Nora Fried, Physical Oceanographer

Hi everyone!

Picture 1: Poster presentation at Ocean Sciences in San Diego 2020
Image credits: Femke de Jong

My name is Nora Fried and I’m a third year PhD student at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. I did my Bachelor “Physics of the Earth System” and my Master “Climate Physics: Meteorology and Physical Oceanography” at GEOMAR in Germany. This was also where I joined my first research cruises. My highlight so far was probably the chance to join the PAMARCMIP campaign to northern Greenland in 2018 during the last year of my Masters. An experience I will never forget.

I think my journey starts at the age of 10 when I joined a science project in primary school. I’m still grateful for my teachers during all those years in high school who supported my way into science and helped me getting prepared for university. At the end of my Bachelor I got the chance to join a research cruise on the RV Meteor to the tropics and a year later one on the RV Maria S. Merian to the subpolar North Atlantic. I remember that after this cruise my best friend said: “Do you remember that this has always been your dream to join an expedition on a boat and to see ice bergs?”. I’m glad she made me remember that by that time I had already reached one of my biggest dreams.

So, after years of studying I am very proud to call myself a physical oceanographer. I’m glad that I found a PhD project that suits me so well and gives me the opportunity to join cruises on a regular basis. Cruises are still one of my favorite parts in science. Most of my colleagues think that I work with models because I’m sitting in front of a computer most of the time. But as a sea going oceanographer I mostly work with observational data. 

Nora working on a research vessel
Picture 2: CTD work on board RV Pelagia in summer 2020
Image credit: Elodie Duyck

For my PhD project I’m studying a current in the North Atlantic which is a continuation of the warm and saline Gulf Stream. Observations in the ocean are still rare which makes a time series in remote places like the subpolar North Atlantic very valuable. Currents in the ocean are important for all of us as they impact the weather and climate. We use so-called ‘moorings’. They look like a necklace hanging upright in the water column with instruments attached to it, measuring temperature, salinity and velocity. With those observations we hope to get more insight into how the current is changing over time, and whether changes are an effect of climate variability or if they can be linked to climate change.

The pandemic made me realize that there are so many things more important than work. Friends and family who we as scientists don’t really see very often as we change location often in our career. I’m glad that I now have opportunity again to follow my hobbies: Singing and wheel gymnastics (or Rhönrad). During lockdown I went for long walks which helped my head calm down after a day of work.

Nora working on a research vessel in yellow rain gear and an orange helmet
Picture 3: Cleaning instruments after recovery on board RV Pelagia 2020
Image credit: Elodie Duyck

My advice for the new generation in science is: Ask for help. Science is a tough environment and I wish it would be less competitive. So, I encourage everyone to ask for help when they are stuck. Being stuck is normal in science and asking for help should become more normal, too. And to make clear what I mean with being stuck. I’m talking about being stuck science wise when you need someone to bring a new perspective into your work. But not less important I’m talking about being mentally stuck. Work-Life-Balance in science is hard as we all feel emotionally involved in our work. Ask for help early enough, science is not the only thing life has to offer.

Follow Nora’s updates by following her @fried_nora or https://norafried.de/

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!

Blandine Hautier, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s graduate

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hi! My name is Blandine, and I am a master’s graduate in vertebrate paleontology. I specialise on dinosaurs (taphonomy, histology). I did my geology bachelor’s degree in Lille (France) with an Erasmus+ mobility in Tomsk (Russia), followed by a master’s degree in paleontology done in Lille for the first year, and an Erasmus mobility in Bonn (Germany) for the second, with my master’s thesis. Outside of paleontology, I am interested in modern Japanese literature, gothic fiction, taking care of plants and animals. But to be honest, I’m having the most fun when I’m in a museum! 

Posing in front of (from the left to the right) Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Edmontosaurus skull casts, on display at the “Big, Bigger, Dinosaurs” exhibition in Bonn (Museum Koenig).

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My career is only beginning, and I like to try out everything related to paleontology. 

For my master’s thesis, I had a research project on green-colored dinosaur bones from Utah (USA). The remains belonged to several diplodocines (large long-necked dinosaurs), and an unusual fossilization turned them green. Histology (study of bones microstructures) is a technique which has many uses, one of them being the determination of the age of an animal by the observation of its bone tissues. This method is particularly useful in bonebeds where dinosaur remains have been mixed because of river flows (for example). Through the observation of bone sections under the microscope, I could determine that the diplodocine remains came from animals of different ages, which meant several dinosaurs’ carcasses were mixed in the quarry.

Before that, during my bachelor’s, I learned dinosaur bone preparation in the vertebrate paleontology laboratory of the Tomsk State University. It’s a tedious work, but you really learn a lot by preparing the fossils by yourself. There are so many details you can miss when you observe a bone taken out of its context! The surrounding sediments, the geometry of the deposition, the state of preservation of the remains… all those clues are very important when doing a paleontological investigation! I see things in this way: a vertebrate paleontologist is often like a medical examiner in a murder case. When the body is removed from the crime scene, they are able to tell the cause of death, but not who killed the victim. To get the whole picture, we need the crime scene as well. For paleontologists, this corresponds to the quarry/bonebed, or at least the sediments around the bones. This is what field excursions, and thorough documentation on excavations are for!

Sitting on the left of a Titanosaurus vertebra (circled in orange) we discovered with my friend Lisa Garbé (on the right) in Russia with the paleontological laboratory from the Tomsk State University

During the bachelor years I had in Lille, I worked as a curating assistant for the geology department of the Museum of Natural History, and helped organising several public outreach events, giving talks on the need of paleontology in our societies to understand today’s climate emergency.

A few months ago, I helped dismantling the “Big, Bigger, Dinosaurs” exhibition at the Museum Koenig in Bonn, and returning to this kind of environment after a 3 years break felt really good. Since then, I occasionally help setting up and dismantling exhibitions around dinosaurs, and it is so much fun! (PS: I created an instagram account to try to share the behind the scenes of dinosaur research and exhibitions… @dinosaurs_forensics 😉 )

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? When I was a child, I developed an interest for bones early on. I would collect bones and skulls from diverse animals I would find in the fields, clean and sort them in different categories. As my mother thought this was a horrible hobby for a little girl, she got rid of my collection as soon as she found out it was not a short-lived interest. I then moved on to snail shells, but this collection was really stinky, and ended up in the trash like the former one. To me, keeping those bones and shells were like preserving memories of what once was. I wanted to understand what had happened to those animals, and their remains were a way to find out. One day, a friend of my parents showed them a plant fossil. It was a trace of a thing that lived in the past, it was beautiful, did not stink.. and my parents liked it? From that moment on, I started asking questions about fossils and collecting them. My dad brought me to the Museum of Natural History in Lille, and there I could show my treasures, get answers about them, and see which stories could be uncovered through fossil remains. I decided I would become a paleontologist one day. Growing up, I received a great support from my dad, one museum curator, and three school teachers who encouraged me to follow my passion, despite everyone around saying that I would “never make it” in paleontology.

My favorite parts about being a scientist are to question the current knowledge, go on field excursions to look for fossils in places where nature has been untouched, and also try to close the gap between scientists and the public. In the same way older people made me want to do paleontology and pushed me to follow my dreams, I want to transmit the knowledge and will to understand our world to younger generations. I love speaking to kids, grandparents, families who want to know about what was, and what  extinct forms of life can tell us about our present and future.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? Dinosaurs make kids and adults dream and wonder, and even if this field of paleontology can be considered as “less meaningful” regarding climate change than micropaleontology as an example, I like researching about them just for the sake of knowledge. Why did they look this way? What were their habits? Why were they so big?

Holding a real piece of a limb bone of the “Arapahoe” sauropod during the dismantling of the Museum Koenig’s exhibition

I believe there is nothing wrong in trying to answer questions which do not appear as  “useful” for today’s societies. All questions deserve to be answered. On the other hand, understanding dinosaur’s ecology, biology, environment and habits definitely help us refine the knowledge we have about evolution and other aspects of the living.

Dinosaurs are also useful in another way: as they are part of the worldwide pop-culture, they are very often the first step into paleontology for many people. Through dinosaurs, it is possible to speak to people about fossils, geology, evolution, extinction events. As a result, for public outreach, scientists (including me) use them as an introduction to topics such as climate change. That’s why so many scientific articles use “dinosaur” in their title, even when those animals are not involved in the paper.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists?  “Do or do not. There is no try.” if you want to do science, go for it. Do your best, always, and if it does not work, you won’t have any regrets because you did all you could to make it happen. And when obstacles will come along the way, never forget that for each problem there is a solution. If you have passion, you will get to meet similar-minded persons who will help you reach your goals, and you will end up finding your spot in this field. 

If you are a LGBTQ+, disabled, POC or woman-identifying person: there is space for you in science. Together, we should and will make this environment a safer place, where we all can grow equally. We need diversity, please don’t give up on your dreams. 

Follow Blandine’s updates on Research Gate and Instagram.

Taking a break to observe the landscape during a field excursion in Siberia.

Danijela Dimitrijević, Paleobiologist

Figure 1. The happiness of discovering a fish fossil form the Upper Jurassic in the Wattendorf quarry, Germany.

Hi! I’m Danijela, a first year PhD student at FAU University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. I am from Serbia, but I have been living in Germany since 2018 when I started a master’s degree in Paleobiology at FAU. 

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My research is all about corals and reefs through time. I study the evolution of scleractinian corals also known as stony corals, from the time when they first appeared in the mid Triassic, around 250 million years ago until today. I am so happy to be working on these super organisms because everything about them is fascinating – their biology, ecology, and geology. They build coral reefs in shallow tropical seas which harbour the highest diversity of organisms in the ocean. They also live in a mutually beneficial relationship with tiny algae which perform photosymbiosis while living within the coral’s soft tissue and provide corals with 90% of necessary nutrients. Corals are also hunters at night, and some of them can live at depths of thousands of meters. Unfortunately, their future fate and the fate of many organisms that live on reefs and depend on them are also affected by the climate change and other anthropogenic disturbances such as pollution and overfishing. I could talk for hours about how cool are corals and reefs they form, and how we need to do everything we can to keep them from disappearing, so I have been lucky that this semester I have been given the opportunity to teach the course on geobiology of reefs to our Master students (in English of course!). 

Figure 2 Filming a video as a part of the Science communication class. You can watch the video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLXlfYpRxaY

For my research, I am particularly interested in how their morphological characters changed through time and if their extinction risk was related to changes in their traits. For example, in my Master thesis I looked at changes in corallite diameter through time. Corallite is a skeletal cup in which the coral polyp sits. The size of the corallite could be related to their efficacy of obtaining nutrients and I was interested to see if this change was related to major warming events or reef crises in Earth’s history. This would help us predict their future fates under global warming scenarios. For this kind of research, we used datasets such as the one we created by collecting data from the literature into the database called ART which stands for Ancient Reef Traits. This database has been built for the past two years by the team of scientists at Paleo group at FAU and soon will become available to everyone. 

Figure 3 Doing field work on Silurian reefs of Gotland Island, Sweden. I am the very concentrated person on the left 🙂

How did you become a palaeontologist? Unlike many paleo people, my story of getting into the paleo world is untraditional one. I wasn’t into dinosaurs when I was little, and I didn’t even know much about palaeontology until a few years ago. However, I always loved nature and all its wonders, and have been fascinated by both the biology and Earth’s history. In high school I was also interested in social sciences and languages so choosing a bachelor’s degree was very difficult for me. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make because at the time I believed that I would have to be forever stuck in the chosen field. But I actually switched fields several times. I started by studying a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at University of Belgrade in Serbia. Then, I did a master’s degree in applied ecology (IMAE) which was funded by the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program, and it meant that I had to change universities during the two years. It was one of the best experiences of my life – not only did I get the opportunity to study at Universities in France and Portugal, but I have also met many amazing people and made friends for life. Within this program we got to go on a month-long field trip in Ecuador and experience and study different ecosystems. From hiking at 4000 meters in the Paramo ecosystems in the Andean mountains, over living in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, to swimming with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands. After all these experiences I was sure I wanted to be a scientist. My master thesis was about the diet of Antarctic penguins (no, I didn’t get to go there) and at the time I was in search of a PhD program where I could get the opportunity to go to the Antarctic and study penguins. However, during that search I also stumbled upon several palaeontology projects, and I was simply drawn to it. Palaeontology as a field offered so much more than contemporary ecology – it was the intersection of ecology, biology and geology and many other fields and it felt just right for me. Since I didn’t have any formal education in palaeontology, I wanted to learn more about it. So, to the shock of many I decided not to do a PhD, but to do another master’s degree in Paleobiology. It was maybe one of the hardest decisions I made and it set back my scientific career by a few years, but it was definitely the right one! I am now grateful to myself that I was brave enough over the course of years to follow my heart and change fields! 

Figure 4 Exploring the Galapagos Islands was so much fun!

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My message to young prospective scientists is that it’s never too late for anything in life and especially not for pursuing your passion. I still believe that having to choose a career path when you are 19 years old (or even a bit older) is way too early. So, give yourself a time if you need to explore your interests. Most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be stuck in a box – being interdisciplinary and having many different skills are the great advantages for a scientist. So, believe in yourself and just follow your own path, because doing what you love is the greatest reward of all.

Figure 5. Example of a corallite skeleton within coral colony. Photo accessed from https://www.istockphoto.com/de/foto/coral-struktur-gm950047064-259317766

Follow Danijela’s updates on Twitter, Research gate, and her website.

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).

Sara Todorovic, Paleoclimatologist, Ph.D. candidate

The Coral Climatology team, a group of three women and one man standing in front of a brick building with glass windows.
Photo of the Coral Climatology team – (left to right) Sophie Zweifel, former intern; Marie Harbott, doctoral candidate; Dr. Henry Wu, work group leader; and me.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Hi everyone! I am a doctoral candidate at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research in Bremen, Germany. After graduating in Ecology at the University of Belgrade in Serbia, I finished a MSc in Marine Environment and Resources (MER Erasmus Mundus) at the University of Southampton, University of Liege, and University of Basque Country. Finally, I decided to pursue research in paleoclimate reconstructions in order to improve our knowledge of modern climate change and ocean acidification. I am a part of the Coral Climatology group led by my supervisor Dr. Henry Wu, and funded by the Make our Planet Great Again research initiative, a joint project of France and Germany to tackle modern climate change through research related to Earth system science, climate change and sustainability, and energy transition.

What research are you doing for your PhD? For our research, we use cores drilled from massive tropical corals like Porites (but don’t worry, they are not hurt by this). Only the top few millimeters of the coral is alive, the rest is all skeleton – an intricate rock made of aragonite, as coral polyps keep growing. Cores we work on were drilled during past expeditions so our project is kept more sustainable. After the cores are drilled, the holes are filled so the coral can keep growing safely without fears of other animals infesting it. My project is focusing on the South Pacific area which is  home to the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), the largest persistent precipitation band in the Southern Hemisphere. The climate of this area is modulated by large-scale ocean-atmospheric interactions (El Niño/Southern Oscillation, Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation), which also impacts regional seawater CO2 absorption and pH variability.

Coral slab microsampling
Photo of me microsampling one of the coral slabs in our lab.

The cores are transported to our coral climatology lab in Bremen, slabbed and washed, X-rayed and CT-d. The scans help us see the annual bands, similar to tree rings, that help us determine how old the corals are to connect our data to points in time, but also help us establish the best sampling path so our data isn’t impacted by corals turning sideways or protruding from the slab etc. Coral skeletal microsamples are then drilled continuously and analyzed for many trace elements and isotopes for hydroclimate and sea surface temperature reconstructions (δ18Oc and sw, Sr/Ca, Li/Mg, U/Ca, Sr-U), while δ13C, B/Ca, and δ11B analysis allows for the reconstruction of surface seawater carbonate chemistry changes and pH variability. It’s truly a lot of work, one core has approximately around 2000 mm samples to be analyzed with two different methods, and then around 250-350 annual samples with a third method.

Boxes of samples
Collection of samples (around a 1000 of them at least) from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in NY, USA to be shipped to Bremen for analysis. 

In this geologically short period of only 300 years or so, important changes have happened in how us humans use natural resources and affect the environment. Our coral-based reconstructions provide monthly to annual data to describe this change as corals have lived through it for hundreds of years, one of them dating back to 1770AD, much before the first instrumental measurements started!  

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Working in science is not a straight line and not easy. When you love what you do, it’s easy to lose boundaries and let it consume you too much. Science is also not only academia, and I am learning myself that there are many options out there. The pressure of short contracts in academia, multiplying deadlines and no work-life separation has led me to burn out before.

Sample preparations for analysis.
Ten samples is all we can analyze in a day for d11B isotope ratios and annual pH reconstruction.

I like to balance my work life with doing sports and running (I am a proud two-time half marathon finisher so far, but I am no stranger to an occasional Netflix marathon either). I am also a big foodie, and whenever work gets a bit too much, baking a cake fixes it. Try to keep in mind that you’re in for a marathon and not for a short race. 

Learn more about Sara and her lab’s research on their website here!

Brittany N. Price, Paleoclimatologist

Brittany, a brown-haired woman, wearing PPE while working on a gas bench in Northern Illinois Universities Stable Isotope Laboratory.
Brittany wearing personal protective equipment while working on a gas bench in Northern Illinois University’s Stable Isotope Laboratory

Similar to many children, I was always fascinated by volcanos! The dynamic way in which they change the landscape inspired me to pursue a degree in geology. While this interest and appreciation of volcanoes has never faded, a new specialty piqued my interest in my second year at university – Paleoclimatology. The idea that the past climate history of the earth could be reconstructed over millions of years by analyzing the chemical makeup of microfossils preserved in oceanic sediments quickly made me alter my focus, and subsequently my entire career trajectory! I spent the next three years working in the Paleoclimatology and Stable Isotope Geochemistry labs at the University of Miami to prepare forams (microfossils) from the Gulf of Papua (off the coast of Papua New Guinee) for stable oxygen and carbon analysis to better understand the influence of sea level, as well as variability in the East Asian Monsoon system in the western Tropical Pacific.

Fast forward almost 15 years and I am nearing the completion of my PhD. I now focus on terrestrial records that I use to assess variability in hydroclimate dynamics (i.e. rainfall) over the Holocene around the Pacific Ocean Basin. My current projects include a wide variety of locations and proxy data, from establishing chronologies of glacial advancement and recession in the South-Central Chilean Andes, to carbonate isotope reconstructions from small lake basins in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Moving forward I hope to work on better constraining the roles that aridity and convection play in the global hydroclimate system through the use of stable isotopes, as well as to reconstruct better land-based temperature proxy records. It is truly amazing to witness the analytical advances that have been made even during my relatively short career as a geoscientist!

Brittany, wearing full PPE including a face shield, working to decant hydrofluoric acid from samples used for cosmogenic chlorine-36 dating.

If I were to give one piece of advice to aspiring geologists it would be that no two paths look that same, so it is best not to compare yourself to others! There are so many interesting careers in our discipline, and it is alright to explore them. After I completed my undergraduate education, I continued on for my Masters in Geology. While I had wanted to work on terrestrial sediment cores, I ended up working on a basin analysis project using seismic reflection data. Having this skill set opened avenues that I hadn’t originally considered for myself, and led to a job offer and a career working in the oil and gas industry for 8 years. However, I realized that I was still truly inspired and passionate about Paleoclimatology, and that I still had so much more I wanted to learn. I decided to leave the workforce, and as a more mature student (at least 10 years older than the average age of my cohort) I entered the PhD program at Northern Illinois University. Returning to the world of Paleoclimatology has been one of the best and most fulfilling experiences of my adult life, even if the path I took to get here was a bit longer than most.

Brittany, woman in a wide-brimmed hat and fleece jacket, on a snow-covered field in front of a small cirque glacier
Brittany on a snow-covered field in front of a small cirque glacier.

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. 

Devra Hock, Paleontologist, Ph.D. Candidate

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi! My name is Devra Hock and I am currently working on my PhD on mammalian paleoecology. Outside of my research, I love dance and musical theater. I’ve danced and performed my whole life and recently that interest has shifted towards aerial dance (think Cirque du Soleil, but much less fancy). I teach aerial hoop and pole fitness classes, as well as perform with my aerial studio in Lincoln, NE. Having something else to focus on with non-academic goals and challenges allows me time to have fun and accomplish personal goals. I also have a love of vintage-inspired fashion, and want to help re-define what scientists look like.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do?
Right now, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which is very similar to a research scientist. I conduct my own research for my dissertation, as well as teach in my department and assist my advisor with his research. I’m studying mammalian paleo-ecology, and specifically looking at how the distribution of mammalian traits can be used to predict environments. To do that, I use historical mammalian distributions and their associated traits and environments as proxies to build a model that can be applied to the fossil data. Currently, I am comparing both North American and African mammal data to determine which is the best proxy to use for Miocene North American fossil localities. Another part of my research is examining the change in North American mammalian distributions from historical to modern times and discussing possible causes. In addition to my research, I am on the board of the Association for Women Geoscientists and currently transitioning from a region delegate to the Communications Coordinator after participating on the communications committee being in charge of the AWG Twitter and part of the team that keeps the website updated.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
I grew up loving going to museums and science centers, but that did not translate into an interest into science as a career field until middle school, with a 6th grade field trip focusing on earth sciences. That was my first exposure of geology as a scientific field. From there, the following year I researched what radiocarbon dating was for a research fair at school and used woolly mammoths as my example in that project. While working on that project, I found myself going down the paleontology documentary rabbit hole and got more and more interested in paleontology itself. In high school, I was lucky to have a science teacher that had a background as a paleo-anthropologist, and I was able to really develop my interest in paleontology throughout high school.

As a scientist, I appreciate the skill to look for questions that don’t have answers and to think critically about data and facts presented to me. I’ve also learned how to be collaborative with a variety of people from different disciplines. Additionally, one of my favorite parts about being a paleontologist is our ability to essentially time travel through our research. Especially when we’re out in the field, we’re standing in rocks that formed millions of years ago and finding fossils that haven’t seen the light of day since they were buried. As a geologist and paleontologist, we’re able to look at the rocks and interpret what environment created each rock layer, and travel through different environments as they changed through time. In my specific field of paleo-ecology, we try to understand what the interactions of animals and their environments looked like throughout time.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
My research has two broad contributions to society. First, my research of historical versus modern mammalian distributions will add to our knowledge of the changes occurring in the natural world around us and what the potential causes might be. These discussions contribute to the work of ecologists and conservationists as they work to maintain our natural spaces for future generations. Second, my research into paleo-ecology will add to our knowledge of the evolution of environments and animals throughout time, which also contributes to our understanding of why and how environments change and what the animals’ response has been in the past.

My work with the Association of Women Geoscientists and local outreach events creates discussions about equity and equality in the geosciences for women and other underrepresented groups. Currently both with AWG and in my own department, I have been working with others to find sustainable and achievable methods to increase diversity and inclusivity in the geosciences and to dismantle systemic and institutional barriers.

 

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists?
My biggest piece of advice is to find a way to try out things you’re interested in to see if you really like doing them. I started doing field work in high school as a gauge if I really did like paleontology in practice and not just from TV documentaries. It’s also a great way of building experience and connections. My second biggest piece of advice follows that, which is networking. Just like any other field, your path is what you make of it, but knowing other people in your field can change the shape of your path. Don’t be hesitant to reach out to professors or researchers in the field that you’re interested in. With emails, the worst that can happen is they never respond! Science is filled with opportunities, but unfortunately opportunities aren’t always equal. You may have to seek out experiences that will help you later on. There are a lot of unspoken rules and expectations, and sometimes you won’t get opportunities you are qualified for, and that’s not your fault. You just have to keep pushing and your time will come. However, with everything I just said, don’t lose yourself to your science. We are all multi-faceted human beings with lots of different interests. Make sure to take time for yourself and your other hobbies. Time away from school or research is just as important as time spent working. While school and research are important parts in your life, they aren’t your entire life. Remember, you can’t do science if you’re burned out!

To learn more about Devra and her research, visit her website here!

Rachel Roday, Graduate Student and Marine Scientist

Rachel transporting a sedated sandbar shark to a respirometer to understand shark metabolism.

My favorite activities are ones that help me connect to nature, such as SCUBA diving, kayaking, and painting landscapes. Even as a child, I spent all of my free time at the beach or obsessing over turtles, so it was no surprise when I decided to pursue marine science as a profession. I obtained my Bachelors of Science in marine science and biological sciences from the University of Delaware where I conducted research on shark respiration and zooplankton behavior. I also completed an internship at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida examining red tide toxins from Florida beaches.

Currently, I am a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute. Though I have yet to begin my thesis, my research will focus on understanding the role of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in marine fishes. PFAS are a group of approximately 4500 manmade chemicals that are water, heat, and oil resistant. They have been found in non-stick pans, fire-fighting foams, stain resistant carpets, and many other common use items and are known carcinogens in humans. Little is known about the impact of these chemicals on marine fishes, so I hope to fill some of this knowledge gap by determining the toxicity of lesser known PFAS compounds and how they might be transferred from parent to offspring. As a scientist, I aim to understand the extent of human impact on biology within the marine ecosystem. In the future, I hope to influence the regulation, product development, and disposal techniques of manmade chemicals such as PFAS, insecticides, sunscreens, and pharmaceuticals in order to protect the environment and ultimately, us humans.

Rachel on a dive in the Florida Keys during her internship at Mote Marine Laboratories

It took me four years of undergraduate classes, several internships, and two wildly different research projects to figure out the specific area that I wanted to focus on in graduate school. In other words, I got really good at figuring out what I didn’t want to pursue. This would be my greatest piece of advice to someone looking to find their way in science or any profession: try out lots of things, as many as you can! Not only does a range in experience bring about a unique perspective, but you never know what one door might open for you later on down the road.

I also suggest that people learn about the science that interests them in their backyard or community. As a Long Island native, this was easy for me because growing up, I was surrounded by beaches. But even learning about the local plant life or stargazing at night can help curate your specific scientific interests. I believe that having a personal and maybe even emotional relationship with nature and science can instill passion that propels you through all of the more tedious and challenging parts of life. Overall, even if science is just a hobby and not a career end-goal, I think it’s important to find ways to make it accessible at home and never be afraid to ask questions!

Rachel aboard a Norwegian research vessel in the Arctic Ocean during the polar night, researching the photobehavior of copepods, a small crustacean.