Colin Boisvert, Paleontologist (in training)

Describe your hobbies and interests outside of science. I am an avid reader both in non fiction related to paleontology, evolutionary biology, a lot of different scientific subjects in general and fantasy, science fiction and some other fiction. A few of my favorite authors include Pierce Brown, Christopher Paolini, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Frank Herbert. I am also a huge nerd when it comes to a lot of popular media franchises such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, MCU, DCU and  Ghostbusters to name a few and quote movie lines all the time. I am a big costumer and have built my own Mandalorian armor among other costumes such as  the First Avenger Captain America  and Obi Wan Kenobi. I love to hike with friends, swim, and travel to new places (especially those with paleo stops).  I love spending time with my family and friends and am a big foodie.

Colin sitting next to a neck vertebra in a room full of bones.
Me in the middle of taking photos of a cervical (neck) vertebra from my specimen in the North collections at the BYU Museum of Paleontology as part of the photogrammetry process. This process is used to make 3d models of the neck bones for my specimen of Apatosaurus excelsus.

Discuss anything else about yourself that you’d like to share that doesn’t have to do with your career. I grew up in the Silicon Valley in Northern California which shaped my love for paleontology and my love of some of my hobbies. I spent a lot of time outside, especially as my Grandparents moved when I was younger to the Santa Cruz Mountains where I fell in love with the forests there. Much of my family lives in Northern California and I have remained close with all of them.  I love meeting new people, especially other scientists! 

What is your role? I am a Vertebrate Paleontology Graduate Student working towards my Masters in Geology focused on Vertebrate Paleontology at BYU. Currently that just makes me a Mr. Boisvert but working towards eventually becoming Dr. Boisvert! I am currently working with Sauropods and specifically the neck biomechanics of Apatosaurus excelsus to understand more about how this animal held its neck and what the species’s possible feeding envelope was.

Do you conduct outreach? I would love to get into more outreach with school age kids here in Utah. I was an education intern this past summer at the Mammoth site in Hot Springs, South Dakota and loved it! However nothing is set up at the moment, so the only science outreach I communicate on is with my fossil Friday posts! 

Colin holding up a cast of an Allosaurus skull.
The BYU Museum of Paleontology recently had professional shots done with photographers from campus using some of the specimens on display. This is a favorite shot of mine illustrating a pose similar to the classic Alas poor Yorik pose from Shakespeare with a cast of the skull of Big Al ( famous specimen of Allosaurus jimmadseni). While I do love studying sauropods, Allosauroids will always have a special place in my heart.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My favorite part of being a scientist is getting to work to uncover the past every day and sharing my discoveries with people.  I get some of the greatest joy when I get to give tours or share what I have learned about prehistory and learning that while doing research is an equally amazing feeling. Having conversations about current topics in the field of paleontology is an exciting prospect that I always look forward to at conferences or over zoom. I became interested in paleontology at a young age, took earth science, biology, and chemistry in high school. From high school, I attended UC Davis where I did a double major in biology and geology. I had a status year where I was a tutor and then worked as a Mammoth Site Intern in the summer of 2021 and since August of 2021 have been working on my Masters at  Brigham Young University.

Besides paleontology, I love learning more about geology, evolutionary biology, phylogenetics and biogeography in general. I also enjoy learning more  about the history of different sciences including paleontology, geology, and the theory of evolution. Besides my project I would love to tackle scientific questions relating to the Mid-Cretaceous Sauropod Hiatus where we don’t see Sauropods in North America and Europe for between 25-30 million years in the fossil record.  I would love to help close the gap between the transition of Dinosaur fauna in Western North America between 95-80 million years ago as well as what dinosaurs lived in Appalachia, the Eastern half of  North America. Finally it would be interesting to test comparisons between famous North American faunas like that at La Brea Tar Pits vs the Morrison Formation and what similarities in ecological roles there are between the two ecosystems.

How does your work contribute to the understanding of evolution and paleontology? My work contributes to paleontology through how this research with Apatosaurus can help us more with understanding this sauropod’s neck posture and range of motion. By understanding how this animal moved and what it fed on, we can better understand the Morrison environment in one small aspect. At the time of my specimen, we have 5-7 large coeval sauropod species and by understanding the diet of this species we can begin to piece together the puzzle of how all these animals were able to coexist. The specimen I am studying is unique as it does not suffer from several of the problems plaguing sauropod neck studies such as bone distortion and incompleteness of specimens.

Colin standing outside of the BYU Museum on a snowy day, with snow covering the pines and cars behind him.
Me standing right outside the BYU Museum of Paleontology where I have conducted most of my research so far ! It has a world-class paleontology collection and is a fantastic place to visit.

How does your outreach contribute to or benefit society? Fossil Friday posts such as mine  are important for helping to engage those connected to scientists through social media, spreading information about unique species, specimens and collections that  are out there and providing recognition of the work that is done in our field and localities people should visit. A smile put on someone’s face learning about the past today, can inspire a budding scientist for tomorrow.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Science is rough and not always a 9-5 job. It may require early mornings/late nights but the work is worth it and there is such an amazing feeling you get when you can present research at a conference and talk with colleagues about what you are studying. I wish I had known that jobs are difficult to come by as are graduate student positions so working really hard helps with being more competitive when applying to positions. Reading scientific papers is important for developing a good understanding and field vocabulary.

Have you received a piece of advice from your friends, mentors, or advisors that has helped you navigate your career? Looking for a variety of programs can help with applying to graduate school, publishing is very important and problem solving is key for scientists. I also learned two key tips for investigating possible graduate programs. 1, it is very important that you and a possible adviser can get along and will you get along if you attended there. 2, are they studying similar organisms/using techniques you wish to learn about so they can help you more when you have trouble with projects.  Making an attempt to establish contact with a potential advisor before applying is a great way to build a relationship with them and can help with your application. It can be as simple as having a zoom meeting to discuss their research lab and interests.

Learn more about Colin by following him on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn

Aaron Avery, Biostratigrapher

Tell us a little bit about yourself.  My name is Aaron Avery, and I am a geologist who specializes in calcareous nannofossil biostratigraphy. I spent 6 years working as a biostratigrapher in the oil and gas industry, often working offshore on oil drilling installations in the Gulf of Mexico. More importantly, I am a father of one beaming sunray of a 4-year-old girl named Jori. I love spending time showing her around the world and cultivating the same curiosity and wanderlust that has gripped me my entire life. I’m a nerd at heart who loves science fiction and fantasy, but that never stops me from enjoying a great day outdoors; fishing, going to the beach, and hiking are always on the table. My love for adventure led me to sail with an NSF funded science outfit known as the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). As I write this, I am currently sailing for the second time. With IODP, you get the experience of a lifetime through deep ocean drilling where you recover cores of sediments and basic rocks that are unique to the world. It is pure, unadulterated science for two months. I don’t have enough room here to talk about all of the reasons why sailing with IODP is amazing, so I’ll say this: it is the most incredible scientific experience of a lifetime where you will meet brilliant scientists, make connections, and try to answer some questions about the Earth’s mysteries. For anyone who has the stomach for being on a ship and away from home for two months, I highly recommend it.

This photo is staged in a diner. You can see Halloween decorations in the background. The people in the image are a mid-30s white male with glasses and a beard. A four-year-old white girl sits to his right, making a silly face in the picture. The little girl is wearing a Halloween costume of a black cat. They are father and daughter.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I’m a trained biostratigrapher who specializes in calcareous nannofossils, which are tiny marine algae that calcify shells around their cell(s). I got my MS in Geology from Florida State University and used my micropaleontology specialty to land a job with a consulting firm working as a biostratigrapher for oil companies. The company was based in New Orleans, LA, which was a lot of fun, but the rigor of having to go offshore to an oil platform on a day’s notice, missing holidays, and missing important milestones in my daughter’s life really wore on me. The solution was to move to Tampa, FL and start my PhD at the University of South Florida. I’m hoping to combine my knowledge of biostratigraphy and paleontology with a more advanced background in marine geology and paleobiology to study long term climate fluctuations and turn that into informative research for conservation purposes.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My favorite part about being a scientist is always having an interesting question to try to answer. That is also the most difficult part of science for me. I have an incredibly hard time deciding which project should receive priority. I just want to study anything, take advantage of any opportunity that comes my way. I’m interested in climate science, broadly. My specific focuses are biostratigraphy, climatology, stable isotope geochemistry, evolution, conservation paleobiology, and marine geology.

My path into science included a lot of change of major forms. I began my college career as a biology major with the idea that I would go to vet school. After a year, I was lured into being an English major by my love for writing. From there, I thought I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a high school teacher, so I added an education major to my program. Just one semester passed, and I quickly realized this was not the path for me. In the meantime, I had been doing very well in Earth science elective courses and fell in love with Earth science. I switched my major to geography with a focus on environmental science and picked up a geology minor for good measure. That is where I found my true passion. I decided I would start applying for graduate school and pursue a masters in geology. After a year of rejections, I finally landed a spot at Florida State University where I would earn my MS in geology with a focus on micropaleontology.

A picture of a large ship. The ship is blue and you can see that it is named the ‘Joides Resolution’. To the right of the picture (stern of the ship) you can see a helicopter pad. Towards the bow of the ship, you see a large derrick rising towards the sky. The derrick is where all the drilling equipment is set up for use.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? I mentioned above that I worked in the oil industry as a biostratigrapher. This contributes directly to the production of fossil fuels to keep society running. However, this was always a means to an end, and after a while I wanted my work to be more meaningful than whatever the current price of a barrel of oil happened to be. This led me to start a PhD at the University of South Florida and focus on conservation paleobiology: research that will help me (hopefully) directly inform policy makers and the public about the best practices for preserving our world. I also hope to be able to provide unique insight and perspectives on biologic change through time that will help us make impactful decisions that have real positive impacts on the environment.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming scientists? If you want to be a scientist, my best advice is to never stop asking questions, and never be afraid to be wrong. Cultivate a passion for learning and discussion that allows you to be open minded in all facets of your career. Understand that science isn’t always glorious and that sometimes you have to grind to get to the things/answers you are passionate about. It may sound cliché, but network in whatever way is comfortable for you and cultivate relationships as they will bring opportunities to your doorstep. 

Never succumb to imposter syndrome—you deserve to be here as much as anyone, and you earned it! As I write this, I’m sailing for the second time with the Integrated Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and everyone, absolutely everyone, is brilliant. It was daunting the first time I sailed, but I learned on my first expedition that intelligence isn’t something to be afraid of, or to compare yourself to, it is a lifeline to a world of possibilities and learning. Everyone has something wonderful to offer, and you will too!

A mid-30s white male wearing a light brown long-sleeve shirt, a black and gray striped knit hat, glasses, and a blue surgical mask. He is standing over a core section of sediment drilled from a deep ocean basement. He is sampling this core using toothpicks in order to make smear slides.

 

Werner de Gier, Carcinologist (Crustacean biologist)

Werner in the foreground of the museum where he works with signage in the background.
Werner stands in front of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, three banners in the Progress Pride patterns can be seen in the background.

Hi all! My name is Werner de Gier, I’m a Dutch PhD candidate at the biggest natural history museum of the Netherlands, the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. My work focusses on the evolution of symbiotic crustaceans, specifically two families of crabs and shrimps. I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at Leiden University, after which I got the opportunity to continue my work on crustaceans at the museum. Outside of research I’m a fan of taking pictures of everything nature brings together with my boyfriend: insects in the summer and spring, birds in the winter, mushrooms in the fall (and a bit of tide pooling all year though, of course). In addition, I enjoy making line-art illustrations of invertebrate animals, taking care of my many indoor plants, and helping people out validating observations on online nature platforms. So yes, I do take my work home, but I enjoy it!

I always have a hard time giving myself a label in science, but I do love the sound of a “carcinologist”, so someone who is studying crustaceans. However, I also check the boxes of a taxonomist, or evolutionary zoologist. My work focuses on the evolution of the adaptations of tiny symbiotic crabs and shrimps living in- and outside of various reef organisms. Think of bivalves, ascidians (sea squirts), but also on urchins, sea cucumbers, corals, etc.. Using specimens from Europe’s largest symbiotic crustacean collection at Naturalis, I study links between the ecology and the morphological adaptations of a group of species. Sometimes these adaptations are microscopic and I need to make illustrations or CT-scans in order to get all the details right. Combining newly constructed family trees with the morphological character states, I can place the host-choice and the linked adaptations of the studied shrimps or crabs in an evolutionary context. 

A shrimp in the foreground as an example of camouflage.
An example of a camouflaged symbiotic shrimp species, the Caribbean Periclimenes perryae, living between the arms of a basket star (a brittle star). Image credit: Charles Fransen.

 

I got into biology at a very young age, passively being taught quite a lot about nature by my parents. In my first year of my Bachelor’s, I fell in love with taxonomy, natural history, and invertebrates, namely snails, insects and crustaceans. Since Naturalis is well-known throughout the whole country, we as PhD candidates can get quite a lot of opportunities to showcase our research through the media, or in the museum itself. Although crustaceans are not as flashy as dinosaurs, or other charismatic megafauna, it’s still nice to tell the general public about marine biology, invertebrate research, and the diversity of so-called “cryptofauna” – hidden biodiversity. When I present my research, I’m always keen on showcasing a lot of tiny, beautiful and plain weird species of crustaceans, to inspire students, but also kids, to look more closely at nature around them. It helped me find my passion for science, so I hope I can help them as well.

Image depicting the author on a TV interview.
Werner is kneeling next to a screen, where the “Jeugdjournaal” (Kid’s news) can be seen. Werner is visible on the screen in an interview.

 

Although my projects are now still stamped as “fundamental research”, I do believe taxonomy needs more attention due to its capability to show us there’s way more to discover in so-thought “well-studied” ecosystems. By studying the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs we can maybe even predict which species will adapt better to the changing climate and which species need to be protected. Symbiosis show us everything is connected, and how we are destroying this network between species. Without fundamental research we can’t properly understand which and how many species are playing their part in an ecosystem, so how can we protect them without that knowledge? 

 

Werner in his work setting. microscopes and specimen jars are on the desk indicating he is working on these specimens.
Werner de Gier in the Naturalis labs, a microscope and various jars filled with crustaceans can be seen on the desk.

 

After my years at the museum, I think I can give out advice to all new students starting here. Mostly on writing tips, the peer-review process, and expectations management in science. But more important are the bigger live-lessons I learned: listen to your supervisors, but don’t let them tell you exactly what to do. I had some problems with focusing on just my research, by doing way too many side-projects in science communication. I listened to my supervisors, and now I’m not afraid to say “no” anymore. But this doesn’t mean I can’t do anything outside my own research. I still give lectures, do presentations at the museum, and work with people outside of my field of research. In addition, people kept telling me I should not bring my work back home, and you should never date someone who is also in science – but as long as it doesn’t feel like work but as a hobby, what’s there to worry about? My partner and I are both scientists, both really passionate about marine biology, and both massive nerds. We can talk about everything in and outside of science, creating a really nice environment without judgement. 

Take care!

– Werner

Two people in the foreground taking a picture of themselves with mountainous terrain in the background.
Werner stands in front of a mountainous area, together with his boyfriend Jeroen.

You can follow Werner’s updates on Twitter or Instagram @Werner_degier

Maddie Gaetano, PhD Candidate

I’m currently a third year PhD candidate in the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati. I completed my undergraduate degree in geology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. My primary field of study is conservation paleobiology, which applies practices and methodologies of paleontology to the preservation and conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems.

How did you get interested in science in general? I spent a lot of my childhood in the Adirondack Park region of Upstate New York, an area in which continued environmental preservation and conservation is a priority. A degree in environmental or earth science was really appealing to me because of my connection with the Adirondacks. I was introduced to conservation paleobiology by my undergraduate research advisor. I love that this field combines the practice of conservation with the field of paleontology, as it connects my personal interests with work that is hopefully contributing to a broader positive impact.

What do you do?  I study the headgear grown by female ungulates (hooved mammals). Headgear, like antlers grown by deer and horns grown by bovids, are typically thought of as something males use as a weapon or display when competing over mates. However, many different female ungulates also produce headgear, even though they don’t typically participate in mate competition like the males do. As a result, we don’t fully understand why female ungulates grow headgear, though it could be attributed to defense against predators, competition over limited food resources, or even as a visual mimicry of young male calves to deter against aggressive adult males. To better understand the evolutionary pressures driving female ungulate headgear growth, I focus on the antlers grown by female caribou.

Interested in learning more about this research? A part of this project was summarized in a Paleo News post

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? A large part of my research relies on shed caribou antlers from the spring calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in Alaska. These antlers have been collected over the course of about 8 years, using surveys completed across the area where female caribou give birth each year. Female caribou shed their antlers within days of giving birth, so calving grounds accumulate years and years of primarily female antlers. I’m interested in the consumption of these shed antlers by female caribou. When animals bite or gnaw a bone, they often produce characteristic bite patterns on the surface of the remaining bone. I evaluate those bite marks that we see on antlers and other bones to determine what kind of animal (carnivore, rodent, or caribou) has consumed that bone. This helps us to understand the diets of different animals, including caribou, as well as how they might compete with other animals over available bone resources.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favorite part about being a scientist is that I get to ask really interesting questions. I think there’s a misconception that science is all about generating answers. However, I have found that projects and papers are most exciting when they create even more questions than we had before. It’s very rewarding to find one of those new questions that frames your work in a slightly different perspective and allows it to evolve. I also love brainstorming about these big questions with my peers. Everyone has a different set of skills and expertise, so even an hour long conversation with a group of excited collaborators can advance a project by huge leaps!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? I would suggest that you read as much as you can about the topics that interest you, whether it be in books, scientific journals, blog posts by other scientists etc. Really critically evaluate each piece, write down questions you have, interesting methodologies used, or ideas that are sparked. Finally, if you consistently connect with research done by a specific scientist or lab group, I would reach out to them and ask to talk about your questions or their work in general. Most scientists I know are very enthusiastic when someone takes an interest in their work, and would be more than happy to help you reach your personal goals, whether that be learning about a new topic or pursuing a degree or career in their field.

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.