Creating a poster for class, a workshop, or a professional conference can be a daunting task. No matter what I’m creating the poster for, I try to stick with a simple and clean background and then once the organizational structure is in place, start to fill it in. This usually results in huge changes as I progress through the content but that’s okay!
Before getting started on your poster there are a few major things you should think about:
What program do I want to make my poster in? Google Slides integrates well with Google Sheets (free), Microsoft Powerpoint is pretty easy to manipulate (not free), and Adobe Illustrator is excellent for really detailed work (not free). There are many other programs, such as Canva (free), that offer lots of integration for images, line drawings, and more.
Who is in your audience? This will help you tailor language, depth of content, and figure detail on your poster.
Are there poster requirements? Size can be dramatically different and it’s always easiest to start with the biggest poster allowed and cut it down if you don’t need the space.
Generally, I like to work with boxes. Boxes help keep the organization of the poster nice and tidy. A major title box at the top that includes your poster title, authors, affiliations, and abstract number (if relevant). I usually aim to have the title in 72 point font and then everything else is a bit less. Having your regular text between 18-24 point font is a pretty good range and headers somewhere in the 40s-50s.
The rest of the poster is subdivided into larger boxes for each part of your project. These generally include but are not limited to: Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusions, and Acknowledgments. Obviously, science and other projects don’t fit neatly into these categories but it’s a good starting place and titles can always be changed! It often helps just to get something on the page and then you can modify things later.
It’s always good to make sure your poster can stand alone when you aren’t there to walk viewers through the content. This means I usually include introductory or background text to help set the stage for the reader and reduce the text throughout the rest of the poster. This means shorter text, phrases, or bullets through the methods and results to concisely walk the reader through your content. Full sentences can be useful for discussion, conclusions, and/or broad implications of your work but sometimes bullets are plenty! Once you get to creating, it should be clear how much or how little you need to say.
Don’t forget to include references and people who have helped you out in your acknowledgments section. If people are interested in how you phrased something they may want to look up a reference that dives more deeply into the content. You can use regular in-text citations on your poster or superscripts to keep it neat and tidy. It’s good to include funding, departmental (internal or external) equipment that helped with analyses, and anyone who helped you run the machines or gain access to specimens!
The other major thing about posters is color schemes. Sometimes your supervisor or department may urge you to use school colors, this is fine but make sure you are following brand/logo policies (because they are confusing and there are a lot of rules). I like to throw in a lot of color wherever I can. It may be because I work on fossils and they are gray and often dreary-looking but I do believe that if your poster is visually appealing at first glance it will draw people over to you!
Quick Tips and Tricks
Make sure to include your affiliation (organization or institution)
Include logos of institutions or funding that helped support your project
Use colors that you like but that also help draw people to your poster
Send it to your friends and co-authors to edit before finalizing it
Always save it as a pdf when you send it off to be printed
Sometimes printing can take long, make sure you have enough time
Have fun, posters are an excellent networking opportunity
If you click here you can go to a template Sarah and I made when we were teaching a summer course. You can save a copy of this template to your Google Drive to play around with the different elements.
I recently attended the annual meeting for the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). This meeting is where museum staff from around the world come together–mainly those that work in some regard with natural history collections. This can be zoological collections, herbaria, paleontological, or geological and there are many different aspects of collections care. Some attendees were curators, others collections managers, and many faculty that had smaller collections that they were working to organize and make available.
I was attending as representative of the FOSSIL Project. Over the past year I have been working with web-developers to modify the current upload process on the myFOSSIL web-platform. Anyone can upload their fossil collections to this site but we want to make the data that are really high quality available for anyone to see – this is done by sending the data to data aggregators like iDigBio and GBIF. These are portals that anyone can use to search for organism data. iDigBio is primarily the home for museum collections data and is a great tool for finding where specimens are located that you may want to do research on.
These aggregators are very powerful. Are you interested in when and where a certain animal lived? This is something you can easily determine with the data input into the portal. In many cases the data are not complete, but it is an excellent way to start thinking about really big questions about biogeography, ecology, evolutionary history, and biodiversity through time.
So, this conference was an opportunity for me to present the work that we have been doing to make the myFOSSIL platform set up in a way to easily send the data to these aggregators. I participated in a full day workshop on the Natural History Collections Club Network, a relatively recent project to create a network of student led organizations associated with natural history collections. This was a lot of fun getting to learn about how people had set up these clubs at their universities and to listen to what worked and didn’t work as they aged.
The second day of the conference was rather short and focused on the keynote speakers of the event. For the majority of the day we were all in one large room listening to these talks. The first was by someone at GBIF and he spoke about all of the available data and how things operate on their end. It was really interesting, especially since I am so interested in data mobilization (through making specimen data available online). The next talk was by the in-house artist at the Field Museum. She spoke about how she goes about her work and the different processes and timelines that go into large projects. It was incredibly fun to listen to her talk about art, natural history, and all of the connections. The third and final talk was by the author of The Feather Thief, a book about a young man stealing exotic birds from the Natural History Museum in London to sell to people to make fishing flies. Read more about the plenary talks by clicking here.
Although we sat in the same room for most of the day, I was able to connect with some really interesting people from all over the country. I tend to not be incredibly social, I’m a quiet introverted person for the most part. But when things got too loud, I would simply walk off and find a quiet spot – often, it wasn’t just me doing this, so I was able to chat with other introverts as well =]
The third and fourth days of the conference were filled with 15-minute talks by many different people. These talks were organized by themes, so you had to decide what sort of theme you were most interested at each point in the day. There was also a special session called ‘Specimen Spotlight”. Where you had 5 minutes and 1 slide to discuss an important and impactful specimen from your collection. I did not participate in this session but did sit in for almost an hour of specimens! It was really fun and an exciting way to learn about lots of different things very quickly. Check out a few that I was able to tweet about by clicking here.
I gave a talk on the fourth afternoon about our work and it was pretty well attended considering it was 4 PM!!! Everyone gets pretty tired that late in the day. I had a few good questions and then stayed for the group discussion at the end of the session. It was really productive and exciting hearing about how we can better serve and support small collections. I also participated in an education share fair on Friday morning. This was two 30-minute sessions where presenters shared information on an activity, lesson, or resource that may be of interest to others in the community. I walked through the myFOSSIL website and asked questions to the group about involving amateur paleontologists in the collections, how they could use the platform in their classrooms, or even when training their volunteers as a database management example before setting people loose on their own system.
Overall this was a hugely fun and rewarding experience. I learned an immense amount about museum collections and networked with many different people. I never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome and everyone was very kind to me. As my first SPNHC meeting I say it was a huge success!!!
Check out #SPNHC2019 on Twitter for all the updates!
This past March we attended the Southeastern Geological Society of America Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Adriane and Jen set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money to support Cam’s travel to the event. This endeavor resulted in a fully funded conference for Cam – and his first professional geology conference experience. If you are interested in reading the abstract we submitted click here.
Cam presented a poster on our use of the #FossilFriday hash tag on social media. His poster was on Thursday morning and he was constantly busy! The data we collected to assess the success of the hash tag was from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Analytics. We looked at how many people the Fossil Friday posts reach and then how many people interacted with the posts – this includes shares, reactions, comments, and clicks on the post. The metrics are slightly different for each social media platform. We also wanted to see if these posts were increasing traffic to the site or if the engagement was mostly constrained to the social media platforms.
These posts are often our highest performing posts – meaning they reach a large amount of people and many of these people interact with the content. So we gathered all of the social media data, calculated a rate of engagement for each post on each platform, and then compared this to our overall site traffic data from Google Analytics. We found that this hashtag did not bring more traffic to our website, even though they are reaching many people outside of our normal community.
This was the very first scientific conference I (Cam) was able to have the pleasure of attending. It was also the first time I did a poster presentation. At the beginning I was quite nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from SE GSA. It wasn’t until I met Jen Bauer that I become comfortable. I did practice sessions with Adriane and Jen many times via Google Hangouts, but I still had a difficult time explaining the information on the poster. When the day for me to present my poster came, I was excited and yet still nervous. I did a practice session with Jen early in the morning and I finally felt confident and motivated. While at GSA I met so many paleontologists. Many of the paleontologists I met already knew me from my constant activity on social media. This just shows how many positives outcomes can come from social media and networking. I didn’t feel out of place at GSA either. Everyone was so nice and welcoming. It was like a big family. There was also a good amount of diversity as well. There was a great amount of scientists with so many different research backgrounds. I received many encouraging words and advice as well.
On the last day at SE GSA I was invited by my good friends and paleontologists Bobby and Sarah Boessenecker to the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History which is part of the Charleston College to check out the fossil preparation lab and the vertebrate fossil collections. The cetacean (whale, dolphin, and porpoises) fossils were absolutely stunning. I was able to see Dr. Boessenecker clean a whale skull still encased in matrix (rock or sediment that the fossil was found in) that has not yet been published. I was told that the whale was not only a new species but it probably belonged to a new group as well. It’s not everyday you get to see a new species of fossil organism being cleaned right in front of you. Overall, my first GSA trip was great and I can’t wait to embark on other scientific conferences in the future.
Check out Cam talking more about his experience here:
We (Jen and Adriane) hope that one day we can provide more opportunities like this for up-and-coming geologists and paleontologists through Time Scavengers! It was a whirlwind of a few days but Cam greatly benefited from the experience of engaging and networking with so many professionals. He has a wide network of friends on Facebook and many people were very excited to see him in person! One Facebook friend even brought him supplies for his outreach work.
Jen recorded herself describing the poster, check it out here:
A few of our shark friends came up with us too from the department you can read their abstracts here and here.
It was really great getting to see some old friends from the University of Tennessee at the meeting. I got to catch up with a lot of close geology friends. These small meetings are so excellent and I really enjoy helping prepare students for their first academic conference!
A good portion of the FOSSIL Project team are in the UF College of Education and I’ve been trying to learn all that I can about studying learning in digital spaces. A recent grad, Dr. Lisa Lundgren, worked to determine who were the members of the myFOSSIL online community. She developed a taxonomic system to describe who was interacting on myFOSSIL. I’ve been a participant within the community since 2014 when it began so I have been really interested in her work. One of the primary goals of the project is to connect professional and amateur paleontologists. I wrote about her defense on my personal blog, which you can find by clicking here.
So, now that Lisa has produced a framework (Paleontological Identity Taxonomy (PIT), read more here) to begin examining and analyzing the community the education team is really diving into it. I was asked to join one of the projects they are working on to analyze a year’s worth of Twitter data. The idea being to explore who major contributors are on Twitter in relation to FOSSIL. Are there certain people that may catalyze interactions? How do these people fit into the taxonomic framework that has been previously established?
This project is using both qualitative and quantitative methods. In my normal work, I primarily use quantitative work to assess various things in my chosen fossil group. Diving into the qualitative work was a bit challenging at first but really interesting once I fully understood what I was doing. We were working to classify users within the FOSSIL Project’s Twitter community. This involved going through each person’s Twitter biography to determine how they fit into the PIT. Such as, in their bio do they identify as a scientist? What type of scientist? Or are they a member of the public? If they are a member of the public do they have an interest in fossils? I haven’t had much exposure to how different scientists study learning or communication so I’m really excited to be part of this project. Lisa will be presenting results at the upcoming 10th International Conference on Social Media & Society Conference in Toronto this summer.
As Time Scavengers continues to grow as a community, we need to make sure we understand how to analyze all of the data we have been collecting and if there are best practices for different types of questions we are asking! I have made valuable connections within the education team that have already shown to be beneficial as Adriane and I are teaming up with Lisa on a manuscript right now!
The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture is located in Knoxville, Tennessee on the University of Tennessee campus. The museum is open from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Monday through Saturday and 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm on Sunday. The museum is free to the public with special paid events. There are a variety of education opportunities from pre-K to lifelong learners, click here to find out more. Inviting you into the museum facilities is large metal Edmontosaurus, a delightful hadrosaur (duck billed dinosaur) named Monty. The museum has regular ‘Family Fun Days’ and an annual ‘Can you dig it?’ event to celebrate geology and archaeology. Read about the most recent Can you dig it? event by clicking here and check out the McClung’s event page by clicking here.
The McClung Museum has several permanent exhibits and one rotating exhibit. Please look through their exhibit archive by clicking here to see the upcoming, special, permanent, and past exhibitions!
On the main level you can explore the Geology & Fossil History of Tennessee from 500 million years ago until the most recent Ice Age all while a mosasaur hangs from the ceiling above you. Around the corner you can explore Archaeology & the Native Peoples of Tennessee through a variety of artifacts and interactive displays based on more than 65 years of research done at UT. By entering through a pyramid doorway you are transported to Ancient Egypt: The Eternal Voice where you can explore the interested culture of the ancient people of the Nile valley. The last exhibit on the main level is the Decorative Experience that explores art as one of the unifying elements of human culture.
Heading to the lower level there are several more excellent exhibits. Tennessee Freshwater Mussels showcases the biology and diversity of these creatures and this provides and excellent look into the impressive malacology exhibits the McClung houses. This exhibit is almost hidden around a corner but is a must see! The Civil War in Knoxville: The Battle of Fort Sanders follows along a main hall way and details the aspects of the war that took place in Eastern Tennessee. Many of these sites are historical markers and are easily accessible around town. The last permanent exhibit is Human Origins: Searching for our Fossil Ancestors. This exhibit is compact and filled with valuable information and specimens. Difficult concepts are easily explained through engaging diagrams and exhibits.
I started my postdoc position at the Florida Museum of Natural History this past August and my time is split between two projects. One is with the FOSSIL project, a social paleontology project with the goal of connecting all levels of paleontologists (enthusiasts to professionals and all of those in between), and the other is with the Thompson Earth Systems Institute where I do a whole variety of different things from coordinating events, researching collaborators, and helping grow the team and institute.
Something many of us are not taught during our graduate programs is best practices for project management. I think of myself as a highly organized person. I use Google Calendar, Todoist, and other organizational tools to keep me on task. But it is still incredibly hard to separate my two projects, and it’s made more confusing since our teams have significant overlap. I’m on more projects than just these two, other research projects that also take up some time. So my weeks usually have several two hour meetings and many one hour meetings. A few weeks ago was particularly bad with each day having a two hour meeting with several one hour meetings surrounding them. I usually stay at work from about 8:30-4:00 pm, so about 7.5 hours. It doesn’t leave a lot of spare time to get work done when I spend time in meetings. I’ve been learning a lot about how to use 30 minute blocks for power productivity.
Each week, I organize my to-do list for all of my various projects and try to prioritize what I can get done quickly or efficiently compared to other tasks. I do my best to get these tasks done around my meetings and save the longer or more intense work tasks for when I have much longer. If I have a lot of things that require intense concentration, i’ll stay home and work on it for an entire day. Obviously, this is not ideal for many people but I am most comfortable at home so can be highly productive.
Is this something we should be trained for in graduate school? It is something I think of often and have had several conversations on Twitter about this exact issue. Some said they sought out courses at local community colleges to augment their formal training. Others went to workshops in different colleges during their graduate program. Since I’m working full time and doing several other projects in my ‘free’ time, I haven’t been able to find something that will fit into my schedule. It is also hard as my position is not permanent, so I have flexibility but different flexibility from permanent positions.
Tools that I use for productivity and management:
Google Suites: Content and project document organization, calendar
The idea to write this post spurred from conversations with colleagues (thanks, David!). A commonly asked question is ‘What do I need to do to become a paleontologist’? or ‘How did you become a paleontologist?’. Rather than write up a post on my experiences as an individual, I sent around a survey to collect data from as many paleontologists as I could. I requested information (via Twitter) from individuals that are professional paleontologists, meaning they are in some regard paid for the knowledge and expertise as it relates to paleontology. I ended up with 125 responses, including my own. I’ll provide the initial questions as headers with the data or comments represented below it.
TLDR: The responses provides evidence that there is not a single way of navigating your educational and professional life to becoming a paleontologist. It is by no means a linear path for all of us, but in many cases a twisting, winding road.
Did you always want to be a paleontologist?
Along my own paleontological journey I have asked friends, mentors, and colleagues how they have found paleontology. It is most often not a clear path. The options to select for this question included: (1) always; (2) discovered along my educational journey and; (3) much later in life.
50.4% of responders (n=125) said they had always wanted to be a paleontologist. This was unsurprising to me as many people I have met actually collected fossils from a young age. 43.2% of responders said that paleontology was not their original educational goal but that’s where they ended up. This indicates that although may responders knew their career path early in life, just as many did not.
What level of education have you received?
The options to select for this question include: high school, some undergraduate, undergraduate degree, some graduate level work, masters, PhD, or an ‘other’ box where people could write in their answer.
The majority of responders (56.8%) hold a Ph.D., followed by 26.4% holding an MS degree. The remainder includes ‘some undergraduate’, ‘undergraduate degree’, and ‘some graduate level work’. An important takeaway from this plot, that many people often forget, is that anyone with questions about the natural world can be a scientist. People with a variety of backgrounds hold careers or jobs as paleontologists. Additional degrees and fancy diplomas are not what define paleontologists, or scientists in general.
Did you start at a community college or return to one?
Other countries do not have a community college option or similar educational structure, paleontologists outside of the US were included in the ‘NA’ category. Largely, responders did not attend a community college as part of their educational path (71.3%), but 24.6% of responders did attend a community college. This category includes paleontologists that went back to restart their educational journey, those who took summer courses, those that took community college credits in high school, and those who attended a community college to begin their undergraduate degree. In general, there is still stigma in the academic community about the value of community colleges. These data show otherwise: Community colleges are wildly under-appreciated institutes that are often the catalyst for sparking an interest in STEM fields, including paleontology.
What was your undergraduate degree focused on?
Responders had the option of selecting multiple options or writing in their own. The options included: biology, geology, earth science, chemistry, environmental science, or paleontology. This question was intended to reflect a major or focus of the graduation but the results may include other specialties as well.
Clearly shown from this diagram is that over 50% of users studied biology, geology, or a combination of both. Which rings true with my experiences and anecdotal evidence I have gathered over the years. This diagram clearly indicates that although more than 50% of paleontologists studied the aforementioned subjects, these are simply not the only routes to entering the field of paleontology.
Did you do research as an undergraduate or high school student?
Research is an integral part of higher education and often can provide the learner with information on their path forward. Not everyone has the opportunities or time to pursue research during undergraduate programs. Especially when paid positions are not always readily available.
The results of this survey question show that the large majority of responders (85.6%) did conduct research as an undergraduate or high school student. This indicates that research at an early stage is common among professional paleontologists, but not necessary.
If you said yes to the above question on research, was this research related to paleontology?
Undergraduate or high school research can come in many forms. I was interested in determining if everyone that had conducting research early in their academic career was in a paleo-related lab group or not. This plot had a lower total response than the previous question, at 108 responders. 81.5% of responders said that the research they conducted was directly related to paleontology whereas 18.5% replied that their research was not directly related to paleontology.
This indicates that conducting paleontological research at an early stage in your career is not vital to becoming a paleontologist, but many professional paleontologists were exposed to paleontological research at an early stage in their career.
Where are you currently employed as a paleontologist?
The three largest portions of the pie chart include those in academia, specifically faculty members and students working toward their graduate degree. The next highest value corresponds to people working in the museum sector – either education or research related roles.
Not everything could appear on the pie chart so here is what was included with response amount in parenthesis:
Faculty member (39); Graduate school (28); Museum staff (research or education; 17); Postdoctoral researcher (8); Research specialist/scientist (5);Paleontological resource mitigation consulting (4); Museum staff & high school educator (3); Museum staff (research or education) & Faculty member (3); Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (2); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education; 2); Non-profit (2); Government (1); Higher education staff (1); Biology education staff (1); Cultural Resource Management: Field and lab technician (1); National Parks (1); High school educator (1); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (1); Freelance paleontologist, author, science communicator (1).
If you discovered paleontology later, what was your original career path?
In the first question of this survey, many people responded that paleontology was something that came to them later in their lives. I was interested in what these people’s original career paths were. Many had different original aims in terms of field of study. I would also like to include a few quotes to showcase how variable career paths can be.
“Minored in geology while getting a BA in Spanish, paleontology was my favorite class in my minor. Worked in sales, but the science of the products I worked with reminded me of my childhood love of science leading to my return to school for a bachelor’s degree in Geology.”
“Geology undergrad, then police officer for >30 years, then Geoscience MSc (masters degree), now PhD”
“I started taking graphic design classes at the local community college at 27 and took historical geology as a general education requirement. That introduced me to the idea of being a paleontologist.”
What experiences outside of formal education helped you maintain interest in paleontology?
Total responders to this question were 115 individuals, with a lot of overlap among responses. I’ve sprinkle some quotes throughout to bring light to several specific examples. Something that struck me is that many people included aspects of their research, but many more included information on informal learning settings such as public lectures, museums, fossil collecting, and joining clubs and groups in the area. Many responders indicated that they were volunteers at museums, and some had even mentioned this experience had provided them an avenue into their current positions. Others had led summer camps to engage young scientists in paleontology, and this helped them stay excited about fossils.
“There was an older fellow around town who was an amateur fossil hunter and knew a lot about the local history, archaeological, and paleontological record of the area. He’d take my dad and I out to fossil and archaeological sites. Also, definitely fossil activities at museums! I was always the kid chipping away at rocks. “
Other responses included aspects of various media: books, TV shows and series, documentaries, and internet resources. People of influence that came up by name include: Neil Shubin (with specific mention of Your Inner Fish), Stephen Jay Gould, David Attenborough, and Ned Colbert. Topics mentioned included: geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology.
“Lots of museum visits, as well as books on dinosaurs, paleontology, and evolution. I also got involved doing fossil preparation for a commercial paleontology company which allowed me to experience the non-academic side of the field.“
Another major theme involved communication. Respondents indicated they would reach out to paleontologists, members of the USGS, museum staff, and educators with their questions. To me, this indicates that communication helped these now-paleontologists foster passion and commitment to a subject or topic. Taking the time to respond to questions from those interested in the field can really change lives. The paleontology community on Twitter was mentioned as a way to find like-minded people and get a peek into their science lives. Another responder explained that their interest was maintained by the supportive and friendly community they had found in paleontology. Much of this indicates that maintaining interest in a topic relates to strong connections made with others through communication and shared interests.
“I have watched many paleontology documentaries and love visiting natural history museums. Those two mainly are what shaped my interest in paleontology. I later volunteered at a paleontology research center, in which I was able to get my foot in the door.”
“I volunteered at the San Diego Natural History Museum while I attended school at University of California San Diego. Books are also very helpful, especially if you want to maintain a sense of familiarity with topics that you’re not directly interfacing with (example: I worked mainly with invertebrate specimens, so I had to feed my hunger for vertebrate work with lots of mammal/dinosaur texts). Social media is a huge source for feeding my general curiosity. Follow as many paleontologists as you can and reach out!”
“Museum visits, reading, and the classic -David Attenborough. Having said that, I have never been nuts for dinosaurs, or so very interested in palaeontology growing up. It wasn’t until college (Geology A-Level) that I discovered how much more there is to Palaeontology, and its applications in different industries. I loved being outdoors and I wanted to travel, and palaeontology is great for that -there is fieldwork travelling season, and then there’s conference travelling season.”
What advice do you have for students interested in becoming a paleontologist?
This was an open answer question that had 114 responses. I did my best to synthesize them. There was considerable overlap so I’ve attempted to summarize a few key aspects. I’ll also include lots of quotes throughout this section. Some may be abbreviated from their original version.
Reach for the stars. And take math.
First, there were a lot of actions that I could easily pick out: explore, read, get involved, collaborate, communicate, learn, get experience, volunteer, engage, share, be flexible, apply for everything, ask questions, network, go to class, and find a supportive mentor. Other skills and subjects that were mentioned include: data science, programming, and 3D modeling.
Network and start gathering research experiences early! Don’t be shy to just cold call/email researchers (and follow up if you don’t get a response after a while). The worst they can say is no! Also, it’s great to make friends and talk to researchers outside your field, particularly biologists and ecologists. You’ll learn a lot just by being around them, naturally develop your communication skills, and might even find that it can lead to awesome collaborations! It’s also so important to protect your hobbies outside of school.
Networking, collaboration, and communication are another three answers that came up often. This could be in regards to attending conferences, engaging others on Twitter, or asking questions about jobs/research/etc. Responders indicated that science is not an isolated endeavor but is more enjoyable when you can collaborate with others that share your interests on the material or questions. Others noted about how their supportive mentors and supervisors helped them pursue their passions. Often mentors outside your department or exact field can really help you grow and see past any difficulties that may be occurring.
Don’t drop the humanities. Being good at maths is great, but learn to write properly and construct an argument. The most important skill any scientist can have is the ability to write concisely and well.
Find a mentor who supports you. I had several professors along the way try to talk me out of a career in paleontology, but it only took one professor to spark my interest and kept me interested by mentoring me through independent studies and undergraduate research. I should mention that this professor was not in my own department, but went out of her way to help me!
Be flexible – many responders indicated that their path had been altered along the way and being flexible allowed them more freedom and the ability to shift focus. Someone event went from studying dinosaurs to crinoids! That’s a huge shift but remember that the organism you study is not just because they are super cool but because they allow you to ask specific questions that you are interested in answering. It is also okay to change your mind. You should not stay in a program or field that you are uncomfortable in or that you are no longer passionate about.
Always keep your goal in mind. It’s not always an easy journey but the subject and its community are just wonderful. And also stay educated on related topics like geology, ecology, or evolution. Even if you won’t find a job in paleontology, you are likely also qualified for several other jobs. Keep on rockin’.
Share your passion and seek out colleagues and mentors. Science is not done alone. Your ideas will improve as you talk with people in and outside your field of interest. When I think about my journey I think most about the people that guided my path with their suggestions and encouragement.
There were a few other terms that came up regularly in responses: enthusiasm, perseverance, persistence, patience, and dedication. There is no correct path into paleontology and many paths are challenging. There were several responders that suggested they would not recommend you/young scientists go into the field of paleontology and that the field is highly competitive, and that you need to be aware of this before entering it. This is not limited to paleontology.
Every experience in life is relevant to helping you pursue a career in paleontology. As a high school student, I had a part-time job cleaning toilets, typing news articles, and developing film at my local newspaper. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t science, but I learned people skills, teamwork, and how to stick to a deadline as part of this–all skills that I use now. Also, learn how to communicate. This is just as important if not more important than proficiency with science. An effective paleontologist, no matter what they do (field collector, preparator, educator, researcher, student) needs to be able to communicate effectively in multiple media. Practice writing, and practice writing a lot. Good writing takes work.
If you are interested in becoming a paleontologist, these folks left their information so you could check them out line to see what they are investigating or doing at this time.
These paleontologists have left their handles so you can follow them on Twitter/Facebook/social media. A lot of these scientists also have their personal websites linked in their profile if you want to learn more about what they do and the research they’re involved with. Feel free to reach out to them if you have questions about being or becoming a paleontologist!
I was representing the Florida Museum, Thompson Earth Systems Institute, and the FOSSIL Project! The conference was held over two full days at a local hotel conference center. The first day had an opening keynote presented by the amazing paleontologist, Dr. Lisa White from the University of California, Berkeley. She spoke about all of the digital resources available through the University of California Museum of Paleontology website. Many of which I knew about because I had used them as a tool some time during my academic journey!
The keynote was followed by breakout sessions where we could go learn about different programs, activities, and/or resources that had been implemented or evaluated by educators. This was a lot of fun for me to listen in and engage with. I learned a lot about different programs or lessons that are available for a variety of topics. Then we returned to the main ballroom to do networking discussions on different topics. I was leading a discussion on ‘Teaching Evolution through the Fossil Record.’
In my session we went through a few different questions and talked about successes and challenges that had been faced in the classroom, such as: (1) Do you teach evolution in your classroom and is it met with resistance? (2) Do you already incorporate fossils into your lessons on biodiversity? Would you want to or could you more? (3) New and different ways to include fossils into your lessons. (4) Is geology content a barrier for you or your students? At the end of our discussion we were to determine three takeaways and three recommendations for the future.
Fossils are important aspects of teaching evolution and biodiversity
Tangible and physical evidence such as fossils or the timeline where you walk through
Accessibility barriers in terms of cost of fossils and other tools
Finding community connections to help get fossils or content expertise
Exploiting online resources and technology to 3D print your own fossils
Using fossils to teach other subjects outside of evolution
After the discussion session, I had to run across campus for a meeting with the FOSSIL Project team. I missed one session of talks and lunch during my meeting but I was able to return to the conference for the last two sessions where people were sharing content and experiences. The conference adjourned shortly after that and picked up the following day first thing in the morning. I was part of the keynote panel that began promptly at 8 AM. This panel consisted of three early career professionals in related fields. We each gave 5 minute presentations on how our research incorporates large data sets and some information on outreach initiatives we have been part of. Following our presentations we fielded questions from the audience on our research, past experiences, and outreach events. It was a very successful hour and I was very fortunate to be invited to participate!
Overall the conference was a huge success. There were not many participants, maybe 100 at most. So it was a very small intimate conference and everyone had so many fantastic ideas and resources that I really learned a lot!
A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota
Robert A. DePalma, Jan Smit, David A. Burnham, Klaudia Kuiper, Phillip L. Manning, Anton Oleinik, Peter Larson, Florentin J. Maurrasse, Johan Vellekoop, Mark A. Richards, Loren Gurche, and Walter Alvarez
Summarized by Jen Bauer, Maggie Limbeck, and Adriane Lam, who also comment on the controversy below
What data were used?
Data used in this study were identified from a new site, which the authors call Tanis (named after the ancient Egyptian city in the Nile River Delta), in the layers of rocks called the Hell Creek Formation. This formation is famous amongst paleontologists because it contains lots of dinosaur fossils from the late Cretaceous (about 66 million years ago). In this study, scientists found a new layer of fossils within the Hell Creek Formation that is unlike anything paleontologists have seen before. Those who found the site examined the rock’s features and fossils, which includes densely packed fish fossils and ejecta from the Chicxulub meteoric impact. The Chicxulub impact is what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct, and finding a layer of rock that was deposited minutes to hours after the impactor struck Earth is a very rare and exciting find.
This study included a variety of approaches. The rock features (called sedimentology) and fossil features of the Tanis area and event deposit are described to determine what caused this deposit in the first place. The authors also identified other pieces of evidence to aid in better understanding the situation at hand. Ejecta deposits were described as well, in comparison to ejecta deposits that are found closer to the impact site in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
Much of the sedimentology can be related to other aspects of the Hell Creek Formation in southwestern North Dakota that is an ancient river deposit that has some marine influence. In the Cretaceous period, central North America’s topography was very low which allowed for a seaway to form. This was called the Western Interior Seaway, and was home to a diverse number of animals such as plesiosaurs, mososaurs, large sharks, and ammonites. Several rivers likely drained into the Western Interior Seaway, much like the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf of Mexico today.
From studying the characteristics of the rocks within the Tanis site, the authors of the study concluded that this site was part of one of the rivers that drained into the Western Interior Seaway long ago. When the impactor struck Earth in the Yucatan Peninsula, it send huge waves (tsunamis) into the Western Interior Seaway and into the rivers that drained into the seaway. These huge waves pushed fish, ammonites, and other creatures into the seaway and into the rivers. The Tanis site is one such place where these animals that were pushed into the rivers were deposited and preserved. But not only were marine animals preserved at the site, but also land plants, such as tree limbs and flowers.
The fossils found in the Tanis deposits are all oriented in the same direction, indicating that they have been aligned by flowing water. The abundance and remarkable preservation of these fossil fishes and tree limbs suggest a very rapid burial event (the best preserved fossils are often the ones that experience very quick burial after death). The orientation of the fossils at the site along with the mix of marine and terrestrial life further supports that these fossils were deposited from very large waves from the asteroid impact disturbed this region.
Within the Tanis deposit there are also ejecta spherules, microkrystites, shocked minerals, and unaltered impact-melt glass. These are features that are commonly associated with the Chicxulub Impactor. When the impactor struck Earth, it was so hot it melted the underlying rock, sending tiny bits of molten rock into the atmosphere. These bits of molten rock quickly cooled and eventually fell back down to Earth, where today they are found all over the world. Today, these ejecta spherules and impact melt-glass all mark the huge end-Cretaceous mass extinction event that occurred 66 million years ago.
Why is this study important?
The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K/Pg) extinction event is one of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinction events (click here to read more about extinction). Like many extinction events, it is often difficult to determine the specific causes of mass destruction. However, the K/Pg extinction event is unique because scientists have many lines of evidence that a huge impactor struck Earth, sending clouds of ash and gas into Earth’s atmosphere. The new Tanis site that the authors uncovered preserves a snapshot into this catastrophic event.
This finding is very important because scientists know better understand what happened directly after the impactor hit Earth. In addition, several new species of fish have been discovered at the Tanis site, which will be important for additional studies about fish evolution through time.
DePalma, R.A., Smit, J., Burnham, D.A., Kuiper, K., Manning, P.L., Oleinik, A., Larson, P., Maurrasse, F.J., Vellekoop, J., Richards, M.A., Gurche, L., and Alvarez, W. 2019. A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1817407116
What’s all the commotion about?
It’s not every day that paleontologists make the national news, but this paper and the article written about it in the New Yorker (click here) caused a lot of commotion within the paleontological world. This is a great and potentially groundbreaking find, however, what caused the commotion was the sensationalist attitude of the New Yorker piece that left a lot of paleontologists uncomfortable. So what’s the big deal here? We break down a few (not all) of the issues with this article:
1. Breaking of Embargo
Although the published study is very exciting and will add greatly to our knowledge about the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event, the media hype around the study was handled very poorly for several reasons. All published studies go through peer review. This is when a paper is sent out to multiple other scientists who read the article and make sure that it is scientifically sound and is a good piece of science based upon other good science. During this waiting period while the paper is going through peer review or being finalized with publishers, the authors should avoid talking with popular media or publicizing their paper. When publishing in academia there is a period of time (embargo) where access to the findings of a paper is not allowed to the public. This is for a variety of reasons, having to do with copyright transfer, finances to support the journal or publisher, and more.
The New Yorker press article was released almost an entire week before being available for the community to examine. This means that the embargo was violated.
The reason embargos exist is to give journalists and the researchers they talk to some time to look at fresh findings and determine what the story is, whether it’s worth telling, and if there’s anything suspicious about what’s presented. – Riley Black (Slate article)
2. Paleontologists as Rough-and-Tough Dudes (and Unusual Folks)
The New Yorker article was also controversial because it framed paleontologists as belonging to a narrow demographic (read: white men who love the outdoors). Not all of us in paleontology are men, not all of us are white, and not all of us came into geology loving the outdoors (see the great diversity of folks working in paleontology on our ‘Meet the Scientist’ blog). Paleontologists have had to work very hard to break through the stereotypical conception of what we do and who we are, and this article did not help to address the great diversity of scientists working in the field of paleontology.
In addition, the New Yorker article only quoted and interviewed other male scientists, many of whom have been working in the field for decades. The article left out the voices of women and early-career researchers who have made valuable contributions to the field of paleontology. For more on this, read the Slate article by science writer, Riley Black “It’s Time for the Heroic Male Paleontologist Trope to Go Extinct”.
This article also reinforces the “lone-wolf” stereotype of geologists and paleontologists-a man going out west, few to no other people around, and spending his days looking for paleontological treasure. This image is perpetuated through the article because the author chose to continually highlight the privacy and secrecy asked by the De Palma. While this is certainly an attitude held by some paleontologists, the reality is that the majority of us work in teams. Time Scavengers is run by a large team of people and so is our research! Like working in any field, we all have our strengths and better science happens when we invite people to work with us who have different strengths and can help us.
Lastly, the article frames paleontologists in a not-so-flattering light. In one paragraph, the article states “…I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people).” Firstly, what does unusual even mean? The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) fields are full of intelligent, diverse, and colorful folks from all walks of life. To imply that any one branch of science has ‘its share of unusual people’ is unfair and regressive.
3. Dinosaurs as the Star of the Show
Paleontology is not just diverse in terms of the people who work in the field, but also in terms of the different types of life that we work with. For example, our Time Scavengers team, we have folks who work with fossil plankton and echinoderms. In fact, most paleontologists work with invertebrates- animals that do not have backbones, or any bones at all. Some of the most foundational findings in paleontology are based on the fossil record of invertebrates and early vertebrates. Regardless, most of the public’s fascination lies with dinosaurs (we understand, they were gigantic, ferocious, and unlike anything that’s alive today).
However, this fascination with dinosaurs can lead to over exaggeration of studies and sensationalizing, which is exactly what happened with this article. The published study of the Tanis site only mentions one dinosaur bone out of all the fossils found. The real story here is about the wonderful assortment of fish, tree, and flower fossils, some of which are completely new to paleontologists.
Dr. Steve Bursatte, Paleontologist at University of Edinburgh commented on both the New Yorker article and the PNAS article on his Twitter account, click here to read more. He comments on the broken embargo and how the New Yorker article sensationalized the ‘dinosaur’ side of the story.
4. Proper Handling of Museum-Quality Specimens
The article that was published in the New Yorker raised a lot of concerns within the paleontology community regarding the handling and storage of the fossils that were found at the Tanis site. It is clear from the article that DePalma had a bad experience early on with fossils that he had loaned a museum not being returned to him, however, by maintaining control over the management of his specimens, it undermines those people working in museums who have degrees and years of experience handling fossil and other specimen collections. Anyone who has borrowed specimens from a museum knows the immense amount of paperwork that goes in on all ends to make sure the specimens leave a well documented trail.
Jess Miller-Camp, Paleontology Collections Manager and Digitization Project Coordinator at Indiana University commented on the New Yorker article and addressed her concerns as a museum professional, click here to read her Twitter thread. She comments on the process of loaning specimens to and from museums and proper ettiqute. Read her thread to learn more about this and why museums should be asked to comment.
In 1997, a T. rex nicknamed Sue was sold at a Sotheby’s auction, to the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, for more than $8.3 million.
This quote is misleading. No museum would have adequate funds to secure Sue. The California State University system, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and other individual donors aided in purchasing Sue for the Field Museum. The Field Museum rallied resources to ensure this valuable specimen remained in a public institution.
In addition to proper storage and archiving of fossils, one of the key tenets of any kind of scientific research is reproducibility– how well can other scientists replicate the results that you got. In paleontology, being able to look at the exact same fossils that another scientists looked at is a key part to reproducibility, as well as allowing the science of paleontology to advance. Whenever a paleontologist finds something they think is “new” to science, or is a really important find (special preservation, currently undocumented here, etc.) if you want to publish a paper on that fossil, the fossil needs to be placed in a public institution like a museum or a similarly accredited fossil repository. This way, future scientists are able to track down that fossil you published on and continue working on understanding it, or using it in other studies. Keeping fossils that are published on in museums is also critical because it ensures that that fossil has a safe place to be stored after being worked on and is less likely to be lost in an office or lab space!
5. Respecting the Land and Indigenous People
In the field of paleontology, people, who are more often than not white, venture into another country or a part of the ‘wilderness’ to find fossils and sites that are completely new and never-before-discovered or seen. These lands that contain fossils were owned by indigenous people long before Europeans arrived in North America, and were likely known about centuries before. Often, when sensational popular science paleontology articles are published, the authors leave out the voices of indigenous people and respect for their land. In the New Yorker article, there was no mention of the indigenous people that lived in the Dakotas, or how their ancestors perceived the dinosaur and fish fossils in the area. To frame amazing paleontological finds as being in desolate wastelands is harmful and erases the narratives of people who have lived in these lands for centuries.
For a more thorough discussion on this topic, click here to read the Twitter thread by Dr. Katherine Crocker.
Click here to read a article written by Dr. Roy Plotnick in Medium that also summarizes the issues and causes of commotion surrounding this astounding find.
Part of my new job is working on the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded FOSSIL Project that has created a social community that shares resources, help, and more on paleontology related ideas (myfossil.org). Every few years the funding group, Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) has a Principal Investigator (PI) meeting, to bring all of the project leaders together to share updates and brainstorm new ideas. I was selected as the FOSSIL Project representative to attend the event. This involved putting together a poster summarizing our project and what has happened over the past four years the project has been operating. I also included where we hoped to be heading in the future as we are working to make the platforms more community driven.
This was my first real dive into NSF. I had submitted several postdoctoral fellowships to NSF but never really engaged with program officers outside of emails or been in the audience of talks by different NSF staff members. The first day was primarily listening to different NSF staff explain and explore the various outlets of funding through NSF, the different programs to apply for funding, and the importance of the annual report. I took a considerable amount of notes because as an early career professional, it’s likely I will need to know some of these people and programs as I move forward in my career.
There were breakout sessions where we could explore specific things in more detail. The first session I attended was on identifying informal places where people have some time to engage in science content. There was a brief introduction to different projects going on right now and then we spent much of the remaining time in small group discussions. We shared our own experiences with conceptualizing and implementing programs in different places and then discussed other spaces where we could introduce people to science. Some of these include: sporting events, airports, bus stations, and much more! Places where people go on a regular basis that we could introduce some brief content into. The next session I attended was on three key components: identity, interest, and engagement. There was a recent task force that really dove into these three topics and interviewed members of the research field to get at the components from all viewpoints. If you are interested in learning more head to: Informal Science.
There was a poster session where we could explore the other AISL projects and network with potential collaborators. It was split into two sessions but I didn’t feel this was very effective because the rooms were sort of spread out and no one seemed to really stick to the schedule. So, I didn’t get to interact with as many people as I was hoping to but those that I did engage with were interested in the program and were very friendly. The final day of the event included a morning filled with small group discussions on broadening participation in STEM. I had a really interesting small group and we had a lot of interesting conversations about our projects and experiences.
Overall, this was a greatly informative experience for me. It was sort of a last minute trip but I really made the most of it and left with a lot of knowledge. I think getting to meet and listen to some of the NSF program officers really helped personalize them. It’s difficult sending proposals into the internet void and only having a few interactions with a staff member. Everyone I listened to and interacted with was very eager to help others succeed.