This summer a few members of the UMass Micropaleo Lab traveled to Texas for the first ever International Ocean Discovery Program-Past Antarctic Ice Sheet (IODP-PAIS) Antarctic School at Texas A&M University! This program allows scientists from all over the globe who research Antarctica to come together to study the marine sediment cores stored at the IODP Core Repository.
During our week at the repository, our mornings were filled with lectures and real-life activities led by geoscientists who have sailed on previous drilling cruises. We learned from them what shipboard life is like, how drill cores are taken, what problems can arise while drilling in Southern Ocean around Antarctica, and how to interpret the clues within the drill cores. To explore those clues, we were divided into mini-research teams and each given a core section from a prior expedition to analyze. Each afternoon we rotated among different core analysis stations: how to make and analyze microscopic smear slides, how to describe the macroscopic features of the core section, how to gather and interpret paleomagnetic and density data on the core sediment, how to scan core sections for key trace elements and improve your paleoenvironmental interpretations using element abundance data, and how to develop a timeframe for your core section (chronostratigraphy). Putting this all together, we were able to map a pattern of ice advance and retreat over where the drill core was taken. Since the core sections we were studying came from expeditions, we were able to double-check our data and interpretations against the published results and see how successful we were–my group was able to match the chronostratigraphy of the original study!
I was excited to learn so much and gain so many new friends at the Antarctic School, but my excitement was tempered by being the only woman of color in the program. I was ashamed to learn that an international program participant could not attend because they were not granted a U.S. visa in time: the American visa process is extremely biased, and as an international organization the IODP should use their agency to help all invited participants attend, regardless of their countries of origin. It is not enough to non-racist in today’s society–we must be actively anti-racist. I think international STEM research programs such as this one should hold spots specifically for students of color, students with disabilities, and other folks who are traditionally marginalized and underrepresented in STEM to attend. Programs like this are critical for early-career scientists to network with each other and the leading scientists in the field, and without holding doors open for marginalized students, how else will diversity in STEM increase?
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
I got interested in science because I loved nature videos as a kid. I specifically remember one about the Alvin exploring the deep ocean that I would watch over and over, and I thought that being a scientist must be the coolest thing in the world. After that, I had a series of passionate and supportive teachers and mentors that nourished my interest in science and equipped me with the tools I needed to pursue a career in it.
There are a lot of things I love about being a scientist, but I think my favorite is the opportunities science has given me to meet people from different backgrounds. I have a network of peers, collaborators and mentors all around the world and I have learned so much, both as a scientist and a human being, from all of them.
What do you do as a scientist?
I study glaciers and ice sheets, the huge masses of ice that exist today in Greenland and Antarctica. I’m interested in how they responded to climate change in the past, so that we can better predict how they will respond to climate change in the future. This is particularly important today, because the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating rate and causing sea level to rise along coastlines around the world. To do this, I run computer model simulations of earth’s climate and ice sheets and compare the results with geologic data. I use these comparisons to understand what caused past changes to the ice sheets (for example, atmospheric or oceanic warming) and make predictions of how much sea level rise occurred during past warm periods.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
My research helps us understand the stability of ice sheets as the climate warms, which is one way we can improve predictions of sea level rise in the coming decades.
What are your data, and where do they come from?
For my research, I work with a lot of continuous climate records derived from ice cores and marine cores, which has been a great way to learn about those archives and given me some amazing opportunities to get involved with fieldwork. If you want to read more about that, you can find information on my blog.
Another part of my work that I am passionate about is making science more equitable. In many ways throughout history, scientific discourse has been dominated by some voices at the expense of others. In the U.S. today this is exemplified by the over-representation of white men as professors, in leadership positions, and as award recipients. This hinders scientific progress and is harmful to our community. Science advances by testing new ideas and hypotheses, which is inefficient when not everyone is invited to the table to share their ideas. Unfortunately stereotypes, discrimination, and harmful working conditions (among other factors) have kept many brilliant people from pursuing scientific careers, and especially academic ones.
At UMass, I have been working with a group of graduate students to address this through BRIDGE. BRIDGE is a program that encourages departments to identify and invite Scholars from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM who are early in their careers to participate in an existing departmental lecture series. We also ensure that we provide the Scholar with a platform to share their personal experiences with obstacles and opportunities in entering and remaining in academia, so that current graduate students are better equipped to navigate that process. This is a small but meaningful way to make sure that all scientists feel like they have role models who have had experiences they can relate to, and we have found that many graduate students do really benefit from it.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
If you want to be a scientists then you should already start thinking of yourself as a scientist. The sooner you start experimenting with that identity and what it means to you, the better prepared you’ll be for actually doing science. I remember the first time I started meeting the “real scientists” whose papers I had obsessed over as an undergraduate. The idea of meeting these big names was overwhelming and intimidating and I doubted that I could ever occupy the same profession as them. Looking back at that almost ten years later, it’s clear to me that was a false distinction that only served to hold me back.
Being a scientist starts with being curious or interested in something and simply asking questions about it. How does it work? What happens if I do this? If you are asking those questions about anything, then you’re already thinking like a scientist, and you can do anything that a scientist can do. Some of those things that a scientist does are more exciting than others (doing experiments and taking measurements compared to writing grants, for example) but my advice would be to try all of it. Writing grants based on your own ideas is scary because there’s a potential for rejection, but it’s extremely important to try, and there’s no end to what you can learn through that process. It’s taken me a long time to understand that rejection of one of my ideas isn’t a rejection of my worth as a scientist; and conversely, when you apply for a grant or scholarship and you do get it, there’s an incredible feeling of validation and support.
So I would say get started as early as possible looking for opportunities to get rejected. Apply for everything you can. A lot of things won’t come through, and you have to learn to accept that. But other things will, and getting that recognition will not only be good for your self, it will pave the way for other opportunities and lead you to new research questions. And if you’re ever intimidated by an application, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have been there before – more often than not we are willing to support you through the process.
Back in January, I was in College Station, Texas on a trip related to the scientific ocean drilling expedition I was on last summer (see my previous posts about ship life and my responsibilities on the ship as a biostratigrapher). Part of the trip was dedicated to editing the scientific reports we wrote while sailing in the Tasman Sea, and the other part of the trip was spent taking samples from the sediment cores we drilled.
While we were sailing in the Tasman Sea, our expedition drilled a total of 6 sites: some in shallow waters in the northern part of the Tasman, and some in deeper waters towards the southern end of the sea. In total, we recovered 2506.4 meters of sediment (8223 feet, or 1.55 miles) in 410 cores.
The cores were first shipped to College Station, Texas from the port in Hobart, Tasmania. Eventually, they will all be stored at the core repository in Kochi, Japan. While they were in Texas, several of the scientists from the expedition met up to take samples from the cores for their own research into Earth’s climate in geologic time.
I requested samples from two of the six sites we drilled in the Tasman Sea. All of my samples are younger than about 18 million years old, in the period of geologic time called the Neogene. All in all, I requested about 800 sediment samples! Not all of these samples will be used for one project. Instead, they will be used in several different projects, such as to determine evolutionary events of planktic foraminifera in the Tasman Sea and investigate changes in sea surface temperatures during major climate change events of the past.
To begin sampling, students who work at the College Station core respository set up cores at each workstation. There were 6 workstations: one for each site that we drilled. A team of 3-4 scientists were assigned to each station to sample the cores. We had approximately 1 week to take ~14,000 samples! Luckily, I was able to sample one of the cores from which I requested samples from!
Every workstation had all the materials that we need to sample: gloves, paper towels, various tools (small and large spatulas, rubber hammers, and various sizes of plastic scoops). In addition, each station was also given a list of all the samples every researcher had requested for a specific site. This way, we could cross the samples off the list as we took and bagged them.
My team, which consisted of two other scientists that I sailed with, Yu-Hyeon and May, began sampling the youngest part of our assigned site. Because these sediments were located right at or below the seafloor, they were very soupy! As we moved through the cores (back into time), the sediments became less soupy, and eventually pretty hard. We never encountered sediments that were so hard we had to use a hammer and chisel to get out the samples, but other teams did.
After scooping/hammering out the samples, we then put the samples into a small plastic bag. These bags were then labeled with a sticker with information that includes what site the samples came from, the core from which is came from, the specific section in the core, and the two-centimeter interval in that section. This way, the scientists know exactly at what depth (meters below sea floor) the sample came from. It is crucial to know the depth at what each sample was taken, as depth will be later converted to age using various methods (for one using fossils as a proxy for age, see my post about biostratigraphy)
Because the sediments my team and I sampled in were so soft, and we had requested a lot of samples from the core we were working with, we were able to quickly take a lot of samples! I could only stay and sample for two days (I had to fly back to UMass to teach), but in that time, my team and I took so many samples, we broke a record! We currently hold the record for most sediment samples taken in one day at the Gulf Coast Repository in College Station!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
The best part of my job is my interactions with students. I feel very fortunate to have a group of masters and doctoral students working in the lab on various projects that focus of climate change, evolution and improving the geological time scale. Many of the students are international and have different research backgrounds, and thus I get to learn about different cultures as well as benefit from unique insights that they have to science. I also really enjoy how every day is different, and I get to look down the microscope at extraordinary fossil plankton from millions of years ago.
Science wasn’t my first choice – I originally applied to university to study English Literature, but my grades weren’t good enough! So this was a big turning point, but in retrospect I’m really glad that I couldn’t take that path. These days I spend much of my time reading and writing, so perhaps these worlds are not so far apart.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution and climate change?
I use microscopic marine plankton and their chemistry to determine how the oceans have changed over the last 50 million years. I’m particularly interested in how life responds to climatic change and what drives a species to extinction.
What are your proxies, and how do you obtain your data?
The microscopic fossils I work on are called planktonic foraminifera. These are about the size of a grain of sand. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate and over time the shells of dead foraminifera accumulate in marine sediments and yield a long fossil record, which we can use to gain information on oceans and climate of the past. I use cores obtained through the International Ocean Discovery Program. Core samples taken from the ocean floor can help form a picture of climate changes which took place millions of years ago. I use the foraminifera to examine changes in evolution and extinction rates and mechanisms in different time intervals, and use their chemistry, such as oxygen and carbon isotopes to reconstruct changes in marine temperatures, track glacial/interglacial cycles, and productivity through time.
What advice do you have for young, aspiring scientists?
Find your passion, focus on the aspects that you enjoy the most and have fun!
Last summer, I participated in a scientific ocean drilling expedition (check out my previous posts here and here). More simply, I spent two months on a ship in the Tasman Sea, recovering sediment cores from the seafloor. We drilled the newly-named continent of Zealandia to determine the geologic history of the now-submerged continent. I sailed with about 30 other scientists from different backgrounds, which means that we learned a ton from the cores we recovered and learned a lot from one another.
But all this new knowledge is useless if it isn’t written up and available to other scientists. So while we were on the ship, we wrote up our findings in documents we call ‘Site Chapters’. A site is what we call each new location where we drill. The scientific results from each site will eventually be published into chapters available online to the public.
While we were on the ship, the scientists had only a limited time to spend writing up their site chapter sections (every different group on the ship contributes a different section to the chapter; for example, as a paleontologist, I was only responsible for writing up the chapter section that deals with fossils). This writing time-crunch often leads to good, but not great, writing and figures. Thus, there comes a time after the expedition when some of the scientists that sailed together meet up for a week and thoroughly edit all the chapters.
At the end of January, the science party, including myself, met at Texas A & M University in College Station, TX. The university is home-base to the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), the program through which our expedition was organized and funded. Not all the scientists attend this ‘editorial party’, as only about 1 to 2 scientists from each group are needed. For example. there are two paleontologists (myself and another researcher from Italy) out of the original ten paleontologists that sailed working on the fossil-specific section for our site chapters. All in all, there was about 12 of us edition our chapters.
We spent 5 days in a room together, with access to all of our files and figures that we typed and created on the ship. In the room with us were 4 support staff, whose sole job it was to support us in any way they could. For example, they helped us edit figures, they gave us access to additional files that we needed, and they edited our chapters for grammar and spelling. The support team also formatted the chapters to a very specific style.
So why spend all this time on editing, drafting, and formatting a bunch of science-y stuff? There are several reasons! First, all IODP expeditions are paid for via taxpayer dollars, so the science that we do at sea and our major findings should be made available for public consumption. We anticipate that our chapters will be published online, available to everyone for free, in February 2019. Second, there is a diverse group of scientists that sail on the ship, and thus a diverse (and global) following of other scientists that are interested in what we did and what we found while at sea. Publishing our finding lets others interested in our science know what we collected, the age of the material, and if there is anything they could possibly work on in the future. The chapters also serve as a record and database (there will be an online database of findings as well) for others.
Editing is hard work, so it was important to take regular breaks and have some fun. Luckily, the weather was warm (or at least warmer than in Massachusetts) and sunny! Our lunches were catered everyday, and a few of us often went on walks around campus. Lucky for me, the limestone blocks that are used as walls around campus were filled with fossils, which provided me plenty of entertainment!
Adriane here, reporting once again from the beautiful Tasman Sea!
You may recall from my previous post that I am currently sailing the RV JOIDES Resolution (the JR), a research vessel equipped with a drill rig that is used for scientific ocean drilling. During these scientific expeditions aboard the JR, a team of about 30-35 scientists and several crew members (the JR can hold a maximum of 130 people) drill sediment from the seafloor. Everyone on the ship has a job to do, and in this post I’ll explain what my role is while sailing in the beautiful Tasman.
I am sailing as a planktic foraminifera biostratigrapher (click here to learn more about what that means, and here to read more about how we use fossils to tell time) or someone who uses fossils (‘bio’) to tell time from the rock record (‘stratigraphy’). Altogether, there are 9 paleontologists on the ship. Some of us are here to tell the other scientist what age the sediments are that we’re drilling into, and some are using fossils to interpret paleobathymetry, or the water depth of the Tasman Sea at different times in Earth’s history.
Every scientist’s role on the ship is vastly important, but the first thing everyone wants to know as sediment cores are being drilled and brought onto the ship is how old this sediment is. This is important for a few different reasons: 1. There are specific intervals in Earth’s history that we (the scientists on the ship) want to drill into; 2. With age, we can tell what was going on in the geologic past in the Tasman Sea and further interpret the plate tectonic movements and environments when the sediment was deposited, and 3. We can modify our drilling plan including changing out the drill bits, slowing down the drilling, or speeding up the drilling process to best capture key intervals in Earth’s history. Thus, being a biostratigrapher is initially a very important job, and one that can affect the drilling operations on the ship. That’s why there are four main fossil groups that we use to tell time: the calcareous nannofossils (which are REALLY tiny), the planktic (and in this case, the benthic) foraminifera, siliceous radiolarians, and pollen spores. All of the fossil groups are important to have, as there are intervals in the cores where one or two fossil groups may disappear, or there may only be planktic foraminifera in one sample, etc.
But enough about biostratigraphy, now to show and tell you the entire process we go through when we receive a core on the ship!
The first thing that happens when a core is pulled up onto the core deck is that an announcement is made, such as ‘Core on deck!’. I then put on a hard hat and safety glasses and grab a bowl to collect the core catcher sample (the end piece of the core that literally keeps the sediment in the pipe as the core is brought back to the surface). The core catcher sample is the very last 10 centimeters of the core that is given to the paleontologists to analyze for age. The technicians bring the core from the drill floor to the core deck, where the core is cut into sections. While the core is being cut, another technician is given the core catcher to disassemble, remove the sediment, and give to the paleontologist.
Once I have the sample, I take it back inside to process. If the sediment is very soft, I simply rinse it over a screen to remove small particles (refer to my previous ‘From Mud to Microfossils: Processing Samples’ post). But recently on the expedition, the sediment we are recovering has been very hard. In this case, the core catcher sample is cut into thin slices using a rock saw, then small pieces are shaved off of a slice using a sharp-edged tool. These smaller pieces are crushed with a mortar and pestle for a few minutes.
The sediment is then rinsed over two screens: a 2 millimeter (mm) screen to hold back the larger particles, and a 63 micrometer (μm) screen to catch the microfossils. The >2 mm rock pieces are then crushed again until there is enough particles in the 63 μm screen to analyze for planktic foraminifera. The sediment, which we call the residue at this point, is then put into filter paper on a stand to drain out the extra water. The filter paper and residue are then put onto a hot plate to dry (yes, there have been a few times when the paper has burned!).
After the residue is dry, it is put into a small plastic bag with a label indicating exactly where it came from within each core. At this point, the residue is ready for analysis! At my desk, I have a microscope, a small tray, very small paintbrushes for picking very small fossils, a jar of water, and green food dye. Because the microfossils that I look at are made of calcite, they are very bright under the lights in the microscope. Dying the fossils a green color cuts down on the reflectance of light off the foram’s shells, and enables me to see the details of the fossil necessary to identify it to the species level.
There are usually many different planktic foraminiferal species in each sample, but there are only a few that I usually look for that tell me about the age of the sediment. These are called ‘marker species’. The geologic time at which a marker species evolves or goes extinct has been calibrated by previous scientists before me over several decades, so when I find a species, or when a species suddenly disappears, I have a chart that I use to look up when that speciation or extinction event happened.
Once I have a datum (reference point of time) and an age estimate for the residue sample I’m looking at, I write this information on a big white board in the paleontology lab. All of the other scientists look at this board frequently to determine the age of the sediment that is being brought up.
Education and Outreach Aboard the JR
Every IODP expedition has an education outreach coordinator that sails with the crew and scientists. This person’s job is to blog, post photos on social media outlets (Facebook), and conduct ‘Ship to Shore’ linkups. These are scheduled events with colleges, university, and K-12 schools where the education outreach coordinator gives the viewers a live tour of the ship and the activities that are going on. Because every expedition is funded by public monies from several countries, it is our responsibility as scientists to engage with the public and tell you all what we’re doing and what we’re learning. I’ve participated in a few ship to shore linkups already, and have really enjoyed talking with students of all ages about fossils, what we’re finding in the Tasman Sea, and how we use the fossils to tell time!
If you are an educator and want to participate in a Ship to Shore video event, click here to sign up!
On July 28th, I will board the scientific drilling ship, R/V Joides Resolution, to spend 2 months in the Tasman Sea! This expedition, through the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) will recover sediment from the seafloor between Australia and New Zealand to learn more about the plate tectonics behaved in the geologic past and the climate and ocean history of the Tasman Sea. A group of scientists were chosen to participate on this expedition, all have a very specific job to do while at sea. My job is to look at the tiny fossils, planktic foraminifera (also called ‘forams’) recovered from the sediment, identify them, and tell everyone else how old the sediment is. This technique of using fossils to tell time is called biostratigraphy. Thus, I am sailing as one of four planktic foraminferal biostratigraphers on the ship.
Preparing for an expedition like this is no small task. In fact, it’s downright terrifying! I will be working for 2 months straight on 12 hour shifts, and will be around some of the best scientists of my time. I am certain I will learn a ton of new information, but it can be intimidating knowing you will, as a student, be working with such great scientists.
So, how does one prepare for an expedition of this magnitude? First and foremost, I am staying positive and reminding myself that this is a remarkable experience! Second, I have been reading scientific papers where the research focuses on microfossils from the Tasman Sea, and putting these important papers on an external hard drive to take with me on the ship. Third, my lab and I made a ‘Biostrat Book’, where I combined three different zonation schemes, or ways to tell time using planktic foraminifera, for use on the ship. This document also contains tons of pictures of important foram species that we use to estimate time.
But it turns out the best place to look at and learn different species of forams was right here, in the lab of my advisor! My advisor, Mark, has collected sediment samples from all over the world, and has amassed quite the collection of planktic forams. So as part of my training, I sorted all of our samples first by species, then by age. This collection will serve as references for me to practice identifying all the foram species!
And finally, the last way I’m preparing for this expedition is by relying on the support and positivity from my peers and lab mates, both previous and current members (I lovingly call them my paleo brothers and sisters). Several of my advisor’s former students have sailed aboard the Joides Resolution, so their advice and support has been invaluable to me!
Stay tuned for more updates from my time in Australia and aboard the Joides Resolution!