John Doherty, Biogeochemist

John Doherty, PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong.

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

My favorite part about being a scientist is undoubtedly getting to do research for a living. While there are many stressful aspects associated with being a scientist, at the end of the day I get to spend most of my time learning about things that are deeply interesting to me. Science has also allowed me to travel the world and meet some of the most inspirational people I would have otherwise never crossed paths with.

What do you do?

When people hear the word “biogeochemistry” for the first time, the general response I get is “biogeo-what? Are you a biologist, geologist or chemist? Couldn’t you just pick one?” While this is a fair question, it is unfortunately not how the Earth system works.

I work specifically in the field of paleoceanography, the branch of science concerned with the ancient oceans and their role in climate. My research aims to understand the evolution of polar North Atlantic Ocean circulation over geological warm periods that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago. The ocean, however, is an interconnected mess of physical, chemical and biological phenomena. To thoroughly investigate oceanographic processes, it is therefore necessary for scientists to have a broad and multidisciplinary understanding of all aspects of marine science.

As a biogeochemist, I work mainly with organic matter preserved in microfossils called foraminifera. The composition of this organic matter reflects historic upper-ocean biochemistry recorded during the foraminifer’s lifetime, which allows me to make observations about the chemical conditions of the ancient surface waters. The surface-ocean chemistry of this particular region is subsequently controlled by waters mixing together, which makes foraminifera-bound organic matter a useful proxy to reconstruct physical mixing processes in the upper-ocean water column.

Foraminifera microfossils (left) and bacteria (right) used for the isotopic analysis of organic nitrogen.

But who cares about what the surface of the polar North Atlantic used to look like? Because this is where southern-sourced Atlantic waters sink and return to tropical latitudes (the so-called “ocean conveyor belt”), this one region actually governs the strength of the entire Atlantic circulation in addition to a variety of global climatic phenomena that we are just beginning to understand. Studying how Atlantic waters used to move during past warm periods therefore allows us to get an approximate idea of how the Atlantic may continue to change in the near future, and its greater effects on Earth’s climate.

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?

My data are mostly measurements of stable nitrogen isotopes of organic matter contained within foraminifera shells, which dominate sediment core samples from the polar North Atlantic region. This isotopic signature, or the ratio of heavy to light nitrogen atoms, is a proxy for surface nutrient processes affected by upper-ocean nutrient mixing. Because foraminifera contain only miniscule amounts of organic nitrogen, extracting this organic material and turning it into a measurable form requires intensive laboratory and chemical work. I therefore spend most of my time in the laboratory rather than on a boat, which is unfortunately slightly less scenic.

One of my field sites in the Polar North Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Dr. Benoit Thibodeau.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

There are now several lines of evidence which indicate that ocean circulation in the polar North Atlantic is slowing down, likely as a result of human-caused global warming. While today’s rate of warming is unique in the recent geological history of Earth, our planet has experienced intense warm events in the past. By investigating the behavior of the Atlantic circulation in the past, we are able to better understand the long-term climatic and oceanographic implications of our current warming. For example, we hope our research will shed light on the extent to which the modern ocean circulation will slow down, and what this slowing means for other aspects of Earth’s climate in the long term.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Stay curious and keep an open mind! I switched my major several times throughout my undergraduate career before I discovered my passion for science.

Don’t let previous failures detract from your goals. Often times, we see the finished product of science in the form of a published, peer-reviewed journal article. What we don’t see in that article is all of the failed experiments and misguided hypotheses leading to its production. Doing science means falling short many times, recognizing mistakes, learning from them and continuing to improve. The most important thing you can do is to not give up and to keep trying, because one day  this stuff will work out.

Follow John on Twitter @ocean_chemist, and read more about him and his research on his personal website

 

Sam Miller, Hydrologist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
I enjoy exploring in the field to help find clues that support our theory and understanding of how our world works and using that experience to formulate better hypotheses and tests that will push the science forward. Our world is a fascinating place with endless opportunities to learn. Learning is humbling (“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know” -Einstein).

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
I study streamflow generation in mountain environments of the western U.S. Or how snow(melt) becomes (stream)flow. Learn more about streamflow and the water cycle by clicking here. Mountains of the world have been termed ‘water towers for humanity’ due to the variety of downstream users reliant on water that originates as high-elevation snowpack. Population growth and migration combined with a warming climate is putting additional stresses on water resources originating from mountain snowpack, thus it is critical we have a thorough knowledge of how and where our streamflow originates.

There are a variety of approaches and scales used to study hydrology. I generally work at the watershed scale to perform stream gaging and measure natural tracers of the water cycle (electrical conductivity and water isotopes). Combining stream discharge and tracer data allows you to separate streamflow into different origins. Learn more about the field of hydrology by clicking here.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
When temperatures warm, mountain snowpack begins melting earlier in the year. Earlier snowmelt and subsequent streamflow response has a variety of consequences ranging from biological impairment associated with changes to the natural flow regime to shifts in the timing and magnitude of water available for downstream reservoirs and irrigation. Importantly, earlier snowmelt often results in lower summer streamflow which can have detrimental effects in arid regions with an increasing demand for water. Part of my research aims to identify areas where this earlier shift in snowmelt is having the most adverse effects on summer streamflow by conducting an empirical, retrospective analysis from hundreds of stream gages in the western U.S.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
I use a combination of data I collect myself from field work in the Snowy Range of Wyoming, streamflow data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The USGS and NRCS data can be easily obtained from packages in R (‘dataRetrieval’ and ‘RNRCS’) but is less satisfying than digging 10 feet to install your own data loggers.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
I would advise young aspiring scientists to become proficient in a programming language (preferably several) as soon as possible. As computing power and data continue to grow, it is important that we make efficient use of our time. Also make sure you do not lose sight of the passions that drove you to pursue your career in the first place.

Robert Ulrich, Biogeochemist

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 being able to pursue the questions that pop up in my mind about how the world works and having the ability to share what I learn with others.

I got into science because I was always curious: I always wanted to know what everything was, how everything worked, and why everything is the way it is.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
Currently, for my first project, I study the different ways that marine animals make their shells/skeletons affect how they record their growth conditions. My second project will be looking at how a widely-used crystallization method affects this in a lab setting.

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

Research: My research will help us better understand how the proxies people like paleoclimatologists use are recorded in biominerals. My research will also help us to better understand the different ways that these animals are forming their biominerals.

Goals/Outreach: My life experiences and activism thus far have motivated me to cultivate a career in academia. Growing up biracial and needing to navigate the boundary between my two backgrounds and growing up queer in a catholic household have taught me the lesson that I need to create my own space if I want to truly feel comfortable. As a graduate student, I have created spaces for myself as well as others from marginalized groups (i.e., Queers in STEM, The Center for Diverse Leadership in Science). I want to continue advocating for diversity and inclusion in STEM by challenging stereotypes of who is successful, and I believe that becoming a tenured professor would put me in an influential position to not just create spaces, but a position to effect the current culture at all levels: classrooms, departments, universities, academia, and policy.

Rob in the lab!

What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
My lab specializes is carbonate “clumped” isotopes. Measuring clumped isotopes measures the abundance of carbon-13 and oxygen-18 bonded to each other throughout the crystal lattice of the calcium carbonate shells. Ideally, this proxy correlates with and only with the growth temperature of the crystal and does not require knowing the isotopic composition of the growth medium. We are also able to measure the abundance of carbon-13 and oxygen-18 isotopes in the samples, which can also be used as proxies.

For my research, the samples for my first project are crushed shells/skeletons of a range of marine organisms that were grown in culture at the same conditions. This was additionally done at a range of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to simulate the effects of ocean acidification. For my second project, we have synthesized amorphous calcium carbonate in the lab. This is typically done via flux (mixing two solutions to achieve saturation). We are then measuring the carbon-13, oxygen-18, and clumped isotope values of the samples while they are amorphous as well as at different points through the transformation. I believe may also test different ways of transforming the material!

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
My advice to young scientists would be to not be okay with how things are or just “deal with it.” If you are the only person like you in your classes or program, that is not okay. I don’t say that to discourage, but to motivate effecting change.

Follow Rob’s updates on his website, Twitter, and Instagram! Also, in addition to Rob’s amazing research he is an active advocate for underrepresented groups in STEM.

Caroline Ladlow, Sedimentologist

Caroline holding a field notebook with coring equipment in front of her in Iona Marsh, Hudson River NY.

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

At the beginning of college one of my professor’s suggested that I take an introduction to geology course, and within a few weeks I was hooked! Before that, I had no idea that geology and earth science was a subject that people studied. But I was hooked on the idea that my classes were teaching me more about the world around me- and I still am! I love studying subjects that directly affect people and communities, so now I research historical hurricanes and different types of flooding.

What do you do?

An issue that comes up more often in the news is the frequency of intense hurricanes. These storms impact huge numbers of people along coastlines all over the earth; now we worry that these big storms might be happening more often or might be getting stronger. However, we do not have long historical records around the world of how often these storms used to happen. The really cool thing about geology is that we can look further back in time using things that nature leaves behind. I go to lakes and marshes near the coast to collect sediment- we take a big empty tube and stick it into the earth to learn about big floods that have happened in the past. It works kind of like sticking a straw into your drink and putting your thumb on top, except we do this with mud and sand. When we look at the layers in the mud, the deeper down we go is further in the past, like the pages in a book. Layers of sand tell us that a big storm happened there in the past, pushed into the lake by huge storm waves that bring sand in toward land from the ocean and beach. Counting how many of these sand layers there are helps us understand the frequency of storms through history. Knowing more about the past can help us understand how to help prepare for these storms, help protect coastal populations, and whether they are happening more frequently now.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

Most of the global population lives within 60 miles of the coast, so studying storms and coastal flooding is really important. Boston, MA is one of many cities globally that is along the coast and vulnerable to coastal flooding, especially with the additional threat of sea level rise. Each year during hurricane and nor’easter seasons we are repeatedly reminded of the threat that these storms pose to the coastal populations of the eastern United States, not to mention other parts of the globe. The more we can constrain the frequency and strength of storms, the better we can serve and protect the people of Earth from these huge floods. I am motivated not only to be active in the research I do studying coastal flooding, but also to play a role in disseminating knowledge to public and policy spheres. The research I am involved in can help inform hurricane and nor’easter preparedness for populations all along the coasts, helping decide where structures will get built and how storm water management and adaptations plans are designed.

Showing and describing sediment cores and clay samples to our project stakeholders at an annual meeting (photo credit Jon Woodruff).

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?

Most of the data that I use comes directly from sediment, either at the bottom of lakes or on wetlands and marshes. As it builds up over time at the bottom of lakes, we can look down into the mud and read a history through the different grain sizes from sand to mud, the types of animals that lived there, and the types of materials that make up the sediment!

How do you engage with the science community and with the public?

I recently got to participate in the AGU Voice for Science program- an incredible opportunity to learn more about science communication and meet other scientists interested in outreach. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the largest society of earth and space scientists around the world, and they have some very cool opportunities for outreach and science communication training. So far, my outreach experience has mostly been in educational programs to get children interested in science. This program through AGU broadened my experience in science communication into policy, and we got to do congressional visits to talk to Senators and Representatives from various states about science funding. I think a really critical aspect of outreach is building relationships with the communities you want to impact and making yourself available for their questions and concerns. We often approach outreach with the attitude that we have expertise about a specific issue to offer people, but they may be interested in an entirely different subject. Asking a community what their interests and questions are before you go in with your own is a really valuable way to build trust and a strong working relationship for future research and outreach. I am excited to see how my outreach will change in the coming months after learning so much from this workshop!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Pursue your goals, even if they seem out of reach or even impossible. And never hesitate to ask others for help and advice!

 

Benjamin Keisling, Glaciologist and Paleoclimatologist

Benjamin examining a sediment core drilled from Antarctica during an expedition in January 2018. Photo by Bill Crawford, IODP.

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

I got interested in science because I loved nature videos as a kid. I specifically remember one about the Alvin exploring the deep ocean that I would watch over and over, and I thought that being a scientist must be the coolest thing in the world. After that, I had a series of passionate and supportive teachers and mentors that nourished my interest in science and equipped me with the tools I needed to pursue a career in it.

There are a lot of things I love about being a scientist, but I think my favorite is the opportunities science has given me to meet people from different backgrounds. I have a network of peers, collaborators and mentors all around the world and I have learned so much, both as a scientist and a human being, from all of them.

What do you do as a scientist?

I study glaciers and ice sheets, the huge masses of ice that exist today in Greenland and Antarctica. I’m interested in how they responded to climate change in the past, so that we can better predict how they will respond to climate change in the future. This is particularly important today, because the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating rate and causing sea level to rise along coastlines around the world. To do this, I run computer model simulations of earth’s climate and ice sheets and compare the results with geologic data. I use these comparisons to understand what caused past changes to the ice sheets (for example, atmospheric or oceanic warming) and make predictions of how much sea level rise occurred during past warm periods.

Benjamin working on creating models while on the research vessel JOIDES Resolution. Photo by Mark Leckie.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

My research helps us understand the stability of ice sheets as the climate warms, which is one way we can improve predictions of sea level rise in the coming decades.

What are your data, and where do they come from?

For my research, I work with a lot of continuous climate records derived from ice cores and marine cores, which has been a great way to learn about those archives and given me some amazing opportunities to get involved with fieldwork. If you want to read more about that, you can find information on my blog

Another part of my work that I am passionate about is making science more equitable. In many ways throughout history, scientific discourse has been dominated by some voices at the expense of others. In the U.S. today this is exemplified by the over-representation of white men as professors, in leadership positions, and as award recipients. This hinders scientific progress and is harmful to our community. Science advances by testing new ideas and hypotheses, which is inefficient when not everyone is invited to the table to share their ideas. Unfortunately stereotypes, discrimination, and harmful working conditions (among other factors) have kept many brilliant people from pursuing scientific careers, and especially academic ones.

At UMass, I have been working with a group of graduate students to address this through BRIDGEBRIDGE is a program that encourages departments to identify and invite Scholars from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM who are early in their careers to participate in an existing departmental lecture series. We also ensure that we provide the Scholar with a platform to share their personal experiences with obstacles and opportunities in entering and remaining in academia, so that current graduate students are better equipped to navigate that process. This is a small but meaningful way to make sure that all scientists feel like they have role models who have had experiences they can relate to, and we have found that many graduate students do really benefit from it.

Three penguins watch the JOIDES Resolution drill ship from a large piece of sea ice. Benjamin sailed on this expedition to the Ross Sea in early 2018 (Credit: Gary Acton & IODP).

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

If you want to be a scientists then you should already start thinking of yourself as a scientist. The sooner you start experimenting with that identity and what it means to you, the better prepared you’ll be for actually doing science. I remember the first time I started meeting the “real scientists” whose papers I had obsessed over as an undergraduate. The idea of meeting these big names was overwhelming and intimidating and I doubted that I could ever occupy the same profession as them. Looking back at that almost ten years later, it’s clear to me that was a false distinction that only served to hold me back.

Being a scientist starts with being curious or interested in something and simply asking questions about it. How does it work? What happens if I do this? If you are asking those questions about anything, then you’re already thinking like a scientist, and you can do anything that a scientist can do. Some of those things that a scientist does are more exciting than others (doing experiments and taking measurements compared to writing grants, for example) but my advice would be to try all of it. Writing grants based on your own ideas is scary because there’s a potential for rejection, but it’s extremely important to try, and there’s no end to what you can learn through that process. It’s taken me a long time to understand that rejection of one of my ideas isn’t a rejection of my worth as a scientist; and conversely, when you apply for a grant or scholarship and you do get it, there’s an incredible feeling of validation and support.

So I would say get started as early as possible looking for opportunities to get rejected. Apply for everything you can. A lot of things won’t come through, and you have to learn to accept that. But other things will, and getting that recognition will not only be good for your self, it will pave the way for other opportunities and lead you to new research questions. And if you’re ever intimidated by an application, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have been there before – more often than not we are willing to support you through the process.

Aly Baumgartner, Paleobotanist

AlyB

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general? I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember. My dad was working on his Master’s of Science in Biology when I was a kid and I loved going to class with him to look at cells under the microscope and helping him collect insects in the field behind our house. I got into paleontology specifically when I learned how common it was to find mastodon fossils in fields near my house. I wanted to find one of those mastodons! I love that as a scientist I still get to do these things that I loved as a kid.

What do you do? In undergrad I said that I majored in hugging trees and minored in playing in the dirt. I would say that’s still true. I use the size and shape of leaves to figure out the ancient temperature and precipitation (paleoclimate). I do this by studying modern plants and applying what I learn to fossil plants. Specifically, I use the size and shape of tropical African leaves to study the paleoclimate and environment in Kenya during the evolution of our early ancestors.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change and evolution? I like to say that I am the context. As a paleobotanist, I study the ancient temperature, precipitation, and environment.What was the world like when our early ancestors were evolving. Was it hot or cold? Was it wet or dry? Was the landscape open or forested? Was there water nearby? Understanding this can help us understand the context of human evolution.

leaves

What are your data and how do you obtain them? Because I study both modern and fossil plants, I get data from a couple of different places. For modern leaves, I primarily use existing collections from herbaria. A herbarium is like a library of plants. For hundreds of years people have been pressing leaves, collecting seeds, and drying fruits and I can use these collections to understand the range of size and shape of leaves from tropical Africa. In addition, I study both previously collected fossil leaves as well as fossils I collected myself. This means that I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few months studying collections in the National Museum of Kenya as well as doing my own fieldwork.

 What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists? It’s okay to ask questions. Very often other people have the same question but are too afraid to ask.

It’s okay to ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength. Knowing what you don’t understand or can’t do alone shows that you understand what it takes. It’s okay to reach out to scientists that you admire. Scientists tend to be very excited to talk about their research and are happy to hear that people are interested! Scientists are humans too.

Bethany Allen, Computational Paleobiologist and Education Outreach Fellow

Fossil hunting at Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, UK. Photo credit: Alex Dunhill.

I am currently a PhD student at the University of Leeds, UK. My research looks at the role of mass extinctions in driving long-term trends in ecology and evolution. I do this by analysing large volumes of data from the fossil record, which requires statistical programming, an approach often termed computational paleobiology.

I’ve always enjoyed the problem-solving nature of science; it can be frustrating at times but really satisfying when all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. As an undergrad, I studied Biology and Earth Sciences at Durham University, UK, before going on to complete a Masters in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol, UK. Both of these courses helped to cultivate my passion for evolutionary biology, and equipped me with the scientific approaches and data analysis skills I needed to tackle “big data” questions in paleontology.

Admiring the museum collections at Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée [Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy] in Paris, France, with fellow paleontologist Vishruth Venkataraman. Photo credit: Rhys Charles
My PhD project is focused on comparing large-scale spatial patterns of biodiversity (=the variety of life in an area or on a global scale) before, during and after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event (~250 million years ago), the most severe mass extinction event in Earth history. During this time,  up to 95% of marine species became extinct. Widespread volcanic activity drove extreme global warming, leading to ‘hothouse’ conditions which prevented ecosystems (=a community of animals and how they react with the environment around them) from fully recovering for several million years. Understanding how global warming has affected the biosphere in the past is important for making accurate predictions of how global warming will affect animals and plants in the future.

Most of my data comes from the Paleobiology Database, a global database of fossil occurrences compiled by paleontologists, which is freely accessible to everyone (you can explore the data using the Navigator app). As one of the data enterers, I spend a lot of my time looking for information on fossils published in journals and books and adding them to the database. Once I’m happy with my occurrence data, I analyse them using R, a programming language and environment designed specifically for statistics. It enables me to carry out complex calculations across big data sets relatively quickly, to establish what the fossils are telling us about large-scale evolutionary patterns.

Volunteering with the Palaeontological Association at the Yorkshire Fossil Festival in Scarborough, UK. Photo credit: Jo Hellawell.

I also really enjoy outreach. Alongside my PhD, I work part-time delivering environmentally-themed school sessions, building on the experience I gained doing outreach with the Bristol Dinosaur Project during my Masters. At present, I’m particularly involved in delivering ‘Fossil Hunt’ sessions, visiting local schools to give 7-11 year olds the opportunity to handle fossils and learn about paleontology. It’s great to be able to show the children what ‘real’ scientists look like, and I always leave refreshed by their enthusiasm.

I love my research because it strikes the perfect balance between being something I’m really interested in (evolutionary biology) and requiring something I’m good at (data science). My advice to aspiring scientists would be to find this crossover in your own skills and interests – science takes perseverance, and that’s much easier when you’re making the most of your talents and are passionate about what you’re doing!

Follow along with Bethany, her research, and her education outreach activities on Meet the Scientist, Published,

Kevin Jiménez-Lara, Paleomammalogist and Paleobiogeographer

Kevin taking photographs of a fossil anteater skull deposited at the fossil mammal collections at the Field Museum in Chicago, IL.

First, let me introduce myself. I am a Colombian PhD student at the National University of La Plata, Argentina. My research is focused on the evolution of xenartrans, mammals that include armadillos, sloths, and anteaters.

Since I was a child, I have had a strong fascination to learn about nature. For that reason, I loved (and I still do love) reading a lot and watching documentaries about science, wildlife, meteorological phenomena, the history of the Earth, the history of the Universe, astrophysical theories and hypotheses, and other similar topics. Science has an amazing explanatory power, and that has always been what I like most about it. Science allows us to know our place in the Universe.

Following my vocation, I studied biology in college. Although during my undergrad there were many disciplines that caught my attention, the only one that enamored me was the study of extinct life forms, i.e. paleobiology. At first glance, it is not easy to explain why I wanted to be a paleobiologist, since there are very few Colombian paleobiologists and institutions that teach paleobiology and/or develop paleobiological research in my home country. However, studying the unique history of evolution of living beings seemed not only a noble, respectable activity, but it also became a passion that I believe will always accompany me as long as I live. Paleobiology has formed the basis of my life in the professional field, and also in a personal, philosophical sense.

Kevin doing paleontological prospecting and fossil collection in the La Venta area of southwestern Colombia. In this area some of the most important fossil assemblages of tropical continental vertebrates can be found.

To perform research in paleobiology in a country located in the intertropical belt of the planet (near the equator) and characterized as one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth poses great challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, there is little or no state support to study paleobiology as a consequence of socio-historical development. In addition, there are limitations related to logistics in regions that are difficult to access due their geographic location and/or security features. We also face scarcity of continuous outcrops of sedimentary rocks where fossils can be found. Often, as a result of climatic factors and abundant vegetation (plant life), fossils are poorly preserved (however, sometimes, they are exquisitely preserved!). But these limitations are largely compensated by huge opportunities. Fossils from the tropics are exceptionally valuable. They document innumerable evolutionary stories that can help explain one of the most disturbing questions for many biologists: why is there a tendency in different groups of living organisms to present greater diversity in the intertropical zone compared to other regions on Earth, such as in higher latitudes?

Paleobiology in the tropics is very necessary because of the generalized geographic bias in research of many extinct organisms and periods of Earth’s history. Namely, most research on these topics has been conducted in Europe and North America. In Colombia, paleontological field expeditions and studies have yielded surprising findings, including, of course, our flagship fossil organism (in my opinion): Titanoboa (Titanoboa cerrejonensis). For all those who do not know it, this snake lived approximately 60 million years ago in the extreme north of Colombia (Guajira peninsula), and its most surprising feature is its size and body mass. Titanoboa measured about 13 meters in length and could exceed one metric ton in weight. That makes it the largest known snake of all time!

Artists’ rendition of Titanoboa in its natural habitat, a very warm and humid tropical forest in La Guajira, northern Colombia, around 60 million years ago. Other reptiles of this time period were also giants, such as crocodiles and turtles.  Image by Jason Bourque.

I contribute to tropical paleobiology by studying fossil xenartrans (armadillos, sloths, and anteaters), particularly those that lived in northern South America and southern Central America. I seek to clarify questions on evolutionary/phylogenetic relationships between extinct representatives of these charismatic mammals and, at the same time, to reconstruct historic changes in their geographical distributions (where they lived through time).

Why is it important to study extinct armadillos, sloths, and anteaters? There are many reasons, but my favorite is that they are animals whose origin and evolution are closely related to great-magnitude abiotic (non-biological) events and processes (such as climate changes and tectonic events). Through tens of millions of years, abiotic factors shaped their biology and ecology to configure the xenartrans in one of the most peculiar mammals that existed during the Cenozoic (the last 65 million years). Have you seen how strange some armadillos look when they roll into a ball, or the very slow movements of a three-toed sloth, or the long tubular snout of a giant anteater? If you have not seen this, you should check out the videos linked in the previous sentence. But in the fossil record we know even more bizarre features of xenartrans than we see in living species. For example, several species of giant sloths used to swim (yes, you read it right, ‘swim’) in littoral zones (areas close to the beach) of western South America around 5 million years ago! Is that not mind-bending?

Several species of the giant sloth genus Thalassocnus could swim in shallow marine habitats off the west coast of South America (Peru and Chile) during the late Miocene-Pliocene (7-4 million years ago). Paleobiologists know this primarily from studies on anatomical adaptations to swimming indicated from the animal’s bone structure. Image by Roman Uchytel.

Xenartrans constitute an outstanding study model on how Earth and life evolve together, from their evolutionary differentiation ~98 million years ago, possibly triggered by the geographic separation of Africa and South America, until their colonization of North America during the last 9 million years in the environmental framework of the Panama Isthmus uplift and the Last Great Glaciation. This makes xenartrans interesting organisms to study evolutionary patterns and processes of high complexity in the tropics.

I am particularly interested on the evolutionary implications (diversification) of dispersal (or movement) events of xenartrans from northern South America to North America (including its ancient Central American peninsula) during geologic intervals which immediately precede the definitive formation of the Isthmus of Panama. Long distance dispersal through a shallow sea, like that which existed between southern Central America and northwestern South America before the complete isthmus emergence, is one of the least understood biogeographic phenomena. The explanatory mechanism of long-distance dispersal allows for disjunct distributions and for us to more comprehensively understand the subtle interaction between distinctive faunas of contiguous areas.

In order to fulfill my general research objective, it is necessary to work hard in determining identities and affinities of Middle-Miocene to Pliocene (15-2 million years old) xenartrans of the aforementioned regions, including not only previously collected fossils, but also new findings. In a complementary way, it is required to put identifications in geographic context through faunal similarity/dissimilarity methods. I also use probabilistic biogeographic models (models that use statistics) to infer major distributional patterns and processes of several subgroups of xenartrans, so that we could understand in an analytic, non-strictly traditional narrative way, the changes of their occurrences in space. Finally, long distance dispersal events through poorly suitable environments for most xenartrans, like shallow seas, are approached through locomotive reconstructions to estimate dispersal capacity (vagility).

I want to end this post by giving an important advice to all those who aspire to be scientists. The path to work in science may be, to a greater or lesser extent, long and complex. However, if you remain true to your convictions and strive under a regime of self-discipline, you will not only be a scientist, but also one of the most prominent researchers in your field. Question everything, do not firmly hold onto hypothesis that have little associated evidence. And, above all, write, write to clarify in your mind many issues related to your research.

To learn more about Kevin and his research, check out his blog called ‘Caribe Prehistorico’. To find this post in Spanish, head to Kevin’s blog by clicking here.

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.

Joy Buongiorno Altom, Geomicrobiologist

Figure 1: My very first expedition to Svalbard for collecting mud! The Arctic is especially vulnerable to ecosystem changes with continued climate warming. To understand these changes, we head up to 79 degrees North and look at carbon-cycling microbes to gain insight into their ecological structure and function.

My love for science was born freshman year of college when I was encouraged to ask questions about nature and began reading books about the evolutionary origin of life and the cosmos. Through reading, I found that science is the best tool that we have to understand the world around us and that we should never stop asking questions of our origins. However, big questions related to evolutionary histories, for example, require the collaboration and contribution of multiple different fields of science and so, I set out on an educational journey that would allow me to grow my scientific toolbox to encompass skills across multiple disciplines. My background in zoology taught me perspective on communities and how ecological linkages between different species can play crucial roles in how an ecosystem functions. I then delved into geoscience to gain an understanding of how organisms interact with their physical and chemical environment. Now, I evaluate sediment microbial communities and their contribution to biogeochemical cycling of nutrients with genomic sequencing analyses.

Figure 2: Example of a microbial network analysis from sediment in Svalbard. Each little symbol is a different type of microorganism, and lines connecting each symbol indicates that they share either a positive (solid) or negative (dashed) relationship. Colors indicate relatedness (same colors = same family history) and different shapes indicate how they eat. These networks can help us identify novel relationships between microorganisms and generate hypotheses about what is causing a positive or negative relationship.

I am currently using my cross-discipline training to paint a complete picture of microbial communities in Arctic sediments. My goal is to make useful contributions to models aimed at describing how continued climate warming will affect carbon cycling in the Arctic Circle. It is currently unknown if the biological feedbacks associated with glacial retreat and warming surface ocean temperatures will lead to a net carbon sink (removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) or net source (contributing to atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions). To answer these questions, I collect environmental DNA and RNA from sediments in different fjords all over Svalbard alongside geochemistry measurements. I employ microbial network analyses to find links between community members and geochemistry to unravel the hidden drivers behind microbial abundance and community composition. With genomic sequencing data and cutting-edge bioinformatics tools, I evaluate the carbon cycling potential within nearly complete microbial genomes collected from these sediments and then computationally map their genes to RNA activity in the environment. We are finding that spatial gradients in the amount and quality of organic matter control metabolic potential of sediment microbial communities.

Figure 3: Beautiful mud core. The mud in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard is a rusty red color because of the surrounding iron-rich bedrock geology. Bands of black are where iron oxide minerals form when chemical conditions are just right. The combination of sediment accumulation and biogeochemical reactions causes this lovely tiger-striped appearance.

Pursuing a career in science has allowed me to travel the world, meet new and interesting people, experience cultures different from mine, and cultivate relationships that will prove invaluable for future collaborations. I love what I do, and encourage anyone who wants to pursue a career in science to do it! My advice to aspiring young scientists is to identify a mentor you trust early on that will guide you through tough times of self-doubt that may arise, or provide strong letters of recommendation.

Follow Joy’s research and work on Twitter by clicking here!