Allison Nelson, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s Student

Allison ready for field work in Montana. Photo from “Learning From the Ground Up”, University of Washington.

Hello, my name is Allison, and I’m a master’s student at Indiana University. I have a bachelor’s degree in Earth and Space Science from the University of Washington. For a few years, I worked across the western US on public lands as a park ranger and field technician. Now that I’m back in school, I’m researching wolves.

What do you do? The main question I’m trying to answer is are red and grey wolves one or two species? This is a complicated question, as red wolves have historically interbred with coyotes. The interbreeding means that they may have been a group of grey wolves that mated with coyotes and now seem different enough to be called red wolves. I use measurements of wolf skulls to see if I can find a difference (size or proportions) between grey and red wolves. Currently, I’m using pre-existing datasets, but if Covid-19 allows, I hope to visit museums and measure more skulls. 

This is an important question for conservation efforts that focus on wolves. Conservation efforts typically focus on one species, and the ambiguity makes this difficult. 

Allison digging a soil pit to assess landscape change in Eastern Nevada. Photo by Eli Rolapp.

How did you get interested in paleontology, and what’s your favorite part of being a paleontologist? During the second year of my bachelor’s degree, I took a class on volcanoes. After that class, I declared a geology major and my sedimentary geology classes talked about fossils. In class, I got to see and touch fossils, and I was hooked. 

As for my favorite part of being a paleontologist, I have two parts. The first is the field work! I love hiking with a backpack full of gear looking for fossils. The second part is the outreach. I enjoy talking to people about what has been found, what sort of creatures they were when alive, and in what kind of environment they lived.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Keep asking questions! Questions and curiosity are what push science forward. 

Follow Allison’s updates on her LinkedIn!

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!

Building and Establishing the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant

Linda, Adriane, Kristina, Andy, and Jen here-

Dr. Otilie “Tilly” Edinger, Unknown author, sourced from trowelblazers.

Over the past year, members of the Time Scavengers team created a new travel grant for students and avocational/amateur scientists. These groups often lack funding to attend conferences, which are valuable experiences. Conferences not only provide the opportunity for students to receive feedback by experts other than their advisor or supervisor. Conferences are important networking opportunities as such many fruitful scientific collaborations started with two cups of coffee and a chat next to a student’s poster in a crowded conference venue. We hope that by sharing our motivation and structure, other organizations will consider funding opportunities similar to ours.

The travel grant is named after Dr. Otilie “Tilly” Edinger, a female, Jewish, deaf paleontologist. Dr. Edinger’s work started an entire subdiscipline: paleoneurology, a discipline that focuses on understand ancient brains. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s history, work, and more head to the Time Scavengers page: Who is Dr. Tilly Edinger

The Motivation for a Grant

Studies show that the Geosciences are among the least diverse scientific disciplines in the US (Bernard & Cooperdock, 2018). In addition, we, as geoscientists, still don’t have a complete picture of how lacking we are with respect to diversity, as major surveys (e.g., through the National Science Foundation and Natural Environmental Research Council) do not capture LGBTQIA+, disability, neurodiversity, and other identities. Previous studies have shown that retention rate from student to professional membership in societies is quite low in terms of gender diversity (Plotnick et al. 2014), this likely spans across historically excluded groups. People with such underrepresented identities are less likely to participate in events, such as professional meetings, that require time and especially money, as financial strains can limit such participation. This inability to attend professional events thus hinders those students in the long-term. The motivation for establishing the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant was to support and encourage the participation of historically excluded individuals by helping to reduce the financial burden of conferences.

The current reimbursement system used by universities around the world is ill-suited to the situation faced by real students. There are currently several travel grants for geoscience students available through different societies, foundations, and organizations. However, the problem arises in that students are asked to pay for such conference costs up-front, and then are reimbursed at a later date for the conference travel. More often than not, reimbursement for conference expenses can take months to process, meaning if students paid for expenses on their credit card, they are accruing interest on those expenses. This reimbursement system greatly disadvantages students, especially those who are low-income and/or first generation, and do not have a steady stream of income. 

Avocational/amateur scientists are valuable contributors to science, but currently there are very few places where they can seek financial help to attend professional meetings and conferences, places where they too can share their science and meet new collaborators. Additionally, some of these scientists are retired or self employed, and just like students, may have a limited or unstable source of income to spend on such expensive networking opportunities. 

We therefore decided that all students and avocational scientists working in a relevant discipline are eligible to apply for the travel grant. Additionally, we would provide people who hold underrepresented identities priority. 

Establishing a Committee

The TETG committee in a virtual meeting. Clockwise from top left: Linda, Adriane, Jen, Kristina, Andy

Once we knew we wanted to create a new travel grant, the Time Scavengers team established the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant Committee. The job of the committee was to hammer out details related to the grant itself, who is eligible, who would get priority, creating a system for choosing awardees, fundraising for the grant, and creating impactful social media posts (on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to garner support for the grant. As you can likely tell from that long list, there was a lot for us to do!

Jen and Adriane had already created an outline for the grant before the committee was formed, early in 2020. Therefore the first thing the committee did was refine this grant text, refine the grant example document, and create web pages on the Time Scavengers site for the grant and about Dr. Edinger. 

We held biweekly meetings to work through various aspects of the grant — primarily the application and rubric. Each meeting was about 1 hour in duration and coordinated across 4 time zones. We were really mindful to make a simple application that gathered the data we needed to properly evaluate and fund those that needed the support. We came up with a ranking system that does not rank people based on their prior scientific experience and success. Instead, this ranking system is based on the applicant’s need for financial support to a conference and historically excluded identities that they hold. 

The grant committee also discussed award amounts, as most grants provide a static monetary value (e.g. $500). However, no two conferences possess the same fee structure and a static amount is not equitable. We decided that the award amount will be flexible and we will support as many individuals as we can per application cycle. The first year we fundraised enough to support 3–5 individuals, depending on the conference expenses. As this is the first year of this grant, we decided that the goal would be to support only conference registration and abstract fees, with the hope to expand to broader support in the future.

Data Regarding the Impact of Conferences

Did attending your first conference spark any collaborations or extensions of your network?

Before we began a targeted campaign to raise funds we wanted to survey the community about the impact of attending conferences on their careers. This informal anonymous survey was disseminated via social media. In total, 64 people responded and 56.3% said that associated fees and lack of funding prevented conference attendance and a similar percentage paid for some amount of their first conference out of their own pocket. 57.8% of respondents suggested that there are not enough ample funding opportunities for students to help attend conferences. 64.1% of respondents indicated that being reimbursed for conference fees had a negative impact on their financial situation. Regardless of these hardships, 65.6% of respondents said that attending their first scientific conference extended their scientific network and/or led to collaborations. This clearly indicates conferences are both a financial burden and critical to progressing your career. 

You can read the full results and quotes from respondents here: Impact of Attending Conferences.

Crowdsourcing Funding for the Grant

We outlined a two week marketing campaign to promote and encourage donations to the travel fund. Each day we would release a social media post on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with facts about Dr. Edinger, the grant details, why folks should donate, and data from the survey mentioned above. Our goal was to be as transparent as possible with our motivations behind the grant, while also demonstrating the need for such a grant to our potential donors with the survey data we had just collected. Committee members helped create graphics and text for the marketing campaign. 

Example graphics from our social media fundraising campaign.

Once we had a solid marketing outline, we started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to gather the financial resources needed to start the grant. An advantage of crowdsourcing is that small donations from the community can add up quickly. Our average donation was $51.48 USD, with individual donations ranging from $1 – $200, with 55 separate donors. We surpassed our goal within just two weeks’ time! See all of our Tilly Edinger Grant Donations. The grant committee is blown away by the support and encouragement we received from the scientific community. We therefore launched the grant in November and have already received the first applications. The travel grant committee will meet again in February to assess the applications and announce the awardees shortly after.

Requirements of Awardees

Most grant awardees have some small requirements from the granting organization. We will ask all people who receive the travel grant to write a short blog post about their conference experience and a Meet the Scientist post so stay tuned for their reports! We will collect them all under the tag TravelWithTilly on the Time Scavengers website. 

Reflection

As this was our first round of fundraising, we expected that some adjustments might be needed for future fundraising cycles. Our initial focus of this pilot year was to cover the costs of registration and abstract fees for conferences. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, all conferences switched to a virtual format for the foreseeable future. We hope to continue to grow our fundraising capabilities so we are able to fund as many people as possible when in-person conferences resume. Other areas of growth including improving our application, such as asking applicants for cost breakdowns of the conference they plan to attend, and incorporating community feedback. In the future, we hope to expand to cover airfare and other travel expenses.

References

Bernard, R. E., and Cooperdock, E. H. G. 2018. No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geosciences , 11, 292–295. 

Plotnick, R. E., Stigall, A. L., & Stefanescu, I. 2014. Evolution of paleontology: Long-term gender trends in an earth-science discipline. GSA Today, 24(11).