Blandine Hautier, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s graduate

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hi! My name is Blandine, and I am a master’s graduate in vertebrate paleontology. I specialise on dinosaurs (taphonomy, histology). I did my geology bachelor’s degree in Lille (France) with an Erasmus+ mobility in Tomsk (Russia), followed by a master’s degree in paleontology done in Lille for the first year, and an Erasmus mobility in Bonn (Germany) for the second, with my master’s thesis. Outside of paleontology, I am interested in modern Japanese literature, gothic fiction, taking care of plants and animals. But to be honest, I’m having the most fun when I’m in a museum! 

Posing in front of (from the left to the right) Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Edmontosaurus skull casts, on display at the “Big, Bigger, Dinosaurs” exhibition in Bonn (Museum Koenig).

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My career is only beginning, and I like to try out everything related to paleontology. 

For my master’s thesis, I had a research project on green-colored dinosaur bones from Utah (USA). The remains belonged to several diplodocines (large long-necked dinosaurs), and an unusual fossilization turned them green. Histology (study of bones microstructures) is a technique which has many uses, one of them being the determination of the age of an animal by the observation of its bone tissues. This method is particularly useful in bonebeds where dinosaur remains have been mixed because of river flows (for example). Through the observation of bone sections under the microscope, I could determine that the diplodocine remains came from animals of different ages, which meant several dinosaurs’ carcasses were mixed in the quarry.

Before that, during my bachelor’s, I learned dinosaur bone preparation in the vertebrate paleontology laboratory of the Tomsk State University. It’s a tedious work, but you really learn a lot by preparing the fossils by yourself. There are so many details you can miss when you observe a bone taken out of its context! The surrounding sediments, the geometry of the deposition, the state of preservation of the remains… all those clues are very important when doing a paleontological investigation! I see things in this way: a vertebrate paleontologist is often like a medical examiner in a murder case. When the body is removed from the crime scene, they are able to tell the cause of death, but not who killed the victim. To get the whole picture, we need the crime scene as well. For paleontologists, this corresponds to the quarry/bonebed, or at least the sediments around the bones. This is what field excursions, and thorough documentation on excavations are for!

Sitting on the left of a Titanosaurus vertebra (circled in orange) we discovered with my friend Lisa Garbé (on the right) in Russia with the paleontological laboratory from the Tomsk State University

During the bachelor years I had in Lille, I worked as a curating assistant for the geology department of the Museum of Natural History, and helped organising several public outreach events, giving talks on the need of paleontology in our societies to understand today’s climate emergency.

A few months ago, I helped dismantling the “Big, Bigger, Dinosaurs” exhibition at the Museum Koenig in Bonn, and returning to this kind of environment after a 3 years break felt really good. Since then, I occasionally help setting up and dismantling exhibitions around dinosaurs, and it is so much fun! (PS: I created an instagram account to try to share the behind the scenes of dinosaur research and exhibitions… @dinosaurs_forensics 😉 )

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? When I was a child, I developed an interest for bones early on. I would collect bones and skulls from diverse animals I would find in the fields, clean and sort them in different categories. As my mother thought this was a horrible hobby for a little girl, she got rid of my collection as soon as she found out it was not a short-lived interest. I then moved on to snail shells, but this collection was really stinky, and ended up in the trash like the former one. To me, keeping those bones and shells were like preserving memories of what once was. I wanted to understand what had happened to those animals, and their remains were a way to find out. One day, a friend of my parents showed them a plant fossil. It was a trace of a thing that lived in the past, it was beautiful, did not stink.. and my parents liked it? From that moment on, I started asking questions about fossils and collecting them. My dad brought me to the Museum of Natural History in Lille, and there I could show my treasures, get answers about them, and see which stories could be uncovered through fossil remains. I decided I would become a paleontologist one day. Growing up, I received a great support from my dad, one museum curator, and three school teachers who encouraged me to follow my passion, despite everyone around saying that I would “never make it” in paleontology.

My favorite parts about being a scientist are to question the current knowledge, go on field excursions to look for fossils in places where nature has been untouched, and also try to close the gap between scientists and the public. In the same way older people made me want to do paleontology and pushed me to follow my dreams, I want to transmit the knowledge and will to understand our world to younger generations. I love speaking to kids, grandparents, families who want to know about what was, and what  extinct forms of life can tell us about our present and future.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? Dinosaurs make kids and adults dream and wonder, and even if this field of paleontology can be considered as “less meaningful” regarding climate change than micropaleontology as an example, I like researching about them just for the sake of knowledge. Why did they look this way? What were their habits? Why were they so big?

Holding a real piece of a limb bone of the “Arapahoe” sauropod during the dismantling of the Museum Koenig’s exhibition

I believe there is nothing wrong in trying to answer questions which do not appear as  “useful” for today’s societies. All questions deserve to be answered. On the other hand, understanding dinosaur’s ecology, biology, environment and habits definitely help us refine the knowledge we have about evolution and other aspects of the living.

Dinosaurs are also useful in another way: as they are part of the worldwide pop-culture, they are very often the first step into paleontology for many people. Through dinosaurs, it is possible to speak to people about fossils, geology, evolution, extinction events. As a result, for public outreach, scientists (including me) use them as an introduction to topics such as climate change. That’s why so many scientific articles use “dinosaur” in their title, even when those animals are not involved in the paper.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists?  “Do or do not. There is no try.” if you want to do science, go for it. Do your best, always, and if it does not work, you won’t have any regrets because you did all you could to make it happen. And when obstacles will come along the way, never forget that for each problem there is a solution. If you have passion, you will get to meet similar-minded persons who will help you reach your goals, and you will end up finding your spot in this field. 

If you are a LGBTQ+, disabled, POC or woman-identifying person: there is space for you in science. Together, we should and will make this environment a safer place, where we all can grow equally. We need diversity, please don’t give up on your dreams. 

Follow Blandine’s updates on Research Gate and Instagram.

Taking a break to observe the landscape during a field excursion in Siberia.

Danijela Dimitrijević, Paleobiologist

Figure 1. The happiness of discovering a fish fossil form the Upper Jurassic in the Wattendorf quarry, Germany.

Hi! I’m Danijela, a first year PhD student at FAU University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. I am from Serbia, but I have been living in Germany since 2018 when I started a master’s degree in Paleobiology at FAU. 

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My research is all about corals and reefs through time. I study the evolution of scleractinian corals also known as stony corals, from the time when they first appeared in the mid Triassic, around 250 million years ago until today. I am so happy to be working on these super organisms because everything about them is fascinating – their biology, ecology, and geology. They build coral reefs in shallow tropical seas which harbour the highest diversity of organisms in the ocean. They also live in a mutually beneficial relationship with tiny algae which perform photosymbiosis while living within the coral’s soft tissue and provide corals with 90% of necessary nutrients. Corals are also hunters at night, and some of them can live at depths of thousands of meters. Unfortunately, their future fate and the fate of many organisms that live on reefs and depend on them are also affected by the climate change and other anthropogenic disturbances such as pollution and overfishing. I could talk for hours about how cool are corals and reefs they form, and how we need to do everything we can to keep them from disappearing, so I have been lucky that this semester I have been given the opportunity to teach the course on geobiology of reefs to our Master students (in English of course!). 

Figure 2 Filming a video as a part of the Science communication class. You can watch the video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLXlfYpRxaY

For my research, I am particularly interested in how their morphological characters changed through time and if their extinction risk was related to changes in their traits. For example, in my Master thesis I looked at changes in corallite diameter through time. Corallite is a skeletal cup in which the coral polyp sits. The size of the corallite could be related to their efficacy of obtaining nutrients and I was interested to see if this change was related to major warming events or reef crises in Earth’s history. This would help us predict their future fates under global warming scenarios. For this kind of research, we used datasets such as the one we created by collecting data from the literature into the database called ART which stands for Ancient Reef Traits. This database has been built for the past two years by the team of scientists at Paleo group at FAU and soon will become available to everyone. 

Figure 3 Doing field work on Silurian reefs of Gotland Island, Sweden. I am the very concentrated person on the left 🙂

How did you become a palaeontologist? Unlike many paleo people, my story of getting into the paleo world is untraditional one. I wasn’t into dinosaurs when I was little, and I didn’t even know much about palaeontology until a few years ago. However, I always loved nature and all its wonders, and have been fascinated by both the biology and Earth’s history. In high school I was also interested in social sciences and languages so choosing a bachelor’s degree was very difficult for me. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make because at the time I believed that I would have to be forever stuck in the chosen field. But I actually switched fields several times. I started by studying a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at University of Belgrade in Serbia. Then, I did a master’s degree in applied ecology (IMAE) which was funded by the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program, and it meant that I had to change universities during the two years. It was one of the best experiences of my life – not only did I get the opportunity to study at Universities in France and Portugal, but I have also met many amazing people and made friends for life. Within this program we got to go on a month-long field trip in Ecuador and experience and study different ecosystems. From hiking at 4000 meters in the Paramo ecosystems in the Andean mountains, over living in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, to swimming with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands. After all these experiences I was sure I wanted to be a scientist. My master thesis was about the diet of Antarctic penguins (no, I didn’t get to go there) and at the time I was in search of a PhD program where I could get the opportunity to go to the Antarctic and study penguins. However, during that search I also stumbled upon several palaeontology projects, and I was simply drawn to it. Palaeontology as a field offered so much more than contemporary ecology – it was the intersection of ecology, biology and geology and many other fields and it felt just right for me. Since I didn’t have any formal education in palaeontology, I wanted to learn more about it. So, to the shock of many I decided not to do a PhD, but to do another master’s degree in Paleobiology. It was maybe one of the hardest decisions I made and it set back my scientific career by a few years, but it was definitely the right one! I am now grateful to myself that I was brave enough over the course of years to follow my heart and change fields! 

Figure 4 Exploring the Galapagos Islands was so much fun!

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My message to young prospective scientists is that it’s never too late for anything in life and especially not for pursuing your passion. I still believe that having to choose a career path when you are 19 years old (or even a bit older) is way too early. So, give yourself a time if you need to explore your interests. Most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be stuck in a box – being interdisciplinary and having many different skills are the great advantages for a scientist. So, believe in yourself and just follow your own path, because doing what you love is the greatest reward of all.

Figure 5. Example of a corallite skeleton within coral colony. Photo accessed from https://www.istockphoto.com/de/foto/coral-struktur-gm950047064-259317766

Follow Danijela’s updates on Twitter, Research gate, and her website.

Brittany N. Price, Paleoclimatologist

Brittany, a brown-haired woman, wearing PPE while working on a gas bench in Northern Illinois Universities Stable Isotope Laboratory.
Brittany wearing personal protective equipment while working on a gas bench in Northern Illinois University’s Stable Isotope Laboratory

Similar to many children, I was always fascinated by volcanos! The dynamic way in which they change the landscape inspired me to pursue a degree in geology. While this interest and appreciation of volcanoes has never faded, a new specialty piqued my interest in my second year at university – Paleoclimatology. The idea that the past climate history of the earth could be reconstructed over millions of years by analyzing the chemical makeup of microfossils preserved in oceanic sediments quickly made me alter my focus, and subsequently my entire career trajectory! I spent the next three years working in the Paleoclimatology and Stable Isotope Geochemistry labs at the University of Miami to prepare forams (microfossils) from the Gulf of Papua (off the coast of Papua New Guinee) for stable oxygen and carbon analysis to better understand the influence of sea level, as well as variability in the East Asian Monsoon system in the western Tropical Pacific.

Fast forward almost 15 years and I am nearing the completion of my PhD. I now focus on terrestrial records that I use to assess variability in hydroclimate dynamics (i.e. rainfall) over the Holocene around the Pacific Ocean Basin. My current projects include a wide variety of locations and proxy data, from establishing chronologies of glacial advancement and recession in the South-Central Chilean Andes, to carbonate isotope reconstructions from small lake basins in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Moving forward I hope to work on better constraining the roles that aridity and convection play in the global hydroclimate system through the use of stable isotopes, as well as to reconstruct better land-based temperature proxy records. It is truly amazing to witness the analytical advances that have been made even during my relatively short career as a geoscientist!

Brittany, wearing full PPE including a face shield, working to decant hydrofluoric acid from samples used for cosmogenic chlorine-36 dating.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring geologists it would be that no two paths look that same, so it is best not to compare yourself to others! There are so many interesting careers in our discipline, and it is alright to explore them. After I completed my undergraduate education, I continued on for my Masters in Geology. While I had wanted to work on terrestrial sediment cores, I ended up working on a basin analysis project using seismic reflection data. Having this skill set opened avenues that I hadn’t originally considered for myself, and led to a job offer and a career working in the oil and gas industry for 8 years. However, I realized that I was still truly inspired and passionate about Paleoclimatology, and that I still had so much more I wanted to learn. I decided to leave the workforce, and as a more mature student (at least 10 years older than the average age of my cohort) I entered the PhD program at Northern Illinois University. Returning to the world of Paleoclimatology has been one of the best and most fulfilling experiences of my adult life, even if the path I took to get here was a bit longer than most.

Brittany, woman in a wide-brimmed hat and fleece jacket, on a snow-covered field in front of a small cirque glacier
Brittany on a snow-covered field in front of a small cirque glacier.

Benjamin Keenan, Biogeochemist

Photo showing Benjamin in the foreground with a volcano erupting the background
Benjamin during an eruption of Volcán de Fuego or Chi Q’aq’ in Guatemala

Hello everyone. I am a biogeochemist who uses ancient molecules found in lake sediments to investigate interactions between humans and their environment. I am finishing a PhD in biogeochemistry at McGill in Montréal, Québec. I like skiing and ice skating, jazz, and when the earth is not frozen over I spend my lot of time bike-camping and swimming outdoors. I moved to Canada after a degree in geological sciences in England/California and working as an environmental consultant, a water engineer, and as a research assistant at the Complutense University of Madrid.

My current research looks at how the lowland Maya interacted with their environment and how they responded to climate change over 3,300 years. I take samples from Central America, extract organic molecules known as lipids and analyse them using different methods. I use plant waxes as a proxy for vegetation and hydrological change (how wet or dry it was) in the past, polycyclic aromatic carbons (from the incomplete combustion of carbon) as a proxy for biomass burning the past, and faecal stanols as proxies for population change.

My first chapter shows that population declines in the southwest Maya lowlands are associated not only with drought at multiple times throughout history, but also with anomalously wet periods, and has also highlighted potential efforts to reduce soil erosion as well as the use of night soil (human waste) as fertiliser in the past. This work attracted a lot of media interest, including from the CBC, Haaretz, El Mundo, and Archaeology Magazine, and will be vulgarised in the magazine Le Climatoscope. It also forms part of the chapter “Climate Change and Variability in the Protoclassic” in Remaking Maya Civilization, Social and Political Transformations in the Protoclassic Maya Lowlands.

Benjamin wearing a striped shirt, shorts and wellington boots in a tree over a cliff reaching out to collect leaves for analyses
Benjamin in the field in Guatemala collecting leaves for plant wax analyses

Now I am in the process of writing my thesis, which I will submit in December, and working with a digital artist to create a virtual Itzan, the archaeological site where the samples I have analysed were taken from. I think it is important for people to know that ancient societies were affected by climate change and by looking at responses to environmental change in the past how we might better understand anthropogenic climate change today and in the future. I am particularly interested in migration as climate change adaptation and am a member of the McGill Refugee Research Group.

Most students are fortunate enough to be on campuses with interesting seminars and public lectures in different departments that you can attend and make connections between your interests, your research and what is happening in different areas and at different scales. This is interesting and can be fruitful, and helps prevent you from getting stuck in the rut of your niche bit of research. Attending talks in anthropology, geography, and social sciences has given me new perspectives for my thesis, where the question I am researching requires an interdisciplinary approach.

Figure from Keenan et al. (2021) showing population change in the context of palaeoclimate and changes in pollen (a proxy for deforestation).

Patty Standring, PhD Student at University of Texas at Austin studying paleoceanography using benthic foraminifera

Hello! I am Patty, and I am a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). I am also an Air Force veteran. I worked as a Dari Linguist during my 10 years in the military before returning to school to get a bachelor’s degree at UT in geophysics.

Photo of me in front of my microscope at the Institute for Geophysics.

What research are you doing for your PhD? I am studying the paleoceanography of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean during the Eocene and Oligocene epochs (~30-40 million years ago). I look for tiny fossil shells from organisms called foraminifera (forams for short) in deep-sea sediments, and then analyze the isotopes in the shells. I specifically study the forams that live on the seafloor, so they are referred to as benthic forams, whereas planktic forams float in the water column. Forams are single-celled organisms and build their calcite shells from elements in the seawater, essentially recording what seawater conditions were like when they were alive and giving us information about the source of water masses, ocean circulation, and climate changes through time. When forams die, their shells are incorporated into deep-sea sediments, so all we have to do is dig up old ocean mud and then we have a record of what the ocean was like a long time ago.

The time period I am studying is important because the global climate was changing from very warm (much warmer than today) to very cold conditions, and ocean circulation was changing. Atmospheric carbon dioxide was much higher than today but declining, which cooled the climate enough that ice sheets developed on Antarctica. As a result of many of these changes certain groups of foraminifera went extinct. I am trying to find out how these climate and ocean changes occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea in the hopes that it will help us understand how modern ocean circulation developed and how it may change in the future as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to increase.

Image of 10 Nuttallides truempyi foraminifera to be analyzed for isotope data. My fingers provide some scale of how small the shells can be.

 

Why did you leave the military to pursue science? I joined the military at age 19 due to lack of employment opportunities and an inability to pay for college. After enlisting, the Air Force trained me in Dari, one of primary languages spoken in Afghanistan. I was a Dari Linguist for six years and reenlisted during my deployment to Afghanistan for four more years. Learning Dari not only gave me a unique appreciation for the Afghan culture but also exposed me to broader geopolitical issues I was previously sheltered from.

Image of me shortly after reenlisting while deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in Dec 2011.

Growing up in southern California, I am familiar with earthquakes, but have been fortunate to not have been significantly affected by them. While deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a northern province in the country experienced a larger magnitude earthquake, resulting in significant damage and casualties, with an entire village swallowed by a landslide. It struck me that a similar magnitude earthquake in the US would not have resulted in the same level of devastation primarily due to the emergency infrastructure of the US and building safety requirements. It made me reconsider what my efforts in Afghanistan were actually resulting in and whether or not I could have a more positive impact on the people I was trying to help.

After my deployment, I began considering what options I might have when my enlistment was up. I decided I wanted to pursue a science career, with the original goal of studying earthquake hazards. I hoped that my military experience would aid in increasing earthquake preparedness and mitigation efforts in countries like Afghanistan.

Me aboard the R/V Brooks McCall in Galveston Bay, Texas, during the Marine Geology Geophysics Field Course in 2018.

Why did you decide to study paleoceanography? After my second enlistment was up in 2015, I moved to Austin and went to Austin Community College (ACC) in preparation for applying to the University of Texas at Austin. While at ACC, I participated in a summer research program where I worked on a group project in a lab studying the permeability and porosity of different types of rocks (how much fluid can flow through certain types of rocks). This experience helped solidify my desire to study geology at UT and gave me confidence in my ability to conduct scientific research. It also instilled in me the importance of promoting participation of 2-year college students in scientific research.

My original goal was to study earthquakes and earthquake hazard mitigation, but my participation in UT’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) Marine Geology and Geophysics Field Course introduced me to marine geology, oceanography, and – more importantly – forams. I was fortunate enough to be able to work on an undergraduate research project with UTIG Research Scientist Dr. Chris Lowery using foram ecology to study sea level change along the Texas Gulf Coast over the last 10,000 years. That project, along with Dr. Lowery’s mentorship, gave me the confidence to pursue a graduate degree studying ancient climate and oceanographic changes in the hopes that they will help us understand modern ocean and climate stability and potential impacts on vulnerable communities.

Me graduating from home in May 2020. Like many things in the last two years, the in-person graduation ceremony at UT was cancelled because of the pandemic.

Do you have any advice for aspiring scientists? I have a non-traditional path toward science. Although it took me much longer to get to where I am, I believe my experiences make me a better scientist and a more well-rounded individual. I come from a low-middle income socioeconomic background, I served in the military in a completely different career field, and I attended community college before enrolling at UT Austin. These are just a few of what some people might consider obstacles that I overcame to get to where I am now. However, I am who I am because of where I come from, what I have sacrificed for my education, and the path I took to get to this point. As an older student, I feel much more certain in what I want from my education and in my future scientific career. As a military veteran, I have a socio-political perspective that informs my research goals. So, my advice to aspiring scientists is do not be afraid of a non-traditional path. Things like prior work experience and a community college education are benefits because they make you a versatile individual, and able to adapt to changes in ways that students on a traditional path may not be able to. Take advantage of opportunities that may become available to you because you never know where they will take you or how they might change your perspective or your research path.

What do you want your future to look like? My military experience helped me realize how important it is to me to have a positive impact on the lives of others. After receiving my PhD, I hope to find a position working for a government agency like the US Geological Survey or the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. I would like to work on scientific research that informs policy decisions pertaining to climate change impacts, particularly for marginalized communities that are typically more vulnerable to climate change and are underserved with respect to mitigation efforts.

Note from the TS Team: Patty has also written a post on the Student Veterans Research Network that we encourage you to read. 

Kelsey Jenkins, PhD Candidate

I’m Kels, and I’m a PhD Candidate at Yale University in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. I completed my undergraduate in Geology and Geophysics at Louisiana State University, followed by an M.Sc. in Biological Sciences at Sam Houston State University.

What was your path into science? If you ask any vertebrate paleontologist this question, the majority will say, “Uhh, I was five years old once.” I stopped asking other paleontologists because the answer is so predictable, and it’s my truth as well. 

I am from Houma, Louisiana, a region of the country that is certainly not known for its fossils or for an exceptional educational system. Luckily, I had the support of my parents who encouraged their daughter’s unusual fascination with fossils. But, when college came around, I was clueless on how to get an education in paleontology…it’s not as if there was a paleontology degree. I chose a big state school, LSU, because I thought it would have the most resources available to me, and I could figure it out from there. I initially majored in anthropology, thinking that’s what I needed to work on dinosaurs (wrong!), but by luck I signed up for a historical geology class as an elective. The first class covered the history of the earth and the fossil record. I changed my major shortly after to geology, and I navigated my way through the department until I met my first mentors in paleontology, Judith Schiebout and Suyin Ting. They gave me a job in the museum collections cataloging a huge donation of mammal fossils, and I spent two years getting hands on experience and teaching myself basic anatomy and taxonomy. Following that, Patrick Lewis, my M.Sc. advisor at SHSU, offered me a project on a strange little reptilian creature from the Triassic of South Africa which fueled my current love of fossil reptiles, reptilian evolution, and dentition. I’m still working on reptile evolution and functional morphology now in my PhD with Bhart-Anjan Bhullar.

What is your research about? Imagine every reptile you’ve ever heard of, living and extinct: lizards, snakes, turtles, dinosaurs, alligators, mosasaurs, pterodactyls. Now, imagine the grandpa that unites them all, the original reptile ancestor. I research the creatures that lead up to that original reptile ancestor. Those animals represent some of the first widespread colonization of land by tetrapods (four-legged animals), and they preserve some of the first instances of important adaptations seen in modern reptiles. That part of the reptilian lineage holds clues about how to become an effective land animal following the initial embargo from water onto land by more fish-like creatures.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of science? I’m still figuring that one out. I enjoy cooking, hiking, crochet, writing, and spending time with my friends, but it’s not always easy to separate myself from work and research. When you pursue science, you’re pursuing a passion, and you don’t always want to take a step back. But, it’s important to take breaks and stretch your legs, though telling yourself that is sometimes easier said than done. If I can give students any piece of advice: you definitely need to take breaks. Get a hobby. Get several. Find out what else you might enjoy too.

Devra Hock, Paleontologist, Ph.D. Candidate

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi! My name is Devra Hock and I am currently working on my PhD on mammalian paleoecology. Outside of my research, I love dance and musical theater. I’ve danced and performed my whole life and recently that interest has shifted towards aerial dance (think Cirque du Soleil, but much less fancy). I teach aerial hoop and pole fitness classes, as well as perform with my aerial studio in Lincoln, NE. Having something else to focus on with non-academic goals and challenges allows me time to have fun and accomplish personal goals. I also have a love of vintage-inspired fashion, and want to help re-define what scientists look like.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do?
Right now, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which is very similar to a research scientist. I conduct my own research for my dissertation, as well as teach in my department and assist my advisor with his research. I’m studying mammalian paleo-ecology, and specifically looking at how the distribution of mammalian traits can be used to predict environments. To do that, I use historical mammalian distributions and their associated traits and environments as proxies to build a model that can be applied to the fossil data. Currently, I am comparing both North American and African mammal data to determine which is the best proxy to use for Miocene North American fossil localities. Another part of my research is examining the change in North American mammalian distributions from historical to modern times and discussing possible causes. In addition to my research, I am on the board of the Association for Women Geoscientists and currently transitioning from a region delegate to the Communications Coordinator after participating on the communications committee being in charge of the AWG Twitter and part of the team that keeps the website updated.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
I grew up loving going to museums and science centers, but that did not translate into an interest into science as a career field until middle school, with a 6th grade field trip focusing on earth sciences. That was my first exposure of geology as a scientific field. From there, the following year I researched what radiocarbon dating was for a research fair at school and used woolly mammoths as my example in that project. While working on that project, I found myself going down the paleontology documentary rabbit hole and got more and more interested in paleontology itself. In high school, I was lucky to have a science teacher that had a background as a paleo-anthropologist, and I was able to really develop my interest in paleontology throughout high school.

As a scientist, I appreciate the skill to look for questions that don’t have answers and to think critically about data and facts presented to me. I’ve also learned how to be collaborative with a variety of people from different disciplines. Additionally, one of my favorite parts about being a paleontologist is our ability to essentially time travel through our research. Especially when we’re out in the field, we’re standing in rocks that formed millions of years ago and finding fossils that haven’t seen the light of day since they were buried. As a geologist and paleontologist, we’re able to look at the rocks and interpret what environment created each rock layer, and travel through different environments as they changed through time. In my specific field of paleo-ecology, we try to understand what the interactions of animals and their environments looked like throughout time.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
My research has two broad contributions to society. First, my research of historical versus modern mammalian distributions will add to our knowledge of the changes occurring in the natural world around us and what the potential causes might be. These discussions contribute to the work of ecologists and conservationists as they work to maintain our natural spaces for future generations. Second, my research into paleo-ecology will add to our knowledge of the evolution of environments and animals throughout time, which also contributes to our understanding of why and how environments change and what the animals’ response has been in the past.

My work with the Association of Women Geoscientists and local outreach events creates discussions about equity and equality in the geosciences for women and other underrepresented groups. Currently both with AWG and in my own department, I have been working with others to find sustainable and achievable methods to increase diversity and inclusivity in the geosciences and to dismantle systemic and institutional barriers.

 

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists?
My biggest piece of advice is to find a way to try out things you’re interested in to see if you really like doing them. I started doing field work in high school as a gauge if I really did like paleontology in practice and not just from TV documentaries. It’s also a great way of building experience and connections. My second biggest piece of advice follows that, which is networking. Just like any other field, your path is what you make of it, but knowing other people in your field can change the shape of your path. Don’t be hesitant to reach out to professors or researchers in the field that you’re interested in. With emails, the worst that can happen is they never respond! Science is filled with opportunities, but unfortunately opportunities aren’t always equal. You may have to seek out experiences that will help you later on. There are a lot of unspoken rules and expectations, and sometimes you won’t get opportunities you are qualified for, and that’s not your fault. You just have to keep pushing and your time will come. However, with everything I just said, don’t lose yourself to your science. We are all multi-faceted human beings with lots of different interests. Make sure to take time for yourself and your other hobbies. Time away from school or research is just as important as time spent working. While school and research are important parts in your life, they aren’t your entire life. Remember, you can’t do science if you’re burned out!

To learn more about Devra and her research, visit her website here!

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!