Editor’s Note: Our featured professional this issue is Alycia Stigall, Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Ohio University. Alycia is the North American leader of the UNESCO-funded International Geoscience Programme Project 653: The Onset of the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. Alycia was awarded the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) Professional Excellence Award in academia and research in 2017. She was also selected as the 2016 recipient of the Charles Schuchert Award from the Paleontological Society. Colloquially known as the “Best paleontologist under 40 years of age” award, it is presented annually “to a person under 40 whose work early in his or her career reflects excellence and promise in the science of paleontology, and thus reflects the objectives and standards of the Paleontological Society.”
Can you describe your path to becoming a PhD paleontologist and university professor? Did you begin college thinking you would become a paleontologist? What led you to choose an academic career?
I have been excited about fossils and geology ever since I was a small child. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, home to amazing Ordovician fossils. As a child, I would run off and explore the nearby creek for hours at a time collecting brachiopods and bryozoans, then identifying them with a 1964 “Golden Guide to Fossils” that had been deaccessioned from the library at the elementary school where my mother taught. Both of my parents were teachers, so we had a lot of time in the summer, but not a lot of money. So most years, my parents would take my sister and me camping in various National Parks all around the country. It was a great way to experience a lot of geology, biology, and paleontology as a kid. I was fascinated by all of this and wanted to become a high school science teacher.
I entered my undergraduate program at Ohio State as a dual major in Geology and Biology–because OSU’s teacher education program at the time required students to earn undergrads in their disciplines, then do a 4 quarter MS program to gain the pedagogical training. Along the way, I started to get really interested in the big questions, particularly the differences in the way that paleontologists and biologists classified arthropods and the amazing way that Earth and life evolve together. I also became involved in undergraduate research with a series of really fantastic mentors. I realized that I still wanted to teach, but I wanted to teach about all the cool stuff I was learning now, which was too advanced for high school. I also really wanted to explore and answer really burning questions about the history of life on Earth. So I realized I would have to become a professor. So I did 🙂
You have an active research lab that includes graduate students, undergraduates, and volunteers. Do you think the skills students need to be successful in the field now are any different than when you were an undergraduate? Do they face any new or different challenges?
Definitely! One of the great challenges for each new generation of students is that they need to learn everything that the last generation did in school PLUS everything we’ve discovered since. The accessibility of information via the internet has hugely changed the way that students learn. I sat down with piles of books in the library, now they can search rapidly from anywhere with Google Scholar. This increased information really creates a challenge for an early career scientist to learn to differentiate core information from accessory information. Students also need to master more sophisticated analytical techniques, be able to synthesize more data streams, program in R, and develop proficiency in scientific communication.
It’s a really exciting time in paleontology because we have so much more data available and powerful tools to analyze these data, but it does create organizational challenges. I work to help my students focus in the face of this information overload, which can be really overwhelming for students. I describe research as similar to bowling. You throw the ball down the lane, and if you are novice, you are likely to get a lot of gutter balls. My job as an advisor is to act like the inflatable bumper guards and help my students reach the pins at the end with a minimal amount of meandering in the wrong directions.
I read that one of your current research passions is “the interaction between paleobiogeography, paleoecology, and macroevolution during episodes of biotic overturn.” Can you explain what that all means for us novices?
My primary research focuses on understanding how and why new species form and conversely why speciation declines at certain times in Earth history. The development of new species is similar to the birth of an organism (like you!)—speciation happens at a particular place, at a particular time, and within a particular evolutionary lineage (just like you were born at a specific place, on your birthday, with your mom). So we need to understand the geography and the environment to understand speciation. New species only form when there is a change in one or both of these parameters, so my work focuses on identifying these linkages. I have a particular emphasis on instances when a species migrates into new regions, as these immigration events can serve as long term analogs for modern invasive species. The Ordovician record of brachiopods provides great data for this work, and my current projects look at both global impacts of invasions and environmental change during the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event and regional impacts of the Richmondian Invasion (and its precursors) in the Cincinnati, Ohio region.
I understand that you work with the Dry Dredgers. Prior to moving to Ohio University, did you have experience working with amateurs? What are your thoughts about the role of amateurs in science?
As a grad student at Kansas, I was aware that many of their most significant specimens from the Cambrian Lagerstatten collections were collected by a family of amateurs, the Gunthers, but I did not have the opportunity to work with those collections.
I did know about the Dredgers a little bit before starting my faculty position at Ohio University. When I was a girl, I would drag my parents (and reluctant younger sister) to the Dry Dredger’s GeoFair each year and spend hours learning about—and telling my family about—the specimens on display and for sale. So I knew about the Dredgers a little bit before starting my faculty position at Ohio. However, it’s been a true pleasure to get to know many of them in a professional context.
I really can’t overstate the importance of amateurs to the field of paleontology. The amazing men and women of the Dredgers spend so much time and energy scouring the outcrops of Cincinnati. They are experts in knowing which fossils “ought” to be where and spotting the rare fossil or the inconsistent fossils. I always learn so much each time I am fortunate to interact with them. Without their efforts, we wouldn’t have nearly the high-quality information we do, particularly about the rare taxa. In addition to that, the Dredgers leadership and University of Cincinnati faculty have cultivated a truly collaborative environment, and the depth of knowledge and detail of records that are maintained by members also really add tremendous scientific value to the specimens that they collect.
For example, about 9 years ago Jack Kallmeyer gifted a portion of his collection of beautifully curated specimens of relatively common species to Ohio University and recently Ron Fine donated a set of equally well curated, somewhat unusual specimens. Ron and I recently submitted a manuscript together, and more than 15 students have now been able to work with these collections to learn curation, photography, and analytical skills. The Kallmeyer collection is available via iDigBio and formed a core component of the Ordovician Atlas project.
What is one of your most memorable field experiences? Do you have a favorite locality or site?
I am very fortunate to have worked in a variety of really interesting places including field work on all seven continents. Antarctica wins the award for most spectacular field area. The night my students and I spent in a tornado shelter while studying Middle Ordovician fossils in Oklahoma also really stands out. I loved the field work my husband and I conducted in Namibia when our son was 14 months old and “helping” while I carried him around in a frame backpack. My favorite localities, though, are always Cincinnati sites! I particularly love the Richmondian outcrops such as Southgate Hill in Indiana.
Social equity and diversity in science is another of your passions. How did you become interested in those issues?
I am really passionate about broadening participation in science. I distinctly recall an instance when I was nine or ten when my physician said to me “it’s great that you like science and math because most girls don’t.” I assume that the comment was meant to be complimentary, but what I internalized was “oh, I’m different and that makes me strange.” I never had female mentors because there were no female paleontologists –and barely any female geologists–where I studied. So I understood that I needed to work harder to earn similar respect, but I suppose I didn’t really appreciate the structural barriers present until I was serving the Paleontological Society as the Councilor-under-40, which is the membership chair position. It was then that I first saw the data that showed just how underrepresented women and people of color are in within paleontology and began to seriously begin to study and learn more about structural barriers to full participation in science.
Since that time, I have been vocal about these issues on a variety of fronts from local to international. I am really pleased to be able to participate in leadership roles in the IGCP 653 Project and the Paleontological Society that provide a platform from which to support and foster initiatives. Some of these are as simple as reaching out to female students that I meet at conferences and providing encouragement. This can be surprisingly impactful for students who are not used to receiving affirmation, such as some women I recently got to know in China. But we also need to work to change the culture and the conversation broadly. We need to make science inclusive and welcoming for all. The GSA RISE program, which works to eliminate harassment at scientific meetings, and new PaleoSociety initiatives to provide travel funds for diverse students who otherwise couldn’t attend scientific meetings are both helpful steps in the right direction. We can and will do more, but these examples are positive steps.
Think about any elementary school classroom that you might visit to do a paleontology outreach program. Every one of those kids is excited about paleontology. Many of them love—and can name—many dinosaurs and other fossil organisms. My vision for the future of paleontology is that every one of those kids would have the equitable opportunities to pursue paleontology. I want none of them to be told they are not the type of person that should pursue such a dream, but that all of them be told they are exactly the type of person to pursue this dream because this dream is accessible to everyone. We have a long way to go to make this vision a reality, but I am very encouraged by how pervasive such conversations are becoming, how much progress we have made so far, and the tremendous dedication of many members of our field to keep progressing and broadening participation in science.
You have been involved in developing a number of educational resources including lesson plans and the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life. Why do you think it is important that paleontology is included in the K12 curriculum? Can you share any advice or lessons learned in developing accessible science content that will be used by teachers in formal K12 settings?
Fossils can be the gateway to getting kids hooked on science. Extinct organisms and ancient worlds are inherently fascinating and can be used to teach concepts from classification to ecosystems to climate change to chemistry. The key to making lesson plans that work well in a K12 setting is to develop them in concert with science educators, either in-service teachers or education faculty. It is critical to find out what learning objectives and standards teachers need to cover and then design lesson plans to meet their needs. In paleontology, there are so many great example and stories we can tell, but if the lesson plans don’t match state standards, they are unlikely to be adopted by teachers who are already strapped for time in the year. So be sure to find out need first, then develop lessons to meet those needs, and include a list of which standards lessons meet to help teachers understand how to use the lessons. Also, give teachers boxes of fossils —they all need more fossils!
To learn more:
Lam, A. R., Stigall, A. L., & Matzke, N. J. (2018). Dispersal in the Ordovician: Speciation patterns and paleobiogeographic analyses of brachiopods and trilobites. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 489, 147-165.
Stigall, A. L., Bauer, J. E., Lam, A. R., & Wright, D. F. (2017). Biotic immigration events, speciation, and the accumulation of biodiversity in the fossil record. Global and Planetary Change, 148, 242-257.
Digital Atlas of Ancient Life website
Article about the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life in Palaeontologica Electronica