On the Importance of Outreach

As a researcher in a natural history museum, I have a couple main ways of sharing my work with others. The first is, naturally, by writing and publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. The second is through formal or informal events at the museum. And, as rewarding as it is to see your hard work in print, interactions like one I had yesterday at Carnegie Museum of Natural History are truly special. 

Getting ready for Meet-A-Paleontologist, with some Antarctic plesiosaur specimens to share

Matt Lamanna and I were participating in an event at CMNH called Super Science Saturdays. We sat at a table in one corner of the dinosaur hall, behind a sign reading “Meet A Paleontologist” and about a dozen fossils for people to pick up and ask questions about. The main demographic of visitors was elementary schoolers, often wearing dinosaur-themed t-shirts, always keen to pick up and wave around our fossil examples. Matt and I were glad we had chosen robust specimens. There were also plenty of older kids, a few teenagers on dates, and grown-ups. 

As the afternoon wound down and the steady stream of visitors slowed to a more manageable level, a teenager and her mom approached me at the table. The mom spoke first, because the girl was quietly struggling to choke back tears. 
“She wants to be a paleontologist, and she’s just very emotional to meet one in person.” She turned and spoke to her daughter– “Go ahead, talk to her! Ask her all your questions!”
I tried to put on my least intimidating expression, and after a minute the girl and I were chatting about my career path and her plans to go to college next year and study biology and geology. (“I knew it! I told you I should do biology and geology, mom.”) At the end of our conversation, she was once more a little emotional. Her mom handed me the museum guide and map, and whispered, “can we get your autograph, please?” I’m not used to being asked that, but I obliged, and wrote the daughter a note with how to keep in touch. 

This might sound like an exaggerated, ego-padding story from my telling of it. And it did make me feel somewhat proud of my own accomplishments. Beyond that, though, I think it highlights a responsibility that modern scientists have: to connect with students, share advice and empathy, and give effort and personal time to make our work, and our lives, accessible. And it demonstrates that this effort (which sometimes feels exhausting) can be not only rewarding, but also really impactful for the next generation of scientists. 


[P.S. My main piece of advice for prospective students is to get involved in scientific research– as an intern or a volunteer, during summers and weekends. The lab you work in doesn’t have to be exactly the area you’re most interested in– it’s to get experience in any kind of science research setting, to build your CV, and to connect with potential mentors. I literally walked in to biology, geology, and anthropology departments as a high schooler and between college semesters, and asked if anyone needed an intern– the answer was often yes, and occasionally there was even grant money to pay that intern. (My advice for people who are already scientists is to remember how intimidating it was to be on the other side of that interaction. We’ve all been there, and have all benefitted from that kindness and mentoring.)]


Extreme weather on Vega Island

This week’s post is about one instance of challenging weather conditions faced by the AP3 team. Written by Dr. Eric Gorscak, AP3 team member and titanosaur specialist at the Field Museum of Natural History.

One morning, Chris Torres, Steve Salisbury, Matt Lamanna, and I made the lengthy hike to Sandwich Bluff, only to find our prospecting sites to be covered in snow. The snow coverage prevented us from doing any meaningful prospecting work for the day but we had to make the trek to be sure… we only had so much time during the trip to maximize our exploration.

Image: Two views of the Antarctic Peninsula in radically different conditions. Top: A weather front moving in over the Antarctic Peninsula, as seen from Vega Island on the day of the trek. The peninsula is visible as dark mountains across the channel, with an ominous bank of white snow clouds above. Icebergs are gathering near the shore of the island, pushed there by the wind. Bottom: A view of the peninsula from Sandwich Bluff on a clear, relatively calm, day. Photos copyright Eric Gorscak, 2016.

The weather report had informed us of an incoming front from the west that would last from the afternoon well into the night; it was already gloomy with sporadic winds during our morning trek out but nothing could prepare us for the trip back. This was when the winds really picked up, much earlier than we anticipated given the weather report. Honestly, the winds never stopped… and blowing directly at us the entire way back… on top of a 2-hour hike across harsh terrains (hills, rubble, snow, angry skuas). The winds were strong enough to hold me up as I leaned into them. If I didn’t have my beard, my face would have frozen off.

I guess you could say we walked up hills both ways in the snow and into the wind to and from Sandwich Bluff that day…

A fresh pair of socks and hot cocoa never felt so good afterward.

Image: Scenes from the return trek to camp from Sandwich Bluff. Top, example of the wind affecting the snow, driving it across the ground. Bottom, example of the wind affecting standing water. Normally walking by this 'pond', the water would have been quite still. As you can see, there was plenty of wave action.

Image: Scenes from the return trek to camp from Sandwich Bluff. Top, example of the wind affecting the snow, driving it across the ground. Bottom, example of the wind affecting standing water. Normally walking by this ‘pond’, the water would have been quite still. As you can see, there was plenty of wave action. Photos copyright Eric Gorscak, 2016.

Where is Kerin Claeson now?

AP3 co-PI Kerin Claeson reminisces, comparing this week of 2017 with the same week exactly one year ago, when we set off for Antarctica aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer. 

One year plus one week ago: I was stuffing an excessive amount of long underwear and socks into my luggage. I managed to fit my Sorels and Carharts next to my rock hammer, maul, and chisels. I was equipped with enough Scopolamine to minimize my seasickness for two months straight and I guarded them like my life depended on it. My new ski mask with the built in camera was finally going to get used and i found a freeze proof, waterproof, sand proof point-and-shoot to take photos too. My GPS was charged and the maps were loaded. I packed extra hand warmers, good coffee, and chocolate. I pocketed the chapstick and hand cream my students bought me and Bob-the-Minion was tucked safely in my carryon at the request of my 3 year old nephew. The next morning, I was flying to Chile, to meet an international crew of scientists, some of whom I’d had the fortune to work with for years, others whom I’d meet for the first time. The AP3 was finally commencing, and I was ready. So much has happened since then, I can hardly believe it’s only been a year, but in truth it feels like yesterday. I’d forgotten about some of it until today, and I’m glad I stopped to remember.

One year plus six days ago: I called my credit card and phone companies from the airport to let them know I would be traveling. I called family to say goodbye and remind them to check the website for updates. I set up my away message for email which told people to write back in April after I returned from Antarctica. (I might still need to respond to some of those messages – yikes!) On the plane, I flipped through my conversational Spanish book and listened to some music. When I woke up, I’d be in South America again, so much closer to our target.

One year plus four days ago: I awoke to the phone ringing and answered in Spanish. I’m glad I recognized the voice, because I confused the caller. “Um, hello. Is Kerin in there?” said Pat. “Hi Pat, how are you?” “Good. Are you coming with us to the helicopter dunk training?” said Pat. “Yes, Abby and I set the alarm for 7. What time is it?” “7:45 – you’re late.” Abby and I brushed our teeth and got downstairs in time to grab some breakfast before hustling to the warehouses. I really wished I thought to wear layers that morning because the room we did our training in was COLD and it was the coldest I felt the entire trip.

Image: Dr. Kerin Claeson stands on the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer, next to an orange life preserver ring. She is wearing a camping backpack and smiling broadly.

Image: Dr. Kerin Claeson stands on the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer on February 6th, 2016.

Exactly one year ago: over the next few days we learned each other’s names, packed our sleep kits, divvied up so much candy, cereal, and hot sauce, built so many tents, and participated in a few ‘trust building’ exercises too. We sampled the local food and walked around Punta Arenas in our time off. Then the big day arrived, that’s right… the SUPERBOWL… also the day we actually moved on to the Nathaniel B. Palmer. And, exactly one year ago, I was a lone crazy soul standing on the bridge watching the plank be drawn in at 5AM. The departure was smooth and before I realized it, the NBP pushed off of the dock and we were off. Me, my Scopolamine, my AP3 colleagues and a couple dozen other people I would come to call my friends over the next six weeks.

Today: My life this week is distinctly different than the same week of last year. I have been working on a few collaborative projects on fossil fishes from Laurasia (e.g., USA, UK, and Italy) rather than Gondwana. I made plans to travel to Pittsburg to begin the next phase of the AP3. I met with my graduate student about her thesis project checking that she has more than enough data to analyze. I taught masters students about the gastrointestinal tract of humans, establishing a search image for pathology that will help them as they become allied health professionals. I met with the student president of the Wilderness Medicine Club and talked about how wilderness survival is not only for scientists in places like Antarctica, but also the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. This week I walked those streets with my dog and we ran in the parks and played with puppies and decided to adopt one. Yes, this week has been distinctly different from the same week of last year, but just as busy and just as fulfilling.

Image: Dr. Claeson at her home institution, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, with a drawer containing some of the specimens collected on the 2016 expedition.

Image: Dr. Claeson this week at her home institution, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, sitting next to a cabinet containing some of the specimens collected on the 2016 expedition.

Lab Report: “where are they now?”

This post is an update on one of the fossil specimens collected during the AP3 2016 field season. Check back again next week for more updates on 2016 results & ongoing research! 

Nearly one year after the AP3 team left Antarctica, at the end of our 2016 field season, the fossils we collected have made it back to Carnegie Museum of Natural History to be studied. Prep work on the plesiosaur shoulder girdle has begun, and our hard work at stabilizing and securing this beautiful fossil seems to be paying off!

In case you’ve forgotten: the last time most of the team saw this specimen was mid-flight, during its dramatic removal from Sandwich Bluff. We spent several days at work chiseling away the surrounding frozen rock and soil, stabilizing any crumbly bits of fossil bone with consolidant (special reversible glue), padding the surface with a layer of toilet paper and paper towels, and finally slathering the whole thing in plaster of paris and burlap. This cast would keep the shoulder girdle safe on its journey from the Antarctic Peninsula to Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here’s the view of the jacket being lifted by helicopter from Sandwich Bluff, captured by AP3 team member Steve Salisbury:

photo by Steve Salisbury

[Image: fossil in plaster jacket is suspended beneath a helicopter, being lifted from the site where it was found on a snowy mountaintop. Two people in helmets and orange survival suits are standing below the helicopter.]

And here’s a picture taken this week by AP3 principal investigator Matt Lamanna, in the prep lab at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The jacket has been cut open to reveal the precious fossil cargo within:


[Image: the fossil in its plaster jacket, in the CMNH prep lab. Part of the fossil is now exposed and being prepared for study. A scale bar indicates that the length of the jacket is approximately 140 cm (55 inches).]