“Do you have vacation for three months?” “Do you even work when classes aren’t in session?” These questions get asked an awful lot to people who are in academia.
Sometimes, it can seem like that! Academia, for all of its unusualness, is a great place to work if you value schedule flexibility, especially when classes aren’t in session. As a matter of fact, as I type this on a Tuesday morning, I’m working from home in my pajamas!
There is a misconception that a professor’s job ends when the semester ends-this couldn’t be further from the truth! So, what do we do during the summer? It varies, depending on our specific positions, but my experience so far has been from someone with a high teaching load (3 lecture courses/semester)
Catch up on scientific literature! During the semester, it can be hard to block off time to read new scientific papers to see what new ideas have been published and to develop ideas on my research further.
Update lectures for next semester! Science changes quickly-this means that professors have to continuously update material to teach students. This summer, I’ll be updating material from my lectures that reflects new understanding of different topics. For example, new research about dinosaur evolutionary relationships that has been published in the past year or two means I need to update my slides on that material!
I also take time during the summer to edit assignments, exams, and lecture material that didn’t quite work the way I wanted it to. I take notes during the semester of the parts of lectures that weren’t engaging enough, or exam questions that may not have been entirely clear. This way, I can be much more prepared for the classes I teach every semester! Many professors also develop new courses during the summer, if they’ll be teaching new courses.
Catch up on service projects! This depends very much from person to person, but academic service is a big part of our jobs that often goes unseen by the public. Many of us serve on committees for professional organizations (e.g., The Paleontological Society). I serve on a grant committee that does the bulk of the work in early summer each year, so I spend a week or so reading grant proposals for researchers undertaking new paleontological research.
Conduct research and field work! During the summer, I have a lot of unscheduled time, which means I can take trips to museums or out to the field without too many scheduling difficulties. Some academics take their entire summer to travel, others only a little bit of time. It really depends. This summer, I won’t be traveling too much-probably only one or two short trips to collect data.
Write papers and grant proposals! The summer is a great time to write and submit papers, as well as grant proposals, both of which are required of a lot of academics. It’s easier to block off time to write when classes aren’t in session. During the summer, I like to write in different places than I do during the semester-instead of my office, I’ll write in coffee shops or at my house for a change of scenery.
Catch up on training! This summer, I’m taking a four-part course through the university to learn how to become a better ally for my LGBTQ+ students, as well as a course in learning how to be an ally for undocumented students. Personally, I like being able to do this during the summer so I have more free time to reflect on what I have learned and think about how to incorporate what I have learned in my classes for the upcoming semester.
Take a break! My schedule during the semester is often jam packed with classes, student appointments, and more. During the summer, I take a little more time to catch up on “life”- go to dentist appointments, run errands, and take some more time to play with my dogs and enjoy my hobbies.
This list is by no means complete, I’m sure, but hopefully you can get a sense as to what academics work on when they aren’t teaching classes! Hope all of you academics out there are having a productive and relaxing summer!
A new stemmed echinoderm from the Furongian of China and the origin of Glyptocystitida (Blastozoa, Echinodermata) S. Zamora, C.D. Sumrall, X-J. Zhu, and B. Lefebvre Summarized by Time Scavengers contributor, Sarah Sheffield
What data were used? A single, beautifully preserved echinoderm (relatives of sea stars and sea urchins) fossil from South China, named Sanducystis sinensis. Rhombiferans are extinct types of echinoderms with diamond shaped plates.
Methods: The new rhombiferan fossil was examined for all preserved features on its body; these features were ‘coded’ as characters for an evolutionary analysis. An example of a character: Does this have a stem? Yes=0; No=1. These characters were also used to code multiple other species of rhombiferan echinoderms. The reason for this was to figure out to what Sanducystis sinensis was most closely related. Computer programs, like PAUP*, take all of the characters coded and determine evolutionary relationships, based on the shared similarities between the species used in the analysis.
Results:Sanducystis sinensis falls within a large group of rhombiferan echinoderms called “Glyptocystitida” (similar to how humans are a large group of mammals). It’s an important find, as its place within the evolutionary tree of life is representative of a type of transitional fossil between a group of early rhombiferans that lack specialized breathing apparati and a group of more advanced, or derived, rhombiferans.
Why is this study important? This study paints a more complete story of how rhombiferans evolved through the Cambrian. It was not clear how the transition from rhombiferans without specialized breathing apparati gave rise to the more derived forms that we saw after the late Cambrian. This new find, Sanducystis sinensis, helps us to understand how that transition happened.
Big picture: Rocks from the late Cambrian (~500-480 million years ago) are very rare worldwide; this, of course, means that there are also very few fossils from this time as well. The late Cambrian is a very important time in Earth’s history, however, so finding fossils preserved from this time is critical towards understanding the evolution of life. Fossil finds, such as Sanducystis sinensis, have the potential to completely change what we currently know about how and when different groups of organisms on Earth evolved.
Members of the Time Scavengers team are writing a ‘Applying to Grad School‘ series. These blog posts are written primarily for undergraduate students who are applying to graduate programs (but will be useful for any transitioning graduate or professional student), and will cover such topics as funding and stipends in grad school, how to write and build a CV, how to network with potential graduate advisors, and how to effectively write statements for your applications. This is the first post in the series on various ways you can get paid to attend graduate school in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.
Jen, Adriane, and Sarah here –
Attending graduate school is an exciting prospect, but you can quickly become overwhelmed with deadlines, things to do, but mostly by the expense of it all. It’s no secret that today’s college undergraduate students are facing increasing tuition costs along with inflated interest rates on loans. Within public 4-year universities and colleges alone, tuition and fees rose on average 3.1% per year from the period of 2008 to 2019. Even within 2-year public colleges (such as community colleges), tuition and fees rose on average 3.0% per year within the same period of time! For student loans, interest rates range from 4.5% to as high as 7%, and that interest is usually compounding (meaning you will pay interest on the interest that your loan accrues over time). It can seem like there’s no way to escape college and obtain an education without paying dearly for it, especially if you want to attend graduate school right or soon after your undergraduate degree.
But fear not, there are several ways in which you can avoid taking out loans while pursuing a graduate degree, both MS and PhD. Since we are all geoscience majors, the advice and information we provide herein is more applicable to graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Below, we discuss a few options to reduce the cost of attending graduate school. We also are very transparent about the debt we accrued during our undergraduate degrees and how that compounded over time. But mainly, we want to explain how you can get paid (yes, you read that correctly!) to go to graduate school.
First, we’ll discuss the different types of assistance you can be granted to go to graduate school. We’d like to stress that we do not advocate for paying for graduate school out of your own money if you’re majoring in a STEM field*, as you should be able to get an assistantship to pay for your tuition and provide a stipend (living expenses)**. *we’re uncertain about non-STEM fields-please look for good resources to help you understand how tuition waivers and stipends work in other fields!
**some STEM industries will pay for their employees to go back to graduate school. This is an awesome option, but not available to everyone.
Assistance within the University
Teaching assistants (TA for short) are graduate (MS and PhD) students who are paid to help teach classes and labs at their university. For example, Adriane taught Historical Geology lab sections at UMass Amherst, and had a blast doing it (so many cool field trips!). As a teaching assistant, you will also be involved with setting up experiments for labs, grading students’ assignments, helping on field trips, or even leading your own field trips! Being a teaching assistant can be a ton of work, but it is a great way to make money and sharpen your skills as an educator (important for folks who want to continue teaching in any capacity after their degree). There may also be opportunities to continue working as a TA over the summer, as these jobs usually do not include summer stipends.
Teaching assistantships often include tuition remission, meaning you are not expected to pay for your education. This is important when you are looking for graduate positions in the university. You want to ensure that you are receiving a stipend and tuition remission. Even though you are getting your education paid for there often are still associated fees you have to pay each semester. These fees can range from 100’s to 1000’s of dollars every semester and cover transportation, athletic, heath, and building fees on campus.
A research assistant (RA) are graduate students who are funded to do research or work on some aspect of a project. Usually, the money to fund an RA comes from the student’s primary academic advisor, or it could come from some other professor in the department. In most cases, an RA is only funded during the academic year, but it’s not uncommon that money for an RA is budgeted to fund the student over the summer. For example, Adriane and Jen were each funded for an entire year from their MS advisor’s NSF (National Science Foundation) grant, where they were able to build a website while working on their own research. The benefit of RA positions is that they are usually more flexible as to when you can get your work done. When Adriane was doing her MS degree as a research assistant, she would spend an entire two days of the week doing RA stuff, that way she had huge chunks of time to focus on her research. The downside to being an RA is that you don’t receive teaching experience or get to interact with students in a formal setting. This isn’t a huge deal, as there are usually opportunities to help professors out teaching their courses while they are away at conferences, doing field work, etc.
Internal University or Departmental Fellowships
Internal fellowships (and grants) are small to large pots of money that you can win from within your university or college. You have to do some research and keep up with deadlines on these because often they have specific requirements. While Jen was at UTK there were several extra fellowships you could apply for as a graduate student. Some were specifically for MS students others for PhD students – some were mixed! One was only for students in their first year and one was only for students in their last year. Jen was fortunate enough to apply for an receive a fellowship through the university to fund the last year of her dissertation. This allowed her to reduce her teaching load and focus more on writing. You can read about it by clicking here.
External Funding Options
There are fellowships, like NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP for short)-you write a proposal for the research you want to work on and submit it. It’s reviewed by experts in the field you want to specialize in. These are incredibly competitive across a national or even international scope, but they are great ways to fund your research! Often, you have to apply to these either before you begin your graduate program or early into your program, so look into it as soon as possible!
There are other options to acquire competitive fellowships, often to finish off your dissertation without being restricted by teaching or other responsibilities that take time away from completing your projects. NASA has a program that graduate students can apply for, but there are restrictions – you already have to be enrolled and your project has to fit whatever the theme of their solicitation is that cycle. Adriane won a similarly competitive fellowship for foraminiferal research, which you can read about by click here.
In some jobs and careers, your employer will reimburse your tuition costs. These are often to benefit your employer, as investing in your education and training will make you a more well-rounded and specialized employee in your field. The amount that your employer will reimburse you also varies; some may provide 50% remission or 100%. This amount can also vary depending on the number of courses you take during your graduate career. If you think your employer offers tuition remission, it is best to have an open and honest conversation with them about how much they will reimburse you for, and how many classes or credits they will cover.
The Cost of Graduate School: Examples
Below is an outline of how each of us paid for our undergraduate, masters (MS), and doctor of philosophy (PhD) degrees.
Undergraduate: Once I left home I was given access to funds from my parents that I could use to pay for school. I lived in the dorms my first two years which used up a lot of this money. I then moved into an apartment and took up three part-time jobs (lifeguard, gym manager, research assistant) to maintain my living and school expenses. This allowed me to save the remainder of the money in my college fund and use it to move to Ohio for my MS program. MS: My first year at Ohio University I was a TA. My first semester I taught lab for Introduction to Paleontology and my second semester I taught Intro to Geology and Historical Geology. My second year I was on an NSF grant as an RA and worked on the Ordovician Atlas project for Alycia. Both summers I was awarded summer pay through this NSF project. My pay at OU was ~$14,000/year. My student fees at OU were ~$600/semester (summer was less like ~$200). Instead of taking out loans I took advantage of a loophole and paid late. There was a payment system but it cost extra. There was no fee (at the time) for simply paying a month late. It took some serious budgeting but was possible to slowly save for these extra fees. PhD: I was a TA all four years at UTK and taught a variety of classes: Intro to Paleontology, Earth’s Environments, Earth, Life, and Time, Dinosaur Evolution. During my time here my department stipend was $15,000 and I earned another $5,000 annual award from the university. I was able to split my pay over 12 months rather than 9 months. I was also able to work extra jobs over the summer at the university to augment my pay. Year 1 I was TA for a 4-week summer course for an extra $1000. Year 2 I taught a 4-week summer course as instructor for $3000. Year 3 I taught governor’s school (4-week program for high school students) for $2000. Year 4 I taught a paleontology summer camp at the local natural history museum for $500 (but also had the fellowship, where I got $10k but was reduced teaching so only received $7.5k from department).
Undergraduate: Full need based scholarship (shout out to UNC Chapel Hill for making my education possible!). My scholarship covered everything but summer school for the most part and I was hired as a federal work study student to pay for books and other necessities. I worked other jobs at the same time-I worked as a geology tutor and a lab instructor, namely, to cover other needs (medical care that wasn’t covered by insurance, transportation, etc.). I took out $7,000 in federally subsidized (i.e., interest doesn’t accrue until you begin paying) to cover summer classes and a required field camp. MS: I was paid as a half RA/half TA for one semester. I worked the remaining 3 semesters as a full TA teaching 3–4 lab courses per semester (I was paid extra to teach in the summer). My base pay was $14,000/year in Alabama. I worked as a tutor for the athletics department one summer to help pay for groceries. I did not take out loans for my degree, though I was not able to save much money. PhD: I was an RA on my advisor’s NSF grant for 2 years and a TA for two years. I also worked as a TA or a full course instructor for 3 of the 4 years. My base pay was $15,000/year in Tennessee. I took out $15,000 total in federally unsubsidized loans (i.e., loan interest began accruing immediately) to cover unexpected medical, family, and car emergencies. I also did small jobs, like tutoring individual students, helping professors, and babysitting to make a little extra money-my PhD department had a rule that we weren’t allowed to work outside tax-paying jobs on top of our assistantships.
AS (Associate of Social Science): I spent four years in community college, and lived at home while doing so. I worked 20–30 hours a week at a retail store to pay for courses and books. My grandmother did help me significantly during this time, so I was able to save up a bit for my BS degree when I transferred. Undergraduate (Bachelor of Science): I took out loans for 3 years worth of classes and research at a public 4-year university, in total about $40,000. I received a research fellowship ($3500) to stay and do research one summer. I still worked at my retail job the first summer and on holidays to make some extra money. MS: The first year I was a teaching assistant and my stipend was about $14,000 for the year. Over the summer, I won a grant from the university ($3000) that covered rent and living expenses. The second year I was a research assistant and made about the same as I did the first year. I think I took out about $5,000 worth of loans to help cover university fees and supplies. PhD: Throughout my first 3.5 years, I was funded as a teaching assistant making $25,000 the first two years, then was bumped up to $28,000 the third year (the teaching assistants at my university are in a union, so we won a huge pay increase). For the last year of my PhD, I won a fellowship (click here to read about it) from a research foundation ($35,000) that pays for my stipend, research expenses, and travel to research conferences. Early in the degree, I took out about $5,000 worth of loans to help cover fees and supplies.
I recently took my geology students on a field trip to Blowing Rocks Nature Preserve on the eastern coast of Florida near Jupiter Island. This class is my upper level Sedimentary Petrology class made up of mostly geology majors (we mostly study the formation and identification of different types of sedimentary rocks, like sandstone and limestone). I wanted to show you all what we saw!
The rock that is shown here is the Anastasia Limestone, which was deposited in the late Pleistocene, which spanned about 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago. The ocean levels were much higher than they are currently, when this rock was made. We know this because the limestone that comprises the Anastasia was made underwater. Now, this limestone is exposed all along the eastern shore of Florida.
This limestone is really cool because once it was exposed, it began weathering in unique patterns. First, the energy of the waves is breaking the rocks down bit by bit. This is something we call mechanical or physical weathering. You can see evidence of this mechanical weathering by looking at how the rocks get narrower closer to the bottom-the waves usually only reach that point at high tide, so the rock above it isn’t nearly as affected (image 1). This mechanical weathering can make a few different types of features: sea arches (image 2) and sea stacks (image 2) are the kinds of things we can see here.
The cool geology doesn’t stop here though! Chemical weathering (i.e., breaking down the rock using chemicals-the most common one is water) also affects the rocks strongly here. Limestone is easily eroded away in the presence of acid, so any acidity in the ocean water or from rain above can wear away the rock in interesting patterns. Water splashes up on top of these rocks from regular wave action-that water slowly erodes the rock away, leaving small pits in the rock (image 3). However, what makes this place famous are the large pipes that are created from a mix of the chemical and mechanical weathering processes here. These pipes are quite literally large cylindrical tubes that have been worn out of the rock through hundreds of thousands of years (image 4). Water, when it comes in from waves, rushes up through these tubes and explodes out of the top! Sometimes, these can spray as high as 50 feet-hence the name of the park, Blowing Rocks (video 1)! As we go forward into the future, these pipes will continue to grow larger because they are continuously being worn down by wave energy.
There were some cool fossils on this trip, too! If you look closely, you can see lots of trace fossils from creatures who made burrows into the rock (image 5) and you can also see a lot of clam and snail fossils (mollusks!) Many of these fossils are broken up and the edges have been rounded-this is because of the higher energy waves constantly breaking them down (image 6). My students and I also found a living Portuguese man o’ war (image 7)- this isn’t a jellyfish because it isn’t a single organism, but it’s a closely related colonial organism. The man o’ war has long tentacles that can give humans very painful (but rarely fatal) stings. If you see one on the beach, don’t touch it! They are fairly common on the eastern coasts of south Florida, so be warned! All in all, my students had a great time on this trip, and they learned a lot about how rocks can change due to weathering over time. I hope you enjoyed it, too!
A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota
Robert A. DePalma, Jan Smit, David A. Burnham, Klaudia Kuiper, Phillip L. Manning, Anton Oleinik, Peter Larson, Florentin J. Maurrasse, Johan Vellekoop, Mark A. Richards, Loren Gurche, and Walter Alvarez
Summarized by Jen Bauer, Maggie Limbeck, and Adriane Lam, who also comment on the controversy below
What data were used?
Data used in this study were identified from a new site, which the authors call Tanis (named after the ancient Egyptian city in the Nile River Delta), in the layers of rocks called the Hell Creek Formation. This formation is famous amongst paleontologists because it contains lots of dinosaur fossils from the late Cretaceous (about 66 million years ago). In this study, scientists found a new layer of fossils within the Hell Creek Formation that is unlike anything paleontologists have seen before. Those who found the site examined the rock’s features and fossils, which includes densely packed fish fossils and ejecta from the Chicxulub meteoric impact. The Chicxulub impact is what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct, and finding a layer of rock that was deposited minutes to hours after the impactor struck Earth is a very rare and exciting find.
This study included a variety of approaches. The rock features (called sedimentology) and fossil features of the Tanis area and event deposit are described to determine what caused this deposit in the first place. The authors also identified other pieces of evidence to aid in better understanding the situation at hand. Ejecta deposits were described as well, in comparison to ejecta deposits that are found closer to the impact site in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
Much of the sedimentology can be related to other aspects of the Hell Creek Formation in southwestern North Dakota that is an ancient river deposit that has some marine influence. In the Cretaceous period, central North America’s topography was very low which allowed for a seaway to form. This was called the Western Interior Seaway, and was home to a diverse number of animals such as plesiosaurs, mososaurs, large sharks, and ammonites. Several rivers likely drained into the Western Interior Seaway, much like the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf of Mexico today.
From studying the characteristics of the rocks within the Tanis site, the authors of the study concluded that this site was part of one of the rivers that drained into the Western Interior Seaway long ago. When the impactor struck Earth in the Yucatan Peninsula, it send huge waves (tsunamis) into the Western Interior Seaway and into the rivers that drained into the seaway. These huge waves pushed fish, ammonites, and other creatures into the seaway and into the rivers. The Tanis site is one such place where these animals that were pushed into the rivers were deposited and preserved. But not only were marine animals preserved at the site, but also land plants, such as tree limbs and flowers.
The fossils found in the Tanis deposits are all oriented in the same direction, indicating that they have been aligned by flowing water. The abundance and remarkable preservation of these fossil fishes and tree limbs suggest a very rapid burial event (the best preserved fossils are often the ones that experience very quick burial after death). The orientation of the fossils at the site along with the mix of marine and terrestrial life further supports that these fossils were deposited from very large waves from the asteroid impact disturbed this region.
Within the Tanis deposit there are also ejecta spherules, microkrystites, shocked minerals, and unaltered impact-melt glass. These are features that are commonly associated with the Chicxulub Impactor. When the impactor struck Earth, it was so hot it melted the underlying rock, sending tiny bits of molten rock into the atmosphere. These bits of molten rock quickly cooled and eventually fell back down to Earth, where today they are found all over the world. Today, these ejecta spherules and impact melt-glass all mark the huge end-Cretaceous mass extinction event that occurred 66 million years ago.
Why is this study important?
The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K/Pg) extinction event is one of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinction events (click here to read more about extinction). Like many extinction events, it is often difficult to determine the specific causes of mass destruction. However, the K/Pg extinction event is unique because scientists have many lines of evidence that a huge impactor struck Earth, sending clouds of ash and gas into Earth’s atmosphere. The new Tanis site that the authors uncovered preserves a snapshot into this catastrophic event.
This finding is very important because scientists know better understand what happened directly after the impactor hit Earth. In addition, several new species of fish have been discovered at the Tanis site, which will be important for additional studies about fish evolution through time.
DePalma, R.A., Smit, J., Burnham, D.A., Kuiper, K., Manning, P.L., Oleinik, A., Larson, P., Maurrasse, F.J., Vellekoop, J., Richards, M.A., Gurche, L., and Alvarez, W. 2019. A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1817407116
What’s all the commotion about?
It’s not every day that paleontologists make the national news, but this paper and the article written about it in the New Yorker (click here) caused a lot of commotion within the paleontological world. This is a great and potentially groundbreaking find, however, what caused the commotion was the sensationalist attitude of the New Yorker piece that left a lot of paleontologists uncomfortable. So what’s the big deal here? We break down a few (not all) of the issues with this article:
1. Breaking of Embargo
Although the published study is very exciting and will add greatly to our knowledge about the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event, the media hype around the study was handled very poorly for several reasons. All published studies go through peer review. This is when a paper is sent out to multiple other scientists who read the article and make sure that it is scientifically sound and is a good piece of science based upon other good science. During this waiting period while the paper is going through peer review or being finalized with publishers, the authors should avoid talking with popular media or publicizing their paper. When publishing in academia there is a period of time (embargo) where access to the findings of a paper is not allowed to the public. This is for a variety of reasons, having to do with copyright transfer, finances to support the journal or publisher, and more.
The New Yorker press article was released almost an entire week before being available for the community to examine. This means that the embargo was violated.
The reason embargos exist is to give journalists and the researchers they talk to some time to look at fresh findings and determine what the story is, whether it’s worth telling, and if there’s anything suspicious about what’s presented. – Riley Black (Slate article)
2. Paleontologists as Rough-and-Tough Dudes (and Unusual Folks)
The New Yorker article was also controversial because it framed paleontologists as belonging to a narrow demographic (read: white men who love the outdoors). Not all of us in paleontology are men, not all of us are white, and not all of us came into geology loving the outdoors (see the great diversity of folks working in paleontology on our ‘Meet the Scientist’ blog). Paleontologists have had to work very hard to break through the stereotypical conception of what we do and who we are, and this article did not help to address the great diversity of scientists working in the field of paleontology.
In addition, the New Yorker article only quoted and interviewed other male scientists, many of whom have been working in the field for decades. The article left out the voices of women and early-career researchers who have made valuable contributions to the field of paleontology. For more on this, read the Slate article by science writer, Riley Black “It’s Time for the Heroic Male Paleontologist Trope to Go Extinct”.
This article also reinforces the “lone-wolf” stereotype of geologists and paleontologists-a man going out west, few to no other people around, and spending his days looking for paleontological treasure. This image is perpetuated through the article because the author chose to continually highlight the privacy and secrecy asked by the De Palma. While this is certainly an attitude held by some paleontologists, the reality is that the majority of us work in teams. Time Scavengers is run by a large team of people and so is our research! Like working in any field, we all have our strengths and better science happens when we invite people to work with us who have different strengths and can help us.
Lastly, the article frames paleontologists in a not-so-flattering light. In one paragraph, the article states “…I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people).” Firstly, what does unusual even mean? The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) fields are full of intelligent, diverse, and colorful folks from all walks of life. To imply that any one branch of science has ‘its share of unusual people’ is unfair and regressive.
3. Dinosaurs as the Star of the Show
Paleontology is not just diverse in terms of the people who work in the field, but also in terms of the different types of life that we work with. For example, our Time Scavengers team, we have folks who work with fossil plankton and echinoderms. In fact, most paleontologists work with invertebrates- animals that do not have backbones, or any bones at all. Some of the most foundational findings in paleontology are based on the fossil record of invertebrates and early vertebrates. Regardless, most of the public’s fascination lies with dinosaurs (we understand, they were gigantic, ferocious, and unlike anything that’s alive today).
However, this fascination with dinosaurs can lead to over exaggeration of studies and sensationalizing, which is exactly what happened with this article. The published study of the Tanis site only mentions one dinosaur bone out of all the fossils found. The real story here is about the wonderful assortment of fish, tree, and flower fossils, some of which are completely new to paleontologists.
Dr. Steve Bursatte, Paleontologist at University of Edinburgh commented on both the New Yorker article and the PNAS article on his Twitter account, click here to read more. He comments on the broken embargo and how the New Yorker article sensationalized the ‘dinosaur’ side of the story.
4. Proper Handling of Museum-Quality Specimens
The article that was published in the New Yorker raised a lot of concerns within the paleontology community regarding the handling and storage of the fossils that were found at the Tanis site. It is clear from the article that DePalma had a bad experience early on with fossils that he had loaned a museum not being returned to him, however, by maintaining control over the management of his specimens, it undermines those people working in museums who have degrees and years of experience handling fossil and other specimen collections. Anyone who has borrowed specimens from a museum knows the immense amount of paperwork that goes in on all ends to make sure the specimens leave a well documented trail.
Jess Miller-Camp, Paleontology Collections Manager and Digitization Project Coordinator at Indiana University commented on the New Yorker article and addressed her concerns as a museum professional, click here to read her Twitter thread. She comments on the process of loaning specimens to and from museums and proper ettiqute. Read her thread to learn more about this and why museums should be asked to comment.
In 1997, a T. rex nicknamed Sue was sold at a Sotheby’s auction, to the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, for more than $8.3 million.
This quote is misleading. No museum would have adequate funds to secure Sue. The California State University system, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and other individual donors aided in purchasing Sue for the Field Museum. The Field Museum rallied resources to ensure this valuable specimen remained in a public institution.
In addition to proper storage and archiving of fossils, one of the key tenets of any kind of scientific research is reproducibility– how well can other scientists replicate the results that you got. In paleontology, being able to look at the exact same fossils that another scientists looked at is a key part to reproducibility, as well as allowing the science of paleontology to advance. Whenever a paleontologist finds something they think is “new” to science, or is a really important find (special preservation, currently undocumented here, etc.) if you want to publish a paper on that fossil, the fossil needs to be placed in a public institution like a museum or a similarly accredited fossil repository. This way, future scientists are able to track down that fossil you published on and continue working on understanding it, or using it in other studies. Keeping fossils that are published on in museums is also critical because it ensures that that fossil has a safe place to be stored after being worked on and is less likely to be lost in an office or lab space!
5. Respecting the Land and Indigenous People
In the field of paleontology, people, who are more often than not white, venture into another country or a part of the ‘wilderness’ to find fossils and sites that are completely new and never-before-discovered or seen. These lands that contain fossils were owned by indigenous people long before Europeans arrived in North America, and were likely known about centuries before. Often, when sensational popular science paleontology articles are published, the authors leave out the voices of indigenous people and respect for their land. In the New Yorker article, there was no mention of the indigenous people that lived in the Dakotas, or how their ancestors perceived the dinosaur and fish fossils in the area. To frame amazing paleontological finds as being in desolate wastelands is harmful and erases the narratives of people who have lived in these lands for centuries.
For a more thorough discussion on this topic, click here to read the Twitter thread by Dr. Katherine Crocker.
Click here to read a article written by Dr. Roy Plotnick in Medium that also summarizes the issues and causes of commotion surrounding this astounding find.
This post will focus on something that can be a little confusing if you’re not a researching scientist and that is how we publish our research!
So we’re going to start this with assuming that we already have a scientific study that has been written down. A paper generally follows this pattern: an introduction of what your study is about and why it matters, background information to help the reader learn a bit about the broader material that your study fits in with, methods and materials (i.e., how you did your study and what did you use to do it?), the results of your study, the discussion of your results (i.e., what do your results mean?), the conclusions (summary of your results and their meaning along with any future work that might rely on this specific paper), acknowledgments (i.e., thanking people who helped you collect data, supported you during this process with helpful comments, or anyone who helped pay for your research), and references (i.e., the other published papers that you cited in your article that helped explain related information or gave credibility to the types of methods you used, etc.
So, now that we have ourselves an awesome study, let’s get it published! Should be pretty straightforward, right? Well….not exactly. There are a lot of steps to publishing. Some papers can be published relatively quickly (a few months) whereas others can easily take longer!
Step One: Choose a journal
There are a bunch of journals that publish scientific papers. In general, you should choose a journal that requires peer-review (more on this process later). All reputable science journals require your paper to be read by a number of scientists (usually two or three) in your field to make sure your paper will be a good contribution to science. Second, you should choose a journal that publishes papers similar to the one you wrote. What that means is that not all journals publish the same things. Some journals specialize (e.g., The Journal of Paleontology publishes papers that focus on paleontology), whereas other journals, like Nature, will publish all types of science papers that they think their readers will find interesting. In my most recent publication, I chose the Journal of Paleontology. Once a journal is chosen, you have to format your paper to the journal standards using the correct font/font size, reference style, etc. Every journal has its own format and most journals won’t agree to read your paper unless it’s largely formatted correctly.
Step Two. Submit!
This takes place via an online platform and can take a little bit of time (an hour or two, usually). You upload: your text for the paper, any images you have for the paper, tables, data, and explanations of the data. You also upload a cover letter explaining to the editors of the journal why your paper belongs in their journal (e.g., this paper is of similar interest to readers that your other paper, published last year, was). You are often asked to suggest reviewers to read your paper. This is because you, the author, probably know more experts in your field (in my case, echinoderm paleontology and evolution) than the editors do. It really helps them when you can suggest a few reviewers (usually between two and four).
Step Three. Editor’s decision!
The editor will read your cover letter and your paper and decide if it’s a good fit for their journal. If it is a good fit, they will send your paper out to a few reviewers, specialists that can comment on the analyses you used, the validity of your conclusions, and whether it’s significant enough for publication.
Step Four. The reviews!
Peer reviewers have a set amount of time to read and comment on your paper (usually two weeks to a month). Peer reviewers are generally not paid for their work-it’s something called “academic service”. Usually, people who publish papers expect to review one or two papers for each one that they publish. The reviews will have a mixture of positive, neutral, and negative comments. They’re focused on strengthening your paper, so you might see comments on making certain sentences more straightforward, making images higher resolution so features can be seen, or comments that require more work (e.g., a reviewer might think you need to run different analyses to be considered for publication). Overall, comments should be helpful (not cruel) and they should be about the paper NOT the author (e.g., “this paragraph needs restructuring to make the point clearer”, as opposed to “the author didn’t write this paragraph clearly”).
Each peer reviewer will mark your paper as one of the following: “accepted with no revisions”; “accepted with minor revisions”; “accepted with major revisions”; “revise and resubmit”; and “not publishable in this journal”. Major revisions usually means running new analyses or rewriting large portions of text. Just because a paper isn’t accepted doesn’t make it bad, either. It may very well mean that the reviewers felt that it didn’t belong in that particular journal! Usually, the editor will take the decisions of the peer reviewers and make a final decision on whether the paper will be accepted.
My most recent paper was accepted with minor revisions-I had to rephrase some of my conclusions and reviewers had me strengthen some of my arguments by using data from other recently published papers. All in all, peer review is a very important step towards making your paper better!
Step Five. Revising.
Very, very few papers are rated as “accepted without revisions”. Usually, reviewers point out a few things, at least, that could make your paper stronger. For most journals, you have to “respond” to these. Meaning, you take the comment by the reviewer and state that you agree with the change or disagree and provide your reasons why. In my personal papers, this could range from “this sentence isn’t clear-rewrite” and I would respond with “Yes, I see how this could be unclear. I’ve rephrased to XXX”. Or, a reviewer might say, “I disagree with this interpretation based on X. This should be revised to say Y”. I could respond with “I disagree with the reviewer’s interpretation and here’s the evidence to back up my claim”. I could amend the text in my paper to strengthen my argument and provide more evidence for my claim, too.
Step Six. Are we done yet? Well….no. Not yet.
Once you get the reviews and make all of the edits, you have to go back to step two: submit! Once you do this, the editor will determine if the changes you have made are sufficient or if it needs to go through a secondary round of peer review (in which case, please return to step four!) Once the editor has decided your paper is acceptable for publication, the editor will make sure your paper conforms to all journal standards and there are no glaring issues (e.g., you forgot to label your scale bar or forgot to put a reference for an in-text citation).
Step Seven. Proofs!
Copyeditors have the job to go through your paper line-by-line, word-by-word to make sure everything is grammatically correct, properly cited, and has no typos. They’ll send you a copy of your paper in the proper format-with all of the images set on the page, looking just how it will look printed in the journal or online. Your job is to go through the paper carefully to make sure you don’t see any extra mistakes or typos.
Step Eight. Celebrate!
Your paper will be published online very soon. Great work!
I took a geoscience education class as an elective my senior year of college. One of our first assignments was to draw a picture of a scientist. That was all the direction we received from the professor. And yet, even with this vague assignment, all of the students (yes, including me) drew the exact same thing: a white man with messy hair and a lab coat. Why?
Science has had a long history of discrimination and exclusion. This shouldn’t be a surprise: since science is done by humans, and humans have shaped how we view scientists through centuries. Because of this, many of us have shaped in our minds the image of a scientist- the one I described above. And that’s something I want to change.
My geology classes are primarily taken by introductory students-I teach hundreds of students every year, from every conceivable life experience. And many of these scientists that we talk about in class-Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, James Hutton, Alfred Wegener- look very similar. And while all of these scientists made incredible contributions to science, we often overlook equally incredible contributions by scientists that didn’t fit the mold of the ‘typical’ scientist. I wanted to change that. So, in my classes, we started a “Scientist of the Week” segment to highlight the achievements of all kinds of scientists. I began making a list for myself- this list started with the scientists that I have heard of- famous scientists that lived long ago or scientists that I’ve read about recently and even scientists just starting out their careers. My list was subdivided into many categories-women in STEM, Native/Indigenous in STEM, Black in STEM, military veterans in STEM, Deaf/hard of hearing in STEM, LGBTQ+ in STEM, etc. So far, I have over one hundred scientists on my list and I’m adding more daily.
I show a photo of the scientist to my students and tell them a little bit about their story during lecture and provide a written blurb of their achievements for my students to read later. One of our recent scientists was Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced, an astronomer from Puerto Rico (who now works in South Africa). She lost her eyesight during her undergraduate education; after she lost her sight, she developed programs to transfer her data into audible sound so that she could continue to analyze her research in a method that best suited her. Another recent example was a friend of mine, Dr. Rene Shroat-Lewis, who is a paleontologist. She is also a veteran and served in the US Navy-she gave good advice to veterans returning to college on how to find their future path. Many of the scientists I highlight, I also highlight how discrimination shaped their experiences in the sciences and how discrimination has shaped how some of these scientists are remembered in history. For example, we recently talked about Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who took the first image of DNA’s structure. Her work was famously shown to James Watson and Francis Crick, who used her data to finish their analysis of DNA. They later collected the Nobel Prize for their work, while Franklin’s work was left largely ignored. James Watson later wrote in an autobiography about Franklin, insinuating she wasn’t bright enough to understand her scientific data. James Watson has been recently featured in the news for asserting racist views. My class and I discussed how the science community for many decades chose to ignore Watson’s racism and sexism, to the detriment of the career’s and safety of traditionally discriminated groups of people in science.
I want to share these stories because they mirror the experiences of many of my students. My university, The University of South Florida, serves a broad diversity of students. I want students to see scientists that share their backgrounds-science doesn’t belong to men, to able-bodied people, to white people, to heterosexual people, to cis people, to people with Phds., to any religion or lack of religion, or to any economic class. Science belongs to everyone. However, I don’t feel that it is right to only highlight the awesome stories of scientists in underrepresented groups without also highlighting how discriminatory attitudes have shaped our history of science. Scientists must reflect on this history to always make sure that we are working towards building an inclusive community.
I have only been doing this for a few months, so I haven’t been able to compile data on how my students are engaging with the material. I have had a few students tell me their feelings, so I do have some anecdotal evidence. One student told me that she felt more confident to apply to medical school, after seeing scientists that looked like her and shared many of her experiences. Another student told me she had never seen a Native scientist highlighted in a classroom before-she sent the Scientist of the Week to members of her community and started learning about other Native scientists. I’m not naïve enough to believe that this Scientist of the Week exercise is enough to “fix” the significant challenges the science community faces in terms of diversity and inclusion. Changing the science community to reflect the diversity we have in the world will require much more work. But this is an effective way to introduce large groups of students to a history of science that isn’t nearly as often told.
If you’re interested in doing a similar project with your classes or if you have suggestions for scientists to highlight (self-nominations encouraged!), come talk to me! You can find me on twitter @sarahlsheffield
If I had a dime for every time I heard this sentence…well, let’s just say I’d probably be free of student loans by this point! I teach hundreds of introductory geology and the large majority (95% or so) are not science majors. So, suffice to say, I teach students with a range in interest and self-assumed ability in science. But after three semesters of teaching full time and nearly 1,000 students, I’m putting a ban on this phrase in my classes and I’ll tell you why.
I want to talk about what it does to your ability to learn when you come into a classroom with the idea that you’re bad at something. You come in with a mental block that will stay with you for the duration of the class. If you struggle with the material, you’ll only give yourself a confirmation bias (see? I don’t get this stuff. I must be bad at science/math/French/whatever it is). How are you supposed to learn with that attitude? You can’t! And before you say “it’s easy for you to say-you’re a scientist with a Ph.D. You weren’t bad at science”. This simply isn’t true.
I struggled with learning math and science through middle school, high school, and through college. I’d sit down to study-I’d feel overwhelmed instantly. I’d tell myself “you’re not good at this stuff” so much that no matter how hard I’d study, I’d second guess myself on just about every problem, leading to even worse self esteem (and not surprisingly, worse grades on assignments). By the time I got to classes like Calculus and Physics in college, I had only made this even worse for myself. I told my professors when I went for help “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at chemistry”. Finally, a professor looked at me in my final math class (Calculus II) and said, “Sarah, you know you’re actually quite good at math. You just need to give yourself a little more time to learn it. And you need to be kind to yourself”. That idea stayed with me for a very long time- it freed me to be patient with myself. And to let me love learning without the fear of grades a little bit more. I made my highest grade on a college math exam that semester (a B-!) and you know what-I was (and still am) proud of myself for that exam grade-I even hung it on my apartment fridge for the entire rest of the semester so I could celebrate it every day. Achievement isn’t always measured by A’s!
Many of us (myself included) automatically assume that what we’re good at and what comes easily to us is one in the same. On the flip side, we assume that we’re bad at things we’re not automatically good at, especially in the world of academics. This simply isn’t true. To take an easy example, one that you’re familiar with if you’re reading this blog, is learning to read. Learning to read is incredibly complex! It took you months to years just to master your alphabet- learning to recognize each individual letter. Then, it took you even longer to figure out how to string bizarre patterns of these letters together to form words, sentences, and paragraphs. No became good at reading overnight-it’s a skill that you worked on for years. And, just like reading, none of us were born to learn science instantly! It takes time to learn how to learn science, just like you learn anything else.
So how can you boost your confidence in science? I’m glad you asked! If you’re taking a high school or college course, ask for help. Visit your professors and ask them to help you! We can explain concepts to you in different ways, help you relate the knowledge to something you’re more familiar with, or just assure you that you’re on the right track. Many times, my students have asked questions that have forced me to learn how to make a concept clearer (so professors actually really appreciate it when you tell us what you’re struggling with). Also, seek out cool articles or blogs or even popular science books in the subject you’re learning about! It can really help to boost your enthusiasm about a concept, which can help your confidence, too.
So give yourself permission to be patient with yourself. Science may not come easily you to-it’s never come easily to me. I worked hard to pass chemistry and even geology classes (looking at you, structure and tectonics!). It’s OK to love something that takes you more time to learn. And it’s also OK to pick a major or to take classes in something that you might need a little more help with. Science is a wide and complex field that takes dedication to master. It can take years to learn how to learn science to the point where you feel confident enough to proclaim, “I’m good at science!”- so why do so many of us automatically label ourselves bad at science? Just like learning to read, learning science isn’t easy! It takes time!
So here’s my warning to my students starting this semester-I’m no longer going to let you say that you’re bad at science in my class (and I don’t want to hear it from people reading this blog, either!). Your science education is a work in progress- and we’re going to work together to help you love science.
A re-interpretation of the ambulacral system of Eumorphocystis (Blastozoa, Echinodermata) and its bearing on the evolution of early crinoids
by: Sarah L. Sheffield and Colin D. Sumrall Summarized by Sarah Sheffield
What data were used? New echinoderm fossils found in Oklahoma, USA, along with other fossil species of echinoderms. The new fossils had unusual features preserved.
Methods: This study used an evolutionary (phylogenetic) analysis of a range of echinoderm species, to determine evolutionary relationships of large groups of echinoderms.
Results:Eumorphocystis is a fossil echinoderm (the group that contains sea stars) that belongs to the Blastozoa group within Echinodermata. However, it has unusual features that make it unlike any other known blastozoan: it has arms that extend off of the body, which is something we see in another group of echinoderms, called crinoids. Further, these arms have a very similar type of arrangement to the crinoids: the arms have three distinct pieces to them (see figure). Researchers placed data concerning the features of these arms, and the rest of the fossils’ features, into computer programs and determined likely evolutionary relationships from the data. The results indicate that Eumorphocystis is closely related to crinoids and could indicate that crinoids share common ancestry with blastozoans.
Why is this study important? This study indicates that our understanding of the big relationships within Echinodermata need to be revised. Without an accurate understanding of these evolutionary relationships, we can’t begin to understand how these organisms actually changed through time-what patterns they showed moving across the world, how these organisms responded to climate change through time, or even why these organisms eventually went extinct.
The big picture: This study shows that crinoids could actually belong within Blastozoa, which could change a lot of what we currently understand about the echinoderm tree of life. Overall, this study could help us understand how different body plan evolved in Echinodermata and how these large groups within Echinodermata are actually related to one another. Data from this study can be used in the future to start to understand evolutionary trends in echinoderms.
Citation: Sheffield, S.L., Sumrall, C.D., 2018, A re-interpretation of the ambulacral system of Eumorphocystis (Blastozoa, Echinodermata) and its bearing on the evolution of early crinoids: Palaeontology, p. 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1111/pala.12396
To read more about Diploporitans please click here to read a recent post by Sarah on Palaeontology[online].
Do you ever see pictures of beautiful geology all over the world and think “WOW, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see that in person”? Well, think again. This post is dedicated to helping you find amazing geological finds in a place I can guarantee you will visit just about every day: the bathroom (and no, I’m not just talking about coprolites)!
The goal of this post is to teach you a little about the types of rocks you might see the next time you’re in a restaurant bathroom, a bathroom at the beach, the library bathroom, or even the bathroom in your own house! You might be thinking “oh, but what can I learn from a bathroom?!” Well, you just might be surprised. So, let’s get to learning!
Our first stop is a small restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. The food was good, but the real treat was finding the granite countertops inside the bathroom (Figure 1)! Take a look! Granite is an intrusive igneous rock: meaning, the magma from which the rock was made cooled slowly underground. We know this because of the very large crystals that we can see! Crystals grow from the liquid magma; the longer they take to cool, the larger they grow. Now, let’s look more closely at these big crystals. If you look at the large, light pink colored crystals where my finger is pointing you might see that they are what we call “zoned”- meaning, there are alternating circles of slightly different colors inside the crystals- their rounded shape means we’d assign the term “concentric zoning” to them. This actually tells us something really cool about their cooling temperature!
Magma cools at different rates- depending on where it is on Earth or the types of materials from which the magma is made. This rate of cooling determines how and when certain minerals form, or crystallize. In other words, geologists know quite well at what temperature a mineral will form within a magma chamber as it cools down. This predictable pattern of mineral formation with cooling temperatures is called Bowen’s Reaction Series (Figure 2). When this happens, it means the chemistry of the still-liquid magma changes quite a bit!
To put this into a more delicious and more relatable example, think about a giant jar of Starburst-with red, pink, yellow, and orange evenly mixed in. Let’s say you give this jar to me (I really love Starburst). I will preferentially eat all of the orange ones out of it; then the pink; then the red; and finally, we’ll only be left with yellow (gross, who eats the yellow ones?!). We’ve changed the overall composition of the magma (i.e., the jar of Starburst) by preferentially pulling out one type of material in a specific pattern. Now, take a look at the giant crystal my finger is pointing to- the zoning is going back and forth between a sodium and a calcium rich solution in the feldspar (the name of the mineral)-this indicates that the temperature of the magma where this was cooling was changing slightly, alternating between a little hotter and a little cooler.
Now granite is really cool and it’s a very common bathroom countertop, so let’s look at another example (Figure 3)! This granite was part of a larger piece of rock that was installed in a private home bathroom in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This little piece was leftover, so the countertop store let me have it! This granite is similar to the granite from above, but it doesn’t have any zoning, meaning it all cooled without any weird changes in temperature. However, it does have one pretty cool feature-the garnets! These garnets (the little red crystals) are of the almandine variety. Almandine is a type of garnet that has a lot of iron and aluminum in it. Garnet forms in granite as an accessory mineral (meaning, not a major component) and different garnets can mean different things. In this particular sample, this almandine garnet means the magma was aluminous; meaning, there was a lot of aluminum in this magma!
I found this gem at a women’s bathroom in the San Francisco airport (SFX) last year (Figure 4)! This rock is called a migmatite. A migmatite is unique in that it is a cross between an igneous (formed directly from cooled magma or lava) and a metamorphic rock (a rock that was exposed to heat and pressure after its original formation). The dark and the light material you see here are from two totally different processes. The light material here is mostly quartz (the same mineral that we call amethyst or rose quartz–quartz occurs in a variety of colors). The lighter material is much more viscous-meaning, it resists flowing (like honey or molasses), while the darker stuff (primarily from minerals called pyroxene or hornblende) has a lower viscosity and flows more easily. Now, do you see how the light colored material exhibits small and irregular folds? These folds are what geologists call “ptygmatic”. These ptygmatic folds generally occur at pretty high temperatures and pressure; these variables cause the layers to fold and buckle the way that they do because of the differences in viscosity. The high temperature and pressure, along with the high viscosity of the light material, will cause these types of folds to form (these are also known as “passive folds”).
I recently saw this one (Figure 5) at the St. Petersburg beach in Florida, pretty close to where I live. These blocks are part of the public bathroom walls and as you can see, these bathroom walls are chock full of fossils! Wow! These fossils are from Florida and they’re pretty recent–no more than 10-20 million years old. They’re also primarily mollusks, the large group that contains octopuses, clams, snails, and oysters. Imaged here are snail fossils-you can identify these snails by their long, delicate shells- and clam fossils-you can identify those by the much larger shells that have ridges along the edges. These types of fossils are called “molds”-this means that the shell itself has been worn away and all that’s left is the sediment that either filled in the shell or the sediment that formed around the shell. The internal molds are where you can see an actual 3D shape of the inside of the shell, whereas the external molds are where you only see an impression of the shell.
Last but not least, my mom snapped this picture of her bathroom just for this post (thanks, Mom!)! Labradorite is a beautiful mineral-it’s a type of feldspar, which is in the same group as the lovely pink minerals seen in the granite in Figure 1. What makes labradorite so different, though, is that this feldspar doesn’t form in granite-it forms in a very different type of rock, like basalt! Basalt is an extrusive igneous rocks, so it forms from lava that cools at the Earth’s surface. Basalt is found in places like Hawaii, where it comes out of volcanoes, or at mid-ocean ridges, where new seafloor is being made. Basalt is mafic, meaning that it is full of heavy minerals like iron and magnesium. Labradorite is famous for its iridescent sheen-you can see it here in Figure 6!
I hope that this post has shown you that you don’t need to travel to fancy and far away locations to see real and beautiful geology up close. Sometimes, interesting geology can be as close as the nearest bathroom! Next time you see one of these counters, stop and take a look! What do you see? Do you see fossils? Garnets? Zoning? Do you see something entirely different? Before I go, I’d like to thank geologists Cameron Hughes, Zachary Atlas, Elisabeth Gallant, and Jeffery Ryan for help with identifying some of the details in these rock samples!