Jacqueline S. Silviria, PhD student, research & teaching assistant

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Greetings! I’m Jacqueline Silviria. I’m originally from Los Angeles, California. I received my BS at the New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, my MS at the University of New Mexico, and am currently working on my PhD at the University of Washington, Seattle. I’ve been a fan of Japanese animation for about a decade, and I collect out-of-print DVD and BluRay boxsets of 1990s-early 2000s series, as well as rare figurines and statues. Recently, I also started collecting 1990s animation cels from series in my media library. Expect me to visit every major North American Japantown and Chinatown at least once in search of vintage merch! I also seek out rare natural history books and articles from the early-mid 20th century, especially those from China, Japan, and the former Soviet Union. That hobby has become much less expensive thanks to internet archives and interlibrary loan services!

Holding an earliest Paleocene “archaic ungulate” jaw from the Burke collections (probably Mimatuta, but I still need to work out the exact species) in the new photogrammetry lab at the UW Life Science Building. The jaw was found by Wilson Mantilla lab alumn Luke Weaver (now at Kent State University) in 2019. The whole animal probably weighed no more than 1-2 kg, about the size of a ferret!

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I’m starting my second year as a PhD student in the UW Department of Earth & Space Science, working in Gregory Wilson Mantilla’s lab in the Department of Biology and the Burke Museum of Natural History & Science. My main research interests are the morphometry, phylogenetic systematics, and biogeography of ungulates (hooved mammals). I’m currently focused on the postcanine dental anatomy of the earliest ungulates in North America, from the aftermath of the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K/Pg) mass extinction. I employ photogrammetry and micro-CT scanning to make 3D models of ungulate jaws and teeth, for collection of shape data important for distinguish different species. I’m planning to print 3D models for use in our Evolution of Mammals and their Ancestors undergraduate course, as well as public outreach events at the Burke Museum. Every summer, I help the Burke’s Hell Creek Project organize and instruct the DIG Field School, which brings K-12 teachers to our K/Pg field sites in Montana, so they bring back the wonders of vertebrate paleontology to their own classrooms. I also recently started The Last King of the Jungle Discord sever for professional researchers to discuss the latest news in mammal paleontology. 

Background includes people and their field gear and a rock outcrop. Foreground has an individual in field attire pointing at a specific layer of rock while looking at the camera.
Here I am at an exposure of the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary at Lerbekmo Hill in Hell Creek State Park, Montana. I’m pointing to a thin reddish-brown clay layer, rich in iridium from the Chicxulub bolide impact 66 million years ago. We dug this section for the DIG teachers to take their own pictures!

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My first job in paleontology was as a student curator for the invertebrate paleontology teaching collections at New Mexico Tech and the New Mexico Bureau of Geology. It was through this position that I met Thomas Williamson at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, who noticed my enthusiasm for mammalian evolution and systematics; I would later work as a curatorial assistant at the museum while working on my Masters. Since then, my favorite part of research has been collections curation and management, because it allows me to look at material that would otherwise be forgotten. I especially enjoy specimen photography and am quite proficient at focus-stacking images of mammalian teeth (I thank Tom for teaching how). I also taught myself computer software for cladistic analyses of evolutionary relationships; I’m most familiar with the maximum parsimony approach, but I’m hoping to get more fluent in maximum likelihood methods. Such analyses permit a get fresh, quantitative perspective on species and taxa that may have been ignored since their original description, and thus not securely placed in the tree of life.

But while I consider myself a collections-based “armchair” researcher, I also enjoy paleontological fieldwork for the simple pleasure of visiting exotic and remote localities I normally wouldn’t have the time or money to go to. Picking live anthills for mammal teeth and other small fossils is a favorite task of fieldwork, if only for the adrenaline rush of racing against the clock before the ants unplug their nest! And even if I have a bad day at a fossil site, I know I will have learned enough about the geology of the area that it’s worth going back the next year.

I still collect old scientific articles and books on occasion. Here I’m holding an original printing of William Matthew’s Paleocene Faunas of the San Juan Basin, New Mexico, auctioned at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s 2022 meeting in Toronto. If I remember correctly, this copy was at one point owned by Everett Olson. Matthew’s monograph remains the go-to source of information on many early Paleocene North American ungulate mammals. Photo credit: Thomas Williamson & Sarah Shelley.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? As a transgender woman, I heed the call to serve as a good role model for other LGBTIQA+ students and early career researchers in geology and paleontology, especially given the current political climate in North America and Europe. I think great strides have been taken at LGBTIQA+ representation and equality at paleontological societies compared to other scientific institutions, but more work needs to be done so that we don’t backtrack and repeat the mistakes of the past. Additionally, I’m the first person in my immediate family, trans or otherwise, to pursue a PhD degree.

More importantly, as a collections-based researcher, I feel a responsibility to preserve and protect our public cultural and scientific heritage, particularly when many institutions face the threat of defunding or even privatization. The material housed in natural history museum and university collections comprise an irreplaceable knowledge base for systematic research that permits broader scale “big picture” analyses, like ecological studies on the effects of climate change. I hope that my future outreach efforts online and at the Burke Museum will promote collections curation and management, especially at paleontological institution, so up-and-coming students will see at as an invaluable public service and not simply “rock hounding” or “stamp collecting”.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My advice is to be flexible with approaches and interests in the very beginning, but later consider specializing in what gives you joy and what you excel in. When exploring research programs in your field, acknowledge that ideas and procedures evolve over time, and that absolute certainty is impossible in the natural sciences, but still work towards honoring and preserving the accomplishments of your academic predecessors for future generations. In other words, be anti-authoritarian but authoritative (to paraphrase Niels Bonde’s retrospective on Colin Patterson). And do not shun systematics/taxonomy because it can be difficult for poorly studied groups of organisms; without it, the language of science risks becoming inscrutable garble!

Learn more about Jacqueline on their department webpage.