Sinjini Sinha, Paleontology Ph.D. Candidate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitney Lapic, Paleoecologist

Fig 1. This was from August 2019. I was on a research vessel off the coast of Florida, helping the EAT team collect specimens.

Some background information for you all– I am a second year Master’s student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I would consider myself an aspiring paleoecologist and paleobiologist. And my interests lie in paleoecology, specifically predator – prey interactions, as well as science communication.

We know that predation plays a role in influencing modern ecosystems and so my research explores the impact that predation had on shaping ecosystems through geologic time. I am specifically looking at echinoids and how sea urchins and sand dollars evolved after new groups of predators emerged during the Mesozoic Marine Revolution (MMR). This time in Earth’s history is known for rapid diversification and emergence of new groups of marine life – many of which can be found in our oceans today. With all of these new or bigger and better predators in the oceans, prey, such as sea urchins, need to develop ways that they can deter predators from successfully attacking and preying on them.

The project that I am working on is part of the Echinoid Associated Traces Project (EAT) which addresses a wide range of paleoecological questions using biotic interactions and echinoids. My project investigates whether or not trends that can be seen in mollusks and their predators during the MMR can be seen in other groups of organisms. Recent studies suggest that the MMR was not this singular, homogenous event that it has previously thought to have been and so, we are looking at the timing of these potential escalatory trends in echinoids relative to other groups of organisms in which these trends have been so thoroughly demonstrated.

Fig 2. This is Encope, a live sand dollar that was collected off the coast of Florida.
Fig 3. In fall of 2019, I travelled to Moscow, Russia for the European Conference on Echinoderms. I attended a field trip and had the opportunity to look for sea urchin fossils.

When you think of sea urchins, you might think of long, sharp spines covering the entire organism, but that isn’t always the case. To determine if sea urchins developed traits to deter predators, we first need to find out what helps them avoid becoming prey. Over the past year, I have been identifying characteristics that we propose serve some form of antipredatory function. These morphologies include long and wide spines as well as spines that have unique shapes or sharp thorns covering them. These morphologies can actively deter predators by inflicting damage or they can promote the settlement of encrusting organisms that may provide camouflage. With the help of our undergraduate interns, I have been collecting data on these antipredatory morphologies across groups of echinoids.

Collecting data from so many specimens is no easy feat during a global pandemic. Thankfully, recent years have given rise to online databases and collections such as IDigBio. While it is no replacement for traveling to a museum to search for specimens, using images downloaded from IDigBio, our interns and I can still view hundreds of specimens from museums around the world. Through these virtual collections, we can digitally measure and categorize specimens and their antipredatory morphologies.

As an undergraduate student, I was unaware of some of these resources that were available to me, and so I feel as if they are perhaps unknown to undergraduate students who may be unable to work hands on with museum specimens for any number of reasons. With the current pandemic, the need for digital collections and databases is that much clearer. I am incredibly lucky that I am still able to continue my research and that my project may provide internship opportunities for the undergraduates involved, and much of that is due to the digitalization of museum collections.

Fig 4. Goniocidaris tenuispina (USNM E0001335), a sea urchin with highly ornate and long spines. This specific specimen is one of hundreds observed from collections that have been digitalized and made available through IDigBio. This image is from the Smithsonian and is from the NMNH Extant Specimen Records. There is a Creative Commons license (CC0) associated with it, so it is not subject to copyright.

Niklas Hohmann, Master student in Paleobiology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? The best part are the findings that completely contradict your intuition! Discussing these findings with other scientist and finding out where and why the intuitions failed are the moments where I learn most. I always loved these learning moments that spark curiosity, so aiming for a career in science was a natural thing to do.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?  I study how parts of dead animals such as mussel shells are turned into fossils. This sub-discipline of paleontology is called “taphonomy”, which is Greek and roughly translates as “the science of burial”. The focus of my research to find out how much information about past environments is lost when fossils form. Some shells might for example be very fragile, so finding few fossils of them is not necessarily evidence that they did not play an important role in the past ecosystem.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Before 1950, very little information about ecosystems was collected. This makes it difficult to assess the impact humans had on nature simply we do not really know how nature looked like 500 or 1000 years ago. By developing tools to reconstruct these ecosystems from fossils, I hope to contribute to the understanding how nature looked like in the past so we can better protect it for future generations.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? All data I use was previously published by someone else and I compile it from the literature for specific questions I am working on. Typically this would be information about shells that were found in a drillcore, their material properties that were determined in a lab experiment, and the environmental conditions where the core was taken.

Aside this empirical data, I borrow concepts from chemistry, physics, and different branches of mathematics for modeling. This can lead to interesting analogies: The way shells are distributed in the sediment is similar to the way heat is migrates through a solid medium, which is in turn tightly connected to particle movement.

The effect of sediment input on shell abundance in the sea floor. When sediment input is low, many old shells will be found at the sediment surface. Typically the ages of shells found at the same place differ by hundreds of years, a phenomenon called time-averaging. When sediment input is high, shells are buried quickly, which protects them from destructive processes close to the surface.

How has your research have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? A lot of scientists that depend on access to labs were having troubles getting their work done due to the social distancing measures. Also many of the side jobs that are crucial for students were not available anymore, which put a lot of financial pressure on them.

My research has not been affected much, but all the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 have strengthened my belief that science communication should be a central part of scientific practice.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? If you’re already in academia: Don’t specialize too early and look for a mentor you get along with. In general: stay curious and ask all the questions. Especially the ones you think are stupid.

Isaac Magallanes, UChicago Ph.D. Graduate Student

Photo taken at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico in the summer of 2018. I was helping with the GABI RET 2018: The North American Connection.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? As a scientist, I enjoy traveling and meeting/learning from people with a diversity of research interests. When I was a kid, I was always curious and interested in the world around me. I would watch PBS shows like NOVA and Nature with my dad. It didn’t matter to me whether I was learning about giant baleen whales or tiny African ant colonies, I enjoyed it all.  Although I was never able to visit a museum or attend a science camp during my childhood, the time spent with my family watching these programs laid the foundation for what would eventually become my passion and career path as an adult.

Although my parents fostered my interest in science, I never saw myself becoming a scientist. I believed I would grow up and do manual labor like my father. As a kid I would often assist my dad with an odd job or install carpet with my brother in law on the weekends. I did not see myself going to college, much less applying for graduate school.

Had it not been for the encouragement from my parents and high school English teachers, I would not have attended Cal State Fullerton as an undergraduate. Although I began my academic journey as an English major, I found myself becoming more interested in science. During this time, I enrolled in Geology 101 to fulfill a gen ed requirement and met my undergraduate advisor Dr. James Parham. He presented the course material in an accessible manner by using local examples when discussing geology and paleontology.

This class became the spark I needed to change my major and embark on the academic journey I am on today. He has and continues to be a great mentor and friend.

Photo taken in Washington Park near the University of Chicago.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?   To be concise, I study ancient vertebrate organisms and the processes that shape their morphology (shape). The term morphology can refer to many different things but I when use it I mean the shape of bones. Throughout my journey this has taken many forms.

As an undergrad, I described a new species of extinct fossil walrus from Southern California. My research also summarized the diversity and geographic distribution of fossil walruses as a group during the last ~18 million years.

As a masters student at the University of Florida, my research focused on studying paleoecology and reconstructing the dietary preferences of extinct mammal herbivores (horses, camels, rhinos, and elephant ancestors) from North Central New Mexico that lived ~16.9-6.7 million years ago.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? It largely depends on the project, but I primarily rely on museum collections. In some cases, I have collected fossils for my own research through field work, but often I hop on to other student’s field expeditions to lend a helping hand. Camping and hiking are some of the many perks of being a paleontologist that I enjoy.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science? In addition to conducting research, I also enjoy participating in scientific outreach. As a student, I have visited K-12 classrooms as a science expert, helped develop lesson plans with teachers, and participated in many pop-up museum events. This is due in large part because my master’s advisor and mentor, Dr. Bruce MacFadden, actively encouraged me to always think about the broader impacts of science.

Recently, I have been working with the “Cosplay for Science” team (of which I am a founding member) in developing unique pop-up museum experiences that bridge the gap between science and pop-culture. My favorite part about being involved with “Cosplay for Science” is getting to attend comic-cons and discuss how science inspires our favorite comic-books, movies, books, video-games, and TV shows. Be sure to check out our Instagram (@cosplayforscience) and follow us for more info on cool pop-ups and interesting content from our contributors!

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? I would say to not be hesitant in seeking new opportunities and experiences. When I began doing research at Cal State Fullerton, I felt like I was entering a whole new world. At first it was overwhelming, but I soon realized that I was not alone and found a strong support group in my lab mates and advisor. These relationships have continued through the years and served as great resource. Science is very fun, but it can also be hard, having the right team around you can help make the journey more enjoyable and fulfilling!

Follow Isaac’s updates on Twitter and Instagram!

Arsum Pathak, PhD Candidate & Climate Researcher

Collecting geospatial data on Cable Beach, Nassau, The Bahamas.

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

Being a scientist feeds my curiosity for the real world around us. As a climate researcher, I combine natural and societal systems in a social-ecological approach to explore a complex global issue – climate change. The more I learn about the interlinkages of the natural and social systems, the more I realize about their synergies, and the more fascinated I am by the world around us. And the fact that I get to travel to beautiful places definitely helps!

I have been interested in science ever since I can remember. From a young age, I enjoyed learning different subjects, however, science always seemed the logical choice for me. It constantly stimulated my curiosity and interests leaving a thirst for learning more that continues till date. Over the years, science has shaped me to be a logical thinker and problem solver and my love for the subject grows each day.

What do you do?

Example of hard infrastructure for coastal protection, Nassau, The Bahamas.

My research interest lies at the science-policy interface with a focus on climate change, sustainable development, and Small Island Developing States. I am particularly interested in exploring climate adaptation that is synergistic with the broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the coastal economies. My dissertation research employs a holistic theoretical lens of social-ecological systems that combines ecological and societal systems with the conceptual frameworks of vulnerability and resilience to guide climate adaptation and sustainable development. To understand these cross-cutting and complex concepts, I use a mixed-methods approach with a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods for data collection and analysis.

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

I use both primary and secondary data in a mixed-methods approach. For writing my dissertation, I utilized geospatial data, surveys, and interviews combined with secondary policy and planning documents to answer my research questions.

Overwater villas in a Maldives’ resort where average elevation is less than a meter.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change and the betterment of society in general?

Through my research, I aim to understand the ways how coastal communities will evolve and adapt in the face of future climatic change, particularly, rising sea levels and storm surge. My broader goal is to look for practical and creative solutions for climate adaptation that also supports the sustainable development of coastal areas.

Arsum is a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida. To learn more about her and her research, head to her website here

Indah Ardiningsih, Chemical Oceanographer

My passion in science started in high school. After attending a workshop about nature conservation, I realized that we need science to gather more knowledge to live sustainably with nature.

Being a scientist led me to visit many places that I never imagined before. Last year, I got a chance to join an interdisciplinary research expedition to the Southern Ocean, and stepped on the frozen land of Antarctica for the first time. Visiting Antarctica was a life changing experience for me, and we shared the story of our research expedition in the NIOZ blog, click here to read more.

I am a doctoral student at the Royal Netherland Institute for Sea research (NIOZ) and currently working on iron (Fe) chemical speciation in the polar regions. I sample seawater to measure the concentration and binding strength of organic iron-ligand complexes in different environmental circumstances, in both the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. Ligands help make elements and nutrients available for life to use in biological processes. Learn more about ligands by clicking here.

Organic iron-binding ligands are naturally occurring organic compounds, which have strong binding strength for iron. These ligands can either be derived from land, as degradation products of organisms are washed into the sea by rain or rivers, or they can be an organic compound synthesized in situ by marine microbes. Organic ligands control marine dissolved iron concentrations by stabilizing the iron in solution by forming iron-ligand-complexes. Almost 99% of dissolved iron in oxic (oxygen rich) seawater occurs as such organic complexes. Without this ligand stabilization, iron precipitates and is not available for marine microbes, especially phytoplankton, which is the base of food web in the ocean and relies on iron as a required nutrient. 

Why do we study this in polar regions? The polar regions are undergoing rapid environmental changes due to global warming. These changes have caused alterations of many biogeochemical processes in the ocean, which eventually affects global iron biogeochemical cycling. As ligands play a vital role in determining dissolved-iron concentrations in seawater, the investigation of organic ligands is the key component to study the potential impact of warming polar region on iron cycling in the ocean, which in turn will have major impacts on the marine food webs.  

My advice for young scientists: Although your contribution to the world seems to be unseen, what you are doing is having a big impact on the future of humankind.

Follow updates on the Antarctic expedition FePhyrus II and Indah!

Thomas Dudgeon, Vertebrate palaeontology student

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favourite part about being a scientist is the constant thrill of discovery, and understanding more about the world we live in. I have always enjoyed learning new things, particularly about the natural world, and a great part about science is that it provides an environment full of people who are also just as interested in learning and understanding as I am.

An aspect of palaeontology that I find most exciting is that palaeontologists cannot simply study these animals in ‘the wild’ to see how they were behaving and interacting with their environment when they were alive. Instead, palaeontology is sort of like puzzle solving, where you need to look for clues in the fossil record to piece together the bigger picture of what these animals were like. It often astonishes me just how much detail researchers are able to pars out from the fossil record with new computational techniques, and paint an incredible picture of the diversity and complexity of the history of life on earth.

Champsosaurus CT scanning

What do you do? My current research focuses on the extinct reptile Champsosaurus, which lived from about 90 to 55 million years ago in what is now North America and Europe. These animals would have lived in freshwater rivers, and at a glance would have looked a lot like modern crocodiles, although they’re quite distantly related to one another. I recently completed my Masters degree studying Champsosaurus at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where I used medical X-ray computed tomography scanning (usually just called CT or CAT scanning) to describe the skulls of these animals in fine detail. This technology allows us to look inside the specimens without damaging them, just like how a doctor may use CT scanning to look inside a person without having to operate. With CT scanning, I described the bones of the skull of Champsosaurus in 3D, and identified some features that had never been seen before, such as an unusually structured middle-ear bone that was specialized to support the skull, rather than detect sound vibrations.

It also allowed me to describe the cavities that once held the brain, inner ear, nerves, and blood vessels, structures that had never been described before in much detail. I then used statistical comparative techniques to compare the inner ear of Champsosaurus (the organ that gives us the sense of balance and the ability to sense movement) to a variety of modern and extinct reptiles in order to get an idea of how Champsosaurus may have been moving when they were alive.

I found that the brain was typical of other closely related reptiles, and that the inner ear was very similar to modern aquatic reptiles, which provided new evidence that Champsosaurus spent most of its time in the water. Since graduating, I have been using computer modeling techniques to describe the geographic range of Champsosaurus in North America during the latest Cretaceous period to give us a better idea of where these animals may have lived at that time, even in areas were there are no sediments of the right age to preserve their fossils.

Dorsal view of a Champsosaurus skull

 

Dorsal view of a segmented virtual Champsosaurus skull

How did you get interested in your current research project? My interest in Champsosaurus arose through a combination of a few things. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in natural history, evolution, and life on Earth, but as with most kids, I had a particular interest in dinosaurs. When I began my Masters degree, I was entering the first phase of my life were I could finally study dinosaurs. I was enamoured with the topic that I was initially working on, describing the skull of the famous armoured dinosaur Ankylosaurus using CT scanning. Unfortunately, when we CT scanned the specimen about 4 months into my program, the specimen was just too large and dense for us to get usable data, and we couldn’t see any structures inside the skull at all. This meant that I needed to find a new project in order to finish my degree. My supervisors and I discussed several topics, most of which were also on dinosaurs, and my initial urge was pursue another dinosaur-related project. However, I was also intrigued by a similar project to my initial Ankylosaurus work, describing the skull of a small crocodile-like reptile called Champsosaurus using CT scanning. This was the first time I’d even heard of Champsosaurus, but after reading into the variety of topics more, I decided to go with Champsosaurus because I was fascinated with understanding the anatomy, evolution, and behaviour of these extinct animals, particularly because they are a relatively understudied animal when compared to some of their contemporaries like the dinosaurs and crocodilians. I was also excited by the tools I would get to learn in this project (working with CT data, and using computers and stats to describe shape variation in the inner ear). Although I am absolutely still interested in broadening my research into dinosaur palaeontology down the road, I’m glad I decided to go with the Champsosaurus for my Masters because it has given me an avenue to pursue exciting research in the future (and it also taught me the valuable lesson that palaeontology is far more than just dinosaurs!).

Champsosaurus CT scanning computer

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do
you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work
with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.?
For my Masters thesis research on the skull of Champsosaurus, the data I worked with primarily consisted of CT scans of specimens that were already in museum collections. The bulk of my work involved CT scans of two well-preserved skulls housed at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada, but for my analysis of the inner ear of Champsosaurus, I used CT data from 60 different species of modern and extinct reptiles and birds to compare the shape of their inner ears with Champsosaurus. These CT data came from museums and universities around the world, and I acquired the data either directly from other researchers, or from online databases like Morphosource (https://www.morphosource.org/) and Digimorph (http://digimorph.org/), two great resources for accessing CT data. Once I acquired the data, my work mostly took place on computers where I digitally reconstructed the inner ears of these animals so I could compare them with Champsosaurus.

How did you learn about the palaeoVC? What do you take away from the
conference?
I first heard about the PalaeoVC through my primary Masters supervisor, and a few other graduate students at my university. The first year of the conference I unfortunately wasn’t able to present because I was finishing up my degree, but this year I was able to, so I jumped at the chance. I thoroughly enjoyed the ease of the presentation submission, and I was happy to see the wide diversity of interesting projects happening around the globe. One aspect that impressed me was how interested the community was in engaging in conversation with one another, even though everything was online, and how supportive and positive people were of each other and their work.

How does the corona crisis affect your research and academic life? This summer, I’ve been working for the Canadian Museum of Nature as a student research assistant, and I’m fortunate enough that my work (scanning and transcribing field notes, and segmenting fossil CT data for the museum’s palaeontologists) can be done from home. In terms of my own research projects, the pandemic has certainly slowed things down. Some projects that I am involved in have been completely frozen until museums reopen, but it’s a necessary sacrifice to help flatten the curve. Those projects that have not frozen have slowed dramatically, but this is inevitable given that everyone’s lives have changed significantly since closures were put in place. One thing that I do miss is getting to see my friends and colleagues in person, but technology has thankfully allowed us all to keep in touch and caught up with each other, even if it’s not ideal.

Carrying a fossil in the field

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists and other early
career researchers?
For aspiring scientists, I would tell them to follow their passions and go down an avenue that they would want to pursue for their career. If there is something you love doing, and you can make a career of it, it’s the best of both worlds. I’d also add that they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to researchers, professors, or current students if they have any questions on applying to universities, or how they can enter the academic and research fields. Most people are happy to answer these questions, and aspiring scientists shouldn’t have to feel like they’re walking in the dark when trying to find out how to get started.

For other early career researchers, I would first and foremost ask them to please take care of themselves. I think we all know that academia naturally encourages people to push for a heavy workload, which is certainly a good thing in that it fosters an environment full of passionate and driven people. But if you work yourself to the point that you’re no longer getting enjoyment from what you’re doing, then you need to take a break. Most researchers and academics went into their field because they love doing what they do, and you want to make sure that you can hold on to that enthusiasm and excitement so that you can continue to enjoy your work for the rest of your career.

Follow Thomas’s updates on Twitter.

Marie Boirot, Biologist & M.Sc. candidate in Palaeontology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favorite part is discovering something no one ever discovered before. It is exciting to know you are the first person seeing what you see ! There is so much left for us to discover. Something we take for the absolute truth today may be proven inaccurate in ten years. Science is constantly evolving, so we will always have a job! Also, the scientific and academic background are really helpful to develop the critical mind and not fall for answers too simple to be true (conspiracy theory, yay!).

What do you do?
I am finishing my wildlife management master’s degree under the supervision of Richard Cloutier at the Palaeontology and Evolutionary Biology Lab (at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, in Québec, Canada). My project consists of scanning fossil fishes skulls to see what’s inside! I work with super cool fishes, the lungfishes, that still exist today and are closest relative to all terrestrial vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds)!  My species are more than 380 million years old, that’s more than 130 million years BEFORE the first dinosaurs! I work on 3D-preserved skulls, which is relatively rare in fossils. I scanned them to see if their braincase was ossified or not, and their description helps untangle the relationships between fossil lungfishes !

How did you get interested in your current research project?
I met Richard during an undergraduate evolutionary biology class and he mentioned that he worked on lungfishes. I’m a big fan of lungfishes, particularly Neoceratodus, the Australian lungfish (it is too cute, it looks like it smiles all the time !) and I really enjoyed Richard’s class and way of teaching. As a joke, I told my brother that I would do a master with him (I wanted to do an oceanography master’s degree initially), but eventually I did ask Richard to join his lab! I followed my instinct rather than the thing I “was supposed to do” and I don’t regret it. He offered me several projects and I chose this one! I had never done palaeontology before, it is really challenging but so much fun to learn a whole new biology discipline.

What are your data and how do you obtain them? My material is five skulls of the lungfish Scaumenacia curta, endemic to the Escuminac Formation, in Miguasha, Québec, Canada, and one Pentlandia macroptera specimen, from the Orcadian Basin, in Scotland. I scanned the specimens with a micro-CT scan, which uses the same technology as a X-ray scanner at the hospital. Then I segmented on a computer my scans, which basically means I colored the interesting structures with a graphic tablet, and I extracted a 3D-model. For Scaumenacia, thanks to a peculiar preservation process called pyritization, I had enough information on the braincase to code for phylogenetic characters and add it to a matrix. The matrix is from Clement et al., 2016, and we modified it a little bit. It is really fun to do the process myself, from the enigmatic skull to a phylogeny including my data on the inside of this skull.

(Clement, A. M., Challands, T. J., Long, J. A., & Ahlberg, P. E. (2016). The cranial endocast of Dipnorhynchus sussmilchi (Sarcopterygii: Dipnoi) and the interrelationships of stem-group lungfishes. PeerJ, 4, e2539)

How did you learn about the palaeoVC? What did you take away from the conference? I learned about it during a lab meeting in January I think, and since I was finishing my results it was a wonderful opportunity to present them, even more with the coronavirus resulting in all physical conferences cancelled. I learned that it is possible to use palaeontology as an education tool for children and that it actually works! We often think fundamental science is “useless” in everyday life but it is really important to continue to expand our knowledge and more importantly to share it with non-scientist people! Also, the idea of a virtual international congress was really ahead of its time! Beside the corona crisis, the carbon impact of an international meeting is enormous, and we often don’t have time to see all the presentation we want. It is really clever to do this virtually.


How does the Coronavirus pandemic affect your research and academic life?
I finished writing the first complete draft of my thesis during the first two weeks of lockdown! All my social implications being cancelled, I had no other choice than write all day ! I did not have to go to the lab anymore so it did not stop me from working, even if I missed the university routine and separating work from home. I don’t have to complain, because many of my colleagues had to stop their researches because they did not have access to the equipment, and I can only imagine how frustrating it can be. Another meeting I was supposed to go to was cancelled, I am disappointed but it could have been much worse ! I could present here and it was a wonderful opportunity.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists and other early career researchers?
My first advice would be: do not do that for anyone except yourself. Science and research can be really challenging and you have to have a motivation and desire to learn to get through an entire 2-3-4 years project. Do not do it to prove something to someone, but because you really want to try it. On the other hand, if you really want to try doing research, go for it and do not let anyone tell you you are not good enough ! Passion is the only fuel, and there is no feeling like seeing your first results, getting a R script to work, or presenting your research!

Follow Marie’s work through her lab’s Facebook Page, her ResearchGate, or contact her via email (marie.boirot@ uqar.ca).

Marie is one of three early career paleontologists who won for best presentation at the 2nd Palaeontological Virtual Congress in 2020. Read more about the Congress here!

Nick Smith, Paleontologist

I am a paleontologist interested in the evolutionary history and systematics of Paleozoic echinoderms (i.e. sea stars, sea urchins, and sea lilies). I am currently working with one of the five echinoderm groups that persisted through the Paleozoic all the way to modern day, the brittle star! Brittle stars look similar to starfish, but their arms appear clearly separate from their body (central disk). Brittle stars originated during the Early Ordovician (approx. 485–480 million years ago) and diversified pretty quickly throughout the early Paleozoic. Unfortunately, there is a large, (nearly 60 million year!) gap in our knowledge of brittle stars from the beginning of the Mississippian to the beginning of the Mesozoic, and it has remained that way for the past 30 years. Because brittle stars are made up of thousands of individual skeletal elements, finding fully articulated brittle star skeletons to expand our understanding of their life histories is challenging.

Figure showing the difference in shape between brittle stars (left) and starfish (right). Notice the difference in how the arms appear separated from the central body in brittle stars, but as an extension of the body in the starfish. Images taken from Science Photo Library and jaxshells.org.

To remedy this challenge, I am utilizing a technique that has primarily been used with Mesozoic and Cenozoic aged brittle stars that focuses on the use of morphologically significant (differently shaped) elements from the arm. Skeletal elements of brittle star arms have been proven to be taxonomically significant, meaning that we can identify different genera of brittle stars based on these arm pieces. I collect these skeletal elements by sieving (washing and sorting by size) weathered down shale from Mississippian aged sediment located in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Finally, I compare the individual elements with articulated skeletons in museums to assign species names to my elements. I can then use that knowledge to fill in the gaps of our understanding of late Paleozoic brittle stars.

This is an image of the individual skeletal elements from the brittle stars I work with. The skeletal elements on the left half of the image are lateral arm plates (plates that hold the spines of a brittle star), and the skeletal elements on the left are vertebral plates (plates that core the arm of brittle stars). Image taken from Smith and Sumrall, 2019.

My fascination with science and the natural world was when I first completed an animal dissection during the 7th grade. I, however, took a more non-conventional approach to studying geology and paleontology. I first started college shortly after graduating high school with a degree in biology and quickly failed out. It would not be until after I took a break from school and returned to school that I truly understood what I wanted to do with my life. After taking an introductory physical geology course, I realized how I could incorporate my love for geology with my love for organismal biology.

My favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to expand our knowledge of the world and the ability to inspire the next generation of scientists! I have had the opportunity to visit places I never imagined I would have the opportunity to visit, learn new techniques to explore the fossil record, and have met and worked with some of the most brilliant minds from all over the world. As a gay cis male in the geosciences, I hope to be able to inspire the next generation of great minds and promote diversity in all STEM fields!

My advice to young scientists is that you should never think your ideas are not worthy. Search, inquire, and explore what you find interesting and then share that knowledge with the world! Realize that it is ok to fail and understand that there is power in failure. Do not give up! Above all else, communicate with other scientists and establish a set of friends/peers that you can share ideas with, ask for assistance when needed, and laugh and cry with.

Follow Nick’s updates on his Research Gate or on Instagram, @nick_smith_28!

Larry Collins, PhD Candidate, Geoscience Education Researcher

Me after collecting pyrite concretions in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? Hi!  My name is Larry Collins and I am a PhD Candidate at Washington State University in Pullman, WA.  As a freshman at Mansfield University, I took Physical Geology with Dr. Chris Kopf and he ignited my true passion for geology.  Dedicating time and energy into instruction was what Dr. Kopf did and this made me even more excited to learn about the processes that affect and shape our earth.  After five years of teaching high school earth science, AP Environmental Science, and Ecology, I wanted to pursue graduate education so that I could share this passion with future educators.   

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?  In my master’s program, I was part of a large project that examined pieces of pyrite that were found within the Demopolis Chalk outside of Starkville, MS.  We were attempting to understand the origin of these pieces of pyrite and what they could also tell us about earth’s early atmosphere. While I enjoyed this project, my true passion was understanding more about how people think and learn about the earth.  These are the exact types of questions that Geoscience Education Researchers (like me) tackle. Specifically, my interests are in the nature of science and assessment. I study how students develop an understanding of the nature of science throughout their undergraduate careers and I develop my own instruments and assessments to accomplish this research goal.  I also study performance-based assessments can be used as tools for learning in order to improve geological literacy. 

Pyrite concretions within the Demopolis Chalk. The chalk outcrops are Late Cretaceous in age.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general?Understanding the nature of science is important for when someone encounters new scientific data or media in the news, on the web, or during a scientific presentation.  The ideas that folks holds about the nature of science are linked to their willingness to accept scientific ideas such as climate change and evolution which have been labeled as controversial.  Understanding how students develop conceptions of the nature of science also ensures that they will understand how new knowledge in science develops and be more accepting of ideas that have been deemed as controversial. 

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? I use interviews, performance-based assessments, and surveys with students in order to collect evidence of their understanding of the nature of science.  I draw on my past instruments such as the VNOS and VASI developed by Lederman, Lederman, Schwartz, and colleagues to also inform my work.   

At the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous, here I am leading a workshop on performance-based assessments.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists? As a first generation scientist, I would say that you should always apply for any opportunity that you hear of.  Apply even if you feel like you are not good enough for it because imposter syndrome is a real thing and a lot of us in academia have it!  You never know the great opportunities (such as graduate research opportunities) that can come your way by putting yourself out there. It may be tough, but always reach out to scientists that you respect and admire…a lot of them are friendly and always willing to share their career paths with you!