Interested in understanding how we take morphological data from extinct animals and use them to infer an evolutionary history? These trees can be used as a framework to test different macroevolutionary questions regarding species distribution, paleoecology, rates of change, and so much more! We hope to set the stage to explain how each step is done! First things first, constructing a character matrix.
Before really diving into anything specific, I would suggest you think a little about evolution, phylogeny, and all the basic terminology that goes into this field. I would recommend that you work through The Compleat Cladist: A Primer of Phylogenetic Procedures. This is effectively a workbook that walks you through terms, concepts, and more!
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive guide but rather set you up to explore the program and generate a test character matrix!
Step 1: Learn about your study group
This will involve a LOT of reading and diving into the history of the animals you are interested in. In some instances this is easy, in others it is very difficult! I won’t dwell on this too much but it’s easy to forget where to begin. I would start by using Google Scholar to research your group of interest plus evolution, morphology, phylogeny. Then you will probably have to head to the library armed with a list of literature that is much older than you to really begin your deep dive. Remember that ideas change through time, so starting at the beginning is really valuable to learn how ideas have changed!
What is important is that you also learn about homology and work to understand the homologous elements of your critters. Homology is simply similarity due to inheritance from a common ancestor. The understanding and evaluation of homology may be different depending on the group you are looking at. For example, echinoderms have been considered this way for a while now and there are several schemes. One takes into account the body as a whole and how the elements are connected, the other takes a more specific approach looking at specific plates around the mouth. These are not mutually exclusive schemes but can be used in concert with one another. Another good thing to remember is that some people like to think they are more correct than others – who’s to say, really. Just make sure you do your own homework to form your own opinions and ideas.
Step 2: Organize your information
There are several ways to do this, you could simply store information in Excel or Google Sheets or you could use a program designed for curating character data. I have used Mesquite for this. Mesquite is freely available software that is
“…modular, extendible software for evolutionary biology, designed to help biologists organize and analyze comparative data about organisms. Its emphasis is on phylogenetic analysis, but some of its modules concern population genetics, while others do non-phylogenetic multivariate analysis. Because it is modular, the analyses available depend on the modules installed.”
You can easily describe your characters, add new taxa, remove taxa, import or draw a tree and see how characters change across different tree topologies.
There is a side tool bar where you can easily start to modify the matrix. So you can change the taxon names, add taxa, change characters, add characters, delete whatever you want, and a lot more that I haven’t really messed around with! I suggest that if you are a first time user, you spend some time with your fake matrix messing around. Once you get a sizable dataset in here, it’s best you don’t make any mistakes! Figure out where you may go awry and troubleshoot ahead of time.
An easier way to import your characters and the different states is to use the State Names Editor Window. This shows you the list of your characters and all the different states it can have – you can easily edit these and it’s a nice way to organize the characters since in the character matrix the text is slanted and kind of hard to read.
The functionality of Mesquite extends quite beyond this. If you are looking for tutorials or to push the limits of the program here is some further reading:
File > Export will give you a series of options to export your file, don’t forget to also regular SAVE your file so that you can revisit your matrix to easily add to it! Most programs that infer phylogenies require a NEXUS file. This type of file has your matrix and often a bit more information about what you want in the analysis or information about the characters. I would suggest using your favorite plain text editor and exporting a few different types so you can see how they are structured and why certain programs may want different files and different information!
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began I have attended several virtual conferences. I wanted to give my honest experiences as we head into a still very virtual fall in academia. I think it is also important to consider how long conferences had to create this virtual switch, I will try to be thorough in my reviews.
Each of these conferences was slightly different – different duration, style, format, and user experience. I will try to discuss the pros and cons for each event and also discuss how I managed my time during the events.
Palaeontological Virtual Congress
Dates: May 1-14 2020
Venue: WordPress, virtual
Cost: 5 euros
The Palaeontological Virtual Congress (PVC) is a new (this was the second annual event) event that is completely virtual. They did not have to modify how they were structuring their event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This event is hosted through a WordPress site and attendees are given login information to explore the different sessions and talks. Talks and posters are updated as mp4 type files and you can view them in your web browser of choice. The entire event is asynchronous and available for a two week period to attendees. This allows attendees to explore content at their own pace and comment on content.
This past year, I participated as a judge of content for the early career researcher symposium. It was relatively easy to navigate through the different content and view talks. There was seemingly no set time requirements for the talks and posters, this allowed users to upload whatever was best for them. Content ranged from 5 to 20 minutes in length. It was really nice to have the two week period to stretch viewing content. However, this is very unlike normal conferences where during this ‘away’ time you are solely focused on the event at hand. It was difficult to give/assign parts of my time to the conference experience. At large, I was still working my normal 8 hours / day.
Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference (iDigBio Digital Data)
Dates: June 1-3 2020
Original Venue: Indianapolis, Indiana
New Venue: Zoom
Virtual Cost: $0
The 4th annual iDigBio Digital Data conference was set to take place the first week in June in Indianapolis, Indiana. Event organizers pushed quickly to move into a virtual format. The symposia, discussions, and social events were all hosted through Indiana University’s Zoom account. Registration for the event was done through Eventbrite and each day you were sent an email with the zoom links for the events that day. There was also a thorough Wiki page outlining details, working documents, or discussion docs. This landing page was so convenient! I could bookmark it and return to specific days to explore the talks or pop into other docs of sessions that I missed. The events were largely synchronous with the exception of the posters which were available to view for the duration of the event. In some instances pre-recordings of presentations were (and still are) available to view.
The organizing team had staff in each of the event rooms to help monitor the chat, troubleshoot problems, and ask questions as they were brought up in the Q&A, chat, or Google docs. During this time I had the conference sort of on as background noise while I did regular work – largely easy tasks like cleaning up the database or searching to verify data. For sessions that I was particularly interested in I focused more deliberately on the content. During this conference time I was probably working 6 hour days on average on top of attending the conference.
The conference was structured on a block schedule largely based in EST since that is where the hosts were located. This usually meant there was a morning block, afternoon block, and evening events – which usually included a social event or two. They did run concurrent sessions so in some instances you had to decide which session you would attend. All of this information can still be found on the Wiki page and is worth exploring if you are working to go virtual.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
Dates: June 8-12 2020
Original Venue: Indianapolis, Indiana
New Venue: Zoom
Virtual Cost: $0
The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) converted rapidly to an online format via Zoom. Similar to the Digital Data conference, they used Eventbrite to send out mass communication daily. This included a schedule of the day’s events, Zoom links to the various session rooms, and other helpful information about the conference.
SPNHC has a longstanding Wiki page with lots of information and the poster presentations were hosted through this same platform. Posters were available for the duration of the conference and all talks and discussion groups were recorded and posted on SPNHC’s YouTube Channel after the conference ended.
In each session at SPNHC, organizers were present to help troubleshoot and help the session chairs with finding and fielding questions in the chat. Talks were uploaded ahead of time via Google Drive and both the slides and a recording of your talk were requested. This was to ensure folks outside of the active time zones could still participate and also those who may not have a secure internet connection. I chose to participate live, the session chair screen shared the PowerPoint slides and presenters would say ‘next’ to carry on through the presentation. If I were to do it again, I would just have the chair play the recording. Giving a live talk on Zoom is very distracting – especially with an active chat room! The chat room notifications, my face, the faces of others, was horribly distracting. I also had much better lighting and sound capabilities on my recordings – so I would urge others to use that route.
During SPNHC, I was probably working half days on my normal work and even during the conference sessions I was watching I was doing simple work on the side managing my database and emailing various people. I only stopped all activity for a committee meeting, my talk, and a session I was running. I didn’t feel horribly burnt out but I did after the week ended. The session blocks were morning and later in the day in my time zone. So I would get ready to start at 8 AM and then sessions went until 9-10 PM some evenings with a large break in the day (which is when I would work). My work-life balance was non-existent this week. I would recommend setting clear boundaries with yourself so that you maintain sanity and get the chance to move around. Being stationary all day can be a huge negative for our bodies and minds!
Know when you need to get up and walk around (wireless headphones can help you here)
Make sure you are staying hydrated
Don’t try to do ‘too much’ talk with your supervisor on how to best manage your ‘normal’ work on top of these virtual events
Set boundaries for yourself
Virtual conferences are different but allow for the participation of so many others – let’s keep working together to create better events to be more inclusive and accessible.
Stay tuned, I am running a session at the Geological Society of America Meeting this year and am attending several other events as we move into the fall semester! Hopefully each event becomes easier and easier on attendees! I am also collating accessibility resources for presenters and will share those in another blog post!
Not long ago we were invited to talk about Time Scavengers with our friends Gabe and Brittney who are staff at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology and the Western Science Center, respectively. Every Friday for the past few months Gabe and Brittney host two chats with folks about their research and educational projects! These discussions start with a brief presentation explaining science or projects or ideas to the audience as it is streamed live on Facebook. Then Brittney collects audience questions and we have a discussion at the end of the talk!
We talked about different aspects of Time Scavengers, most importantly the three foundations for which our site is built upon: Science Literacy, Science Identity, and IDEA+J (inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, and justice). We also discussed briefly what we have done so far and what we would like to accomplish in the future! If you are interested in learning more please check out our slides by clicking here or watch the full presentation as it is still available on Facebook by clicking here.
It can be tricky giving a talk with two people, but we made it work! We met a few times before our presentation date with Gabe and Brittney. The first few meetings were to outline the talk and decide on what information we wanted to share and how to structure that information. Then, we began to build the slides. This is always the fun part, as we get to look through our data and pick out fun graphics and images of ourselves and our team. Lastly, we went through and decided who would present which sections of the talk. Jen did the introduction, we both talked about our backgrounds, then Jen continued to discuss the more in-depth introduction slides and overview of Time Scavengers. Adriane then talked through the Science Literacy section, Jen the Science Identity section, then Adriane presented the IDEA+J section and our future goals slide. Lastly, Jen wrapped up the talk with our acknowledgements slide. We think this worked quite well, as we both were able to split the talking time. The questions our audience members asked were excellent, and really made us stop and think! We had a ton of fun throughout the entire process, and very much appreciate the opportunity Gabe and Brittney gave us to talk about Time Scavengers and share our love of science communication!
I started a job as a Research Museum Collection Manager in September and a large part of it is specimen based. I handle donations, reconcile loans, look for specimens for researchers, organize the collection, and manage other types of data. Now that my job has moved to largely remote I wanted to share some of the things my museum techs and I have been working on to keep our projects moving forward.
When we think about museums we immediately think of the beautiful displays of mounted dinosaurs and ancient deep sea dioramas that transport you through time. However, there are many research museums that are essentially libraries of life (thanks, Adania for that phrasing). Similar to libraries with books, these institutions hold records of life on Earth and they are massive. At the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology we have over 2 million invertebrates, 100 thousand vertebrates, and 50 thousand plants. Each of those specimens is tied to other records and data!
Digital databases allow for the storage of data related to the specimen including location, time period, taxonomy, rock formation, collectors, and much more! Depending on the type of database the structures are slightly different but the overall goal is the same: create an easy way to explore the specimens, see what is on loan, where they are located in the collection, and if they are on display!
Databases, like regular software, get updates over time. The database I’m working in was started ~10 years ago and there have been a lot of updates since then so we are working to upgrade the way the data are organized. For example, now there are different fields that didn’t exist before so we are making sure the data are appropriately entered and then fixing these fields. We are also digitizing our card catalog to verify that the specimen data in the database matches the physical records. We have three card catalogs: Type specimens, Alphabetical taxonomic groups, and Numerical. I spend time scanning in these cards and my museum techs help transcribe and verify the data with our other records.
I have quite a few donations that have new specimens that need to be put into the database. To do this, I format the dataset and upload it to the database. Seems straightforward but it takes some time and isn’t the most fun task so I have a stockpile of them to get through while I continue my remote work.
One of the tasks we had started before the COVID-19 crisis was to digitize our loan documentation. We have documentation for specimens that we loan out to other institutions, for specimens we bring in to study, and any transfers that may occur. This information had not been digitized so our first step was to scan the paperwork and transcribe key information such as: Who were these specimens loaned to? How many specimens were loaned? Were specimen numbers listed? Where these specimens returned?
We now have a large spreadsheet which now allows us to search this information rapidly. For example, when we are working in the collection sometimes we find specimens with paperwork or that are out of place. Now we can search the number, see if they were on loan, and make sure we close this loan as being returned. In some cases, we cannot find specimens so I have to reach out to colleagues at other institutions to see if they have a record that the loan was returned. Then it’s up to us to find the specimens in the collection and get them into their proper storage places.
The last big project we are working on is to get new fossils ready for our online fossil repository: UM Online Repository of Fossils. This involves some on site work at the collection space and lots of post-processing of the fossils. We use a camera to image a fossil from many angles (photogrammetry) and then stitch the photos together to create a three-dimensional fossil. If you are interested in our protocol and set up please check out our website by clicking here. Most of this work has been done by me alone but I am working on ways to incorporate our museum techs into different aspects of the process that can be done at home, such as cleaning the output model and orienting the specimen for final display on the website. Check out our most recent invertebrate addition: Hexagonaria percarinatum.
Entering the academic world and starting graduate school often means moving away from your family and loved ones and starting a new adventure. Each program, position, or job often comes with an associated move. We hope to share our successes and failures navigating moves and the burdens that come with them.
Jen [Illinois > Ohio > Tennessee > Florida > Michigan]
I have had four major moves (to new states) and three minor moves (local moves). Each move presented different challenges and experiences. My first move was from my home in Illinois to Ohio University to start my MS. This was about 6 hours from my mom’s house and we simply packed her Highlander and that was it. I had found a furnished (shared) apartment so I didn’t need any furniture and was able to fit everything else into her vehicle. I did not have a car of my own at this time and she drove home the following day after helping me unload the vehicle.
I did another move within Athens on my own to an unfurnished (shared) apartment. I took a few trips to bring a futon mattress but didn’t really have any other furniture items. A hiccup – probably an issue with most college towns – is that lease signing happens so early! So I had about a 1 month gap between leases and it just so happened I would be at field camp. So I moved all of my apartment into the lab for storage (thanks, Hannah and Alycia!) and then when I returned I moved into my new apartment. At this stage, I was borrowing my mom’s highlander and did the move(s) on my own. I had a small foldable dolly that I had gotten for ~20 bucks at Ace Hardware. Both of these moves were very inexpensive since I had essentially no furniture. I slept on a futon mattress on the floor of my second Athens apartment.
My move to Knoxville, Tennessee took more planning and was more costly. I was able to fill the Highlander (thanks mom!) with most of my belongings from Athens but I had obtained a futon mattress and a few extras like lamps and storage containers. Not everything fit into the Highlander, but Jeb (my partner) was willing to drive down separately with me and was able to fit the rest into his sedan. After we got situated in Knoxville, Jeb went back to Athens and I drove up to Chicago to get some furniture from my mom’s house since I now had an apartment but no furniture. My mom and I rented a cargo van from Enterprise and I drove the van and she drove the Highlander back down to Tennessee. We had the van for about a week so I could also buy a bed and bed frame (woo adult life) and then Nancy (mom) drove it back to Chicago. This totalled ~$700 for gas and van rental for the week. There are certainly cheaper ways to do this but this is what worked out for us at the time. After two years in the apartment, Jeb and I decided to move into a house in Knoxville. We found this house on Craigslist and for the in-town move, his mom drove up with their truck and helped us move everything.
The next move was to Gainesville, Florida where I got a postdoc at the Florida Museum of Natural History. I also was accepted to participate in a month-long workshop just before the postdoc was set to begin. So Jeb and I moved a trailer full of our stuff to Gainesville when he dropped me off at the workshop (a ~8.5 hour drive but ~10 in with the trailer). Our Subaru’s battery died on the way down, which was a difficult adventure (thank you nice Georgia man). We then stayed around looking at some local apartments. I eventually got an email from a current grad student there with an available house for very cheap – rented out by old staff and faculty of UF. The house was about 10 miles outside of town (a bit of a hike on my bike) but we couldn’t beat the rental price. The day my workshop was ending, Jeb drove down another trailer and our cats to the house. He had to pack it on his own and it was difficult. He arrived ~2:30 am and we had to start unpacking because we needed an empty trailer to pick up our stored belongings the following morning. This can be summed up by Jeb saying: ‘watch out there’s a bag of knives in the back’. The 6×12 trailers were ~$50 for a few days so we did that for two trips. We used Uhaul for both the trailers and storage – when you rent from them you can get a month of free storage!!! Take advantage of this program!!
Now that I had made it all the way south, it was time to head back to the midwest. We moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan from Gainesville at the end of August 2019. This time we rented a 20 foot U Haul truck with a trailer to pull the Subaru. We got the U Haul 3 days in advance to pack it best we could – yes this was more money but we desperately needed the time to get everything situated. We drove 14 hours the first day with two cats in the cab of the truck and spent the night at a Super 8 that we had selected for the giant parking lot… that was full when we arrived at 11:30 pm. The hotel was a complete crap hole and we slept and got up and drove another 7 hours to Ann Arbor. This one I budgeted out and recorded all of the expenses. Here is the breakdown: U Haul = $1110.56; Gas = $229.85; Food = $14.82; Hotel = $55.05 for a total of $1520.28. We obviously didn’t eat a lot and were very exhausted when we got up to Ann Arbor. Most recently, we did a more local move from Ann Arbor to Chelsea, about 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor. This was unfortunately during the stay at home order. We were able to rent an in town U Haul for about 24 hours. For whatever reason we went with the 10 foot truck, which required three roundtrips and several in our Subaru as well. We did all the packing and unpacking on our own, washed our hands a lot and did our best to be socially distant during the move. The truck cost $136.61 and gas was ~$16 for a total of $152.61.
Other things to consider: deposits, some companies require first and last month rent, changing electrical can have a processing fee, setting up internet services has a fee, cleaning supplies, don’t forget a new shower curtain (we did multiple times).
Sarah [North Carolina > Alabama > Tennessee > Florida]
Moving regularly can really have a big impact on you, especially since it’s easy to feel isolated in academia and it’s expensive (especially on a graduate student budget!). Jen covered a lot of the details I would have, with moving truck logistics and costs, so I’ll try and focus on other aspects of moving to consider!
With each of my major moves to new states, I did so as cheaply as possible, since I was a graduate student/recently graduated graduate student for all of them. I did so by moving in a cargo van or the smallest possible moving truck. This was made easier by not taking a lot of furniture with me when I moved. I went to thrift stores the week I moved to town and purchased things like tables, chairs, bookshelves, etc for cheap and sold them what I could or donated them when I moved again. Usually, I could afford to get all the furniture I needed for under $100-$150, which was way easier and cheaper than it’d be to rent a bigger truck to haul it hours away.
The major concern when I move is my pets- if you didn’t know, I have a LOT of pets. My partner and I have fostered for a few different animal shelters and we have quite a few of our own and some fosters that ended up just staying with us permanently. So moving can quickly become a hassle, so I’ll give you a breakdown of the things you might need to think about! I’ve never flown with my pet (I have too many and I have pets that most airlines don’t generally allow on board), so I can’t give you advice on that! I always drive with mine! Here’s a picture of all of my critters that I’ve moved with!
Do you have pets that could be not allowed in a rental agreement? I have a pitbull- mix, which can often be discriminated against in rental houses and apartment complexes. While I don’t agree with these policies, I can’t do much to change them. When moving to Tampa, I spent a lot of time trying to find apartments that did not discriminate and I did eventually find a good one. We contacted a real estate office that helped with apartment rentals and they gave us a list of apartments that didn’t have restrictions. A lot of apartments will also discriminate against “exotic pets” (i.e., anything outside of a cat or dog).
My best advice in this situation is to call and talk to them before you move in. I called a number of apartments and talked to them about my bunnies (I have two-Leo and Josie, 8.5 year old siblings). Most of the apartments were willing to waive that restriction when I explained that my bunnies were litter trained. I was also able to get the pitbull restriction waived when I was in town and made appointments to meet the apartment managers. Piper won them over in a minute with her endless affection!
Do you have more pets than a rental agreement usually allows? This can be a tough one! Again, if you feel comfortable, just call your apartment. I called in advance and explained that while we had two dogs, we also had two small bunnies and a guinea pig, all of whom were litter trained or lived in a hutch and wouldn’t have access to the rest of the apartment. My new apartment said that was fine, while others said no (so I didn’t rent from them).
Do you have money for pet deposits and monthly pet fees? Many places charge pet deposits that can be hundreds of dollars and monthly additions to rent. Make sure you can afford those charges before the move.
Look for vets BEFORE you move! If you can, make sure to find a vet that you think you’ll like before you move. This is *especially important* if you have a pet that isn’t a cat or dog, since not all vets are required to treat critters like bunnies, guinea pigs. This is so important because you never know when an emergency will happen! One of my bunnies had an emergency medical situation when we first moved here, and I had luckily already scoped out an emergency vet that could see bunnies. Call the vet office before hand to make sure they’re accredited (i.e., the AAHA- the American Animal Hospital Association) and to make sure they have someone who can provide help with your pets’ specific conditions, if they have any. It can be really scary not to have a vet identified in an emergency! Tip: does your local university have a vet school? They may have a clinic you can use!
Have at least a month of supplies stored, just in case. This is super important because critters don’t always tolerate change well! Make sure to have enough food, litter, and other needed supplies so that you can keep their lives a bit steadier while you move to a new place. Sometimes, you may need to take a few days to figure out where to get supplies in your new town (or, like in my case, 2017 Hurricane Irma came just a few weeks after we moved to Florida and we needed to have a bit extra on hand!)
Make sure to be extra patient with your pet. Moving is tough and it’s a lot harder when you don’t know what’s going on. Make sure to praise your pet, give them extra attention and treats. Consider giving them a new, special toy to distract them. Be patient if they forget their manners and use the bathroom inside- sometimes, stress can make your pets react weirdly. With my dogs, we had to move them to a separate room when we were loading the truck so they didn’t see it, which kept them calmer. If you know your pet is nervous, ask your vet if there’s a good medication option to help them get through the car ride.
Adriane[Virginia > Ohio > Virginia >Massachusetts > New York]
Jen and Sarah have already given you great advice above related to pets and moving fees, so I’ll keep this brief and provide some additional advice. First of all, I hate moving. My family moved a lot when I was younger, and as a consequence I feel like I don’t really have a ‘family home’ when I think back to my childhood. So when I move, the feelings of anxiety and unsteady home life come flooding back. Here, I’ll give you some insight into how I deal with moving.
When I moved to Massachusetts, it was just my husband and I. We had rented a U-Haul truck with a car trailer. My husband drove the truck towing his car, and I drove our Jeep with our two cats crated in the back. We did the drive from Virginia to Massachusetts in one day; it took 14 hours and it was HELL. We were all tired, but luckily our hotel in MA was nice. I had researched hotels near our new apartment extensively, as I knew we needed one with a large parking lot, a free breakfast (that’s always my requirement for a hotel; if I’m paying to stay with you, feed me), and of course they had to be pet friendly. We stayed at a Howard Johnson with two queen beds, which I hoped the cats slept on their own bed. No, they slept with us (ok, it *was* super cute). The next day, we drove to our new apartment and moved in. We had trouble moving in our couch (our apartment was on the third floor, with a narrow stairwell), but lucky for us a neighbor helped (we became and still are to this day good friends).
I really came to love our Massachusetts apartment, which really became our community and home. Therefore, when I got the postdoc offer from Binghamton University in New York, my excitement soon turned to anxiety when I realized this would require another move. However, in my offer package, the university would cover moving costs up to $3,000. I took full advantage of this. I hired a moving company for our moving day, and we were able to move 3.5 hours away from Amherst, MA to Binghamton, NY in one day. Whew! The cost came to a bit over $2,900 but under $3,000. If I can help it, I will never move again without hiring movers. Just be aware, with moving reimbursements from universities, especially public universities, the state may require an invoice or bill of lading. I did not realize this when I moved, my moving company has been unresponsive when I try to get in touch with them, and therefore I’m still waiting for my moving reimbursement from New York state today.
As mentioned, I become super stressed when I move. Here’s some things I did before our move to NY from MA that helped with the stress:
I tried to pack a box or two every day for a month before we moved. This allowed me to organize stuff and carefully pack all my valuable things (read: fossils).
I carefully labeled boxes with their contents, and grouped boxes with similar contents together. This way, when we moved, the movers kept together all the kitchen stuff, office boxes, etc. It made unpacking easier as well.
I Googled Binghamton (where we were moving to) and made a mental list of things I wanted to try, do, and places to visit when we got there. I find that if I have something positive and fun to look forward to, this reduces my anxiety greatly. I also feel more comfortable visiting or moving to a place the more I know about it beforehand.
I visited my favorite shops and stores in Amherst, and brought those foods, wine, and beer with us to our new home. It was nice to have these things with us in New York, as they were small comforts and gave us, oddly, a sense of peace.
I talked about my anxieties about my moving anxieties with my husband, and cried a lot. I have a thing where I stop talking about things that bother me, which will just increases my anxiety about an issue and causes me to cut myself off from those around me. It’s super unhealthy, I know, but I made a conscious effort to reach out and share my fears with my partner about moving. This helped my mood immensely, although it didn’t totally dissipate the anxiety. If you are like me, I would also strongly suggest visiting a therapist to share and work through anxieties about moving (I probably should have).
Here in the United States, community colleges are two-year institutions that cater to students in or just out of high school and people who are returning to college for a degree. In some areas, local high schools partner with community colleges for students to participate in special technical classes to expand their skill sets. This can include mechanical courses, film and editing, and much more. In short, community colleges are higher-education institutions that can provide workforce training and which offer several classes that are considered ‘core courses’ at four-year institutes and universities. Core classes include such topics as history, math, art, and science, with electives and options within each of these topics. Students who attend community colleges often transfer to a four-year university to complete their undergraduate degree, which takes another 2+ years depending on their degree. In some states, community colleges have agreements with universities that allow students a guaranteed transfer if the student meets certain requirements.
Community college provides a fantastic option for students who finish high school and don’t quite know what their career path will be, for working folks who need flexibility in choosing courses and schedules, and for others in the community who might just want to take a course or two on something they are interested or passionate about. The very attractive aspect of community college is that class sizes are often smaller, the professors and teachers have more time to dedicate to students, several classes are available as online courses, and the on-campus classes may have several different times to fit the schedules of working students and adults. And bonus, similar to large four-year universities, many community colleges offer athletic and recreational teams for you to join!
Regardless of all the pros to community colleges, there is still a perceived stigma surrounding them.
The purpose of this post is to share some of our experiences with community college to break down the stigmas and negative perceptions surrounding community colleges by highlighting our own experiences in community college. We argue that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the structured training, guidance, and mentorship we received at our respective community colleges.
TL;DR: Benefits of Attending a Community College
Attain a higher GPA after high school
Increase knowledge in certain subjects that were not taught sufficiently by a high school
Increase self-esteem in an academic setting
Build a support network of professors, teachers, and other students
Ability to take as few or as many (with limits) courses as you feel necessary
Opportunity to explore different career paths and options through diverse course offerings
Determine if a career is right for you
Affordable compared to a 4-year institution
Local students can live at home and save money on living expenses that would be incurred at a 4-year university
Take courses while simultaneously attending a 4-year university and have those credits transfer
Federal and state grants often cover the full cost of tuition (in and out of state)
Most professors also teach at a 4-year university or have in the past, and can offer advice to students pursuing a BS/BA degree and higher
Some professors may have worked in industry or in a non-academic position, and can offer advice to students pursuing these career paths
Some states offer a guaranteed admission program from community college to 4-year universities
Some community colleges have exchange programs, offering students international experiences
Because so many adults go back to school, the range of ages and life experiences in a classroom is very enriching and diverse
I started in community college the fall after I graduated from high school. I knew after graduating that my grades were not competitive enough for a 4-year college, and that I would likely do terrible on the GRE exams. My high school education was also not the best. I didn’t learn algebra as well I should have, and I was often bullied and had low self-esteem, which fed into doing poorly in my high school classes. I would often skip high school to go to the movies with my friend, or went riding my horse by myself (both were likely bad ideas). So attending my local community college was the best option for me. In addition, I also did not know what I wanted to do for a career. I thought that perhaps I wanted to be an artist (graphic art and design), or go into the medical field (even though medical stuff grosses me out), or even be a machinist like my dad (which would have been a really fun career, to be honest).
Around the time I graduated high school, my mom was going through a divorce and was raising my little sister. I got a job in a retail store, and helped my mom with my sister, getting her on and off the bus everyday, and I was also able to help pay bills and help with groceries. Attending community college was great because I was able to work, help out around my home, and still take courses. My local community college, called J Sargeant Reynolds in Richmond, Virginia, had very flexible class schedules which worked great with my work and home schedule.
It was also at J Sarge that I found the career that I am currently in. I had to take science electives, so I took Geology. I figured I always loved rocks and fossils, so why not? During the first semester, our instructor took us to a local creek, where we collected fossils from ~15 million years ago! I was totally hooked. So I took another geology course, and it was during this course that I knew I wanted to become a geologist. Community colleges in Virginia have a guaranteed acceptance program with several state 4-year universities: if your GPA is high enough after graduating with an associate’s degree from a community college, you are guaranteed admission into a 4-year university. My grades were above a 3.5 at the time I graduated, so I was automatically accepted into James Madison University. Most of my credits transferred, so I was able to finish my geology bachelor’s degree in 3 years.
I started at Green River Community College after graduating high school. I was primarily homeschooled through high school, but took a few electives at my local public high school (choir, Shakespeare, a cooking class). One of these classes was an education class. I loved kids but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a classroom teacher, so my teacher at the high school suggested I start at the community college first. Our local CC has a well-respected education program, so if I did decide to go on to get a teaching degree I shouldn’t have any problems transferring and would be well-prepared. If I decided I didn’t want to pursue a teaching degree, I would have an associate’s degree in education, which would allow me to work as a paraeducator. Other advantages of this option were that I could live at home and save money. Because tuition was lower here than other colleges, I was also able to get Pell grants and state need grants that covered my full tuition.
I loved my classes because there were always a variety of people in them. There were students like me straight out of high school, high schoolers in the Running Start program, people coming back to school after many years to finish college or find a new career, and folks from the community who were just interested and taking the class for fun. My CC also had a large and well-known international exchange program. Students from many East Asian and European countries came for a year to study abroad in the US. For example, my chemistry lab partner one quarter was from China and my class partner was from Belgium! My lab partner in geology was Dutch, and while he didn’t go on to get a degree in geology we both decided it was our favorite class ever and still keep in touch via social media today.
I started attending Manchester Community College the fall after graduating from high school. Growing up I knew I wanted to be an astronomer, but unfortunately my high school had very few options for math and science courses and most of the ones they did have were taught by sports coaches and not particularly beneficial so I ended up taking the excellent history and social science classes offered instead. This, combined with my prevalence for skipping school, meant that I was not prepared to apply to a four year institution after graduating, especially in the field I wanted to study.
I ended up signing up for community college almost on a whim and was instantly thrilled with the options for classes I could take— I was able to take astronomy, could finally start learning math for real, and even had a wide variety of fun and useful classes like photography, women’s health, and even Philosophy of Lord of the Rings! I made a ton of friends, got straight A’s, and built the foundation for transitioning to a four year school. When the time came to apply to schools during my second year I had a great support network of professors who wrote me letters and helped me get into the astrophysics program I had dreamed of. I never could have done it without my experience at MCC to help set me on the right path.
Unlike Rose and Adriane, I didn’t start out at a community college. I went to a 4-year university straight from high school, I grew up in an area with a lot of state universities and picked one close to home. My high school had close ties with our local community college, the College of DuPage (COD). I had friends that would take classes there when they had moved passed what my high school offered or to get more technical training. There was a program where students could be at our high school for half the day and the other half would be spent at COD in a special program.
I attended community college through a summer course – calculus. I was trying to stay ahead of my studies, to remain on track to graduate on time but couldn’t afford (time and money) to go to a summer class at my 4-year institution while working. The class was something wild like 3 hours every day starting at 7 am. The class size was incredibly intimate, maybe 25 students in the room for a month long course. At my 4-year institution all general courses were over 100 students during the lectures. The smaller course setting enabled me to meet new people, feel comfortable asking questions, and really foster a strong relationship with my peers and the material. I struggled with precalculus my first year of undergraduate — when I excelled at it in high school. This was incredibly frustrating and really made me feel like I would fail calculus. Community college helped me realize where I learn best — small settings where I feel comfortable.
Not long ago, my mom returned to college by starting a program at COD. She had been a stay at home mom for almost 20 years and needed to get back into the workforce. She took courses over several years to become a medical biller and coder.
If you are interested in going back to school, taking courses, or beginning at a community college, click the link below to find a community college near you in the continental U.S.: Community College Finder
This year we participated in Science-A-Thon. Science-A-Thon is a five day celebration of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and everyone who identifies as a scientist is welcome to participate. Each day you share your science goings-on, including conducting research, data crunching, or any major discoveries you made. The goal of Science-A-Thon is to show the public what scientists do in any given day, and also what a scientist looks like! Posts from Science-A-Thon are tagged with #DayOfScience so anyone can find them on social media platforms.
In addition to a global sharing of science, the organization also does a fundraiser to contribute to support women in science. They raised over $14,000 in 2019; check out the fundraiser here: Science-A-Thon 2019. This year, the money went to three major charities: Earth Science Women’s Network, Girls Who Code, and Society of Women Engineers.
I was particularly interested in sharing aspects of my new job as Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. Many people don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes in museums. Many of us have visited natural history museums but this is only what is on display. The display specimens are usually a very small number (<1%) of the actual holdings of a museum. I work at a research museum, so we share specimens with our public facing museum but my job includes helping to facilitate research. So my visitors are usually scientists wanting to look at very specific specimens. These specimens are very important and are not put on display because their scientific value is more important.
I shared pieces of my day on my Twitter (@paleoJB), Instagram (@jenebauer), and Tumblr (phylojenny.tumblr.com). The whole goal being to bring folks into the collection that is not really as accessible as the public museum. My job can be pretty variable. Some days I spend a lot of time on the computer doing paperwork, entering data into our database, or checking specimens against our database. Other days we get a donation and I am helping organize the new specimens that came in or I am putting away miscellaneous specimens that had been misplaced or were hiding out in my office.
Like most of the end of 2019, I was working on my dissertation during Science-A-Thon. But I think it’s important to show that sometimes, the path to becoming a doctor isn’t all classes and science experiments. Much of my science journey is sitting alone in front of my computer, trying to write up the results of those experiments and data generating and collecting I did years ago. It’s not glorious, but it’s an essential part of what a scientist does. All of those fancy papers we publish all begin as crappy drafts (well, at least mine begin that way) that require lots of time editing, polishing, and re-writing.
Anyway, I showcased a bit of this writing process (without going into too many details) and some posts about what I do as a scientist during my Science-A-Thon posts. I only posted on Twitter (you can find my posts by searching ‘@ForamWhisperer #DayOfScience’) as this was my first year participating and I was still getting the hang of Instagram. Overall, I think it went well but I will definitely do more posts next year! More than anything, I also enjoyed following along with other scientists’ posts to see what they do in a typical day, and learn more about my friend’s and colleague’s research. So Science-A-Thon isn’t just for the public, but rather a fun annual event that allows me some insight into other scientists’ worlds as well!
Keep an eye out for next year’s event by following Science-A-Thon on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or checking their website, it will occur annually in October!
I recently started a new position as a Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology (UMMP). I am in charge of taking care of the invertebrate fossil collection, which are housed at an off campus facility with all of the other natural history museum collections (anthropology, zoology, and the herbarium). My position involves a lot of moving parts. I took over for someone who had moved the collection twice in the past several years – which is an astronomical endeavor. I have started with working to get a lot of paperwork organized. Specifically the loan paperwork. Research museums loan out specimens to other institutions and borrow specimens from other institutions! Usually there is a lot of paperwork associated with this but not everything is always organized or clear. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working to make sure I know who has specimens of ours and trying to reach out to others to return specimens. I’m nowhere near done but I have a good handle on the last decade, which I consider a victory!
I have recently employed several undergraduate students to help me get a better handle on what is actually in our collection. All of the type and figured specimens are in our local database but they were entered from the card catalog rather than examining the specimens and specimen labels. So, we want to make sure all the information matches and update it if it doesn’t! We are also working to take images of the types to attach them to the specimen records. This is a huge task and I am happy to have some help.
I also have been organizing the collection, after the move there were lots of boxes and pallets with miscellaneous fossils and I’m working to figure out what is what. Some of this was easy, some of it involved going through some really nasty old news paper that was used as packing material decades or even a century ago. It’s really important that the collection stay clean because the specimens are housed in compactor shelving. Meaning that if you are trying to get to one area you may have to move other cabinets and it can be difficult to try to look in different time periods or collections at the same time.
Part of my job includes bringing people into the collection. This could be researchers to study the different animals in the collection or conduct geochemical analyses or even high school students looking to pursue a career in paleontology. Every week I have at least one visitor, which is great for the collection. Next week, two folks from the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department are coming to explore some of our Cenozoic material as they are interested in understanding the ancient climate along the eastern coast of the United States. To do this, they use shells from the collection to reconstruct what the environment may have been like!
Recently, we were able to participate in the 11th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC), held in Riverside California. This meeting is hosted every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. In comparison, we are usually able to attend the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) Meeting. These meetings have many differences and here, we explain the importance and differences of each meeting.
Geological Society of America
The Geological Society of America meeting is held every year in a major city, with smaller regional meetings held each year as well. For example, I (Adriane) am currently in New York, so I am part of the Northeast Section of GSA. The Northeast Section includes Washington D.C., Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont in the United States, as well as the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and parts of Ontario in Canada. Find what section you are in by clicking here.
But here, we’ll just focus on the larger national GSA meetings that are held yearly. The mission of GSA is to “advance geoscience research and discovery, service to society, stewardship of Earth, and the geoscience profession”. The vision of the society is to “be the premier geological society supporting the global community in scientific discovery, communication, and application of geoscience knowledge”. The GSA meetings embody the vision and mission of the society by bringing geoscientists together from all subfields to share their recent research, discuss new initiatives and goals for their specific fields, and to support students. These meetings are also a wonderful place to network, catch up with friends and colleagues, and make new friends and colleagues.
Generally, GSA is held in a large convention center in a well-known city. This year (2019), the meeting was held in Phoenix, Arizona. The year before that (2018), it was held in Indianapolis, Indiana. Next year (2020), the meeting will be held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The meeting location changes every year (except for every 2-3 years, the meeting is held back in Denver, Colorado) to be close to the society’s headquarters.
When registering for GSA, the only thing that our registration covers is access to the meeting and an evening beverage (soft drinks, wine, or beer) during the poster sessions. GSA has different ‘tiers’ for membership, so not everyone pays the same registration costs. For K-12 teachers, registration is only $50; however for professionals (such as professors) the cost is $430. There are additional activities we can sign up for, such as breakfasts, dinners, workshops, and even field trips to check out the local geology. Many of these additional events are at a fee. For example, this year I (Jen) attended the Paleontological Society Business Meeting ($45 for professionals; $15 for students), Association for Women Geoscientists breakfast ($42 for professionals; $15 for students), and the GSA Education Division Awards Luncheon ($54 for everyone). Separately, they aren’t a big deal but they really add up quickly. Click here to read about all the add-ons for this year’s conference.
GSA is structured with a day that is full of talks. These talks are split into different subsections, which are held in different rooms. We call each room with themed talks a session. There are usually tens of sessions going on at any one time, usually scheduled from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm. Poster presentations are hung up in the poster hall all day long for people to view at their leisure, but the poster presenters do not have to be there all day, just for about 2 hours in the evening. The poster presentations overlap with beer, wine, and soda offerings at GSA every afternoon. After about 6:30, the poster hall shuts down and folks go off to other evening events and meetings, to dinner, or sometimes just call it a day and go back to their hotels to rest. I, Adriane, generally try to get back to the hotel early (I’m an introvert and get pretty tired quickly), but that usually never happens as I always run into friends or have plans and just have too much fun to go home early.
North American Paleontological Convention
The North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) is held every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. This year it was held in Riverside, California. The previous event was held in 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. Unlike GSA, NAPC is not a proper organization or society – those in charge rotate out and there are not set staff that are continually helping plan and execute these events. In other words, we cannot become a member of NAPC like we can GSA, as NAPC just refers to the name of a conference and not an entire structured organization.
Similar to GSA, the NAPC meetings have a few goals for the meetings. Namely, the purpose of NAPC is “to exchange research findings, define future directions, and be a forum for extended and relaxed interactions between professionals and early career scientists, most particularly graduate and undergraduate students.” Since NAPC was sponsored by the Paleontological Society (the major society for American paleontologists) the convention embodied many aspects of that society, including their recently revised code of conduct:
This is PS. The Paleontological Society is committed to safe and inclusive events and meetings for all attendees. The Code of Conduct applies to all members of the Society and to all participants of NAPC2019. The Paleontological Society is implementing “This IS PS” (Inclusive and Safe Paleontological Society) to help ensure adherence to the Code of Conduct at Society-sponsored events, including NAPC.
Registration for NAPC allowed you to stay at on campus dorms that were a convenient walk to and from the conference center. They also provided golf cart transportation to those that needed it. The dorms were four single rooms with two shared bathrooms, a living space, and a kitchen. This could be purchased alongside your conference registration and was $360 for five days, a steal in terms of lodging expenses (for reference, a hotel close to the convention center at GSA cost about $150 per night in Phoenix, Arizona). Those staying in these dorms were also offered breakfast in the nearby cafeteria.
Every day there was a catered lunch in a large open area outside where you could grab a sandwich and chat with new or old friends during a break. This meant everyone was on a break during this time so you weren’t rushing to eat between sessions and everyone was in a unified space. This was one of my (Jen’s) favorite parts of the event. There was always someone new to sit with and catch up with. The conference also offered dinner almost every evening, some in the same location as lunch, another more formal banquet, and a more casual finger food event.
There is something that inherently feels like bonding when you are sharing meals with collaborators and friends. I (Jen) think this was a really meaningful and well thought out aspect of the conference. Usually at large conferences such as GSA, everyone is scrambling to find food nearby and you don’t get to really have meaningful discussions. One thing that also really differs from GSA is that NAPC holds a banquet for everyone at the meeting. At this year’s banquet, there were string lights hung in trees, music playing, and very nice tables set up for us all. Later in the evening, we had a dance party which was a ton of fun! There was also a night where we had a raffle, with beer, wine, and food. It was great fun as well!
NAPC is structured similar to GSA, in that there are several talks that are going on in different sessions simultaneously throughout the day. However because NAPC is generally smaller than GSA, the number of sessions going on at any one time was on the range of 4 to 8. Also similar to GSA was the poster hall and session. At NAPC, the poster hall is much smaller, but the posters are left up all day, and presenters are required to be at them during the afternoon hours. Jen and I also chatted with folks at our NAPC posters throughout the day, as they are great places to talk about your research, tell friends what you’ve been up to, and get ideas about research you may want to conduct in the future. The poster sessions and daily meeting ended when it was time for dinner.
I recently went on a fossil collecting trip associated with a FOSSIL Project workshop on digitization and imaging of fossils. To preface this, whenever you are looking to go fossil collecting you should make sure to be aware of the laws and rules in place in your town. The spot we were heading to abuts private land so one of the coordinators made sure to reach out to them ahead of time to request permission and explain what we were doing. To give back to the community, we also cleaned up the creek while we were looking for fossils. There is always trash or debris and this is an easy way to give back to the community you are hunting in!
In Florida, you have to prepare to be out in the heat. Surprisingly the creek was pleasant and we were pretty shaded for most of the day. I wore a UV protectant shirt, shorts, sandals, and a hat. Insects can really get you, so it’s also best to know what to prepare for and use lotion or bug spray to prevent any spread of disease.
I was mostly observing and helping facilitate this trip but I was excited to see others getting really into the fossil collection. This location is in the Coosawhatchie Formation which is Miocene (~23-5.3 million years ago) in age. It overlies the Eocene (~56-33.9 million years old) Ocala Limestone. The Ocala Limestone fossils are very different from the Coosawhatchie so they are pretty easy to distinguish from one another. Most folks were finding shark teeth, ray plates, clams, snails from the Coosawhatchie Formation and things like small echinoids and large benthic foraminifera from the Ocala Limestone. Specimens from the Ocala Limestone were often a white-cream color whereas specimens from the Coosawhatchie were very dark.
We also spent some time observing the local insects and sharing education apps for identifying fossils and modern life! Workshop participants were from all over the country so there was some regular chit chat and getting to know one another. I had known several participants for some time from various online platforms so it was really great getting to meet them in person! If you want to check out what the group was up to here is the myFOSSIL group that everyone was posting in: Imaging and Digitization for Avocational Paleontologists Workshop
I was also helping my friend and collaborator, Rich, with a study. He was interested in thinking about participant dynamics at workshops and field trips. So we had a matrix and were recording interactions between participants at the workshop and facilitators (/people running the workshop). He then also gave everyone a survey to see how people’s perception of who they interacted with matched what we observed. They were pretty close but perceived interactions were higher, which could be due to a variety of things. It has been really fun getting into some of these observational studies!