I am a nerd who turned a lifetime fascination in nature documentaries and monster movies into a career as an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, where I get to study the amazing ways that animals move through different environments and then share these discoveries to students through my role as a teacher-scholar.
How did I become a scientist?
My career started off a bit rocky when I was rejected from the four-year university programs I applied to in high school. I wanted to become a wildlife biologist to maintain biodiversity and this roadblock made me question whether I was good enough to pursue what I loved. The thought of being a university professor hadn’t crossed my mind yet but I knew that I needed a college degree, so I attended community college where my chemistry professor explained how research helps solve mysteries. I loved puzzles, so I thought “why not?”. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, and was lucky to work with excellent professors who helped me conduct research and inspired me to study how the environment affects animal movements. I did temporarily work as a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during this time, but research made me realize that I could study the maintenance of biodiversity through the lens of evolution and ecology. With my mentors’ support, I completed a Ph.D. at Clemson University and earned post-doctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Royal Veterinary College. In 2017, I started a tenure-track position at California State University, Long Beach.
What do I study?
My research combines biology, engineering, and mathematics to reconstruct animal movement by piecing together how muscles and bones produce motion. I deconstruct how living animals move so I can build computer models that reverse-engineer the ancient movements of extinct animals. One of my goals is to figure out how vertebrates (animals with backbones) went from living in water for hundreds of millions of years as fishes to moving onto land as tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). I enjoy studying animals that challenge the norm, such as ‘walking’ fishes, because they open our eyes to the amazing diversity on Earth and help us learn from those who are different from us. Here’s to nature’s misfits!
What would I have told younger me?
I would encourage anyone interested in science to explore diverse experiences and treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, whether it be about yourself or the world around you. We often treat obstacles in our lives as affirmation that we are not good enough, but it is not the obstacles that define us but the way in which we respond to those obstacles. These struggles can push us to grow stronger or approach questions with new and creative perspectives. There are many equally important ways to be a scientist and there is no single pathway to becoming a scientist, so enjoy your adventure!
My love for science was born freshman year of college when I was encouraged to ask questions about nature and began reading books about the evolutionary origin of life and the cosmos. Through reading, I found that science is the best tool that we have to understand the world around us and that we should never stop asking questions of our origins. However, big questions related to evolutionary histories, for example, require the collaboration and contribution of multiple different fields of science and so, I set out on an educational journey that would allow me to grow my scientific toolbox to encompass skills across multiple disciplines. My background in zoology taught me perspective on communities and how ecological linkages between different species can play crucial roles in how an ecosystem functions. I then delved into geoscience to gain an understanding of how organisms interact with their physical and chemical environment. Now, I evaluate sediment microbial communities and their contribution to biogeochemical cycling of nutrients with genomic sequencing analyses.
I am currently using my cross-discipline training to paint a complete picture of microbial communities in Arctic sediments. My goal is to make useful contributions to models aimed at describing how continued climate warming will affect carbon cycling in the Arctic Circle. It is currently unknown if the biological feedbacks associated with glacial retreat and warming surface ocean temperatures will lead to a net carbon sink (removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) or net source (contributing to atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions). To answer these questions, I collect environmental DNA and RNA from sediments in different fjords all over Svalbard alongside geochemistry measurements. I employ microbial network analyses to find links between community members and geochemistry to unravel the hidden drivers behind microbial abundance and community composition. With genomic sequencing data and cutting-edge bioinformatics tools, I evaluate the carbon cycling potential within nearly complete microbial genomes collected from these sediments and then computationally map their genes to RNA activity in the environment. We are finding that spatial gradients in the amount and quality of organic matter control metabolic potential of sediment microbial communities.
Pursuing a career in science has allowed me to travel the world, meet new and interesting people, experience cultures different from mine, and cultivate relationships that will prove invaluable for future collaborations. I love what I do, and encourage anyone who wants to pursue a career in science to do it! My advice to aspiring young scientists is to identify a mentor you trust early on that will guide you through tough times of self-doubt that may arise, or provide strong letters of recommendation.
What do you do, and how does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
I study ice sheet dynamics in Antarctica, which means that I am interested in the processes that influence how ice mass gets moved off the continent and into the ocean, in either solid (iceberg) or liquid form. The term ‘ice-sheet dynamics’ may be confusing if you think of Antarctica as a giant frozen ice cube. Instead, think of the Antarctic ice sheet as a giant cone of sand – when you pour dry sand on the top of a sand pile with steep edges, rivulets of sand start to form. These ‘streams’ move sand from the top of the pile out to the edges. In Antarctica, the same process (gravity) creates fast-moving corridors of ice – we even call them ‘ice streams’.
OK, so what about the ‘dynamics’ part? Now imagine that your pesky little sister takes a shovel, and removes a chunk of sand at the edge of the pile. Sand will flow into the newly-created hole, right? The same thing happens when warm ocean temperatures melt ice at the edges of the Antarctic continent: ice streams speed up and move more ice off the continent and into the ocean. Warm air temperatures can also increase surface meltwater production which can drain into crevasses and promote iceberg calving, also causing ice streams to drain more ice into the ocean.
These processes add to the total volume of water in the ocean. Therefore, what happens to the Antarctic ice sheet in the future will determine the rate and amount of global sea level rise.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
I use computer models that simplify the interactions between ice sheet and the climate, in order to reconstruct ice-sheet dynamics. We need to be confident that these models can adequately represent past time periods, though, before we can trust the computer model predictions of future Antarctic mass loss and sea level rise. Therefore, we validate these computer models by comparing them to geologic records of ice sheet behavior. My previous research project interpreted ice sheet dynamics and retreat patterns by mapping features that fast-moving ice-streams carved into the ground throughout the last glacial cycle. This information is used to calibrate the ice sheet model, ensuring that the model is physically realistic and reconstructs the same ice sheet retreat pattern as I interpret from the geologic record.
The animation below shows a computer model projection for future sea level rise up to the year 2500. Here, the model assumes business-as-usual carbon emissions until the year 2100 (following ‘Representative Carbon Pathway’ RCP8.5). Even though the model’s carbon emissions are held constant after the year 2100, it takes the Antarctic ice sheet decades to centuries to fully respond to the high-CO2 forcing, leading to a huge amount of sea level rise. You can see the ice sheet (blue) get thinner and retreat, exposing the land (brown) of the continent underneath. I made this animation as part of a project to predict future sea level for the city of Boston; you can learn more about this project here, and see the full video I made here. This is an example of how ice sheet computer models are used to predict future impacts of our modern decisions about carbon emissions.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
One of my favorite parts about being a scientist is the international community. When I go to conferences, or participate in field work, I am always in the company of international colleagues who become friends. I learn so much about science, but also about culture and history I would not be exposed to otherwise. Another favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to travel to amazing places, like Antarctica!
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
My biggest piece of advice to young scientists (and to everyone) is: ASK STUPID QUESTIONS. Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question, but no, it doesn’t mean that you are stupid. It means that you care more about understanding a concept and broadening your mind than what the people around you think. It’s hard – I still struggle with this, especially in a public setting like a class or lecture – but it’s so important. Asking stupid questions is by far the #1 easiest way to learn anything new, and often leads to the best conversations you’ll ever have. If you have a stupid question but feel embarrassed, just remember that there is a 99% chance that someone around you is wondering the same thing but is too shy to ask.
Greetings, Time Scavengers. When I was contacted to participate in this week’s Meet the Scientist blog my immediate thought was on my lack of qualifications. I hold no PhD, no Masters, and I am not currently employed in any science field. What I do have is a lifelong appreciation for science and an obsession for collecting fossils.
I collect fossils mainly around northern Alabama, a region rich in Lower Carboniferous aged limestone (~350 million years ago). This started innocently enough by helping a friend gather landscaping rocks several years ago. I found a rugose horn coral that day and have never stopped looking down. I attended a paleontology group meeting out of Birmingham, Alabama for some guidance in identifying some of my early finds and through that paleontology group, I met a mentor. Studying under and hunting with that mentor is where I discovered a love for fossil echinoderms.
Echinoderms are fascinating. One of the longest-lived group of invertebrates on this planet and they are still around. That sand dollar you find on the beach or that starfish you spy in a tidal pool has a looong history! And there is still so much research to be done. Debate lingers on the exact origins of the crinoid (my personal echinoderm favorite.) Research on starfish and brittle stars is underrepresented and there are so many undescribed species.
Amateurs like me depend on that research, in the form of scholarly articles to help us identify our fossils as much as the paleontologists depend on us amateurs to provide them with viable specimens to study. I have donated to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in the past and one day will donate my whole collection at large. I just haven’t finished the collection yet. Fossil collecting is like playing Pokemon, but with genera of crinoids.
I suppose the main point of my ramblings thus far is to challenge you guys to find your passion, find a mentor along the way to teach you, and take that passion even further than I have. I look forward to reading your future articles!
To follow Jess Cost’s collecting adventures on her Instagram account, click here!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
I never thought I could or would be a scientist, because I never knew that it was actually an option for me. I knew I wanted to be educated and it was along that journey I fell in love with geology at Mount Holyoke College. Under the mentorship of Dr. Harold Connolly at the American Museum of Natural History in 2009 and Dr. Steve Dunn at Mt Holyoke College, I started my first research projected analyzing a Calcium Aluminum Inclusion found within the Allende meteorite. CAI’s inclusions are the oldest rocks to form in our solar system approximately 4.5 billion years ago.
Having something that old in my hands caused so many emotions, and I wanted to understand all of the processes that formed the minerals to the creation of the rock as it moved away from the sun.
I also completed my masters’ thesis on analyzing three samples of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that impacted Russia in 2013 at Brooklyn College under the mentorship of Dr. John Chamberlain. For that project, I used the mineralogy and petrographic features to quantify the amount of impact events and mineral evolution the meteorite experienced after breaking away from its parent asteroid.
I recently started my PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst specializing in my other passion hydrogeology with Dr. David
Boutt’s research group. My dissertation project aims to quantify and understand the seasonal trends of recharge to the water storage on the island of Tobago, by creating an annual water budget. It will be based on the islands annual precipitation, runoff, evapotranspiration, stream and river discharge, and infiltration into the subsurface using a transient flow groundwater modeling and geochemical analysis.
What do you do?
In a nutshell, I am trying to quantify the amount of water stored in the subsurface of the island as time passes. This means that the hydrologic water budget depends on the changes of variables such as precipitation, evapotranspiration, and runoff.
I am also learning how to use isotopic ratio of hydrogen (tritium) to determine the age of water. This is important since you have an understanding of whether the water from a well is recharged by rainfall or by a deep (i.e. old) underground source.
How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?
Today, it is becoming more imperative to understand and use potable water sustainably. We see many countries or regions of the world experiencing drastic shifts in climate leading to severe droughts or massive flooding related issues. My research is directly related to climate change, since its behavior completely shifts the amount of groundwater stored in the subsurface. Thus, quantifying the amount of water stored in the subsurface at any period in time is important to sustainable water management for all countries.
What are your data, and how do you obtain it?
In hydrogeology, we use a combination of data types and sources to complete an analysis. Some of these are: geological maps, well information (i.e. hydraulic conductivity and depth to water table) precipitation samples and amounts, surface water samples, and remote sensing just to name a few. All of these types of data and samples are then analyzed through various processes to produce the final result.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
I would tell any budding scientist to make sure to study a topic they are passionate about, because it actually makes the entire process enjoyable. I think it is also important to be well rounded and have a strong foundation in all science topics.
My favorite part of being a scientist is discovering new things. I get to see things that no one has seen before and try to figure out how different pieces of evidence and types of information fit together to solve puzzles about how the universe works. My interest in science started when I was very young. I loved going on walks in my neighborhood and finding cool leaves and rocks and bugs. It’s super cool that now I get to study them as my job!
I am a structural geologist. This means I study how rocks move against each other, on the Earth and other planets. My current research project involves studying some features on Mars that were made by what is called compressive stress (rocks being pulled toward each other and pushed up to form a ridge shape). For this project I am looking at images sent back to Earth from spacecraft that orbit Mars. The data I use for my research are from cameras and other scientific instruments on spacecraft that orbit Mars. I have visual images (photographs) and topographic data (elevations of different features). I am trying to find all the ridges formed by compressive stress in a certain region near the equator of Mars called Aeolis Dorsa. When I find the features I am looking for, I measure how tall and long and wide they are to calculate how much the rocks have moved and in what direction.
My research helps us understand the different types of geologic processes that have happened on Mars in the past. Based on the many studies people have already done on Mars, we know that some of the process occurring on Mars include lots of rain causing rivers and lakes, giant volcanoes creating large lava plains, and wind storms depositing sand dunes and eroding rocks away to form ridges called yardangs. My research contributes to our knowledge of the tectonic processes that have occurred. This can help scientists decide what areas on Mars would be the best landing places for future rovers and manned missions and what kinds of scientific instruments or other equipment would be useful there.
I am a paleoichthyologist, meaning that I am a paleontologist who specializes in fishes. In particular, my research is focused on the evolutionary history of early ray-finned fishes from freshwater deposits in North America; many of the fishes from these Triassic and Early Jurassic deposits remain undescribed and poorly understood with regard to their relationships to other fishes, as well as the roles they play in their respective environments. This time period is interesting to me because fish at this time were much different than what we see today. Much fish biodiversity had gone extinct at the end-Permian extinction event, and so lineages that persisted into the Mesozoic evolved into new habitats and niches. I focus on changes and trends in the morphology among several different groups of ray-finned fishes, and how these fishes evolved to exploit novel ecological niches at a turbulent time in Earth’s history.
I also serve as an editor for the PLOS Paleontology Community blog! While not directly related to my research, science communication is an avenue of my work as a scientist that allows me to branch out into other topics within the community and highlight new, exciting research that is available to everyone through Open Access! I enjoy getting to talk to other paleontologists about their research and projects, as well as help paleontologists and paleo enthusiasts access new information, resources, and useful tools.
My research revolves directly around examination of anatomy and morphology of fishes from the orders Semionotiformes, Redfieldiiformes, Dapediiformes, and other closely-related ray-finned fishes. I collect most of my data through a microscope, examining specimens from museum collections or specimens that were collected in the field and prepared by great volunteers from the Utah Friends of Paleontology. I take high-resolution photographs of specimens so that I can examine and measure the morphological features of the fossils, and I also collect data from drawing specimens using a camera lucida. If you are unfamiliar with a camera lucida, it is a drawing tube microscope attachment that makes it possible to see a blank paper and my hand juxtaposed upon the specimen visible through the microscope oculars. I then trace the specimen I am seeing in the microscope onto the paper, which is actually placed next to the specimen though it looks like I am drawing directly on the specimen. The result is a drawing interpretation of the anatomy. This technique is old, but I still use it because it really forces me to closely examine and interpret what I am seeing. As my PhD advisor would say, “What you do not draw, you do not see.”
The data I collect may be written into a formal, detailed anatomical description, if the specimens represent a new species. That description can be used by other paleontologists to evaluate and compare to their own specimens. It also gets coded into a matrix of morphological characters, which includes other species that may or may not be closely related. I then analyze the completed matrix of morphological characters using phylogenetic software. The output is a hypothesis of evolutionary relationships of the group of fishes I am focusing on for the project, which I can then use to address evolutionary questions, such as the number of times a specific anatomical or morphological feature may have independently evolved, or assessing a role these fishes may have played in their respective ecosystems.
My research is part of a larger collaborative effort to assess the biodiversity of the Early Mesozoic of North America at a time in Earth’s history that saw major changes to the planet’s geography, several mass extinctions, and faunal turnover events that lead to the opening of novel ecological niches for both aquatic and terrestrial organisms. By looking at how species respond to catastrophic events, we may be more able to understand how modern biodiversity may evolve and adapt to modern changes that are being accelerated by human impacts.
My favorite part about being a scientist is realizing how vast and amazing this world and its history are! There is just so much to learn and see, and really, even with how far we have come as a society, there is still so much we don’t know! I love nerding out with fellow paleontologists, because frankly, how could you not love doing something this fun? It’s exciting! I also love discovering a new species, or uncovering a new specimen when doing fossil preparation. Just knowing that I am the first human to lay eyes on this little fish that died over 200 million years ago is very humbling.
My advice to young scientists would be to not get discouraged when you fail. I say when, not if, because failure is inevitable. Everyone fails, absolutely everyone. Every scientist you know has had grants rejected, papers revised, ideas spurned, etc. We all start somewhere! The key is persistence! Take the criticisms you will receive (and again, you will receive criticism at some point or another, so don’t despair!), and just use it to make your work better and more solid. Don’t forget that you are doing something totally awesome and worthwhile.
On a more practical note, practice reading and writing scientific papers. The scientific jargon can be a huge barrier to students and young scientists, but is so important when it comes time to share your own work with others. So read, read, read! Learn how to interpret their results. There is no excuse to not have access to scientific papers because Open Access research is ever-growing. Check out the weekly Fossil Friday Roundup (shameless plug!) which highlights new Open Access paleontology-related papers!
Follow Sarah’s blog here, for more information and updates on her research and check out the PLOS Paleo Community here, for awesome open access paleontology.
I’m a climate scientist interested in past archives of climate change. I explore warm climates of the past to help understand future climate change. I look at the ocean’s role in moving around heat and carbon in the earth’s system.
What is your data, and how do you obtain it?
I work on marine sediment from the bottom of the ocean. Within this sediment are tiny fossil shells, the size of a single grain of sand. The chemistry of these fossil shells, formed by protists called foraminifera, can be used to reconstruct temperature, ice volume, carbon chemistry, and many other properties of the ocean. In the laboratory, I chemically clean these shells to remove contaminants and analyze them by mass spectrometry. Using the minor and trace elements of these shells I’m able to reconstruct climate conditions from a warm period approximately three million years ago, the Pliocene warm period, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are estimated to be similar to today with human inputs.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
My research contributes to our understanding of climate change by understanding the most recent period of sustained warmth. One focus of my research is to understand the tropical Pacific Ocean through time and how it influences global climate. The importance of the tropical Pacific is exemplified by the ocean-atmospheric changes during an El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which alters global climate. Today, the tropical Pacific is characterized by a western warm pool and an eastern cold tongue. The thermocline, the uppermost layer of the ocean within which temperature decreases rapidly with depth, plays a critical role in this tropical Pacific temperature pattern and ENSO development. During the warm Pliocene, records show the eastern tropical Pacific was warmer than today. My research shows the thermocline was deep which contributed to the warm temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific. This altered tropical ocean-atmosphere dynamics which we call El Padre (figure below).
What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
I’ve cultivated a group of phenomenal collaborators that I enjoy working with. We ask questions that are relevant to future climate change and are inspired by each other’s dedication.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Take a programing class! I started coding in graduate school and although I am by no means a master coder, I’ve been able to explore datasets and examine relationships in climate data.
To learn more about Heather’s research, you can follow on her on Twitter here or visit her website.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
The best part of my job is my interactions with students. I feel very fortunate to have a group of masters and doctoral students working in the lab on various projects that focus of climate change, evolution and improving the geological time scale. Many of the students are international and have different research backgrounds, and thus I get to learn about different cultures as well as benefit from unique insights that they have to science. I also really enjoy how every day is different, and I get to look down the microscope at extraordinary fossil plankton from millions of years ago.
Science wasn’t my first choice – I originally applied to university to study English Literature, but my grades weren’t good enough! So this was a big turning point, but in retrospect I’m really glad that I couldn’t take that path. These days I spend much of my time reading and writing, so perhaps these worlds are not so far apart.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution and climate change?
I use microscopic marine plankton and their chemistry to determine how the oceans have changed over the last 50 million years. I’m particularly interested in how life responds to climatic change and what drives a species to extinction.
What are your proxies, and how do you obtain your data?
The microscopic fossils I work on are called planktonic foraminifera. These are about the size of a grain of sand. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate and over time the shells of dead foraminifera accumulate in marine sediments and yield a long fossil record, which we can use to gain information on oceans and climate of the past. I use cores obtained through the International Ocean Discovery Program. Core samples taken from the ocean floor can help form a picture of climate changes which took place millions of years ago. I use the foraminifera to examine changes in evolution and extinction rates and mechanisms in different time intervals, and use their chemistry, such as oxygen and carbon isotopes to reconstruct changes in marine temperatures, track glacial/interglacial cycles, and productivity through time.
What advice do you have for young, aspiring scientists?
Find your passion, focus on the aspects that you enjoy the most and have fun!
I am currently a Ph.D. student studying paleontology at the Florida Museum. My main interest are fossil sharks and how their distributional range (where they live) has changed over time. I have been lucky enough to travel to different places to look for fossils, including Florida, Panama, the Nebraska Badlands, and California. My two favorite finds, so far, have been a Megalodon tooth in California, and a carnivore humerus while in the Badlands. Along with the field work, I also develop and put on workshops for K-12 educators to teach them about paleontology and how to bring it back into their classrooms. I love hosting these workshops because I get to share my enthusiasm for paleontology and give teachers fossils to take back to their classrooms.
I do not have data in the same sense as most scientists because I have just begun planning out my research projects for my dissertation. But I have been working on various projects that allow me to try new data-finding tools, including 3D technology like desktop 3D scanners and microCT scanners. This technology has allowed us to scan fossils and do morphometric analysis on the specimens. I’m excited to see where these skills will take me with my research! Through the workshops I’ve designed, I have been able to create fossil kits for teachers and help them teach climate change, evolution, and geologic time, among other topics, using fossils as evidence for change. I’ve learned how to create programs that are impactful for participants by providing them content that they can bring back to their classrooms. I’m looking forward to continuing this aspect of my work. I enjoy having a direct large impact on communities. As for my research, I am interested in figuring out how shark population distributions will change as ocean temperatures change by looking at fossil shark distributions over deep time.
My favorite part of being a paleontologist is being out in the field finding fossils! There is nothing more exciting than finding a fossil because you realize that you are the first person to see a bone of an animal that lived millions of years ago! I also really enjoy taking people out to do fieldwork that have never done it before. To see the joy in their face when they find their first fossil is contagious! I remember how much I love my job and my career because I get to share that enthusiasm with them! My advice to young scientists is to never give up on your dreams! I took an unconventional path to get where I am at, but I am so grateful that I followed every chance I got, even the scary ones! Follow your dreams regardless of what they may be, science or not. It’s not easy and you will have days when you’re ready to give it all up, but know that it is true what they say, when you get to do what you love, it stops feeling like work!