Alyssa Anderson, Geologist

Tell us a little bit about yourself. My name is Alyssa Anderson, and I am an undergraduate student at the University of South Florida studying for a Geology and Environmental Policy B.S. I was born in New Jersey, but since Florida’s been my home since I was four years old, I consider myself more a Floridian. Outside of science, I enjoy world-building, writing, sewing, and reading. I think that’s part of why I enjoy geology so much, because I love creating worlds and making them geologically and scientifically accurate! But not completely, because I am a big fan of fantasy and fiction novels, so a little magic is fun, too. 

A white woman with short dark hair stands in front of a stream filled with large, flat rocks, smiling up at the camera. She is dressed for hiking and stands in the stream on a sunny day.
Figure 1: Hiking through the mountains in North Carolina, overjoyed at finding a stream filled with wonderful rocks.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My path as a scientist leads me towards geology and the environment. Some of my major interests are hydrology and oceanography, but I am also very interested in other roles such as GIS and policy work. I am also beginning an internship managing climate change and climate data in some Florida counties, which fits in with my goal of being an environmental scientist.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My favorite part about being a scientist is the discovery. I love learning and being able to apply the knowledge I’ve learned into real-world applications is gratifying. I could study most any science field and be as happy as a clam because there is always something new for me to discover. 

A group of students pose near some rocks, two girls and a guy. The girl in the middle is white with short dark hair. The field surrounding the rocks is wide and open, with mountains in the distance.
Figure 2: On a geology field trip with some Mineralogy and Petrology friends, near part of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. I am the dashing figure in blue posing by the rocks.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? My work in my current internship will benefit the Florida county I am assisting with, as it strives to understand and manage climate change impacts. It also gets students and staff involved in their local environment and brainstorming ways on how to solve some of the major environmental issues of our generation, i.e., climate change. Plus, it encourages more students to get into science and policy and I believe having a science background in a policy related field is extremely important for more well-informed laws and regulations.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My advice for new scientists is this: spending some of your free time on hobbies you enjoy is a good thing. Sinking all of your effort and energy into studying without breaks will lead to burnouts and breakdowns. So, please, do take your time and don’t think that more work will lead to more results if you aren’t resting in between!

Ohav Harris, Undergraduate Geology Student

Ohav sitting in gravel in a museum exhibit under a T. rex.
Me with Stan the Tyrannosaurus rex at my internship at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Outside of science I enjoy reading manga, collecting Pokémon cards, and playing video games.

Describe what you do. I am an undergraduate researcher. I recently finished a project which involved entering geographic information of echinoderms (animals like and including sea stars, sea lilies, sea cucumbers, etc.) into a database so that we could analyze their biogeographic patterns (how the animals moved through time and space) in the geologic record.

I have done class visits with groups of fourth graders as a part of the Scientists in Every Florida School program to teach them about geology.

Discuss your path into science. I used to want to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember, but on my 17th birthday, I visited the American Museum of Natural History and was smitten with their dinosaur exhibits! After leaving, I was unsure if I wanted to continue pursuing a career in law, so I did some basic research of how much I could expect to make as a paleontologist (to make sure I could still support myself and a family) and decided to commit to the switch. After that, I have been pursuing dinosaur paleontology as best I can!

A dinosaur skull in rock with the sclerotic ring highlighted in purple.
The sclerotic ring (highlighted in blue) is a bony structure found in the eye of some dinosaurs and all modern-day birds. I am very interested in studying what those rings did for dinosaur eyes and how they developed. (source: ecomorph.wordpress.com)

Discuss other scientific interests. I’m very interested in birds and reptiles, specifically snakes. If I couldn’t study nonavian (non-bird) dinosaurs, I would study one of those groups of animals in the fossil record. I’ve also become quite attached to crinoids since starting my undergraduate degree, so they would be my invertebrate pick!

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? Hopefully, with the echinoderm geographic data that I’ve collected, we can better understand of echinoderm evolution through time as well as how they dispersed across the world over time. 

I hope that I’ve convinced the classes I’ve visited that geology is a science that rocks! More than that, I also hope that I’ve made them more curious about how our world works, and to keep asking amazing questions and finding equally amazing answers.

Fossil sea lilies embedded in rock.
A crinoid fossil. I have been researching the geographic distribution of these ancient sea lilies and other echinoderms, like sea stars, and I thought this was a very nice fossil to show how neat they are! (source: fossilera.com)

Is there anything you wish you had known before going into science? Mainly, what classes I would have to take. In my case, I had multiple major options, but didn’t look too far into them. I’m very happy where I am now, although I’m sure there is an alternate universe version of me that is going down the biology route. 

Have you received a piece of advice from your friends/mentors/advisors that has helped you navigate your career? I’ve gotten good advice about grad school. In particular, I should be reaching out to professors I would like to work with a good while before applications are due.

Kaleb Smallwood, Undergraduate Geology Student

A 20-year old African American male (me) wearing a blue beanie, black shirt and wristband, a watch, headphones, and a turtle necklace looking down at his turtle with dark green and yellow stripes.Tell us a bit about yourself. Hello, my name is Kaleb Smallwood, and I am an undergraduate geology student at the University of South Florida. My main geological interest is in paleobiology, but I am also interested in sedimentology, volcanic processes, and igneous rocks and processes within the field. Outside of academics, I enjoy role-playing games, both table-top games and video games, with a few favorites being Dungeons and Dragons and Persona 4. I play other types of both forms of game, but RPGs are by far my favorite genre with which to pass the time. On top of my love for video and table-top games, I am a massive anime fan. So, in summary, I am a gargantuan nerd.

What kind of scientist are you, what do you do, and how will it benefit society? As I mentioned previously, my focus in college is on paleobiology, and while I am not yet a fully-fledged scientist, my goal is to enter the field conducting research on dinosaurs and paleoecology after I obtain my PhD. Ecology is the study of the interactions of both biotic and abiotic factors with their individual ecosystems, and paleoecology simply focuses on ancient organisms. I hope to perform research on dinosaur paleoecology, studying their interactions with the environment to better understand their modes of life. In so doing, I plan to draw links between the ways in which these ancient animals lived and how modern analogs survive. In the process, I will be providing scientists and the public with a better idea of how dinosaurs lived, and, by extension, how modern animals live. Paleontology plays a crucial and often overlooked role in our knowledge, as understanding the past helps us better comprehend the present and predict future trends. For example, knowing how climate change affected the world and how it proceeded in the past allows us to understand what a large issue it is today and how it will impact our ecosystems. By the same token, understanding ancient ecological interactions has implications for current ones. Knowing how an apex predator such as Tyrannosaurus rex interacted with its environment, prey, and the carrying capacity of its ecosystem helps us understand how modern apex predators do the same today, for example.

An African American male (me) smiling at the camera. His face fills most of the image, and he wears a blue beanie and red shirt.How did you get interested in science? I have always had an interest in science, likely because I aspired to be like the odd and often socially awkward geniuses portrayed on television and in books in my youth. However, my interest in geology and paleontology specifically began in very simple ways. I have collected rocks since starting elementary school and identifying the rocks in my collection (which was very easy since I only ever picked up sandstone, quartz crystals, and limestone) brought me extreme joy. It felt like a unique form of science that only I could do, since I was the only weirdo in my classes interested in objects like rocks. As for paleontology, I was hooked the moment I read my first book about dinosaurs in 3rd grade. Seeing the pictures and reading about the interesting and distinct ways in which these animals of wildly ranging sizes went about their lives was enthralling, and that childlike whimsy never truly faded away. 

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My advice, especially for scientists coming from minority racial groups, is to believe in your own capabilities and understand your own worth without needing acknowledgement from others. While praise is always nice, alternatively, sometimes people will immediately assume you to be inferior just by how you look. Challenge those biased expectations indirectly through your own brilliance and show that you are just as capable as those around you if not more so. Finally, remember that if you were truly inferior, you would not be in the position you are in.

New Fossil Evidence From the Arctic Could Indicate that Mosasaurs Migrated

Arctic mosasaurs (Squamata, Mosasauridae) from the Upper Cretaceous of Russia

Dmitry V.Grigoriev and Alexander A.Grabovskiy

Summarized by Evan Kruse. Evan Kruse is a senior undergrad student at University of South Florida majoring in geology. He plans on attending graduate school in either paleontology or mineralogy. He enjoys hiking, rock tumbling, identifying the rocks that his friends bring to him, and, secretly, he wishes he could bring back dinosaurs and have his own raptor, hence his paleontology major.

What data were used?  New mosasaur fossils, consisting of a vertebral column, isolated teeth, and a jawbone were found by the researchers in the Zolotaya River in the Anadyr district of Russia. Mosasaurs belong to a superfamily of marine reptiles, all of which have a crocodile-like head, lizard-like body, flippers instead of feet, and a long, paddle-like tail. All three types of fossils were found in roughly the same location, within 5 m of each other. The researchers also used older mosasaur vertebrae fossils from Kotikovo, Russia and the River Lemva, Komi Republic, Russia. 

Methods: This study utilized morphological differences, such as vertebral length-to-height ratios and the distinct facets on the tooth crowns, to classify the newly-discovered mosasaur specimen as a member of the subfamily Tylosaurinae. More data is required to fully classify the specimen and for now they are simply classified as Tylosaurinae indet.(i.e., it is currently an indeterminate species within Tylosaurinae) In addition to the newly discovered fossils, the researchers use the same morphological comparative techniques on two other samples previously discovered elsewhere. These other specimens are very damaged and can only be identified as belonging to the family Mosasauridae indet. The researchers also analyze the geographical location where all three specimens, the vertebrae, jawbone, and teeth, were found in reference to their predicted geographical location during the Cretaceous Period, specifically the Turonian, Santonian, Campanian, and Maastrichtian ages. 

This image shows four images of globes as overhead views looking down at the North pole with red stars marked at various locations as well as dashed and solid white arrows. Each globe has a different continental and oceanic layout and represent the predicted layout during different ages in the Late Cretaceous, one each for the Turonian in the top left, Coniacian-Santonian in the top right, Campanian in the bottom left, and the Maastrichtian in the bottom right. Arrows of cold and warm currents in the ocean are on this chart as well; some of the mosasaur fossils found would have been in the cold water currents.
This diagram shows the predicted geographical location where the mosasaur remains referenced in the paper would have died and been fossilized at during the different ages in the Cretaceous Period. The red stars indicate mosasaur locations. The size of the star indicates the predicted amount of fossil remains at the location. Solid arrows represent warm currents; dashed arrows represent cold currents.

Results:  The mosasaur remains found in the paper were discovered in high latitudes in cold conditions. Researchers have studied the continental movements associated with plate tectonics and have predicted the longitudinal and latitudinal location of the remains during the Late Cretaceous when they were deposited. The fossils retain their position in high latitudes which would have been associated with frigid waters. This means that mosasaurs were much more widespread than previously thought and that they were able to survive in colder climates than previously believed. In the past several years, many studies have come out which discuss and theorize about the thermoregulation (i.e.., how an organism regulates their body temperature) of mosasaurs. Although mosasaurs are a part of the same large group as lizards and snakes (who are ‘cold blooded’, basking in the sun to maintain body heat), these new studies postulate that many or all mosasaurs were endothermic (meaning that they could self-regulate their own body temperature) like mammals are. Being endothermic implies that Arctic conditions were not a problem for mosasaurs and that they would have been able to survive staying part or all of the year in the polar seas. Evidence from this study supports this hypothesis. This study also takes the existence of polar mosasaur fossils as indirect evidence of yearly migration patterns. Today, the high latitudes go through extended periods of constant 24-hour light and darkness, a yearly cycle that does not differ much today from the same cycle during the Cretaceous. This study predicts that the polar regions would have at least two months of solid darkness and at least one month of constant twilight. It is unlikely that mosasaurs had binocular vision for nighttime hunting and it is even less likely that mosasaurs developed echolocation (locating objects by reflected sound, like many whales do) to deal with the absence of light. With this in mind, the presence of mosasaur fossils in the high latitudes can be taken as indirect evidence of mosasaur migration patterns, so it is possible that the mosasaurs did not remain in those high latitudes year-round.

Why is this study important?  This study is important because it hypothesizes that mosasaurs seasonally migrate to and from higher latitudes in much the same fashion as our modern-day whales. If this is true, then we may be able to take the patterns and behaviors of whales and apply them to mosasaur behaviors. 

The big picture:  Predicting the behavior of extinct animals is tough; we often have little to go on, except for what we find in the fossil record. By examining the location and preservation state of fossil assemblages, we are able to make certain predictions about behavior. If mosasaurs migrated in similar fashion to modern-day whales, then we can look at other behaviors whales have and make predictions as to whether or not mosasaurs also shared that behavior. We can look for fossil evidence to support or contradict the hypotheses we put out. This can allow us to consider new behaviors for extinct animals we might not have before, change the way we interpret fossil evidence for other species, recognize new patterns in existing data, and make new predictions that may clue us into new ways to look for fossils. 

Citation: Grigoriev, Dmitry V., and Alexander A. Grabovskiy. “Arctic Mosasaurs (Squamata, Mosasauridae) from the Upper Cretaceous of Russia.” Cretaceous Research, vol. 114, Oct. 2020, p. 104499., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cretres.2020.104499. 

CT analysis shows new relationships of Euryodus, an extinct amphibian

Computed tomographic analysis of the cranium of the early Permian recumbirostran ‘microsaur’ Euryodus dalyae reveals new details of the braincase and mandible

Bryan M. Gee, Joseph J. Bevitt and Robert R. Reisz

Summarized by Danielle Miller, who is a geology major at the University of South Florida, working towards becoming a paleontologist. She loves watching hockey and listening to music. She has two dogs. She also loves spending time out on the boat, fishing, and hanging out in the Gulf of Mexico.

What data were used? The researchers used two specimens that were identified as Euryodus dalyae from the Richards Spur locality, a fossil site in Oklahoma. Researchers compared the specimens of Euryodus dalyae to the holotype fossils of this species; a holotype is a specimen that is used by paleontologists to define a species. These two specimens are gymnarthrids, which belong to an extinct family of amphibians called microsaurs. These new specimens were compared using data that was collected through a type of CT that is called neutron tomography and x-ray tomography. The researchers also performed a phylogenetic analysis to understand how the newly discovered specimens were related to other microsaurs. The researchers created a number of characters based on the cranial (skull) shapes across the taxa used, as well as on the vertebrate of the taxa. The collected morphological data was put into the matrix (i.e., all of the morphogical characters in total) to be analyzed to determine the evolutionary relationships between the specimens.

Methods: The researchers did tomographic and phylogenetic analyses of the specimens. The phylogenetic analyses were done to see the evolutionary relationship between the specimens and the holotype of Euryodus. During the phylogenetic analysis, the researchers coded the two new specimens into a phylogenetic matrix that was created in a previous study done in 2017. Coding of several other microsaurs were used in the analyses. One of the other microsaurs used in the analyses was from the same genus as the new specimens, while the others were from different genera. The analyses were done using PAUP*, which is a computer program that is used to infer evolutionary trees. For the tomographic analysis of the specimens, the researchers did neutron tomography and X- ray tomography. Tomographic analyses are techniques that are used to represent a cross section of solid objects through X- rays or ultrasound. Neutron tomography is performed by rotating the specimens 180°, then taking neutron radiographs, which are photos produced on film by x-rays, at defined angular positions. This can produce a 3D image of a specimen’s composition. 1200 radiographs of one of the new specimens were produced in this analysis. The other new specimen was analyzed using X- ray tomography. The photos from both tomographic analyses were then analyzed in ImageJ, which is an image processing program that can be used to measure and analyze images. 

There are three pictures of the skull of Euryodus sp. Picture A is a triangular shaped, brownish skull shown from the bottom. Picture B is a colorful computer-generated model of the skull in the same orientation of Picture A. Picture C is also a colorful computer-generated model of the skull, but this time it is looking from the back of the skull. The sky-blue colored bone in Picture B is the upper jaw of the specimen discussed in the article. The dark pink bone in Picture B is the mandible also discussed in the article. Pictures B and C have abbreviations pointing out the different bones of the skull.
Figure 1. The skull of a specimen of Euryodus sp. Picture A is a picture of Euryodus sp.’s skull, viewed from the bottom. Picture B is a rendering of Euryodus sp.’s skull in the same profile. This picture has different colors representing the different parts of the specimen. Picture C is a rendering of Euryodus sp.’s skull from the back of the skull angled from the bottom to the top. The colors in the pictures B and C represent different parts of the skull. The colors in C represent the same parts as they do in Picture B. There are abbreviations in pictures B and C that represent the different anatomical parts of Euryodus sp. The abbreviation ‘m’ stands for the maxilla which is the upper jaw and while it is not abbreviated in this photo, the darker pink section is the part of the jaw that was discussed in the article. Scale bar= 1 cm.

Results: The result of this study shows that there is an especially close relationship between one of the recently discovered specimens and the holotype of Euryodus dalyae. The majority of differences between the skeletons are probably due to damage to the specimen over millions of years in the rock record, and not due to biological differences; however, there were some differences between the specimens on the internal portion of the skeleton These two specimens are also very similar to other species of extinct amphibians. The two specimen that were identified as Euryodus dalyae are now described as Euryodus sp. because of this study. Euryodus dalyae and Euryodus sp. look almost the same on the outside, but they are different internally. One such internal difference is the presence or absence of a presphenoid, which is the front part of a bone that is found at the base of the skull of the specimen. The researchers are unsure if these differences are due to ontogeny, the growth of the specimens, or if this is a signal that the two specimens represent different species. This difference is one reason that the researchers encourage more exploration of recumbirostrans, which are the amphibian group that include the family that Euryodus is part of. There was also the presence of an offset partial tooth row in the new specimens. This feature has been seen in a group called the captorhinids, which are lizard-like reptiles. This helps us better identify the broader groups that Euryodus is related to, because the offset teeth are only in certain species. This means that scientists can more confidently say that these groups belong in the same group. However, the offset teeth weren’t identical across the specimens studied here, so further tests need to be done.

Why is this study important? This is important because it provides a new understanding of the Euryodus clade. It can also be used to help determine if microsaurs are really a sister clade (meaning, the most closely related clade) to captorhinids, lizard-like reptiles that ranged from small to large and lived during the Permian, as they have been hypothesized to be before. This study also provides a better understanding of the anatomy of gymnarthrids and other microsaurs. Understanding the anatomy of gymnarthrids and other microsaurs is useful since future researchers can use that data to put other specimen into the group, if they fit that description.

The big picture: If we know the evolutionary relationships between the specimens in this study, then we could start to ask other questions about the group. We could investigate how the group changed across different extinction events or we could better understand the anatomy of these amphibians and see how this anatomy developed in amphibians of today.  

Citation: Gee, B. M., Bevitt, J. J., & Reisz, R. R. (2020). Computed tomographic analysis of the cranium of the early permian recumbirostran ‘microsaur’ Euryodus Dalyae reveals new details of the braincase and mandible. Papers in Palaeontology, 7(2), 721–749. https://doi.org/10.1002/spp2.1304

Haley Boles, Undergraduate Student and Astrobiologist

This is a picture of me at the Stennis C. Space Center on Feb. 21, 2018. I’m standing in front of the A-1 test stand where I had the opportunity to watch a hot fire test of one of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) engines (RS-25) where the engine reached up to 113 percent thrust level.

Hi!  My name is Haley and I’m an undergraduate researcher at the University of Florida (UF) pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Cell Science.  Before transferring to UF, I received my A.A. from Santa Fe College. 

What do you do? I perform research in the field of astrobiology, the study of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how might humans detect it. A common strategy for determining whether a planet used to, or currently does, contain extraterrestrial life is to look for biosignatures.  A biosignature is anything that provides scientific evidence of past or present life.  Rocks on Earth are commonly used for testing and validating biosignature detection strategies.  However, rocks on Earth don’t perfectly match up to the rocks we would see on other planets, specifically Mars.  One of the differences between the rocks on Earth and the rocks on Mars is that the rocks on Mars’ surface are much older (> 3.5 Ga) than those on Earth’s surface.  This major age difference brings into question how accurate our Earth-sourced Martian analogs are.  In order to address this question, my research focuses on how effective a specific biosignature detection strategy called tetramethylammonium hydroxide (TMAH) thermochemolysis is at detecting organic molecules in rocks ranging from 1.1-3.2 Ga. 

An average day in lab for me. Running a sample through the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) and analyzing the resulting chromatographs.

My research directly supports multiple NASA astrobiology missions; however, its biggest impact is seen when interpreting the data gathered by NASA’s Curiosity rover which landed on Mars in 2012.  Curiosity has performed TMAH thermochemolysis on Martian rocks and the data from this experiment has been downlinked back to Earth.  My research directly helps the scientists at NASA interpret this TMAH thermochemolysis data. 

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Understand and accept that science requires perseverance.  Nothing about science is easy, but if you can persist in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success, you will go a long way

This is me in front of the biosafety cabinet where I inject internal standards into my samples before running them through the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS).

Noel Hernandez Gomez, Paleontologist in Training

A photo of Noel Hernandez sitting on top next to a river coming from a waterfall in the middle of a valley in Mackay Idaho during a field work excursion.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, I am an aspiring scientist from birth who loves the outdoors and hopes to make a difference in the world. When I’m not doing research, I prefer to spend my time going out and seeing new things, whether that’d be a new nature trail, or a fun night with friends, there is always something to enjoy about life, which is why I have a strong passion for helping the world and all its beauty.

I am currently an undergraduate student at the University of South Florida, on my senior year for a Geology B.S., I have plans to go to Grad school in the future, and hopefully attaining a PhD as my career progresses. My focus is paleontology, and all the research I have done so far is on invertebrate animals, more specifically on crinoid evolution and echinoderms. I am currently performing research on a growth series of eight samples of Erisocrinus typus lead by Whitney Lapic and with the help of Dr. Sarah Sheffield and a previous study of hers. We mostly focus on reading past studies from many authors that talk about the species we are dealing with and examining samples to understand how these animals used to grow. Our goal is to have a publication on this by the end of the year. My goal is to keep doing research such as this for the foreseeable future and perhaps focus on other part of paleontology as well, not just confined to invertebrates.

As discussed previously, my main goal as a scientist is to make a difference in the world, and I chose to do so by studying our past. Growing up, I was surrounded by a country drowned in conflict and turmoil, I took these experiences as motivation to change this, not just for my country, but for the entire world. The change that needs to occur for a better tomorrow, starts with the right information, and science is the pursuit of this information, all facets of science are bound by this uniting principal. My work does not have obvious major implications for our society, but understanding the development of ocean creatures, even those of hundreds of millions of years ago can have contextual importance to our understanding of the oceans today and how global climates have changed in the past. Paleontology focuses on gaining an understanding of the past so that we can have an idea of what our future holds.

A contribution that I hope to make to the scientific community is to facilitate the exchange of information between English speaking scientists and Spanish speaking ones, since my native language is Spanish, and I am fluent in it, my hope is to broaden the range in which paleontology can be talked about and end the age of Eurocentrism for science.

For any up-and-coming scientist, whether they are paleontologists, or any other kind of scientist, I would strongly advise to never limit yourself due to your expectations of what you should be. Scientists are talked about as these unreachable and mighty individuals that hold the infinite knowledge of everything, and this notion can make it difficult sometimes to get in contact with professors or mentors, but the reality is that scientists are just humans, who aren’t perfect, and are just as capable as anyone else, don’t have reservations about reaching out to the members of your college or the faculty of your university, there is always a need for bright minds.

Charlotte Hohman, Paleontology Undergraduate and Student Researcher

Charlotte Hohman in the lab making a list of important features on a dromaeosaurid upper jaw (maxilla) bone for her research.

My name is Charlotte Hohman, and I’m a 3rd-year undergraduate at Montana State University.  I am majoring in earth sciences, with a concentration in the field of paleontology. There are  many different aspects of the field that one can be involved in, including but not limited to  research, fossil preparation, education, outreach, fieldwork, digital reconstruction, and art. I  love many different aspects of the field and am using my student years to gather experience in  those aspects and learn from a variety of mentors to prepare me for a career in the field. 

Charlotte Hohman in the lab with a museum curator comparing a broken hip bone of an unidentified hoofed animal to that of Camelops

I first became aware of paleontology as a scientific field in 2018 when I began volunteering at  the Western Science Center (WSC). In California, you need 40 hours of community service to  graduate high school, and I knew the museum was taking volunteers, so I signed up. I started  as a docent the summer before my senior year. In September 2018, the director had me  identify some Ice Age rodent fossils. He asked me to find a way to categorize the fossils, and I  ended up coming up with a categorization method meant to make predictions about the  ancient environment of the site during the Ice Age. The director thought the method looked  interesting and asked me if I wanted to present at a conference. I presented my preliminary  results my senior year of high school at the 2019 Geological Society of America Cordilleran  meeting, where I realized that I definitely wanted to pursue paleontology professionally.  

Since then, I have continued to do research. I conduct student research at Montana State (and  its affiliated museum Museum of the Rockies (MOR)) and the Western science center. I have  co-authored two publications: one on the Pacific mastodon’s (Mammut pacificus) geographic  range (McDonald et al., 2020), and one on the prehistoric horses of the Cajon Valley Formation  of Southern California (Stoneburg et al., 2021). My three in-progress manuscripts focus on how  dromaeosaurids (raptors) grew into adults, horses in southwestern North America during the  Ice Age, and my continued work on the aforementioned rodents! 

Figure 1: the upper jaw of a Pacific mastodon (Mammut pacificus) from eastern Montana. This jaw tells us that this species of mastodon lived further east than we previously thought. From McDonald et al., 2020.
Figure 2: Teeth from horses that lived in Southern California around 18.0–12.7 million years ago. From Stoneburg et al., 2021.

But as I mentioned, paleontology is so much more than research, and I am involved in multiple  other aspects of the field as well. I have been able to go on digs in New Mexico in Cretaceous  rocks (79 million years old), and in Southern California in Miocene rocks (15 million years old). I  prepare fossils at both the MOR and WSC, and have been fortunate enough to clean the fossils  of whales, sauropods, bison, and more!  

Charlotte Hohman in the lab taking photos of a fossil in a plaster jacket on a cart to build a 3D photogrammetric model.

At the WSC, I make casts, molds, storage cradles, and create 3D models of fossils. All these  lab skills are important for the sharing of research— open-access digital models allow  researchers from around the globe to view your specimens. Casts and 3D prints are great for  outreach and education. I believe that sharing the science is equally as important as doing it,  which is why I am also active in scicomm, or science communication. Science communication  can be online, like on social media, or in-person, like at outreach events. For the WSC, I am the  illustrator of their children’s book series on scientific papers for kids. I run my own educational  account on Instagram, along with managing social media for other paleontology-focused  organizations. Many people have a natural interest in prehistoric animals, so I use science  communication about prehistoric life as a way to draw people in and introduce them to many  different concepts within earth science and biology. 

I plan on doing a Ph.D. when I am done with my bachelor’s and would like to work in a  museum setting one day, to be able to continue to do research, while continuing to share and  teach others about earth history.  

Charlotte Hohman at an outreach event talking to a couple with lots of ice age fossils laying out on a table in front of her
Charlotte Hohman at an outreach event talking to a couple with lots of ice age fossils laying out on a table in front of her

 

Charlotte Hohman stands in front of badlands dressed for fieldwork, including hat and backpack
Charlotte Hohman stands in front of badlands dressed for fieldwork, including hat and backpack

 

Charlotte Hohman sits using a mallet and chisel on rock surrounding bone at a field site in the desert
Charlotte Hohman sits using a mallet and chisel on rock surrounding bone at a field site in the desert

 

Charlotte Hohman uses an air scribe on the rock surrounding ribs of a fossil bison skeleton to free the ribs
Charlotte Hohman uses an air scribe on the rock surrounding ribs of a fossil bison skeleton to free the ribs

 

Charlotte Hohman stands on a bench inside a museum helping paint a mural of a Cretaceous forest with two other people
Charlotte Hohman stands on a bench inside a museum helping paint a mural of a Cretaceous forest with two other people

References:

Stoneburg, B. E., McDonald, A. T., Dooley Jr, A. C., Scott, E., & Hohman, C. J. (2021). New  remains of middle Miocene equids from the Cajon Valley Formation, San Bernardino National  Forest, San Bernardino County, California, USA. PaleoBios, 38. 

McDonald, A. T., Atwater, A. L., Dooley Jr, A. C., & Hohman, C. J. (2020). The easternmost  occurrence of Mammut pacificus (Proboscidea: Mammutidae), based on a partial skull from  eastern Montana, USA. PeerJ, 8, e10030. 

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.

Molly Elizabeth Hunt, Paleontologist, Science Educator

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 sharing my science with others! Whether it’s creating educational activities, writing blog or social media posts, visiting classrooms, designing museum exhibits or just talking to people I am always happiest when I get to be a part of someone’s scientific journey. 

I was first introduced to geology when I was 5 years old and my great grandmother gave me a box of rocks and minerals. From there I began to read and collect more and more. It was then in high school, that I decided I wanted to focus on paleontology because of the great role model I had in my teacher Mr. Mike Koenig who took me fossil hunting. These two events and many others in-between sparked a passionate for earth sciences that has put me on to a track to a professional career as a geologist and paleontologist. 

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? 

As an undergraduate student in the Calede Lab at Ohio State, I study body size evolution or change over time. By looking at the teeth preserved as fossil from Gophers that lived around 30-11 million years ago, we can determine what the size of those creatures and then compare them to gophers that are alive today. 

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? 

By observing changes to the size of animals during different times we can understand how climate, and environment affect mammal groups. This is especial critical now as we are facing global climate change. Paleontology can use the past to plan and prepare for the future. 

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.?

I am use measurements of the teeth (toothrow length) of fossil gophers as well as calculations developed from living rodent training sets to estimate the body mass of these extinct species. I take photos of the toothrows and skulls of specimens in museum collections, which are input into a software to calculate lengths then I determine means and standard deviations for each species studied. For modern species we use weight in grams that has been published in scientific literature. This data is also put through computer analyzes with the incredible help of my advisor Dr. Jonathan Calede that can evaluate the evolution of body size over time, over geographic location, and within the phylogenetic tree. 

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Never give up. Even if someone tells you that you will not make it, even if you have a bad day, even if you make a big mistake, even if you get a bad grade….YOU can do it. Believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who will always support you and work hard! 

Learn more about Molly on her website or follow her updates on Twitter and Instagram!