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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hi! My name is Lian and I am a recent graduate of the University of Michigan! I am originally from Missouri but currently call Michigan home. I am in an in-between period in my life, I graduated this past spring with a degree in Earth and Environmental Sciences and a minor in paleontology and plan on applying to graduate schools this upcoming fall. Outside of science, you can find me spending my free time outdoors biking, hiking, or just sitting on a porch. I love to paint, learn about geography, and cook.
What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My research has focused on using morphology as a tool. Morphology is the study of the shape of something, it can be applied to something as simple as a single tooth or as complex as a whole fish skeleton! As an undergraduate, I produced an honors thesis that focused on an extinct clade of echinoderms known as blastoids. I investigated whether varying ratios inblastoid’s underlying skeletal componentswere indicative of deeper taxonomic relationships. To do this, I first produced 3D models of specimens through a process known as photogrammetry. Once the models were produced, I then placed a set number of landmarks on each specimen, in homologous places. Once the landmarks were placed, I then ran a principal component analysis (PCA) in R. The PCA helped to determine if varying ratios in blastoid’s underlying skeletal components, taxonomic separation, and geological periods occupied distinct regions in morphospace. In addition to my work with blastoids, I have also had the opportunity to apply similar techniques to epibionts on brachiopods and jaws of nautiloids!
Outside of research, I also worked at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology’s (UMMP) Invertebrate Paleontology collection as a museum technician. There, I have the amazing opportunity to handle specimens in a collection of over 2 million specimens! I work with type specimens, produce 3D models, and rehouse or unpack specimens. Museums typically only show a small fraction of their collection in the galleries that are open to the public, so being able to work behind the scenes and get a first hand view of the full collection has been incredible.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? As a kid, I always loved dinosaurs and fossils. I thought that it was so cool how millions of years ago the world looked completely different, almost alien-like. However, as I grew up, I thought that paleontology wasn’t a “real” career option. So, I went to college thinking I would major in something else. Once I got to college, I had to take a science distribution credit, so I randomly picked an Earth and life history course. There, I realized that being a paleontologist wasn’t so far-fetched of an idea as I had thought. I then took as many geology and paleontology related courses I could, before eventually transferring to the University of Michigan to further pursue paleontology.
What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Growing up, I never wanted to ask for help or guidance. I was a solitary person who wanted to fix things on their own. However, once I got to college, I realized that asking for help is the best thing you can do. It doesn’t matter how big or small of a question or problem you have, it is never a bad thing to ask for help! A lot of the time, science can be painted as a solitary field where researchers keep to themselves. That is not the way things have to be! Science is done best when people work together.
Time Scavengers is collaborating with the International Ocean Discovery Program Expedition 390/393 to showcase the scientists recovering sediment and rock cores, and conducting science at sea! Click here to learn more about IODP, and visit the Research Vessel JOIDES Resolution website here to read more about the drillship. To learn more about IODP Expeditions 390 and 393, click here!
You can follow the JOIDES Resolution on Twitter @TheJR, on Facebook @joidesresolution, and on Instagram @joides_resolution!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Tessa Peixoto and when I was younger I was referred to as shark girl. I was super obsessed with sharks, which is what got me into science. Outside of science though I am a fan of doing art, specifically painting and building things, and I like baking for friends and family. Movies are a go to past time for me, and I am one of those people that really like b-rated sci fi movies. For instance, Tremors, highly suggest watching it. I am a science enthusiast so when I go out for walks on the beach, hikes in nature, or anywhere else I am still observing what kind of life I see. It is a way of connecting with the planet for me. However, my friends just give me a pat on the head when I yell excitedly about finding Codium fragile on the beach. One time, I found a carcass of a skate on a beach and I ran to anyone who saw me holding it so I could show them.
What do you do?
So I studied marine biology as an undergraduate student. During my studies and soon after I was able to conduct or participate in research on intertidal blue mussels, describing freshwater stingrays, and describing the morphology and function of the armor for a family of fish called Poachers. Soon after I was able to be a seasonal aide for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and got exposed to doing trawling surveys in river tributaries.
After graduating and my bopping around the US for a variety of temporary science positions, I found myself working as a museum educator. It was the funnest thing to be around so many specimens for every kind of field of natural sciences. Plus, I was able to use a lot of those specimens as part of my teaching practice during classes that field trips could sign up for. Unfortunately, as the position was part time, life demanded I find a position that could provide me benefits that would support me more efficiently. I now work as a science instructor for an Adult Education program in Boston, MA. It is truly a rewarding position because as I get to share my love and fascination of science with my students, I know I am helping them get closer to obtaining a high school diploma, which only improves their job prospects.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
When I was younger, I remember my brother was always doing something with his hands. I remember always seeing him carve up soap bars and for some reason I understood it to be science, or rather an experiment. I also was really into ocean documentaries, anything on Discovery Channel that highlighted the ocean or environment would be something I would pay attention to. And yes my attention was even more peaked if sharks were in it. At one point during our youth my brother told me that if I wanted to keep learning about sharks that I would have to be someone who studies marine biology. And thus began my stubborn journey in declaring I will become a marine biologist.
Fast forward to college, I entered Northeastern University to study marine science, as I had stated repeatedly since I was younger. Interestingly enough, the more science classes I took the more I realized I just liked science, all of it. It took a bit of time for my fisheries teacher to get me to let go of my stubborn obsession with sharks, but I would say once I did, my understanding of marine biology as a whole was improved. Bachelors of science is where my formal education ends, therefore I have not yet become a marine biologist. Nevertheless, my enthusiasm for science has not dwindled away. It is still very present and of course with a slight favoring of anything ocean.
I have enjoyed the opportunities I had in college and since college because I kept getting to learn from the people around me. Especially, in the two science conferences I participated in. I love being able to see other people’s posters and discuss with them their thoughts and their research.
How does your work contribute to the betterment of society?
As much as I did not for-see myself as being an educator, I am happy I am in it. Mainly for the reason that I can finally share science with adults that avoid science because they had horrible experiences from their last time in education or didn’t really get a chance to do formal education in their youth. So when I teach I aim to be open and caring of their learning journey, and to never dismiss their questions. It benefits society as they become great learners and more confident in their skills. Being an adult educator is very important because it can help disseminate science in a way that helps the world presently. Essentially, I work with individuals that have the current and immediate ability to be stewards of the planet as their understanding of the world improves. As much as education of children is very much needed, I want to improve the science literacy of the adult population. A future goal of mine is to help increase options that are free, supportive, and open to questions that adults have about science, and the inner workings of the planet.
What advice do you have for up and coming scientists and educators?
Something I want everyone to know is to not judge yourself on your performance in classes. Just because you might have gotten a lower grade in a science class does not mean you would be a bad scientist. I also want to say the science or career you might think you want to do might be a completely different field of science or career by the time you graduate, finish a PhD or look for private corporation positions. If you are reading this as someone in high school or college, try out different internships. I know when I was younger I would only look for internships with sharks, and that stubbornness sometimes prevented me from just learning about different fields. Therefore be open to options that come your way. If you are reading this as someone that is mid career, I would say to talk to people in the field that you are interested in. Find others interested in a similar field and hang out with them. For example, there are many groups of mycology fans that meet up every now and then to go foraging and talk mycology. Science in its purest form is about curiosity and asking questions, so keep asking questions and explore our wonderful world.
What is something exciting you are doing at the moment?
I currently am the outreach officer for the JOIDES Resolution that falls under the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). This position provides a great view into the world of science communication that is different from the that of the communication done in a formal education position. The outreach officer has the chance to reach out to anyone in the world and share the life of living on the ship and doing research on the ship. This is just a temporary position for the summer, but offer the chance to learn about geosciences, and other ways to explore the Earth. If you are reading this know that you can call into the ship during an expedition and get a tour of your own, it might not be with me but it will be an outreach officer that has the same excitement as I do. (https://joidesresolution.org/about-the-jr/live-video-events-with-the-joides-resolution/)
Hi all! My name is Werner de Gier, I’m a Dutch PhD candidate at the biggest natural history museum of the Netherlands, the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. My work focusses on the evolution of symbiotic crustaceans, specifically two families of crabs and shrimps. I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at Leiden University, after which I got the opportunity to continue my work on crustaceans at the museum. Outside of research I’m a fan of taking pictures of everything nature brings together with my boyfriend: insects in the summer and spring, birds in the winter, mushrooms in the fall (and a bit of tide pooling all year though, of course). In addition, I enjoy making line-art illustrations of invertebrate animals, taking care of my many indoor plants, and helping people out validating observations on online nature platforms. So yes, I do take my work home, but I enjoy it!
I always have a hard time giving myself a label in science, but I do love the sound of a “carcinologist”, so someone who is studying crustaceans. However, I also check the boxes of a taxonomist, or evolutionary zoologist. My work focuses on the evolution of the adaptations of tiny symbiotic crabs and shrimps living in- and outside of various reef organisms. Think of bivalves, ascidians (sea squirts), but also on urchins, sea cucumbers, corals, etc.. Using specimens from Europe’s largest symbiotic crustacean collection at Naturalis, I study links between the ecology and the morphological adaptations of a group of species. Sometimes these adaptations are microscopic and I need to make illustrations or CT-scans in order to get all the details right. Combining newly constructed family trees with the morphological character states, I can place the host-choice and the linked adaptations of the studied shrimps or crabs in an evolutionary context.
I got into biology at a very young age, passively being taught quite a lot about nature by my parents. In my first year of my Bachelor’s, I fell in love with taxonomy, natural history, and invertebrates, namely snails, insects and crustaceans. Since Naturalis is well-known throughout the whole country, we as PhD candidates can get quite a lot of opportunities to showcase our research through the media, or in the museum itself. Although crustaceans are not as flashy as dinosaurs, or other charismatic megafauna, it’s still nice to tell the general public about marine biology, invertebrate research, and the diversity of so-called “cryptofauna” – hidden biodiversity. When I present my research, I’m always keen on showcasing a lot of tiny, beautiful and plain weird species of crustaceans, to inspire students, but also kids, to look more closely at nature around them. It helped me find my passion for science, so I hope I can help them as well.
Although my projects are now still stamped as “fundamental research”, I do believe taxonomy needs more attention due to its capability to show us there’s way more to discover in so-thought “well-studied” ecosystems. By studying the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs we can maybe even predict which species will adapt better to the changing climate and which species need to be protected. Symbiosis show us everything is connected, and how we are destroying this network between species. Without fundamental research we can’t properly understand which and how many species are playing their part in an ecosystem, so how can we protect them without that knowledge?
After my years at the museum, I think I can give out advice to all new students starting here. Mostly on writing tips, the peer-review process, and expectations management in science. But more important are the bigger live-lessons I learned: listen to your supervisors, but don’t let them tell you exactly what to do. I had some problems with focusing on just my research, by doing way too many side-projects in science communication. I listened to my supervisors, and now I’m not afraid to say “no” anymore. But this doesn’t mean I can’t do anything outside my own research. I still give lectures, do presentations at the museum, and work with people outside of my field of research. In addition, people kept telling me I should not bring my work back home, and you should never date someone who is also in science – but as long as it doesn’t feel like work but as a hobby, what’s there to worry about? My partner and I are both scientists, both really passionate about marine biology, and both massive nerds. We can talk about everything in and outside of science, creating a really nice environment without judgement.
I’m a vertebrate paleontologist currently living in Johnson City, Tennessee. I graduated from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) with my master’s degree in paleontology in May 2020. While I was a student at ETSU, I had a graduate assistantship position in the fossil collections at the Gray Fossil Site & Museum (GFS), which I’ve fortunately been able to continue since November 2020 thanks to a position serving at GFS through AmeriCorps. Prior to coming to ETSU for graduate school, I earned my bachelor’s degree in geology from Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2018. As a student at Amherst, I worked all four years as a docent in the Beneski Museum of Natural History — as you can probably tell, I really love natural history museums and want museum work to be a core component of my future.
How did you get interested in science?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been very interested in animals, and from about the age of four that interest grew to include fossil animals. Through reading lots of books and watching science shows as a little kid, I became increasingly fascinated by animals, in particular dinosaurs. Even as a young kid, I was always pretty interested not just in the animals themselves (e.g., which dinosaur was the biggest or coolest-looking) but in how they lived and what their world was like, and how they evolved with changing ecosystems, which are definitely interests that have only continued to grow as I’ve studied paleontology professionally.
I should also point out that in addition to reading books and watching television programs about nature and paleontology, some of the most critical sources for fueling my interest in science were family trips to zoos, aquariums, and museums. There really isn’t anything as fascinating as getting to see live animals or real fossils in person — now just as much as when I was an elementary schooler — and these places gave me a real-life look at research and conservation in action. If I can hop on a little soapbox for a moment, I just want to say that over the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, places like these — which are generally operating on tight budgets anyway — took a serious financial hit, and if you’re in a position where you are able to support zoos, aquariums, museums, or similar science education venues in your area, please do! These are the places that not only push forward our knowledge of life on Earth and our ability to conserve it, but also can inspire people to become scientists themselves or to be more supportive of science-based causes and issues, and as such represent something really valuable in our society.
What kind of work do you do?
My research as a graduate student and since has focused on prehistoric elephants, in particular on mastodons — an extinct family similar to but only distantly related to the living elephants, and characterized most recognizably by the conical cusps on their teeth. Mastodons evolved in Africa and spread to Eurasia and eventually, about 16 million years ago, to North America where they survived until about 12,600 years ago and were an important part of large mammal communities across the continent. I am interested in the taxonomy, evolution, and lifestyles of mastodons in North America, particularly in the southeastern US. My thesis focused on (re)describing five mastodons from the Pleistocene (ice age) of coastal South Carolina, including the two individuals used to make the skeletal mount on display at the Beneski Museum. These mastodons showed some features like relatively large tusks in their lower jaws and really broad molars that are toward the extreme end of the spectrum for their species. I’m currently involved in some other projects along similar lines, looking to quantify variability in mastodon molars and particularly in the presence/absence of tusks in the lower jaw.
My position at the GFS is in collections, which I think is a really wonderful way to experience the museum world. Basically, this is a position that involves the storage, cataloguing, accessioning, and upkeep of fossils once they’ve been excavated and prepared, and assisting researchers and students with access to the specimens. I’ve had to learn a lot about archival materials and practices to ensure long-term stability of specimens, as well as how to document specimen information, loans, research access requests, and other important information. I find it an especially exciting career path because of the opportunity to look at all the fossils in the collection up close (it’s done wonders for my osteological knowledge), and the fact that the Gray Fossil Site, which unsurprisingly dominates our collection, is both incredibly rich and the only site of its age (Early Pliocene, about 4.8 million years ago) in Appalachia means that many of the fossils I get to handle and house represent species new to science!
How does your research contribute to understanding paleontology?
Mastodons were a long-lived group that entered North America about 16 million years ago and survived here until about 12,600 years ago at the end of the last ice age; in that time they were found across the whole continent and were important parts of large mammal communities, so understanding their natural history helps paleontologists form a better picture of what was going on in North America more broadly. Even though mastodons are really common ice age fossils in most of North America, the first 15 million years or so of their history on the continent is not well-understood, and even comparatively well-studied ice age mastodons have lots of unanswered questions. I’ve focused especially on mastodons in the Southeast because it’s an area where they are common but generally not as well-studied as other places like the Midwest and Great Lakes region, and only by describing and studying more specimens from comparatively understudied time intervals and places can paleontologists begin to piece together what variation exists in mastodons and what it might mean. It’s important to tease apart what kinds of variability indicate differences between mastodon species (and when and how different species might’ve separated from each other), versus adaptations to particular environmental conditions over time, versus the individual variation present in any species. The environmental aspect is interesting given the ongoing investigation into the (probably very substantial) role rapid climate change at the end of the ice age had in the extinction of mastodons and other large mammals; understanding how mastodons themselves changed in response to earlier climate changes might help us better understand why they went extinct at the end of the ice age, and perhaps what that might mean for their modern elephant relatives.
Compared to research, working in natural history collections might not seem like it contributes as much to answering questions or spreading knowledge about paleontology, but I think that it is actually a great way to do both of those. Without well-maintained collections, conducting research becomes much more difficult, so by making sure that materials in collections at GFS are well-housed and well-maintained, catalogued, accessioned, properly labelled and documented, and accessible to researchers (who have filled out their research access request paperwork beforehand!) I’m playing my part to further scientific progress at this remarkable site and in the field as a whole. The institution outlives the individual, and so I hope that by always adhering to best practices in collections and treating the tasks with care, our specimens will have a better chance of surviving in perpetuity. Additionally, it’s not only research that is benefitted by a well-maintained fossil collection; public outreach can be as well. When it comes to choosing fossils for display and interpretation, collections staff are often going to be indispensable resources when it comes to considerations both aesthetic (e.g., what specimens are the most striking?) and functional (e.g., how stable will this fossil be out of collections in a display case, and is predisposed to fragility due to its curation history?). As I got my start in museums as an educator, I try to keep things like this in mind at GFS, which may be coming in handy soon as we begin the process of revamping our exhibits.
What are your data and what do you study?
My research is on mastodons, and there are a few areas I’m particularly interested in: mastodon from the Southeastern US, the variability in the form and presence of lower tusks in some mastodons, and patterns in variability in tooth form as a proxy for species differences in mastodons. Despite being one of the most common, charismatic, and well-known groups of fossil animals in North America, there are a lot of things about mastodon evolution we don’t really understand. While there’s a lot of exciting research going on in the genetics of ice age mammals, including mastodons, my own research uses the good ol’ dry bones approach of looking at morphology: not all fossils preserve good genetic material, even if they’re geologically recent enough to (this seems like it’s a particular problem in the Southeast), and a lot of the areas where we have the biggest questions about mastodon history (when did certain lineages/species split from each other and how? what might have driven certain adaptations?) involve fossils too old for genetic work to be done. Documenting, measuring, and describing specimens — especially teeth, the most durable part of the vertebrate skeleton and (in most mammals) among the most taxonomically informative, and especially especially the 3rd molars (in elephants and their relatives, the largest, longest-lasting, and most distinctive tooth) — provides a basis for large-scale studies of patterns and gives us a morphological framework on which we can place the results of isotopic and genetic studies. I also have a great fondness for “historic paleontology,” investigating and revisiting work done many decades ago to see how older scholarship can fit in with newer interpretations, and to try and solve long-standing questions where information may have slipped through the cracks of history. This kind of investigation laid the groundwork for my master’s thesis, which was anchored on the redescription of the mastodon skeleton on display at Amherst College, collected in 1868, published on briefly in 1918, and little remarked-upon since — which is a shame, because some of that material is really remarkable; the lower tusks on that mount, for example, are the largest I’ve come across for this species of mastodon, and the teeth are proportionally wider than in any other specimen yet measured.
What methods do you use to communicate science?
As I noted above, I started out as a museum docent, and I still think talking to people face-to-face at a museum is the finest, most engaging way to share the excitement of paleontology. That’s not really something I’ve gotten to do with a lot of regularity since I came to ETSU, but through collections I’ve gotten opportunities to be involved with another really great branch of museum education and outreach: exhibits! There is a lot of work that goes into making a museum exhibit — even a temporary one. Specimens have to be assessed and have condition reports filled out, and adequate supports have to be made for them; theme, tone, and content have to be decided on for the text, and illustrations and graphics have to be made; and the exhibit has to be prepared with visibility and accessibility for as many museum-goers as possible in mind. Earlier this year, I was able to complete a small temporary fossil exhibit that my colleagues and I began back in early 2020, before the pandemic, and I found the whole process fascinating. There are so many things that I just hadn’t considered about the process beforehand, and I think getting to have that experience is really informative. It’s certainly a different feeling to chatting with visitors and educating on the fly out on the museum floor.
What is your favorite part of being a scientist?
One of the things I find most exciting about being a scientist — and particularly a paleontologist — is just the connection you get to have with the natural world. In doing paleontology, in any capacity, you’re connecting yourself with everything that came before you in some small way. A lot of people like to approach paleontological research with the idea that it should be striving to answer Big Questions with major, serious implications for the modern world (often with particular emphasis, on climate change and its ecological effects), and that research is wonderful and critically important, but I personally don’t agree with the notion that it should necessarily be a driving factor in all paleontological research. Sorry to expound my own weird philosophy on the subject, but… humans are the only species we know of that has ever had the capability to look back and to study what the world was like in own past and before we even existed; I think that we almost owe it to the organisms that came before us to study and understand them and their lives and their worlds. There’s something primal and fascinating about getting to hold in your hands, to see and seek to understand, some part of a living thing that has been hidden away for millions of years. I don’t think it’ll ever stop being an amazing thrill.
What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
For someone who wants to be a scientist, I’d say it’s good practice to get into to learn to change your mind about things with new information, and try not to make knee-jerk decisions or reactions — which are not things that come naturally to (probably) anyone, but learning to adapt your interpretations and opinions with more data and more reflection is critical in science. Also, though this is cliché, you should definitely always have an excitement for the natural world and an inquiring mind about it. For someone interested in paleontology particularly, I would say (though I expect most people who are seriously interested about paleontology would already be doing this) to take a real interest in living fauna and flora for their own sake, because you’ll learn a lot about how organisms work and it really will help you think about what fossil organisms and ecosystems must have been like, and of course because the species we share the planet with now are totally fascinating in their own right. Another paleontology topic I feel is important to clarify is that to be a paleontologist, you don’t have to be good at all aspects of paleontology: fieldwork is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; being skilled at preparing fossils is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; having the often-methodical skills for collections or curation is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; teaching classes is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist; having a doctorate is NOT a requirement to be a good paleontologist. Knowing and respecting the value of — and potential stumbling blocks in — each of these areas will serve you well, and help you carve out a niche for yourself where you feel you fit in, and have a job that matches your skills. Don’t be afraid to realize that you maybe aren’t cut out for some parts of paleontology — maybe you hate being out in the dirt, or dread the idea of spending years working toward a PhD. There’s still room for you to contribute great, important work to the field.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist is being able to see fantastic geological sites and learning about some of the weirdest species of Earth’s past. I wish I could say I always had an interest in paleontology, but it wasn’t until the end of my freshman year of college that I realized I had a passion for this field. As a general education requirement, I took Life of the Past. One day, while rapidly taking notes, a slide changed to a photo of a Quetzalcoatlus skeleton. I lost the ability to focus on my scribblings and my mind wandered. So many questions: did this creature fly, how could it fly, could I have ridden it while it was flying? I don’t know if it was the thought of riding this gigantic pterodactyl, or the realization of this ancient yet new world had just come into existence, either way at that moment I was hooked. Within a week I added on Geology as a dual major and started volunteering at the Missouri Institute of Natural Science.
What do you do?
Currently I am an undergraduate student, I am studying Geology and Anthropology emphasizing on Paleontology and Archaeology. I am hoping to be a vertebrate paleontologist and a science educator one day. I also volunteer at our local natural science institution. Here I apply what I have learned in my majors and because of this I’ve been able to get my hands into a lot of different projects. I have worked with triceratops bones to prepare them to cast and mold. I have also worked on reshaping the replicated portions of the triceratops to make them biologically accurate. I’ve made replicas of different dinosaur’s teeth and claws to raise funding for the museum. I help classify newly donated rocks and minerals when they come in. I have helped create some of our displays in our mineral exhibit. The museum has also given me the privilege to be a part of their lectures and field trips. During these field trips, I would give guided tours of the museum and take the families to hunt for marine fossils on the premises. I have also given lessons at a local school about varying dinosaurs and what it is like being a paleontologist.
How does your research and outreach contribute to the betterment of society in general?
Being a part of the museum gives me the ability in having a part in outreach programs. These types of programs work with younger generations and stimulates the interest for the field at an early age. These are the next generation of paleontologist, chemists, or biologists that will continue to make advancements in science and history. When we work with the younger generations you know amazing things are bound to happen!
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
My advice is to aspiring scientists is never be afraid to put yourself out there. Ask the questions that are pounding in your head. Reach out and talk to that scientist you look up too. Never be ashamed to ask a silly question! Science is founded on hunting down the answers to questions that no one has yet answered.
I recently started a new position as a Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology (UMMP). I am in charge of taking care of the invertebrate fossil collection, which are housed at an off campus facility with all of the other natural history museum collections (anthropology, zoology, and the herbarium). My position involves a lot of moving parts. I took over for someone who had moved the collection twice in the past several years – which is an astronomical endeavor. I have started with working to get a lot of paperwork organized. Specifically the loan paperwork. Research museums loan out specimens to other institutions and borrow specimens from other institutions! Usually there is a lot of paperwork associated with this but not everything is always organized or clear. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working to make sure I know who has specimens of ours and trying to reach out to others to return specimens. I’m nowhere near done but I have a good handle on the last decade, which I consider a victory!
I have recently employed several undergraduate students to help me get a better handle on what is actually in our collection. All of the type and figured specimens are in our local database but they were entered from the card catalog rather than examining the specimens and specimen labels. So, we want to make sure all the information matches and update it if it doesn’t! We are also working to take images of the types to attach them to the specimen records. This is a huge task and I am happy to have some help.
I also have been organizing the collection, after the move there were lots of boxes and pallets with miscellaneous fossils and I’m working to figure out what is what. Some of this was easy, some of it involved going through some really nasty old news paper that was used as packing material decades or even a century ago. It’s really important that the collection stay clean because the specimens are housed in compactor shelving. Meaning that if you are trying to get to one area you may have to move other cabinets and it can be difficult to try to look in different time periods or collections at the same time.
Part of my job includes bringing people into the collection. This could be researchers to study the different animals in the collection or conduct geochemical analyses or even high school students looking to pursue a career in paleontology. Every week I have at least one visitor, which is great for the collection. Next week, two folks from the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department are coming to explore some of our Cenozoic material as they are interested in understanding the ancient climate along the eastern coast of the United States. To do this, they use shells from the collection to reconstruct what the environment may have been like!
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.