Danijela Dimitrijević, Paleobiologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 4 Exploring the Galapagos Islands was so much fun!

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

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

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

Sara Todorovic, Paleoclimatologist, Ph.D. candidate

The Coral Climatology team, a group of three women and one man standing in front of a brick building with glass windows.
Photo of the Coral Climatology team – (left to right) Sophie Zweifel, former intern; Marie Harbott, doctoral candidate; Dr. Henry Wu, work group leader; and me.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Hi everyone! I am a doctoral candidate at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research in Bremen, Germany. After graduating in Ecology at the University of Belgrade in Serbia, I finished a MSc in Marine Environment and Resources (MER Erasmus Mundus) at the University of Southampton, University of Liege, and University of Basque Country. Finally, I decided to pursue research in paleoclimate reconstructions in order to improve our knowledge of modern climate change and ocean acidification. I am a part of the Coral Climatology group led by my supervisor Dr. Henry Wu, and funded by the Make our Planet Great Again research initiative, a joint project of France and Germany to tackle modern climate change through research related to Earth system science, climate change and sustainability, and energy transition.

What research are you doing for your PhD? For our research, we use cores drilled from massive tropical corals like Porites (but don’t worry, they are not hurt by this). Only the top few millimeters of the coral is alive, the rest is all skeleton – an intricate rock made of aragonite, as coral polyps keep growing. Cores we work on were drilled during past expeditions so our project is kept more sustainable. After the cores are drilled, the holes are filled so the coral can keep growing safely without fears of other animals infesting it. My project is focusing on the South Pacific area which is  home to the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), the largest persistent precipitation band in the Southern Hemisphere. The climate of this area is modulated by large-scale ocean-atmospheric interactions (El Niño/Southern Oscillation, Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation), which also impacts regional seawater CO2 absorption and pH variability.

Coral slab microsampling
Photo of me microsampling one of the coral slabs in our lab.

The cores are transported to our coral climatology lab in Bremen, slabbed and washed, X-rayed and CT-d. The scans help us see the annual bands, similar to tree rings, that help us determine how old the corals are to connect our data to points in time, but also help us establish the best sampling path so our data isn’t impacted by corals turning sideways or protruding from the slab etc. Coral skeletal microsamples are then drilled continuously and analyzed for many trace elements and isotopes for hydroclimate and sea surface temperature reconstructions (δ18Oc and sw, Sr/Ca, Li/Mg, U/Ca, Sr-U), while δ13C, B/Ca, and δ11B analysis allows for the reconstruction of surface seawater carbonate chemistry changes and pH variability. It’s truly a lot of work, one core has approximately around 2000 mm samples to be analyzed with two different methods, and then around 250-350 annual samples with a third method.

Boxes of samples
Collection of samples (around a 1000 of them at least) from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in NY, USA to be shipped to Bremen for analysis. 

In this geologically short period of only 300 years or so, important changes have happened in how us humans use natural resources and affect the environment. Our coral-based reconstructions provide monthly to annual data to describe this change as corals have lived through it for hundreds of years, one of them dating back to 1770AD, much before the first instrumental measurements started!  

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Working in science is not a straight line and not easy. When you love what you do, it’s easy to lose boundaries and let it consume you too much. Science is also not only academia, and I am learning myself that there are many options out there. The pressure of short contracts in academia, multiplying deadlines and no work-life separation has led me to burn out before.

Sample preparations for analysis.
Ten samples is all we can analyze in a day for d11B isotope ratios and annual pH reconstruction.

I like to balance my work life with doing sports and running (I am a proud two-time half marathon finisher so far, but I am no stranger to an occasional Netflix marathon either). I am also a big foodie, and whenever work gets a bit too much, baking a cake fixes it. Try to keep in mind that you’re in for a marathon and not for a short race. 

Learn more about Sara and her lab’s research on their website here!

Brittany N. Price, Paleoclimatologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Keenan, Biogeochemist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devra Hock, Paleontologist, Ph.D. Candidate

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Rachel Roday, Graduate Student and Marine Scientist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Veterans Research Network (SVRN)

Meet the organizers!

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

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

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

What is SVRN?

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

Why did you start the SVRN?

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

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

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

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

How can veterans get involved in the network?

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

You can also follow SVRN on Twitter @SVRN_vets!

Allison Nelson, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s Student

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Allison’s updates on her LinkedIn!

Geosciences programs should drop the GRE, here’s why.

Adriane here-

For a few years now, there has been a debate raging in the science community: Should admissions at universities and colleges drop the requirement that students need to take the GRE for graduate schools? This is a conversation that has been steeped in inherent and implicit biases, data, and a gross misunderstanding of how standardized tests impact students. In this piece, I won’t go into details about how our own biases affect the decisions we make and opinions we form. Rather, the purpose of this post is to pull together the available data that show that the GRE is, in fact, an ineffective tool to predict the success of graduate students. To further this narrative, there are also personal stories from people who have taken the GRE included in this post.

Here is a list of US-based Geology/Geography programs that have dropped GRE.

The GRE

First, a bit of background about the GRE test. The GRE, which stands for Graduate Record Examinations, is a standardized test that students take who are applying for graduate schools, including law and business school. The GRE itself is created by ETS, a company that touts itself as creators of ‘some of the most well-known and widely used educational assessments in the world’. There are different types of GRE tests, called Subject Tests, depending on what the student wants to focus on as their career path: Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. There is no subject test currently for the geosciences, so students who wish to pursue a graduate degree in this field just take the General Test. 

The General Test is broken down into 3 major categories: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Each of these categories is supposed to test the student’s ability to draw conclusions from discourse and reasoning, summarize text, and distinguish major from minor points, measure the ability to understand, interpret, and analyze quantitative information, apply mathematical skills to problem-solve, and measure critical thinking and writing skills. These are just a few things the GRE is designed to measure, as stated on their website (https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/). 

To take the GRE test, there is, of course, a fee involved. The current prices to take the test as of July 1, 2020 are as follows:

Australia $230
China $231.30
India $213
Nigeria $226
Turkey $255
All other parts of the world $205

(All data from https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/fees/)

Students cannot take a GRE test anywhere. There are specific testing centers that distribute the GRE, and they do so about 3 times a year in September, October, and April for the United States, but can be variable depending on other countries. Often, the testing centers are located in larger cities, away from more rural areas. The test itself takes about 3 to 3.5 hours, and students are not allowed to bring any snacks or drinks into the testing center with them. These restrictions are variable and can be more or less strict depending on the testing center. 

After the student has taken the test, they receive part of their scores right away. The written portion of the exam is scored by a group of panelists who later give them the score on the written portion. The student then must immediately decide if they want to send those scores to the graduate schools they are applying to. The student doesn’t have to send their scores to any school if they don’t want to or feel like they need to retake the test. If you don’t send the scores at this time, it does cost extra to send them at a later time. Scores are reported on a scale from 130 to 170 in 1 point increments for the verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning part of the exam, and from 0 to 6 in half point increments on the analytical writing portion.  

Although the student can choose to send their test results to multiple schools, it does cost an additional $27 to send scores to additional schools. As stated on ETS’ website, these requests for additional scores are not refundable, cannot be canceled, nor can they be changed. 

The Data

From the above section, it should be clear that the GRE test is serious business, as it costs quite a bit of money to take, takes a large amount of time, and is largely uncomfortable (seriously, no snacks?!?). The test is supposed to be an indicator of student success in graduate school, but there have been studies published that say otherwise. In addition, there are problems with the test, as it is not an equal predictor of success for men and women, nor among underrepresented groups. In this section, I’ll summarize some of those studies and their major findings.

The GRE as a Poor Predictor of Graduate Student Success

First, let’s start with the obvious assumption that the GRE test does predict success of upcoming graduate students. One of the earliest studies looking at the predictive power of the GRE was by Dunlap (1979). This study found that the best predictor a student success was the student’s performance on the basis of faculty interviews and undergraduate GPA. The GRE was a weak predictor of success. Dawes (1971) showed that GRE scores can be good predictors of grades and faculty evaluations, but only for first-year graduate students’ performance in psychology. Another study by Wood and Wong (1992) showed that the GRE, by itself, accounted for slightly less than 10% of the variation in the criteria of graduate performance against which the GRE was validated. This study also only looked at psychology students. A more recent assessment of student GRE scores as predictors of success in psychology departments was conducted by Sternberg and Williams (1997). These researchers at Yale University asked graduate student advisors to rate their graduate students on their analytical abilities, creative abilities, practical abilities, research abilities, and teaching abilities. The researchers also computed the students’ first-year, second year, and combined GPAs on a scale of 4 (high pass) to 0 (fail). Similar to the Dawes (1971) study, the data from Sternberg and Williams (1997) indicated that the GRE was a modest predictor of grades, but only for the students’ first year in graduate school. The GRE scores were not found to be useful in predicting other arenas of graduate performance, such as analytical, creative, practical, research, and teaching abilities.

Similarly, a study conducted by researchers looked at the predictive power of GRE scores in construction management programs in the United States. The study, conducted by Wao and others (2016) tried to correlate the success of graduate students (success meaning they finished their degree within two years and not drop out). They, too, found that the GRE scores were not correlated with graduate student success, and thus recommended that admissions committees should reassess requiring the GRE scores at all. 

Personal Stories & Experiences

In high school, I was not a great student, and did terrible in math classes (my high school math teacher once told me to get away from his desk when I asked for help because I was ruining the signal on the TV while he watched basketball, DURING CLASS). When it was time for me to take the GRE, I was already working 20-30 hours per week to put myself through community college and help my family with expenses. I had to take a day off of work, paid $200 for the exam, and had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest testing center. I was so nervous about taking the test, I sweat the entire time even though the room was chilly. At the end of my exam, my scores didn’t meet the minimum most graduate programs required (300 points). I ran to my car, crying, and called my mom telling her I had failed. I couldn’t really afford to take the test again, but I did so twice more. I received about the same scores all three times, but in the end, I was out over $600 that I needed for school and my family. Today, I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow, and have personally grown and accomplished so much during my short academic career. No, the GRE was not a predictor of my success, but rather highlighted the fact that I came from an area with subpar high schools and from a family with lower socio-economic status. 

Adriane Lam, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Binghamton

I an above average high school student, I didn’t significantly apply myself because I was easily distracted and often bored in class. But I did my work, just not to the best of my ability. I never was a strong test taker, and didn’t have excellent ACT scores (25). I went on to a local public institution and really did awful my first year. I was NOT able to coast through like I did in high school. This means I bombed my first year of my undergraduate studies. I spent the next 4 years (I spent 5 as an undergraduate) working to raise my GPA. I graduated with a 2.86 GPA. I have to reiterate that I am a terrible test taker, I get so anxious, my study habits were variable and awful. I struggled. I didn’t know that I could even ask for help until the last few years when I found supportive mentors. I dreaded the GRE, I got workbooks, flashcards, and even recorded myself reciting definitions of terms so I could listen to myself on my commute to work and school. The testing center wouldn’t let me bring in tissues or chapstick and said I could either take in my sweater or I had to take it off because I couldn’t take it off in the testing center. These are all comfort items for me and I felt naked and uncomfortable heading into the testing center. I took the exam and I got an okay score, around 1200 (I took the old version). One of my mentors said I needed to take it again because that wasn’t competitive. So, regardless of the expense, I scheduled another test. I did worse. This was a waste of my time and money, neither of which I had an abundance of. Today, I am a collection manager at an established museum and research institution – regardless of my GPA or GRE scores, I managed to achieve my goals.

Jen Bauer, Ph.D., University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

My story is from applying to PhD programs in 2013, both involving schools in the top 10 Earth Science PhD programs. At one I was told by the PI I was waitlisted because of my scores (which I can only assume meant my GRE scores, my GPA was a 3.8), only to then be admitted 1 week before the decision deadline after others had declined and I had accepted elsewhere (which was rather embarrassing). I was later told by the (junior) PI that he seriously regretted waitlisting me, which was quite humiliating. The second program was told when I visited informally before applications were due that there was a ‘formula’ involving GPA, quant and writing score that was unofficially used. I was below the threshold, told to retake the GRE before applying, all while trying to finish my MS degree. Knowing there was a threshold I needed was incredibly stressful.

-Anonymous

I actually had a very positive experience with the GRE even if I’m not convinced of its utility as an application requirement overall. I’m also concerned about what standards are replacing it and how inequality is built in those too. Before applying to a geoscience grad program, I was nervous about “belonging” and being successful in the field. I didn’t do science undergrad, I was a little older, and black. Hitting the marks on my GRE helped reassure me that I was in fact qualified and belonged. I’m not sure how much my score actually factored in to my admission. Re the test itself, I bought an inexpensive test prep book (could have got it at library too), took it at a location walkable from my home, easy peasy. Test location was at an HBU so even that was encouraging. Largest drawback for me was the cost of the exam itself. That’s just one experience and if the data says the test is a useless barrier, then I trust the data. I always felt weaker in school on the quantitative side of things. The GRE wasn’t a class. It’s not math I’d apply in my field. It was a nut to crack, something to persevere and figure out. That’s something I do in my PhD, everyday. That’s how the GRE helped me feel ready.

-Shannon Valley

I went to undergrad on a full needs-based scholarship, because my family had no money to send me to college. I worked part time jobs, sometimes more than one during a semester, through all 4 years of college. I wanted to apply to grad school, and spent nearly a month’s pay signing up for the GRE. Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to the GRE, my grandfather died quite unexpectedly and I ended up needing to reschedule it because my mother needed help cleaning out his house out of state. I had to pay an extra $50 to reschedule (which wasn’t easy to scrape up). It took me over an hour and a half by bus to get to the exam because they didn’t offer the test where I went to undergrad (they still don’t)-they offered it in a city a short distance away, but without a car, I had to rely on public transportation. This added a lot to the stress of the day, seeing as the exam started at 8AM. 

The amount of money it cost me to take this exam left me struggling to afford food, toiletries, and medical bills. I then had to figure out how to pay for the steep fees for the applications themselves. I didn’t know that you could send your scores for free *if* you did it the day you took the exam until I was already taking it. Because of that, I had to resend my scores after the exam for even more extra fees (I want to say $10 per school to send an email with my scores, but I can’t remember what the costs were back in 2010). 

I got into grad school (M.S.) with a relatively low score in the quantitative section. Frankly, between taking 5-6 classes, extracurricular activities, and working (my senior year, I taught a lab section of a course for pay, tutored athletes, and worked as an office assistant in a music department all at the same time), I didn’t have any time to study for the GRE. I used an old copy of the GRE study book from the library when I had a free hour or two, but I didn’t study as much as I could have if I hadn’t been working. 

 I took it again when I applied to a Ph.D. program- I only did this because a mentor of mine told me I’d never get into a Ph.D. program with my quantitative scores (I scored in the 99% in the qualitative/literature section,  but everyone said that didn’t matter in the STEM fields). I, again, had to spend just over two hundred dollars (my monthly take home pay as a student was around $850-$900/month, so this was tough to do, mind you). I had a car this time, but still had to drive an hour each way to take the test. This time, I was able to get a study book that I found from a thrift store and I was able to do a little bit better in quantitative, but not enough that it was worth the extreme stress I went through trying to figure out how to pay for the exam. Today, I’m an assistant professor at a university that has a significant number of low income students and the costs for the GRE have only gone up since I took it, while wages haven’t changed with those rising costs. I want to see a world where my students don’t have to forfeit time to study just so they can save up enough to take the test. 

 –Sarah Sheffield, Ph.D. The University of South Florida 

As someone who grew up taking standardized tests every year starting in 4th grade, I have always been a good standardized test taker, (other kinds of exams not so much, my test anxiety really didn’t start until my undergrad when I felt that my scores would really determine my future) so the idea of the GRE didn’t bother me. At the time, it very much just felt like another annoying step to be able to apply to graduate programs. However, since the exam wasn’t offered in the same city that my college was located in, I had to drive 40 minutes to the exam after my classes ended that day to sit in a freezing cold cubicle with noise cancelling headphones to block out the sound of anxious typing from all the other students taking the exam with me. 

One thing I did appreciate about the exam was knowing my quantitative and qualitative scores immediately after finishing the exam. I knew that my quantitative score would be my lowest (hello, math insecurities) but did hope that it would be a competitive score-an arbitrary number in my head that I had gotten from looking up “acceptable GRE scores for paleontology programs” on Google. My quantitative score was lower than what that number in my head was, but on my way out the door I made the decision that knowing how I test in math and how much better I would need to do to raise that score even a few points was not worth the stress and the $200 to retake the exam. I was 100% comfortable with this decision, but still nervous that my score might deter universities from accepting me for my Master’s. While the scores did not prevent me from being accepted into a Master’s program, I do think that they played a role in some of my rejections from PhD programs because they were schools with strict cut offs on GRE scores. However, I was accepted into a PhD program and have yet to see the need for anything I learned specifically to do well on the GRE. 

Maggie Limbeck, PhD student, University of Tennessee

Additional Reading

Articles/Commentary

Peer-reviewed Literature & References Mentioned

Applying to Grad School IV: Interviews

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 students), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to craft an email to a potential advisor, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the fourth post in the series on how to effectively interview with a potential graduate school advisor.


Adriane and Jen here-

This post is all about interviewing for and visiting potential graduate schools as an undergraduate student in your senior year or as someone deciding to go back to college. This can be a VERY scary process, as it involves talking with high-profile scientists in your field of study and answering questions about your science, education, and interests. Below is some advice from our own experiences, some things you should do to prepare for an interview and/or on-campus visit, and some questions we were asked by potential graduate school advisors. 

Interviews

First, there are several different types of interviews you may be asked to do as a student. In-person, online (usually through a video chat platform such as Google Hangouts,Skype, or Zoom), on-campus, or on the phone

In-Person

In-person interviews can be done through a visit to the potential advisor’s campus or at a meeting that you are both attending. You should request an in-person meeting at a conference during your first few email exchanges with a potential advisor (see our “Applying For Grad School Part III: Emailing Potential Advisors”). Simply, conference meetings are easiest when you set them up beforehand. When I, Jen, was looking for PhD programs, I requested to meet with three potential advisors at the large geology conference the fall I was applying to programs. This allowed me to also meet with other lab members – students and postdocs – so that I could ask them questions about their experiences with the advisor. 

I, Adriane, asked to meet with two potential advisors at a large geology conference I was presenting research at during my senior year of undergrad. I told each person when and where I was presenting, and asked them to come there to talk with me. I did this so they could get a clearer picture of what my research was, and so they could ask me questions about my goals and such. I had two potential advisors come by my poster (both also had excellent feedback), but one was busy during that time. Instead, she and I sat down together and chatted informally for a few minutes.

Some things I, Adriane, did to prepare for our sit-down meeting at the conference was print out a copy of my poster and my CV to give to my potential advisor. I also had a notebook with me and several pens to take notes (because if you only take one pen, it’s sure to die or be dead). I also dressed appropriately for each interview, meaning I wore something comfortable but also professional. 

On-Campus

In some cases, the institution or advisor will help support your visit to their university, most after you have had an in-person or phone interview first. Many universities have funding to bring out PhD students, but not MS students – this is entirely school dependent. It is within reason for you to ask if there are funds to help offset travel, especially if it is not easy (or cheap) for you to get to the university. Current students will often host you as their guest so you can have more in depth conversations with someone in the program. Just note that most schools will reimburse you for your travel- meaning you will, unfortunately, have to front the costs for travel. 

Once I, Jen, was accepted into a program – I requested a visit to the campus. My visit ended up being in February and I was close enough to drive the 5 hours. I stayed with a current student (Sarah) so there were no lodging expenses and was able to get my gas mileage reimbursed. Visiting the campus was eye opening, I got to see students working in their spaces, talk with all sorts of faculty, and get a general feel for the atmosphere of the department. For the on-campus visit, I came prepared with some questions for students, faculty, and my potential advisor and ideas about projects I may be interested in. Remember, you are interviewing the school and you should question everyone you come across about their experience. If you have specific needs, make sure the school will provide them for you.

I, Adriane, did two on-campus interviews for my MS degree. I was invited to visit after I did in-person interviews at the geology meeting, and had been accepted to one of the schools. Both visits were nerve-wracking, but I highly recommend, if possible, doing an on-campus interview with your potential advisor. Doing so made me realize which advisor was the best fit for me and my career goals, and which school and city I would be most comfortable in. 

Online

Online interviews are very similar to in-person interviews. There’s a few extra steps you should do to prepare for your online interview before the big day:

  • Test out your equipment. Make sure the microphone, camera, and software all work before the interview. In fact, do this at least a week prior, as this will give you time to troubleshoot any issues that may arise
  • Find a quiet space to interview. Noises in the background will distract yourself as well as the potential advisor
  • Make sure the background is clear. Excessive clutter behind you (posters, books, shelves, other humans, etc.) will cause a large distraction. You want your potential advisor to focus on you, not your cat swatting flies or something in the background

Phone Interviews

To me, Adriane, phone interviews are the worse. I like to be able to see the person I’m talking to, as I respond better to visual cues. When you’re doing a phone interview, just be sure to find a quiet spot where you have good service and won’t get interrupted. Also, be sure to listen closely, as you don’t want to cut off, talk over, or interrupt the person interviewing you. 

TL;DR: Preparing for an interview regardless of the format (online, phone, in person)

  • Start by exploring the faculty and student page of the institution you are interested in, write down people that are somehow related to your interested and include a bullet of their interests and any questions they may be able to help you with. Jen suggests asking the same question multiple times to see the variation in responses – it can be very telling! You can bring a folder, clipboard, portfolio, notebook – whatever you are able to best take notes on.
  • Ask faculty at your current institution if they know people there or have any suggestions on people to meet with that may not be on your list. 
  • Decide how you are most physically comfortable. Jen usually wears dark jeans and a nicer sweater or shirt but is uncomfortable dressing up so often chooses not to. 
  • If you are doing a visit, be sure to have a separate list of questions for grad students – you will likely be taken to lunch or have some alone time with a few students. This is an opportunity to request honest feedback about how they are supported by the department and university. I, Adriane, made my decision on which MS program to attend based mostly on answers and experience from graduate students. 
  • If you are doing a virtual meeting make sure to get to a quiet place, use headphones, and try to have as plain of a background as possible with minimal glare. It seems silly but it can distract the person on the other end and you want them to be fully tuned into you!

Interview questions we were asked (at conference meetings and during on-campus interviews):

  • What is the bedrock under (current undergrad institution), and what is its age? (These questions are meant to test your geologic skills and knowledge, so any variant of this could pop up) 
  • Why are your GRE scores so low? (This really is not an appropriate question, but some professors are bold enough to ask anyway – Jen was asked this during her visit to UTK and Adriane during her visit to a NC school)
  • What are some of your personal goals during your (MS/PhD) degree?
  • What are your research interests?
  • Describe your research experience. 
  • Would you be comfortable teaching in a lab or classroom setting? Do you have teaching experience?

One last note, it is hard to remember this but the department is trying to sell itself to you. They want excellent students to help increase their output numbers. At some points you’ll realize it sounds like an info-mercial. They want you to choose them, even if you don’t have other options (don’t tell them that) they will still try to recruit you.