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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.