Header Image - Stigall Lab

Blog

35 Articles

Science—what am I up to anyway?

Science—what am I up to anyway?

It’s occurred to me that I have been writing quite a bit about broadening participation in science lately and have not actually talked much about what science I have been up to. So here is a brief update about recent developments on that front.

At the IGCP 653 meeting in Yichang, China, I presented new research on some very interesting and rare fossils from the lower part of the Cincinnatian Series. Over the past few years, I have been very fortunate to receive a series of rare fossils collected by some of the fantastic amateur paleontologists of the Dry Dredgers in Cincinnati, Ohio. In particular, Ron Fine, has collected some intriguing brachiopods from the lower Cincinnatian Kope Formation (Edenian Regional Stage) that look like they belong to lineages otherwise only known as invasive taxa from the upper Cincinnatian (Richmondian Regional Stage). These pre-Richmondian “invaders” comprise an interesting set of species that shed light on invasion dynamics in the fossil record.

At Yichang, I argued that interbasinal species invasions (or immigrations) could be considered in a hierarchical context, with ranks including ephemeral invasion, incursion epibole, and biotic immigration events. I am currently expanding this invasion hierarchy into a full article for Annual Reviews in Ecology and Evolutionary Systematics. (AREES), so I won’t elaborate here, but I think this is a really exciting and potentially transformative concept about the assembly of diversity through time.

At the GSA meeting in Seattle, I am presenting research related speciation mechanisms and how we can move from a basic correlation of diversity with Earth systems events to a causal mechanism for increasing diversity based on the process of speciation. Much of the arguments for this talk are in press already within my Lethaia paper (here).

So…for the near term, these are the scientific questions that I am investigating and the questions that keep me up at night: how do we really resolve speciation processes in the fossil record, how can we use that information to understand diversification during the Ordovician Radiation/Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, and how do invasions (of varying intensities) contribute to diversity patterns of life through time?*

*obviously these questions are best addressed with data about articulated brachiopods from the Ordovician Period

IGCP 653: Yichang Reflections

IGCP 653: Yichang Reflections

I’m currently on a 12 hour flight from Shanghai to Chicago as part of my 3 flight (and 29 hour) itinerary home from the 2nd Annual IGCP 653 meeting in Yichang, China. I can say, unreservedly, that this was a fantastic meeting!

Attendees included more than 60 delegates from 10 nations. The fact that most attendees were Chinese—and I am not—provided a wonderful opportunity for me to meet many new and upcoming scientists—both students and early career professionals that I have not previously had the opportunity to interact with. I was so impressed by the quality of their science and their ability to communicate at a high level on an international stage. What a talented group of young scientists! I am incredibly encouraged and inspired by them.

Of course, I was also able to reunite with (and meet new) colleagues from Europe, Africa, and North America as well. Truly this meeting met the spirit of UNESCO, our funding agency for the IGCP project, in terms of bridging international divides and fostering common interests and collaborations.

At this conference, provocative scientific ideas were espoused—generating substantial discussion, important geologic sections were visited (including the GSSPs for both the Hirnantian and Dapingian stages!), and cultural differences were both explored and celebrated. It’s exciting both how much we have learned about the Great Ordovician Biodiverisfication Event in terms of ocean chemistry, oxygenation patterns, diversity patterns of metazoans and also how much we have to learn—such as when did this event start and end, whether such things can be clearly defined, and what does that mean for the Earth system?

Speaking for myself, my favorite parts were probably the fact that we had an international assemblage of brachiopod workers to talk with (it’s great-and rare to be among people that love my favorite fossils as much as I do!) and that there were so many dynamic young female researchers in the group.

As anyone who is relatively close to me knows, I am very concerned with increasing participation in science on both a national and international level. I was so encouraged to see so many young and dynamic female scientists! Female students earned awards for both poster and oral presentations. This is pretty groundbreaking.

To place this in context, I had a conversation with a colleague, who I generally admire very much as a scientist, in which he said to me one evening {I’m paraphrasing} “You know, we always try to hire men instead of women for permanent jobs. You can’t say that in open meetings, but in secret meetings, we always say this.” I asked why this was the case and was told that it could be problematic for women to both be in charge of or be the majority of a field team to remote regions. I pushed back on this concept (I certainly was told the similar things as a grad student), and my friend said “Well, most women are not like you. They are not assertive and independent.” On one level, I was glad that my colleague appreciated that some women could be leaders, but it also made clear to me that there are many countries where women still need to fight hard to be considered scientific equals. I am not special. Female scientists need the chance to grow and shine and deserve the same support as our male colleagues.

The male student at our table noted that the female students work much harder and achieve higher levels of excellence than the male students. He sees the value in this contemporaries, and I am heartened that over time this view will win out…but I’d much rather we achieve equity in the near term and not wait 20 years and lose out on the great science these young women could have done by excluding them.

I hope that my work in the international community can help to foster a sense of empowerment for female (and other underrepresented) scientists in both the USA and other nations. At this meeting, I was assertive. I capitalized on my leadership as a co-chair of IGCP 653 role to be present, to chair sessions, to judge and present awards, to invite everyone to Athens, Ohio in 2018, and I hope that seeing one woman do that in a sea dominated by male leadership can help to inspire the fantastic and talented women that I met at this meeting to be assertive and empowered in their own scientific lives.

 

Diversity, equity, and scientific misconduct

by Alycia Stigall
Diversity, equity, and scientific misconduct

For the past few decades, there has been a push to increase diversity in science. However, many of those efforts have been targeted at fitting members of under represented minorities within the structural framework developed in the early 20th century or before.  When that structural framework was developed, the typical scientist was a white male who was either single or had a spouse who did not work outside the home.  Such a profile no longer fits the majority of people who aspire to become professional scientists.  Thus, in order to achieve full inclusion and enhanced participation in science, changes must be made to structural barriers that restrict participation in science.

Recently, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) adopted a new Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics Policy that is a step forward in changing the scientific culture to reduce structural barriers to full participation in science.  The AGU Board of Directors approved a revised code of ethics that includes language against sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination.

Here is the announcement of the policy: https://eos.org/agu-news/agu-revises-its-integrity-and-ethics-policy

Announcement from On The Prow: http://fromtheprow.agu.org/setting-the-bar-high-to-end-harassment-in-the-sciences/

And here is the policy itself: http://ethics.agu.org/files/2013/03/Scientific-Integrity-and-Professional-Ethics.pdf

This policy is a bold and necessary step forward in reducing structural barriers to participation by underrepresented minority groups. By including harassment, discrimination, and bullying as equally egregious types of scientific misconduct as classically recognized research misconduct like data falsification and plagiarism, this policy aims to provide a more equitable working conditions and that can foster truly collaborative and innovative science.

Importantly, AGU has provided not just a policy, but mechanisms to enforce the policy. I am particularly impressed that AGU has developed a process to mediate and handle misconduct that does not rise to the level of formal complaint.

Formal complaints are often met with backlash, which reduces the frequency that harassment, discrimination and bullying events are reported.  So having a support system for incidents that may be perceived as a lower threat—at least initially—is really important. Many of the challenges that underpresented scientists face can be classified as microagressions, which build up over time and become significant factors in why members of underrepresented groups choose to leave science.

I am enthusiastic about AGU’s new ethics policy. Yes, a policy doesn’t change the culture of science overnight. But having strong policies like this will provide a pathway for the really needed and overdue culture shifts to operate and strengthen. By making discrimination, bullying, and harassment a mainstream scientific concern, AGU is taking a bold and meaningful step in building a better, more inclusive geoscience community.

ESA: Invasive species and climate change plus geotourism

by Alycia Stigall
ESA: Invasive species and climate change plus geotourism

This summer was relatively quiet on the travel front. We had a family vacation in May to Disney World (for which I over-prepared with substantial data analysis using the myDisney App), but otherwise both Dan and I were in Athens for the summer doing analyses and writing rather than in the field collecting new data. It was really lovely!

Our Ohio sojourn ended in August, when I traveled to Portland, Oregon to participate in the annual Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting as an invited speaker for a session about the combined impacts of invasive species and climate change on modern ecosystems organized by Cascade Sorte and Bethany Bradley.   ESA is a wonderful meeting and a great chance to simultaneously catch up with my biogeography colleagues and engage with a different segment of the scientific community than I usually do. So I was quite pleased to present about my work on fossils and the lessons we can learn from that for modern environments. I had the opportunity to catch up with some of my Quaternary paleoecology colleagues and have some really insightful and educational discussions with modern biology colleagues during the meeting.

On it’s own, ESA was very good meeting, but the best part of the trip was that Dan and the kids joined me at the conference as part of a two week volcanoes & coasts road trip. As geologists, Dan and I were excited to have the chance to visit some really exciting National Parks and also to show the kids “real” (=geologically young) mountains for the first time. We love the Appalachians, but western geology is so spectacular.

In the end, we put over 1000 miles on the rental car. We visited Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Crater Lake, Oregon Caves, the Jedediah Smith State Park (=Redwoods!), Orgeon Dunes, a series of state parks with tidepools along the Oregon Coast, and the Newport Aquarium. It was a spectacular trip. Mt. St. Helens was amazing and emotional.

The boat trip on Crater Lake was a real highlight. The kids LOVED climbing on the fallen Redwood logs, exploring the tidepools, and the marmots on Mt. Rainier. Overall, it was super. Maybe too much driving, but I don’t think I would have cut out any of the places we visited. It’s really fun to geek out on geology with my family who also loves geeking on geology. The kids earned four junior ranges badges along the way—they are definitely right up there with their parents as nature lovers.

 

 

Alumni Symposium: Women in Geology

Every other spring, the Department of Geological Sciences alumni converge on Athens for a weekend of networking and reunions that is centered around a full day symposium where alumni, students, and faculty share their current work. This year, our Alumni Board chose to focus on Women in Geology and asked me to give a presentation on that topic.

I was delighted to develop a presentation on this topic as it’s both near and dear to my heart (and career), and I have published several pieces on gender issues in paleontology previously (GSA Today, Priscum). So I spent the better part of two weeks diving back into the literature on implicit bias, structural barriers to women, and locating data on women at the student through professional levels. I will say, for the record, this topic is not fun to dive into. It is important and I hoped that I could make a contribution by educating our alumni broadly about these issues, but it is emotionally taxing to read study after study showing empirical data for continuing bias in geoscience—and science in general.

I focused on my presentation on data. Data that demonstrate that: YES we have many women training to be geologists (nearly 45% of undergraduates), so we are developing a strong pool of qualified female geologists. But the data also demonstrate that NO these women are not fully participating in the geoscience workforce, which his only 23% female.

That disparity CANNOT be explained by historical biases alone. Women have been earning nearly half of geoscience degrees for at least the past 15 years, but the junior work force does not match the training pool.

So I explored the reasons for this starting with overt discrimination (which is present, but less common than in decades past), sexual harassment, gendered critiques, implicit bias, and structural barriers. These issues create feedback loops that instill lower self-confidence and greater workloads for women and ultimately push women out of the workforce.

Implicit bias, in which individuals allow ingrained stereotypes to unconsciously bias our opinions and decisions, is a significant problem. If you are not familiar with implicit bias, here are a series of empirical studies you can read. I’m particularly fond of this one about hurricane names (Jung et al., 2014) and this about lab tech hiring (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012).

More implicit bias studies:

Implicit bias is difficult because we all have it—it’s a societal issue, not a male vs. female issue. You can assess your level of implicit bias using a set of online quizzes at projectimplicit.net.

But if we each individually learn to recognize our bias, we can then take steps to mitigate that in hiring decisions, reference letters, etc. For example, here are tips to avoid bias in reference letters that frequently consult.

Overall, women are in a much stronger position within the geosciences than ever before. We are making strides toward parity, and if men and women work together to remove the barriers to full participation by women (and other gender identities) in geoscience, our field will be even stronger.

Although, I–like all women in science–could spend hours detailing specific events of bias during my career, they have not prevented me from becoming the scientist, I am today.  Rather, some things have molded me to be a more determined advocate for myself, my students, and our community as a whole. So I spent my presentation detailing the data to help others understand both the need for change and how we can all work together to improve our field for all people and to build a science combining a broader breadth of ideas and experiences.   I am very fortunate to belong to a very supportive department and to be able to contribute to mentoring the next generation of geoscientists.

*I have not discussed racial diversity in this post. Similar proportional increases in number of geoscience degrees earned are NOT occurring for minority groups in geoscience. All the structural and implicit barriers discussed impact racial diversity as well as a series of additional constraints. More on this later.

Congratulations to our paleo group!

by Alycia Stigall

We had another great showing by our paleontology group at this year’s Department of Geological Sciences annual awards ceremony.

  • Outstanding graduating senior went to Emma Swaninger (Hembree lab)
  • Jenni Carnes (Hembree lab) was recognized at Outstanding TA
  • Ranjeev Epa (Stigall lab) received the Outstanding Graduate Student award
  • I was recognized for Outstanding Faculty Research and Outstanding Faculty Teaching.

It is really an honor to work these talented folks in our paleo group!

Ranjeev successfully defends this thesis!

by Alycia Stigall

Ranjeev passed the final defense of the MS thesis this morning after a lively presentation and discussion of Paleoecology of the Freshwater Ampullariidae from the Late Oligocene Nsungwe Formation of Tanzania. Ranjeev’s thesis describes a new fauna of freshwater gastropods documenting speciation during the initiation of the East African Rift Valley.  It’s a great study of an interesting and significant set of fossils.  Congratulations, Ranjeev!

Nilmani passes her final defense!

by Alycia Stigall

Nilmani is now a Master of Science!  She successfully defended her thesis titled: Hierarchical Spatial Patterns in Paleocommunities of the Late Pennsylvanian Ames Limestone.  Nilmani did a really nice job in her thesis analyzing and interpreting regional vs. local differentiation in contemporanous shallow marine communities across southeastern Ohio.  Congratulations, Nilmani!

 

Reflections on the International Biogeography Society Meeting in Tucson: Celebrating diversity and deep time

Reflections on the International Biogeography Society Meeting in Tucson: Celebrating diversity and deep time

This post was initially written as a guest blog for the International Biogeography Society blog

The International Biogeography Society Biennial Conference is one of my favorite meetings to attend. These conferences consistently profile outstanding and cutting edge science, opportunities to interact with a set of colleagues that I don’t have the opportunity to see at my paleontology-centric conferences, and interesting destinations to explore. This year’s conference in Tucson hit the mark in all areas.

A key strength of IBS conferences is that they are fundamentally a celebration of diversity in many ways: diversity of approaches ranging from molecular to big data and ecological to phylogenetic frameworks; diversity of focal ecosystems and taxa; diversity of temporal lens from modern to deep time; diversity of nationalities and cultures; diversity of genders and identities. This diversity makes the scientific contributions and opportunities so much stronger. Developing such a diverse conference is not a coincidence, the IBS board and meeting organizers actively work to promote scientific and culture diversity. And the dedication and hard work pays off. For example, someone like me, who studies paleobiogeography of marine life from 400 million years ago feels at home with colleagues studying geographic structure of genetic variation in modern tree species.

From my perspective, two aspects of this year’s IBS conference particularly struck me: the increasing inclusion of a deep time perspective and fossil data and increasing recognition and participation of women in biogeography.

Each of the symposia featured at least one talk involving paleodata. The “Modeling large-scale ecological and evolutionary dynamics” symposium featured paleo data in nearly every talk and showcased a wide range of paleo data from historical records to the Pleistocene. Contributed sessions, posters, and mini-talks also prominently focused on the relevance of paleodata, including analyses that employed Paleozoic data to address questions relevant to modern biodiversity concerns (abstract book here).

Geologic and paleontological data, particularly the breakup of Pangaea and the waxing and waning of the Pleistocene ice sheets, have long been incorporated in biogeographic analyses. What was exciting about this meeting is the fact that paleodata beyond those two cases are being employed and being employed broadly within the field in many different contexts ranging from species distribution models, quantifying community functioning and species richness processes, and calibrating projections of biotic impacts of future climate changes.

Rising above this pervasive paleontological mist was the fact that the winners of the MacArthur & Wilson and the Alfred Russell Wallace Awards, Jessica Blois and Margaret Davis, are paleobiogeographers, which further underscores the significance that the field ascribes to research emphasizing fossil data.

Both awardees are also women, which leads to my second point. This meeting celebrated the accomplishments of outstanding women in biogeography, like Jessica and Margaret, and at the same time acknowledged and celebrated the additional hurdles and barriers that were (and still are) faced by women in science. Steve Jackson, in his citation of Margaret Davis, provided a wonderful discussion that contextualized some of the hurdles that Margaret faced as the sole women in pollen analysis, the significance of her indomitable spirit, and the inspiration she has provided to others.

Today, women are not usually alone in our departments or subdisciplines, but we and members of other underrepresented groups still face obstacles, additional requests on our time as token representatives, and implicit bias in reviews and in other contexts. But meetings like IBS, where a group of women met at 7:30 am over coffee to discuss shared issues and plan a support group and where we have lunch mentoring groups that discuss early career issues, provide clear and positive steps forward.

Women have been leaders in biogeography for many years, as evidenced by the Margaret Davis’s well deserved Wallace award, and women are poised to continue leading and innovating, as evidenced by female students winning 3 of 5 poster awards.

I ended the conference by raising my glass with a group of a dozen female paleobiogeographers. For me it was a fitting end to a conference that celebrated diversity of science, of timescales, and of individuals.

 

 

Winter Outreach: Important and rewarding work

by Alycia Stigall
Winter Outreach: Important and rewarding work

Although it’s a bit cold during a (typical) Ohio winter to do a lot of field-based outreach, I try to keep busy with indoor outreach opportunities.  This winter, I’ve been working with kindergarteners, grades 4-9 science teachers, and a nearby public library to communicate the importance of understanding Earth’s history.  I usually forget to take photos (which makes a less interesting blog), but I thought two events this winter were worth mentioning on the lab blog anyway.

#1: Continuing our year-long SIPLAS program (see earlier post), I was able to lead a lesson plan on understanding climate change data, decoding fake scientific news stories, and accessing government climate data with our grades 4-9 teacher group.  My colleague, Danielle Dani (the science education faculty member), did a great job leading off with a provocative question about whether the EPA should establish CO2 emissions targets which  allowed the participants to immediately grasp the real-life link between themselves and climate science.  Then we plotted sea ice and snow cover extent data from NOAA and used that to exams and debunk a fake news article.*  It felt really great to be able to help this really super group of teachers develop stronger skills to cope with teaching a facts-based, strong science curriculum.  Such tools are increasingly important given the dramatic anti-science rhetoric coming from the current administration, and it is imperative that professional scientists of all types develop closer ties to the public and increase our outreach during this difficult times for our nation.  It is critical to the next generation understands the promise and importance of a scientific understanding for climate, medicine, and pollution to protect and preserve our quality of living and environment in both the short and long term.

*Thanks for Brad Deline for sharing an earlier version of this exercise.  An example of scientists collaborating for the greater good!

#2: I gave a public program about my Antarctic research for The Plains Library (The Plains is next town north of Athens).  Sure, I conducted that field work in November-December 2004, but stories of adventure and intense field conditions paired with really cool scientific results never really gets old.  Seriously though, the combination of discovery, adventure, and hypothesis-grounded science really is a slam dunk for outreach.  Most geologists have some great fields stories that can be worked into outreach is a really positive and effective way.  In the case of my group, they were enthralled by the natural history of penguins (which had nothing to do with my primary research, but is a great way to discuss how climate change impacts species people care about), how to survive in subzero conditions (a really fantastic young woman even modeled my Antarctic gear as part of my explanation of our clothing), and the realities of camping on the ice (such as returning all recyclables and solid waste –even human–back to the US for disposal).  I was also able to roll in plate tectonics, fossil preservation, and even a sidebar about local rocks of The Plains.  Overall, it was a fun event, mostly because the audience was so interested and asked such great questions.  Most of the pre-adult group were girls, who had awesome questions.  Their parents had to drag them out of the library at the end of the evening.  And that is awesome–girls so excited about science that they don’t want to stop talking about science.

It is imperative that professional scientists spend time sparking interest about what we do in young people.  And it is critical that we have ALL types of scientists: women and men of all races, cultures, and identities interacting with the public.  It is hard to imagine that you can be a scientist without ever seeing anyone like you in science.  So we need ALL of us showing ALL of our society that together we can be stronger, we can improve our understanding of the world in which we live and we can innovate for a better tomorrow.