Thursday, May 7, 2015

Frothy Fossil Friday with Paleontologist Penny Higgins!

Howdy fans!  I am so excited to bring you an interview with one of my favorite women in the field of science, Penny Higgins! For those of you who don't know, Penny Higgins is a Research Associate at the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY. Her scientific specialties are vertebrate paleontology and light-isotope geochemistry. She applies geochemical methods to fossils and the rocks that encase them to learn about ancient climates and climate change, and to gain insight into the paleobiology of long-extinct vertebrates, usually mammals. Penny has managed the Stable Isotope Ratios in the Environment, Analytical Laboratory (SIREAL) in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences for a little more than eight years now, where she completes all of her geochemical analyses. She also teaches courses in introductory geology and paleontology at the University of Rochester.
Hanna Basin of Wyoming back in 2009. I'm looking for plant fossils associated with the PETM.
When she’s not busy doing science, she engages in other hobbies that include writing fiction, maintaining a blog (, and studying the historical European martial arts (the knightly arts of swordplay). She’s also the wife of a mechanical engineer, and mother to a wonderful boy on the Autism Spectrum. Follow her on Twitter (@paleololigo to see how she juggles all this.

Penny is an amazing woman and I hope you all enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Question 1: Who did you admire growing up in the science field? 

I always loved science. Every bit of it. I ate it up! My first exposure to scientific thinking was watching Cosmos with Carl Sagan. (Wow, what would this world be like if he were still alive?) I was fascinated by all sciences, but found that the life sciences really drew me in. I really loved the PBS series Nature, with George Page. I was fascinated by how animals moved and related to each other. I envisioned myself one day studying cheetahs on the Kalahari.
"Me and Snowball Boliva 2007" was taken in Quebrada Honda Bolivia in 2007.
Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in geology? 

Sometime in middle school I found my first fossil. It was a bryozoan called Archimedes. I still have the specimen. I use it in my teaching. At about that same time, I also developed an interest in comparative vertebrate anatomy (though I had no idea that there was really such a field of study). I was a horse-obsessed girl and I noticed that horses and humans had all the same bones. So did dogs and alligators. A light went on! Evolution suddenly made sense to me (though at the time, I saw it in a very Lamarkian way), and I realized that a person can reconstruct what an animal looked like based only on its bones. Bones hold the key to muscle attachment and motion and therefore behavior. It was an exciting time for me, and I took what I understood and designed all sorts of fantastical creatures, some of which I painted and posted here (

Sometime in high school, it seemed I ran out of ideas. It was probably more a matter of I had learned enough about vertebrates that I knew even my ‘realistic’ creations weren't really possible. I thought back on that Archimedes fossils I have and it occurred to me that I could continue reconstructions of vertebrates using fossils. I wanted to study dinosaurs and be one of those artists that did all the fantastic paintings. I learned that paleontology was a subdiscipline of geology, so I decided to be a geology major in college. 
"Archimedes" is a photo of the first fossil I ever collected. It's labeled now, because I use it in teaching.
Question 3: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

Y’know, I wasn't really that dinosaur-crazy as a kid. I think I had some dinosaur toys, but I didn't really know their names. Most of my toys were horses. My favorite dinosaurs (the ones I actually knew the names of) were Parasaurolophus and Triceratops. I still like Triceratops, and all the ceratopsians. They remind me of rhinos, and I love rhinos. The one painting I did in high school that I gave to my mother is of a rhinoceros. Something about tank-like vertebrates just attracts me.

Question 4: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today? 

At this point, I have a canned lecture that I give aspiring paleontologists when they show up at my office door. They always have interesting and amazing concepts of what being a paleontologist is and what it will be like. Most think that they can make a good comfortable living as a paleontologist. Some have visions of finding the next “Sue” and selling it for millions of dollars. Most think that all paleontology is dinosaurs. I tell the ones that come expecting to make their millions as paleontologists that they’re talking to the wrong person. I’m a scientist, not a businessman. Then I go on to my ‘harsh reality’ speech, that I hate to give, but I always do.

Fact is, if you want to be a paleontologist, you need a good plan B, because plan B will be your plan A. I am a vertebrate paleontologist, but that’s not why I have a job. I’m employed because I’m also an isotope geochemist. That’s my plan B. The great thing is there are lots of good plan B’s that will let you be a great paleontologist. Paleontology can be approached from two directions, either from the biology standpoint or the geology standpoint. People who approach paleontology from biology can find work as anatomists (teaching anatomy at medical schools, for example). Or they study ecology and evolution. Often they are interested in DNA and are very good at cladistics. 

If you take the geology approach to fossils, then you think more about the fossils as part of the rock they come from. You’re interested in sedimentary environments and rock types. You think about environments. You measure rock thicknesses. You carry a hammer and a bottle of acid. As a geoscientist, you can work in environmental remediation and geochemistry. You can study climate change. There’s a lot of interest in that.

I went the direction of geochemistry, which overlaps quite a bit between geology and biology, but is primarily geological. I study ancient climate change and gain insight into behavior of ancient extinct animals.
"Isostylomys notes" is a photo of part of an incisor of a giant rodent called Isostylomys.
Question 5: Geology is one of my favorite subjects! Why do you feel geology is such an important field in regards to paleontology? 

When I tell people that paleontology is actually a subdiscipline of geology, they are usually surprised, but fundamentally it makes sense. Fossils come out of rocks, and the rocks provide a ton of context for understanding the fossils. Rocks themselves contain a wealth of information. The type of rock and its individual components are generally indicative to a particular environment. A clean quartz sandstone usually represents either a beach or sand dunes. Cross-bedding and other features can help you tell the difference. Limestone can only form under water. When you find fossils in these sorts of rocks, you know something about the environment in which the animal lived.

You can also study how the rocks in one area relate to rocks in another area. Or how they change over time. From this you can understand how environments differed geographically at one time in Earth’s ancient past, or how environments changed over time. Geology teaches us about the antiquity of the Earth, and of life on this planet, and provides a time scale upon which we can think about the evolution of life. The Earth is mind-bogglingly old. It’s hard to wrap your mind around. But when you study geologic processes it starts to make sense. You can put the rocks in order, from oldest to youngest, using only geological principles. When you’re done, you can place fossil discoveries on this time scale and witness evolution. Without geology, all we have are a bunch of fossils and no means to see how they relate to one another. Geology is necessary. 
Hanna Basin of Wyoming.
Question 6: What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects? 

Over the years, I've gotten to do some pretty cool stuff. Unlike most vertebrate paleontologists, I do not specialize in any particular group of animals. Instead, I focus on a method, stable isotope geochemistry. What makes a project interesting to me is taking isotopic analysis and applying it to problems in paleontology. I don’t know if I want to point at a single ‘favorite’ project, but some are really, really exciting. Some projects are great because of where I get to go. I've been to Bolivia, Uruguay, and to the Canadian High Arctic. Some projects are cool because I get to work with poorly known, but giant, animals, like giant rodents or ground sloths, or the unusual endemic South American mammals, the Notoungulates. Some projects are exciting because I get to work with novel methods. With the ground sloth project, we’re actually trying to measure body temperature directly from the ancient beasts!

Some projects have practical applications, in terms of understanding the impacts of environmental changes on animals. One of my major research thrusts is a study of climate change at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. This was a period of rapid global warming (called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM) which is blamed on a sudden increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, a scenario not unlike what we think we’re seeing today. Studying the PETM gives us a chance to look at the impact of warming on animals as well as to see what the actual environmental changes are. One of my research thrusts is to determine if the climate ever fully recovered from the PETM, or if it was forever altered. As it happens, mammalian species were heavily affected. I think that’s cause for concern.

Here are some links to blog posts about some of these projects.
San Juan Basin Colorado.
Question 7: What was your most memorable movie, book or TV program as a kid that inspired you to pursue science? 

As I noted above, I think it was watching Cosmos with Carl Sagan back when I was a kid that inspired me to pursue science. At the time, I wasn't sure where it would take me, but I knew I had a deep interest in knowing more. At first it was about the universe, but I studied other things, too. My brother was into electronics, so I got into that for a while. Our interests tracked each other for a while, then he started getting into airplanes and I started thinking about biology and bones.

There was one other thing that might have got me thinking about science. My mother sat me and my brother down and read to us every night. Two of our favorite books were about Danny Dunn, a teenage science kid. One book was about anti-gravity paint. I don’t remember what the other was, but I do know that I have them both in my home library now. About ten years ago, I re-read them. What fun stories! Science was fun! I wanted to do that.
"Mammoth Backdrop" is me collecting a sediment sample at The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, in June of 2011.
Question 8: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist. Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck? 

The first time I ever communicated with a paleontologist was in high school when I sent out letters to a few paleontology groups (one of which was the Paleontological Society) asking what I had to do to become a paleontologist and what did they think of the schools I was applying to. I got helpful letters back. I hadn't realized it at the time, but at least one of them was from a high muckity-muck in the Paleontological Society (whose name now completely escapes me. It might have been Don Wolberg). Years later I learned who he was and had that ‘oh crap!’ moment.

In the summer before my last year as an undergraduate, I met my first ‘real’ paleontologist. His name is Brent Breithaupt, and was at the time in charge of the Geological Museum at the University of Wyoming. He told me about the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). He probably told me a lot of other things, too, but I was pretty overwhelmed with information. I chuckle now, because I later went to the University of Wyoming to get my Ph.D. and am now good friends with Brent. He’s been Chair of SVP’s Auction Committee since it was founded, and I’ve been helping with the auction every year I go to the SVP annual meeting since 1995. I became an Auction Committee member in 2000 or 2001.

My first real experience in rubbing shoulders with other paleontologists came in 1994, when, somehow, I got to go to my first-ever meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Seattle. I had never been to a professional conference before. I was star-struck and completely lost. The only person I knew was Brent. I talked to him for about two minutes. The rest of the time I wandered in a fog. The science was completely over my head and I was surrounded by the biggest big names in paleontology. It’s funny to look back at that, because now, I’m someone people seek out at SVP meetings. It’s a big change.

Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel they continue to fascinate us? 

I think people just have a deep interest in monsters. Dinosaurs are particularly interesting because they’re monsters that really existed! Yet they are still so foreign and bizarre that they seem to be the product of science fiction. People are drawn to them because many were so big and powerful and mysterious. 

I have to wonder if the new image of dinosaurs - fluffy, fuzzy, and feathered — will change people’s opinions. I wonder if the draw will still be there when dinosaurs look more like over-sized, toothy, flightless chickens? Maybe not. They’re still giant and foreign, but real!
"Me High Arctic 2012" was taken on Axel Heiberg Island in the summer of 2012.
Question 10: What is your favorite time period? 

I’m a big fan of the Cenozoic, mostly because I enjoy most working with mammals. For isotopic work, mammals are a fairly well-understood system. Complex, to be sure, but we at least have modern mammals to make comparisons with. The Cenozoic, of course, is a really long time. Maybe I should be more specific about what part of the Cenozoic I prefer. My doctoral work focused on the Paleocene, around 60 million years ago. The PETM happened about 55 million years ago. After that, mammals get big enough to do some serious isotopic work. Until most recently, almost every mammal I worked with was 25 million years old or younger. Aside from dabbling a bit into the first few thousand years of the Eocene, I have completely given the Eocene and the Oligocene a miss. That’s going to change, as I’m embarking on a project that will have me working on middle-Eocene mammals. That’s exciting. I wonder, though, when I’ll ever work with Oligocene mammals. 

Thank you Penny Higgins!

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