Sinjini’s Geological Society of America Connects 2021 Experience

Sinjini here–

The Geological Society of America (GSA) annual meeting is one of the biggest geology conferences, which is attended by over 5000 geologists every year. GSA is full of opportunities for everyone – students, academics, early career researchers, K-12 teachers as well as industry professionals. Despite the international travel restrictions, researchers located outside of the USA including students could participate in the meeting this year due to the hybrid mode of the conference. International researchers recorded and uploaded their talks and were present over the zoom platform to answer questions from the audience during their presentation timeslot. With the valuable assistance from Time Scavengers, GSA, Jackson School of Geosciences, and my Ph.D. supervisor, I could attend and present a poster on my preliminary research results at GSA Connects 2021 in Portland, Oregon. The poster was about taxonomic assessment of macrofaunal communities from the Early Jurassic of Morocco. It was my first GSA poster presentation, and I received a lot of constructive feedback on my poster. It was also good to discuss science with fellow researchers who stopped by my poster; sometimes I learned about their research, and at other times I received intriguing interdisciplinary ideas. I realized posters are an extremely effective way to receive feedback when presenting preliminary results and there is ample scope to interact with other researchers, while showcasing my research. 

Poster session during GSA 2021

Apart from my poster presentation, I attended several talks. In the evenings, I visited the exhibit halls and attended receptions, which were organized by the different GSA divisions and communities within the broader GSA. My day one at GSA 2021 started with the mass extinction technical session. My research focuses on triggers and kill mechanisms associated with mass extinctions, and hence, the mass extinction session was perfect to start the conference with. I attended several other paleontology and paleoecology sessions the same day. In the evening, I explored the different booths in the exhibit halls and then attended the Geology and Society division’s social event called, “New Terranes” (formerly known as Rocks and Hops). I was the student representative of the Geology and Society division from 2018-2020, where I worked with an excellent group of geoscientists dedicated in integrating the science to the society. I met the board members with whom I worked previously, while making new connections at the reception. 

I started my day two with a geochemistry session, specifically about applications of isotopes in carbon cycle and their correlation with mass extinctions. After the geochemistry session, I went to another session on trace fossils. In the afternoon, I attended a technical session on geoscience education. It was an interactive session, where there was active audience participation, for example, for one of the talks we (the audience) were divided into small groups to answer how a mountain belt evolved tectonically. During another presentation, we interacted with people sitting next to us to understand the survival and extinction of reef ecosystems. By collaboratively working through each of the 15 minutes presentations, I could effectively learn about topics outside of my research area by applying the hands-on techniques as demonstrated by the speakers. After the technical sessions, I attended the “GSA International” reception. The GSA international division works to establish collaborative relationships with GSA and other scientific societies worldwide. Anyone could be a member of the division, including international researchers who work worldwide or in the US as well as US researchers who work internationally. There were delegates from Nepal, Egypt, Morocco, Chile, Colombia, and from different US universities at the reception. Apart from scientific knowledge, I also got an opportunity to learn about the work and social cultures of the different countries. There were delegates from the GSA foundation and Fulbright Scholarship Commission as well. It was great to know about the amazing geoscience work the division does such as holding conferences, workshops, and lecture sessions globally. In addition to the GSA Geology and Society and the GSA international reception, I attended the Jackson School of Geosciences friends and alumni event. It was my department’s reception, where I interacted with recent graduates and alumni of my department. 

GSA international reception (photo credits: Dr. Nazrul Khandaker)

In addition to the paleontology and geoscience education sessions, I attended the Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE) session, where representatives from different organizations participating in the URGE program presented about their institute pods and their plan forward. Overall, although the number of people were comparatively lower than other years, it was a successful meeting. There were plenty of technical sessions to stay updated on the state-of-the-art research, as well as ample opportunities to meet new scientists to enhance one’s professional network.

Sinjini Sinha, Paleontology Ph.D. Candidate

Sinjini ready to dissect an extant bony fish to study the anatomy of the fish at University of Alberta, Canada.

Hello! I am Sinjini, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to starting my doctoral studies, I pursued my bachelors and masters in Geology at the University of Delhi in India. Following that, I moved to the University of Southampton, UK to pursue a Master of Research in Vertebrate Paleontology and then joined the University of Alberta, Canada to study a M.Sc. in Systematics and Evolution. My previous research focused on the systematics and paleoecology of Late Cretaceous sharks from central India and southern England as well as on the diversity of Paleocene bony fishes from Canada.

What is your favorite part about being a paleontologist and how did you get interested in paleontology in general?
My favorite part of being a paleontologist is that it gives me the opportunity to dig up fossils in exotic locations- be it in the sandstones of Central India, in Western Canada or the chalk deposits of Southern England. I also enjoy sharing my scientific knowledge with non-scientists through Skype a Scientist sessions, in person outreach events, or simply by random conversations.

I always found it fascinating to know that fossils are remains of organisms that were alive several million years ago. During my undergraduate days at the University of Delhi in India, I used to enjoy my paleontology classes more than any other geology course and hence pursuing my dissertation in paleontology was an obvious choice for me. It was during my dissertation days, I realized how paleontology addresses critical questions about earth-life interactions in deep-time and that earth’s paleontological history archived in the deep-time rock record provides a major research opportunity to investigate the future of our planet. As my research progressed, I became sure that I want to pursue an academic career in paleontology and doing a Ph.D. is the next steppingstone towards fulfilling my career objectives.

What do you do? 
I study a moderate mass extinction event during the Early Jurassic (about 183 million years ago). During this period, there was a volcanic province eruption, which injected large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As a result, there were significant perturbations in environmental conditions around the globe such as global warming, low oxygen levels, and acidification in some parts of the ocean. It is thought that these changes led to multiple (or multi-phased) biotic crises, but they may have also enhanced exceptional fossil preservation. Fossil deposits that contain both hard skeletal parts (such as bones) as well as soft tissues (e.g., ink sacs of coleoids) of organisms are considered as exceptional fossil deposits (or Konservat-Lagerstätten deposits). Though rare, such deposits provide uniquely comprehensive records of past life. These deposits contain a direct record of soft tissues of organisms not typically preserved in regular deposits Thus, the goal of my research is to address how these changing environmental conditions in the Early Jurassic affected the exceptional preservation, extinction, and recovery of organisms.

Sinjini measuring a Late Cretaceous shark tooth from the Chalk deposits of England.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
Soft tissues of organisms get preserved under rare circumstances in which rapid soft tissue mineralization proceeds faster than soft tissue degradation along with other local (e.g., depositional environment, or climate), regional, or global (e.g., weathering, or bioturbation) phenomenon affecting their preservation. Sometimes, a combination of preservational pathways can lead to exceptional preservation. Thus, the mineralogy of a fossil specimen is the result of the preservational process it has undergone, especially since the preservation of soft tissues typically requires rapid growth of minerals in the original place. I use a Scanning Electron Microscope to get better images of the structures of the fossils and then use Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (EDS) to obtain the mineralogy of the fossils from the elements detected in the EDS.

For the extinctions and recovery aspect of the project, I will be studying the occurrences and abundances of the different groups of fossils across the extinction boundaries. This will help me investigate which organisms survived the extinctions and which organisms went extinct. The fossils will be collected through field work.

How does your research goals contribute to the understanding of evolution and paleontology in general?
Results from my project will provide information about preservational pathways of exceptional fossilization. Exceptional fossil deposits capture information about organism morphology, ecology, diversity, evolutionary relationships, and paleo community structure, hence more information about them is necessary for filling gaps in the paleontological record. In addition, it will provide data about the patterns of biotic change in tropical marine communities and how these communities recovered from significant global events like those we are facing now. Broadly, extinctions not rated as the biggest could shed light on the survival strategies of organisms, addressing concerns about the conservation of extant marine communities in our changing environment today.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
If you are passionate about paleontology, just go for it. I often hear from non-paleontology graduate students that they had to drop their idea of pursuing paleontology as a career because they thought there are no jobs available.

Sinjini is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. To learn more about her and her research, check out her website and social media platforms below: