Abdur Rahman, Biogeochemist

Hi everyone! I am a postdoctoral candidate at the Geosciences Division, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, India. I have recently submitted my thesis and am now waiting for the final defense/viva. My primary research interest is in the field of biogeochemistry in different ecosystems (terrestrial and aquatic) using stable isotopes.

Man and girl in a lab with a yellow wall, looking at vials.
Trying to explain what we do in our lab to a 6th grade student on National Science Day (NSD) in GeoSIL, Physical Research Laboratory. (We were posing for the pic.)

My current research revolves around the biogeochemical study of the early ocean during the late Neoproterozoic-Cambrian transition period. I obtained limestone rock samples from Marwar Supergroup (Rajasthan, India) and am extracting the remnant of ocean life (organic matter) from those rock samples for stable isotope analysis. I will use carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotopes of organic matter to address the outstanding questions about the early Earth’s biology and associated biogeochemical processes. I am a curiosity driven early career researcher, always motivated to learn new techniques/methods and gain knowledge that would help develop a better understanding of the Earth’s environment. To expand my expertise, I am also involved in various parallel works. In one of my ongoing projects, I am using black carbon in Himalayan lake sediments (produced during the partial combustion of biomasses) to decipher the paleofire events and vegetation history of the region. I am also involved in the establishment of the clumped isotope measurement of carbonate (speleothems) in our lab. Clumped isotopes are a newly introduced technique to reconstruct the temperature of the water body in which carbonate precipitates.

Man walking in a shallow lake holding a tube, with cloudy sky in the background.
Taking a break to pose for photographs during sample collection for the biogeochemical study.

During my Ph.D., I have focused on the reconstruction of the Himalayan environment and lake biogeochemical evolution using stable isotopes in live- and paleo- lake sediments. My Ph.D. work has covered the last 45 ka of Himalayan environmental history and highlighted various extreme cold periods in the region. In one of the studied western Himalayan lakes, the carbon isotopes of occluded organic matter within diatom frustules have shown the influence of catchment geology on the lake carbon-biogeochemical cycle during 45-29 ka. The nitrogen isotopes of bulk sediments and carbon isotopes of authigenic carbonate and diatom in the western Himalayan lake sediments (Manasbal Lake, Kashmir, India) have shown the influence of climate on the lake stratification and associated biogeochemical cycles. Apart from the impact of natural stress, my Ph.D. also focused on the impact of the increasing human population and associated urbanization on the biogeochemistry of Garud Lake, Nainital, Uttrakhand during the last 70 years. This study has been performed using the stable carbon isotopes of organic matter and black carbon along with the nitrogen isotope of bulk sediments.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?

After receiving my high school degree, like any other kid from my village, I was told to go for an early job and get settled. But the rebel child under the guidance of a few wise cousins ended up enrolling for a Bachelor’s degree in Geology at a reputed Central University. Being an avid reader, I connected with the subject in no time. Geology turned out to be more than a mere paper, it took me back to my early village days where I would take several breaks from school to roam around the banks of Ghaghra River (A major tributary of the Ganges, that flows through Uttar Pradesh, India), along with my friends. The little observations made out of sheer curiosity, the colored rocks, the ripples on the sands, the meandering river, all of those childhood observations, all of those many questions and crazy theories made sense then. The time spent in the university and the several departmental field trips brought me a bit closer to nature. Looking at things, sedimentary structures to predict the dip and strikes, it was a fun journey of learning and falling in love with the subject.

Three men in a lake, with their heads just above the blue water, with a blue, clear sky in the background.
Getting relaxed and enjoying the lake with my lab colleague after completing the sample collection.

I eventually followed the course and joined the Masters of Science with Geology as the major. Me and my batchmates were now quite familiar with academia. Like in several other Indian hostel dorms, famous for heated debates and loud late-night discussions we would often end up talking about the career ahead. I still remember that after several long hours, we did manage to agree on a single point, that the most beautiful element a career in research would constantly provide, was the uncertainty in the knowledge acquired and the constant pursuit for truth. For me, pursuing a scientific career means to be a curious student forever in the class of nature.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists?

Based on my personal experience, I would encourage you to be patient, have faith in yourself, be bold and fierce, and always inspire yourself. In this profession, setting a major goal for a long period of time can be frustrating, so I propose defining small objectives for a day or a week and ticking them off as you move ahead. When you reach your objective, you will feel inspired and happy, which is necessary in our field. Another point I’d want to make is that you should be open to criticism, suggestions, and comments from people both inside and beyond your field of expertise. It aids us in our professional development.

Learn more about Abdur by following him on Instagram, Twitter (@shant_admi), and Facebook!

Paolo Abondio, Research Fellow, Molecular Anthropology & Population Genomics

The “masked scientist” in front of the Institute of Anthropology entrance at the University of Bologna, where he performs his bioinformatic magic with human genetic data.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I currently am a Research Fellow at the University of Bologna, where I participate in several projects pertaining human evolution and environmental, as well as biocultural, adaptation. My main occupation is developing and implementing computational, analytical, and statistical methods for large-scale genetic datasets, in order to infer population composition, relationships, dynamics and instances of adaptation due to natural selection. I mainly handle data produced from modern human groups, but also integrate ancient DNA to provide a temporal framework and disentangle episodes of adaptive introgression, where the genetic elements providing evolutionary advantage have been acquired through admixing events with the cousin populations of Homo sapiens (Neanderthals and Denisovans). As part of a team in the highly interdisciplinary field of anthropology, we are trying to answer human-related questions from several viewpoints, integrating molecular expertise with socio-cultural perspectives, as well as geo-archeological and linguistic data. The methodology that we employ is very flexible and can be easily applied to any other living (or extinct) population, provided that reasonably good quality DNA can be recovered.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? I have been interested in science since middle school, where biology and maths were my favourite subjects. I actually started a degree in Physics, but later realized that I wanted to study something more real, concrete and “dirty”, so I switched to Biological Sciences and graduated with a thesis in Biophysics. During my undergraduate degree, I have been particularly fascinated by two courses, Anthropology, and Introductory Bioinformatics (an emerging discipline in Italy at that time). I decided to enroll in an International Master’s Degree in Bioinformatics (something only two Italian universities were offering), where I graduated with a thesis in Molecular Anthropology, studying the differential composition of the Italian population in terms of ancestry and possible adaptive pressures. I then pursued a PhD in Earth, Life and Environmental Sciences, again focusing on human evolution and adaptation to changing environments, dietary influences, socio-cultural and linguistic isolation, as well as the evolution of cultural and behavioral traits in the context of genetic variation. Lately, I am broadening my academic interests towards issues that are close to my heart: neurodegeneration, science education/communication, conservation biology and public health in minority groups. And this is what I love about being a scientist: being able to blur disciplinary boundaries while working at the cusp of knowledge, towards novel fields of study.

The “masked scientist” in front of the poster he is presenting at the XVI National Congress of the Italian Society of Neurology for Dementias. Here, population genomic methods have been applied to contextualize and estimate the age of a rare mutation causing Alzheimer’s disease in Southern Italian families.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Based on personal experience, my advice for the new generation of scientists it would be this: if you want to pursue a career in any field, you must believe in yourself, be fierce and fearless, and know that there are no limits to what you can do. Be patient and open-minded: you will have to deal with despicable people, but also with the greatest and most generous minds you will ever meet. The future of science (and of all other academic fields) is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, so think big, be bold and try to stretch your brain and the boundaries of knowledge as far as you can.

Agathe Toumoulin, PhD, Paleoclimatoecologist

Me, animating a climate modeling workshop with middle school students for a Science day in the lab (CEREGE, Aix-en-Provence, France).

How did you get interested in science in general? To some degree, my family probably played a role by cultivating my curiosity. My dad, by making some electricity home experiments from time to time (I think his favorite, and more impressive to us was: putting a light on from a potato!), my mom by loving plants and growing flowers everywhere, my aunts by occasionally brining my sister and I to zoos and museums. However, I don’t think any of my family and friends would have predict I would work in the science field. Until my 20’s I was more on the road to become stage director, art or theater critic, or even visual artist. After studying theater, languages, philosophy and literature in high school, I decided to start medical studies with the motivation to learn about the human machine functioning. After a few months, I realized it was hard but not exciting at all. Therefore, I decided to move to another discipline and while I was hesitating between art history and biology, I choose the second option. And this was the good one. I will always remember how my BSc botany and zoology classes were captivating. It was like learning about so many aspects of our world I never questioned before: what muscles make an earthworm move? How does a clam breath? What processes enable plants to move? How many lichens are there on the trees around? Without mentioning field trip on country side identifying plants and fungi, or on an island, collecting algae for herbarium… All these experiences really change the way you apprehend your environment! A tipping point in my formation was my first research internship in paleontology, during this experience I measured a hundred of belemnites (an extinct group of marine cephalopods) but more importantly, I realized I wanted to become a researcher. Of course, I feel really lucky that our public education system is (for the moment) not expensive, as compared to most other countries’. This enabled me to test for different branches and find my own. 

Late Eocene Eotrigonobalanus furcinervis fossil leaf (Museum für Mineralogie und Geologie, Dresden, Germany).

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? My work aims at reconstructing deep-time (i.e., millions of years old) environment and climate characteristics using fossil plants (wood and leaves) and Earth System Models. 

An Earth System Model is a numerical tool that calculates the earth’s climate according to a number of parameters. It is often used to predict how the climate will be in the future. It allows us, for example, to estimate how much the earth should warm up for a given increase in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere. For the past, climate models allow us to assess the effects on paleoclimates of big changes, often suggested by fossils, such as changes in continent position, relief, volcanic activity, sea-level, or greenhouse gases concentration.

Fossil plants enable the reconstruction of past local to regional environment conditions. We can use fossil plants in different ways: (1) by identifying them and looking for their current closest cousins (called nearest living relatives). As we know in what conditions these live, we can then hypothesize the related fossil species had close preferences (in terms of temperature, need for water, nutrients); (2) – this is what I prefer by far – by looking at the size and shape (called physiognomy) of the fossil leaves. We know, thanks to numerous measurements of global modern vegetation, that leaf size and shape change according to the conditions in which the plant develops. For example, leaf size changes with the amount of rainfall: leaves are larger in wet areas, where plants are not likely to dry out. 

Examples of results from different climate simulations made with the French Earth System Model (IPSL-CM5A2). Hundreds of parameters can be analyzed! Our experiments use a middle Eocene paleogeography, which explains some differences in continent location!

Here is an example of my work to better illustrate the use of these tools. My MSc internship and PhD were focused on the Eocene climate (between ~56 and 34 Myr ago). We know from several indicators, notably because fossil plants close to extant tropical vegetation and crocodilian bones were found at very high latitudes, near the Arctic Ocean, that this period was globally warmer. Despite on average higher temperatures, this period is particularly known for a long-term climate cooling, responsible for the Antarctic ice-sheet growth! By studying the evolution of leaf shape of a fossil beech leaf assemblage, I tried to see if this cooling was visible in Germany. Then, using climate models, I tried to understand which parameters were responsible for this change. In the different modelling experiments, we tried to understand how the major changes described at that time: changes in paleogeography (more precisely, the Drake Passage opening), drop atmospheric concentration in CO2, Antarctic ice-sheet expansion, and the associated drop in sea level (the growth of continental ice-sheet result in sea-level lowering), may have affected the Eocene climate and if some of these parameters could explain the global cooling!

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? My research aim at better reconstructing the evolution of Earth climate and environment through life history, but we always learn from knowing our past. Eocene temperatures correspond to those predicted for 2300 following the worst climate change scenario (RCP8.5). Studying this period of time may provide some information on the manner a globally warmer climate works. It also constitute the opportunity to test the validity of climate model predictions for the future: paleoclimate modeled can be compared to climate estimates obtained from proxy-data. However, Eocene and modern world aren’t fully comparable, there are important differences, notably in the continent location (ex. North and South America were not connected during the Eocene). This means that we cannot necessarily apply our knowledge of the Eocene to the future. For my part, I find that my research is important for its historical significance, to understand how global biodiversity got here. 

Jurassic coniferous fossil wood from Antarctica, University of Kansas, Paleobotany Collection

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?  During my BSc I get a half time job, as a guide at the Museum of Natural History of Toulouse. It was a great experience that really made me want to connect people to science. Since then, I designed and animated some workshops around biodiversity and climate for children. I am not a professional in Sci Comm, but for me, communicating science starts by establishing an equal relationship between researchers and the general public. We all know things. I like to instill confidence in people, by making them participate, and then share original anecdotes on a given topic. These anecdotes are not necessary complex mechanisms, nor the most recent scientific discoveries, but stimulate curiosity and raise interest, and I think it’s the first step for people to get into science. 

Me, looking for Permian fossil plants in the Lodève Basin (France) during a field trip organized by the association Agora Paleobotanica.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist ? There are different aspect of working in science I really like: 

To marvel and play – To me being a scientist in paleo- is like a game, there are some clues around (and not always your favorite) and you must get some information from that to picture how the environment was millions of years ago. For now, I’ve been working on 35 to 180 Myr old periods which differs through many aspects of our everyday life context. To me working on these ancient landscapes is somehow like traveling (I guess that fiction authors may also feel this way). 

Being part of something bigger – Although, we sometime feel like being in a very specific research niche, there are at least dozens of people working on similar/complementary questions around: you are part of one community! This network structure really opens up research questions that can be addressed. I like contacting people from other country asking for their expertise and exchange.  

Being free – One of the big advantages of research is also that you are relatively free in the work you do and the way you do it. It certainly depends on the labs and teams you’re part of, but in general you manage your time and projects, being your own boss in a way and this is something I really like. I’m currently writing my first postdoctoral research project and I really feel like I can build something that fits me 100%.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

  • Do as many internships as you can: these experiences will help you define your interests and what you want to do, and meet inspiring people.   
  • Do not hesitate to contact / talk to people! Although everybody is busy, people generally like you being interested in their work and may provide you help (e.g. on special methods) or advice (including for your career!). 
  • Do not censor / limit yourself: just because you never worked in a given field/with some methods doesn’t mean you won’t be able to succeed. Believe in yourself and work hard enough to explore research areas that interest you.

Follow Agathe’s updates on her website and Twitter!