Science always has a broader impact

Scientists love science. It’s true. Most of us are in the business of science because we love it. We eat, breathe, sleep it. We bring it home at night. We take it on date night. We tweet, blog and instagram about it.  We even name our furry friends after it (Hi Bif aka Banded Iron Formation aka newest member of the Yeager-Rongstad household). But we don’t just love science.

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This is Bif. He likes rocks just as much as I do. And he has an instagram (follow him @bifbarks)

We love sharing our science too. It’s not just about the doing. Our findings are meaningful. We present them at conferences, to advisors, to peers, to classes, and at invited talks. We publish them in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Our findings are interesting. Teachers teach them. Researchers build on them. Ideas are grown from them. The world learns from them.

But scientists don’t just love sharing their science with other scientists. We want to share our science with everyone. Our grants may require us to share our science with the broader non-scientific community, but most of us would do it regardless. We want the public to be engaged. We want to make our science fun and understandable. We want everyone to care about what we do. Science matters, and we want you to care about it too.

Which brings me to this: Science always has a broader impact. The National Science Foundation defines broader impacts as “the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.” In short, science should always matter to more than just the scientist doing it.

Scientists are tasked with learning from, understanding and solving the world’s most pressing problems. Whether our research findings will contribute to saving an endangered species, stamping out breast cancer, or understanding how the planet will respond to future rapid climate change, our science means something to the world. And it is our duty to share it with the world. We may have to speak louder and work harder so that our work is heard outside of our field, but we must do it.

And while sharing science is a good first step, scientists shouldn’t stop there.

Scientists should engage the public. We may be the experts, but we’re not the only ones on this planet. We can get the community involved through public forums, hands-on activities and solution implementation. We can involve local communities in fieldwork. We can encourage change in our local communities and governments.

Scientists should mentor. Our excitement and expertise can inspire others. We can embolden young students toward a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). We can provide opportunities to minorities and underrepresented students that would not have otherwise presented themselves. We can even teach older members of the community who are eager to learn more.

If I can do it, so can you: A scientist mentoring case study.

lensonclimatechangelogoLast month, I had the opportunity to start my own broader impacts journey. I participated in a fantastic week-long outreach program, Lens on Climate Change (LOCC), that brought high-school-aged Upward Bound students to the CU-Boulder campus to engage in a film making project documenting the effects of environmental and climate change in their communities.

The students were divided into small groups and each student group was assigned a film and science mentor. My job was to serve as a science mentor to a group of four students interested in STEM from diverse backgrounds and communities. Essentially, I was there to make sure that the students (1) thought about the scientific process and (2) stayed true to the science of their chosen topic throughout the entire film making process. The film mentor’s job was to give the students a solid introduction into filmmaking and to oversee the entire filmmaking and editing process. While both the film mentor and I were there to keep the group on task, it was totally up to the students to brainstorm video topics, research facts, create a story, film their story and edit their film to a final cut.

While my group of students came from different places and diverse backgrounds, they were able to agree that green technology was something they believed their communities could benefit from. Check out their short film below!

Now, you may think my mentoring duties ended with this wonderfully creative short-film. But honestly, I think my most important mentoring came while I ate lunch with my students on filming day. While timid at first, the students began to ask my lots of questions: What do you study? Why does it matter? Why did you become a scientist? What can you do after school? What did you leave consulting? How did you decide to become a geology major? After awhile, they were on a role, and I was soon telling my whole science journey. But perhaps the most important thing I told them during that short lunch was “Don’t let anyone dictate your future.” I never had anyone tell me I could be a scientist, and I struggled until I stopped trying to fit the wrong mold. I wanted those young STEM students to know that no one should control who they become, and I hope that at least one of them took some of my words to heart.

 

#broaderimpacts

 

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Thoughts from an academic introvert

Take a look around you (wherever you are), and it probably won’t take you long to find an extrovert flourishing. Think of your most successful bosses, colleagues, friends or family members–what are their personalities like? Extroverts have no problem speaking their mind; they participate more and they think out-loud. Extroverts thrive in positions of power; they know how to work a room and their presentations almost seem effortless. Extroverts are in their element when surrounded by others; they love being around people and they certainly have no problem befriending them. TLDR: extroverts get noticed. But what about the introverts?

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It today’s scholarly society, shy has gone out of fashion. Entire courses are graded on participation and presentations with little emphasis on the what goes on behind-the-scenes. Teachers and professors focus on active learning lesson-plans; they push for more participation and more discussion. In graduate school, your superiors expect even more. Course participation still matters, but now it’s time to spread your wings into the global academic world. Be heard. Be assertive. Be confident. Shout your science from the mountain-top. Discuss all the things with [gasp] other people. Being shy in academia doesn’t do you any favors. So let’s be totally honest, extroverts don’t just flourish in academia, they shine.

So, is there really no place for introverts in academia?

As a self-described introvert who’s been [I think] rather successful in the scholarly world, I would have to whole heartedly disagree. Sure, we introverts have to work harder to have our voices heard in a typical academic discussion and to get up in front of a large audience to give a presentation, and we may need some probing from above to speak our minds, but
there’s something to be said about those of us who prefer to sit back and digest information internally. You may not hear our voices as much, but we certainly don’t shy
away from problem solving… we just do it differently (and probably more often).

Introverts don’t like being the center of attention. We stay silent when we want to think things through, and we talk when we have something important to say. Extroverts may always dominate the conversation, but introverts are always there listening and learning. And introverts really don’t mind working behind the scenes; in fact, we thrive there. We care immensely about the work behind the final product, and despite our reservations about having to present those findings in front of a large group of people, we do it because the work matters so much to us. We may never be admired for a public-speaking skills, but that doesn’t make our science any less important.

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Despite our constant inward attentiveness and outward attention to detail, there are always those times when others find introverts not well prepared for the academic world. Our quiet demeanor can come off as a lack of trying or, worse, complete disinterest. I can’t even begin to tell you how many course evaluations I’ve got back that have said something along the lines of “fantastic student, but wish she would discuss things in class more…doesn’t actively participate…” I know these teachers and professors meant well (and I truly took most of their advice to heart), but these kind of statements are a harsh reminder that I strive to work in a profession not designed for an introvert like me. My personality is better suited to lab work, writing, and internal problem-solving; so to get where I want to be in academia, I will have to work a little harder than my extroverted academic neighbor.

Can introverts shine in academia?

Definitely. The thing about academia is that ultimately, the science is what matters. Yes, scientists need to be able to communicate and present their science, but scientists also have to be able to write and think about their science. Everyone has different strengths. Academia is [SURPRISE!] about learning, and we all have to use it as an opportunity to push ourselves outside our extroverted/introverted bounds. If your science is smart, unique, and interesting (…world-changing), people will listen regardless of your personality class. So go ahead and get your __________ (insert introvert or extrovert here) on.

#teamintrovert

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from the laboratory: 5 tips for a successful move

It’s moving time in the lab. As in pack every little possible lab and office thing into a box, try not to break the mass-spec,  wrap all the fragile things (and accidentally yourself) in bubblewrap, re-label all the acids (and then label them again because safety first), dig up things you never even knew existed (do we really need all this melted tubing and why do we still have a lab coat from 1999?), organize thousands of samples (and then pack those too), move all the things 1.2 miles down the road to the giant new beautiful monstrosity of a building called SEEC, and then UNPACK EVERYTHING.

Moving is the worst. Okay, so not worse or more terrifying or seriously more worrisome than just the mere thought of Trump possibly becoming president…but you catch my drift. No one likes to move. It’s stressful. It’s tiresome. It’s tedious. But sometimes is necessary–like when you have a sparkly new lab waiting for you in a glorious giant new research building on campus. Now, imagine being a scientist trying to move your most precious possessions/life’s work (i.e. lab equipment, samples, papers, field equipment, perfect desk chair…) to a new place. It’s total [organized] chaos.

So, because most of you have at least the teeniest experience with moving some important part of your life (college futons don’t just move themselves) and because even less of you are experienced scientific movers (you care about this stuff, right?), I present:

Lessons from the laboratory: 5 tips for a successful move

1. Use all the bubble wrap

Our “official” orders were that every single piece of glassware and fancy-spancy equipment should be wrapped at least twice. But you should probably add 50 more wraps just to be safe, right? And then you should obviously steal some just for your own damn pleasure because you’ll need to relieve some stress after packing for the eighth hour of the day (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you clearly didn’t have a very enjoyable childhood).

2. Label all the things

Unless you want a migraine to end all migraines when you get to your brand-spanking-new lab, LABEL EVERYTHING. And then label it again. Label the outside of boxes. Label bags in boxes. Hell, label the boxes you’re putting in the bigger boxes. Just label everything. Label yourself if you have to (especially when you start losing it after having to to make the sixteenth trip out of the clean lab to get even more bubble wrap to wrap your precious things in).

3. Don’t know what an item is? Better pack it

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These are probably important

Melted pieces of tubing leftover from some long ago experimental lab set-up? Screws to some long-lost part? Samples from the 70s that are labeled with nothing but a name? Manuals for now can’t be found machines? You never know when you might need those again (or when your advisor or former student will come looking for them sometime in the near future). Better safe than sorry. And I don’t want to be sorry. All these random things are probably super important, right?

4. Don’t touch the expensive thing. Leave that for the pros

Thought warming up/maintaining a mass spectrometer was hard?–you know nothing, Jon Snow. Decomissioning a mass spectrometer is vital to said mass spectrometers survival through even a short travel down any road. Take a piece off and you better make damn sure you memorize what that piece looks like and where it goes. And when you get to the magnet, you better have a serious game plan (like watching your advisor spend an entire workday planning how the movers are going to simply slide the magnet out of the machine without catastrophic failure). Graduate school stipends won’t cover the “oops, I just broke the mass spec.” So, leave all the expensive, super-breakable things for the pros (aka advisors).

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Fabulous Dexter

5. Do daydream about merriments in your new lab

It may be the only way you get through the packing pains. Just pretend that absolutely nothing will go wrong (it will), that everything will arrive in perfect in perfect condition (it won’t), that nothing will get lost (you think it won’t, but…), that removing said magnet above will go flawlessly (please, please do), and that everything you just packed will magically find its way to its perfect home in the new lab (it most certainly will not). Dream about all the happy lab days, crushing, cleaning and dissolving forams (or maybe even dancing when no ones around), you will have once you’re all settled in the new space. Just think happy thoughts–like Fabulous Dexter in his fancy laboratory to the left.

 

#happypacking/moving/unpacking/dancinginyournewlab

 

 

Geology is hard

I’ve been a busy, productive graduate student the past month with my first set of samples coming in (whoop, whoop!), learning some new foram taxonomy, trying to make a pretty map in Matlab, and trying to get a class full of students uninterested in geology actually interested in geology (…it’s still a work in progress). While busy doesn’t excuse my blog neglect, it did bring to light some pretty blog-worthy topics, including some serious winter sports FOMO and more ridiculously wonderful undergradisms. Which brings me to the topic of the week (rather month, since I’ve neglected this blog so thoroughly over the last 28ish days) straight out of the mouth of a frustrated intro geology student (who had just realized he forgot to do his pre-lab): “Geology is hard.”

“Rocks for jocks”

Or rather, Geology 101.
When I walk into syllabus week, crossing my fingers that I have at least one student in each of my sections the teeniest bit interested in my scientific obsession, the first thing I tell my students is that geology is not easy. It’s an interpretive science that pulls and gives knowledge to a vast array of other sciences. Answers are not always cut-and-dry, we don’t always put things into an equation and get out what we expect, and only practice (lots and lots… and lots of practice) can produce a productive, fully functioning geologist. I tell them that I struggled through geology classes, and that I still struggle through lots of geologic subjects today. I say absolutely everything I can to impress upon their syllabus week minds that no, this class will not be a total walk in the park, and yes, I will make you work for it. I don’t really think any one them really believe me… until they actually hard-core struggle through the first lab.

de093810cff2c87e1447ebe1f229fa75I may have a different teaching philosophy than other introductory level geology TAs, but I don’t like handing out participation grades. Whether a student is a geology major, somewhat interest in geology or just taking this class because it’s required, I still expect my students to put effort into each and every lab. And while I don’t expect them to remember every single word or definition they learn while taking the intro class, I do hope that they walk away with a bigger understanding of what the science of geology is all about.

The core classes

Even for us lucky few who embark on an undergraduate career in geology, struggle is still the name of the game. Mineralogy. Petrology. Structure. Sed/Strat. Geochemistry. Maybe even Geobiology and Geophysics…. the list goes on and on. My core major classes were some of the hardest classes I took in undergrad. Time spent on labs in many of these classes could border on 5 hours OUTSIDE OF ACTUAL LAB TIME, and there were lab days where I would sit there completely perplexed by symmetry blocks or what-the-hell-grain is this on my slide or understanding a ternary diagram with all sorts of minerals in solution or even trying to figure out my aqueous geochemistry computer program. Geology is hard, but it’s just because we need to know so much more than everyone else.

I don’t TA any of these classes at CU-Boulder, but I’ve heard plenty of things from those TAs to know that my experience is not unique. Geology students struggle, but it doesn’t mean we don’t love every minute of it (expect maybe finals filled with every mineral formula you were told you wouldn’t have to memorize).

Field camp

Survive all your core classes only to realize you still have field camp to conquer? Yeah, I’ve been there. For all of you non-geologists (and all you geologists who managed to finagle your way out of this one), field camp is a comprehensive field mapping “experience” typically held sometime over the summer (usually somewhere cool like Utah) that lasts around six weeks. Sure, six weeks hiking and exploring in the glorious mountain-ridden wilderness doesn’t sound too bad to a geologist, but you’re forgetting the whole needing to remember all the minerals, rocks, structure, sedimentology, stratigraphy, ternary diagrams, paleoenvironment, brunton compass using and general just don’t fall on your ass while trying to find an outcrop geology skills.

Field camp is hard. Like throw your map board off a cliff (did it), lose your mapping partner (happened), leave your rock hammer on the top of the mountain (almost), leave your mapping partner to fight the snake in the outcrop alone (sorry Ben!), have an epic face-off with the worst gnats to ever exist (see above), stay up all night coloring your map and praying to the rock gods that your cross section will just magically look perfect in your professor’s eyes (hahahaha), and yes, even cry (saw it happen) hard. Your professor will probably give you some version of the “it’s not about the final product, it’s about the journey” speech, but that still won’t heal your poor I-just-mapped-these-rocks-totally-wrong-for-three-whole-days heart. But as expected with a crazy group of people obsessed with rocks, there will always be a shoulder to cry on (hi, friends), silly juice to drown your sorrows in (whatever your taste buds desire), and unbelievable stories to remember (remember that time?).

Field camp was hard. But damn, can I do it again?

“The one”

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And by someone, I mean geology. And by geology, I mean paleoceanography ❤

If you make it through everything above, (congrats) there’s usually the one subject that just gets your little rock heart going; that one subject that makes you want to learn more (or to devout the next large chunk of your young life to school) and to not care about how much you struggle doing it. For me, it was geochemistry. Everything started to make sense during/after that class. Complicated mineralogy and petrology subjects suddenly clicked, and all the chemistry based diagrams I had been staring at for two years suddenly seemed so simple. Sure, a lot of geochemistry just made intuitive sense to me, but lots of it was definitely still a struggle. Struggling (and loving) geochemistry got me to where I am today… so I guess I can’t complain too much.

Everyone here with me in grad school found their one (or hopefully are busy finding it right now), but there isn’t a single day that I don’t walk into the geology building or INSTAAR and hear about someone struggling with something (e.g. research, lab work, time constraints, comps, classes, writing, teaching). Geology is still hard because graduate school is a-whole-nother level of struggle. But geologists, especially graduate student geologists, are crazy, so we love it.

In summary: Geology is hard, but we seem to like it that way. (Otherwise everyone would do it, right?).

 

Techno in the lab

Anyone who has any sort of experience with the necessity to focus for long periods of time knows just how important ear candy can be for productivity. Some people enjoy a big fat dish of silence, others can’t get enough of the latest and greatest book on tape, while many, many of us prefer one flavor or another of beautifully (or not so beautifully) constructed tunage. Ear candy has gotten many of us through lots of moments in our lives, and it certainly is getting me through the next phase of mine: lab work.

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the face of an exhausted undergrad hiding in a library cage (yes, a literal cage)

I’ve graduated from my undergraduate years of hiding away in the library blasting movie soundtracks from Finding Nemo to the glorious wizarding world of Harry Potter so that I could, for lack of better words, get shit done. And while I’m still not ready to let go of those tunes just yet (graduate school does require times of epic concentration comparable to cramming the information from a semester of 5 classes into your brain in the two days you have to prepare for finals), lab work requires the kind of ear candy that brings a little more excitement to my day.

If you’ve never done tedious microscope work or really any kind of tedious lab work, well, it’s a hard thing for me to describe. Not only do you need to brace your eyeballs or pipetting fingers for some serious exhaustion, but you also need to prepare a delicious plate of gourmet ear candy (so that you don’t go insane scanning little box by little box for the teeny tiny little object you’re interested in counting/finding/collecting… or pipetting acids into other acids holding the samples you’ve already dissolved in acid).

brain-training-1Which finally brings me to my title: Techno in the lab. It all started in undergrad, where a graduate student working in the same lab as me would pump some fantastic club music from the makeshift lab speakers. At first it was weird; I had always worked out to that kind of music (trust me, nothing gets me through a horrible run better than some seizure inducing beats), so I always felt like I was about to break out in a serious sweat. But lately, it’s really been growing on me. Being in the lab is like a workout for the brain; seriously, it takes some serious brain power to not drop something you shouldn’t (like HF, don’t drop HF) or to transfer one tiny little foram from a giant vial of forams to a slide of a smaller amount of forams. You have to pump yourself up for an extended period of time of doing shit, and for me, I’ve found that techno and other super-upbeat music (like some crazy wonderful Miike Snow) are fantastic for that. focus Focus FOCUS!!!

I know, I know. Techno is not for everyone (especially my mother… HI MOM!), but I think we all have that one brand of ear candy that can get us excited for a day in the lab, or for all you regular people, a day in the cube farm. We all have to find ways to focus (because we all need to get shit done), and ear candy is a damn good way to do it.

And you should consider yourself lucky if you catch me in that lab dancing from fume hood to fume hood. #earcandy (???)

 

“The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone”

As a geologist, I often take for granted the years of practice I’ve had comprehending geologic processes and time. Earth is not the same as it was 4.54 billion years ago (birth of Earth), 65 million years ago (Dino extinction) or even 21,000 years ago (the Last Glacial Maximum), and it’s not easy for humans to grasp changes that occur on timescales much, much longer than our lifespans. Things have changed: oceans once existed where there is now land; strange animals, like t-rex, [giant] megafauna beaver, and my personal favorite, the terrifyingly large megalodon, once prowled the planet; and Antarctica once played home to tropical plants and animals. And things will continue to change.

My mind was blown when my Geology 101 “rocks for jocks” professor stretched a piece of string across the 200-seat lecture hall with ticks for important events in Earth’s history illustrating that earthly human habitation barely stretched one cm at the end of the string. While not exactly the same, the clock below may serve to similarly blow all your minds (or not, if you live and breathe this stuff everyday). But if you react anything like me, this kind of analogy is a strong eye-opener for how little our species has experienced on earth.

But geologists don’t shrink away from that realization–we thrive in it. Geology is a science because, well, humans simply don’t understand very much about Earth’s history. We know a hell of a lot more than we did 100 years ago… For example, scientists once believed a great flood was responsible for the appearance of marine fossils and rocks on the summits of the world’s highest mountains, but we now know that these rocks and fossils were deposited in ancient oceans and then uplifted through plate tectonics… But there is always another piece to the puzzle to sink our crazy geologist teeth into, and we can’t wait to see what we find next.

I think we all have an innate curiosity about the world around us (geologist or no), and John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World is a perfect example of geologic curiosity spilling over into the non-geology world. Annals of the Former World is a non-fiction masterpiece about the geologic history of North America. When I first picked up this book, per the requirements of an undergraduate course, I was admittedly a bit grumbly. But McPhee’s writing was incredible and, while not a geologist, his ability to write about geology in an extremely approachable way astonished me. I was already a geology major, but McPhee’s writing would have sent me running to geology faster than a One Direction fan running to a meet-and-greet.

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“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, 
they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived 
in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly 
as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains 
had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the 
movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict 
all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The 
summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” 
--John McPhee, Annals of the Former World

The passage above is one of my favorite’s from McPhee. After spending a paragraph explaining, in great detail, how the summit of Mt. Everest evolved through time, he very bluntly [and humorously] sums it up: “The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” McPhee does this throughout Annals of the Former World, and I love him for it. Geology is serious business, but we do like to have some fun.

Fun with Forams

hqdefaultOHHHHHHHHHHHHH….Who lives in a carbonate shell under the sea? Forams. Forams do.

I work with forams (but really the forams are working for me) so that I can reconstruct some pretty crazy cool paleoceanography. They’re not as sexy as t-rex (big head, little arms) or as terrifying as the giant North and South American terror birds (google it, they were terrifying), but they play a major role in some of the coolest geology every done and obviously, in the science being done by my advisor and me now. Forams are pretty awesome, and so of course I had to share.


The live ones

Forams are little critters (protists if you want to get specific about it) that live (and have lived) all over the world’s oceans. Forams are generally quite small, but some can get as large as tens of centimeters in length, and can live anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years. There are around 4,000 living species of forams in the oceans today, but only 40 of those species get to spend their gloriously short lives floating around in the water (this is what we call planktic foraminifera). The rest of these guys spend their lives living in or on ocean sediments, rocks or even plants at the bottom of the ocean (this is what we call benthic foraminifera). Many species are pretty picky about their habitats (the shoe has to fit, right?), but they can be found pretty much anywhere.

What does something that small eat, you may ask? Well, some forams eat algae that  grow inside their shells (symbiosis!) and others eat organic molecules or even brine shrimp. Forams “catch” their food with their whisker looking pseudopodia, which they also use to float around in the water. And since I know you’re dying to watch a foram feed on a brine shrimp… I found a fancy video by a famous foram scientist, H. Spero, for you to do just that (really, it’s awesome though…so watch it).

Very little is understood about live foraminfera. Even species that are relatively well studied show such a variety of characteristics that makes it difficult for scientists to determine a pattern in characteristics. In [FUN] fact, scientist have never been able to successfully reproduce a foram in the lab. We can catch them. And feed them. And keep them alive. But we can’t make them reproduce. This is a huge barrier for understanding the mechanisms behind shell creation, and there’s obviously still a lot to learn.

The dead ones

Live forams are cool and all, but I care more about the dead ones. To get really specific, I care about the once floating dead ones that lived between 29,000 and 14,000 years ago whose shells have been preserved in marine sediments in the equatorial Pacific. These lucky bastards, lived through some very important climate variability in the recent geologic past and their glorious carbonate shells recorded it all!  I suppose I owe these little buggers a great big thank you, because without them there would be no PhD for me.

Besides being useful for the geochemical climate information recorded in the shells of long dead bugs, forams are also extremely useful for determining relative ages of marine sediments. Different species are found at different times, and as I mentioned before, they are found in marine sediments from around the world making forams a fantastic universal tool for relative dating. This is why oil companies love forams…and love people who love forams. Oil formed at specific times in Earth’s history. So when someone who loves forams can tell oil companies when their sediments contain forams from the oil window age–money gets made.

Dead forams (well, really their shells) have also been used to reconstruct past geography and ecology. Specific species are found in specific geographic and ecological “niches,” and therefore can be used in the geologic record as a proxy (i.e. recorder) for those conditions. Scientists can then pick forams from ancient marine sediments, and tell a story about how a single location has evolved through time with respect to sea level, temperature or even acidity.


So yeah, forams are cool(er than t-rex and terror birds…and PhD students stuck in a basement office)
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forams even make star sand!


 

Image sources

Photo 1: http://collections.nmnh.si.edu/media/?i=10419480

Photo 2: http://www.geo.uni-bremen.de/forschung/bilder/106-2big.jpg

Photo 3: http://www.sjvgeology.org/geology/fossils/forams.jpg

Photo 4: https://carriekravetz.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/starsand2.jpg?w=460&h=333