Amazon Tree Mortality

Figure 1. Examples of dead and alive trees monitored in the Central Amazon.

Amazonian rainforest tree mortality driven by climate and functional traits

Izabela Aleixo, Darren Norris, Lia Hemeric, Antenor Barbosa, Eduardo Prata, Flávia Costa, & Lourens Poorter

The Problem: Climate scientists are constantly learning and sharing new details about climate change and its possible effects in the future. However, many of the impacts of climate change have already surfaced and revealed the fragility of our ecosystems. Recently, scientists have observed increasing tree mortality in tropical forests, which are some of the most biodiverse and ecologically important places in the world. Could tree mortality be another consequence of climate change–one that’s happening right now? This study by Aleixo and others (2019) explores this possible connection between modern climate change and downfall of tropical forests.

What data were used? This study uses monthly climate and tree mortality records along with about 50 years of observational data in the Amazon rainforest. Climate data include precipitation, temperature, and humidity. Tree mortality data is categorized by specific traits such as wood density (soft or hard), successional position (when a species colonizes a new area), and leaf phenology (deciduous or evergreen).

Figure 2. a–d, Variation in tree mortality (a), precipitation (b), temperature (c) and humidity (d). When analysing the variation in mortality within years, we found that 19% of all deaths occurred in January (analysis of variance, d.f. = 11; P < 0.001). Interestingly, January is one of the wettest months of the year, suggesting that waterlogged soils and storms may enhance mortality. Monthly values (circles), averages (black lines) and 95% confidence intervals (dashed grey lines) over the study period (1965–2016) are shown.

Methods: Aleixo and others (2019) tracked global climate and tree mortality in an area of the Amazon rainforest monthly for one year. They looked for increased tree mortality that aligned with variations in the climate data. They also examined tree mortality of different species traits during significant climate events in the past 50 years. These events include climate anomalies like El Niño or La Niña (click here to learn more about these).

Results: This study found that Amazon tree mortality is driven by climate, but the relationship is complex. For example, droughts can lead to immediate or slow tree death, depending on the mechanisms at play. Additionally, if a tree has harder wood, it is less likely to die during a drought. Aleixo and others (2019) also found that weather events like low rainfall or high temperatures can either immediately enhance tree mortality or cause increased mortality up to two years later. Similar outcomes are associated with years where El Niño or La Niña are particularly extreme. Various species traits may protect trees from dying under certain weather or climate events, but no single Amazon species is completely safe from the effects of climate change.

Why is this study important? As our climate continues to change and weather events become more extreme, the future of our forests remains uncertain. Even the most biodiverse and ecologically robust regions in the world are susceptible to the effects of climate change. This study provides a modern framework for us to understand those effects. From this, scientists can refine dynamic global vegetation models that predict how forests will respond to climate variability in the future.

Citation: Aleixo, I., D. Norris, L. Hemerik, A. Barbosa, E. Prata, F. Costa, and L. Poorter (2019), Amazonian rainforest tree mortality driven by climate and functional traits, Nature Climate Change, 9(5), 384-388, doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0458-0.

Figure 3. Comparisons of the ratios of annual mortality for different functional groups of species, calculated using two classes of wood density (that is, the mortality of soft-wooded species (0.30–0.69 g cm−3) divided by the mortality of hard-wooded species (0.70–1.10 g cm−3)), successional position (that is, the mortality of pioneer species divided by the mortality of late species) and deciduousness (that is, the mortality of evergreen species divided by the mortality of deciduous species) over 52 years and during 5 years of highest peak mortality (the 1982, 1992 and 2016 El Niño droughts, the 1999 La Niña wet year and the 2005 NAO drought). The black line shows where the ratio is equal to 1 (that is, the mortality rate of the two classes is the same). The results of a Pearson’s chi-squared test are shown. Asterisks indicate a significant result (P ≤ 0.05). Annual mortality rates were higher for pioneers compared with late-successional species, for soft compared with hardwood species, and for evergreen compared with deciduous species. When the mortality rates of the functional groups were compared between normal and extreme years, pioneers experienced much higher mortality rates than climax species in the two El Niño and La Niña years. Soft-wooded species experienced much higher mortality rates than hard-wooded species in the El Niño 1982 year. Evergreens experienced much higher mortality rates than deciduous species in the NAO year.

Huge Global Consequences from Melting Ice

Global environmental consequences of twenty-first-century ice-sheet melt

Nicholas R. Golledge, Elizabeth D. Keller, Natalya Gomez, Kaitlin A. Naughten, Jorge Bernales, Luke D. Trusel, and Tamsin L. Edwards
Summarized by Megan Thompson-Munson

Figure 1. Marine-terminating sections of ice sheets lose mass via ice shelf melting and iceberg calving. Ice shelves have ocean water beneath them, which means that they lose mass by melting underneath. They also produce icebergs, which calve off the faces of marine-terminating regions. The black arrow indicates the direction of flow as the ice sheet spreads from its center to its edges.

The problem: Global policymakers rely heavily on scientific studies to inform their decisions about climate-related policies. However, many climate change scenarios outlined in these studies’ models fail to address the ice-ocean-atmosphere feedbacks that may be triggered by ice sheet melting.

What data were used? To incorporate ice-ocean-atmosphere feedbacks in their estimation of climate consequences, the authors use climate models and data from 23 empirical studies. These data include measurements of the changes in total ice mass, surface mass balance, ice shelf melt, and iceberg calving of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.

Total ice mass is simply the volume of ice that makes up the ice sheet. Measuring the change in mass over time tells us whether the ice sheet is shrinking or growing, and at what rate that mass is changing. Spoiler alert: the ice sheets are most definitely shrinking.

A component of the changes to total ice mass is surface mass balance. This concept describes the balance between net accumulation and net ablation occurring on the surface of the ice sheet. The key process in accumulation is snowfall, while ablation is the process of melting. Thus, we can determine surface mass balance by subtracting the amount of melting from the amount of snowfall.

Two other components of determining changes to total ice mass are ice shelf melt and iceberg calving (Figure 1). Ice shelves are areas of the ice sheet that extend off the continent and over ocean water. When they melt, they directly feed the ocean with freshwater that had previously been trapped in frozen form. Similarly, the process of icebergs calving (i.e. when ice chunks separate from a marine-terminating glacier) removes mass from the ice sheet and adds it to the ocean.

Figure 2. The ice-ocean-atmosphere feedback model predicts widespread thinning of the Antarctic (left) and Greenland (right) ice sheets by the year 2100. This image from the study shows the predicted changes in ice sheet thickness, and regionally attributes the mass change to the four different measures of mass loss. The bar charts show the net mass balance (dark blue), surface mass balance (light blue), ice shelf mass balance (yellow), and iceberg calving mass balance (orange). The shading on the maps represents the change in ice thickness. Areas that are shaded red and orange are likely to thin by 2100, while areas in blue are predicted to thicken by 2100.

Methods: The authors input a series of different climate scenarios into a model that predicts the effects of climate warming and ice sheet melting on ice-ocean-atmosphere feedback loops (Figure 2). Their model varies the monthly and yearly climate conditions over a period from 1860 to 2100 to assess the effects of thinning ice sheets. Starting the model in the past means that they can compare the predictions of the model with actual data from the 23 supplementary studies that collectively span 1900 to 2017.

Results: The model scenarios paired with empirical climate studies come to three main conclusions concerning the future thinning of ice sheets. First, as the Greenland Ice Sheet loses mass, the increasing amount of fresh meltwater will slow circulation of the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic meridional overturning ocean circulation (AMOC) is driven by temperature and salt gradients. Thus, a large contribution of cold freshwater would alter the speed of AMOC. Second, as Antarctica continues to deliver meltwater to the ocean, warm water will be trapped below the ocean surface. This creates a positive feedback loop in which Antarctic ice loss will increase from meltwater input to the ocean. Finally, the model predicts that any future ice sheet melt with elevate global temperature variability and contribute an additional 25 centimeters (10 inches) to sea level by the year 2100.

Why is this study important? Our climate is warming, the ice sheets are melting, and the consequences of those changes are substantial. We study past climates to better understand our modern and future climates, and we heavily rely on model predictions to look toward the future. This paper address a key component missing from many climate models (the ice-ocean-atmosphere feedbacks that may result from future ice sheet melting) and shows that some models have underestimated the severity of ice sheet melting consequences. Model predictions are critical tools in global policymaking, so ensuring that those models are comprehensive is essential. Moreover, this paper calls for continued observations of the effects of climate change on ice sheets, oceans, and the atmosphere. Further incorporation of data into models will only help improve their predictions of a future climate that demands new environmental policies.

Citation: Golledge, N.R., Keller, E.D., Gomez, N., Naughten, K.A., Bernales, J., Trusel, L.D., and Edwards, T.L., 2019, Global environmental consequences of twenty-first-century ice-sheet melt: Nature, p. 65-72, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-0889-9.

The Life of a Graduate Student

Megan here-

Heading home for the holidays always provides a nice break from being a graduate student–no classes, no grading, no lab work. But being home around family and friends still involves at least thinking about graduate school and answering the many questions concerning what I study, or what I do every day, or most frustrating: when I plan to finish school. Thus, I give you this introduction to life as a graduate student in which I address the most common questions I’ve received. Of course, this is just one student’s experience and every graduate experience varies based on the school, the program, the advisor, etc. Regardless, I hope this provides a small gleam of insight into the simultaneously exciting and boring life of a graduate student.

“What kind of classes do you take?”

My corner of the office where I have a desk, a monitor to connect with my laptop, and piles of work to complete. The majority of my day is spent either in here or in class.
Every graduate student’s course load varies depending on their area of focus, their university’s available classes, and their advisor. I study glaciology, which means that a strong understanding of math and physics are key to my research. Thus far, I’ve taken three math courses as a graduate student, on top of the required calculus at my undergraduate university. Aside from those, I’ve taken a handful of courses in my own Department of Geology & Geophysics, which range from Paleoclimates to Advanced Data Analysis. I’ve found that choosing classes has required an interdisciplinary approach that extends beyond pure glaciology.

“What do you actually do every day?”

I love this question because it makes me pause and consider what I do and accomplish on a daily basis. I even tried to track my daily habits and activities in order to better explain what I do. Turns out I’m not very good at tracking as I quit writing things down on the second day. However, here is what a typical Monday looked like during the Fall 2018 semester:


    08:45 – Bike to campus
    09:00 – Differential Equations
    10:00 – Do homework while holding office hours
    11:00 – Meet with professor who teaches the class I TA
    11:30 – Homework and read paper for weekly reading group on Tuesday
    15:00 – Work on research (write code, organize and look at data)
    17:00 – Bike home
    18:00 – Pottery class
    20:00 – Finish any remaining homework

Every day is a bit different depending on classes, homework, and meetings. Sometimes I have a nice, normal, 8-hour day and sometimes I’m in my office and working in the lab for 12 hours. Classes and homework, teaching labs, and working on my own research project comprise the majority of my time each day. I often have to work at least one day of the weekend, if not both. However, finding some degree of personal time is important to me. An occasional pottery class, ski trip, or yoga class keeps me happy and balanced.

“You must enjoy your long winter and summer breaks; what plans do you have?”

Sure, my winter break is six weeks long and the summer is two to three months without classes. Unfortunately that does not mean no research or lab work or reading papers. Those long breaks are often the times when my research productivity is highest because my schedule is void of classes and homework. The summer is also an excellent time for field work in Greenland, which means that a full month of my summer is spent abroad. I even spent an extra two weeks of my summer doing field with in California with a fellow graduate student. Breaks tend to be very busy and productive times with the occasional vacation mixed in.

“When will you finish your master’s?”

I don’t know. And many other students are also unsure. In my particular department, a master’s project usually takes two to three years and is thesis-based. This means that there are a required number of course credits a student must take; but ultimately, finishing a degree is contingent upon completing an adequate research project, writing a thesis, and defending that thesis. Research projects are not always straightforward, and often require learning new computer programs or lab techniques. The data I work with is collected and processed, so now I’m in the analysis stage. Assuming the analysis goes well, the next step will be writing my thesis and finally defending it. The potential for issues to arise or things to simply take longer than expected makes setting an actual end date nearly impossible. I usually have a basic timeline in my head, but I’m far too uncertain to divulge should it change.

“What are you going to do with your degree? Are you going to get a PhD next?”

Geoscience industries where graduating students in 2017 have accepted a job related to their field of study. The largest chosen industry for Bachelor’s students is environmental science; for Master’s students, the federal government and oil and gas industry are the largest; and for PhD students, over half of the graduates choose to work at a 4-year university. Source: Wilson, C. Status of Recent Geosciences Graduates, 2017. American Geosciences Industry.
Again, I’m not really sure. Thinking too far ahead tends to make me anxious about the present day. Until I know when I’ll finish, I’m not too keen on looking for jobs or applying to future programs. That said, I always have some rudimentary idea of what I hope to do upon finishing my master’s. Getting a job in geology or a related field is likely my next big goal. I enjoyed my internship with the National Park Service, which offers a variety of education and geosciences jobs. Environmental consulting is a popular path among geoscientists, as is environmental education. Any of these types of jobs could be a good fit for me, but ultimately I do want to pursue a PhD and stay in academia–just not quite yet. A year or two of not being in school could be an excellent opportunity to explore other paths or options. I went straight from high school to college, and straight from that to my master’s. That means I’ve been in school for two straight decades–a terrifying yet remarkable thought. I think that I could benefit from an academic break and see what else the world can offer to a geoscientist.

Field Work on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Part 2

Part 2: An Attempt at Science

Megan here-

If you haven’t read Part 1 of my Greenland field work experience, check it out here! If you have read it, you’re probably wondering what research we actually worked on for those three chilly weeks. What were our research goals? What type of data did we collect? And how did we collect that data? To answer those questions, I give you Part 2: An Attempt at Science.

The University of Wyoming and University of Montana’s glaciology group has become highly involved in Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) research over the past decade. Because the ice sheet has become of critical importance in our warming climate, many scientists are trying to better understand the dynamics of the GrIS. Our collaborative group asks questions such as, how does meltwater move through the ice sheet? What mechanisms are involved in ice sheet movement? Or, what conditions lay beneath the ice? Answers to these questions help us to better understand GrIS dynamics in a changing climate.

Figure 1. Glaciers are divided into different regions based on the processes and conditions of those areas. The ELA is the equilibrium line altitude where there is no net accumulation or melting. The ablation zone is at lower altitudes and defines the margins of the ice sheet where melting occurs. In contrast, the accumulation zone defines the area where there is net accumulation of snow. Within this zone is the percolation zone, where there is some melting and we see extensive layers of firn.

For this field season, we were mostly concerned with the first of those questions. More specifically, we ask: what is the fate of meltwater in the percolation zone? To better understand what the percolation zone is, let’s take a look at the different regions or zones of a glacier (Figure 1). Any glacier (or ice sheet) is divided into two main parts: the ablation zone and the accumulation zone. The ablation zone defines the lower elevations where there is net melting. In other words, over a year-long period this region has lost mass. The opposite is the accumulation zone. Here, there is net gain in mass due to snowfall. These two zones are divided by the equilibrium line altitude (ELA) where the amounts of accumulation and melting are equal. This may seem straightforward at first glance, but a rather unusual region exists within the accumulation zone. Just higher in elevation than the ELA, there is a section of the glacier where snow melts and percolates into the firn. Firn is just altered and compacted snow. We’re curious about the fate of meltwater in the percolation zone’s firn. When snow melts to water, does it flow into the firn and refreeze? Does it percolate all the way down to the glacial ice layers? Or does it runoff toward the terminus (“the snout”) of the glacier and reach the ocean?

Figure 2. We used a hot water drill to penetrate the upper 100 meters of the firn at our study site. The drillstem is attached to a long hose, which carries hundreds of gallons of hot water from a tub to the borehole. As the hot water is blasted at the cold firn, it melts the firn and creates a borehole.

To answer these questions, we used a variety of research techniques that look at the structure and temperature of the firn throughout the full depth of the percolation zone, which is thought to be less than 100 meters thick in this area. The five principle tools we used were coring, hot water drilling, videography, temperature sensors, and radar. Coring involves extracting long cylinders of snow, firn, and ice from the ground below us, and then logging the densities and structures of the core. To reach greater depths than with coring, we used a hot water drill to inject hot water into the ground and create a borehole (Figure 2). Once we had a completed 100-meter borehole, we extended a video camera down the hole to visual identify interesting structures (e.g. ice layers) in the firn. In both the hot water-drilled boreholes and the boreholes remaining from coring, we installed long strings of temperature sensors that measure and record the firn temperatures at increasing depths. These temperature data will be recorded for the next year or two, so we will return next summer to collect the data. The final technique we use, ground-penetrating radar, provides insight into the firn layers below our feet. By transmitting radio waves into the ground and then receiving the waves, we can observe variations in firn density and estimate water content. Together, these five techniques provide a means to better understand the behavior of meltwater in the percolation zone.

Before arriving in Greenland, I was highly intimidated by all of the research techniques we had planned to use. I had never been involved in a full field season, never cored or drilled firn, and never even stepped on a glacier for that matter. However, I found that the best way to learn something is to actually just try doing it. With the guidance of a patient and knowledgeable advisor, I learned more than I thought was possible in three short weeks. Being in the field provides such an excellent opportunity to take an immersive approach to science: living, working, and learning in the presence of what you study.

Field Work on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Part 1

Part 1: Living in an Unlivable Place

Megan here-

The tent glows orange as the sun shines in, waking me up to a cold, crisp morning. Only, it’s not really morning yet. It’s 3:00 AM and far from breakfast time. The wind rattles the thin flaps of my tent, reminding me of the powerful cold outside of my warm haven. This is the Greenland Ice Sheet. This is the icy expanse where the summer sun barely sets, the temperatures are well below freezing, and the wind can numb your face. This is also where I work.

I recently returned from three weeks of field work on the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) where I helped collect data for the University of Wyoming and the University of Montana’s glaciology group. Our collaborative group consists of two lead professors (one at each university) and a handful of graduate students, postdocs, and associates. This year, six of us flew to Greenland to collect data for our ongoing study of ice sheet dynamics. This was my first field season on the GrIS, and it was like no other experience I have ever had.

Where did we go?

Nestled between the Arctic and the Atlantic Oceans lies an icy mecca for glaciologists: Greenland. Greenland is an island almost entirely covered by an ice sheet, which is a body of glacier ice that covers a very large area (greater than 50,000 square kilometers). Today, ice sheets blanket both Antarctica and Greenland (Figure 1; at left). If the GrIS were to melt it could raise sea level by an astounding 7.2 meters (Church and Gregory, 2001). With such potential for catastrophe in a warming climate, the GrIS has become the center of many studies investigating glaciology, climatology, oceanography, and much more.

Our group set off for the GrIS with the goal of better understanding meltwater flow in the accumulation zone. This is a region of the ice sheet where there is net accumulation of snow. We set up our field site on a snowy spot called Crawford Point (Figure 1, in black square). Aside from a weather station on the horizon, the views were the same in every direction: a flat white ground and a clear blue sky. Of course, that was on a “good weather day.” We had our fair share of days when ground blizzards prevented us from seeing more than a few feet ahead, or when clouds rolled in and the world around us became an empty whiteness.

Figure 1 (on the left) is of the sites of interest in Greenland. Kangerlussuaq (indicated by the yellow circle) is a small municipality of about 500 people. Located next to the ice sheet, Kanger (for short) occupies a flat region at the eastern end of a deep fjord. In fact, Kangerlussuaq translates to “big fjord” in Greenlandic. During WWII, it was founded by the U.S. and used as a U.S. airbase. Though no longer an active military base, Kanger is the site of Greenland’s largest airport and is almost entirely dependent on tourism. Our field site (Crawford Point) sits within the square on the ice sheet.

How did we get there?

Figure 2. (A) An Air National Guard C-130 plane flew us from Schenectady, New York to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. (B) A Twin Otter plane flew us from Kangerlussuaq to our field site, Crawford Point. Both this plane and the C-130 have skis so they can land on snow. (C) The view from the C-130 as we flew into Greenland showed a dynamic coastline with many mountains and glaciers. (D) Many outlet glaciers of the ice sheet could be seen as we flew from Kangerlussuaq to Crawford Point.

From the United States, the journey to the GrIS is rich with excitement and with boredom. Most of us flew into Albany, New York and then took a military flight to Greenland. The Stratton Air National Guard Base runs periodic flights from Schenectady, New York to Greenland with their C-130 planes (Figure 2). These are training flights, which means that the pilot and the on-board mechanics are practicing ensuring that these planes run perfectly. Because of that, successfully leaving the base took two days and a few attempts. At one point, we departed on the plane and flew for about an hour before turning around and landing. Finally, we arrived in Kangerlussuaq, which is a small town on the southwest coast of Greenland (Figure 1).

In Kangerlussuaq, we worked for a few days as we prepared our gear and instrumentation for a successful field season. A massive amount of planning and work goes into field preparation, because once we’re out on the ice sheet, there’s little chance of deliveries or spare parts. When our day to fly out to the site finally came, we were ready. A Twin Otter plane (Figure 2) flew us an hour and a half from Kangerlussuaq to Crawford Point. We needed four flights to bring ourselves and all of our gear to the field site, and three flights to leave.

What’s it like to live and work on an ice sheet?

Figure 3. Our camp consisted of one cook tent (orange dome), six personal tents (extending linearly from the cook tent to the right), and a work tent (not pictured). This photo was taken before the wind piled up many feet of snow around our tents.

Life on the ice sheet is thoroughly unusual. At Crawford Point, we set up six personal tents, a cook tent, and a work tent (Figure 3). We also dug out a latrine in the snow, which we covered with a tarp to keep out of the wind. The latrine experience was…interesting, to say the least. We actually used our core barrel, which is designed to extract cores of snow and ice, to create a toilet (Figure 4).

Figure 4. We used a core barrel to create the toilet in our dug-out latrine. After the toilet was complete, we covered the latrine with a tarp to block the wind and snow.

Each day we’d eat a modest breakfast and lunch together, and then we would take turns cooking dinner on our Coleman camp stove. The meals became somewhat repetitive, but I appreciated having a warm and filling dinner after a day’s work. However, by the ended of the trip I detested beef jerky, I couldn’t eat another bite of cheese (which is saying a lot, because I love cheese), and all I could think about was a fresh, green salad. Still, I was grateful to have sufficient food while living in a wildly unlivable place.

Aside from the hundreds to thousands of meters of ice and snow that cover Greenland, what really makes the ice sheet uninhabitable is the weather. The cold air and blistering wind demanded rather intense clothing and gear. Every day I wore gigantic triple-layer Baffin boots, wool socks, a thermal base layer, fleece-lined pants, snow pants, a pullover fleece, a heavy jacket, a neck warmer, a hat, thick gloves, and either polarized sunglasses or ski goggles. Getting ready in the morning was quite the feat. One of the many challenges was actually completing work while wearing so many clothes. I would often have to pull off a glove to tighten a small screw, or shed a few layers after I warmed up from shoveling.

Figure 5. Here I stand in front of the Russell Glacier, an outlet of the GrIS. Calving (a process by which glaciers shed icebergs) leaves behind clean faces of blue glacier ice. The river running along the glacier appears thick and milky due to the large quantity of sediment that it carries.

Luckily, after our three weeks on the ice sheet, our remaining time in Kangerlussuaq was warm and sunny. We took a day and drove out to the ice sheet margin (yes, you can do that), where we hiked to the Russell Glacier (Figure 5). Standing at the edge of the ice sheet was a humbling and breathtaking moment. The ice glowed blue, the milky river roared as it flowed next to the glacier, and an occasional crash could be heard as the glacier calved into the flowing river. This one moment shifted my perspective of so many things. Those three weeks of field work, the months of lab work, and these couple of years of my master’s finally fit in a bigger picture that I could see right before me. And in that moment, the struggling graduate student in me found the motivation and confidence I needed to keep working, learning, and progressing.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I discuss the scientific work we completed!

References

Church, J.A., Gregory, J.M., 2001. Changes in Sea Level, in: Houghton, J.T., Ding, Y., Griggs, D.J., Noguer, M., van der Linden, P.J., Dai, X., Maskell, K., Johnson, C.A. (Eds.), Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, pp. 639–694.

Judging the Wyoming State Science Fair

Megan here-

There’s something unmistakable about science fairs. Rows of tri-fold poster boards sit atop long tables, students stand eagerly (or nervously) next to their projects, and judges meander through the maze of people and posters. In middle school, I associated the words “science fair” with outright fear. I loved science, but my shyness meant that having to talk to adults and be judged was simply miserable. Luckily, I’ve developed since the woeful days of middle school and I quite enjoy talking about science. So when the opportunity arose to be a judge for the Wyoming State Science Fair (WSSF), I didn’t hesitate to sign up.

What do you do as a judge?

In its simplest sense, judging at the WSSF is broken down into three components:

    Previewing projects and taking notes while the students are not present
    Interviewing students about their projects
    Discussing scoring and winning projects with your judging team

All of this happens in the span of one day (or two if you preview the day before). I was on a judging team with four other people from a variety of earth sciences backgrounds. Each team had a category and a division to judge, and would go through the three aforementioned steps to choose first, second, and third place for that category and division. Our team was assigned to the Junior Division (sixth through eighth grade) Earth & Environmental Science Category.

What’s it actually like being a judge?

The WSSF was held in the University of Wyoming Union in a large ballroom filled with rows and rows of tables. Walking in, I recognized that familiar sense of unease and nervousness, but this time it was not mine. Having already previewed the projects while the students were not present, it was time for the interviewing–the part I remember being the most terrifying as the student. As I began going from project to project talking with students, I was struck by the confidence and creativity of these middle schoolers. Many students had short presentations prepared, they were all excited to answer my questions, and most didn’t hesitate to share their accomplishments (and their obstacles) with a total stranger. I was wildly impressed.

What I found most interesting was the underlying theme of all of the projects. Every student chose to study an environmental problem that affected them or their communities. One student studied the soil vibration effects of windmills near their town, another examined the pollution from cars idling at their middle school, and a group of students developed a sponge for hydrocarbon remediation for nearby oil spills. These students looked at the world around them, recognized a problem, and then studied it or tried to fix it. The results of such efforts were utterly fascinating.

What was the hardest part?

The deliberation was certainly the most challenging component of science fair judging. A team of five people means five different opinions. Some of us were graduate students, some were educators, and some were professional geologists. At the end of the day, this group of five had to decide on three top projects, and it was nearly impossible. Luckily, discussion and compromise led us to a decision, but it was no easy feat. Hearing each other’s opinions was intriguing and helped me see projects in a different light. It was an opportunity to be more open and view things from a different perspective.

In the end, judging the science fair was a rewarding and meaningful experience. If there were any middle school students who were as nervous as I used to be, I hope that I gave them the confidence to speak up about their science. Communicating science is undoubtedly the most important component of science itself, and instilling confidence in the next generation of scientists is imperative for our future.

If you’d like to learn more about the WSSF, view the list of 2018 awardees, or see pictures of the winning projects, click here.

Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

Megan here-

Graduate school is one of those experiences that can bring out the worst in you. Sure, there are a handful of encouraging moments; like when you read a paper and actually understand it, or finally figure out what your advisor was asking you to do (even though you can’t actually do it, at least you now know what it is that you can’t do). Victories are few and far between, and the continual obstacles and failures take a toll on students. Filmmaker and once-PhD student Duncan Jones said it best: “When I was at graduate school you wouldn’t have recognized me I was so different — and not a nice person: a grumpy, surly, upset, confused, lost person.”

A theme among graduate students is feeling lost and confused, and consequently becoming upset that you’re lost and confused. You develop insecurities and wonder if you’re even supposed to be a Master’s or PhD student at all. The feeling grows and persists, all while undermining your confidence. This is the Impostor Syndrome.

What exactly is the Impostor Syndrome?

It’s a sense of incompetence, self-doubt, or anxiety accompanied by abundant evidence that you’re actually quite competent, intelligent, and hardworking. You are constantly second-guessing your qualifications and sometimes feeling that you’ve fooled people into thinking you’re smart. In fact, this sometimes-debilitating condition is quite common among successful people, and I’ve found it to be considerably persistent in my geology graduate career thus far.

Much of graduate school is admitting what you don’t know.

It’s true, you have to acknowledge what you don’t know in order to move on. Once you’ve done that, you recognize the information you need to learn, the skills you must master, and the tools you should develop. But in that process of identifying knowledge deficiencies, I’ve found that I end up feeling less intelligent and less capable. Letting my weaknesses undermine my confidence is easy. Thoughts of “I’m not cut out for this” or, “I’m not smart enough to be in this program” can work their way into your head and really throw you for a loop.

Despite this constant fear that I’m not doing anything right, I somehow still love graduate school.

I really mean that. Graduate school is this wild experience in which you probably have no idea what you’re actually doing or why, but you get to learn about the very topic that interests you most. You’re surrounded by equally ambitious peers, you work with revered professors, and you have an advisor whose fundamental job as an advisor is to make you better at what you do. There are definitely frustrating, disheartening, sit-in-your-office-and-contemplate-whether-geology-matters moments. And when Impostor Syndrome gets the best of you, here’s some advice.

My advice:

  1. Use logic against negative thoughts. Whenever these “impostor” thoughts begin to brew in your mind, try to remind yourself that Impostor Syndrome tends to affect successful people. Consequently, you must be successful and competent too. Check out this comic from PHD Comics for a good laugh and a nice reminder that you’re not alone.
  2. Practice internal validation. Many people thrive off of external validation, like praise from their peers or professors. Try complimenting yourself and focusing on acknowledging the effort you’ve put into your research.
  3. Avoid comparing yourself to others. Every student has had a different educational experience leading up to graduate school. When we compare ourselves to our peers, we often identify insufficiencies in ourselves and end up feeling unintelligent or incapable. Instead, recognize your skills and abilities, then use this opportunity to collaborate with your peers.

If all else fails and you need to commiserate with others, PHD Comics is a good place to turn. Check out their Impostor Syndrome comics (here, here, and here) and don’t be afraid to get lost in the hilarity PHD Comics has to offer.