate and environment. In other words, understanding these past events helps us understand how the Earth may change in the future. Many of the events my lab group studies involve times of rapid or serve climatic and environmental change and mass extinction events.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be wrong. One of my mentors in graduate school says that 99 percent, if not all, of your scientific interpretations are going to be wrong. This isn’t an excuse to be ignorant, but all you can do is to come up with the best explanation with what you have.
My favorite part of being a scientist is the systematic approach we employ to answer questions. Yeah, we can use a variety of techniques to get at our answers, but the process of collecting and interpreting the data must follow the same basic rules! I’d also add, that I am particularly fond of being a geoscientist because of the combination of lab and field work (the best of both worlds)!
What do you do?
I could be classified as a Paleontologist, Geochemist, and/or Paleoclimatologist. Which I choose to call myself depends on who I am talking to (obviously, I go for Paleontologist when talking to young kids for the instant cool-points)! The reason for the multitude of possible names is that I apply a variety of techniques to answer questions about the climate. In particular, my research focuses on the timing and nature of climatic changes in Earth’s history and their relationship to how carbon is stored and distributed on the Earth (e.g. in the atmosphere as CO2 or stored in rocks as fossil fuels).
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
I use fossils and their geochemical signals to understand the climate in the geologic past. The fossils I work with most are conodont elements (small tooth-like structures that make up the feeding apparatus of a marine eel-like organism). These fossils are composed of the mineral apatite which acts as a good record for the geochemistry of the water in which the conodont animal lived. From these tooth-like structures, I measure the oxygen isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 18O relative to 16O). The oxygen isotopic ratio is dependent (in part) on the temperature of the water. By documenting changes in the oxygen isotopic ratio through time, I can infer changes in water temperature through time.
I also work with carbon isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 13C to 12C) in marine limestones. These values can be used to reconstruct the distribution of carbon on the Earth’s surface. By looking at changes in the carbon isotopic value through time, I can infer changes in the global carbon cycle and therefore atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change or to the betterment of society in general?
In addition to my scientific research I also teach undergraduate students at SUNY Potsdam. I always make sure my research informs how and what I teach. This is especially true for the Climate Change course I teach. That course focuses on how scientists know what they know and what types of evidence informs our understanding about climate. My hope for students completing that course is that they will come out of it with the knowledge and background to understand climate change.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Make sure you do what you love. Your job should be fun. That doesn’t mean every aspect of it will be a blast, many of the things I do can be tedious, but there is something very satisfying about setting out to solve a problem, collecting the data, and interpreting the data. For students interested in pursuing graduate education, the most important advice I can give is to make sure you can work with your advisor. I had a great advisor and it made graduate school a great experience.
Learn more about Page and her research on her website!
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!
I am a field-based structural geologist and I have been in love with geology for as long as I can remember. If you like a good “whodunit” then geology is an endless delight. All science is about inquiry and analysis, but geology is more than this – it involves the imagination. Like a good detective novel, geology provides incomplete evidence that must be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing to come up with a story or, in my case, a picture of the past.
My interests lie in plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle, and the influence of these global processes on crustal evolution, mantle circulation, climate, sea level and the biosphere. To tackle such a wide field requires a broad geological background. I am interested in any evidence in the rock record pertaining to the Earth’s changing geography with time. So I collect data on structural kinematics, magmatic environments, depositional settings and provenance, and metamorphic history. I also date rocks and analyze their chemistry and isotopic signatures. I even collect fossils! In this way I try to interpret the geologic history of broad regions so that I can reconstruct past continental configurations and thereby evaluate the causes and effects of Earth’s moving continents and the long-term geologic, climatic and biological consequences of their episodic assembly into supercontinents.
This “big picture” approach to geology suits me well because there is really no aspect of the science that doesn’t fascinate me. For me, geology has not just provided a fantastic career, it has been a lifelong passion. When I joined the Humphrey Davy grammar school in the UK at the age of 12, I came under the spell of a truly exceptional teacher by the name of Bob Quixley. Mr. Quixley taught geography, but his real delight was geology and his enthusiasm for the subject, and the blackboard artwork he crafted to convey it, were addictive. For a period of five years, he had us captivated and, in testament to his influence, no fewer than five of my classmates and I went on to university and careers in geology.
It was a decision I have never questioned. Geology embraces everything that makes a career rewarding. It is important, it matters to both science and society, it is varied and interesting, it takes place in the field and the classroom as well as the office, it pays well and, most of all, it is a lot of fun!
What, you might ask, have supercontinents to do with anything that society cares about? Well, what we don’t grow, we mine, and plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle play a vital role in the search for mineral deposits and energy resources. They also help us understand the natural environment, the distribution of our water resources and the origin of geologic hazards. They additionally influence Earth’s climate and so help us to determine what happens when climate changes, and whether the climate change we are witnessing today is of human origin or a natural phenomena. And this just touches the surface.
So if you are studying geology or think about doing so, I strongly encourage you to continue. I have never met a geologist who didn’t love what they were doing, and to be paid to do what you love is worth a fortune!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My job is to do interesting things. If I’m working on boring things, I’m not doing my job right! Plus, I really enjoy the teaching and mentoring ends – working with younger scientists (from middle school students up through Ph.D. students) is really a joy for me.
What do you do?
I figure out how stuff rots in the ocean. Microorganisms are naturally present everywhere on Earth, and most of them eat food and “breathe out” carbon dioxide, just like us. I try to figure out what kinds of food microorganisms in the ocean (and in lakes and streams) like to eat, and how they digest it.
How does your science contribute to the understanding of climate change or to the betterment of society in general?
Microorganisms have to “breathe in” some chemical to help them turn their food into energy. Some microorganisms breathe in oxygen like we do, while others breathe in some pretty weird chemicals like iron or even uranium. The balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals on Earth’s surface has a big effect on what life on Earth is like. We’re currently worried about too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for instance – but if there were zero carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Earth’s oceans would freeze solid! Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, so the activities of ocean microorganisms have a big effect on Earth’s environment as a whole.
What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
I like to combine data about the chemical composition of organic matter in the ocean (i.e., leftover phytoplankton and plant matter, aka the stuff that is rotting) with measurements of the activities of the microorganisms that cause the rotting. There have been tremendous advances in DNA sequencing technologies in the past few years, so even though my background is in chemistry I am beginning to understand what kinds of reactions microorganisms are capable of carrying out.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Ask questions, and then read to learn the answers! For younger scientists, there is a journal called “Frontiers for Young Minds”. Just like any other respectable journal, the articles here are written by scientists and then peer-reviewed by other scientists. For more advanced folks, there are quite a few high-quality open-access (i.e., free) journals. Good ones include PLoS One, PeerJ, the Frontiers family of journals, Science Advances, and Nature Communications. These are the real deal – scientists writing for other scientists. You can use Google Scholar to find papers. Find a subject you’re interested in, and read everything you can about it! You won’t understand everything right away, but that’s OK – I find stuff in papers that I don’t understand all the time. The only way around that is to keep reading. This is learning science the hard way, but if you can spend some time reading and thinking about other people’s papers, you’re well on your way to becoming an expert.
I am one of the rare people (not so rare in paleontology) that has always known what I wanted to do in life. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. When I got a bit older this expanded to paleontology in general as I was spending my summers in Northern Michigan collecting fossil corals (Petoskey Stones) along the shore of Lake Michigan and reading every book I could about fossils.
When I got to high school, I started to think about paleontology as a career and called the nearest Natural History Museum (University of Michigan) asking to talk to someone. I ended up speaking with Tom Baumiller who was very generous with his time and chatted with me on the phone, invited me to the museum, and got me working as a volunteer with the museum collections. I came to the University a year later and Tom had research projects waiting. I ended up conducting research for four years at the museum working with Tom on predation in the fossil record and Dan Fisher on stable isotopes in mastodons. This provided insight into the process of science as well as strong mentorship. I spent countless hours in Tom’s lab along with his graduate students (Forest Gahn, Asa Kaplan, and Mark Nabong), which helped to formulate my own interests and provided casual advice regarding graduate school and academia.
What, exactly, do you do?
The aspect of paleontology that really piques my interest is thinking about the weirdness of fossil organisms. Seeing the remains of animals in the past that look nothing like animals today, inspires wonder of these ancient environments and also provides a clear mystery to be solved. This is what originally interested me in dinosaurs, but as I delved deeper into paleontology it was clear that things got stranger when I looked further into the past.
As far as weird goes, nothing beats echinoderms (relatives of sea urchins and sea stars). As you may know from previous Time Scavenger posts by the stellar young scientists that contribute to this blog (Maggie, Jen, and Sarah), early echinoderms are extraordinarily diverse and have many perplexing features. To explore this, I examine the diversity of features and forms (disparity). This method allows the visualization of evolutionary dynamics from the perspective of how different rather than how many. For my dissertation, I examined crinoid disparity during the Early Paleozoic focusing on a few key questions. What controls the diversity of features in a community of animals? What is the role of weird things in disparity patterns through time? And, are rare animals objectively weird? I compiled a large database of crinoid characteristics largely by studying museum collections and was able to address these questions. It turned out that rare animals weren’t all that objectively weird compared to common things. However, weird animals (outliers based on their characteristics) played a large role in understanding the evolution in form through time, especially during shifts in environmental conditions.
I have since expanded my research to examine trends in disparity in all echinoderms. This is a gargantuan project in that it requires some working knowledge of the many different groups of echinoderms. It has been one of the most rewarding tasks scientifically as it has given me the chance to sit down with many different echinodermologists and discuss the group they know best. From these discussions, I have compiled a huge character list that I along with my research students have used to examine trends in body plan evolution within echinoderms. This is still ongoing research, but I can start asking questions regarding the nature of the Cambrian Explosion and the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. We can explore patterns of disparity at the level of a phylum and how that parses out to the different groups within it. And, we can start to examine how different forms evolved and what limits the range of feature seen in echinoderms.
How does your job contribute to the understanding of evolution or climate change?
I work at the University of West Georgia, which is a regional comprehensive University. This means that a large portion of my time is devoted toward teaching our diverse student body. I teach a steady mix upper level geology courses and non-major introductory classes. I spend significant amounts of time in my upper level courses discussing evolutionary processes and the nature of science. I feel paleontology is a perfect place to discuss biases, uncertainty, and how scientists actually try to understand the world around them.
This is even more important in my introductory classes. I have a very casual lecture style that fosters student confidence to ask questions. I focus on discussing geologic time, evolution, and climate change. In addition, we talk about why these issues are important and explore the political implications. Politics are a tricky area in the current climate, but if I can get students to include a candidate’s scientific literacy into their decision making process when they are voting, I have done my job.
What methods do you use to engage your students?
I find in my classes getting students out of the classroom and into the field is the most effective way to communicate. Students can make direct observations and see that the real world is much more complicated than what they see in the classroom. Field experiences foster bonds between the student and instructors that makes students more comfortable asking questions. In addition, field work creates more cohesive student groups that then are more likely to work together and elevate the entire class while they are back on campus.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
I think my advice varies depending on who I am addressing so I will list a few things:
Take advantage of local fossil groups, they are a wealth of knowledge and experience! If you discover something that you don’t recognize when you are collecting fossil, they can help. Also, feel free to contact professional paleontologists regarding your questions. I have research projects collaborating with or using specimens collected by avocational paleontologists. Also, remember that professional paleontologists have tons of responsibilities such that it may take a while to reply, we can’t go out into the field as often as we would like, and publications based on your material may take a fair amount of time.
Learn as much as possible: read books and articles, go to meetings of local fossil groups (if there are any nearby), and visit museums. Contact professionals with your questions, but be respectful of their time (if you email during exam week that email might get lost!). Most paleontologists would be thrilled to meet an enthusiastic aspiring paleontologist, especially because we were also in that position.
Publish your work, publish side projects, establish collaborations and publish them. Obviously, make sure the publications are high-quality science, but put yourself in the best position possible. Also, try to squash down the feelings of competition. I know students are all competing for the same grants and ultimately the same jobs. However, if you collaborate or help other students in your department or subfield, that elevates everyone. If one of your friends gets a grant, awesome. They will do more research and make your department/subfield look better. If they get a job that means you will have someone to collaborate with when you get a job! Being supportive and collaborative will make graduate school better. These friendships can also lead to exciting opportunities for you in the future. For instance, I am currently planning a joint trip with one of my graduate school buddies (Kate Bulinski) and recently received a box of Cambrian echinoderm plates form another (Jay Zambito).
Students on the Job Market
Apply to everything. I was aiming for a research position, but ended up at a teaching-focused school. I didn’t think it would make me happy, but I love it here. Don’t limit your options when you may not know what you really want. Also, take time to do the things that clear your head- meditate, jog, hike, etc. Make sure your application is the best possible and then the rest is out of your hands. Likely some of the things that a search committee is looking for are outside of your control so you might as well go for a walk with your dog.
The first few years on the job are really exhausting, but a few things will make it easier. Maintain your contacts and collaborations. Pick projects that won’t be quite as time intensive. Establish mentors in your department and in your field that can give advice when you need it (thanks Bill Ausich and Tim Chowns). Avoid getting bogged down in things that are not considered in your job performance (mentors will help here). Finally, keep doing the things that clear your head. If you are busy these are often the first things that get left behind, but they are important so keep doing them.
Sumrall, C.D. and Deline, B. 2009. A new species of the dual-mouthed paracrinoid Bistomiacystis and a redescription of the edrioasteroid Edrioaster priscus from the Upper Ordovician Curdsville Member of the Lexington Limestone. Journal of Paleontology, v. 83, no. 1, p. 135-139, doi: 10.1666/08-075R.1
I am a paleoichthyologist, meaning that I am a paleontologist who specializes in fishes. In particular, my research is focused on the evolutionary history of early ray-finned fishes from freshwater deposits in North America; many of the fishes from these Triassic and Early Jurassic deposits remain undescribed and poorly understood with regard to their relationships to other fishes, as well as the roles they play in their respective environments. This time period is interesting to me because fish at this time were much different than what we see today. Much fish biodiversity had gone extinct at the end-Permian extinction event, and so lineages that persisted into the Mesozoic evolved into new habitats and niches. I focus on changes and trends in the morphology among several different groups of ray-finned fishes, and how these fishes evolved to exploit novel ecological niches at a turbulent time in Earth’s history.
I also serve as an editor for the PLOS Paleontology Community blog! While not directly related to my research, science communication is an avenue of my work as a scientist that allows me to branch out into other topics within the community and highlight new, exciting research that is available to everyone through Open Access! I enjoy getting to talk to other paleontologists about their research and projects, as well as help paleontologists and paleo enthusiasts access new information, resources, and useful tools.
My research revolves directly around examination of anatomy and morphology of fishes from the orders Semionotiformes, Redfieldiiformes, Dapediiformes, and other closely-related ray-finned fishes. I collect most of my data through a microscope, examining specimens from museum collections or specimens that were collected in the field and prepared by great volunteers from the Utah Friends of Paleontology. I take high-resolution photographs of specimens so that I can examine and measure the morphological features of the fossils, and I also collect data from drawing specimens using a camera lucida. If you are unfamiliar with a camera lucida, it is a drawing tube microscope attachment that makes it possible to see a blank paper and my hand juxtaposed upon the specimen visible through the microscope oculars. I then trace the specimen I am seeing in the microscope onto the paper, which is actually placed next to the specimen though it looks like I am drawing directly on the specimen. The result is a drawing interpretation of the anatomy. This technique is old, but I still use it because it really forces me to closely examine and interpret what I am seeing. As my PhD advisor would say, “What you do not draw, you do not see.”
The data I collect may be written into a formal, detailed anatomical description, if the specimens represent a new species. That description can be used by other paleontologists to evaluate and compare to their own specimens. It also gets coded into a matrix of morphological characters, which includes other species that may or may not be closely related. I then analyze the completed matrix of morphological characters using phylogenetic software. The output is a hypothesis of evolutionary relationships of the group of fishes I am focusing on for the project, which I can then use to address evolutionary questions, such as the number of times a specific anatomical or morphological feature may have independently evolved, or assessing a role these fishes may have played in their respective ecosystems.
My research is part of a larger collaborative effort to assess the biodiversity of the Early Mesozoic of North America at a time in Earth’s history that saw major changes to the planet’s geography, several mass extinctions, and faunal turnover events that lead to the opening of novel ecological niches for both aquatic and terrestrial organisms. By looking at how species respond to catastrophic events, we may be more able to understand how modern biodiversity may evolve and adapt to modern changes that are being accelerated by human impacts.
My favorite part about being a scientist is realizing how vast and amazing this world and its history are! There is just so much to learn and see, and really, even with how far we have come as a society, there is still so much we don’t know! I love nerding out with fellow paleontologists, because frankly, how could you not love doing something this fun? It’s exciting! I also love discovering a new species, or uncovering a new specimen when doing fossil preparation. Just knowing that I am the first human to lay eyes on this little fish that died over 200 million years ago is very humbling.
My advice to young scientists would be to not get discouraged when you fail. I say when, not if, because failure is inevitable. Everyone fails, absolutely everyone. Every scientist you know has had grants rejected, papers revised, ideas spurned, etc. We all start somewhere! The key is persistence! Take the criticisms you will receive (and again, you will receive criticism at some point or another, so don’t despair!), and just use it to make your work better and more solid. Don’t forget that you are doing something totally awesome and worthwhile.
On a more practical note, practice reading and writing scientific papers. The scientific jargon can be a huge barrier to students and young scientists, but is so important when it comes time to share your own work with others. So read, read, read! Learn how to interpret their results. There is no excuse to not have access to scientific papers because Open Access research is ever-growing. Check out the weekly Fossil Friday Roundup (shameless plug!) which highlights new Open Access paleontology-related papers!
Follow Sarah’s blog here, for more information and updates on her research and check out the PLOS Paleo Community here, for awesome open access paleontology.