Carmi Milagros Thompson, Invertebrate Paleontologist

Fun in the sun at Haile Quarry – fossil collecting tools at hand.

I have always been interested in science – when I was young, my mom would take us on the Metro to go visit all of the Smithsonian museums. My favorite was always the Natural History Museum (and I was lucky to go back as a research intern after I finished my undergraduate degree- but I digress). Growing up, I felt a lot of pressure to have a good career that paid well (doctor, engineer, lawyer, as the refrain goes)…so I was miserably going through a pre-med track, until I took a geology class…partially by accident, partially just to take all the sciences. I knew that I had to become a geologist from the first lab session where we scrambled down a hill to look at some Coastal Plain outcrop. Paleontology was also a mistake, but a happy one – a long story for another time! .

I think of my work as being similar to that of a librarian. Instead of books, I work with things that have been dead for (usually) millions of years. My job, as a collections manager, is (broadly) to organize and maintain holdings of fossil invertebrates (aforementioned dead things), so that people who are asking all kinds of questions about past life on Earth can quickly and easily access material. In addition to that, I supervise a rotating cast of interns and volunteers. When I’m lucky, I get to do field work (looking at fossils in the wild) with the rest of our research group – usually in Florida, but sometimes all over the country. No two days are ever the same – there are long stretches of identification and reorganization, of course, but most weeks are packed with visitors, curation, and more.

Behind the scenes at the Natural Museum of Natural History

In my “free time,” I guest contribute to the Neogene Atlas of Ancient Life (working on the scaphopods gap right now), coordinate and participate in outreach events at the museum and around the state, manage affairs for the Florida Paleontological Society as the secretary, maintain the invert paleontology collection website, and work with the Paleontological Society Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I am also working on a few personal research projects: a virtual collection tour (release date early fall), systematics and paleoecology of fossil cephalopods from Florida, and paleoecology of offshore molluscan fauna from the mid-Atlantic United States in sediment cores collected for beach nourishment. 

I was once described as “active on Twitter,” so I’ll plug that too  (see link at end of article) – my goal there is to promote our museum specimens and highlight different activities in which I participate – say hi if you’d like! 

ADVICE (as a young person who gets a lot of advice – here’s a brief summary!)

Digging for oysters in the Florida Panhandle.

In terms of paleontology specific advice, keep your options as open as possible – paleontology is certainly a competitive field, but there are many ways to pursue it as a career (there is a good blog post here about it!). For general career advice, find your support team – mentors, classmates, other professionals…people who will cheer you on throughout your successes and support you when things aren’t so great. And, this is such a geologist thing to say, but keep it all in perspective – there are going to be really tough times and problems that seem like they are impossible in the moment (everyone struggles), but think of the long term. Things usually have a way of working themselves out, often in surprising ways. I find that success usually outweighs the many, often-invisible failures along the way. 

If you want to keep up with Carmi check out the Florida Museum’s Invertebrate Paleo or Twitter @bibibivalve.

Sadie Mills, Environmental Educator and Museum Project Coordinator

Using Ollie, a non-releasable Eastern Screech Owl, to teach students about bird adaptations at the Rock Eagle 4-H center near Eatonton, Georgia.

My curiosity about the natural world started on family camping trips. One regular destination was the shores of the Sea or Cortez, where the extreme tidal range (up to 9m!) produced incredible tide pools full of stingrays, octopi, brittle stars, and more. My fascination with nature and true love of being outside eventually led me to pursue job opportunities (and later a master’s degree) in environmental education. Environmental education aims to help people understand, appreciate, and think critically about their interactions with all aspects of the natural world. This can be accomplished through outdoor experiences, laboratory activities, live animal encounters, and more. My work days have included leading students on forest hikes, taking families seining at the beach, and educating public visitors at rehabilitated sea turtle releases. While many of these experiences are short-lived, they often spark enduring curiosity, positive feelings about nature, and sometimes positive behavior change among participants. Not every interaction makes a difference, but when they do the results can be quite powerful.

Tide-pooling at Puerto Peñasco (Sonora, Mexico), one of the places that got me hooked on nature. (Tragically, the 101 Dalmatians sweater is too blurry to properly appreciate.)

To remain effective, environmental education must adapt to our changing world, and in the 21st century this means branching out into virtual education. In my current position as coordinator for the FOSSIL Project, I get the opportunity to engage with audiences through online interactions on social media and our website (www.myfossil.org). FOSSIL (Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners) is an NSF-funded initiative that supports a community of amateur (avocational) and professional paleontologists with the goal of shared learning. Utilizing online platforms has allowed us to build a diverse and widespread community of learners, but also a community of educators. Each of our participants brings knowledge to the table, and the online space makes it easy and comfortable for them to share their experiences. This fall, we hope to further expand our community with the introduction of an accompanying mobile app. This tool will allow users to document and share their paleontological experiences directly from the field. I never thought I would contribute to an app, but I am now so excited to see the learning opportunities that will result from this new technology.

Teaching students to seine for surf-zone fishes and invertebrates on Tybee Island, Georgia.

One of the great joys of working as an environmental educator is seeing how excited people get when they learn something new, especially people who may be discovering their passion for science for the first time. For those thinking about a future in science, I hope you will consider the many career paths available to you. If you like technology or inventing, you can help develop the tools scientists use to make new discoveries. If your passion is writing, you can pursue science journalism or help edit science publications. You can conduct investigations as a researcher, teach others as a formal or informal science educator, pursue art as a science illustrator, or help shape policy as an environmental lawyer. In its own way, each job makes an important contribution to science, and society needs curious science enthusiasts in many different roles!

Gabriel-Philip Santos, Collections Manager and Outreach Coordinator

What do you do?

What do I do? That’s a fun question. Most people think of paleontologists as scientists who only study dinosaurs, but really there many different ways to be a paleontologist and not all of them have research as their main thing. At the Alf Museum, I wear many hats, so really what I do depends on the day, which is really fun honestly! My main duty is as the collections manager of the Alf Museum. I like to call myself the “Keeper of Bones” because its my job to take care of the 180,000+ fossils in our museum. Sometimes that involves organizing them, repairing broken fossils, sending fossils out to other scientists, or using fossils to create a brand new exhibit.

As the outreach coordinator, my job is to create fun and engaging programs that help our guests learn about natural history. One of my favorite ways to do this is to connect culture with science. For example, for our Making Monsters Discovery Day, I dress up as Professor Oak from the Pokemon franchise to talk about the real-life fossils that inspired fossil Pokemon! This is how Cosplay for Science got started actually! Cosplay for Science is a fun imitative I created with my friends Brittney Stoneburg, Michelle Barboza-Ramirez, and Isaac Magallanes to use cosplay to explain the science behind our favorite fandoms!

Outside of my main duties at the museum, I also like to conduct my own research. I mainly focus on the evolution of marine mammals, particularly the weird, hippo-like desmostylians (imagine something that looks like a hippo, lives on the beach, but is the size of an elephant).

What is your data and how do you obtain it?

A figure from a publication, showing the growth stages of teeth as species of Desmostylus aged.

When I conduct my own research, my data is obtained through looking at the shapes and differences in the bones of desmostylians and other marine mammals. For my first publication, my co-authors and I looked specifically at the teeth of desmostylians. We looked at how the teeth type and shape changed as the animals got older and also at how they wore their teeth through use. From this, we were able to create a way for future paleontologists to tell the general age of a desmostylian based on what teeth they have and how worn they are.

My job as a paleontologist is not much of a data gatherer. I am really more of a data preserver and presenter as a collections manager and outreach coordinator. In the collections, we preserve as much data as we can by protecting fossils from breaking down and by digitizing fossils. We don’t turn fossils into data like Tron, but what we do is we photograph specimens. We create 3D models. We save data like where a specimen was found or who found a fossil in a special computer database. As a science communicator, my job is to take other scientist’s data and make it easier for the general public to understand.

How does your research contribute to climate change, our understanding of evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?

As a collections manager, I get to be part of something bigger. While I may not contribute directly to major discoveries, my job ensures that all the fossils in our collection are preserved for future paleontologists. Within the collection that I take care of, there may be many important discoveries waiting to be described. As an educator, I also get to help inspire a new generation of scientists and help to create a future that is guided by science. We are facing a very grim future because of people out there who disregard science. If I can help to make everyone in our community see the value in science, even if they don’t want to become scientists, that, I think, can help to build a better future where critical thinking is not only valued, but the norm.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

So many things! My favorite part of being a scientist is that I have the opportunity to learn something new everyday and then go out and help someone else learn something new! Ever since I was kid, I have loved stories and when you’re a scientist, there a limitless stories out there to discover and retell. Its just amazing and really makes me excited to come into work everyday!

What advice would you give to young scientists?

What I like to tell young scientists or scientists new to their field is to make sure that you love what you do. I’m not saying that you have to go to work or school everyday laughing and smiling, but that overall, you enjoy your work, research, or job. If you aren’t happy with what you are doing, there is nothing wrong with changing your career path. I would also like to tell scientists to be sure to take care of yourself. You should always put yourself first in anything you do. Don’t push yourself to the brink of exhaustion because you think you need to in order to succeed in science. There’s no need for that. I guess to sum it all, you do you and be sure to treat yo’ self every now and then.

To follow Gabe check out his Twitter and Instagram. To learn more about the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology click here! To learn more about Cosplay for Science check out their website, Twitter, and Instagram!

Eleanor Gardner, Avian Taphonomist and Science Outreach Specialist

I consider myself an avian taphonomist – a unique niche within the field of paleontology – as well as a science outreach specialist. I will first explain my research interests and then discuss my path to a career in science outreach.

Examining Late Pleistocene avian fossils in a cave on Royal Island, Bahamas
In case the word is new to you, “taphonomy” is the study of what occurs between the death of an organism and its discovery as a fossil. I am interested in better understanding the circumstances that lead to differential preservation of avian skeletal elements, including depositional environment, scavenger activity, age- and gender-related effects, among other factors. Through my work, I try to explore what drives preservation biases in the fossil record of birds.

Diagram of bird skeleton with color indicating the 5 most commonly preserved bone elements. The five bones in order of abundance were humerus, tarsometatarsus, the coracoids, ulna, and the tibiotarsus.
My research has mainly centered upon actualistic taphonomy experiments, which means that I conduct experiments with modern organisms and environs in order to make inferences about the past. For projects conducted via the University of Georgia (as a student) and via the University of Tennessee at Martin (as a faculty member), I collected humanely-killed chickens and ducks of known age, sex, and diet and put their carcasses out in different types of environments in different climate regimes. One thing that I was especially motivated to investigate was any role that medullary tissue might play in the preservation potential of avian leg bones. After the publication of Schweitzer and others in 2005 documenting possible soft-tissue preservation in a T. rex femur, I became fascinated by the concept of medullary tissue preservation. Medullary tissue is a reproductive-specific tissue in female birds that forms along the innermost layer of limb bones during the egg-laying cycle; it acts as calcium storage for production of the egg shell. Because it is formed rapidly and then utilized (broken down) rapidly, there is a net loss of calcium from females’ skeletal elements. Because of this, it might be expected that a gender-based preservation bias exists in the avian fossil record. In addition to this particular factor, my experiments have examined the roles of age (juvenile vs. adult), environment (habitat, temperature, humidity, pH, lithology, etc.), bacteria and fungi, and scavengers (including insects, invertebrates like crabs, and vertebrates like alligators, raccoons, and bobcats). Publications reporting my results are forthcoming!

In 2016, a large review paper that my coauthors and I had been working on for about seven years was published. It morphed from a literature review for my thesis into a multivariable analysis of the roles of paleoclimate, environment, and bird body size in avian fossil preservation. It is my hope that the paper will inspire future avian taphonomy studies to improve collection of climate-related data. Understanding how climate change has impacted the avian fossil record could shed further light on questions about speciation and extinction of birds throughout time.

Interacting with young visitors at the Aurora Fossil Festival in Aurora, North Carolina, as part of the FOSSIL Project
My other passion (and now my career) is science outreach and education. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I was involved in public outreach events with my universities, local nature centers and parks, and regional museums. After getting established in my first job – which was as a geology instructor at the University of Tennessee at Martin – I became motivated to engage underserved K-12 girls in the community and so I began leading a science-focused Girl Scout troop. My move in 2015 to the Florida Museum of Natural History brought me even further into the world of public outreach and education as the coordinator of a project funded by the National Science Foundation called FOSSIL: Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners. In this role, I’ve been able to help develop and lead paleontology workshops, foster connections between amateur and professional paleontologists across the world, and collaborate on science education research. (Learn more about FOSSIL by clicking here). Organizing opportunities for people to share with others their paleontology skills, experiences, and enthusiasm has been enormously rewarding. In mid-August of this year, I’ll be starting a new job with the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum as their Outreach and Engagement Coordinator. I’m really excited about continuing to work with the public in a new capacity to foster a greater understanding of science and an appreciation for the Earth and its history.

Being creative, asking questions, and devising ways to get others excited about science (most often about paleontology) are all aspects of my jobs that I have loved. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in science, know that there are a wide variety of different positions and career paths, so keep your options open! Explore your curiosities and read, read, read as many peer-reviewed papers as possible.

Eleanor has recently started her position at the Kansas Museum of Natural History! Don’t forget to check out the myFOSSIL community here and an interview with the Fossil Guy here.

Brenda Hunda, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology

As a paleontologist I study how fossils are preserved in the fossil record (taphonomy), and how morphology changes within species across space (geographically) and through time (stratigraphically) in response to several processes such as ontogeny (development) and environmental change.

As a Curator in a museum, I use my research to teach our community about the process of science and why paleontology and geology are important to our society today. I am also very passionate about public science literacy, and am involved in educational program and exhibit development as well as lecturing on a variety of science topics in geology and paleontology.

With one of my favorite trilobites, Isotelus maximus.

My research is specimen-based, and requires a lot of intensive fieldwork. This is fantastic for me, because I love to be outside and being active. I get all of the trilobite specimens for analysis by hammering them out of the rock layers. I then bring them back to the laboratory where I prepare them out of the rock, photograph and measure them, and then conduct my mathematical modeling and statistical analyses to test my hypotheses and answer my questions (while generating new ones!).

Plot of landmark variation in the heads in 903 specimens of Flexicalymene granulosa (Trilobita) from the Kope Formation (Upper Ordovician, ~450 million years ago

Understanding the biotic response to climate change is crucial for our society, especially in the face of our current climate crisis, but modern biological studies are not long enough to document the long-term impact of these changes. The fossil record is an excellent resource to study species’ response to environmental change over the long term because it shows us the consequences of previously run climate change “experiments” in Earth’s history. My research shows that trilobite populations can track their preferred environment over millions of years and through constant climate perturbations rather than evolve new adaptations or go extinct. This response is consistent with many other examples in the fossil record and shows us that migration is a viable and successful response to climate change for many species.

My favorite thing about being a paleontologist is that it is the closest thing to time travel that we have. When I am in the field, I am looking at fossils that take me back 450 million years in Earth’s history, and I am usually the first person ever on Earth to have seen and collect these fossils. The fact that I am traipsing around an ancient ocean that once covered most of the United States still blows my mind. As a scientist in a museum, I also enjoy teaching the public about the amazing planet we have and the relevance, to their lives, of the world-famous paleontological resources in their back yard. There is nothing more rewarding than a child in awe.

Whatever path your career takes you on, be passionate about it. Whether you want to be a paleontologist, another type of scientist, or pursue a non-science career, if you are passionate about what you do, you will never feel like you are going to work. I look forward to what every day brings because every day is different.

Brenda is the Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Brenda recently participated in the myFOSSIL and iDigBio Women in Paleontology webinar series, her video can be found here.

To learn more about Brenda and her work visit her website or Twitter.