Featured Professional: Adriane Lam

Editor’s Note: Adriane Lam is a Ph.D. student at University of Massachusetts Amherst where she actively participates in understanding foraminifera assemblages of the Neogene to use to reconstruct ancient ocean circulation patterns and the evolution of foraminifera subgroups. Adriane is a first generation college student and a strong advocate for diversity in the geosciences. She has been an active member of her local rockhound and scout communities in Virginia, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Jen Bauer conducted the interview.

Figure 1: Selfie taken aboard the JOIDES Resolution before we set sail from Townsville, Australia.

Describe your path to your current position. Were you always interested in paleontology and paleoclimatology? I always knew I wanted to go to college to attain a career that I was happy with. When I was in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do or even what my interests were. High school was really hard for me: I was bullied, I had really low self-confidence, and my teachers weren’t invested in my learning. My grades reflected these struggles, and I knew there was no way I could get into college right after high school. So, to buy myself some time while making progress towards a degree, I enrolled at my local community college after graduation. At this point I had some ideas of what I wanted out of a career: I wanted the ability to work outside sometimes, to work with different people, and to travel. But most importantly, I wanted a career that would keep me engaged, and I definitely wanted to love what I was doing, so much so that it would never feel like work.   

In high school, I had taken several art classes and was even part of the National Art Honor Society. At first, I thought I would pursue a degree in art (I really loved to paint) or graphic design. But after some research, it became apparent that jobs as a graphic designer and artist are very competitive and hard to come by. As I took more classes in community college, I considered being a psychologist, working in the health sector, or just dropping out altogether and attending trade school. That is, until I took a geology course. I was intrigued. Then I took another geology course the next semester. It was during this course that our teacher took us to a local creek to collect Miocene-Pliocene invertebrate fossils. I was totally hooked at that point and knew I wanted to become a geologist. I knew geology was the right path for me because it met all my expectations of what I wanted out of a career, and I had always collected fossils, rocks, and dead bugs as a kid.  

After earning my associate degree, I transferred to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. It was here that I took my first invertebrate paleontology and paleoclimatology courses. In my paleoclimate course, I first learned about scientific ocean drilling and the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). This is where a bunch of scientists sail on a large ship fitted with a drill rig and collect sediment cores from the seafloor. I knew at this point I wanted to one day sail on an IODP expedition. Shortly after taking this course, I began doing research with fossil plankton (called planktic foraminifera). The project I worked on was the perfect integration between paleontology and paleoceanography: I was using fossils and their paleoecology to infer ancient ocean conditions. By the end of my bachelor’s degree, I was still undecided if I wanted to go to graduate school for paleoceanography or paleontology.  

In Fall 2015, I started working with Dr. Alycia Stigall. My thesis project was to reconstruct the movement patterns of brachiopods and trilobites through the Ordovician Period (~450 million years ago in the Paleozoic Era). I loved this project, but at the end of my degree, I still missed working with foraminifera and on paleoceanographic problems. Thus, I applied to work with my current advisor, Dr. R. Mark Leckie, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) for my PhD. At UMass, I have had the opportunity to work with fossil plankton and am currently working on projects in the northwest and southwest Pacific Ocean. My specialty is biostratigraphy: using the evolution and extinction events of fossil plankton to tell time in the sedimentary and rock record. And last summer, I finally had the opportunity to sail on an IODP expedition to the Tasman Sea for two months! 

In short, no, I wasn’t always interested in paleontology and paleoclimatology, but I’m so glad I found the field that I work in! It’s a true joy to work on issues nobody has thought about before, and I absolutely love having the ability to research, teach, and travel.   

Figure 2: The first core to come on deck at our third site in the Tasman Sea. The sediment in this core is really young (latest Neogene), and I have been conducting some research using it.

What does your current research address? Broadly, my research involves investigating the drivers of speciation (the divergence of new species) in planktic foraminifera lineages through time, specifically through the Neogene (the last 23 million years of Earth’s history). The project I am most focused on now is investigating how western boundary currents respond to major climate change events, and if/how these areas contribute to plankton evolution. I am working with sediments and fossils from three drilled sediment cores from the northwest Pacific Ocean. These sites (areas where the cores were taken) lie to the north of, directly underneath, and south of the present-day position of the Kuroshio Current Extension. This is one of the largest western boundary currents in the world with a very sharp boundary between subpolar waters to the north of the current to subtropical waters to the south of the current. The behavior of these currents during major climate change events of the past is important to understand so we can potentially predict how they will behave and the magnitude of change within the current in the future under human-induced climate change. I’m characterizing the ‘behavior’ (latitudinal shifts, changes in water temperature) of the current through time using the chemistry from fossil foraminifera shells.  

The other project I’m focused on is conducting a foraminiferal biostratigraphy at all three of the sites. To do this, I have constrained when species of planktic foraminifera evolved and when they went extinct. This is the first study of its kind done in the northwest Pacific Ocean, so the data from this study will be compared to data from other parts of the world. In this way, I can see where and when certain species first evolved and went extinct. Combining my biostratigraphy data with my chemical data, I can also determine the oceanographic conditions under which speciation or extinction occurred. 

Has the transition between the Cenozoic and Paleozoic provided positive and/or negative challenges for your research program?  When I first started working at UMass with young sediments, I thought I had made a huge mistake. This was because none of the studies I knew so intimately from my Paleozoic research applied to the Neogene, so I basically had to start over in terms of learning a new time period. The Neogene also freaked me out because the geochemical records are so detailed and are commonly on a 3- to 7-million-year resolution. In the Paleozoic, the resolution of geochemical records is much, much less than this! I also had to learn about Milankovitch cycles (cyclical movement related to the Earth’s orbit around the sun and the Earth’s movement), wind patterns, and modern oceanography. At first, I thought I was drowning in information! But now, after years of working at UMass and reading a ton of papers and books, I’m finally beginning to feel more comfortable working in the Neogene than the Paleozoic.  

I still cherish my Paleozoic knowledge, and it’s come in handy time and time again. For example, when I teach classes about fossils or during field trips, I can talk about the Paleozoic (climate, tectonics, etc.). A ton of my friends still work in this time period, so having that knowledge also allows me to talk intelligently with them. I plan to continue doing Paleozoic research after I attain my PhD and snag a professor position, but right now, I’m all about the Neogene 😊 

What is your favorite place that you have been collecting and what is your favorite fossil and why? 

My absolute favorite place to go fossil collecting is in the ocean. This sounds really strange, but when I was a scientist aboard the JOIDES Resolution during Summer 2017, the sediment cores we retrieved were full of tiny fossils! Every sample I looked at was totally different: samples from close to shore were filled with brachiopods and bryozoans, but samples from deeper in the ocean contained almost 100% foraminifera shells!  

Figure 3: Examples of invertebrate fossils we found in cores that were drilled in the Tasman sea. From left to right: crinoid ossicle, brachiopod, and fish otolith (ear bone).

My favorite fossil is Otodus megalodon, or megalodon teeth. Growing up in central Virginia, my family and I would often go fossil collecting on the Potomac River (my second favorite place for fossil collecting!). Sharks teeth were very common; however, I have only found two megalodon teeth (both were small, 1-2 inches in length). My dream is to find a 6-inch (at least!) megalodon tooth one day.  

I understand you do a lot of education and outreach work with local clubs and scouts in your area, can you talk a little about what programs you do and how you got involved with the clubs? 

Figure 4: A scanning electron microcscope (SEM) image of a planktic foraminifera, Globigerinella siphonifera. This specimen was recovered from the Tasman Sea during Expedition 371 and is a Neogene species.

Every year, UMass hosts hundreds of Boy Scouts on campus for two weekends, called Merit Badge University. During this time, the boys can choose from a list what two merit badges they want to earn. Several departments and graduate students across campus help during this time to teach the boys all kinds of things across several different topics. The first year I was here at UMass, I volunteered to help with Merit Badge University. The boys were earning two natural science badges that year: Geology and Mining in Society. Using the merit badge requirements for each of these, I developed activities for the boys. These included identifying fossils and learning about the different fossilization processes, reading and interpreting maps, and visiting our local mineral museum to learn about economically important minerals and resources.  

The second year I helped with Merit Badge University, I worked with a few other graduate students to develop activities for the Oceanography badge. We had the boys draw their own ocean floor profile with key seafloor features, talked about the marine food chain, and how climate change is affecting the oceans. I have also worked with local cub scout troops. Usually, the scout leaders email our department, and an email is put out to the graduate students to help host the troops. This is how I get involved with the smaller groups, as I have all the activities made already and am used to working with younger boys (I also grew up with three younger brothers). Doing this outreach work with members of the community has been really rewarding, and it’s always a fun distraction from more intense research.  

We are aware of your science literacy efforts with your Time Scavengers website, can you explain a little about this resource and your collaboration with avocational scientists? My colleague/collaborator/friend and I, Jen Bauer, came up with the idea for Time Scavengers late 2016, right after the presidential election. We were disgruntled (to say the least) with how climate change was talked about and the public’s gross misunderstanding of the topic. Being paleontologists, we had always felt the same about the public’s lack of understanding about evolution. So, we decided to channel our anger into something productive; thus, Time Scavengers was born.  

 The main purpose of the site is to break down and explain the concepts behind climate change and evolutionary theory. Currently, we have over 35 static pages that include introductory material on the geosciences to the more complex topics of climate change and evolution. The site is teacher/educator friendly, as we have a page dedicated to educational resources. Here, Jen and I have gathered K-12 and college-level activities and lesson plans related to geology, climate change, and evolution. Lesson plans and activities are arranged by category, so they are easier to sift through. For people who are interested in additional geology-related resources, the site also has an ‘Extra Information’ page. Here, site visitors can look through lists of blogs, podcasts, and books related to geology, and find geology-related organizations and societies.  

The site also contains six blogs. The overarching goal of the blogs is to bring the public into the world of scientists and show people of all ages that science is for everyone and anyone! Our blogs include ‘Field Excursions’, where we talk about the field trips and expeditions we go on for science; ‘Education and Outreach’, a place where we talk about the work we do in our communities and with the public; ‘Byte of Life’, which is a blog geared towards other academics and graduate students; and ‘Science Bytes’, where we talk about certain aspects of our research (how we obtain and interpret our data). The ‘Climate and Paleo News’ blog features a new climate change or evolution-related paper from the published literature that we break down and explain for the general public and its relevance. My favorite blog is ‘Meet the Scientist’, where we showcase a new scientist every other week.  

The website has grown into something much larger than I ever even considered, so to help with the blogs and all the writing, we currently have ten site collaborators that work with us. Our collaborators range in careers from visiting professors, post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, lab techs, and avocational scientists. One of the main purposes of Time Scavengers is to showcase the diverse people that do research, and by having a diverse group of collaborators who share their research and experiences, we’re able to achieve this! By having the voices of avocational scientists and showcasing the important work they do on our ‘Meet the Scientist’ blog, we hope to inspire others who love geology and paleontology to get involved with academics. Through avocational and professional scientist collaborations, great research collaborations have been formed and amazing science published!

Figure 5: In the Tasman Sea, several storms occurred, and with storms comes rain, and rainbows! We were lucky to capture this image one day while drilling: a double rainbow after a storm directly to the north of the ship.