Shark Teeth Forensics and Diversity in Science

Editor’s note: While preparing for our Citizen Science in Paleontology technical session at the GSA annual meeting, the FOSSIL Project learned about the research of North Carolina State University Undergraduates Neal Hairston and Erik Ryder. The project was please to help sponsor accommodations for these students at GSA, so that they might be able to share their work on diversity and paleontology citizen science. Below, Neal Hairston describes his project and what it was like to present at a large conference.

by Sadie Mills, Coordinator of the FOSSIL Project

How do we increase diversity in paleontology? Neal Hairston, a senior at North Carolina State University, is working on that problem. Though Neal is pursuing a degree in Psychology with a Spanish minor, he became involved with paleontology through Shark Teeth Forensics, a K-12 citizen science outreach project at NC State University in Raleigh.

During a Shark Teeth Forensics lesson, students find shark teeth by sorting through provided sediment. They then take and record measurements on the found teeth, and report that data back to Paleontology Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The lab then uses the data to reveal preservational biases in the fossil record, as well as reconstruct the body size of ancient sharks.

Neal brought his psychology background to the project by looking at the role Shark Teeth Forensics could play in addressing diversity issues in the STEM field. He explained that the Shark Teeth Forensics project was a tool that helped underrepresented students in STEM begin to see that science was possible for them, and that they could be scientists. He further explained: “Many of these students face constant messages through media, and by other people, that tell them that they are not capable of doing science, or pursuing it in a future career. However, involving them in this project, and letting them have this hands-on experience, while also learning how their work in that moment was contributing to the realm of STEM, helped combat these messages they were used to receiving.”

Neal, along with fellow student Erik Ryder, presented their work with Shark Teeth Forensics and STEM diversity at the Geological Society of America annual meeting this past October. Having never presented at a large conference before, Neal was nervous about the experience. Once he arrived, however, he found the conference friendly and inviting. About his talk, he noted: “I was very appreciative of how open-minded people seemed to be, and I was able to tell that people genuinely cared about our topic.”

Neal Hairston (far left) at the FOSSIL booth at GSA 2017

In the near future, Neal hopes to continue working with Shark Teeth Forensics and help train others to administer the program.  More long-term, Neal hopes to pursue a career where he can directly impact and help others. He is considering both counseling and academia as options, and is especially interested in conducting psychological research dealing with racial identity and its effects on minority college students. Ideally, he would love to connect this future research to the Shark Teeth Forensics work he has completed so far.

Thank you to Neal, for sharing his experience with us. You can learn more about the Shark Tooth Forensics program here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *