Rachel Roday, Graduate Student and Marine Scientist

Rachel transporting a sedated sandbar shark to a respirometer to understand shark metabolism.

My favorite activities are ones that help me connect to nature, such as SCUBA diving, kayaking, and painting landscapes. Even as a child, I spent all of my free time at the beach or obsessing over turtles, so it was no surprise when I decided to pursue marine science as a profession. I obtained my Bachelors of Science in marine science and biological sciences from the University of Delaware where I conducted research on shark respiration and zooplankton behavior. I also completed an internship at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida examining red tide toxins from Florida beaches.

Currently, I am a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute. Though I have yet to begin my thesis, my research will focus on understanding the role of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in marine fishes. PFAS are a group of approximately 4500 manmade chemicals that are water, heat, and oil resistant. They have been found in non-stick pans, fire-fighting foams, stain resistant carpets, and many other common use items and are known carcinogens in humans. Little is known about the impact of these chemicals on marine fishes, so I hope to fill some of this knowledge gap by determining the toxicity of lesser known PFAS compounds and how they might be transferred from parent to offspring. As a scientist, I aim to understand the extent of human impact on biology within the marine ecosystem. In the future, I hope to influence the regulation, product development, and disposal techniques of manmade chemicals such as PFAS, insecticides, sunscreens, and pharmaceuticals in order to protect the environment and ultimately, us humans.

Rachel on a dive in the Florida Keys during her internship at Mote Marine Laboratories

It took me four years of undergraduate classes, several internships, and two wildly different research projects to figure out the specific area that I wanted to focus on in graduate school. In other words, I got really good at figuring out what I didn’t want to pursue. This would be my greatest piece of advice to someone looking to find their way in science or any profession: try out lots of things, as many as you can! Not only does a range in experience bring about a unique perspective, but you never know what one door might open for you later on down the road.

I also suggest that people learn about the science that interests them in their backyard or community. As a Long Island native, this was easy for me because growing up, I was surrounded by beaches. But even learning about the local plant life or stargazing at night can help curate your specific scientific interests. I believe that having a personal and maybe even emotional relationship with nature and science can instill passion that propels you through all of the more tedious and challenging parts of life. Overall, even if science is just a hobby and not a career end-goal, I think it’s important to find ways to make it accessible at home and never be afraid to ask questions!

Rachel aboard a Norwegian research vessel in the Arctic Ocean during the polar night, researching the photobehavior of copepods, a small crustacean.

Student Veterans Research Network (SVRN)

Meet the organizers!

Logan Pearce (founder and co-organizer) is a PhD student at the University of Arizona studying the formation and evolution of planetary systems using a direct imaging technique with Dr. Jared Males. Logan is a US Navy veteran and specialized in nuclear power during her 5 years in the military.

Patty Standring (co-organizer) is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin studying the paleoceanography of the southern Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean using stable isotopes from benthic foraminifera. She is co-advised by Dr. Chris Lowery and Dr. Rowan Martindale. Patty is a US Air Force veteran and was a Dari Linguist during her 10 years in the military.

Rebecca Larson (co-organizer) is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin studying the formation and evolution of the universe’s first galaxies and is advised by Dr. Steve Finkelstein. Rebecca is a US Air Force veteran and was an Arabic Linguist during her 6 years in the military.

What is SVRN?

We want SVRN to be an informal peer mentorship community for veterans who are working in research or are interested in working in research. We would like it to be an inclusive environment where researchers from different disciplines can network with one another and help each other navigate higher education and establish research careers.

Why did you start the SVRN?

We started this network to aid veterans transitioning from their military career to one involving research and/or higher education. While there is some support for veterans transitioning from military to civilian life, and organizations focused on helping veterans get into higher education, there is a greater emphasis on resources to help veterans get jobs or start businesses. When we leave the military there is not a lot of information provided to us on how to go to graduate school, apply for grants, and get involved in undergraduate research. We wanted to establish a community where individuals from different STEM and non-STEM disciplines around the country can meet, connect, and give each other advice or recommendations on how to go about establishing their post-military careers. Transitioning from the military can be very challenging, especially the longer you served, so we want to present options for veterans that will help them be successful establishing their new career paths and support each other along the way.

What do you expect other student veterans to get out of participating in the SVRN?

We hope that SVRN can be a place of peer mentorship for student veterans to come to ask questions and get advice on how to establish successful research careers. Things like how to get involved in undergraduate research and apply to graduate school, how to build a CV versus writing a resume, best ways to promote their own accomplishments to advance their career goals, how their military skills translate to a research environment, and how to attend conferences to talk about their research. It is also designed to be a community of folks with similar backgrounds and goals, another professional network for making connections across institutions and disciplines. These are all things that you might be able to get from a really good mentor, but because it is coming from a veteran, they understand your past experiences better than a civilian would.

Many veterans join the military so that they can afford to go to college, especially if they are the first person in their family to go into higher education. They are already at a disadvantage because they may not know what types of resources are out there to support them in their journey; things like grants and fellowships that will cover the cost of a graduate education. We also don’t see this as a stagnate peer mentorship network. We would like to see it grow into what it needs to be for student veterans to succeed in research careers.

How can veterans get involved in the network?

Please go to svrn.org where you can sign up as a member and agree to our code of conduct. After that you will be invited to a Slack workspace where you can introduce yourself and meet other veterans in the network. In addition to that, members that agree will provide their contact information for veterans to reach out to them directly regarding a grant application or applying to a specific institution. Veterans can choose their level of involvement in the organization, but the more we are able to connect with each other, the stronger the network will be for everyone.

You can also follow SVRN on Twitter @SVRN_vets!

Mahmoud El-Saadi, M.Sc Candidate, Environmental Physiologist

Hello! My name is Mahmoud, a master’s student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. After completing my undergrad at Carleton, I stayed to pursue an M.Sc in Biology in Dr. Heath MacMillan’s lab.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
I would say my favorite part of being a scientist is the constant excitement of asking questions and having the freedom to try things out. In a constantly changing world, new evidence is always popping up which can occasionally change the way we look at pre-existing theories and data. I really enjoy meeting other scientists and bouncing ideas off of them, as well as communicating science to people.   

As for my interest in insects, it started with an upper-year biology course on insects which involved going out and collecting different species of insects. I was hooked after the course, in large part due to simply appreciating how diverse these animals are in their biology. The world of insects is massive!

What is your research about?
My research is currently looking at how insects are injured by low temperatures, and if there is any connection to their gut. The majority of insects, such as flies, locusts, crickets, and bees to name a few, do not do very well at low temperatures, and this can result in them becoming injured or dying. The exact driving forces behind these injuries are not exactly known, but they are thought to be driven by water and ion balance becoming dysregulated due to the insect’s gut losing most of its ability to control water and ion flow between the inside and outside of the gut. However, similar to us, insects also have a diverse community of bacteria in their gut! This leads me to my main question: if insects suffer injuries at low temperatures, is that partly because gut bacteria are finding their way outside and into tissues? If that is the case, then the resulting infection could be another factor behind the tissue damage which would provide better insight as to why most insects cannot handle the cold very well.

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
To see if low temperatures lead to bacterial leak from the gut, I am feeding a fluorescent strain of E. coli bacteria to locusts, my model insect of choice. After they eat the bacteria, I expose them to a low temperature and extract a sample of their hemolymph, or “blood”. I then place the hemolymph in agar gel plates that allow any bacteria to grow overnight. I would then confirm the presence of the fluorescent bacteria by shining a UV lamp on the plates, which would show a strong yellow fluorescence. If bacteria are finding their way out of the gut, then I would see the fluorescent bacteria in the plates.

A unique strain of bacteria that emits a yellow glow under an ultraviolet lamp.

How does your research contribute to the bigger picture?
When it comes to the spread of insects across the globe, their ability to handle low temperatures is a very strong predictor for their survival and distribution. In other words, insects that are better able to survive cold environments are more likely to spread further than insects that are less able to survive the cold. This is particularly important when it comes to the issue of climate change, as greater and more frequent extremes in temperatures can expose many insect species to a different environment than what they are normally used to. In the context of pests that may damage agricultural crops, trees in forests, and pose a risk to our health, knowing how insects are physiologically affected by the cold can provide valuable information that we can use to predict their movement and future distribution. I would say that my work is just a small piece of the much grander puzzle of why insects do not like the cold!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
The advice I always give aspiring scientists is to never be afraid to ask questions. In a way, asking questions is what defines us! If you are an undergraduate student in STEM who is interested in research, try to take the first step to email a professor if you are interested in their work, because that first step can definitely go a long way. No matter your research background or experience, there is a field out there for everyone. Embrace your passion for science and go forth!

Ymke Temmerman, Ing. Water manager/ Aquatic ecotechnologist and MSc student Aquaculture and Marine Resources Management.

Ymke during a field trip to Texel where she just did some field work at The Slutter

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
From a young age, I was always very curious, wanting to learn as much as possible about everything related to the ocean. I always tried to learn more and continue to look for new things to discover. I grew up close to the coast in the Netherlands and till this very day, I still enjoy the nature there and it always feels like coming home. Part of the reason I got so interested in the ocean is the mystery that is part of it, the fact that on the beaches and along the coast, we only see a glimpse of the life beneath the surface. So when the time came to make a decision about what I wanted to study, the choice for water management/aquatic ecotechnology at a university located close to the coast was one that was directly related to my passion for the coasts. During my studies, the passion and enthusiasm for science only grew. The contrast between theory, lab work and boots in the mud is something I enjoyed and still do. During my first internships at the research institutes NIOZ (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research) and Wageningen Marine Research, I really got to experience doing research. These were amazing experiences, with fieldwork, experiments and a lot of new knowledge which ranged from small worms at the bottom of the North Sea to invasive species in industrial harbors. During these periods, I learned that the part I love about science is the continuous exploration of what seems like endless topics. And that with doing research, you contribute to knowledge. Because science to me is exploring new things of which the stories should be shared not only among scientist but with as many people as possible, especially the next generations that will need it to do better.

Ymke on a mudflat on Texel taking samples during an excursion

What do you do?
At the moment, I am finishing up my Masters in Aquaculture and Marine Resources Management. Within this program I am focusing on ecology and marine resources. The marine resources part is mainly about the services provided to us by the ocean (e.g. fish, coastal protection) and how to use these services in a sustainable way. For example, how fishing could be sustainable or how oyster reefs can be used for coastal protection. The ecological aspect is more about how these coastal and marine systems work and how different species contribute to keeping them healthy. Before my adventure at the university started, I did a Bachelors in Water Management in the middle of the Southwestern Delta of the Netherlands. During this study, I focused on ecology from rivers to oceans, learning about how to work together with nature to protect us against flooding. Other topics included climate change and the importance of water, where some countries have too much, others don’t have enough.

In addition to my studies, I am also active as an ambassador for the Dutch Wavemakers. This organization aims to educate the next generation worldwide about sufficient and clean water but also about water safety. We want to achieve this by collaborating with water athletes and students, hoping to make young people enthusiastic about water sports and water studies.  Next to this, we also hope to motivate the young generation to take action and be the change they like to see.

Ymke in Shanghai on a trip for the Dutch Wavemakers to participate in the Wetskills challenge 2019

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
We, as Dutch Wavemakers, communicate these important topics of water safety and scarcity with a positive attitude. We are convinced that it is not fruitful to keep pointing fingers at each other, since solutions are not often born from conflict. Instead we have a solution oriented approach in which we, of course, also talk about the problems but instead of focusing on doom scenarios we try to set out a positive future perspective. From experience, I know that this is way more effective in the long run when it comes to activating people. If they see the type of positive impact they can have as an individual, and if they spread the word with the same positivity as we do, this small action might become a big movement, leading to a real change in mindset.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, and the betterment of society in general?
As a Dutch Wavemaker, but also as someone with passion for the ocean, I hope to contribute to a positive change in which we start to see the ocean as a companion instead of an enemy or endless resource. As an ambassador I am involved in multiple projects that aim to create awareness for problems like plastic pollution, changing ecosystems and of course, the effects of climate change on our oceans and coastal zones. One of them is the SDG 14 alliance, which focuses on achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goal 14: Life below water. Here we hope to create more awareness about pollution, sustainable fisheries, increasing biodiversity and protection of the oceans, with the focus on the younger generations. Next to these projects, we also visit all different types of events where we teach the younger generations about the impacts of too much water, but also about the importance of having enough water. We do this with the help of fun little activities in which the children can participate. In this way, children learn about large scale problems like too much water in cities because of the lack of green spaces.

Measuring temperature for an experiment during Ymke’s Bachelors thesis

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Stay curious! As long as you remain curious and eager to learn new things, there is always a way for you to get there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, there are always people in your surroundings that would be happy to answer them for you. Especially if it is something that you are really passionate about! And remember you will never be too old to learn new things, because a world without new things to discover would be a bit boring, if you ask me!

Malique Bowen, Graduate Researcher

scientist hiking a horseshoe crab at seaWhat 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 that it is always changing. I always get to build on what we already know, and the possibilities are endless. As a kid, my mom would buy me science kits that grew crystals, allowed me to build microscopes, and insect collection kits that all made me fall in love with the how and why behind environmental science. Since my childhood I simply remember asking why/how that works and now I have the capabilities to ask questions and do the science to figure it out.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? I consider myself a microbial ecologist, so I essentially work to identify how microbes control the surrounding environment. I’ve worked with microbes that eat oil, microbes that live on monkeys, microbes in the water, and microbes in the ground. I try to understand how the little things make the world go ‘round.

For my master’s I am using microbes to better assess water pollution in Delaware waterways.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? A lot of research I have done is applicable to water quality management. We can use oil degrading microbes to mitigate oil pollution or tracking microbial pollution through waterways can help better assess management policies.

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? With the help of the Department of Natural Resources, we have actually been collecting all of our data ourselves. We have collected a lot of animal, water, and sediment samples to analyze for microbes.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? My advice to aspiring scientists would be to never be afraid to ask for help and learn. There are many other scientists that were in the same position you may be in, and many are willing to help and see you through it. The best science is collaborative science but you must ask for help first.

Follow Malique’s updates on Twitter!

Allison Nelson, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s Student

Allison ready for field work in Montana. Photo from “Learning From the Ground Up”, University of Washington.

Hello, my name is Allison, and I’m a master’s student at Indiana University. I have a bachelor’s degree in Earth and Space Science from the University of Washington. For a few years, I worked across the western US on public lands as a park ranger and field technician. Now that I’m back in school, I’m researching wolves.

What do you do? The main question I’m trying to answer is are red and grey wolves one or two species? This is a complicated question, as red wolves have historically interbred with coyotes. The interbreeding means that they may have been a group of grey wolves that mated with coyotes and now seem different enough to be called red wolves. I use measurements of wolf skulls to see if I can find a difference (size or proportions) between grey and red wolves. Currently, I’m using pre-existing datasets, but if Covid-19 allows, I hope to visit museums and measure more skulls. 

This is an important question for conservation efforts that focus on wolves. Conservation efforts typically focus on one species, and the ambiguity makes this difficult. 

Allison digging a soil pit to assess landscape change in Eastern Nevada. Photo by Eli Rolapp.

How did you get interested in paleontology, and what’s your favorite part of being a paleontologist? During the second year of my bachelor’s degree, I took a class on volcanoes. After that class, I declared a geology major and my sedimentary geology classes talked about fossils. In class, I got to see and touch fossils, and I was hooked. 

As for my favorite part of being a paleontologist, I have two parts. The first is the field work! I love hiking with a backpack full of gear looking for fossils. The second part is the outreach. I enjoy talking to people about what has been found, what sort of creatures they were when alive, and in what kind of environment they lived.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Keep asking questions! Questions and curiosity are what push science forward. 

Follow Allison’s updates on her LinkedIn!

Stephen Hill, Paleontologist/Geologist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general? My name is Stephen Hill and I am a graduate student at the University of South Florida in the department of Geosciences. Initially I had absolutely no intention of going into any field of science as an undergraduate(Majoring in history) but about midway through I was required to take an environmental science course. The instructor from that course was very encouraging when I came to her asking questions about what it took to go into biology or environmental science and invited me to join her and some other students on a visit to her husband’s research lab at the University of South Florida. That visit changed the trajectory of my life, on my drive home that day I was so excited about science, the feeling of chasing the unknown, and expanding knowledge. I left that lab that day and decided to change my major.

I eventually settled on majoring in geology over biology but as time went on I was slowly drawn towards the field of paleontology which blends aspects of both fields. I was initially drawn to geology because I was interested in the amount of fieldwork opportunities. Fieldwork and research opportunities have taken me all over, from using ground penetrating radar on grave sites in Florida to mapping the mountains of Idaho and quite a few places in between.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, or to the betterment of society in general? I am interested in how the morphology of Paleozoic echinoderms might relate to the environment in which they lived and how that environment influences the evolution of their respiratory structures. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors well preserved fossils of this time and type are quite rare. This is primarily due to the fact that many parts of echinoderm anatomy are quite delicate and have only been preserved in unique circumstances. Work like this can offer insights into the evolutionary history of marine species as they experienced mass extinction events in the Paleozoic and could serve as an analog for understanding how marine species of today might react to manmade climate change. 

In the future I would like to dedicate more time to fieldwork and the collection of either known or unknown Paleozoic echinoderms. Even today there are still many parts of the world that are not known to science. Seeking out these areas could provide new insights in the form of new fossil species or provide samples of known species of uncommon preservation which would further our understanding of them. 

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? Using scan data acquired from a 3D scanner, CT scanner, or a synchrotron I build a 3D computer model of a fossil. The type of scan data dictates the way the model is built, for instance when using CT or synchrotron data the model is built by combining thousands of individual slices. Because of the poor preservation building models can sometimes feel like building a puzzle or doing reconstructive surgery. Once a model is satisfactory there are many directions that can be taken ranging from being used strictly as a visual model or for finite element analysis. Finite element analysis is a broad term for quantitative methods such as structural analysis, fluid flow, or heat transfer it requires building a mesh (i.e. a model) which divides a larger more complicated object to many small triangles. These small triangles are the “finite elements” which when considered allow the larger object to be solved for more easily.  Of these finite element methods I am most interested in the application of computational fluid dynamics(CFD). Using CFD software the 3D model is put in a virtual environment where varying scenarios of water flow are simulated. As this virtual water flow occurs the software collects data relating to the drag force and coefficients created as the fluid flows around the model. From the CFD data you can theorize if one body plan would be favorable over another in a specific current setting. 

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? When you are coming up as an undergraduate the course work for STEM majors can be pretty daunting. Do not be afraid to ask questions and seek out resources that are available to you through your university academic or otherwise. For much of my early college experience I was hesitant to ask questions in class and I did not take advantage of resources like tutoring labs on campus. Once I became more comfortable with asking questions in class and discovered the campus tutoring lab it made things a lot less stressful.

Nick Cropper, Public Health Scientist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science? I really got interested in science in middle school when I first learned about DNA. The idea that every living thing is based on a unique combination of just four (or five) building blocks blew my mind! I remember asking myself: “What else don’t I know about the world around me?”. Ever since then, I’ve done everything I can to answer that question for myself! 

My favorite part about being a scientist is feeling like I’m contributing to the betterment of the world. Science is more than just data points and lab work. Many scientists spend their days going into communities in need and asking them how we can help. We can study the impact of our contributions to those communities and use that research to ensure we’re doing the greatest possible good. Knowing that my work could both help people immediately in need as well as contribute to helping an uncountable number of people in the future is what drives me to do science.

What do you do?  I like to think of what I do as being a doctor for a community rather than for an individual. First, I ask groups of people what problems they’re having. Then, with their help, I diagnose what’s causing their problems. Finally, we figure out what the best treatment is and do our best to improve the situation. Once we’ve implemented some of our solutions, we come back and ask ourselves “What worked? What didn’t? Why did some things work and not others? And how can we make sure that we do better next time?”. At the end of the day, I try to improve the lives of people in a community by utilizing the scientific method.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change and  the betterment of society in general? My research and outreach will focus on the policies designed to prevent future pandemics and protect vulnerable people from disease. Climate change is the existential issue facing our society today and its impacts will touch innumerable lives in the coming years. My priority as a public health scientist is to understand how climate change will affect the health of people globally and what we can do to mitigate the harm. I hope that my work will save lives and improve the quality of life for those most likely to be in harm’s way.

What are your data and how do you obtain them? I haven’t formally started my research yet, but I hope to work with policymakers to improve climate and disaster preparedness/response policies. My data will come from two sources. First, I’ll use research into past disaster responses to determine what went wrong and what could have been done to save lives or mitigate damage. Second, I’ll draw on existing policies that govern disaster preparedness and responses to determine where gaps still remain. The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent example of how different policies resulted in better or worse outcomes around the world. I suspect I’ll be comparing those policies and learning from their outcomes for much of my career!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? You can do science. Don’t allow yourself to be fooled by the misconception that you can only do science if you were the smartest person in the class or that a career in science is only for a certain type of person. Science is for everyone. In fact, science is most successful when there are scientists with a broad diversity of backgrounds, ideas, and interests. No matter what you may have excelled at or struggled with, whatever your experiences have been, wherever you’re from and whoever you are, there is a field of science in need of a unique and brilliant mind like yours.

Sam Ocon, Invertebrate Paleontology Graduate Student

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science? There is something so magical about being the first person in the world to know something. Even more magical, at least to me, is talking about that thing to others so they can share in the excitement! One of the major appeals of being a scientist, to me, besides adding to the general knowledge of the human race, is also learning to see the world in a different light; for example, long drives have become so much more exciting since I’ve been trained as a geologist. I loved watching the geology change as we traveled from my home state of Florida to my new state of West Virginia! 

I’ve been interested in science since I was very small. I come from a family with no formally trained scientists; however, several members of my family are fascinated by different aspects of the natural world. My dad is an amateur ichthyologist, my grandpa, a self-taught horticulturist, and my grandma is a nurse with a fascination for human biology. Growing up surrounded by people fascinated by science and nature (and watching Jurassic Park every single day) lead me to find science at a very young age.

What do you do? I am currently looking at horseshoe crabs, both fossil and modern, to figure out if they are really “living fossils” or not. More specifically, I’m looking at how fast their shape actually changes through time and if it is really as slow and steady as we commonly think it is.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of  evolution? I am hoping to use what I discover to inform horseshoe crab conservation around the world! For example, knowing how horseshoe crabs adapted to past mass extinctions (they’ve survived all 5!) will tell us how they may react to modern climate change. This will also help us understand more about other groups considered to be “living fossils” and teach us more about long term trends in evolution. 

What are your data and how do you obtain them?  Some of my data is from previous work done by my advisor, Dr. James Lamsdell, but I will also be collecting more data this spring and summer from 3D scans and photographs of fossil horseshoe crabs.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? If you are passionate about science, embrace that! Science takes a lot of hard work, but passion makes the hard work worth it. You can do this!

Sinjini Sinha, Paleontology Ph.D. Candidate

Sinjini ready to dissect an extant bony fish to study the anatomy of the fish at University of Alberta, Canada.

Hello! I am Sinjini, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to starting my doctoral studies, I pursued my bachelors and masters in Geology at the University of Delhi in India. Following that, I moved to the University of Southampton, UK to pursue a Master of Research in Vertebrate Paleontology and then joined the University of Alberta, Canada to study a M.Sc. in Systematics and Evolution. My previous research focused on the systematics and paleoecology of Late Cretaceous sharks from central India and southern England as well as on the diversity of Paleocene bony fishes from Canada.

What is your favorite part about being a paleontologist and how did you get interested in paleontology in general?
My favorite part of being a paleontologist is that it gives me the opportunity to dig up fossils in exotic locations- be it in the sandstones of Central India, in Western Canada or the chalk deposits of Southern England. I also enjoy sharing my scientific knowledge with non-scientists through Skype a Scientist sessions, in person outreach events, or simply by random conversations.

I always found it fascinating to know that fossils are remains of organisms that were alive several million years ago. During my undergraduate days at the University of Delhi in India, I used to enjoy my paleontology classes more than any other geology course and hence pursuing my dissertation in paleontology was an obvious choice for me. It was during my dissertation days, I realized how paleontology addresses critical questions about earth-life interactions in deep-time and that earth’s paleontological history archived in the deep-time rock record provides a major research opportunity to investigate the future of our planet. As my research progressed, I became sure that I want to pursue an academic career in paleontology and doing a Ph.D. is the next steppingstone towards fulfilling my career objectives.

What do you do? 
I study a moderate mass extinction event during the Early Jurassic (about 183 million years ago). During this period, there was a volcanic province eruption, which injected large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As a result, there were significant perturbations in environmental conditions around the globe such as global warming, low oxygen levels, and acidification in some parts of the ocean. It is thought that these changes led to multiple (or multi-phased) biotic crises, but they may have also enhanced exceptional fossil preservation. Fossil deposits that contain both hard skeletal parts (such as bones) as well as soft tissues (e.g., ink sacs of coleoids) of organisms are considered as exceptional fossil deposits (or Konservat-Lagerstätten deposits). Though rare, such deposits provide uniquely comprehensive records of past life. These deposits contain a direct record of soft tissues of organisms not typically preserved in regular deposits Thus, the goal of my research is to address how these changing environmental conditions in the Early Jurassic affected the exceptional preservation, extinction, and recovery of organisms.

Sinjini measuring a Late Cretaceous shark tooth from the Chalk deposits of England.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
Soft tissues of organisms get preserved under rare circumstances in which rapid soft tissue mineralization proceeds faster than soft tissue degradation along with other local (e.g., depositional environment, or climate), regional, or global (e.g., weathering, or bioturbation) phenomenon affecting their preservation. Sometimes, a combination of preservational pathways can lead to exceptional preservation. Thus, the mineralogy of a fossil specimen is the result of the preservational process it has undergone, especially since the preservation of soft tissues typically requires rapid growth of minerals in the original place. I use a Scanning Electron Microscope to get better images of the structures of the fossils and then use Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (EDS) to obtain the mineralogy of the fossils from the elements detected in the EDS.

For the extinctions and recovery aspect of the project, I will be studying the occurrences and abundances of the different groups of fossils across the extinction boundaries. This will help me investigate which organisms survived the extinctions and which organisms went extinct. The fossils will be collected through field work.

How does your research goals contribute to the understanding of evolution and paleontology in general?
Results from my project will provide information about preservational pathways of exceptional fossilization. Exceptional fossil deposits capture information about organism morphology, ecology, diversity, evolutionary relationships, and paleo community structure, hence more information about them is necessary for filling gaps in the paleontological record. In addition, it will provide data about the patterns of biotic change in tropical marine communities and how these communities recovered from significant global events like those we are facing now. Broadly, extinctions not rated as the biggest could shed light on the survival strategies of organisms, addressing concerns about the conservation of extant marine communities in our changing environment today.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
If you are passionate about paleontology, just go for it. I often hear from non-paleontology graduate students that they had to drop their idea of pursuing paleontology as a career because they thought there are no jobs available.

Sinjini is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. To learn more about her and her research, check out her website and social media platforms below:
Website: https://www.jsg.utexas.edu/student/sinjini_sinha/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/SinjiniS
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sinjini-sinha-5a101ba9/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sinjinisinha