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!  

Mark Yu, Paleoceanographer, Isotope Geochemist, and Marine Geologist

Mark in front of the R/V JOIDES Resolution in Punta Arenas, Chile. The JOIDES Resolution brings together Earth scientists from around the globe to investigate processes underneath the marine sediments. This cruise, JR100 Chilean Margin, was focused on Patagonia climate and ocean circulation in the last ~150 Ka.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

The field I am specializing in, paleoceanography/paleoclimatology and biogeochemistry, represents the complex interplay between the lithosphere (Earth), hydrosphere (oceans), biosphere (life), and atmosphere. These immense variables pose great challenges in interpreting our geologic record and requires us to form interdisciplinary collaborations throughout departments. As I progressed in my studies from undergraduate work at the University of Rochester to graduate research at the Rutgers University, my mind is slowly teasing out the meaning of these variables as I attempt to decipher changes to ocean chemistry for my dissertation. In short, my love affair for science is grounded on the ability to form intellectual bridges across all fields and geographic locations while unraveling Earth history.

What do you do?

As a paleoceanographer, my goal is to decipher changes in ocean chemistry/circulation through isotopic and elemental ratios of calcareous organisms known as foraminifera that inhabit various depths of the water column. My dissertation is focused on the tropical thermocline, the upper part of the water column that is defined by a massive decrease in temperature from the mixed layer and where much of the productivity in the ocean occurs.

A scanning electron microscope image of planktonic foraminifera, Gs. ruber, used by Mark in his research. This sand sized calcareous protist inhabited the surface layer of the water column thousands of years ago

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

The geochemical data I analyze are trapped within the calcareous shells of foraminifera that are preserved in the sediment record at the bottom of ocean basins. Marine geologists undertake global expeditions on the drill boat, namely the R/V JOIDES Resolution, and other vessels to survey and core deep into the sediments. Once I have identified and picked the desired foraminiferal species, I analyze them on mass spectrometers where isotopic and elemental ratios are measured. In turn, each isotopic and elemental ratio provide us with variables in the ocean such as temperature, ice volume, productivity, ventilation, etc.

How does your research contribute to understanding climate change?

As the Earth changes with anthropogenic warming, the oceans serve as the largest buffer in dampening its effects. However, understanding how ocean circulation, ventilation, and productivity responds to temperature and carbon dioxide fluctuations is vital for our model predictions. My dissertation extends to Marine Isotope Stage 5e (MIS 5e) in the Indian Ocean. This was the last warm period (or interglacial period, as scientists call warm times within a time that is generally cool) similar to today around ~125 Ka and elucidating oceanographic properties in the sediment record will allow us to parametrize monsoon dynamics for societal and ecological implications.

Mark onboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson in the Argentina Margin with a multicore drilling apparatus. This cruise was focused on seismic surveying and shallow coring operations to decipher water mass geometry and erosional processes in the underwater canyons.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Be curious, observant and ask questions. No question is a dumb question. Likewise, remain skeptical and challenge assumptions. Not every answer is set in stone. The dogma written in textbooks are continuously being challenged and reworked by scientists. Find a few great mentors – people who you aspire to be and will provide you with the time and expertise to show you the ropes. Lastly, find your passion in life and run off with it.

Follow Marks updates on his website, LinkedIn, or Instagram!

Niba Nirmal, Plant Geneticist, PhD Candidate, Creative

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I’m Niba and I create notes about science (biology, especially plants!) and style (fashion, makeup, skincare)! I write in a physical journal, share photos on Instagram, and create videos on YouTube. I have always loved science – logical thinking, rationalizing answers, learning how to learn—and I also love style—fashion, beauty, skincare, modeling. As a scientist, I am taught logical thinking and rationalizing while cultivating a desire to learn. However, my life as a model is based on fashion trends, creating beauty, and skincare health. For a long time, these concepts existed as incompatible, separate parts of my personality. As I continue my journey as a female scientist and young model, I have integrated the different parts of my life to create my own distinct and compelling self. As I learn more about science and style, I would love for you to join me on my path at Notes by Niba . I’m now modeling, blogging, and beginning my third year as a PhD student studying the genetics of plant development.

I have always loved the process of learning, which led me to the scientific method. The scientific method can be applied to literally everything – working out, training my cat, as well as my experiments in the lab. In lab, I’m discovering how plants express genes to grow and develop. I am trying to understand how a gene control module puts tissues in the right place. This is a huge question in development because proper developing needs careful gene expression in time and space. Because gene networks control every biological process, my research benefits many other fields. For example, many human diseases are caused by impaired networks (ex. Cancer).

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Specifics: My research looks into the SCARECROW plant gene, which forms two tissues – the cortex and endodermis. This is done by a certain kind of cell division, where one cell becomes a cortex cell and the other becomes an endodermal cell. Without the SCARECROW gene, the original cell never divides and is just one fat mutant cell that acts like BOTH a cortex and an endodermis at the same time. Just like how the SCARECROW in Wizard of Oz doesn’t have brain tissue, these plants are also missing a tissue. But we don’t know what the proper SCARECROW expression is to form these two tissues. My research is to determine what kind of SCARECROW gene expression–not just the amount but also at what time–is needed to form cortex and endodermis. By using existing gene modules, I can create different gene circuits to figure out what kind of SCARECROW expression will make the cell divide and get the proper tissues in plant roots. I can see this division in real time in living plants with a super powerful microscope in my laboratory.

Plant research is essential, resulting in drought-resistant food crops, more effective medicines, clothing and fashion, etc. More than 30 THOUSAND plant species are medicinally used (ex. anti-cancer drugs and blood thinners). The world’s food supply is under threat due to population growth, water scarcity, reduced agricultural land, and climate change. As potential biofuels, plants are also important as a potential source of renewable energy. That means it’s critical to be able to detect, learn from, and innovate with our green plant friends. Our past, present, and future depends on plants.

As a scientist, I am pushing the boundaries of what humanity knows – it’s an incredibly fulfilling job and I am grateful for this privilege. 

Keep up with Niba’s updates by following her website, YouTube, or Instagram!

John Doherty, Biogeochemist

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

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

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

What do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

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

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

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

 

Applying to Grad School I: Paying for Your Graduate Degree

Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional student), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to network with potential graduate advisors, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the first post in the series on various ways you can get paid to attend graduate school in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.


Jen, Adriane, and Sarah here –

Attending graduate school is an exciting prospect, but you can quickly become overwhelmed with deadlines, things to do, but mostly by the expense of it all. It’s no secret that today’s college undergraduate students are facing increasing tuition costs along with inflated interest rates on loans. Within public 4-year universities and colleges alone, tuition and fees rose on average 3.1% per year from the period of 2008 to 2019. Even within 2-year public colleges (such as community colleges), tuition and fees rose on average 3.0% per year within the same period of time! For student loans, interest rates range from 4.5% to as high as 7%, and that interest is usually compounding (meaning you will pay interest on the interest that your loan accrues over time). It can seem like there’s no way to escape college and obtain an education without paying dearly for it, especially if you want to attend graduate school right or soon after your undergraduate degree.

But fear not, there are several ways in which you can avoid taking out loans while pursuing a graduate degree, both MS and PhD. Since we are all geoscience majors, the advice and information we provide herein is more applicable to graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Below, we discuss a few options to reduce the cost of attending graduate school. We also are very transparent about the debt we accrued during our undergraduate degrees and how that compounded over time. But mainly, we want to explain how you can get paid (yes, you read that correctly!) to go to graduate school.

First, we’ll discuss the different types of assistance you can be granted to go to graduate school. We’d like to stress that we do not advocate for paying for graduate school out of your own money if you’re majoring in a STEM field*, as you should be able to get an assistantship to pay for your tuition and provide a stipend (living expenses)**.
*we’re uncertain about non-STEM fields-please look for good resources to help you understand how tuition waivers and stipends work in other fields!
**some STEM industries will pay for their employees to go back to graduate school. This is an awesome option, but not available to everyone.

Assistance within the University

Teaching Assistant

Teaching assistants (TA for short) are graduate (MS and PhD) students who are paid to help teach classes and labs at their university. For example, Adriane taught Historical Geology lab sections at UMass Amherst, and had a blast doing it (so many cool field trips!). As a teaching assistant, you will also be involved with setting up experiments for labs, grading students’ assignments, helping on field trips, or even leading your own field trips! Being a teaching assistant can be a ton of work, but it is a great way to make money and sharpen your skills as an educator (important for folks who want to continue teaching in any capacity after their degree). There may also be opportunities to continue working as a TA over the summer, as these jobs usually do not include summer stipends.

Teaching assistantships often include tuition remission, meaning you are not expected to pay for your education. This is important when you are looking for graduate positions in the university. You want to ensure that you are receiving a stipend and tuition remission. Even though you are getting your education paid for there often are still associated fees you have to pay each semester. These fees can range from 100’s to 1000’s of dollars every semester and cover transportation, athletic, heath, and building fees on campus.

Research Assistant

As part of her RA as a master’s student, Adriane helped curate and digitize a fossil collection at Ohio University.

A research assistant (RA) are graduate students who are funded to do research or work on some aspect of a project. Usually, the money to fund an RA comes from the student’s primary academic advisor, or it could come from some other professor in the department. In most cases, an RA is only funded during the academic year, but it’s not uncommon that money for an RA is budgeted to fund the student over the summer. For example, Adriane and Jen were each funded for an entire year from their MS advisor’s NSF (National Science Foundation) grant, where they were able to build a website while working on their own research. The benefit of RA positions is that they are usually more flexible as to when you can get your work done. When Adriane was doing her MS degree as a research assistant, she would spend an entire two days of the week doing RA stuff, that way she had huge chunks of time to focus on her research. The downside to being an RA is that you don’t receive teaching experience or get to interact with students in a formal setting. This isn’t a huge deal, as there are usually opportunities to help professors out teaching their courses while they are away at conferences, doing field work, etc.

 

Internal University or Departmental Fellowships

Internal fellowships (and grants) are small to large pots of money that you can win from within your university or college. You have to do some research and keep up with deadlines on these because often they have specific requirements. While Jen was at UTK there were several extra fellowships you could apply for as a graduate student. Some were specifically for MS students others for PhD students – some were mixed! One was only for students in their first year and one was only for students in their last year. Jen was fortunate enough to apply for an receive a fellowship through the university to fund the last year of her dissertation. This allowed her to reduce her teaching load and focus more on writing. You can read about it by clicking here.

External Funding Options

External fellowships

There are fellowships, like NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP for short)-you write a proposal for the research you want to work on and submit it. It’s reviewed by experts in the field you want to specialize in. These are incredibly competitive across a national or even international scope, but they are great ways to fund your research! Often, you have to apply to these either before you begin your graduate program or early into your program, so look into it as soon as possible!

There are other options to acquire competitive fellowships, often to finish off your dissertation without being restricted by teaching or other responsibilities that take time away from completing your projects. NASA has a program that graduate students can apply for, but there are restrictions – you already have to be enrolled and your project has to fit whatever the theme of their solicitation is that cycle. Adriane won a similarly competitive fellowship for foraminiferal research, which you can read about by click here.

Tuition Remission/Waivers

In some jobs and careers, your employer will reimburse your tuition costs. These are often to benefit your employer, as investing in your education and training will make you a more well-rounded and specialized employee in your field. The amount that your employer will reimburse you also varies; some may provide 50% remission or 100%. This amount can also vary depending on the number of courses you take during your graduate career. If you think your employer offers tuition remission, it is best to have an open and honest conversation with them about how much they will reimburse you for, and how many classes or credits they will cover.

The Cost of Graduate School: Examples

Below is an outline of how each of us paid for our undergraduate, masters (MS), and doctor of philosophy (PhD) degrees.

Jen

Jen exploring Ordovician life with young minds at the Paleontology summer camp at the McClung Museum.

Undergraduate: Once I left home I was given access to funds from my parents that I could use to pay for school. I lived in the dorms my first two years which used up a lot of this money. I then moved into an apartment and took up three part-time jobs (lifeguard, gym manager, research assistant) to maintain my living and school expenses. This allowed me to save the remainder of the money in my college fund and use it to move to Ohio for my MS program.
MS: My first year at Ohio University I was a TA. My first semester I taught lab for Introduction to Paleontology and my second semester I taught Intro to Geology and Historical Geology. My second year I was on an NSF grant as an RA and worked on the Ordovician Atlas project for Alycia. Both summers I was awarded summer pay through this NSF project. My pay at OU was ~$14,000/year. My student fees at OU were ~$600/semester (summer was less like ~$200). Instead of taking out loans I took advantage of a loophole and paid late. There was a payment system but it cost extra. There was no fee (at the time) for simply paying a month late. It took some serious budgeting but was possible to slowly save for these extra fees.
PhD: I was a TA all four years at UTK and taught a variety of classes: Intro to Paleontology, Earth’s Environments, Earth, Life, and Time, Dinosaur Evolution. During my time here my department stipend was $15,000 and I earned another $5,000 annual award from the university. I was able to split my pay over 12 months rather than 9 months. I was also able to work extra jobs over the summer at the university to augment my pay. Year 1 I was TA for a 4-week summer course for an extra $1000. Year 2 I taught a 4-week summer course as instructor for $3000. Year 3 I taught governor’s school (4-week program for high school students) for $2000. Year 4 I taught a paleontology summer camp at the local natural history museum for $500 (but also had the fellowship, where I got $10k but was reduced teaching so only received $7.5k from department).

Sarah

Undergraduate: Full need based scholarship (shout out to UNC Chapel Hill for making my education possible!). My scholarship covered everything but summer school for the most part and I was hired as a federal work study student to pay for books and other necessities. I worked other jobs at the same time-I worked as a geology tutor and a lab instructor, namely, to cover other needs (medical care that wasn’t covered by insurance, transportation, etc.). I took out $7,000 in federally subsidized (i.e., interest doesn’t accrue until you begin paying) to cover summer classes and a required field camp.
MS: I was paid as a half RA/half TA for one semester. I worked the remaining 3 semesters as a full TA teaching 3–4 lab courses per semester (I was paid extra to teach in the summer). My base pay was $14,000/year in Alabama. I worked as a tutor for the athletics department one summer to help pay for groceries. I did not take out loans for my degree, though I was not able to save much money.
PhD: I was an RA on my advisor’s NSF grant for 2 years and a TA for two years. I also worked as a TA or a full course instructor for 3 of the 4 years. My base pay was $15,000/year in Tennessee. I took out $15,000 total in federally unsubsidized loans (i.e., loan interest began accruing immediately) to cover unexpected medical, family, and car emergencies. I also did small jobs, like tutoring individual students, helping professors, and babysitting to make a little extra money-my PhD department had a rule that we weren’t allowed to work outside tax-paying jobs on top of our assistantships.

Always looking to find that extra dollar in graduate school.

Adriane

AS (Associate of Social Science): I spent four years in community college, and lived at home while doing so. I worked 20–30 hours a week at a retail store to pay for courses and books. My grandmother did help me significantly during this time, so I was able to save up a bit for my BS degree when I transferred.
Undergraduate (Bachelor of Science): I took out loans for 3 years worth of classes and research at a public 4-year university, in total about $40,000. I received a research fellowship ($3500) to stay and do research one summer. I still worked at my retail job the first summer and on holidays to make some extra money.
MS: The first year I was a teaching assistant and my stipend was about $14,000 for the year. Over the summer, I won a grant from the university ($3000) that covered rent and living expenses. The second year I was a research assistant and made about the same as I did the first year. I think I took out about $5,000 worth of loans to help cover university fees and supplies.
PhD: Throughout my first 3.5 years, I was funded as a teaching assistant making $25,000 the first two years, then was bumped up to $28,000 the third year (the teaching assistants at my university are in a union, so we won a huge pay increase). For the last year of my PhD, I won a fellowship (click here to read about it) from a research foundation ($35,000) that pays for my stipend, research expenses, and travel to research conferences. Early in the degree, I took out about $5,000 worth of loans to help cover fees and supplies.