Posted by: Katie | June 19, 2012

Future Paleontologist

Katy has had amazing experiences -such as visiting Panama, Grand Cayman, and more – and I am very excited to share her story with all of you. Here, she discusses her travels, paleontology, and general interest in wildlife. As I said, she traveled to Panama; this was for an internship that involved experience with excavating fossils!

1.)    You seem to travel quite a lot. Where have you been and what have been your favorite experiences?

I’ve been very fortunate to travel a lot with my parents during middle and high school, mostly to Caribbean islands.  On one of these trips to the US Virgin Islands I took a Discover Scuba class, which was the start of one of my favorite hobbies!  As soon as I got back home I took the Open Water course and got certified.  We also went to England and Scotland one summer to visit my Aunt and Uncle, who’s in the army and had the good fortune to be stationed there for two years.

I think my favorite experiences though have been traveling for academic reasons because it’s so fulfilling.  I’ve taken geology field courses in Puerto Rico, the Lake Superior region, and Italy, and each one was a very unique experience that I accomplished different things on and taught me different skills.  Last year, I received funding to go to the Caribbean island of Montserrat for 10 days to participate on a coral reef restoration.  It was amazing – I got to participate in a lot of different aspects of the restoration process and introduced me to the difficulties of restoring a marine ecosystem.  Part of what I did was transplanting corals that were going to die from a pier being widened to a different location, and it’s really rewarding to see pictures of the corals I rescued healthy and growing on the artificial reef!

I was also part of the Outdoor Recreation at my college (Lawrence University), which took me on a lot of travels around the country.  By far my favorite was a backpacking trip I led to Canyonlands National Park in Utah.  I had been super stressed out that term and I’m pretty sure the desert saved my sanity.  It’s a fantastic park – a lot of it is backcountry wilderness and you don’t see a soul (well, except for that one old naked man…).  And there were lots of fun rocks to climb on.  One day I and a few other people from the group decided to climb up out of the canyon.  It was almost like one of those team-building experiences – we had to pull each other up over some of the really steep parts and jump over cracks… I needed help with that part because I’m pretty terrified of heights.

2.)     You also greatly enjoy nature. Did you always enjoy wildlife and what interests you the most about Earth’s creatures?

Yes, I’ve always enjoyed wildlife.  It started with the urban kinds – my dad and brother used to shoot chipmunks in our backyard at my childhood home, and whenever I caught them doing it I would run outside yelling “RUN CHIPPIE, RUN!”, much to the annoyance of my father.  I was generally one of those children who were always out playing in the mud and catching snakes and frogs.

I’m not completely sure why I’m so interested in nature.  I think part of it is just helping me realize how connected everything is.  I know that sounds kind of kitschy, but it’s completely true.  I worked on a prairie restoration in Illinois for a summer, and it was amazing to see the diversity in such a seemingly simple ecosystem – there are hundreds of plants, a lot of which have really complex relationships with each other.  Certain plants can’t grow without a certain set of soil microbes and another plant species that does something for them, who can’t grow without another species, who can’t grow without a certain insect… it was just really eye-opening to realize how complex ecosystems are, and how silly it is to think we have anything but a very basic understanding of them!  Especially in ecological restorations, how can you successfully restore something without fully understanding it?  Or how can we understand climate in such a complex system as the entire planet?

3.)    You scuba dive and had a marine term in college in which you got to travel. What certification did you get and what have been your favorite sights while diving (or favorite places to dive)?

I’m an Advanced Open Water diver, but I didn’t get that on my marine term (Turks and Caicos).   My favorite dives were actually my most recent ones – in Coiba National Park in Panama.

It’s part of the same geologic hot spot that formed the Galapagos Islands, so the water was pretty cold and there weren’t many corals.  But there was so much marine life!  Huge schools of gigantic jacks and other pelagics (open-water animals) were constantly circling us, going in and out of the gloom at the edge of our visibility.  I saw seven sharks, some eels, turtles, a lot of new species of fish for me, and even the elusive toadfish!  It was awesome.

4.)    Could you briefly explain what you accomplished with the marine term course?

We went to many of the dive sites around Grand Cayman to compare the biodiversity between sites.  I learned how to conduct coral diversity surveys and fish counts underwater, as well as honing my coral, fish, and invertebrate identification skills.  I also discovered how much harder research on marine ecosystems was!  You can’t communicate clearly with your research team, and when dealing with animal behavior projects, it’s hard to get the animals to ‘act’ how you need them to in order to get good data.  I did a project on nesting sergeant majors guarding eggs and what clues they used to chase away potential egg predators (the only significant data we found was that they really disliked the color blue).

5.)    How did your interest in Paleontology begin?

Well, I was a double major in both biology and geology.  With an understanding from both sides, I found it really surprising that the geologic record isn’t being used more as a tool for biological issues.  I’m generalizing here, but biologists tend to think in only recent timescales, maybe going back a 100-200 years max.  Especially for things like predicting how biota reacts to climate change and establishing baselines for ecological restorations, going back further in the geologic record can be really important.  I’m more interested in the latter reason – one of my possible grad school projects is to do work with ancient corals and look at the coral reef assemblages over time and what modern reef restorations (and policy-makers) should be striving for.

6.)    What sort of excitement did you feel as you found your first fossil?

It was such a rush!  The first fossil I found wasn’t important at all, and wasn’t even collected, but it was a little scrap of a rodent bone.

It was very exciting for me haha.  Paleontology is a lot like hunting or fishing.  There’s a lot of time where you’re bored and don’t find anything all day but more dirt, but there’s also that short time of extreme excitement when you first see a chunk of shiny black bone.  Especially if it turns out to be a jaw!  One of the last fossils I found was part of a skull of horse.  I saw a small piece of bone poking out of the rock, carefully scraped away more of the rock around it, and saw the shiny black of a tooth, and then of another tooth.  I was pumped!  It ended up being the upper jaw of a small horse, with 6 teeth and part of the orbital arch (the lower part of the eye socket).  It was about 22 million years old.

7.)    What adventures have you been into lately and what do you hope for in your future plans?

Well, I traveled a lot around Panama – a lot of beach adventures.  I think my tent was my most important item I brought down with me.  This summer I’m working for The Nature Conservancy in Door County and am looking forward to exploring up there; it’s a beautiful part of Wisconsin!  I’m planning on taking the ferry and exploring some of the other islands off shore, kayaking in the sea caves there, and checking out some of the wine tours (yum).  I’m also taking a week off to fish in Ontario with my Dad (wish me luck!).

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