What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
The best perks about being a scientist are sparking wonder and creativity in others (especially the general public!), hearing about ongoing research in other fields, and conducting interdisciplinary research to integrate knowledge across disciplines.
During my time as a Ph.D. student, I did a variety of volunteer projects to engage members of the Tampa community. Science is for everyone, and the best scientists can and do communicate their work to the general public!
I stumbled into science the way most scientists do (I think) – completely by accident. I was set on being pre-med, but when I took Biology II my second semester freshman year, I fell in love with ecology. While everyone else was griping about the topic, the interactions between species and the environment made sense to me. The professor teaching the class noticed and took me under his wing. I started doing undergraduate research in his lab and took General Ecology a couple years later. There was one lecture on disease ecology and I still remember how it sparked these additional questions in my mind, e.g. how does the environment influence the spread of infectious diseases? I was totally hooked from then on and decided to pursue graduate school to answer these questions.
What do you do?
I am mainly interested in how environmental factors, especially temperature, influence interactions between parasites and their hosts. For my dissertation, I studied a human parasite, Schistosoma mansoni, and its intermediate snail host, Biomphalaria glabrata. The parasite must infect a snail before it can infect humans, and I examined how temperature influenced the parasite at various points of its life cycle, in addition to how temperature affected infected snails over time (see figure). I combined published data and laboratory experiments with mathematical models to predict how disease transmission may shift in response to changing temperatures under global climate change conditions.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
For my dissertation, I used a combination of published data and data from laboratory experiments to simulate how changes in temperature influence the parasite and its intermediate snail host.
How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?
Infectious diseases of humans and wildlife are increasing due to complex interactions between human population growth, changes in agricultural supply and demand, and global climate change. For example, human population growth is driving increases in agricultural development and accelerating global climate change. As more habitats are cleared for farmland, the likelihood of humans encountering wildlife that carry infectious diseases will likely increase. Global climate change may also influence how easily these diseases are spread between humans and wildlife. Thus, the broader goal of my research is to improve predictions of disease spread so that the public health sector can improve the timing and application of intervention methods. By examining how one part of the puzzle affects disease transmission, we can disentangle what to expect in the future as interactions between humans, animals, and environment continue to change.
Dr. Nguyen is now a postdoctoral scholar at Emory University. Learn more about Karena’s research on her website and by following her on Twitter @Nguyen_4Science
I’m Niba and I create notes about science (biology, especially plants!) and style (fashion, makeup, skincare)! I write in a physical journal, share photos on Instagram, and create videos on YouTube. I have always loved science – logical thinking, rationalizing answers, learning how to learn—and I also love style—fashion, beauty, skincare, modeling. As a scientist, I am taught logical thinking and rationalizing while cultivating a desire to learn. However, my life as a model is based on fashion trends, creating beauty, and skincare health. For a long time, these concepts existed as incompatible, separate parts of my personality. As I continue my journey as a female scientist and young model, I have integrated the different parts of my life to create my own distinct and compelling self. As I learn more about science and style, I would love for you to join me on my path at Notes by Niba . I’m now modeling, blogging, and beginning my third year as a PhD student studying the genetics of plant development.
I have always loved the process of learning, which led me to the scientific method. The scientific method can be applied to literally everything – working out, training my cat, as well as my experiments in the lab. In lab, I’m discovering how plants express genes to grow and develop. I am trying to understand how a gene control module puts tissues in the right place. This is a huge question in development because proper developing needs careful gene expression in time and space. Because gene networks control every biological process, my research benefits many other fields. For example, many human diseases are caused by impaired networks (ex. Cancer).
Specifics: My research looks into the SCARECROW plant gene, which forms two tissues – the cortex and endodermis. This is done by a certain kind of cell division, where one cell becomes a cortex cell and the other becomes an endodermal cell. Without the SCARECROW gene, the original cell never divides and is just one fat mutant cell that acts like BOTH a cortex and an endodermis at the same time. Just like how the SCARECROW in Wizard of Oz doesn’t have brain tissue, these plants are also missing a tissue. But we don’t know what the proper SCARECROW expression is to form these two tissues. My research is to determine what kind of SCARECROW gene expression–not just the amount but also at what time–is needed to form cortex and endodermis. By using existing gene modules, I can create different gene circuits to figure out what kind of SCARECROW expression will make the cell divide and get the proper tissues in plant roots. I can see this division in real time in living plants with a super powerful microscope in my laboratory.
Plant research is essential, resulting in drought-resistant food crops, more effective medicines, clothing and fashion, etc. More than 30 THOUSAND plant species are medicinally used (ex. anti-cancer drugs and blood thinners). The world’s food supply is under threat due to population growth, water scarcity, reduced agricultural land, and climate change. As potential biofuels, plants are also important as a potential source of renewable energy. That means it’s critical to be able to detect, learn from, and innovate with our green plant friends. Our past, present, and future depends on plants.
As a scientist, I am pushing the boundaries of what humanity knows – it’s an incredibly fulfilling job and I am grateful for this privilege.
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, why I chose science, and particularly why I decided to be an environmental consultant, is that the field is constantly changing, and there is always something new to learn, discover, or develop. Through my obtaining my undergraduate geology degree at Baylor University and my masters geology degree at The University of Tennessee, I was never sure what career path to take, but I knew that I liked to learn and do so at a very quick pace. Since beginning my consulting career just over one year ago, I have had the opportunity to study a multitude of contaminant impacts and remediation techniques for groundwater, porewater, soil, and sediment. Not only this, but every day I am fortunate to collaborate with scientists across the United States on a daily basis.
In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
As a consultant at Geosyntec I conduct environmental contaminant investigations and remediations concerning chlorinated solvents, petroleum, metals, pesticides, and/or emerging contaminants. These contaminants are sourced from many historic and modern day industrial activities like dry cleaning and petroleum storage and sales among many others. My work over the last year and a half has been on sites located across state of Florida and have involved in soil, sediment, porewater and groundwater monitoring and sampling; contractor oversight; permitting; and the development and execution of proposals, remedial designs, and reports.
How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
My work provides knowledge to clients and the public about the state of their environment and what steps we can actively take to better it. As environmental consultants we conduct investigations to ensure environmental contaminants are not migrating away from their source and that concentrations are not increasing. This work is extremely important as it ensures no harm is coming to the members of our community from the investigated contaminants as they go about their day to day lives.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Keep at it! Sometimes you will have no idea which path to take and may become overwhelmed by those around you who already have their path determined. Take on a new project, study a new field, take that random class or field trip. By exploring every possible avenue, you will find your niche.
It may be a little cliché, but like all scientists I know, I was always interested in science. It was one of those subjects in school that came naturally to me. By the time I graduated high school, I had taken all of the advanced science courses offered by my school, plus two college-level courses. You would think someone this driven by science would immediately jump into a science degree in college, right? Nope.
I attended college for graphic design. After a semester, I changed my major to photography. A couple semesters later, I changed my major to psychology – and that is where my real journey began. Eight years of hard work, studying all night while working multiple jobs to support myself through school, and I finally had my degree – my major was psychology, my minor was biology. I focused on a neuroscience approach to addictions and wanted to be a drug and alcohol therapist.
Along the way, I found myself working as an office manager for a microbiology laboratory. The work they did fascinated me, as I had many happy flashbacks to the courses I took in high school and college. As I worked my way through school, I also worked my way into the laboratory. Upon graduation, I jumped into a rigorous training program to become a microbiologist, led by an incredible mycologist and a snarky clinical bacteriologist. Seven years later – I run an environmental microbiology lab outside of Chicago for this company.
Long story short – plans change, but who you are at your core and what truly excites you remains the same. Science was always a part of me. I was always the kid questioning everything, asking Why and How, solving problems logically and methodically, taking horrible notes that somehow made sense to only me. I was weird. I got made fun of a lot. And I’m still weird. But I made a career out of it, so I’m really not complaining.
What Do I Actually Do?
I am a microbiologist, specialized in the indoor air quality, water quality, and industrial hygiene worlds. I don’t analyze any human-based samples, but I am responsible for keeping a lot of people safe. From pharmaceutical production, to the mold growing under your kitchen sink, to the water grandpa Joe uses to take showers at his assisted living facility… we’re on it.
Our clients go out and take a variety of sample types, and we analyze them for any potential pathogens that may be present. We do old-school, bench-top, human-driven science. We aren’t relying on fancy machines to analyze things for us, and sure our reference materials may be a couple decades old, but what we do is tried and true.
Why is this important?
Bacteria and fungi are amazing and mind-blowingly smart. They’ve been a part of our world since it began. Outbreaks happen, yes, but the type of work an environmental microbiologist does is all about being proactive. If a pharmaceutical company is producing medicine in a contaminated environment, we stop it from reaching you. If grandpa Joe is being exposed to potentially pathogenic bacteria in his water, we catch it and help remediate it. And even though your house is spotless and you would eat off of your floors, we highly suggest you don’t because you have six different types of mold growing under your sink.
The environmental world of microbiology is full of unsung heroes. If you don’t work for the CDC, no one really knows what you do or really knows why it’s important. But that’s okay, we’re all a bunch of nerds and don’t want the spotlight anyway. I still want to get involved in local colleges and reach out to inspiring young scientists because this world is dying. What we do isn’t even really taught in schools anymore, as more and more schools focus on clinical laboratory sciences and molecular research using expensive machines. Not saying any of that is bad, learning more and more about the world around us is a huge part of science, right? But we’re already fighting an anti-science, anti-vaccine movement right now, let’s not also let the bacteria around us win and party with the re-emerging viruses.
Are you a Scientist, too?
If you, too, are a kind-of-weird person, always asking why and how, never leaving any problem unfinished, maybe you’re a scientist too. Even if you can’t make up your mind in what you want to do with your life but you kind of relate to Mr. Spock on a personal level, maybe you’re a scientist too. If you are interested in a scientific field, do tons of research before settling down! There’s more to microbiology than clinical laboratories. I’d be happy to connect with you and tell you more!
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 going into the lab, doing an experiment, and discovering something that nobody else knows. My uncle was in grad school when I was a kid. He studied fracture mechanics in metals, or crackology, as I like to call it. I visited his lab and he showed me his million-dollar microscope. He was getting a Ph.D. so I decided I would, too. I wasn’t interested in engineering. I liked watching nature shows on PBS and biology in school. In high school, I learned about DNA replication. DNA has directionality and can only be replicated in one direction but there are two strands held together in the opposite direction. When you separate the DNA there isn’t enough space to copy the other strand. The cell solves this problem by making short sections of DNA of the strand that is facing the opposite direction and then gluing them together. These are called Okazaki fragments and I thought that was cool. Also, in that class, my teacher showed us statistics on how many people get undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. degrees and all the different careers you could do with those degrees. So at 16, I decided to get a Ph.D. and do research in biochemistry. I searched for schools that had strong undergraduate research in a real biochemistry program. I didn’t want chemistry and biology class, but a dedicated program. Once I did start a biochemistry project, I decided that wasn’t for me. Biochemistry involves reducing reactions to their bare minimums, but life isn’t like that. So, I traded the cold room and purified proteins for genetics. I like asking the questions and having the cells tell me the answers.
In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
I investigate why genetically diverse individuals respond differently to the same stress, usually a chemical. Every chemical is a poison in the right dose but also can be a medicine. Water is essential for life is also toxic in high doses. Drowning is a leading cause of premature death. The stress response is a complex reaction. The first thing that happens is that cell growth is arrested. It’s like if your house is on fire. Once you see the fire, you don’t finish washing the dishes and then find the fire extinguisher. There are common responses to stress and then there are specific ones. To find out how the cell’s response to a specific stress, we exploit genetic variation within a species. I compare cells that can successfully deal with the stress to ones that can’t and determine what are the underlying differences that govern that. Depending on the stress we sequence genomes, measure the changes in gene expression or proteins. We work on yeast because in general people don’t appreciate being poisoned and don’t reproduce as fast as in the lab. Yeast have a generation every 90 minutes. Yeast are fungi and are more related to us than to bacteria. They have important applications in baking, brewing, and biotechnology. Yeast share many biochemical pathways with us and so by studying them, we can then extrapolate that to humans. In my lab we are working on glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical, and copper nanoparticles, a novel antimicrobial material.
What are your data and how do you obtain them?
I am an experimental geneticist. We have tens of thousands of different yeast strains in the lab. Most of these yeast come from other labs. The yeast community is generous, and these are all freely shared. To understand how RoundUp resistance occurs in nature, we also collect yeast from different environments. We have several sites with different RoundUp exposures. We started with a reclaimed strip coal mine, a state park, and the university organic farm. We have taken the public and students from local public schools to collect samples from these areas. We bring the samples to the lab and teach them how to coax the yeast out and then purify their DNA so we can sequence them. We thought that the mine would have the highest frequency of RoundUp resistant yeast because they spray that area every year with RoundUp. The park has been a state park since the 1930s and RoundUp was invented in the 1970s. RoundUp is a synthetic herbicide and not included in the list of herbicides and pesticides permitted on organic foods. We were completely shocked when we found that the organic farm had the highest number of RoundUp yeast and the mine had the fewest. There could be several explanations. One is that the yeast weren’t specifically resistant to RoundUp but whatever genetic changes that had been selected togave it a selective advantage in that environment also conferred resistance. When we further investigated the histories of these sites we came up with another idea. The organic farm wasn’t always an organic farm. Two decades ago it was a conventional farm and from that previous exposure, the yeast became resistant and never lost it. The state park routinely uses RoundUp to combat invasive plants. There is also a power line that spans the canyon and they use helicopters to spray RoundUp so that trees don’t grow into the power line. The mine is used as a study site to find genes that are important for trees to grow on poor soil so that biofuels can be made. They started that study the year before I started collecting yeast so only a year of exposure was not enough to select for resistance. So now we have an even better study. We can go back every year to the mine and collect yeast. We can track RoundUp resistance as it happens.
How does your research contribute to the betterment of society in general?
We are exposed to and consume chemicals every day. Differences in how we respond to those chemicals in part depend on small differences in our genome. We use these genetic differences to find out how cells are metabolizing chemicals successfully and survive or unsuccessfully and die. When the human genome was sequenced, we thought that all its secrets would be unlocked. While tremendous advances in biomedical research could only have been done with this information, there is so much that we don’t know how to read. It’s like finally getting the keys to the entire library but all the books are written in a language that you taught yourself and they’re words that you don’t know how to translate. Based on a sequenced genome, we are not yet able to predict a person’s medical conditions or how a person will respond to drugs. The chemicals that we study are important agricultural and industrial chemicals. With the overuse of herbicides, we are now facing RoundUp resistant weeds. We don’t know how to combat this because we only partially understand how weeds become resistant. The active ingredient in RoundUp inhibits a biochemical pathway that plants, bacteria, and yeast have but humans do not. Therefore, it has been challenging to study possible effects of RoundUp exposure in humans. All known acute poisonings have been from the inactive ingredients and not the glyphosate. However, chronic exposure is time-consuming and complicated to study. We are using yeast to determine if there are other biochemical targets of RoundUp in yeast that humans may have. These studies can’t be done in plants because RoundUp exposure is lethal and prevents the synthesis of nutrients but yeast can be supplemented with the nutrients that RoundUp suppresses. Other chemicals like MCHM have limited toxicological information. Several years ago, a massive chemical spill contaminated the water supply in West Virginia. It caused headaches, nausea, and rashes and nobody knew why. MCHM changes how proteins fold and doesn’t have a specific target like RoundUp. By using this chemical we are studying how changes in protein folding regulate metal and amino acid levels in the cells. Fungal infections are difficult to treat because they are immune to antibiotics. Antibiotics work because they exploit fundamental differences in the metabolism of bacteria from humans. Yeast are more closely related to humans so there are fewer druggable targets. Copper is an effective antifungal material, but it is expensive, and metal has several drawbacks. By incorporating copper into cellulose-based nanoparticles, cheap, moldable, and biodegradable materials can reduce food spoilage and infections from medical devices.
What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
Be prepared to fail. Failure is an opportunity to learn. In the example of the RoundUp resistance, the results were the opposite of what we thought. We can’t change the results, but we did further investigation and found an even more interesting story. I think of this as lost keys. My keys are always in the last place that I look. Why? Because I stop looking when I find them. If you think you know the answer, you stop searching. There is so much to discover and so many connections of which we are not aware. By challenging how you think about something you can overcome your assumptions and chip away at the unknown.
Head to Jen’s faculty page to learn more about her and her research by clicking here.
I always enjoyed the outdoors, growing up outside a small town in upstate New York. Camping trips with my family took me to many national parks and the wonders of the Western US. In 8th grade I had a great Earth Science course, which I loved, but I somehow did not connect it as a career path. I went off the Middlebury College in Vermont to enjoy the mountains and skiing, but majored in Math because it was easy for me. By Senior year I decided to take a Geology course as an elective (because I liked mountains) and by the second week I was hooked! It was initially the idea of working outdoors in wild and scenic places that attracted me, but I soon learned there were wonderful scientific problems aplenty. It was 1968 (yes, I am of that generation!) and the concept of Plate Tectonics was just emerging. Luckily, I had a wonderful professor teaching the year sequence of Physical and Historical Geology and he brought into class the latest scientific discoveries and made the course exciting and provocative. He also encouraged me to go to Grad School with my one year of Geology, but lots of Math, Physics, and Chemistry, and the rest is history!
What do you do?
I have been a University professor for 45 years, the last 5 as Emeritus. Being a professor at a major research university means you do many things, all at the same time! I taught courses in Geophysics at the undergrad and grad level, as well as other courses needed by my department including Oceanography, Field Methods, Field Mapping, Physical Geology, and Tectonophysics. I mentored students at all levels, both those in my classes and those working in my lab. I ran a research program including Masters and PhD students where we worked together both in the field and in my paleomagnetism laboratory. And, as is common in academia, I did a considerable amount of service for my department, my university, and my profession.
What is your research?
I study the Earth’s magnetic field as it is recorded in earth materials- the field of paleomagnetism. When rocks form – igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic –they are able to retain a record of the current magnetic field within magnetic minerals (magnetite and hematite primarily) in the rock. Samples can be collected from these rocks millions of years later and the original field measured for both direction and magnitude.
Field aspects of my research involve collecting oriented samples from in situ outcrops and locations. Currently I work mostly with hard rocks, both young volcanic flows and ancient metamorphic rocks. I drill samples from these units using an adapted chain saw with a 1 inch diamond bit, water-cooled to preserve the diamonds. Usually 8-10 cores are drilled at each site (lava flow or outcrop) and all are oriented in place with a sun compass. This produces many samples; my current project in southern Patagonia involves 120 separate lava flows, and over 1000 cores! Paleomagnetic studies also can be done on sedimentary rocks, also drilled in the field, and on lake and ocean cores, where samples are collected from the sediment once the cores are split open.
Laboratory measurements are performed on a cryogenic magnetometer in my Paleomagnetism Laboratory here at UMass. It only takes a few minutes to measure the magnetization in a single sample, but a number of tests for stability and reproducibility are required before the data can be interpreted. Samples are demagnetized in a step-wise fashion using either high temperatures (up to 700°C) or alternating magnetic fields. We often measure other magnetic properties of the samples, including magnetic susceptibility (measured both in the field and on lab samples) and hysteresis properties. Microscopic work or SEM studies help us to identify the carriers of the magnetization.
Current Projects. I am working at both ends of Earth history as current projects include a major study of paleomagnetic directions from young (< 10 myrs) lava flows from southern South America. These rocks are being used to investigate how the Earth ’s magnetic field varies in the Southern Hemisphere over the last 10 million years. Other projects are looking at very old rocks in northern Canada where I study the variations in magnetization in a piece of ancient lower crust, now exposed at the surface, and studies of 900 million year old intrusive rocks in southern Norway that are helping us reconstruct the Earth at a time when all the continents were together in a supercontinent called Rodinia.
How does your research contribute to climate change and evolution?
Paleomagnetism is able to contribute to studies of climate change, evolution, and the history of the Earth by providing additional methods to both correlate sequences and unconnected outcrops, and by providing additional information on geologic age. The geomagnetic time scale of normal and reversed polarities is well established, and using this magnetostratigraphy enables us to date sedimentary sequences, and to identify similar sequences in other locations. Measuring the paleomagnetism of deep-sea cores is so well established that the large drilling ships have on-board magnetic laboratories. Although I am not doing this kind of magnetic work at present, many other labs are, providing important constraints on the timing and correlation of climatic proxies and many parts of the fossil record.
What is your advice for aspiring scientists?
Persevere! Find that special part of geoscience that intrigues you and work hard to be the best you can at it. Take all the various opportunities that are available to you, and see where you go! There will be ups and downs, but as a career the Geosciences provide many positive and productive possibilities. With over 50 years of activity in the Geosciences, I can easily say I have never lost my joy of working with and on the Earth and the many interesting problems and challenges it provides. You, alone, may not solve all the problems facing our planet, but you will greatly contribute to our knowledge of the Earth – its evolution, its history, and its constantly changing environment. And, along the way, you will interact with a number of other awesome scientists, get to see much of the world, and provide a rewarding and enjoyable career for yourself.
What is your favorite aspect about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
At the beginning of college one of my professor’s suggested that I take an introduction to geology course, and within a few weeks I was hooked! Before that, I had no idea that geology and earth science was a subject that people studied. But I was hooked on the idea that my classes were teaching me more about the world around me- and I still am! I love studying subjects that directly affect people and communities, so now I research historical hurricanes and different types of flooding.
What do you do?
An issue that comes up more often in the news is the frequency of intense hurricanes. These storms impact huge numbers of people along coastlines all over the earth; now we worry that these big storms might be happening more often or might be getting stronger. However, we do not have long historical records around the world of how often these storms used to happen. The really cool thing about geology is that we can look further back in time using things that nature leaves behind. I go to lakes and marshes near the coast to collect sediment- we take a big empty tube and stick it into the earth to learn about big floods that have happened in the past. It works kind of like sticking a straw into your drink and putting your thumb on top, except we do this with mud and sand. When we look at the layers in the mud, the deeper down we go is further in the past, like the pages in a book. Layers of sand tell us that a big storm happened there in the past, pushed into the lake by huge storm waves that bring sand in toward land from the ocean and beach. Counting how many of these sand layers there are helps us understand the frequency of storms through history. Knowing more about the past can help us understand how to help prepare for these storms, help protect coastal populations, and whether they are happening more frequently now.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
Most of the global population lives within 60 miles of the coast, so studying storms and coastal flooding is really important. Boston, MA is one of many cities globally that is along the coast and vulnerable to coastal flooding, especially with the additional threat of sea level rise. Each year during hurricane and nor’easter seasons we are repeatedly reminded of the threat that these storms pose to the coastal populations of the eastern United States, not to mention other parts of the globe. The more we can constrain the frequency and strength of storms, the better we can serve and protect the people of Earth from these huge floods. I am motivated not only to be active in the research I do studying coastal flooding, but also to play a role in disseminating knowledge to public and policy spheres. The research I am involved in can help inform hurricane and nor’easter preparedness for populations all along the coasts, helping decide where structures will get built and how storm water management and adaptations plans are designed.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
Most of the data that I use comes directly from sediment, either at the bottom of lakes or on wetlands and marshes. As it builds up over time at the bottom of lakes, we can look down into the mud and read a history through the different grain sizes from sand to mud, the types of animals that lived there, and the types of materials that make up the sediment!
How do you engage with the science community and with the public?
I recently got to participate in the AGU Voice for Science program- an incredible opportunity to learn more about science communication and meet other scientists interested in outreach. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the largest society of earth and space scientists around the world, and they have some very cool opportunities for outreach and science communication training. So far, my outreach experience has mostly been in educational programs to get children interested in science. This program through AGU broadened my experience in science communication into policy, and we got to do congressional visits to talk to Senators and Representatives from various states about science funding. I think a really critical aspect of outreach is building relationships with the communities you want to impact and making yourself available for their questions and concerns. We often approach outreach with the attitude that we have expertise about a specific issue to offer people, but they may be interested in an entirely different subject. Asking a community what their interests and questions are before you go in with your own is a really valuable way to build trust and a strong working relationship for future research and outreach. I am excited to see how my outreach will change in the coming months after learning so much from this workshop!
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Pursue your goals, even if they seem out of reach or even impossible. And never hesitate to ask others for help and advice!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general? I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember. My dad was working on his Master’s of Science in Biology when I was a kid and I loved going to class with him to look at cells under the microscope and helping him collect insects in the field behind our house. I got into paleontology specifically when I learned how common it was to find mastodon fossils in fields near my house. I wanted to find one of those mastodons! I love that as a scientist I still get to do these things that I loved as a kid.
What do you do? In undergrad I said that I majored in hugging trees and minored in playing in the dirt. I would say that’s still true. I use the size and shape of leaves to figure out the ancient temperature and precipitation (paleoclimate). I do this by studying modern plants and applying what I learn to fossil plants. Specifically, I use the size and shape of tropical African leaves to study the paleoclimate and environment in Kenya during the evolution of our early ancestors.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change and evolution? I like to say that I am the context. As a paleobotanist, I study the ancient temperature, precipitation, and environment.What was the world like when our early ancestors were evolving. Was it hot or cold? Was it wet or dry? Was the landscape open or forested? Was there water nearby? Understanding this can help us understand the context of human evolution.
What are your data and how do you obtain them? Because I study both modern and fossil plants, I get data from a couple of different places. For modern leaves, I primarily use existing collections from herbaria. A herbarium is like a library of plants. For hundreds of years people have been pressing leaves, collecting seeds, and drying fruits and I can use these collections to understand the range of size and shape of leaves from tropical Africa. In addition, I study both previously collected fossil leaves as well as fossils I collected myself. This means that I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few months studying collections in the National Museum of Kenya as well as doing my own fieldwork.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists? It’s okay to ask questions. Very often other people have the same question but are too afraid to ask.
It’s okay to ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength. Knowing what you don’t understand or can’t do alone shows that you understand what it takes. It’s okay to reach out to scientists that you admire. Scientists tend to be very excited to talk about their research and are happy to hear that people are interested! Scientists are humans too.
I am currently a PhD student at the University of Leeds, UK. My research looks at the role of mass extinctions in driving long-term trends in ecology and evolution. I do this by analysing large volumes of data from the fossil record, which requires statistical programming, an approach often termed computational paleobiology.
I’ve always enjoyed the problem-solving nature of science; it can be frustrating at times but really satisfying when all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. As an undergrad, I studied Biology and Earth Sciences at Durham University, UK, before going on to complete a Masters in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol, UK. Both of these courses helped to cultivate my passion for evolutionary biology, and equipped me with the scientific approaches and data analysis skills I needed to tackle “big data” questions in paleontology.
My PhD project is focused on comparing large-scale spatial patterns of biodiversity (=the variety of life in an area or on a global scale) before, during and after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event (~250 million years ago), the most severe mass extinction event in Earth history. During this time, up to 95% of marine species became extinct. Widespread volcanic activity drove extreme global warming, leading to ‘hothouse’ conditions which prevented ecosystems (=a community of animals and how they react with the environment around them) from fully recovering for several million years. Understanding how global warming has affected the biosphere in the past is important for making accurate predictions of how global warming will affect animals and plants in the future.
Most of my data comes from the Paleobiology Database, a global database of fossil occurrences compiled by paleontologists, which is freely accessible to everyone (you can explore the data using the Navigator app). As one of the data enterers, I spend a lot of my time looking for information on fossils published in journals and books and adding them to the database. Once I’m happy with my occurrence data, I analyse them using R, a programming language and environment designed specifically for statistics. It enables me to carry out complex calculations across big data sets relatively quickly, to establish what the fossils are telling us about large-scale evolutionary patterns.
I also really enjoy outreach. Alongside my PhD, I work part-time delivering environmentally-themed school sessions, building on the experience I gained doing outreach with the Bristol Dinosaur Project during my Masters. At present, I’m particularly involved in delivering ‘Fossil Hunt’ sessions, visiting local schools to give 7-11 year olds the opportunity to handle fossils and learn about paleontology. It’s great to be able to show the children what ‘real’ scientists look like, and I always leave refreshed by their enthusiasm.
I love my research because it strikes the perfect balance between being something I’m really interested in (evolutionary biology) and requiring something I’m good at (data science). My advice to aspiring scientists would be to find this crossover in your own skills and interests – science takes perseverance, and that’s much easier when you’re making the most of your talents and are passionate about what you’re doing!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
Throughout my time in middle school, my favourite lessons at school were always biology, chemistry and physics. I also really enjoyed physical geography, and my teachers at school were always enthusiastic, engaging and were more than happy to support my interest in geology. They pointed me in the right direction with careers when I was in high school, and without their guidance I probably wouldn’t have studied geology at university. I also volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London from the beginning of my third year of undergrad with an EU funded research project called Throughflow (as part of the V Factor Volunteer Scheme). The researchers who I volunteered with were also incredibly encouraging and supportive, and great mentors too.
I enjoy being a scientist because:
I get to look at microfossil specimens that no one has looked at before. Foraminifera are so pretty, and I still can’t believe that these single celled organisms manage to create these ornate skeletons which record climate during their lifetime! Understanding the stories they have locked up inside is sometimes a little difficult, but I enjoy the challenge that this presents.
Lab work is fun. I love learning different chemical techniques.
I get to meet lots of awesome people from a variety of backgrounds and geological disciplines and talk science with them.
I get to communicate my science to public audiences and inspire new generations of scientists.
What do you do?
I use the chemistry of fossil plankton called foraminifera to understand more about their ecologies and what the climate was like millions of years ago.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, or to the betterment of society in general?
We use chemical data from foraminifera shells to reconstruct past climate. However, we don’t fully understand all aspects of foraminiferal ecology i.e. exactly what their lifestyles were like- did they all live with algae? Did they migrate or change in size because oceans became harder for them to live in? Ecology affects shell chemistry. Thus, before we put together long term climate records to understand how the earth’s climate has changed through time using chemical signals from foram skeletons, it is important to understand the controls on the signals that we use. This is particularly pertinent to geological periods that we use as future climate analogues such as the Eocene (~47-33 million years ago).
What are your data and how do you obtain them?
Planktonic foraminifera are single celled plankton which have a skeleton made from calcium carbonate. Some species choose to live in the surface waters of the ocean, whilst others choose to live in the thermocline. Some even live together with algae! All forams are beautiful, and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Foraminifera are really awesome too, because in the same way human hair records our diet, their skeletons record the environmental conditions around them in the ocean. By the analysis of one shell, we can understand the climate in the location and the time that the foram lived, including how hot the oceans were and even how much ice there was on land!
When foraminifera die, their skeletons sink to the sea floor and build up in layers, creating an extensive fossil record more importantly an extensive climate record too! The same signals we use to infer climate in the past can tell us how they used to live too i.e. their ecology.
To understand foraminiferal ecology, I use several geochemical proxies. Proxies are chemical signatures which are an indirect way of understanding an environmental parameter. I primarily use oxygen isotopes, carbon isotopes and the amounts of magnesium (Mg), strontium (Sr) and boron (B) (ratioed to calcium, Ca) in foraminiferal shells. If these elements are unfamiliar to you, you might not have realized you’ve seen them before. White fireworks have Mg, green fireworks have B and red fireworks have Sr! I gather these data using different machines called mass spectrometers and electron microprobes. One of the mass spectrometers I use is hooked up to a laser, which is super cool. I use the laser to drill through foram shells to understand how Mg, B and Sr vary through the shell wall. Mg/Ca, Sr/Ca, B/Ca, δ18O and δ13C signatures are specific to certain species. For example, a surface dwelling species will have greater Mg/Ca and a more negative δ18O signature. Therefore if I collected these type of data from a species with an unknown ecology, I would infer that it was a surface dweller.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Always be curious.
Ask as many questions as you can – no question is stupid. If someone tells you your question is stupid – they’re wrong.
Talk with lots of people who might be able to help you gain more of an insight into the world of science. You never know who might be able to give you work experience/research internships/jobs (both academic and non academic).
If things go wrong academically early in your career, don’t let that stop you from progressing later on. Work hard, learn from your mistakes, and you can do anything you’d like to (I speak from experience with this one…)
Have mentors and a support network. I wouldn’t have survived the final stages of my PhD without mine.
Look after yourself – no science is worth you burning out over. As a friend once told me – the forams will still be there and waiting for you to look at them in the morning… (they’re not wrong).
For those studying for exams (including PhDs): Don’t lose your enthusiasm and don’t give up if things get tough. You set out to learn/research something cool, and if you’ve made it this far, you can totally do it!
Learn more about Rehemat’s research and follow her on Twitter @rehemat_