Colin Boisvert, Paleontologist (in training)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Avery, Biostratigrapher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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!