Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Fortune Cookie Advice - For Real

Since this advice works as well in the coffee house, tea shop, or cafeteria as in the pub, here's my post full of nuggety accumulated experience advice that I posted on the Prehistoric Pub, dealing with the pitfalls and the advice to (hopefully) avoid them in academia (with a paleo slant, of course).


I'm picking up a shift at the Prehistoric Pub today. Faces come and go, but if they are the faces of students starting out in paleontology, there is a look they all have in common at one point or another: that look when you jump into the deep end and realized at the last moment that you aren't as strong a swimmer as you thought. The look of feeling in over your head, feeling overwhelmed.

That feeling that makes you sit down and mumble to your confidant "I don't know if I can do this."

If that describes you or someone you know, have a seat at the bar. I've got some advice that I've accumulated from time, some experience of learning from dumb-ass mistakes, and some experience of learning from events that you simply can't control, and hopefully a way out of the seductive mind-traps that we all fall into.

Wine? Beer? Soda? Mineral water? Hot chocolate? The virtual bar is well-stocked.
I can only speak from my experiences, and the experiences of what I observed in student colleagues, colleagues, advisers, and mentors. All of my advice comes to you through my personal filter. 

Do what you love, and you will work harder than you have ever worked in your life.

If I could find the person who first said "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life", I'd give them a metaphorical smack on the back of their head. (This quote gets attributed to Confucius, at least according to goodreads.) More accurately, I'd give this metaphorical smack to those who use this quote to say that doing what you love is easy, while doing what you don't like is difficult.

I love paleontology. The exploration, the discovery, analyzing data, writing up the papers, telling the stories of the past of our planet to kids, the public, and colleagues - it's an honor to be part of the system that opens the doors to understanding our past.

If it feels like a difficult system to be a part of, it is. It takes a lot of time, a lot of training, and a lot of discipline to get into a position where you can start unraveling the mystery of the history. In short, it takes a heck of a lot of hard, hard work.

I was at a conference, standing around and chatting with colleagues in between talks. A prospective student who was interested in joining a certain lab had joined the conversation. Student started asking questions. These questions started to piss me off:

Student: "I know So-and-So-Grad-Student in this lab, so that will make it easier for me to get in, right"?
Us: "That's not how you get into a lab. You have to contact the PI and see if they are taking students. Even if they are, you have to submit your proposal and application like everyone else."

Student (persisting): "You people are clearly succeeding. What are your tricks?"
Me (rather irritated at this point, and yes, I swore): "Tricks? There are no tricks. This is hard-ass work, and I'm a tenacious bitch. That's why I've made it this far."

The others who were with me started giving the now shocked Student, um, softer good advise (for lack of a better word), but I was annoyed by this line of thinking. Clearly hard work was not first and foremost in this Student's mind. They persisted on believing there was a gimmick, a trick, a sham that made all of this seem so easy.

My wish is that I never make this look easy. I don't ever want to fool people into thinking it is easy. There is no innate brilliance that makes paleontology easier for some and harder for others. It. Is. Not. Easy. This shit is hard - hard to do, hard to keep the energy and ambition up to do it. Loving what you do gives you something to focus on when you're submitting yet another grant application, when you're rewriting that paper that got rejected again, when you're told by your funding agency that they support museums but don't support research. Maybe you've made a mistake that is now going to cause you seemingly endless hours of work to correct. Maybe you're trying out something new, and there is no clear path to follow. That happens. That love for your path is your carrot, the hard work is the stick. You can't have one without the other. Loving what you do doesn't make the bullshit easier to deal with - it just gives you a target at which to look past the BS. Do what you love, and you will work harder than you ever have in your life because you will want to make it work.

Who are you?

This next story makes me sad. The Student character represents several individual students I've seen through teaching labs, running volunteer programs, and being in labs.

I know this Student is bound and determined to pursue paleontology as a career, and I have not even spoken to them yet. How can I tell? Student has come to class wearing an Indiana Jones fedora, hiking boots, canvas pants, and a pocketed photographer's vest. They announce in grand tones that they are going to study dinosaurs, and scoff at using mammal bones in osteology labs. It's bones, after all. Student knows bones, because dinosaurs. Student receives soul-crushing 20% (or lower) on the bone lab, and, fighting back tears of disappointment, comes to the lab instructor all confused. HOW?

Here's a confession. I was that student. On my first comparative anatomy bone lab I crashed and burned, Chicxulub-style. I may not have had the fedora or the vest, but I was convinced that years of being a dinosaur fanatic was enough to prepare me for what it takes to be a scientist. Hell no.

Why does this scenario make me sad? I saw the same familiar pattern repeated in each new set of undergraduates. They are so determined to assume the mantle of paleontologist that they take an idealized, TV-promoted distillate of what a scientist appears to be and lose themselves in that ideal because that is all they know about the people who do paleontology. They only know what they have seen in the media, in books, in movies. These students have no sense no real sense of who the people they idolize are, and no sense of who they themselves are as individuals. Cosplay is all fun and games until someone loses their identity.

Make sure you develop who you are, inside and outside of the scientist realm. If you don't yet know, that's OK. It's a constant work in progress. An easy way to do that is start by a fill in the blanks exercise. "I am a scientist who feels/does/thinks _________." What's in your blank? Is it art? Jazz dance? Bar tending? Archery (guilty)? Martial arts (guilty)? Are you a bird fanatic (guilty)? Do you have causes you are passionate about? Great! You do not have to give up who you are or the non-paleontology (or science) things that excite you to be a paleontologist. They are part of your identity. Being comfortable in your own skin, quirks and all, will go a long way to helping you identify who you are as a scientist. Scientists are people, and people have varied interests. Be a person...

Do Unto Others...

...unless that person is a jerk. Do. Not. Be. A. Jerk.

All paleontologists are people. Some people act like jerks. Therefore, some paleontologists are going to act like jerks. You will encounter jerks. I'm sorry. It sucks to be on the receiving end of such behavior, especially if others brush it off as "Oh, that's just So-and-So. Pay it no mind."

There is no rule that someone has to be who you would classify as a good person to be a good scientist. There are no end of stories of people who have done good work, even brilliant work, and have been people you would not want to go to the pub with, be in the lab alone with, or share research ideas with. Some people are just jerks. It might be that they don't know they're jerks. It might be that they just don't care. Regardless, the outcome is that they hurt colleagues and students, building resentment and distrust in a community which is so much more than a sum of its parts.

Some people, intentionally or otherwise, try to emulate their jerk-heroes, or buy into the destructive culture of a particular lab setting. Here's a personal example: I interned at a (non-paleo) lab in my youth. My supervisors were two men in their mid-late 30s. The room in which they conducted my orientation was decorated with female porn centerfolds. It was also the room in which my temporary desk was placed.

I did not feel like I belonged in that lab. It felt like the supervisors were symbolically telling me this was a no-girls allowed space. It gave me a sick, disgusting feeling when they would look at their centerfolds while talking to me. I was horridly uncomfortable. I was also scared. I was scared to tell anyone because I thought I would get in trouble for making a fuss. I was scared that, by not playing along with this lab environment, I was not cut out to be in science. I was scared of not being accepted by the boys' club culture of the lab. Not only did I make it through the one day introductory orientation, I chose that lab to work in to prove that it didn't get to me, to prove that I belonged. I didn't want to rock the boat and call this out for what it was: inappropriate and unacceptable in a professional setting.  I thought speaking out was a weakness. I was so wrong. It is never weak to call out BS. Always stick up for yourself. Always stick up for people who are not in a position (or don't feel they can) stick up for themselves. Don't contribute to a culture you would not want to be on the receiving end of.

Here's some advice that needs to be emphasized a heck of a lot more than it is now: the ends no longer justify the means in science. The culture of accepting crappy behavior from someone just because they do exciting work is dying a long-deserved death. There are now enough people in paleontology that you don't have to suffer a jerk when you encounter one. And, in the event that you do encounter a jerk, there are people and resources there to help you. Don't keep it silent.

You do not need to belittle others, downplay their work, be jealous of them, steal their work or credit, or marginalize them to do good science. If you feel the need to do that to be in science, to be in paleontology, sit yourself down for a second and ask "Why am I doing this?" If "being the best" is your goal instead of "doing your best", it's deep self-reflection time. Take-home message: if you wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of your actions, your actions are inappropriate. If someone tells you your actions are inappropriate, you owe it to yourself and the people you work with to consider that they might be correct.

...Oh, and if you are called on jerk-like behavior, DO NOT try to justify it as "Oh, I was just so excited and eager" and other lame-ass excuses. When people say that to you, they are saying that their obnoxious behavior towards you is justified because of science. No. Science does not need people who try to use students to access your data for a paper that they have not told you about, but are going to try to publish first (for an extremely specific example). Science does not need the person who is so desperate to be noticed (or is a show-off) that they belittle someone during the Q & A of their talk. As Andy Farke said, to quote the great ones, "be excellent to each other."

Who are you racing against?

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel as though you are "behind"? You're publication list is woefully small compared to that of a lab colleague. You were rejected for that NSF/NSERC grant, while your lab colleague's was successful. Here is my favorite: did you start your program before those people who are now Ph.D.s?

Welcome to the race. Except that it isn't a real race. Oh sure, there is competition for research money, for publication spaces, for talks, for jobs. Even so, one of the biggest morale killers is feeling and behaving as though you are competing against someone. (That feeling could also tempt you down the Jerk Path.)

I get it. It's likely the most common mind-trap I fall into. I've looked at people younger and better funded than me and have thought "I don't stand a chance against this. How can I possibly compare?" The honest answer is that I can't compare. No one can compare, because every person's situation is unique to them and them alone. The only person in your race is you. You have to find your own academic pace so that you can complete a marathon, not a sprint. Don't feel that you have to burn yourself out: there is a culture in academia that accepts stress and pushing oneself to the breaking point as some sick badge of honor, and it's dangerous. There are enough challenges in academia without approaching it with the attitude of being "better" than someone, or trying to "win". Also, do not buy into the notion, if you find that academia isn't for you, that you are a failure. I call shenanigans on that idea. You are going to feel loss and disappointment over a plan that did not work out. You have to rethink the idea of failure. If A doesn't work out, then that means you should try X. A plan not working is an opportunity (albeit a bloody frustrating one) to try something different. You have failed no one.

You are not alone in feeling the way you are. You are surrounded by people at all stages of their academic careers who have felt this way at one time or another. There are people who will give you advice. Some of it will be good. Some of it won't be good for you. You get to choose what advice you follow.

Remember the way you feel now. One day a student or a colleague is going to come to you and say "I don't think I can do this.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Advice for Students Feeling...Well, You Know the Feeling.

Hello Dear Readers,

Every once in a while the Shaman comes up with a nugget or two of wisdom. These nuggets are dug from under a layer of dirt made of a combination of learning from my own silly mistakes, observing experiences of others, and from enduring those situations that are sometimes out of our control.

All of this has given me strong opinions on the approach and conduct of people in vertebrate paleontology, although I imagine this has applicability to any STEM field. I'm fairly open about sharing what I think with others when they ask. A friend recently told me "You're advice is awesome! It's really helped me. It should be in fortune cookies!" All of my fortune cookie baking attempts have been sad, but what I decided to do was to put some of this advice in blog form. I share some embarrassing stories, one rather painful creepy story, and a couple of frustrating experiences. These stand out in my mind when someone asks me "How do you think I should do X?" Needless to say, I'm going to steer people away from being the future subject of someone's creepy/frustrating/embarrassing story.

Check out my post at the Prehistoric Pub: Fortune Cookie Advice...For Real!


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tales from the Field: The Early Bird!

One of my favorite parts of paleontology is being able to visit historic locations: the place where the first of something was found, or the museum where a famous figure worked. One of my favorite memories of working on my Coelophysis project for my M.Sc. (now finally published as Bulletin 63 of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History!) was seeing the articulated nesting skeletons of Oviraptor at the American Museum of Natural History.

Type localities are a big deal in vertebrate paleontology. It's the location of first contact with a part of the Earth's history that has never before been seen and recognized for its importance. They are also the place where present and future researchers can visit and continue to collect information using new ideas and techniques. Also, these sites are bloody cool!

I had a great opportunity to visit the type locality of Ignotornis mcconnelli, the very first Mesozoic bird footprint ever named. Ignotornis was named by Maurice Goldsmith Mehl (1887-1966) in 1931 from a locality "one and a half miles northwest of Golden, Colorado". The specimen was found by N. H. McConnell and donated to the University of Colorado at Boulder. This specimen, the holotype specimen, is UCM 17614.
Ignotornis mcconnelli holotype slab, figured in Lockley et al. (2009).

"Hold up, Shaman: what's a holotype?"

A holotype is the one physical example (it can be a picture, if there is no physical specimen) of an organism (or the trace of an organism) that is being given a unique name. The type is also the specimen to which other similar-looking specimens must be compared when you name a completely new specimen. There are many different categories of types, and many, many rules governing how the different types are named and under what circumstances. This is governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. For example: did the original physical specimen go missing and you want to make a different specimen the reference? There's a rule for that!

One of the great things with science is that there is always an opportunity to clear up confusing statements. When Mehl described Ignotornis, he made reference to other track-bearing slabs, but didn't really state how they were related to the type (although they were all originally cataloged under the same number), or make specific mention of which rock layer in the outcrop these slabs came from. Lockley et al. (2009) cleared up this bit of confusion and used these other track-bearing slabs to re-examine Ignotornis mcconnelli (and provided lots of great data and images), and formally name these other slabs as additional reference (type) specimens. Lockley et al. also narrowed down exactly how old Ignotoris is by tracking down (pun completely intended) the discovery site of the original specimen, which is in the Cretaceous Dakota Group, Albian - Cenomanian (approximately 113-94 million years old) in age.

Ignotornis mcconnelli was the first footprint type attributed to a bird by a long lead: Koreanaornis hamanensis was named in 1969, and the Peace Region's own Aquatilavipes swiboldae was named in 1981. The ichnogenus Ignotornis existed for 75 years with only one ichnospecies until 2006 when Ignotornis yangi was named (Kim et al. 2006), and in 2012 Kim et al. named Ignotornis gajinensis, which has a great feeding trace associated with the trackway (both from South Korea)

I visited the rediscovered type locality of Ignotornis mcconnelli in October in the company of Martin Lockley and Rich McCrea. It is not exactly the most obvious of localities: the mountain-building processes of the region have uplifted and shifted the rock layers around quite a bit, and I had a scary moment of having to climb up and over a vertical piece of sandstone and scramble down a steep slope to get to the locality. I don't like heights (which surprises many, given the amount of vertical track work I do), but that was not going to stop me from visiting this site.

This was the easy part of the climb. There are no pics of the scary part: I needed both my hands to keep from dying.
Once I finished my scramble (and vocalizations reminiscent of a cat stuck up a tree), I was there: I was at the discovery site of the first Mesozoic bird footprints! The site did not disappoint.

Ignotornis mcconnelli, in the flesh, er, foot!
See the hallux (otherwise known as digit I) impression? See the wide splay of the digits? These are classic bird footprint identifiers. When dealing with a trackmaker that is small, has a weight-bearing digit I, wide splay, and even impressed webbing, it's pretty easy to say "Yup, that's a bird!" It's when the trackmaker that is larger and with a digit I that does not always impress that people run into the "is it a large bird or a small non-avian theropod?" problem. I'm working hard to help address this issue - stay tuned for papers.

While we were there, we decided to document a large in-place (or in situ) set of Ignotornis trackways with photogrammetry. This way we get to take a 3D digital replica of the tracksite to our home lab with zero impact on the surface.

Martin Lockley (left) and Rich McCrea (right) digitally documenting Ignotornis footprints.
I also got to see how variable the preservation is with Ignotornis prints: not all that tweets leaves a hallux impression.

Footprint #3 in this photo (numbered from left to right) is much more shallow, and only leaves a hint of something that could be a hallux. Prints #1 and #2 have deeply impressed hallices.
One of my favorite photos. See the third print from the left? See how skinny the toes are compared to the other three prints? That's what varying your substrate consistency can do to your footprints. That print likely does not represent a different trackmaker, but is an Ignotornis footprint made at a different time than the other three.
The track surfaces also contain invertebrate burrows, seen here in the upper left and center right of the picture.
Bird traces are not the only ichnofossils to be found at this locality: invertebrate burrows, reptile prints, and large ornithopod footprints are preserved.

Natural cast of a left foot of an ornithopod. The wide foot and rounded toes tell us that it is a plant-eater.
Of course, modern animals were present at the site. One rattlesnake got a bit cranky with us and rattled before scooting off under a rock, and a Red-tailed Hawk flew overhead. The lady beetle was much more willing to pose for photos.

This ends my visit to the Ignotornis type locality! We collected a lot of great images and data, and I hope this will not be my only visit to the site. As the rock layers erode, more tracks will make their appearance after being hidden for 100 million years, waiting to tell us their story.


Birdy-Type References

Currie PJ. 1981. Bird footprints from the Gething Formation (Aptian, Lower Cretaceous) of northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 1:257-264.

Kim, BK. 1969. A study of several sole marks in the Haman Formation. Journal
of the Geological Society of Korea 5:243-258.

Kim JY, SH Kim, KS Kim, M Lockley. 2006. The oldest record of webbed bird and pterosaur tracks from South Korea (Cretaceous Haman Formation, Changseon and Gansu Islands): more evidence of high avian diversity in East Asia. Cretaceous Research 27:56-69.

Kim JY, MG Lockley, SJ Seo, KS Kim, SH Kim, KS Baek. A paradise of Mesozoic birds: the World's richest and most diverse Cretaceous bird track assemblage from the Early Cretaceous Haman Formation of the Gajin Tracksite, Jinju, Korea. Ichnos 19:28-42.

Lockley MG, K Chin, K Houck, M Matsukawa, R Kukihara. 2009. New interpretations of Ignotornis, the first-reported Mesozoic avian footprints: implications for the paleoecology and behavior of an enigmatic Cretaceous bird. Cretaceous Research 30(4):1041–1061.

Mehl MG. 1931. Additions to the vertebrate record of the Dakota Sandstone. American Journal of Society 21:441-452.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fluffy Feathery Post Filler

Hello Dear Readers!

I've been busy with several papers and thesis-related work, so my posting of late has been sparse and sporadic. Once the New Year rolls around (and once I get these pesky papers submitted), I'll be able to focus on some of the really fun things I want to talk about.

Here is a little teaser of one of my planned posts. It's winter, and all the shorebirds have moved on to more hospitable climes. I had a great deal of fun while collecting my neoichnology (a.k.a. modern tracks) samples this summer, and I'm missing my warmer weather and feathered friends.

One of my targets is the Solitary Sandpiper (or Tringa solitaria for the binomial) These are goofy shorebirds: they regularly sit in trees along swampy and marshy areas. They also nest in trees. When they are not pretending to be passerines (they have a hallux, but not one that is in any way useful for actual perching) they spend their time foraging for invertebrates that live on the water's edge.

What did the traces of these particular sandpipers look like? Stay tuned for next time!
These are two Solitary Sandpipers foraging by bill probing the sediment. I was very excited to see this activity up close: Solitary Sandpipers are very shy, and tend to freak out if you get too close to them.
Bill probes left by a different Solitary Sandpiper. Scale = 10cm.
I must not have seemed threatening to these Solitary Sandpipers: once they completed this particular round of foraging, they decided to have a little nap.

Sleepy sandpipers. Canada Goose tracks in the foreground.
Bird traces aren't the only traces I focus on while frolicking around in the mud (Yes, concerned campers and motorists: I am a grown woman who plays in the mud for science.) Our mammalian fauna is also well represented at these sites.

One of the questions that pops up when seeing a large carnivore print is "Cat or Dog?" Many wolf prints are misidentified as cougar prints. Dog prints all have these things in common: they almost always have exposed claws (see the sharp tips at the ends of the toes?) and the almost always have a bi-lobed metatarsal-phalangeal pad - or "heel", but it's not technically a heel, as it is made up of different bones than what make up our heel. It's more accurate to think of it as a palm or sole pad, rather than a heel pad. Regardless, this is a small wolf print. Cats have three lobes in their palm/foot pad, and almost always sheath their claws when they walk.

Stylized BIG cat prints in the cement at the Page La Brea Tar Pits Museum in LA, showing the tri-lobed pad.
Maia triple-cat-dares you to say that she is neither large nor dangerous enough to have made the prints above.
That's all I have time for at the moment. I will add that I'm finally working on a couple of papers that get to use my neoichnology collection, so I am very excited to see them in print.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

How To Appreciate Fossils Without Ruining It For Science

[Big thanks to @BlackMudpuppy for both the post and title idea! Go check out his comic!]

I had so many posts planned before this particular topic. Tyrannosaur trackways. North America's earliest known bird footprints. You know, real science-y stuff that I have been directly working on since the start of the summer. Instead, my muse must be directed towards the ever contentious issue of the commercial fossil trade.

I wanted my next post on the commercial fossil trade to focus on the positive role that a fossil shop in France played in reuniting the skull and feet of Deinocheirus (which had been illegally removed, or poached, from Mongolia) with the rest of the specimen. Happy ending stories can and do happen, but unfortunately they are outweighed by the stories of greed and lack of forethought.

ThinkGeek, a popular online store that boasts an impressive array of geek-targeted wares (from home decor to cubicle toys) recently posted a product: people can buy real dinosaur bone. Go see for yourself. This is one of the few times I recommend reading the comments section. I'll wait here with my tea.

As you read in the comments section, a few paleontologists and fossil enthusiasts have voiced their concerns over the ethics of treating fossils, an irreplaceable, non-renewable (in our lifetime) natural history heritage resource, as a "product". In response to a comment left by paleontologist Jim Kirkland, a ThinkGeek representative stated this:

There are issues glaring out at us from this paragraph:
1. Who exactly verified these fossils? Contrary to what this statement would have you believe, there is no third party oversight body or committee that verifies fossils for legal or ethical issues before sale. No paleontologist has come forth to state that they checked over these fossils and that they are OK to sell. There is also no way to know if the dealer/supplier is conducting their work legally or ethically. Unfortunately, ThinkGeek to date has not supplied the information on their dealer, which does not allow the fossil consumer to decide if they are making an ethical purchase.
2. If they are so weathered and out of context, how do they know this is hadrosaur bone? If there are identifying features on these bones that allow us to know they are hadrosaurid, that's science. That material is important to some researcher somewhere. There are a couple of scenarios: that the material is just being guessed at as hadrosaur based on size, or that there is associated material that is complete enough to identify as belonging to a hadrosaur. If the latter is the case, what is the fate of that more complete material?
3. Appeals to emotion as logic. What we see here is a marketing ploy: the way to appreciation and inspiration is direct ownership. There is the appeal to emotion hidden not so subtly in here as well of "Won't someone please think of the children?" These are the tired tactics of commercial fossil supporters, and that is the main point I want this post to address.

Now that the background reading is out of the way, let's focus on ethical fossil love.

How to Ethically Love Fossils

You are a fossil enthusiast, and you want to develop a closer and deeper connection with the life of the past. You also want to make sure that your interests are not directly or inadvertently supporting shady doings (e.g. poaching and illegal fossil export, accidentally removing scientific access by buying a fossil, etc.) You are in luck. There are so many ways in which the Fossil Lover can support science, science education, and a sustainable use of fossil heritage resources!

1. Donate your time to your nearest natural history museum! Museum activities such as educational outreach, fossil archiving, fossil preparation, and even fieldwork thrive when there is a strong, dedicated volunteer base. Volunteers made field discoveries, lab discoveries, and inspire countless children with their enthusiasm and dedication. This is a great way to become part of the story of the fossils you love!

2. (If you are financially able) Donate funds to your nearest museum! In these times of budget cuts and downsizing (particularly focused on research and collections of museums) museums are expected to rely more heavily on external donations. These donations pave the way for renovations and research chairs (guaranteed funding for paleontology research), which are necessary to bring the story of fossils to life. Imagine this: a new dinosaur is discovered because you funded an endowed research chair, or funded an ongoing field project. You have the power to enable these advancements.

3. Support public outreach events: attend talks at your local museum! Fossils are a great gateway to exposing people to science and nature. Fossils are not just a remote part of our past from which we are disconnected: the story of fossils is our story. I recommend checking out the outreach work of Dr. Scott Sampson (yes, Dr. Scott from Dinosaur Train): he makes fantastic connections between fossils and science outreach. The more information you gather, the better you can promote your own love of our past life!

4. Purchase fossil replicas instead of fossil heritage resources! There are several places where museum-quality replicas of your favorite dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures can be purchased. Fossil replicas are great: they are renewable, they are durable, and they are much less expensive than an original fossil. Here is a small (and not complete!) list of companies who sell fossil replicas of dinosaurs, and their replica work can be viewed in natural history museums worldwide. [DISCLOSURE NOTE: some companies also sell original fossil material. I want to encourage and promote the sale of fossil replicas whenever I can.]

Gaston Designs - We have two of their ankylosaur skeletons (Gastonia and Animantarx) in our display gallery.
Triebold Paleontology, Inc. - A large selection of replicas of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, flying reptiles, and more.
Black Hills Institute - A cast of their Acrocanthosaurus is in our display gallery, menacing the Gaston Designs ankylosaurs.

There is also a growing trend of 3D digital sharing, where, if a person has the right equipment, can download a 3D image file and print off their very own fossil replica. As more museums are able to secure the funds to digitize and publicly upload their collections (this takes a great many staff hours and equipment upgrades, and is a slow process - I'm in the process of getting just 2D images of our collections online, and even that takes time), and as the technology becomes more accessible, I see 3D digital fossil replicas being an ethical alternative to purchasing original fossil material. Check out these sites for downloadable 3D digital replicas and information:

africanfossils.org - featuring artifacts and fossils from West Africa
Digital Morphology - information on their scanning work and digital files of several animals
University of Arkansas Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies

5. Are you a private land owner who has fossils on their land? Contact your local schools and work with classrooms to help them create their own teaching collections. Better still, involve a paleontologist from a nearby museum - that K-12 driven display could be a great collaborative project that is displayed in a museum, or become part of a student's museum studies project.

6. For private land owners: if you charge museums to prospect on your land, please be aware that museums cannot afford the same access fees or the "market value" of vertebrate fossils that commercial businesses can afford.

7. Are you a K-12 educator? There are many ways in which to inspire children in paleontology that do not involve the purchase of a single fossil. Contact your local museum, or your closest university: there are many researchers and student-researchers who are passionate about science education, and who would love to work with you to develop a natural history-themed curriculum.

8. Are you a heavy equipment or technology company? You can make a huge impact by donating equipment time and your own expertise to field, display, and archiving projects! Much of our helicopter time and crane operator time has been donated, and we would not have been able to complete many projects without such in-kind donations.

9. Are you often out of doors on public lands? Be aware of what fossil heritage resources are around you, and keep a sharp eye out for poachers and vandals. Report any suspicious activity to the local state/provincial public land authorities. The same goes for fossil discoveries on public lands: report these right away to the land management authorities. Many people make the well-meaning but ill-advised mistake of trying to remove new discoveries to protect them. This ends up damaging the fossils and surrounding data. It's hard to say "I'm sorry" to 110 million year old information.

This is just a small handful of ways in which you can express your appreciation for fossils without having to purchase them. It is my great wish to see appreciation and respect for fossils not expressed in terms of ownership of fossil heritage resources. One does not have to own a thing in order to love it, and the ethical alternatives to fossil ownership have the potential to provide meaningful, lasting connections to the life of the past. How you will influence the future of paleontology remains to be seen, but the best way to start is to get involved. That chapter of Earth's history is waiting to be written.

(This post and the information contained within would not have been possible without great info and links from Andrew Farke, John Steward, and yes, even ThinkGeek. Without their sale of vertebrate fossils online and their tissue paper thin reasoning behind said sales, the inspiration for this post would have come in the unforeseeable future.)

UPDATE 01-11-14:

Lee Hall at the blog Extinct Los Angeles posted his letter to ThinkGeek regarding the subject. Lee details exactly why selling fossils is a dangerous precedent to set for science education, and his post also contains links to other great places to purchase research quality fossil replicas.

Also, my comment on the ThinkGeek site was quoted by The Mary Sue in their coverage of ThinkGeek's fossil faux pas. (As of this update, the comment section is open.)

As of now, ThinkGeek has put the sale of these items on hold. Here is the statement on their website:

"Many of you have concerns about these dinosaur bone fragments and we want to take a moment to address that. We agree that harvesting fossils from federal and public land is not only wrong, it's illegal. The vendor that supplies us with these specimens has confirmed that they have been obtained from privately leased lands and out of situ.

An independent scientist has also examined our specimens, and has determined that there is no scientific value that can be gained from the fossils in their current state, which confirms what a large number of you have also stated.

Here's what is going to happen next: We've put the sale of the fossils on hold for now because next week there is an annual gathering of paleontologists and we are expecting that they will publish a letter on the topic of selling fossils. We will abide by their decision. For now, thank you for your thoughts and passion, and please be sure to respect each other in the comments."

Who is the paleontologist, and is ThinkGeek quoting their assessment accurately? I'll explain why I ask this question. Many paleontologists are shown material once it has been removed from the surrounding rock. If a paleontologist has not had the opportunity to investigate the source locality for this bone, they are missing a great chunk of the information: location, rock formation, the relationship of that fossil to other fossils (other dinosaur bone, plants, pollen, invertebrates). Fossils removed from the rock without having the site examined are therefore considered "less scientifically valuable" than those fossils that are investigated while still in the ground. Note: this is not a loop-hole to start ripping fossils out of the ground in order to sell them. This is a reminder that, by simply removing fossils from their source without a thorough examination of the source is the equivalent of ignoring or destroying data.

ThinkGeek does not have to wait for the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting to know the stance of members of the paleontology community: there are official Society statements that have been made in regards to the sale of high-profile specimens, such as T. rex. The issue with these statements is the "scientifically significant" wording. Scientifically significant does not always mean complete and showy, which is what many people think when they hear "significant". Also, unless the site and the source of the material is assessed by a trained professional (not just the individual pieces), how is anyone to know the significance?

ThinkGeek, you have the opportunity to do the ethically sound thing: sell casts of fossils. I am sure any one of these companies would be happy to work with you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I Will Always Give New Students Scut-Work

Hello Dear Readers!

This is a brief post, partly to dust some of the cobwebs off of the blog after a hectic summer, partly to post something before I dive into a rather intense period of publishing, and partly because there are just some things that steam my clams, boil my tea, and burn my toast. In other words, welcome to a rant.

This issue keeps popping into my mind, and clearly the only way to exorcise this demon-thought is to write it out. [UPDATE: This issue also came to mind as I spent two days scraping plaster off of a sink and counter, and attempting to peel a latex mold that someone had left a plaster cast in. I have never given birth, but removing a forgotten plaster cast from a latex mold is what I imagine it feels like.] The issue is one of menial tasks, mindless tasks, and those jobs that can be best described as scut-work. You know the jobs: they range from filling out the same words over and over and over again on to the acid-free archiving sheets with a pen tip that is not forgiving to any level of pressure, to mopping the floors and scrubbing plaster off of counter tops and out of sinks. [NOTE: don't wash unhardened plaster down the sink. That stuff hardens under water, and will cost you a heavy plumber's bill and a scolding from said plumber.] These are the jobs that, if they are not done, either progress is inhibited and/or the place turns into a bloody pit of filth (usually both).

We operate in a small, rather remote community, and with small communities the volunteer/student pool on which to draw is understandably small. In general there are two categories of volunteers: the Community Volunteer and the Prospective Student. The Community Volunteer is an interested member of the community who is either retired or has the capability to donate their time. The Community Volunteer tends to be older, experienced in their previous field, and has a great deal of accumulated experiences. The Prospective Student is looking for paleontology/geology/museum studies related experience because they are interested in pursuing paleontology/geology/museum studies as their career.

There is one major difference that I notice right away between the Community Volunteer and the Prospective Student. When the subject of workspace cleanliness is addressed, the Community Volunteer understands immediately, and I never have to remind them about it after that initial orientation. The Prospective Student, in general (doesn't apply to every and all students, but to enough that this post entered my brain), needs to be reminded. Many times.

I used to have serious reservations regarding "ordering" someone to do scut-work. I am not into the  "I did it, so now you have to" or the "That's what students are for!" attitude when assigning work to students. These are future colleagues, not servants. My work philosophy is that I don't assign chores that I wouldn't or haven't done myself, and I lead by example when rolling up my sleeves and participating in said scut-work.

I have to do this because scut-work never ends. Never. It's not just something that you are subjected to by a crusty old lab tech or professor and then, once you have served your time and have proven that you are capable of mopping, you are done with menial tasks forever.

I have tried leading by example. I have explained, multiple times, why we must keep our labs and stations clean. Here are some of my go-to examples:

  • Safety. Clutter hurts. Sloppiness can kill. My favorite real-life example is a student who did not realize they had spilled acetone on themselves, and then decided to use a tiger torch (no one was hurt). 
  • Equipment longevity. Tools that are not properly maintained and stored break down sooner. Tools are more expensive to replace than to maintain. Improperly functioning tools are also dangerous (see previous point).
  • Specimen integrity. Let's say you are prepping a bone, and a piece becomes loose and free. It falls on the work station service. What is easier to find: a bone fragment on a clean surface, or a bone fragment in a pile of refuse?
  • Efficiency. If you spend most of your time sifting through clutter and mess to find what you need to do your job, you are wasting both my time and yours. 

I have now reached the point where scut-work is part of any training program for new students and/or volunteers. Some students do not like this. I had a parent of a prospective student, with student in tow, ask me to detail what the very first tasks were for new students. I had to answer with data entry and collections foam cutting and sorting: those were the tasks I needed done right away, and I would be working directly with the student on this. I explained this was for the ongoing fossil collections reorganization project. The eyes of both student and parent glazed: they wanted to jump into the field and prep dinosaur fossils right away. I explained this is a tricky task that we don't throw immediate recruits into (our rock requires the use of pneumatic tools - we have no simple toothbrush and solvent preparations.) I never heard from them again.

There is another good reason to give everyone a hand in the scut-work: how people approach the "not fun" jobs is a very good indicator of the attitude they will bring to the "fun" jobs. Do you approach cleaning the lab as a chore, with copious amounts of whining, glares, and snide comments? Or do you realize that this is a necessary, if maybe dull, part of the entire experience of working in your field, and roll up the sleeves for the collective good? Our best preparators, tour guides, and gallery hosts have been those who have attended all the tasks, from floor mopping to prepping, with the same thoroughness and thoughfulness.

My advise to students? You are not being punished with scut-work. Whether you are told this or not, you are receiving training in your field, but a part of your field that is not portrayed by the documentaries or other media. Scut-work allows for the exciting discoveries to happen, because the cool science can't happen if the focus is on repairing the plaster-clogged sink or sending the tools away to be refurbished due to neglect.

Now, time to break out my favorite broom and give collections a good sweep. The glue that I peeled from donated archival-quality foam left its-and-bits all over the floor.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Race In Your Head

Hello, Dear Readers!

Today I rewarded myself for finishing a long-suffering paper on Saturday by participating in "That Dam Run" in Hudson's Hope - a 16 km/10 mile jaunt over the promised dam, the sediments exposed by said dam are a hot spot for Early Cretaceous Gething Formation vertebrate traces (yes, I looked for fossils on the way). The run also took us up and down the ski hill and over lovely trails lightly shrouded with yellow autumn foliage.

I am fairly low-key in my approach to running races. First, I don't ever enter a race with the idea of racing against someone. I really couldn't care less if I don't come in first. The only thought I consciously take with me into a race is "I'm going to do this." After that, I can think of whatever my mind free-associates.

Today my mind free-associated its way to life in academia as I have experienced it, and because my brain isn't necessarily creative when it wanders, it kept returning to the idea of academia as a race, and something that one should strive to "win."

I am still a graduate student, and still have another semester or two to go before I finish my research and defend. I took six years to complete my undergraduate degrees in zoology and geology, and had to withdraw from my first masters program for financial reasons. That prompted a year and a half academic hiatus while I recovered, and I resumed my academic career by finishing my masters program in five years. I am in my fifth year of my doctoral program, and for the exception of the times I have had to physically be on campus to fulfill course requirements, I have worked full time in a museum while conducting my graduate research.

If I dwelt on the pace of my academic career, it would be easy for me to focus on my graduate student colleagues who started their programs after I did and now hold PhDs. If I wanted to, I could easily feel that my progress is inferior, and potential future employers and colleagues could judge me unfavorably based on the amount of time it is taking me to finish my degree. I could focus on the faster pace of my student colleagues and think "I'm going to beat so-and-so" and use the motivation of "winning" by competing against a student colleague. I could push to publish more papers than a colleague. I could push to give more talks than a person. I could push to finish my degree before a person.

I could approach my academic career as a race against colleagues, but I won't. I blatantly refuse to compete against any colleague. I openly talk about how long it has taken me to complete my graduate work because I feel no shame or embarrassment in regards to my progress. I do not measure my progress as it relates to the progress of others. I don't need to use someone else to set my pace. I have found a pace that I can maintain in the long run, and by nature and training I am a long-distance runner.

Academia is a long-distance run. You find a pace at which you can work and present your work so that you are functional to complete more work. There are speed-training intervals that consist of mad dashes for deadlines, grants, and time-sensitive publications. Since you are running in the race with others, you'll encounter those who eagerly cheer you on, and those who purposely don't tell you about the detour ahead. If you are a woman or a person of color, you will be made to feel (indirectly or told flat out) that you need to run an extra 10 km of a standard 41 km race just to prove that you weren't specially let in to fulfill a quota, to prove that you belong in the race with everyone else. There are enough challenges in academia without approaching it with the attitude of being "better" than someone, or trying to "win". As long as you keep moving forward.

There are plenty of challenges inherent in trying to exist in academia. We don't need to make up little races against someone as an added challenge. Keep the idea of a racing out of your head. You'll free mind up to focus on why you are in the run to begin with.