Jihan Al-Shdifat, Chemist / Organic Biogeochemistry Scientist In-Training

Processing samples after the dive.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? I got into science out of curiosity. Not many people I know are in the sciences which I think called out to me to explore what a scientist does, what do they look like aside from how they are portrayed in popular culture, or in general. I chose chemistry because understanding the universe from a molecular point of view appealed to me. Now, I am focused on oceanographic work employing biogeochemistry tools and techniques.

The best part about being a scientist is that you can allow your curious mind to think freely. There is always so much more to learn. When you’re out doing fieldwork, or simply processing samples in the lab, the thrill you get whenever you’re making a discovery is irreplaceable. This doesn’t mean obtaining purely positive results- insights and observations on negative results and failed experiments make you appreciate the scientific process more. Unlocking life skills in pursuit of science is a thing! I learned SCUBA diving, and programming, because these are requisites needed to tackle the research problem I am working on at the moment.

With my work, I hope to encourage more Filipinos to pursue a career in the sciences.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? My research involves enumerating the lipids found in microbial mats, the water column and sediments in an area where groundwater bubbles out from the seafloor. These areas have very dynamic chemistries and my objective is to understand how micro- and macroorganisms thrive and adapt to these conditions.

Submarine groundwater discharge research group of the OASIS Lab, UP-MSI collecting biomass, sediment and gas samples.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Knowing the lipid composition gives us an understanding of the metabolic processes employed by microorganisms in adapting to their environment. Looking at the adaptation in areas affected by submarine groundwater discharge can very well contribute to assessing how organisms may behave in response to the changing oceans. The research also employs stable isotope measurements to go hand-in-hand with lipid studies. Another goal is to test how paleotemperature proxies behave in tropical climate as most studies are being done in temperate regions.

Leisure dive after sample collection: We make time to have a leisure dive after completing the sample collection dives to appreciate the rich biodiversity in Mabini, Batangas.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? The data that my research uses are lipid mass spectrometry profiles as well as isotopic compositions from isotope-ratio mass spectrometry analysis. Isotopic data are both compound-specific and bulk analysis. We also perform the standard physico-chemical measurements of the study site, as well as obtain DNA data of the microbial mats we’ve collected from the field. The team is also exploring the use of imaging to profile the microorganisms across the water column.

Bubbles emanating from the seafloor.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Scientists come in all shapes and sizes. As long as you have that curious mind to hold on to, there is no mold that you should follow on how to be one. Find an inspiration and follow it through with hard work and a lot of readings, and you’re good. More importantly, engage people on your work. Science is meant to be communicated to the larger population outside the scientific sphere and now more than ever is citizen science a force we definitely want to tap into.

 

European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2021, vegu21

Agathe here – The European Geoscience Union, EGU, a leading learned society in the fields of Earth, Planetary and space sciences, organize each year the largest European conference in geosciences. Due to COVID-19, this year’s conference was entirely virtual. Naturally, attending an online conference is very different from going to one in person: meeting people is less easy and you don’t feel the excitement of being surrounded by your colleagues and friends, not to mention that it is difficult when you are in front of your computer to put your work in progress aside and devote yourself to the conference. I attended the EGU meeting to present results of my PhD work in paleoclimatology, on the evolution of continental climate from the mid-Eocene to the early Oligocene. As it was my first big 100% virtual conference, I would like to give my impressions on the format, a little bit particular, but which will certainly become more and more common in the future.

EGU (virtual) General Assembly 2021, vEGU21

Part I – Joining a fully virtual conference, what does it look like? 

The number of participants at EGU General Assemblies increases from year to year, and this conference format will not have limited participation with 18,155 scientists from 136 countries this year against 16,273 participants from 113 countries in the last edition, in 2019 [1]. In recent years, various movements have developed that promote a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions associated with research activities: first aware of climate change, researchers must adapt their practices to be consistent and follow an energy-saving approach [2]. One of the positive points of this year’s meeting is that without all the flights to Vienna, its carbon imprint was much lower. Last April, the EGU estimated that by organizing a fully virtual conference with 18,000 participants, greenhouse gas emissions of the assembly would be equivalent to less than 0.1% of the same conference in person (despite the video stream) [3]

Virtual vEGU21 hall (credit: EGU blogs, https://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/g/)

Normally, the conference hosts a large number of presentations including posters, 10-minute talks, and “PICOs” (Presenting Interactive COntent®), a format for short digital presentations, specific to the EGU. To give an idea, in 2019, the assembly counted 5531 orals, 9432 posters and 1287 PICOs [1]. In order to give everyone the opportunity to present results to a broad audience, the majority of this year’s presentations were in the form of PICOs, i.e. small 2-min-talks with a single slide! This was the case for my presentation. Fortunately, the EGU website also allowed presenters to add more content, so I also made a 20-minute video to present my work to the most interested speakers. What an exercise! Let’s face it, even if we like challenges, summarizing several months of work in 120 seconds is still a bit frustrating. But with hindsight, I think it was very interesting, reminding me of the 3 minutes thesis competitions, 3MT (these are really nice to see, if you never tried check here [4]).  

First of all, presenting your work in 2 minutes requires a lot of work to be done beforehand. How can I share the problematic and the interest of my work with my audience without presenting the different notions in detail? What are my main results? What is the take-home message? I think being used to talking about your research with your non-academic friends and family may really help. The conference offered the possibility to make this presentation live or to pre-record it. I choose the second option to make mine more accessible, by adding subtitles and to be able to archive it online after the conference. As a non-native speaker, I know that it can sometimes be difficult to follow a whole session of presentations, especially if they are not totally in our research topic, and depending on speakers’ accent. So, it was also an opportunity to make sure that this 2-minute message would get through to as many people as possible who came to listen. Finally, this format was also very interesting for the diffusion of the work. I now have a fairly simple 2-minute video associated with my in-progress publication. It’s still additional work to do, but I think I’ll practice this exercise again next time before I start writing an article, and then why not for its dissemination afterward! In spite of this particular format, moments of exchange were allowed in each session, through dedicated video conference rooms for each presenter. I had the pleasure to meet new researchers, saw friends and colleagues. Like in big music festivals, many sessions are held in parallel at EGU General Assemblies. With shorter, though dense, sessions, I think I was able to see more and a greater diversity of studies.

Part II – Thinking more 

In parallel to sessions on my research theme (paleoclimates), which always teach a lot, the EGU offers the possibility to attend special (and longer), oral presentation, the Medal lectures, which allowed me to attend presentations by the eminent (paleo)climatologists Valérie Masson-Delmotte and Kim Cobb, and small courses (useful to nice to refresh one’s geology basics for example). What I really like about the EGU is that the conference also has great sessions (presentations, lectures or debates) about research in general and how to do it, for example: about the role of geosciences in the evolution of the world / about education and communication of science / or about diversity, equity and inclusion in science. This year, I was particularly impressed by two of them: 

First, “A Climate and Ecological Emergency: Can a pandemic help save us…?”, with the passionating and super-positive intervention of the climatologist Katharine Hayhoe (see her website which gives a lot of tools to understand and raise awareness about climate change [5,6]), who compared the rapidity of action on a global scale in response to COVID to the persistent lack of action of governments in the face of the ongoing climate crisis, trying to understand the origin of this crisis (ex. The phenomena of psychological distancing: COVID showed us that we could react quickly and limit our emissions, how can we do the same in the face of climate change? I was also particularly interested in the session, “Promoting diversity in geosciences“, which took stock of the lack of diversity and neo-colonial practices within geosciences, and exposed concrete means to set up an anti-racism laboratory [7,8]. Budiman Minasny’s presentation introduced me to the concept of parachute science (aka helicopter research) which is “when researchers from wealthier countries go to a developing country, collect information, travel back to their country, analyze the data and samples, and publish the results with no or little involvement of local researchers[9]. One can imagine that perhaps some unscrupulous researchers take advantage of local researchers to do unrecognized research assistance work in the field, somewhere far away… There are people with a poor morality in all fields. However, I had never realized (in fact I had never asked myself), that there was a whole grey area with indirect and less obvious ways of misconducting. A striking example was for instance that by working on research questions centered on other countries, without involving local universities, we may grab potential research to local research communities… In my future research, I would like to address questions of macro-evolution on a global scale, although brief, this presentation would clearly have helped me thinking about my future collaborations. As a non-minoritized (although) woman, I am not the best person to talk about this topic, and I certainly still have tons of things to learn to be up to speed, but it is thanks to conferences like these that one learns little by little how to conduct fair science at the scale of one’s lab and internationally, so these should be promoted.

Prof. Katharine Hayhoe presenting the different psychological mechanisms associated to climate change inaction.

Short conclusion – 

As already explained on this blog [9], attending conferences is very important, especially for young researchers. Thanks to this meeting, I was able to see many presentations, meet researchers in my field, but also question the way I present my work and create materials to share it with more people. The development of this digital format also makes it possible to hold more conferences, especially since some of the smaller ones can be free. Yet, like most researchers, I think, I am looking forward to the experience of real conferences. This experience calls for questioning our practices: since we can do 100% virtual and low carbon conference, how far do we find it acceptable to travel to a conference? 

To go further – small list of references 

  1. EGU General Assembly 2019 – Country statistics. (2019). European Geosciences Union. https://www.egu2019.eu/#CountryStatistics
  2. Langin, K. (2019). Why some climate scientists are saying no to flying. Science Careers. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.aay0230
    As an example, and for more information on why we should fly less, see the website of No Fly Climate Sci and their “Resources” section. https://noflyclimatesci.org/.  
  3. vEGU21 Carbon tracker (2021). European Geosciences Union. https://egu21.eu/about/green_egu.html
  4. Three-minute Thesis website: https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/
  5. Katharine Hayhoe website FAQ (a mine of gold to better understand and talk about climate change): http://www.katharinehayhoe.com/wp2016/faqs/
    See also her youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/kathhayhoe/playlists
  6. Hayhoe, K. (2018). The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: Talk about it. TEDWomen 2018 conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/katharine_hayhoe_the_most_important_thing_you_can_do_to_fight_climate_change_talk_about_it
  7. Chaudhary, V. B., & Berhe, A. A. (2020). Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab. PLOS Computational Biology, 16(10), e1008210. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008210
    See the also the associated press article of the Chicago tribune (2020): https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-life-how-to-build-an-anti-racist-stem-lab-tt-1022-20201023-wxv35r73mnhstb6ed7hw72iqp4-story.html
  8. Neo-colonial science. (2021). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-colonial_science
  9. Impact of Attending Conferences. (2020). Time Scavengers. https://timescavengers.blog/tilly-edinger-travel-grant/impact-of-attending-conferences/

Deepak Kumar Jha, Geologist, Biogeochemist, Geoarchaeologist

Deepak in the field and holding an archaeological stone tool in a field area.

Hi!! I am Deepak, a final year PhD student. I have recently submitted my thesis for evaluation at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, India. I am quite passionate about my research work as a scientist, exploring and digging the Earth’s surface to answer some of the curiosity-driven questions such as “the role of climate instability in human evolution”.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
The most important aspect of being a scientist “who deals with sediment and rock records” is that you get the opportunity to explore scientific questions that have a broader implication in understanding the past climate under which hominins evolved to become Homo sapiens. As a scientist, I get the opportunity to visit archaeological sites that have fossilised records of stone tools and artefacts used by prehistoric humans. Seeing archaeological samples and working on them to unravel human history feels exhilarating, and the realisation of holding artefacts used by humans thousands of years ago gives me goosebumps. The experience of working in the field and digging the sediment sequences to understand the past environment feels like time travelling. This excitement and curiosity have been the source of motivation for exploring the relationship between the past climate and prehistoric humans evolution.

Deepak working in the laboratory and analysing soil samples for charcoals under a stereomicroscope.

It all started during my undergraduate coursework in Geology, where I was introduced to various topics ranging from the Vertebrate Paleontology, Earth Climate, Quaternary Geology, and Evolution of Life through time etc., which built the foundation of my research career. The Quaternary period due to its association with human evolution fascinated me a lot. The research papers that correlate the fall of Harappan Civilisation with climate instability, particularly to the Indian summer monsoon weakening at ~4.2 ka and the collapse of well-known 8th or 9th century’s old Maya civilisation was linked to the arid climate, and excessive deforestation attracted my attention in this field.

Curiosity to unravel the mechanisms through which climate has shaped the evolution of Homo species brought me closer to my PhD project. My PhD research work at the stable isotope laboratory of IISER Kolkata, India, was oriented towards the understanding human-environment relationship. With the help of my supervisor Prof. Prasanta Sanyal, I was able to formulate my PhD project, which utilises stable isotopic tools to decipher changes in climatic conditions and their resultant effects on the prehistoric human population. Throughout this project, I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my research work.

Deepak operating the Dionex Accelerated Solvent Extraction (ASE 350) to extract the total lipids from the sediments.

What do you do?
I try to reconstruct the environmental conditions using multiple proxies to understand the relationship between climate and culture changes. By doing this, we would be able to understand the climatic situations through which human evolution took place.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? 
My graduate research work aimed to understand the course of human evolution during the Late Quaternary period in the Indo-Gangetic region. The Quaternary period encompasses numerous key advancements in human evolution such as early migration, brain size development, typo-technological evolution, adaptation to an extreme environment, hunting to sedentism lifestyle, agriculture and domestication of animals. However, any advancement in human evolution cannot be deciphered in isolation without understanding the prevailing climatic conditions, since humans like every other organism also respond and adapt to their changing environment. To comprehend the complex research questions of Late Quaternary in the Indian subcontinent, I have used the multidisciplinary (Geology, Organic and Stable Isotope Geochemistry, Archaeology and Anthropology) approach to decode the early-human environment and their behaviour in extreme climate scenario. I have employed a multi-proxy approach that includes compound-specific isotopic analysis of n-alkanes and soil carbonates from paleosols to understand the past climate and vegetation in the Belan River Valley situated in north-central India. My research highlights the vital linkage between the prehistoric human populations and climate variability.

Deepak presents a scientific poster at a conference (INQUA 2019) held in Dublin, Ireland.

At the same archaeological sites, further research work on the study of macroscopic charcoal particles suggests the controlled use of fire by hominins during the Middle Paleolithic phase dated around ~55 ka BP. This charcoal record provides the oldest evidence of fire use by hominins from the Indian subcontinent. Additionally, I aim to decode the provenance of sediments deposited in the Indo-Gangetic plains during the Late Quaternary period. To achieve this, we have planned to measured Strontium (87Sr/86Sr) – Neodymium (143Nd/144Nd) isotopes to understand the provenance of fluvial sediments and stone tools from archaeological sites. Therefore, through this project, I have targeted novel questions and used the latest measurements techniques to provide an overall idea of climate, vegetation, fire and provenance and its linkage to prehistoric phases in India. The results of my project have helped in filling a scientific void by presenting results from the Indian subcontinent, which will lead to an improvement in the understanding global-scale picture of human evolution.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
I would say to them, “The only way to achieve your dream is not to give up”. The journey is not easy, but the curiosity in you will find a path that will lead you to success.

Learn more about Deepak and his research on his website and ResearchGate profile, and follow him on Twitter @Deepak_Geoarch

Marissa Perks, Geology and Anthropology Undergraduate

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist is being able to see fantastic geological sites and learning about some of the weirdest species of Earth’s past. I wish I could say I always had an interest in paleontology, but it wasn’t until the end of my freshman year of college that I realized I had a passion for this field. As a general education requirement, I took Life of the Past. One day, while rapidly taking notes, a slide changed to a photo of a Quetzalcoatlus skeleton. I lost the ability to focus on my scribblings and my mind wandered. So many questions: did this creature fly, how could it fly, could I have ridden it while it was flying? I don’t know if it was the thought of riding this gigantic pterodactyl, or the realization of this ancient yet new world had just come into existence, either way at that moment I was hooked. Within a week I added on Geology as a dual major and started volunteering at the Missouri Institute of Natural Science.

Raptor claw replicates!

What do you do?
Currently I am an undergraduate student, I am studying Geology and Anthropology emphasizing on Paleontology and Archaeology. I am hoping to be a vertebrate paleontologist and a science educator one day. I also volunteer at our local natural science institution. Here I apply what I have learned in my majors and because of this I’ve been able to get my hands into a lot of different projects. I have worked with triceratops bones to prepare them to cast and mold. I have also worked on reshaping the replicated portions of the triceratops to make them biologically accurate. I’ve made replicas of different dinosaur’s teeth and claws to raise funding for the museum.  I help classify newly donated rocks and minerals when they come in. I have helped create some of our displays in our mineral exhibit. The museum has also given me the privilege to be a part of their lectures and field trips. During these field trips, I would give guided tours of the museum and take the families to hunt for marine fossils on the premises. I have also given lessons at a local school about varying dinosaurs and what it is like being a paleontologist.

Working on Henry the triceratops

How does your research and outreach contribute to the betterment of society in general?
Being a part of the museum gives me the ability in having a part in outreach programs. These types of programs work with younger generations and stimulates the interest for the field at an early age. These are the next generation of paleontologist, chemists, or biologists that will continue to make advancements in science and history. When we work with the younger generations you know amazing things are bound to happen!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
My advice is to aspiring scientists is never be afraid to put yourself out there. Ask the questions that are pounding in your head. Reach out and talk to that scientist you look up too. Never be ashamed to ask a silly question! Science is founded on hunting down the answers to questions that no one has yet answered.

Nicole Torres-Tamayo, Biologist, Open Science Advocate

Nicole Torres-Tamayo focuses her research on reconstructing the paleobiology of our ancestors through the study of their anatomies.

I am a biologist currently doing my PhD in the field of Paleoanthropology and I am interested in the application of innovative methods to reconstruct key fossils in human evolution. I started my PhD program in Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity in 2016 and the focus of my research is the origin and evolution of the body shape in the genus Homo, which emerged in Africa around 2 million years ago. In particular, I use quantitative methods to reconstruct missing fossil elements of the torso of extinct hominins to shed light on their lives in the past: behavior, locomotion, diet, etc. and their relationship with the environment (paleobiology).

Fossils are priceless, scarce and unique, and they are what paleoanthropologists have to infer the morphology and function of extinct species. Fossil specimens are usually confined to institutions located in the country where they were excavated, and because of their fragility, they are rarely transported out of these places. For this reason, the emergence of virtual techniques in the last decades has been crucial to expand the work with fossil specimens worldwide: they allow for doing research in a virtual environment, avoiding fossil manipulation and damage, while working thousands of kilometers far from where the specimen is hosted.

Among these virtual techniques,  3D scanning is one of the most widely used data collection methods in Paleontology. The morphology of a bone is captured by means of a 3D surface scanner, and the resulting 3D scans are fused to generate a 3D virtual model of the original bone. In my Ph.D. research, I measure these 3D models using 3D geometric morphometrics to quantify the size and shape variation of different anatomical traits through points called landmarks and semilandmarks. The Cartesian coordinates collected by these points reflect the morphology of the bones and can be analyzed using multivariate statistics.

Original fossil hipbone KNM-ER 3228 (~1.9 m.a, putative Homo erectus) hosted at the National Museum of Nairobi (Kenya).

My Ph.D. research has been funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and by several supporting travel grants (Synthesys program, AMNH collection study grant, Erasmus +, etc.). Thanks to this funding I have travelled to many places to scan skeletal and fossil collections hosted in different institutions. However, I am very aware that this is not the rule in science, at least in Spain, the country where I was born, grew up and started my research career. There are many young researchers across the world who do not have funding to cover their living expenses during the Ph.D. and who need to combine their Ph.D. research with a part-time job out of academy (e.g. coffee shops, restaurants, etc.). It is not surprising that these people cannot afford the expenses to collect data for their own research. I have heard many stories about truncated Ph.D. projects from people who had not access to the data necessary for their own research and who sometimes lack support from their own laboratories. The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting how necessary research data sharing is for the progress of science, as many people who have not had access to data hosted in their labs or in foreign institutions have suffered a great impact in their investigations as a consequence of mobility restrictions. All these stories have been a turning point in my career and because of them, today I am a huge advocate of open science and research data sharing, which defines my interests and concerns above any discipline.

3D surface scanning is a widely used data collection method and allows for the digitization and virtual conservation of valuable fossil specimens.

One of the greatest advantages of the virtual techniques that I use is the production of virtual models that become part of the virtual collections of the institutions where the original specimens are hosted, contributing to the digital conservation of the specimens in a virtual archive. But also, the virtual nature of these models make them suitable for being shared within the scientific community and the derived datasets (3D coordinates, raw measurements, methodological protocols, etc.) can be hosted in open online repositories (e.g. GitHub, Open Science Framework, Morphosource, etc.) to be available for the scientific community. Sometimes these data are subjected to strict ethical protocols (e.g. clinical data that come from medical institutions) and cannot be shared, but once again, this is not the rule: the majority of the research data that Palaeontologists use can be (and should be) shared with the scientific community, and researchers, especially the young ones, are increasingly willing to do it. But unfortunately, an important part of the Paleo-community is still reluctant to share their research data, something that in my opinion hinders the progress of science and makes it more opaque and inaccessible. For this reason, my Ph.D. research has been bolstered by two incentives. Firstly, I encourage young students to learn why transparency and reproducibility are important beyond any field of research and the role data sharing plays on this. And secondly, I contribute by making my research data and code freely available in open online repositories for researchers who experience restrictions in data collection.

These good scientific practices are not only applicable to Palaeontology; they are valid in all scientific disciplines. Sadly, I encountered many difficulties when promoting research data sharing, most of them under the argument of “we are not going to do this because we have never done it before”. The pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) once said: “The hardest thing in the world is to change the minds of people who keep saying, ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’ These are days of fast changes and if we don’t change with them, we can get hurt or lost.” My advice for aspiring scientists is to keep Dr. Hopper’s words in their minds during their entire scientific career.

 

 

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).