Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wet your Whistle Wednesday with paleontologist Kate Zeigler!

Dr. Kate Zeigler was born in Butte, Montana and raised in Houston, Texas, which was quite the culture shift. Fortunately, at the tender age of 3, she wasn’t aware of it. Known by some as Doc Ziggy, Kate has participated in field research in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Montana, North Dakota and the People's Republic of China. She was granted her B.A. from Rice University in 1999 in Geology and Anthropology and completed dual senior theses, both focused on paleoclimate. She obtained her M.S. from the Dept. of Earth & Planetary Science at the University of New Mexico with a focus on taphonomy and vertebrate paleontology of a mass death assemblage in the Upper Chinle Group in northern New Mexico.
Extracting a jacket at Snyder quarry.  (Photo provided by Kate Zeigler.)
She received her Ph.D. from UNM in 2008. The primary topic of her dissertation was magnetostratigraphy of the Upper Triassic Chinle Group of New Mexico, along with stratigraphic revisions of the Chinle Group and a preliminary magnetostratigraphy of the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation in east-central Utah. She is currently involved in post-doctoral research at New Mexico Highlands University in conjunction with the Kansas Geological Survey and Kansas University. Research for this project is focused on developing a magnetic polarity chronology for the Ogallala Formation in order to reassess some of the previously developed hydrologic models for the high plains aquifer system(s). 

In terms of other professional activities, Dr. Z served on the Executive Committee of the New Mexico Geological Society from 2006 through 2011 and she is the new Chair of the Scholarship Program for grant-in-aid submissions for the Society. In October of 2012, Kate was named the NMGS Honorary Member and has co-chaired several fall field conferences and annual spring meetings for the Society. She is also the new Chair-Elect for the Rocky Mountain Section of the Geological Society of America.

And, as if that weren’t enough to keep somebody off the streets at night, Kate is also the sole owner of ZGC, LLC – a small independent consulting firm that has projects ranging from hydrogeology and structural mapping to geoarchaeology and paleontological survey. Clients include soil and water conservation districts, archaeological firms and petroleum companies, among others. She is also a long-distance runner and climber. Kate is owned by one very spoiled Doberman-mix, three cats, one gerbil and five box turtles. She is married to an engineer at Sandia National Labs who is very patient with the insane schedule of a field scientist.
Extracting a pmag core at PEFO.  (Photo provided by Kate Zeigler.)
Question 1:
At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

At about the age of 3, I decided I really wanted to be a Triceratops, but my parents eventually were able to convince me that this wasn’t really an option. The next best thing was to be a paleontologist and so from a very early age, I knew that was something I really wanted to do. My parents decided that I should have the opportunity to see if paleontology was really for me before I got all of the way through an undergraduate degree, so they sent me off on an EarthWatch expedition in eastern Montana with Doc Rigby Jr. I felt an immediate affinity for the work, from sorting screen wash all the way to field excavation of a rather beat-up Triceratops skeleton. I was very fortunate in that I was able to volunteer on expeditions for the Houston Museum of Natural Science as well, even as a (presumably obnoxious) teenager. Every experience just added to my desire to pursue a career in paleontology.

Question 2:
What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

My favorite dinosaur when I was little was Triceratops and it still is. Although I do have a very special place in my heart for phytosaurs (they’re not dinosaurs, but they wormed their scaley way into my heart during my Master’s thesis).

Question 3:
Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

You make a very excellent point that paleontology relies on and interacts with so many other disciplines. I would suggest to an up and coming young paleontologist that they touch on as many of these other disciplines as they can, even if it’s just interacting with a colleague who has a different skill set. I think having a firm grounding in both biology and geology will stand you in good stead – paleontology bridges these two sciences and to fully understand the pile o’ bones you might be examining, you really need both the biological and the geological context for the critter. Consider that while the biological aspects of the fossil material may tell you a great deal about the animal – what it ate, how large it was, how it moved – the rocks that host that fossil have their own story to tell. The geologic records includes age data and environmental data that can help you really figure out much more of the story of that animal (or animals) than just the fossil itself.

Question 4:
Were there any subjects in college you dreaded?

Physics! Good grief. That one was a monster, to be sure. It’s ironic that I then went on to complete a dissertation in paleomagnetism, a branch of geophysics. I was nervous about chemistry and math, but was lucky enough to have amazing professors at Rice that made those subjects less scary. I’ve also found that teaching these subjects as part of an introductory geology class has helped me really take ownership of them (especially chemistry, shockingly).
Far shot of Snyder quarry NM.  (Photo provided by Kate Zeigler.)

Question 5:
What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects?

In terms of paleontology, I am obsessed with taphonomic studies – I love the interweaving of biology, ecology and geology that goes into a well-done tapho study. My master’s thesis work is still one of my all-time favorite projects. I’ve mostly moved on from paleontology and so my current projects include hydrogeology, structure and geologic mapping, magnetostratigraphy and geoarchaeology. I am involved in paleontologic survey and monitoring work for some pipeline corridors, but I won’t be researching anything I find. I’ll be turning those items over to others who have the facilities and the time to do a good job describing them. I’m actually really enjoying playing around the edges of hydrogeology – I’ve been fortunate enough to find a niche working with soil and water conservation districts in northeastern New Mexico who love going creek-stomping with “their” geologist.

Question 6:
Jurassic Park was the movie I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

I would say Jurassic Park also! I remember being absolutely breathless when the first animated dinosaur marched grandly across the screen! I think I might have even teared up a little bit.

Question 7:
I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist. Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?

Yes, I was pretty nervous! My first encounter with professional paleontologists was as a volunteer crew member with Doc Rigby Jr on the EarthWatch expedition I mentioned previously. He certainly brooked no foolishness on his crews, but we had a great time. I learned a tremendous amount from him, not just about paleontology and field excavation methods, but also about science in general and how to build relationships with land owners, etc. I ended up participating in a second EarthWatch expedition with him and went on two expeditions to China. In general, I’ve enjoyed my interactions with other paleontologists (if I may be allowed to still claim the title) and nowadays, I hope that my skills with paleomagnetic data and general geology can be of use to my colleagues!

Question 8:
Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

I’ve often wondered why we are so fascinated with dinosaurs. It seems like kids are genetically programmed to suddenly begin spouting out multisyllable dinosaur names beginning around 3 years old. For most, it seems to shut off just as abruptly as they get a little older, but I think we all go through that “I LOVE dinosaurs!!!” phase. Part of it may be the sheer oddness of their body plans. We have nothing like them today and our imaginations can reflesh those old bones in so many ways. And, of course, until someone gets their act together and builds a time machine, we don’t know for sure what many of the details are: skin color, feathers, other ornamentations, etc. To me, part of the fascination is that the animals and the rocks that host them give us a little peek into what the past of this planet was like. That’s just amazing to me.

Question 9:
What is your favorite time period?

I was pretty solidly a Triassic person for a long time, but now I’m growing quite fond of the Neogene since I’m working with the Ogallala Formation quite a bit these days. And the Permian – although not from a paleontological standpoint … from a stratigraphy perspective related to some fun geologic mapping I’ve been working on.
Geologic mapping Tularosa Basin NM.  (Photo provided by Kate Zeigler.)
Question 10:
I love Coelophysis! What is your favorite dinosaur from New Mexico?

Coelophysis too! What an amazing little critter. Not something you wanted to run into in a dark alley, to be sure.

Question 11:
Geology, among many disciplines of study, is such a vital subject when studying the past. Why do you feel this background is important to know when hunting dinosaurs?

I can’t emphasize how important geology is to paleontology. As mentioned earlier, you absolutely need to understand the context of the animal(s) you are studying. Geology gives you the background story about environment and ecology of the time. And it’s more than just “Oh, I found a bone in a layer of sandstone – must’ve been a river! Okay, done.” What about that river? Which way was it flowing? Was it high energy, low energy, flash flooding? Where was its source? Even the most basic geologic information takes the image of the animal in your mind and fills in the background: there were mountains to the west with Precambrian granite exposed and large, high energy rivers flowed eastward from them, etc. See? It makes the picture that much more interesting than just “Ooh! It’s got big teeth!”
KZ hydro work Union County.  (Photo provided by Kate Zeigler.)
Question 12:
New Mexico is my home away from home. I just returned from doing fieldwork there and it is where I attended college. Why do you feel this beautiful state is important in the world of geology and paleontology?

New Mexico has some of the most amazing and complete exposures of sedimentary rocks ranging from the Cambrian all the way into the Quaternary. There is such a diversity of rocks represented in New Mexico at the surface that hold an equally diverse range of animals. The wide range of rock units exposed in New Mexico allows us to begin to fill in gaps in the fossil record for the western United States. In addition, we have a truly amazing community of geoscientists here who collaborate on developing a much better understanding of how the western U.S. has evolved through time. Sure, we all squabble with each other now and again, but some of the leaps in our understanding that have occurred over the last few decades are just phenomenal.

Question 13:
What else do you enjoy? What other interesting hobbies do you have?

I absolutely love teaching introductory geology (weird, I know!) and interacting with my students. I can’t wait for the next lightbulb to go off over a student’s furrowed brow. I am a rock climber and have run a few marathons. I also crochet and knit and have been teaching myself to quilt. I enjoy gardening too. Unfortunately, my work schedule between the company and NM Highlands U. is usually so bat-sh*t crazy that I don’t get much time to do anything other than geology! But I absolutely love what I do and love the people I work for and you just can’t get much better than that.

Question 14:
Have you ever been to New Jersey?

Unfortunately, no. The closest I’ve been in Washington D.C. on a middle school trip. I do hope to travel east, though. The Newark Supergroup is the magnetostratigraphic bible for the Late Triassic and I feel I should pay homage to the amazing work done in NJ on these rocks. Also, one of the first dinosaurs described by the famous (or infamous) E.D. Cope came from New Jersey. Mr. Cope explored much of New Mexico too (and was apparently quite the character), so I enjoy the thought of that link between New Jersey and New Mexico.

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