Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a paleontologist. For as long as I can remember my dream job has been working in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I used to visit the museum almost monthly when I was a child and it is still one of the highlights of my summers.
At Penn State I am majoring in geobiology and I look forward to any class that focuses on evolution, ecology, or ancient life. I knew that once I was on campus I’d have the opportunity to join a lab and start contributing to the field I’ve been dreaming of for over 15 years. Since January, I have been in a paleobotany (ancient plants) lab under the supervision of Dr. Peter Wilf.
This isn’t supposed to be a lecture about my lab or my thesis work but in order for this to make sense you need to have a general understanding of the goals for my research project. Most families of plants are incredibly misunderstood and very little is known about them. Although there are thousands of described fossilized plants in museums around the world, they are mostly fragmentary, misidentified and poorly described with no placement on any plant family tree. From recent breakthroughs using AI, we now know that we can use leaf morphology and venation (vein structures) to classify leaves into specific families or order with striking accuracy but we still don’t know what characters are being conserved across these groups. My goal is to find these identifiable traits in these leaves that are conserved at the family level and project it into the fossil record to give these plant families a more accurate evolutionary history.
The first step is to then learn how to identify these characters. I spent the spring semester learning hundreds of characters for leaf architecture, reading dozens of papers, and finally constructing and trialing a comprehensive spreadsheet that could be used to record and analyze the data across families of plants.
I continued reading papers over the summer and working in my lab from home. I became proficient in my technique of marking up and scoring these leaves and finished the summer with almost 1,000 leaves scored across two families.
Feeling confident in my results and success, I emailed my PI (the director of my lab) telling him about all of the work I’ve done this summer and asking for advice on the next step for this research. This is when it took a turn I was not expecting.
He told me that the scoring method that I used was too subjective and could easily vary by scorer. He discussed that most of my variables were “nested” meaning that they depended on each other which can be very troublesome when it comes time to start the statistical analysis. He suggested that I should rescore all of my leaves and restart the spreadsheet with better, defined variables. To top it all off, the other member of my lab that was working on this project left without warning, leaving me to juggle the entire project.
At the moment I am working on recreating my spreadsheet and rescoring my leaves. At first I was incredibly mad when my PI told me his opinions on how we should handle all of my data, but I know that this summer wasn’t a waste of time. I’ve become incredibly proficient in dissecting scientific papers and made leaps and bounds on my knowledge of angiosperm plant evolution and phylogeny. I’ve also become well acquainted with the leaves I’m working on and noticed many anecdotal trends in their morphology. Some portions of my data are still salvageable. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to pick myself back up this summer. This was an incredible learning experience on the brutality of science. Many people think that every experiment is going to yield results but over 90% of scientific results aren’t successful and I am learning to adapt to this reality as I continue to pursue a career in science.
(If you are interested in my work or paleontology in general, I can talk about this for hours so don’t be afraid to ask!)