Roxanne Armfield, Vertebrate Palaeontologist, Ph.D. Candidate

Hi folks, I’m Roxanne and I’m currently a PhD candidate over at Yale University in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. As a vertebrate palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, I spend a lot of my time wondering “how on earth did snakes get to be so damn weird?” and use tools from various scientific disciplines to answer different aspects of this question.

Individual in the middle of the frame in the foreground holding a lightly colored snake while smiling. Background is a forested looking setting.
Apparently you can’t be a snake palaeontologist without having a fancy photo of you holding your study organism, so here’s me with an adorable python. 

What research are you doing for your PhD?

My PhD research focuses on the question “why are snake skulls the way they are?”

Most modern snakes feed in a very unusual way – they are able to consume prey items significantly larger than the size of their own heads, and do so without chewing or breaking their food up into smaller pieces. If a human were to do this, it would be like swallowing an entire chocolate cake whole instead of cutting it up into slices first. Modern snakes can also control the left side of their face independently to the right side. This enables them to direct their skull bones in way which produces a tooth-laden conveyer belt motion that drags food into their mouths. Pretty useful when you have no hands to help you eat! These behaviours are only possible due to the unique way modern snake skulls are built – but how these novel anatomical features have arisen over evolutionary time is not yet well understood. When in geological history did these key anatomical changes happen? Were some parts of snake anatomy only able to change once other features had evolved, or been lost? Are there compromises to having a flexible skull, such as limiting the type of prey snakes can eat, or how strong their bite force is? 

To answer these questions, I spend a lot of my time examining snake fossils. The snake fossil record is pretty sparse, especially if you are looking for skull material, but through a combination of new fieldwork sites and rummaging around museum collections, we sometimes get lucky! These fossils help us understand what regions of the snake skull have changed over 60(+) million years, when in geological time modern groups of snakes first appeared, and how small changes in anatomy can lead to big differences in an animal’s feeding behaviour.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? I grew up in the UK and began my university education there too. When it came to picking a place to conduct PhD research, I was excited about the possibility of working abroad, and being able to explore fieldwork in new landscapes and biomes than I was used to. I love that being a scientist can take you anywhere in the world, and you get to discover new places and cultures, whilst still having geeky conversations with folks from different backgrounds to my own.

As a kid, I was one of those people who was always asking the questions and trying to link together what I knew of the natural world. Learning new things relating to prehistoric life and ancient environments was what brought the most joy.
As a first-generation student, the concept of going to university was pretty alien, and at that stage in my life, I don’t think I’d even met a scientist who wasn’t one of my high school teachers. I deliberately picked an undergraduate degree which would let me continue to explore multiple science disciplines which ‘traditionally’ were not considered to compliment each other: geology, developmental biology, and evolution and behaviour. By then I knew I loved science but did not want to give up asking questions from these different perspectives. I never thought I’d actually become a palaeontologist – it was one of those impossible dream professions, no different from the musings of a 5-year-old who wants to grow up and become a princess, or a steam train. Midway through undergrad one of my guidance tutors reassured me that not only was palaeontology ‘a real job’ but something that I could build a career in too. He encouraged me to reach out to palaeontology professors around the UK; some of which offered me summer research positions in their labs. After getting a taste of doing research full-time, I knew I wanted that to be a large part of my vocation. 

Left side of image has an individual looking thoughtfully into an open drawer that contains small fossils. The right side is a row of cabinets with one open allowing access to the drawers.
Rummaging around palaeontology collections, searching for one cranial bone amongst hundreds of snake vertebrae.
Series of jars of various sizes and shapes all with biological material, specifically snakes. The jars are on a metal shelving unit with labels describing the content of the jars.
Inside a museum herpetology collection: shelves lined with jars of modern snakes preserved in alcohol. These are ideal for comparing modern snake anatomy to that of fossil snakes.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? It’s never too early to build yourself a network of scientists. Introduce yourself to researchers whose work you enjoy, respect or are excited to ask questions about. Whilst this can seem daunting, there’s a lot of empathy in the field. For every experienced academic, there was once a shy undergraduate feeling out of their depth – so those scientists worth talking to will be kind to someone new to academia. The vast majority of modern research is not possible without collaborating with others – so find scientists who value you as a researcher and a thinker, irrespective of your ‘academic age’ or academic position. These are the folks you will likely grow the most from, and also have the most fun being a scientist with.  

Background and foreground is a gray rocky area. Left hand size has an individual in field gear with sunglasses on their head. They are smiling. Next to them in the center of the image is a fossil that they are apparently removing rock material from.
Excavating part of a fossil temnospondyl during fieldwork (not a snake, but equally cool). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more about Jacqueline on their department webpage.

Gabrielle Scrogham, Marine Ecologist

Tell us a little bit about yourself. I have a Bachelors in Marine Biology and love to admire nature and the fascinating designs evolution and the planet have produced. I do art in my downtime, specifically painting, although I have interests in ceramics, woodworking, and sculpture. Most of my inspiration for art comes from interesting animals or landscapes. Swimming, snorkeling, and hiking are things I love to do given the opportunity. I like to write, discuss philosophy, and have been a martial artist for over ten years. 

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I am a Geology Master’s student at the University of South Florida, Tampa. I study food webs in aquatic environments and the transfer of different nutrients and metals between fish species. I am interested in using geochemical methods and data to look at ecological relationships. Specifically, I analyze tissue samples and look at proportions of different compounds to determine what level of predator they are and how quickly those chemical signals can change over time. I am also hoping to incorporate computer programming into my research by developing data processing code that can be used by any researchers using similar data. 

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My favorite aspects of science are the creative challenges associated with it, such as experimental design and problem solving, and the opportunity to constantly be learning new things. In environmental science, there are multiple fields that intersect including biology, chemistry, geology, physics, ecology, and so on—in my research, I am constantly reading and learning about these things as part of my job. I was always interested in science as a kid, and specifically ocean life. Curiosity about how those organisms lived and what determined how much or how little we knew of them made me want to study science. 

Gabrielle Scrogham in mangrove swamp with field gear, including quadrat, meter stick, and jellyfish resting on platform for measuring.
Gabrielle Scrogham in a mangrove swamp with field gear, including quadrat, meter stick, and jellyfish resting on platform for measuring.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? I am hoping that the methods I am studying for my thesis can be applied to a variety of fields, including future geochemistry work, conservation biology, and fisheries management. One advantage to the geochemical methods I use, which include mass spectrometry, is that small sample sizes can be used. This means that we can monitor live fish populations without using lethal methods. The techniques are being studied with fish populations, but these can hypothetically also be applied to other biological systems, to medical research, and to different subfields of geology. 

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My biggest advice for other people (like me) who are beginning or early-on in their academic careers would be to focus on what you find interesting, even if you don’t have the ability to study that right away. Part of that drive or curiosity, in my mind, is critical to long-term success in science. My second piece of advice would be to learn as many skills as possible. Outside of books and coursework, knowing things like knowing how to use hardware tools or how to write computer code can be very useful. Knowing PVC plumbing can help with knowing how to put together an aquarium for study animals—and it’s stressful to only be learning it once the skill is needed immediately. Diversity in experience is also something that generally helps with confidence and being able to find a place to make yourself useful. 

Background: blurry beach with some greenery in the far back. Foreground: Gabrielle Scrogham at beach examining a sea star and brittle star.
Gabrielle Scrogham at a beach examining a sea star and brittle star.

Eleanor Shippen, Anthropology B.A. Undergraduate Student

Background: A tree line and body of water in the far back. Closer up there is a wooden bridge with a rocky shoreline with a few people and some equipment. Foreground: Eleanor smiling in a headband and wearing waders holding a small stone artifact
A bilface lithic I uncovered while wet screening at the 2022 UVic Archaeology Field School in Barkley Sound, British Columbia.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hello! My name is Eleanor Shippen (she/her). I’m a fourth-year student from Nashville, Tennessee studying anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. My interests include public history, ecology, and applied anthropology. I am a huge history buff and an avid fan of state and national parks. When I’m not hiking or reading every single interpretive sign at these parks, I am adding another cancellation stamp to my national park passport; so far, I have over sixty! In my free time, I enjoy volunteering in the Victoria community, visiting my local library, collaging, and getting cozy at home with a good cup of tea.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? Throughout the duration of my degree, I’ve had several incredible opportunities to engage in various scientific fields. These include archaeology, archival preservation, marine ecology, and ecosystem restoration. As an anthropology student, I have taken classes in biological anthropology, environmental history, biology, archaeology, artifact curation, and medical anthropology. These have introduced me to a wide range of scientific focuses and applications. I am fascinated by the close relationship history and science have and all of these experiences have highlighted how interconnected those fields can be. In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I am hoping to examine how historical knowledge can be utilized in educating the public on natural landscapes through my coursework and volunteering. While my goal to earn an M.A. degree in Public History situates my career more within the history field, I aim to continue my involvement in ecological and environmental studies in my work. I would love to see how community science and public history could be further incorporated together in education.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My parents encouraged me and my sister to be curious and explore the world around us from a young age. Their support on family camping trips, during our visits to science centers, and when I entered my middle school magnetometry project into my state science fair gave me the confidence to take A.P Environmental Science in high school and continue exploring science into my undergraduate. I would recommend every college student take at least one science class in their first year – it helped me contextualize the required classes for my degree. I have a love for learning and getting outdoors that has led me to a variety of amazing, hands-on experiences in science. The part I love the most about being involved with science is the joy that comes with engaging holistically with the natural world and sharing your knowledge with others. Experiential learning in nature has changed how I think about the relationship between humans and the world, but it’s also shown me how enjoyable getting involved can be. For myself, this looks like volunteering at a local nature sanctuary, taking hikes with my friends and family, and practicing shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), the Japanese concept of immersing oneself in nature to relax.

Background: a cloudy blue sky with the rolling Appalachian mountains covered in green. Foreground: Eleanor standing on a grassy knoll with arms spread wide smiling.
Myself at Roan Mountain State Park while participating in the 2018 Governor’s School for the Scientific Exploration of Tennessee Heritage.

Do you engage in community science? How does your work contribute to the betterment of society? As a student, I would categorize the majority of the scientific work I have participated in as community science. My contributions have allowed scientists to continue their research and have helped ecosystems thrive. It has also shown me I have the ability to help make tangible change. In an ideal world, science benefits both the academic community and the world. I have been privileged enough to have participated in projects that have worked to accomplish that goal.

This summer I participated in the UVic Archaeology Field School in Barkley Sound, a collaborative project between the University of Victoria, the Tseshaht First Nation, Parks Canada, and Bamfield Marine Science Centre. While archaeology was the project’s focus, our professors and Tseshaht representatives brought Tseshaht history, a respect for the lands and ecosystems we excavated within, and considerations of colonialism’s impact to the forefront of our work. This intentional contextualization of our archaeological efforts changed how I approached my goals for the field school. I realized I was one part of a larger, impactful, and uniquely collaborative five-year project. During the six weeks of the field school, my peers and I endeavored to help Tseshaht First Nation community members expand their knowledge of their history and land while also assisting archaeologists studying the Barkley Sound region and the Pacific Northwest as a whole. The report I wrote summarizing my excavation unit throughout the project’s duration will be kept by the Bamfield Marine Science Centre for use by future researchers. This incredible experience inspired me to learn more about the natural history of Vancouver Island, which led me to volunteer at the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary in Victoria, B.C. Each week I remove invasive plants and restore ecosystems in the sanctuary while discussing conservation and wildlife science with fellow volunteers. I wouldn’t consider my involvement in scientific fields to be the cause of any substantial betterment of society. I do, however, believe significant change is made possible by individuals coming together and doing the best they can the most they can to help, and I try to do just that every day.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My go-to piece of advice about college is that it is what you make of it – I would say the exact same about science. During the completion of my degree, I’ve learned a multitude of life lessons that will help me in my future career and the rest of my life. Here are a few: get involved and stay involved, continue to ask questions, and you should always give intention and critical thought to whatever you are doing. Remind yourself what inspired/interested/got your heart pumping about science and hold onto that! It will help guide you through wherever you are in your life.

Ella Halbert, Undergraduate Student, Biology and Hispanic Studies B.A.

I’m holding a praying mantis found near the biological station where I completed my research.

Hello! My name is Ella Halbert (she/her/hers) and I’m from Nashville, Tennessee. I am a fourth year Biology and Hispanic Studies major at Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH. I’m interested in disease ecology, epidemiology, and human health. Outside of academics, I love doing anything outdoors, particularly playing sand volleyball and going on hikes. I also sing in an a cappella group and am part of a traditional Japanese Taiko drumming group.

My favorite part about being a scientist is getting to explore questions that interest me. I’m a very hands-on learner, so research has been a great way for me to learn about the world. My most recent research began in the summer of 2022 with a National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Mountain Lake Biological Station (MLBS) in Pembroke, VA. I was drawn to Dr. Chloé Lahondère’s work with mosquito thermal biology and interactions with plants and herpetofauna because of the wide possibility for projects. I joined a project that examines the interaction between Culex territans, a mosquito species present throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and its amphibian hosts. That’s right, this mosquito species feeds exclusively on amphibians (and the occasional reptile), and it couldn’t care less about humans!

Horton Pond was one of my sample sites at Mountain Lake Biological Station.

More specifically, I studied the interactions between Cx. territans mosquitoes and their frog hosts to determine what diseases they vector in that environment. So far, my work has focused on their potential as vectors of the Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) fungus, which causes chytridiomycosis, a deadly disease, in amphibians. The chytrid fungus is responsible for the decline of amphibian populations around the globe, so understanding how this disease is spread in the environment is critical. There is evidence that suggests that when a Cx. territans mosquito lands on a frog, it has the capability to pick up Bd spores and transfer them to its next host. By swabbing the frog population and testing the mosquito population in the same habitat, I was able to compare rates of Bd infection among species and get a better picture of how Bd is spreading in that habitat.

Here I am using the Giant Aspirator to vacuum up mosquitoes from their resting spots in the vegetation by a pond.

I’ve always loved science, even before I knew what it was. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to know everything there was to know about dinosaurs, and I was curious about why we lost those species 65 million years ago. I loved bugs, and asked for Eyewitness books for my birthday. Over the years, as I was formally introduced to science, I developed a strong desire to know more and to discover how the natural world works.

In high school, I participated in a program called the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt (SSMV). One day each week, instead of attending my high school courses, I attended lectures and participated in hands-on science projects with my cohort at Vanderbilt University. This four-year long experience opened my eyes to the stunning variety that exists within STEM, and through this program I participated in several summer sessions that emphasized research. The SSMV solidified my interest in science and gave me a platform to engage with subjects that had fascinated me for so long.

I matriculated into Oberlin College in 2019 and declared my Biology major, eager to continue my exploration of the natural world. In the summer of 2021, I joined Professor Mary Garvin’s research lab at Oberlin. I investigated the role of nest mites in overwintering Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus in Northeast Ohio. With the team, I worked to elucidate the mechanism that allows this disease to persist through the cold, harsh winters of Ohio using DNA and RNA extraction techniques. This experience made me more curious about how ecology and diseases interact and steered my interests towards a summer research internship in the summer of 2022.

My current research is part of an ongoing project at MLBS that seeks to understand how Culex territans, a mosquito species that feeds on cold-blooded hosts, locates and interacts with its hosts. This mosquito’s preference for cold-blooded hosts is intriguing and poorly understood, and by learning how Cx. territans interacts with its hosts, we can provide insight into how mosquito host-seeking behavior evolved. This will ultimately inform current-day disease control strategies regarding mosquito-borne pathogens.

My advice for up and coming scientists is to seek out mentors! Having an experienced scientist in your corner makes a world of difference, and the best research experiences I’ve had were all facilitated by incredible mentors who really took the time to teach me what they knew. The strong interpersonal connections I’ve made in science are what keep me going when an experiment fails or I lose a bunch of data, both of which are annoyingly common occurrences in science! So my best advice is to find people who will support you on the best and worst days of your journey in research!

My final REU project presentation at Mountain Lake Biological Station.

Jamie Stearns, Fossil Preparator and Museum Educator

Tell us a little bit about yourself. My name is Jamie Stearns. I am 34 years old, a trans woman, interested in gaming, sci-fi and fantasy, and have been with my spouse Mariah for six years. I volunteer at the Arizona Museum of Natural History as a fossil preparator and a museum educator.

Foreground: Jamie standing in a fossil gallery wearing a blue shift and holding a purse. Background: a mounted tyrannosaur skeleton in an action posture.
Jamie with a tyrannosaur.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? As a fossil preparator, I spend a lot of time preparing fossils in the laboratory after they have come in from the field. This typically involves opening up plaster field jackets used to transport specimens to the lab and carefully separating the specimens inside from the surrounding rock, or matrix. This can involve anything from dental picks and brushes to air scribes. To preserve specimens for the museum’s collections, I use special types of glue to stabilize anything fragile and to put broken pieces of a specimen back together. Sometimes support jackets have to be constructed for irregularly-shaped specimens. I also screen wash matrix from the fossil sites and sort through it for microfossils, and I occasionally help out in the field as well.

As a museum educator, I explain the significance of specimens to visitors and answer any questions they may have about what they are seeing. I have a number of smaller specimens used in demonstrations where visitors can handle and discuss them; everything from a Tyrannosaurus rex tooth cast to an ammonite preserved in mudstone.

Jamie sitting at the base of a mastodon skeleton mount in a large room.
Jamie with a mastodon.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My interest in paleontology goes back to when I was only five years old. My family had just moved to the Washington, DC area a few months before, and I was in preschool when February 1993 was declared to be “Dinosaur Month”. In the process, I got my hands on a copy of National Geographic with a double feature on dinosaurs. I was immediately fascinated by all these different creatures with their sharp teeth, long necks, armor plates, horns, and crests and wanted more. I eagerly read through all the dinosaur books at the library and watched the latest documentaries, absorbing as much knowledge as I could find. My family took me to see the fossil halls at the Smithsonian afterwards where I could actually see them in person, too. At one point I even called my kindergarten teacher out when she said that dinosaurs were cold-blooded. Although I was exclusively a dinosaur nerd throughout primary school, I worked at a lot of different museums and fossil sites in and shortly after college, which helped me see a bigger picture; as amazing as dinosaurs were, no less impressive were the reptiles that shared the earth with them, or the variety of mammals that came later.

This interest led me into a bit of an uncomfortable spot with some of the Evangelical Christian groups I was with in middle and high school, where I initially thought nobody could possibly believe in a literal six-day creation due to all the evidence against it. It turns out, of course, that most of them did believe that the geological timeline I had come to memorize was nothing but lies, made up by people because they didn’t want to believe in God. I couldn’t accept this, and this was only the first point on which I started to disagree with them. I never lost my faith despite that, but given everything I eventually found out about myself, I am not sure what they would think of me now.

Jamie and Mariah with a hadrosaur bone that Jamie prepared.

My favorite part of working at the museum is when I discover something new in the field or uncover something in the lab for the first time. I’m the first person to see this thing in millions of years, and that’s pretty special. I also enjoy being able to share my knowledge and passion about prehistoric creatures and their environment with visitors and seeing them learn new things they hadn’t thought of before.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? My work in fossil preparation helps scientists find out more about what the world of the past was like and what kinds of animals lived back then, and screen washing for microfossils can reveal details of the environment of the time as well. This adds to our understanding of how the earth’s climate changed over time and how life evolved in response to that.

I would like to hope that I have made an impact on those visiting the museum as well. Many people come in with preconceived ideas about prehistoric life and earth’s history, and what I do helps challenge those ideas and get people to think more critically about what they may have read or seen.

Jamie standing behind a table that has a series of fossils set up on display for an educational event. The back wall has a series of educational posters related to natural history.
Jamie doing a fossil demonstration.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Get involved in volunteer work in your field when you have the opportunity. There is probably a local institution of some kind that deals with what you’re interested in, so see if they have any opportunities. It’s an excellent way to get a feel for what working in your field is like, and you can make connections with experts who have already been working in the field too. Don’t lose sight of your goals, and never stop learning.

LGBT and a Scientist

This post was written by an anonymous member in the geosciences who identifies with the LGBT community~

Being part of the LGBT community and a scientist can be a lonely experience. I have been involved with academia in some way since I began my freshman year in 2003. During this time, I have met just six openly queer people in the sciences. This includes my time at three different universities, in four different departments, and at three professional conferences. Of course there were probably others, but where were they? It’s a question that many are asking (Why Is Science So Straight?, Is Science Too Straight?). From what I’ve read, there are about the same number of self-reported LGBT people in the sciences as in any other career field, but they are not as out as some other professions.

Yoder and Mattheis (2015) created an online survey of LGBT people in STEM fields (Queer in STEM) and published their results in the Journal of Homosexuality. A second survey was completed just a few months ago, but the results from the first survey showed: 1) participants were more open about their queerness with family and friends far more so than with colleagues and students, 2) individuals in STEM academia were about as open as those in nonacademic fields, 3) however, people in geosciences, engineering, mathematics, and psychology were less likely to be out than those in life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences. They also found that people belonging to departments with more women were more likely to be out. Lastly, they confirmed that those who belong to departments that are perceived as being accepting and supportive were more likely to be out than those in departments less accepting and supportive.

So we’re out there, but there are many obstacles. Shame, fear, and the other usual suspects keep people in the closet. But in the sciences, there is the old idea that only the research matters, and the personal is not brought into the lab (‘No sexuality please, we’re scientists‘). It may be the there are some LGBT people who don’t care about revealing this aspect of themselves, and it may be indifference, not hostility on the part of their straight peers. Queer scientists are writing about their experiences and bringing awareness of our issues to a larger audience (Why scientists should march with Pride, LGBT in STEM: Progress but still many obstacles).

For me, whether I’m out or not has depended on a lot of variables. When I was an undergraduate in the early to mid-2000s, I was very cautious. As a freshman, only roommate knew, but I let more people know as I got older and made closer friendships. I was pretty comfortable with my bio cohort, but I really panicked at field camp because I just wasn’t sure how they would respond. It became a non-issue, I really worried about it. Grad school was fine, and I actually met other LGBT people in that department for the first time! However, there was an incident that has stayed with me. We were having a discussion about wild times in undergrad, and I told a story about going to the club (a gay one, of course), and one grad student said “Oh my god, everything has to be gay with you! You mention it all the time!” But that’s my life, and it was a gay club, so that is important. I’m still bothered by this.

I’ve been an adjunct for two different departments. With the geology department, I had no issues coming out right away to the faculty. Of course, I knew many of them already, so that helped. I even discussed it a bit with my chair. With the chemistry department, I’ve been very careful. I’m out to only two coworkers, and I don’t see that number changing anytime soon. As I’ve started preparing for new career as a teacher, I’m wondering what it will be like in a high school. There are no state or federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, so I may have to be in the closet again at work.

It’s been interesting writing and researching for this, because it’s made me look back on my time as a student, and I can see the progress we’ve made. The presence of persons who identify with the LGBT community is getting better, and we just have to be as authentic and honest as we can safely be. So if you are LGBT and can’t find anyone else, know that there are other scientists like you, and you will find us eventually!

Citations: Jeremy B. Yoder PhD & Allison Mattheis PhD (2015) Queer in STEM: Workplace Experiences Reported in a National Survey of LGBTQA Individuals in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers, Journal of Homosexuality, 63:1, 1-27, DOI: