Building Canada’s Ocean Acidification Community

Kristina here–

When you think of carbon dioxide emissions, what comes to mind? For most people, that is probably something along the lines of fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, and global warming. But for me, I think about ocean acidification. Often referred to as “the other carbon dioxide problem”, ocean acidification, or OA for short, is a lesser-known by-product of excess carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Between 25 – 30 % of the carbon dioxide produced since the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by our oceans. This buffering capacity of the ocean has actually helped reduce some impacts of global warming and greenhouse gases, but, as we’ve discovered in the last decade or two, it has come at a great cost to our oceans.

Figure 1. Schematic diagram of ocean acidification. Image credit: Kristina Barclay
Figure 2. Sustainable Development Goal 14.3 – Reduce Ocean Acidification. Image Credit: United Nations

When carbon dioxide (CO2) enters the ocean, it reacts with seawater to form excess hydrogen (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3). Increases in hydrogen ions are what makes liquids more acidic and reduces their pH, hence the term “ocean acidification”. But the main consequence of increases in hydrogen ions in seawater is that hydrogen ions bond readily with the carbonate ions (CO32-). Carbonate is naturally occurring in seawater, and it is a crucial building block for organisms that build calcium carbonate hard parts, like clams, oysters, lobsters, corals, and even the tiny plankton that serve as the base of the ocean’s food chain. The less carbonate ions available in seawater, the harder it is for organisms to make their hard parts. In the past 15 years or so, there has been considerable research demonstrating the negative effects of OA on calcifying organisms. These calcified structures can take more energy for organisms to form, grow smaller, slower, and/or weaker, or even start to dissolve! Increased seawater acidity can also affect organism survival, particularly in early life stages. On the west coast of the U.S., there have already been several seasonal mass die-offs events of oyster crops that have caused significant and repeated financial losses to the aquaculture industry, most likely attributed to OA.

As most societies, particularly coastal communities, depend on the oceans for both food and livelihoods, monitoring and mitigating OA has become a global priority. The UN has declared the next decade (2021 – 2030) the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Many countries, including Canada, have committed to the Ocean Decade and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). OA is directly addressed in the Ocean Decade plan under SDG 14.3 – to “minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels”. To this end, the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) has created a database where researchers can make sure their data adheres to SDG 14.3.1 methodologies and then contribute their data to this global OA database. There are also many other national and international OA groups that have been created in recent years to help create and share OA knowledge and research.

Canada and Ocean Acidification

Figure 3. Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Life Below Water. Image Credit: United Nations

Canada faces several unique challenges with respect to OA. First, we have the largest coastline of any country in the world. Second, Canada is more vulnerable to OA given our latitude and colder ocean temperatures, as carbonates are naturally more soluble in colder waters. Thirdly, Canada is surrounded by three connected ocean basins, each with unique properties that make them vulnerable to the effects of OA. In the Pacific, OA is exacerbated by seasonal upwelling, where deep, naturally acidic ocean waters are forced to the surface by wind patterns. The Arctic is vulnerable due to rapidly increasing freshwater input from melting sea ice and glaciers from warming temperatures (freshwater is more acidic than seawater). In the Atlantic, OA is exacerbated by ocean mixing patterns and freshwater input from the Arctic. Finally, Canada’s coastal communities, of which there are many given our extensive coastline, are socioeconomically vulnerable to OA.

As a country, Canada is contributing to regional, national, and global OA research efforts through several means, such as independent research projects, local community action plans, and through our federal Fisheries and Oceans department (DFO), just to name a few. But Canada is a big country, and it can be hard to connect across such a wide geographical area. This is where our Ocean Acidification Community of Practice (OA CoP) comes into play. Funded by Canada’s Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response network (MEOPAR), the OA CoP is one of several MEOPAR Communities of Practice. The goal of MEOPAR CoPs is to facilitate knowledge mobilization and integration by uniting groups with shared concerns on particular topics (in our case, OA).

Figure 4. Canada’s Ocean Acidification Community of Practice Logo

Our community was initiated in 2018, and is comprised of two Co-Leads from academia and government science, a coordinator (me), and an interdisciplinary Steering Committee consisting of experts from industry (aquaculture and fisheries), academia, DFO, and NGOs at all career stages (student representative to senior-level management) and from all across the country. Our goals as Canada’s OA community are to coordinate across all sectors and disciplines to share OA expertise and data (particularly to end-users), identify pressing needs for OA research/knowledge in Canada, and foster a collaborative and supportive environment for groups affected by OA. We also act as the Canadian leads for international collaborations and OA research efforts, such as GOA-ON, the OA Alliance, and the OA Information Exchange.

Anyone who is interested in or affected by OA in Canada is welcome to join our community. We currently have over 170 members, including individuals from aquaculture, fisheries, and NGOs, academics, federal and provincial government scientists, Indigenous community leaders, graduate students, and members of other international OA organizations. Members receive our quarterly newsletters, and updates on any upcoming events that might be of interest. We also encourage our members to join Team Canada and participate in the OA Info Exchange, an international forum that is a great place to discuss and share new ideas, research, and see what experts from around the world are doing to address and learn about OA.

What do we do?

Figure 5. A graphic I made (using Canva) to advertise our new Map of Canada’s OA Resources

As the OA CoP Coordinator, my job is to keep growing our community, seek new research and community-building opportunities, facilitate our involvement in the broader global OA community, provide, maintain, and create new resources for our members, and stay updated on the latest OA research and news. Here are some of the things I’ve been working on for Canada’s OA Community.

Canada’s OA Website

One of our biggest activities has been to create a website that acts as a central hub for all of the resources we’ve gathered for Canada’s OA community. The website, oceanacidification.ca, is always growing, and we regularly add new OA resources and materials. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all the importance of online resources, so a large part of my focus over the past year has been to develop new online content for our community that will allow us to connect, even if we are unable to gather in person for regional workshops. The goals of these new resources are to help increase awareness and engagement with our community, and further our CoP objectives.

Our Map of Canada’s OA Resources

On the International OA Day of Action (January 8, or 8.1, the current pH of our oceans) this year, we launched an exciting new resource, an interactive map of Canada’s OA Resources, where visitors can search for OA projects, experts, and resources from across Canada, or browse the resources available in their area. We update the map regularly to make sure our community has all the latest information.

Our New Blog Series

Figure 6. Examples of our social media posts. Made by Kristina using Canva.

In December, we launched four new blog series aimed to increase engagement and awareness, and provide new resources for our community. The first blog series, OA News (You Could Use), is a weekly snapshot of OA news and activities happening around the world. Posts contain 3 – 5 OA-related news items, including upcoming events, news stories, recent publications, and new resources. The second series is called Research Recaps, where we interview researchers, particularly early career researchers, to get an inside perspective on their recent publications. The posts are written in accessible language, allowing a wide audience to get a glimpse of how the scientific process works, and how researchers create new OA knowledge. The third blog series is called Scientist Spotlights, where we interview individuals to learn more about their research backgrounds and interests in OA. These posts allow the average person to learn more about why researchers are interested or motivated to study OA-related subjects. Our fourth series, Meet the CoP, is similar to our Scientist Spotlight series, but we interview our leadership team to learn more about why they are motivated to lead Canada’s OA community. The goal of the Meet the CoP series is to inspire and help us understand why the OA research and our community matters to Canada. A lot of my inspiration in creating these four blog series came from working with Time Scavengers.

Social Media

I’ve been working to increase our online social media presence since October, 2020, posting at least 3 – 4 times a week on Twitter, and 1 – 2 times a week on Facebook and Instagram. Using some of the things I’ve learned volunteering with Time Scavengers, I’ve started to try out different visual graphics to go along with our posts to see what is appealing to viewers. An interesting trend I’ve noticed so far is that while we get the most engagement on our Instagram posts (likes), Twitter is the predominant source of our social media web traffic, and is our third most common source of web traffic (behind direct visits and google searches).

Figure 7. Growth in our social media followers since October, 2020. Twitter appears to be our most useful platform.

Ongoing and Future Projects

One of our biggest projects that we are hoping to start working on this summer (funding and COVID dependent) is our Critical Ocean Acidification Sensor Technologies for Coastal Industries and Communities (COAST to Coast) OA sensor package. The plan is to partner with aquaculture operators to deploy OA sensors that will not only allow us to contribute to larger OA monitoring efforts, but might also allow operators to determine and predict OA events. Another goal of the sensor package is to assess the viability of newer, lower cost sensors, as most of the well-established OA sensors are very expensive, which is cost-prohibitive for individual aquaculture operators. We are also working on a couple of research papers, including meta-data analyses of OA research in Canada, and regional OA vulnerability assessments in partnership with both DFO and NOAA’s joint OA Working Groups, that will include biological, physical, and socio-economic data. I’ve been collecting and using the meta-data I gather to make a database of Canada’s OA publications as well that we hope to release in the coming months.

What I’ve Learned

It has been a great experience getting to work with such an interdisciplinary group to learn more about the many disciplines involved in OA research. While a lot of my Ph.D. research involved the effects of ocean acidification on molluscs and their shells, as a palaeontologist, I typically think about OA from a deep-time, biological perspective. In this role, I’ve thrown myself into the modern world of OA, and learned about everything from government and interagency science, to policy, oceanography, chemistry, aquaculture, fisheries, social science, and more. I’ve been able to meet and listen to OA experts from around the world, including and Mexico and the U.S., as well as countries in Europe, Africa, South America, and Central America. The international OA community is really welcoming and collaborative. I’ve also learned a lot about chemical oceanography and carbon cycles in the Arctic from the lab where I am a postdoc.

I’ve been able to apply and grow my skills in science communication by getting to interview and interact with so many people who all think about OA so differently. I’ve had a lot of fun interviewing researchers and writing blog pieces, as well as facilitating conversations with groups from all different sectors. It has helped me become a more well-rounded scientist and science communicator. As someone who is interested in conservation palaeobiology and the implications of the fossil record for modern conservation and climate change issues, being able to “speak the language” of a wide range of modern scientists and stakeholders is also a valuable skill when trying to identify research priorities, build collaborations, or seek funding opportunities. My experiences working with Time Scavengers have also helped me think of new and creative ways to help grow our OA Community in Canada.

If you are interested in learning more about Canada’s Ocean Acidification Community of Practice, please visit our website, and consider becoming a member.

To learn more about the science of OA and ocean chemistry, Check out this Time Scavengers webpage.

Acknowledgements:
Thank you to OA CoP Co-leads, Dr. Helen Gurney-Smith and Dr. Brent Else for reviewing this blog post.

Field Camp: An Introduction & Personal Experiences

In geology, fieldwork includes the direct observation, description, and sampling (or additional analyses) of rock outcrops, rock exposures, other geological features, and landscapes in their natural environment. To prepare geoscientists for field work, undergraduate geoscience students are often required to take field camp. Field camp can be an important component of geological studies, offering opportunities for collecting data and fine – tuning observation and mapping skills that students may be introduced to in the lab. While some argue that field camp is a critical part of an undergraduate geology degree, field camp can be quite exclusionary and should not be a requirement for a degree. That being said, there are numerous advantages and challenges of partaking in field camp or conducting field work. Here, we share our perspectives on field camp and our experiences, as well as share some ideas about how you can win money to attend field camp. 

Basics of Attending Field Camp

Field camp provides an opportunity to get hands-on experiences in sample/specimen collection and develop mapping skills. Essentially, it is a practical application of all of the coursework you have taken as a geoscience student .

Some field programs connect with other institutional programs at a shared ‘base camp’. This promotes networking and relationships to be built outside of your field cohort. For example, Jen was based at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association and a field camp from Houston was also residing there during the summer. Although work was largely separate, we ate meals together and shared common facilities. Some field camp programs accept external applicants, which promotes meeting new peers and experiencing the field together.  

Field course requirements can vary greatly by program and in some cases, field courses are not a requirement of the program. Some programs require six credit hours in field work which may be held over a six week long field camp. Additionally, some field camps and courses have prerequisites, which could include more specialized courses such as sedimentology, stratigraphy, or structural geology. Another aspect to keep in mind is the cost of field camp. Some field courses are quite expensive and do not provide financial assistance. Some courses require you to get your own transportation to the base camp, which requires additional resources and logistical planning. As field courses are commonly six weeks, attendees must take off work reducing their income and available time. Other costs include any gear you must purchase to safely attend. 

In a lot of cases, universities and colleges may have some source of funding to help their students attend field camp. These funds are, in most cases, provided by alumni donations that help cover a large chunk, but not all, of the students’ field course expenses.

There are also a few scholarships and grants you can apply to to attend field camp. Here a few examples of such awards:

Personal Experiences

Whitney Lapic, attended as an undergraduate with Mount Holyoke College

Field camp was not offered at my undergraduate institution, Mount Holyoke College. My program did offer a class which was based on a trip to Death Valley that was held over spring break every other year, but this was the closest thing we had to a field course. At the time, I did not think that seeking out a field camp would be worthwhile as I was not going into a subdiscipline that was field work intensive. That being said, I still wanted to gain field experience – and I believed that the experience was a requirement for me to get into graduate school. 

My greatest concern for field work was being able to physically keep up with the group and I know that this fear, and the cost of field camp, greatly deterred me from attending. I was however, extremely lucky to have been accepted as an exchange student at the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K. for a semester and decided to take some time to create my own miniature field excursions while abroad. After plenty of research, I organized a series of trips to the nearby Gault Clay formation in Folkestone, which was a brief and inexpensive bus trip away. Here, I was able to work at my own pace (while trying to beat the tide) and gain experience in collecting, preparing, and identifying fossil specimens from start to finish. While this was by no means a replacement for a field course, it still introduced me to new challenges and allowed me to gain experience on my own time. It certainly helped that I was in a location of my choosing, so it was of significant interest to me. 

Linda Dämmer, attended as an undergraduate with University of Bonn (Germany)

I studied Geosciences at the University of Bonn (Germany). The system there works a bit differently from many US geology programmes: Almost all courses, with just a few exceptions, had a mandatory field work component. These field trips ranged from a few hours used to visit a little stream nearby and practice different methods to estimate the amount of water flowing down the stream per hour, to traveling abroad to spend 10-14 days practising geological mapping or learning about regional geological features. I’ve probably participated in close to 20 field trips during my undergraduate studies, I visited Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Bulgaria during these excursions as well as many sites in Germany. Except for the far away field trips (Bulgaria and Spain) where we had to pay for our flights, these were generally fairly low cost, since the university covered the majority of the expenses, most of the time the students had to pay about 50€ (approx $60) or less as a contribution. There have been people who were unable to attend the mandatory field trip components of the programme, for a variety of reasons (for example pregnancies or disabilities), and they usually were able to instead do a different activity such as written assignments instead. In addition, for many courses more than one field trip option was offered, because taking an entire class on a field trip at the same time doesn’t work well. So based on interests, schedules and financial situation, everyone could often choose between different field trips, that would all count for the same course. I have learned so much during each field trip. Seeing geological/environmental features ‘in the wild’ has helped me tremendously to deepen my understanding of the processes involved and I’m very grateful for these experiences. But they also – and maybe even more so – helped me understand my physical boundaries and how far I can push myself, they helped me improve my organisational skills and made me a better team player. I think these are probably the real advantages of doing field trips, the actual content can probably also be learned in other ways. But the vast majority of the field trips also turned out to be lots of fun, even when you’re sitting in a tiny tent with two other students while it has been raining for the past 4 days and everything you own is completely wet and muddy, when you’re hiking through the mountains and your mapping partner is about 65% sure they’ve just heard what sounded like a wild boar behind you, or when you’re sweating and getting sunburned while trying to find your way back to the campsite in the spanish desert without any landmarks, there’s always something to laugh about and other people to help you out on when you think something too hard. Like that one time I managed to lose my field notebook at an outcrop and only noticed after a 90 minute hike to the next outcrop. I was already exhausted and really wasn’t looking forward to hiking back and forth again to get my notebook, but thanks to a friend volunteering to go with me, I managed to do it (that’s the day I learned to take a picture of every page of my notebook after every outcrop AND to save the pictures online as soon as possible).

I think it’s absolutely worth it, if you’re able to join field trips, I recommend you do it. 

I’d like to briefly discuss a different aspect about this though. All of the things I said are only true if you go with the right people. While I’ve not experienced too many negative situations during field trips myself, I’m aware that some people have not had a great time during field trips. For example, because the majority of geologists on this planet still consist of cis male people, who might not understand that menstruating or having to pee in the field can be a challenge for AFAB people, it might be difficult or embarrassing having to argue in front of the entire class that someone needs a break. Sometimes you also find out the hard way that the nice professor isn’t actually as nice as you thought when you have to spend 24h per day for an entire month with them instead of just attending their lecture for 2h every Tuesday morning. 

I’m still recommending everyone to join as many field trips as possible, but if you can, make sure there’s at least one person you already know and trust among the other participants. Having friends with you will make it a much better experience, in many ways.

Jen Bauer, attended as a graduate student with Ohio University 

I have an undergraduate degree in biological sciences and an earth science minor. The minor program did have a field component but it was only a week long trip to the Ozark area. This was  a nice precursor because I understood what a much longer version would entail. I completed my field camp during my MS program at Ohio University. It was my first summer and was run through Ohio University, so I didn’t have to apply for other programs. I could simply enroll in the course. At this time the course had two parts: (1) a two-week component that was focused near Athens, Ohio and in the nearby West Virginia mountains (this was meant to help us get accustomed with techniques in the field prior to being ‘released’ into the wild; and (2) a four-week component that was largely based at Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association. I completed this field course that summer and really enjoyed the experience at large. My biggest concern was being comfortable in the field and being able to keep up with my field partners. I trained regularly for a month in advance – cardio and weight training, which was certainly a little over the top. I had no trouble keeping up. I did not have the best field clothes due to not having money to purchase anything too expensive. This did not hinder me in the slightest. Since I went as a graduate student, my experience was a little different from those that attend as undergraduate students. I went in fully expecting full nights of rest and I worked hard so that I wouldn’t have to pull all nighters. I cannot function well on lack of sleep, let alone hike and map an area if I am exhausted. I made very conscious choices to be mindful of this. I still got my maps in on time and did very well in the course. My advice for folks heading to field camp would be to be confident in your abilities and know your weaknesses – you can’t be good at everything and it’s ok to lean on your field partner. Also, don’t forget to enjoy the experience. It’s a practical application of all of your knowledge up until that point. I had a lot of fun seeing structures and trying to infer them while drawing the maps. 

Maggie Limbeck, attended as a graduate student with the University of St. Andrews

My undergraduate institution (Allegheny College) did not require field camp for graduation because we were able to incorporate a lot of field trips/field work into our classes. All of my upper level courses either had weekend field trips around the area (Western Pennsylvania, Catskill Mountains in NY, West Virginia) or had multiple lab weeks that were designed around field work. We were also required to take a seminar course that had a week-long field trip to a further destination (my year went to Sapelo Island, GA), where we could really practice our geology skills as a capstone course. 

When I got to grad school, it was considered a deficiency that I had not been to field camp and I needed to go in order to graduate with my Master’s. I ended up going to Scotland for field camp and even though it was an international field camp it was priced similarly to attending one in the United States (read a previous post on Field Camp in Scotland). Because I was going to be doing field work in a chilly, wet climate I did spend a fair amount when purchasing a raincoat, rain pants, and boots to make certain I would stay dry and warm during long days in the rain. These purchases, while expensive, did keep me happy and dry as it rained for weeks while I was there! Going as a graduate student was an interesting experience because many of the other students bonded by staying up late working on their maps and/or going out to party – I on the other hand was working to make sure I could go to bed at a decent hour and be up early enough for breakfast and to make my lunch for the next day. Having an awareness of how you work best and function best is really beneficial because you are setting yourself up to be successful (and there are probably other students wanting to keep a similar schedule as you that you can work with!), but do make sure you do take advantage of some of these later nights, they are really help bond you to the other students and will make working with different groups of people a little easier. One other piece of advice: don’t be scared to speak to the instructor if you aren’t feeling well, are hurt, or need some adjustments made. We had a specific cooking group for those with dietary restrictions or preferences and those who were not feeling well for a day were given different activities to complete. It might be little things (in our case, my group hated the mustard that was being purchased for lunches!) but it’s important to talk to your instructor so you aren’t stuck in a situation that could potentially be dangerous for you!

Sarah Sheffield, attended as an undergraduate with Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute

I went to UNC Chapel Hill, which does require a field camp for their geosciences B.S., but did not offer one themselves. So I went to field camp at the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute. I had to pay for out of state tuition for two credits (it was a two week program), which was expensive, but I gained a lot from the program. I flew to Montana and met the other participants, many of whom I still talk to a decade (!!!) later.  This field camp was unusual for a geoscience degree, in that there was no mapping or structural component. However, I did learn skills such as: locating potential fossil sites; jacketing vertebrate specimens; and vertebrate fossil identification, among other things. I enjoyed my time and highly recommend it if you have the opportunity! The major downside to field camp was cost: the tuition was difficult to cover, but it wasn’t the only consideration. I did not have access to good field gear, which meant that my time in the field was not as comfortable as it could have been (e.g., my shoes were not really appropriate for strenuous field work; good boots are arguably one of the most important pieces of gear for a field scientist!). See if you can find used, quality gear on sites like eBay, Craigslist, etc.-sometimes you can find gems for really reasonable prices! 

My M.S. institution did not originally count this field camp as a field credit, due to the lack of mapping and structural geology components. However, the department chose to waive the requirement in the end in order to not have a graduate student in their undergraduate field camp. My Ph.D. institution simply required that I do field work during my Ph.D., which I did in Sardinia, Italy during my second year there. I only mention this because my field camp at BBPI may not count at other institutions as a traditional field camp credit, so you’ll want to check with your institution.  

As a paleontologist, I find that I did not need a full field camp to become a successful geologist. My research takes place in both the field and in museums, with more of an emphasis on museums. As I write this, I have been unable to do field work for a few years due to a severe ankle injury, so I am grateful that the geosciences field is becoming more broad, so that more folks who may not be able to do field work for many reasons can do so! 

Kristina Barclay attended as an undergraduate with the University of Alberta

I took my undergraduate degree in Paleontology at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I was required to take 3 field classes (1st and 2nd year geology, 4th year paleontology), and another one of my classes included a field trip (4th year paleobotany). I also took an invertebrate zoology class at Bodega Marine Lab (UC Davis) as a grad student, but as I was already working/living at the lab, I didn’t have to spend any extra money (other than tuition), but other students had to pay for lodging/meals. The 1st and 2nd year geology field camps I took at the U of A were 2 – 3 weeks tours across Alberta and B.C., mostly consisting of mapping exercises in the Rocky Mountains. Our paleo field schools were within the city, so we could go home every day, which was nice after a day of digging in the snow/mud in April! For the 1st and 2nd year field schools, we stayed in hotels or cabins. At the time, a lot of the costs were funded by oil and gas companies, so there weren’t too many extra expenses incurred by the students (other than tuition). That said, field gear is expensive, and as a 1st year, buying expensive waterproof notebooks, rock hammers, hand lenses, sturdy hiking boots, and field clothes was a little hard on the budget! Although, many years later, I still own and use a lot of those things, so some were very useful investments if you’re going to continue to do field work.

One thing I’d say is that it’s not worth buying the really expensive field clothes or rain gear because one tumble on rocks or rogue branch, and they get shredded. Field gear doesn’t need to be pretty or brand-named – I buy $10 rain pants because I know I’ll destroy them anyway (and I’ve had one of those pairs last me 10 years). The other challenge was that I paired with two men for the trip (we were marked as groups and stayed in the same cabins). They were good friends of mine and I was fortunate enough to trust them, but as a smaller woman, keeping up with them and finding a private spot to “go” outside was a little bit of a challenge! Thankfully, there were usually spots with trees, but I’ve done a lot of fieldwork with men where there was no cover, so trust is key. I tend not to drink coffee when I’m in the field and just stick to water to minimize unnecessary trips to the bathroom. You don’t want to short-change yourself on water in the field, though, so just make sure you are open and honest with your group about your bathroom needs (menstruating folx, especially). Field camps can be tiring, cold, and a pile of work, but they are absolutely awesome experiences and a chance to visit some amazing, remote places. They also gave me the confidence and experience to be able to conduct and lead independent field work in grad school, which might not be necessary for everyone, but is an important part of my research. Make sure to take lots of pictures and notes (good note taking is so important) and enjoy the experience!

The Scientific Process: What is “Peer-Review”?

Kristina here –

Today, humans have access to more information than at any other time in human history, all at the tips of our fingers with a quick Google search, or a “Hey, [insert AI name here]”. While equal access to the internet and information technology is beyond the scope of this post, cell phones, tablets, and laptops, have made it easier than ever to quickly look up information. Yet with this technology has come a huge surge in wide-spread misinformation, making it difficult to know whether you can trust the information you find. Pretty much anyone can post whatever they want, and pass it off as “fact”. How then can the average person determine whether what they’re reading is actually credible and factual? Furthermore, if you see something that says “scientists disagree on X topic”, who should you believe? Contrary to what you might think, not all viewpoints are created equal, and both scientists and the average person can be guilty of confusing “opinion” and “fact”. This is where the “peer-review” process comes in to help.

So what is “peer-reviewing”?

Most people hearing “peer-review” assume it is a good thing (and this is certainly true) but what does “peer-review” mean? Essentially, peer-review is an integral part of the scientific process, and what helps separate “opinion” and “fact”. It is what scientists use to make sure that their research is as thorough, accurate, and factual as possible. In general, scientists do not consider something trustworthy or credible unless it has gone through some kind of peer-review process.

How does peer-review work?

A scientist or group of scientists will first go about conducting research. They will ideally do background reading to make sure they understand what is already known about the topic, and where there might be gaps in our knowledge. They will then design an experiment or test, collect data, and analyse that data. The ultimate goal of science is to try and refute a null hypothesis (e.g., all apples are red). We must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that something is different from the null (what has been previously determined) (e.g., some apples are green). If we can’t prove otherwise, and/or the more scientists that run their own tests and come to the same conclusion, the stronger our hypothesis is, or the closer it is to “the truth” (e.g., apples can be different colours).

Once scientists are finished collecting and analysing the data, and have come to a conclusion (e.g., refuted, or failed to refute a hypothesis), they will write a paper reporting their findings. See Sarah’s post on how to write a scientific paper here. The authors then submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal, usually one that has been selected based on the topic or audience of the journal. The submitted paper is sent to an editor at that journal, who then decides if the paper is appropriate for their journal. If the paper “passes” this first test, the editor will then send it out to at least two experts in that topic.

How are the peer-reviewers selected?

Usually, journals request that authors include anywhere from 2 – 10 names of experts that know enough about the topic to provide sufficiently thorough critiques of the paper. Authors cannot include close colleagues or collaborators, as this could create bias (e.g., your friend is more likely to give you a pass, even if you don’t deserve it). Editors can opt to choose as many or as few people as they want from the authors’ list. Ideally, editors will also find at least one person not on the authors’ list that is an expert on the topic. Authors may also include a list of people they don’t want to review their papers, but they must have a good reason (e.g., “this person doesn’t agree with me” is not an acceptable reason as critical reviews are important to ensure scientific rigor. But, “this person has been openly hostile towards me” would be – some people can be jerks and block good science in peer-review). If you have too many people that you don’t want to review your paper, that sends up red flags to editors, however, so including people on a “no-review” list shouldn’t be taken lightly by authors, and should only be done when absolutely necessary.

The editor then sends the paper to at least two of these reviewers. If the reviewers accept, they then have about 2 – 4 weeks to evaluate the paper. It’s important to note that editors do not usually review the papers themselves (unless they happen to be an expert in that topic), because, especially for larger journals, the editor is unlikely to know enough about the topic to give sufficiently thorough feedback (e.g., a vertebrate palaeontologist won’t review an invertebrate palaeontology paper, and vice versa). 

Peer-reviewing a scientific paper

If you are the reviewer, your job is to go through the paper and evaluate the science independently. Your comments should stick to the science and presentation of the science, and you must refrain from unnecessary criticism of the authors. For example, “this is a poorly written paragraph” is not helpful or appropriate. Instead, you should point out where you didn’t understand what was written, and why. Reviewers typically read the paper over several times to make sure they understand what the authors are trying to test, then evaluate whether the experimental design, methods, and analyses of the data were sufficient to test the hypothesis. Often, reviewers will analyse the data themselves to make sure they find the same things as the authors. Sometimes, if the reviewer feels that the methods or analyses were insufficient, they will suggest that the authors try other analyses that will more accurately test their hypothesis. This is one of the most common types of reviewer feedback. 

If the methods and analyses all hold up to scrutiny, the reviewer will then make sure that the interpretation of the data (included in a paper’s “Discussion” and “Conclusions” sections) matches the results of the analyses. Another common type of feedback from reviewers occurs when authors overstate (or sometimes understate) their conclusions (e.g., the authors may claim their paper proves x, but their results might only be applicable under very specific circumstances). A good reviewer will make sure that all of the claims made by the authors are supported by the tests they perform, and should watch for speculation (speculation may be acceptable, so long as it is clearly stated that it is such).

Reviewers then provide a thorough report back to the editor, including specific comments/suggested edits from throughout the paper. Reviewers will provide a recommendation to the editor indicating whether they think the paper is in need of revisions (“major” or “minor” revisions), or if the paper should be rejected or accepted. Major and minor revisions are the most common reviewer recommendations – major often means further analyses are needed before the hypotheses have been sufficiently tested, minor usually means that the methods and results are sound, but the authors need to tweak a few paragraphs, interpretations, or graphs throughout the paper. Papers that are considered “accepted” are exceptionally well done, and the reviewer may only have small comments that need to be addressed, or possibly none. Papers that reviewers “reject” usually have insufficient evidence to accurately test the hypotheses proposed, may have critically flawed methods or analyses, or would require very extensive revisions that would take a long time to complete, or would end up testing a different hypothesis. Rejections do not always mean that the authors should abandon the paper – it could just mean that there is more work to do before the paper can be fully evaluated. Some journals even have a “reject and resubmit” option, which means that the paper is rejected for now, but that the authors are welcome to resubmit in the future if they are able to address the reviewer’s concerns. It is sort of like “very major revisions” and gives the authors a bit more time/flexibility to complete the revisions.

Revisions

Once the editor has received reviews back from all of the reviewers, they will go through all of them to see if the reviewers have picked out common flaws in the paper, and to make sure the reviews were sufficient. If the reviewers clearly disagreed on something, the editor will often send out the paper to at least one other reviewer for another opinion (this is helpful if a reviewer was unnecessarily harsh or lax). Based on all of the reviewer evaluations, the editor will provide the final recommendation for the paper (accept, reject, reject and resubmit, major/minor revisions). The editor then sends their recommendation and summary of the reviews, along with all of the reviewer comments, back to the authors. 

The authors must then revise the paper based on the reviewer feedback, and address every single comment made by the reviewers. It is the job of the authors to not be defensive about the comments (which can be hard when someone is criticizing your work), but it is important to remember that the reviewer’s job is to make your science better. Depending on the amount of revisions requested (major or minor), the authors are usually given at least 2 weeks (and sometimes several months) to provide their revisions, as addressing every single comment thoroughly takes time. The authors then resubmit their revised paper, as well as a list of their responses to all of the reviewer comments and the actions taken to address each comment. The editor uses both documents to determine if the authors have done due diligence with the reviewer’s feedback, or if further revisions are needed.

If necessary, the editor will send the paper back to the original reviewers or to new reviewers. The process will repeat until the paper becomes acceptable to reviewers, or the paper is rejected. Once the paper is considered acceptable by the reviewers and editor, the peer-review process is complete and the paper is ready to be formatted and published in the journal! It can take anywhere from weeks to years for a paper to become accepted! 

Responsibilities of reviewers

It is important to note that neither authors, nor reviewers are paid (editors at larger journals are sometimes paid positions). Instead, peer-reviewing is considered an “academic service” and authors should expect to review 1 – 2 papers for every paper they publish (i.e., for each review of your paper, you should return the favour by reviewing that many papers). While some people have strong opinions on monetary compensation for reviewers and editors, the current justification is that reviewing is a service and the lack of compensation should keep reviewers impartial. The peer-review process is a lot of work for everyone involved, but is the best way to ensure we have a system that produces sound, thorough, and accurate science.

Peer-review doesn’t just happen in journals, either. Scientific books, text books, theses, and government reports may also be considered peer-reviewed, as they are usually thoroughly reviewed by several experts, or scientific review panels. But the most common form, and the most acceptable form of citations or sources, are peer-reviewed journal articles. Peer-review also occurs for articles in other fields in academia, such as history and the arts.

So, how do you tell if what you’re reading (or what you’ve heard) is credible?

Has it been peer-reviewed?

Is the information coming from a reputable peer-reviewed journal?

Do they cite their sources when stating information/presenting facts?

Even if the information isn’t presented in a journal (e.g., a governmental report, book, or blog post), do they use citations to support their arguments? Are these sources credible (i.e., from peer-review sources, not some random internet link)?

Do the majority of scientists/experts in the topic agree with this opinion?

If you come across a “fact” that a scientist has stated, remember that not all “opinions” are created equal. If the majority of experts have come to a conclusion, yet one person disagrees, that person has most likely failed to properly refute a hypothesis (their conclusions do not match the majority of the evidence). This usually happens when a scientist fails to include all of the appropriate variables in their methods, meaning that the test they used to refute the hypothesis was flawed, even if their work has been published. For example, those that claim global warming has happened before and that therefore the global warming we are experiencing today is just natural variation are failing to include an important variable: the rate of change (which is much faster than any past “background” variation). 

Is the author an expert on the subject?

It takes several years to gain expertise in a topic, mostly by reading all of the peer-reviewed papers on that topic (hundreds or even thousands of papers), staying up-to-date on new research, conducting experiments, and going through the peer-review process. Google searches don’t cut it. Even if they are a scientist, if they normally work in a different topic, there is a greater chance that they might be missing something that is common knowledge to experts in that field. For example, I as a palaeontologist am not about to try and write a paper on black holes, even though I think they’re fascinating and have read lots about them. 

An imperfect system

The peer-review system is not infallible. Nowadays, scientists will often “publish” their work online outside or ahead of the peer-review process with things called pre-prints. Pre-prints allow scientists to share their work, especially large datasets, ahead of peer-review so that they can share their work more quickly and potentially get feedback from other researchers. Often, the data included in pre-prints will end up going through the peer-review process, but as the peer-review process can take a long time, pre-prints allow researchers to get their data out there and get feedback faster. While it may not seem as rigorous because it hasn’t gone through the peer-review process, it can actually end up being more transparent because it potentially allows more people to review the research. Essentially, pre-prints still go through “peer-review” in the actual sense of the word, just not necessarily through the traditional channels of journals.

Journal reviewers can also sometimes act inappropriately. For example, reviewers might make unhelpful comments that are not constructive or based on the science, or may even be downright abusive or derogatory – e.g., criticizing the author, not the work, or saying something unnecessarily rude. While these kinds of comments are not permissible in the peer-review process, and it is usually the responsibility of the editor to reject reviews that include inappropriate content, these kinds of things regularly slip through. It is then within the author’s right to ask the editor to step in and find an alternative reviewer or to ignore the comments when making their final decision. These kinds of checks and balances are what help the peer-review process to remain as impartial as possible – comments must be limited to the science and the presentation of material, and cannot include opinions or feelings about the work, even if it disagrees with your own.

Finally, just because something gets published doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There are lots of bad papers out there that slip through the peer-review process. Editors and reviewers are people too. That is why scientists must always evaluate previous work for themselves. It is an inherent part of the scientific process – trying to independently reject that null hypothesis to see if you come to the same conclusion.

A palaeontologist’s guide to modern marine ecology

Kristina here – 

Interdisciplinary experiences are a great way to learn new things and broaden your perspectives as a scientist. I’m a palaeontologist who studies the effects of climate change on predation and biotic interactions in marine invertebrates, but over the course of my research career, I’ve spent more time working with modern animals and ecosystems than I have with fossil ones. It may sound strange, but I believe it’s made me a better palaeontologist. I’ve learned a lot from working with modern ecologists, and I’d highly recommend it to any aspiring or established palaeontologists.

Why work with modern systems?

Predation in action – a giant seastar eating a giant clam (Bamfield Inlet, B.C.)

Observing animals helps you understand the mechanisms of what you might observe in the fossil record. You also really gain an appreciation for the things that don’t fossilize, like animal behaviour (I’ve been outsmarted by crabs, and maybe a snail or two, on more than one occasion). I study predation and biotic interactions, which are not possible to observe in real time in the fossil record because those animals have been dead for a very long time. Instead, we as palaeontologists must rely on other clues, like predation scars, as evidence that organisms interacted. But interpreting how or why organisms interacted in the fossil record can still be tricky. For example, crab predation on molluscs has been common since the Mesozoic, but as crabs crush their prey into oblivion to eat, the only evidence of crab predation we can observe in the fossil record are failed attacks where the prey survived and a scar formed on its shell. A big question in palaeontology has therefore been: do these failed attacks we observe in the fossil record actually tell us anything about predation? Conducting live experiments and modern field work where we observe how crabs prey upon animals like snails helps us understand what we are seeing in the fossil record and why. For example, one thing we’ve learned is that the number of crab scars on snails reflects the abundance of crabs at a locality rather than changes in how successful crabs are at killing snails between sites (Molinaro et al. 2014; Stafford et al. 2015).

Collecting snails for lab experiments (Bodega Marine Lab)

We can use modern experiments as baselines that can “calibrate” our interpretations of patterns in the fossil record. Part of my Ph.D. research involved conducting a long-term ocean acidification experiment on two species of snails at Bodega Marine Laboratory. I wanted to know how ocean acidification and predation affected snail shell growth and strength, and what this might mean for both past and future predator-prey interactions between crabs and snails. I found that some shell materials are more vulnerable to ocean acidification because they grow less and become weaker, and are therefore more susceptible to predation (Barclay et al. 2019). Not only does this mean that some mollusc species might become more vulnerable to predation with continued climate change, but it means that we can use clues like this to help identify periods of ocean acidification in the fossil record, and then watch how it plays out in ecosystems over time.

Metrhom Robo-titrator (determines water alkalinity) and Instron (measured the force required to crush my shells – very stressful after 6 months of growing them) (Bodega Marine Lab)
My study species – the red rock crab (Cancer productus) and black turban snail (Tegula funebralis) – Notice the crab predation scar on the top right snail)

Comparing modern and fossil systems is important for conservation efforts. There is an entire field of palaeontology called conservation palaeobiology where we try to use deep time perspectives to answer questions related to modern climate change and conservation issues. For another part of my Ph.D. research, I compared crab predation on snails in the same modern and fossil systems to try and understand what has happened to these systems over time. Some of my results have been a little scary, and suggest that human activity has already had major consequences on crab populations in places like southern California.

And, if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s just plain fun to work in modern marine biology! I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many beautiful field sites along the west coast of Canada and the U.S. to conduct research on rocky-intertidal invertebrates. My favourite field sites I’ve been to are on Vancouver Island (near Bamfield, B.C.) and the north-central Oregon coast. I’ve also had the great privilege to conduct research and take classes at three marine labs: Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the west side of Vancouver Island, Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island, Washington, and Bodega Marine Laboratory in northern California. If you ever have the opportunity to conduct research or take classes at any of these places, I’d highly recommend it, and would happily provide some connections and potential funding sources. There’s nothing like some salty sea air, observing live critters in their natural habitats, and the occasional curious seal or whale sighting to inspire your curiosity and love of the natural world. 

Bamfield Sunset at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.

What I’ve learned?

Shelfie with a red abalone (Bodega Marine Lab)

Working with modern ecologists has been such a rewarding experience. I’ve learned so much about animal behaviour, chemistry, and physiology (fun fact: crabs are ridiculously stubborn and will spend hours trying to break into a snail before admitting defeat and throwing the snail across the tank in a tantrum). I’ve also learned a lot of about the world of larvae and plankton (I even got to participate in an experiment with larvae of an endangered species, the white abalone), and seaweeds (which is not something that we often get to see in the fossil record). I also learned a lot of lab, statistical, and experimental design techniques, such as how to analyse water samples for alkalinity and pH. The level of detail and complexity available in live systems can really help you tease apart how such things might influence your interpretations of the fossil record. One of the most interesting things I learned from a lab mate at Bodega Marine Lab was just how much night/day variation there is in tidepool water chemistry, with pH swings of several orders of magnitude in a 24 hour cycle (Jellison et al. 2016)! I also learned that some snails can tow several hundred times their body weight, possibly placing them as one of the strongest animals on earth!

Tidepools at Yaquina Head, Oregon

What can geoscientists offer?

Even though I’ve learned so many new things about modern marine ecology, there are several unique perspectives I’ve been able to offer to my modern marine colleagues as a geoscientist. First, as palaeontologists, our perspective of time and evolution is often completely different than an ecologist’s. One isn’t inherently better or worse, but a geological understanding of time can help you ask big picture questions and allow you to fit modern research into a larger context. For example, a long-term study in the modern is usually on the order of years or decades, whereas palaeontological studies span thousands to millions of years. We understand how things like storms, taphonomy, and time averaging might influence our results in a broader way. We also understand just how fleeting today’s conditions are. One other unique perspective is our geological field training – we think in three dimensions, especially when we are out in the field looking at outcrops. When I see a mussel bed, I’m not just thinking about the biology of individual mussels, I’m thinking about how it accumulated, how water conditions change across it, and what might cause it to change over time. I’m not saying ecologists don’t do that, because they do, but it’s just second nature to geoscientists. 

The important thing here is that one field isn’t better than the other, but rather, we all have different strengths or emphases we’ve learned and by combining both modern and fossil perspectives, you can ask really interesting, important questions!

References

Barclay, K., B. Gaylord, B. Jellison, P. Shukla, E. Sanford, and L. Leighton. 2019: Variation in the effects of ocean acidification on shell growth and strength in two intertidal gastropods. Marine Ecology Progress Series 626:109–121.

Jellison, B. M., A. T. Ninokawa, T. M. Hill, E. Sanford, and B. Gaylord. 2016: Ocean acidification alters the response of intertidal snails to a key sea star predator. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283:20160890.

Molinaro, D. J., E. S. Stafford, B. M. J. Collins, K. M. Barclay, C. L. Tyler, and L. R. Leighton. 2014: Peeling out predation intensity in the fossil record: A test of repair scar frequency as a suitable proxy for predation pressure along a modern predation gradient. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 412:141–147.

Stafford, E. S., C. L. Tyler, and L. R. Leighton. 2015: Gastropod shell repair tracks predator abundance. Marine Ecology 36:1176–1184.

Integrating Diversity in a Palaeontology Class

Kristina here–

I’ll preface this entire post by saying that I identify as a straight, cis, white woman, and I recognize that I still have a lot of learning and work yet to do when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of my professional as personal life

I’ve been involved in diversity initiatives in my department, including organizing a speaker series aimed at addressing gender disparity in my department. In 2016, we lost our only female geology faculty member (out of a faculty of ~50 people). This meant that most of our undergraduate and graduate students would never get the chance to interact or learn from a female role model and professor during their geology degrees. In response, a group of female graduate students launched an initiative to create a speaker series (the Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series) to bring female geoscientist experts to the department so that students still had the chance to interact with and learn from female role-models and world-class experts in geoscience. Fast forward to today, and several women have been hired as faculty in the department, and we have expanded the series to directly address representation of other groups, specifically racial, and mental or physical disabilities. It has been a rewarding and challenging experience, and I have learned so much. So when I had the opportunity to teach a class of my own in the department, recognizing I might still be one of the only female teachers they might have during their degrees, I wanted to try and incorporate some of these lessons and experiences into the classroom.

Data from Bernard and Cooperdock (2018), showing who was awarded geology PhDs in the United States since 1973.

Integrating Inclusion into the Curriculum

The class I taught was Introduction to Invertebrate Palaeontology – a required second year class for geology and palaeontology majors. For most, this class was either the first biology, or the first palaeontology class of their degrees. I already had some course materials available from the previous instructor, and our course syllabi and learning objectives had to be approved by our department. So how was I to include a new topic that wasn’t necessarily “integral” to the course goals? It was really easy! I just included diversity as a course topic and created an extra credit assignment! I also included a diversity statement in my syllabus. For a nice example of a diversity statement to include on your syllabus, see this example by Dr. Rowan Martindale (University of Texas Austin).

In terms of class time, I dedicated about 5 – 10 minutes once a week to a diversity in geoscience topic. I showed the students some recent research and statistics on diversity in geoscience, introduced some of the terminology used (e.g., representation, intersectionality, implicit bias), and shared data from a paper by Bernard and Cooperdock (2018), which gives breakdowns of the number of Ph.D.’s awarded by race and gender in the U.S since 1973, showing little progress towards achieving diversity in 40 years. Another awesome topic I was able to include by chance was showing the class a documentary that was being offered for free on International Women and Girls in Science day. The Bearded Lady Project made a 22 min doc about challenging the stereotypes of what a palaeontologist looks like. The documentary interviews female palaeontologists about their experiences and some of the discrimination they have faced in their careers or in the field. I showed the short doc in class and then gave the students a chance to discuss some of their thoughts on the documentary. The class really enjoyed it!

Showcasing Diversity with “Student Choice” Extra Credit Assignments

I created an extra credit assignment to encourage students to learn about geoscientists who have made important contributions to the field, but perhaps haven’t received the attention or recognition that others have, such as Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, or Charles Lyell. I asked students to tell me about “non-traditional” (as in, not straight white men) scientists they felt were important role models or had made important contributions to science. I tried to leave the assignments as open-ended as possible so that students could be creative with their choice of person (e.g., could be living or dead), but just asked they include 3 – 5 facts, a picture of the person or their research topic/discovery, and their references. They could turn in the assignment as a document or slide, and if they gave me permission, I would then share it with the class. I also said that each week, I would present a choice of my own if no one handed in an assignment. This was to try and encourage the students to hand in assignments earlier in the term before their choices were selected by myself or another student. It also allowed us to plan to showcase certain scientists during important relevant events, such as Black History Month, and Pride Week.

The idea of this assignment was to encourage student creativity, expose students (and myself) to new and/or important faces and discoveries in science, and allow us all the opportunity to learn something new about the history of our discipline. Importantly, I wanted this to be a student-driven list. I wanted to know the students’ perspectives on who they thought were important people in geoscience and palaeontology. For copyright and security reasons, I won’t include student names or their assignments, but I will offer the names and a bit of info on some of the people the students and I chose to highlight (in no particular order):

      1. Geerat Vermeij – Dr. Vermeij is one of the world’s leading palaeontologists and experts in malacology (the study of molluscs) and predation. He is a professor at UC Davis, and has won numerous awards for his ground-breaking research, including a MacArthur Fellow. He has published several books (in addition to hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers), including Privileged Hands, and A Natural History of Shells, which are great reads for scientists and non-scientists alike! Dr. Vermeij has been blind since the age of three, but still conducts both field and lab research. I chose Dr. Vermeij as an example for the class of the kind of scientist they might choose, as I admire Dr. Vermeij’s research.

        Dr. Geerat Vermeij. Source – geology.ucdavis.edu
      2. Mary Anning – Known as the “mother of palaeontology”, Mary Anning was a fossil hunter in 19th century Britain. Her discoveries include the first Plesiosaurus, ink sacks in belemnites (cephalopods), the first British pterosaur, and was the first to attribute coprolites as faeces. Despite all of her knowledge and contributions to the field, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman.

        Mary Anning portrait by B.J. Donne
      3. Franz NopcsaNopcsa was a 19th century Transylvanian aristocrat, palaeobiologist, explorer, and ethnographer, and was open about his homosexuality, traveling with his partner, Bajazid. He was a pioneer in the field of palaeobiology, and came up with the concept of Island Dwarfism. He was also an early supporter of plate tectonics and the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. Unfortunately, he was faced with financial difficulties and physical illness which led to him tragically killing Bajazid and himself.

        Baron Franz Nopcsa
      4. Florence Bascom – Dr. Bascom was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1893, and only the second American woman to receive a Ph.D. in geology. Dr. Bascom went on to be the first woman to work for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), first woman elected to the council for the Geological Society of America (GSA), and founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

        Florence Bascom
      5. Tilly Edinger – Dr. Edinger was the founder of palaeoneurology, the study of the relationship between braincases, skulls, and the brain. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Frankfurt in 1921. Dr. Edinger achieved much during her career, and won numerous awards and recognitions for her contributions to palaeontology. She also served as the President of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology (1963 – 1964). As a Jewish woman in Germany during WWII, she had to work in secret, and eventually fled to London, and then the U.S., where she spent the rest of her career. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s life and legacy, please visit our Who is Tilly Edinger page, and consider donating to our Tilly Edinger Travel Grant for students and avocational scientists!

        Tilly Edinger
      6. Louis Purnell – Purnell was the first African American curator at the National Air and Space Museum. However, before working at the National Air and Space Museum, he worked as an invertebrate zoology specialist and expert in fossil cephalopods at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, but experienced a lot of racism and academic jealousy at the museum and was passed over for promotions, and he left for the National Air and Space Museum.

        Louis Purnell (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
      7. Lisa White – Dr. White is the Assistant Director (Education and Outreach) at the University of California Museum of Paleontology. She is a micropalaeontologist and geoeducation expert, and has been instrumental in directly tackling issues of racial diversity and geoscience education opportunities for minorities. Dr. White has run several programs, including SF-ROCKS which supports geoscience outreach to children and minorities communities in San Fransisco, and has won GSA’s Bromery Award for education and service work advancing minorities in science.

        Dr. Lisa White (ucmp.berkeley.edu)
      8. Bolortsetseg Minjin – A world-renowned leader and advocate for Mongolian palaeontology, Bolortsetseg Minjin has been instrumental in protecting Mongolia’s fossil heritage, addressing fossil poaching, and providing palaeontology education opportunities to Mongolians. She founded the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, and has won numerous international awards for her work, including a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Ramond M. Alf Award.

        Bolortsetseg Minjin (Thea Boodhoo)
      9. Cameron Muskelly – I included Mr. Muskelly as an example of a young avocational scientist who is making amazing strides in palaeontology and outreach, and is an advocate for not only Black geoscientists, but those with mental disabilities and autism in science. Mr. Muskelly has accomplished much for education and outreach in geoscience and palaeontology in his home state of Georgia, and recently won the Katherine Palmer award from the Paleontological Research Institution for his outstanding contributions to the field as an avocational palaeontologist. Read more about Cam on Time Scavengers on his Meet the Scientist blog post!

        Cameron Muskelly
      10. Riley Black – Author of the books My Beloved Brontosaurus, The T. rex Handbook, and Skeleton Keys, Black is a well-known popular science and palaeontology writer. In 2019, Black came out as transgender, and has been an advocate for LGBQTIA+ voices in palaeontology, writing an article called “Queer Voices in Paleontology” for the journal Nature, which outlined the challenges faced by queer palaeontologists, as well as her personal experiences on the struggles of transitioning and fieldwork. Read more about Riley on Time Scavengers on her Meet the Scientist blog post!

        Riley Black (@TheSplash)

I’ll end by saying that I have a lot more growth I’d like to do in terms of being a better ally and advocate for diversity in science, but this was a really fun and rewarding experience that the students and I really enjoyed, and I would definitely do again. One additional resource that I have found really helpful is this recent article by Dr. Christy Visaggi: Equity, Culture, and Place in Teaching Paleontology.

Fossils of Alberta

Map of Canada.

Kristina here –

If you ever find yourself in Canada and have an interest in palaeontology (yes, we spell “paleontology” with an extra “a” up here) and the geosciences, Alberta is a treasure-trove of cool fossil sites and excellent museums. For those of you that might not be familiar with Canadian geography, Alberta is one province east of British Columbia, separated by the Rocky Mountains, and shares the Canada-U.S. border with the state of Montana. Alberta is known for its ranch lands (beef production), prairie crops, great ski hills in the Rockies, and the “oil sands” (“tar sands”) – Canada’s major oil and gas deposit which is, for better or worse, still an important part of the local economy. Oil and gas deposits are often referred to as “fossil fuels”, and as you might have guessed, Alberta also has a LOT of fossil deposits! Alberta is one of the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils, but there are so many other amazing fossil sites too! I’m here to tell you about a few of the highlights.

Geologic map of Alberta. Image from Weides et al. (2011).

But first, some background. Why does Alberta have so many fossils? Rocks in Alberta are part of what is known as the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), a massive package of sedimentary rocks nestled to the west of the Canadian Shield (part of the original continent, or craton, of North America). Throughout its geologic history, Alberta has been part of various shallow seaways next to this North American craton, and at times has been above sea-level, meaning that there is a mix of shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits. Generally, both shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits have the best rock records, as eroded rock material tends to get swept easily into these environments, creating the perfect conditions for fossil formation (rapid burial of organisms is key for forming fossils). For example, during the time of the dinosaurs (Mesozoic), the Rocky Mountains were forming, meaning all of the rocks on the western side of Alberta were getting pushed up, while at the same time experiencing erosion that carried all of that sedimentary material down and towards the east, where there was a shallow seaway called the Western Interior Seaway that acted as a giant catch basin for all of that material. The result? Lots and lots of awesome fossils! Here are just a few notable sites:

The Badlands of Alberta. Image from Natulive Canada.

The Badlands

Alberta’s badlands have some pretty spectacular geologic formations. The term “badlands” refers to an area where there has been interesting erosion of large packages of clay-rich sedimentary rocks, usually caused by wind and water (rivers). Sedimentary rock layers can have different hardnesses, so the layers might erode at different rates, causing interesting erosional features like hoodoos. In southwestern Alberta, the Red Deer River has cut through these layers over time to form badlands.

Alberta’s badlands are best known for Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, but there are many important microfossil sites containing other small reptiles, fish, and mammals, as well as plants, and invertebrates too. Some of the more famous fossils to come out of the area include: Albertosaurus (a tyrannosaur that is smaller, and slightly older than T. rex), the first dinosaur found in Alberta (hence the name); a massive bonebed of Centrosaurus, a horned and frilled dinosaur (Ceratopsian); another ceratopsian called Chasmosaurus, including a beautifully preserved juvenile (baby) discovered a few years ago; and a lot of hadrosaurs (the duckbilled dinosaurs). Alberta is arguably one of the best places in the world to find duckbill dinosaurs!

Baby Chasmosaurus skeleton. Image from Currie et al. (2016).

If you love palaeontology, Alberta’s badlands would definitely be a good place to visit. The best places for the public to visit and explore are Dinosaur Provincial Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the town of Brooks), and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller.

Grande Prairie Area

Most people think of the badlands when they think of fossils in Alberta, but fossils can be found just about everywhere in the province. There’s even a bonebed in the capital city of Edmonton! If you travel northwest of Edmonton to the town of Wembley (near Grande Prairie), you can visit another museum called the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum (named after famous Canadian palaeontologist Phil Currie, who helped found the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and is now a professor at the University of Alberta). The most famous fossil from the area is Pachyrhinosaurus, another of the horned and frilled (ceratopsian) dinosaurs that has one of the most heavily-built skulls of any vertebrate animal. There are also other dinosaurs found around the area, as well as other reptiles.

A Pachyrhinosaurus fossil. Image from Etemenanki 3 (Wikipedia).

Fort McMurray Area

On the northeastern side of the province, is the town of Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray is situated on the very edge of the oil sands, and its population is mostly tied to the oil and gas industry. The oil sands themselves are a very large deposit of Early Cretaceous sandstones, called the McMurray Formation. Most of the fossils within the McMurray Formation itself consist of trace fossils like Skolithos, burrows of small marine animals. The combination of these sandstones and trace fossils became a massive trap for the thick, tarry oil, known as bitumen. Because of the oil exploration in the area, crews occasionally unearth larger fossils, including an exceptionally well-preserved armoured dinosaur called Borealopelta. It was discovered in 2011, and was only recently prepared and described. I was lucky enough to see this specimen in person just last week, and it honestly took my breath away with its incredible preservation. It’s basically a mummy with the skin and armour still intact and truly does look like it was frozen in time.

The fossil of Borealopelta. Image from Etemenanki3 (Wikipedia).

Beneath the oilsands lies a large unconformity where a large piece of time/rock record is missing. The package of rocks underneath the McMurray Formation is called the Waterways Formation which is where the oil itself often comes from. The Waterways Formation is mid-late Devonian in age (about 390 million years), meaning that there is about 200 million years of time missing between the Waterways and McMurray Formations! At the time when the Waterways Formation was being deposited, Alberta was mostly underwater and near the equator, meaning that conditions were perfect for giant reefs to form. The Waterways is full of a diverse assemblage of marine invertebrates that lived either on or near this reef system, which was built mostly by a type of sponge called a stromatoporoid. There are also abundant brachiopod communities in the Waterways Formation, and they are great for studying things like functional morphology (the relationships between an organism’s shape and how it lived), biotic interactions with encrusting organisms, and community evolution. I did my undergraduate and M.Sc. projects on these brachiopod communities, and still love working on Waterways fossils.

Allberta ammolite. Image from Gregory Philips (Wikipedia).

Other Important Alberta Fossil Sites:

There are too many awesome fossil sites in Alberta to describe in detail, but other notable fossils and areas include:

Korite Mine near Lethbridge – The only mine in the world to produce ammolite, a gemstone made from the unique preservation of Cretaceous ammonites (a shelled cephalopod, relative of octopus and squid).

Insect and dinosaur feathers in amber – some of the most fossil (inclusion) rich amber in the world is found in southern Alberta and Canada.

Joffre Bridge – an amazing Late Palaeocene deposit of incredibly well-preserved fossil plants, including leaves, seeds, whole plants, and trees. Fossil flora include lycopsids, Ginko, Equisetum, Metasequoia, and many others.

Insects in amber. Image from McKellar and Engel (2013).

The Burgess Shale – technically in Yoho National Park in B.C., but people passing through Banff and the Rockies into B.C. often come from the Alberta-side. The Burgess Shale is one of the most important and oldest fossil sites in the world, containing a diverse assemblage of bizarre late Cambrian fossils, including Hallucigenia, Anomalocaris, and trilobites, and many soft-bodied organisms.

A note about fossil collecting in Canada:

Don’t. The rules in Canada are much more strict than in the United States. It is illegal to collect fossils in Canada without permits, and those can only be given to professional palaeontologists that work for the government, museums, or universities. Fossils in Canada are considered “Crown Property”, meaning that they are property of Canada and the Queen (we are part of the Commonwealth), and are protected by the Heritage Resource Act. Even palaeontologists cannot claim ownership over the fossils on which they work.

References:

Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Leighton, L.R. 2015. Breaking the mold: using biomechanical experiments to assess the life orientation of dorsibiconvex brachiopods. Paleobiology 41(1):122 – 133. DOI: 10.1017/pab.2014.8

Currie P.J., Holmes R.B., Ryan M.J., and Coy C. 2016. A juvenile chasmosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1048348.

McKellar R.C., Engel M.S. 2013. New bethylid and chrysidid wasps (Hymenoptera: Chrysidoidea) from Canadian Late Cretaceous amber. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 88(4):433-451. DOI: 10.1007/s12542-013-0208-y

Mendonca S., Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Molinaro D.J., Webb A.E., Forcino F.L., Leighton L.R. 2018. Analyzing trends in tropical Devonian brachiopod communities during environmental change in the Waterways Formation of northern Alberta. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.06.020

Weides S., Moeck I., Babadagli T., Bauer K. , Grobe M., Heidbach O., Huenges E., Idowu O., Majorowicz J., Rostron B., Schmitt D.,2 , Unsworth M. 2011. Geothermal technology and exploration of geothermal resources in Northern and Central Alberta. AAPG/SPE/SEG HEDBERG RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” March 14-18, 2011 — Napa, California

Working From Home

Kristina here-

With students, faculty, and staff all switching to work from home, I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences on what it was like to do the majority of my Ph.D. remotely. 

I live three hours from my university, so I have been working from home for the better part of three years now. In fact, I only spent two semesters on campus in my first year taking classes. Then I spent a couple of semesters abroad running an experiment at Bodega Marine Lab. Since then, other than a few short field trips, I’ve been working from my two-bedroom apartment in rural Alberta, Canada. Below are a few of the things I’ve learned working from home.

However, the most important thing to keep in mind when reading any of these sorts of posts is that everyone is different, and what worked for me might not work for you. 

Keep Your Space Clean

I am a very tidy person, and if I know I have chores to do, or things are messy, I have trouble working without feeling distracted. If mess doesn’t bother you, great. I envy you. But if you’re like me and have a tendency to “procrasti-clean”, I recommend keeping on top of your chores and cleaning so as to avoid the temptation/distraction of cleaning. I typically either end or start my workday by cleaning. Not doing a full clean, but just doing one task a day, like vacuuming a bedroom, cleaning the kitchen, doing a load of laundry, or cleaning the bathroom counter, and cycling through them regularly. Spending that 5 – 15 minutes a day keeps everything clean, so I have no excuse not to focus on work.

Your Work Space

Battlestation Gastropod – one of many work stations

This is one area where I feel like my advice might be different. I’ve never really created a work space for myself. My work space has just depended on my tasks. We have a desk and office chair set up in each of our two bedrooms, and while I often worked in the more “office-like” one, I was just as content to work from the kitchen table, couch, or even one of the beds. This was partially because my cat, who loved to hang out with me in the “office”, died unexpectedly and I found it painful to work in that space without him. But I also like the variety. I have sciatica, so switching up how I’m sitting is helpful. I also live in Canada where the days in the winter are very short, so I move with the sun to the place with the best lighting.

So, while having a dedicated office space might work for some, don’t feel bad if you like moving around. Taking advantage of sunlight and soaking up those rays (or avoiding glare) will mentally help your workflow. If you have to work around a partner or roommate (my husband has currently taken over the “office”), work together and communicate your needs clearly so that you can make a plan that is fair to everyone. If you can’t move around, have things that make you happy and calm within eyesight. For me, this is the plants and bird feeders outside our windows.

Invest in a Whiteboard

Whiteboard and colored markers are the best

I purchased a large whiteboard (~2 x 3 feet) when I started writing my dissertation, and my only regret was that I didn’t do it sooner! I also invested in a bunch of colored whiteboard markers because color coding helps me organize my thoughts. I like to think of my whiteboard as my rough notebook/sketchpad. The ability to jot down ideas or diagrams, and easily erase or modify them is so helpful. Sometimes if I am struggling with an idea, I’ll write it out again and again, erasing or modifying as necessary. Once I have it the way I want it, I’ll either write it down in my notebook, type it into a word document, or make the figure on my computer. We get so used to having access to whiteboards at a university that this was one tool I couldn’t live without.

Making a “Plan”

I use the word “plan” loosely here, because no matter what plan or tasks you set out for yourself, it’s hard to stick to those goals exactly, so flexibility here is key. Working from home is tough, and not everything will go perfectly, even for someone seasoned like myself. Mentally, not beating yourself up if everything doesn’t go how you expect is important for your productivity. Not every day will be great. But by trying to keep some of your same organizational tools, this will help you feel more normal and productive, especially in a work space that is also your home. Again, this is one of the reasons I love my whiteboard. If I have to change the plan, it’s super easy to do so, and there’s no “evidence” of the change (unlike if you wrote something down with a pen).

Write out everything you need to get done, and organize it how you see fit. I color code tasks and sort them by day of the week. I usually have fewer and fewer tasks towards the end of the week because I know stuff from the previous days with inevitably trickle over. I also tend to repeat tasks several days in a row in case I don’t get to them on one day, or they take longer than I expect. Google Calendar is another friend. If you have other organizational tools you use, keep implementing them. Having structure (but one that allows some flexibility) is really important.

Creating a “Routine”

Again, try to be flexible here because some days are going to be harder than others. But if you can keep your regular routine going, that should help. For me, it’s setting an alarm and having breakfast and coffee with my husband. He likes to watch the news, but sometimes this stresses me out, so if I know I’m not feeling the news that day, I’ll go do something else, like clean, or play with the cat. Once the breakfast dishes are done, it’s time to work!

I like to start out the day by making a “to do” list on my whiteboard, and I will prioritize those tasks. I will then always try to make myself do the most difficult task first because if I can accomplish that, it will energize me for the rest of the day because at least I did something productive! For most of us, that task is probably writing. I’ve noticed that the days where I’ve been most productive are the days where I’ve started out with an hour or two of writing and reading articles in the morning. Even if I only manage to get a paragraph written, I will be more productive with other tasks if I know I got something on the page. Forcing yourself to write daily will also help the task of manuscript/thesis/dissertation writing seem much more manageable. It doesn’t matter if the writing is “bad”, getting it on the page is the hardest part.

Studious kitty Widget

Taking regular breaks is also important. For me, I’ll work for a couple of hours, then play with my cat for a bit, work some more, and then make lunch. I like to have a hot shower as my mid-day break because 1) pajamas and housecoats in the morning are awesome, 2) I need to stop and stretch my legs to avoid sciatic issues, and 3) I usually have an idea I need to mull over by mid-day, and thinking about it in the shower/tub is helpful. Then I will work again for a couple of hours, take another break to play with the cat, and then keep working. Because I live in Canada, I didn’t really feel like going outside for walks most days during the dead of winter, but now that it is “nicer” outside (not -20º C), I will usually go for a walk in the afternoon. I also have a bike trainer that I try to use, but I will admit that when I was deep into my dissertation-writing stages, I didn’t use it as much as I should have. If you have an activity tracker, these are helpful in maintaining an active routine. I wish I’d invested in one sooner. But the important thing is to not beat yourself up if you can’t keep up with a physical routine every day. 

One other thing I’ll say about routines is that having something to take care of is really helpful. Even if it is just a houseplant or a bird feeder, having some sense of responsibility to take care of something will help. For me, it’s a cat and plants. Pets will have routines that you might be forced to follow, whether it’s taking them for walks, or just feeding and cleaning up after them. When our cat died unexpectedly, working from home suddenly became a lot harder, so my sister bought me a bunch of plants and that helped. I also make a patio garden in the summer. My husband eventually convinced me to get another cat, and while I was very resistant, I’m glad we did it. She’s very active, so we have to play with her for at least a half hour every night before bed, or she’ll keep us up. She also has natural rhythms that start to shape your day.

Put Distractions Away

Very helpful coworker May.

This is an obvious one, but easier said than done. For me, it’s my phone and email. I try to check my email only once an hour, and will leave my phone in a different room. If TV becomes a temptation, I will go and work in a different room away from the TV. Food is another easy distraction. I try to have set meals and snack breaks. I allow myself breakfast, lunch, and two snack breaks during the day. I can take these whenever I want, but I normally only get two. I try to drink lots of water, coffee, and tea throughout the day instead. I can take as many water or tea breaks as I want. If I’m having a stressful or long day, I will add a third snack break in too. I try not to be too hard on myself – writing requires fuel! Planning out groceries, especially snacky foods, is important when working from home. You’re going to need and want snacks, so make sure they are at the ready, but try to be mindful of snacks and build them into your routine.

Maintain Regular Communication and Accountability

Whether it’s your PI, boss, or a trusted mentor, maintaining a regular line of communication is really important to help you feel like you are keeping to some kind of schedule. While communication is a two-way street, your advisor might be juggling their own responsibilities, especially in such an unusual situation, so the responsibility is on you to be clear in what you need. Ultimately, it’s your degree/project. In my advisor’s lab, we had weekly lab meetings which I joined via Skype. I also talked with my advisor at least once every two weeks on the phone for a couple of hours to keep him updated, work through any problems, and talk about goals for the upcoming weeks. These meetings were something that I initiated (although he’d check in regularly). Again, it was my degree, so it was my responsibility. When you are working remotely, people can’t see what you are doing, so having a dedicated time to share and update your supervisors is important, both for them to see how you are doing, but also for you to maintain some accountability. Having regular communication is also key to avoid feelings of isolation.

Practicing Self-Care

Yoda I crocheted for my advisor – BEFORE the Mandalorian existed

Set aside time each day to relax or do something you enjoy. Again, obvious, but sometimes challenging when you work and live in the same space. For me, when my husband stops working, I do too (most of the time, anyway). We will make supper together, watch TV for a bit, and I will knit or crochet. He might go for a run and I’ll go for a walk. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll take an extra long lunch break, or do some baking. In the summer, I like to work on my patio garden and go for bike rides. I also volunteer for a couple of organizations where I write or post content for their social media platforms. I’m also trying to institute bedtime reading.

Basically, if there’s something that makes you happy, make sure to dedicate time for it each day. Build it into your routine.

If It’s Not Working, Don’t Force It

Not everything will work, so be kind to yourself. I’ve been working from home for years now, and I still have days where I feel like I get next to nothing done. If I feel like I’m having a bad day, there are a few different things I will try. The most important thing is not to force yourself to do something if it doesn’t feel like it’s working. It won’t work and you’ll just end up feeling miserable. For example, if I am struggling with writing a discussion section, I’ll try to switch to writing or editing something easier, like the methods or results. If I’m not feeling the writing at all, I will switch to an easier task, like working on some R code, data entry, or even backing up and organizing my files. Whatever makes you feel like you’re still getting something accomplished, because even backing up data is important (speaking of, have you backed up your data recently? If not, stop reading this and go do it now!).

My sad little patio garden.

If all else fails, it’s OK to take a big break, or even quit early sometimes. The grad-school/academic guilt can be tough sometimes, but if you’re feeling that lousy, you probably really need the break. And you’ll probably be more productive the next day. Put it this way: how many 12+ hour days have you put in? Probably quite a few. So if you have a day where you only get 2 or 3 hours of work done, it will all balance out in the end. After my cat died, I hardly did anything other than binge RuPaul’s Drag Race for a month. But I still defended on time, and passed with flying colors. Even if you have a lousy couple of days, or maybe even a couple of weeks, my best advice is the saying: “Be like a dog. Just kick some grass over it and move on.” Be patient with yourself. Tomorrow is a new day.

Lastly, try to enjoy it. Go to bed early. Sleep in. You don’t have to commute anymore! Cuddle pets or loved ones. Call your long-distance bestie or family member. They’re probably lonely too. And don’t forget: you will get the work done, and you get to do it in your comfy clothes!