How to become a botanist in 20 easy steps*!

So you want to be a botanist! Here’s how to do it in 20 easy steps*!

Step 1. Be a curious child. It’s helpful if you’re also raised in the country. Explore outside and be fascinated by nature.

Step 2. Love science. Love it madly and without reservation. Soak up everything you can and ask too many questions.

Step 3. Decide early on that you want to be a paleontologist when you grow up.

Step 4. Be told early on that you can’t actually be a paleontologist when you grow up.

Step 5. Reassess your life goals. Decide that science is still awesome and that you’ll decide on a career later.

Step 6. Take all of the science classes your high school offers and decide that you want to study something that people think is really hard, like brain surgery or rocket science.

Step 7. Graduate from high school and head to a really nice college.

Step 8. Major in environmental science and try to figure out what you really love.

Step 9. Have an eccentric geology professor who reminds you that you can actually be a paleontologist.

Step 10. Take an ecology class and realize that field work is one of your favorite things.

Step 11. Take a field botany course and realize that plants are pretty cool.

Step 12. Get a paleontology internship and be the only biologist among geologists. Extol the wonders of trees to them.

Step 13. Graduate from a really nice college and apply to graduate schools.

Step 14. Only get into one Master’s program. It’s your last choice but go anyway.

Step 15. Sit down with your advisor and be told that you’ll be doing paleoclimate with plant fossils.

Step 16. Start working on your thesis and really enjoy it.

Step 17. Finish up your thesis and start to hate it.

Step 18. Get another paleontology internship. Do more paleoclimate with plant fossils.

Step 19. Decide that you don’t hate your research anymore and apply to PhD programs.

Step 20. Visit a Pleistocene fossil site and realize that you’re more interested in the paleoecology and paleobotany than the mammoths.

Congratulations! You’re a botanist!

*Results may vary.

Baumgartner Florissant Intern

Substitute Teaching or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the chaos

Substitute teaching is a terrifying thing. There were many days that I covered classes that I had no background in and the lessons were a learning experience for me as well as my students. Even though I will not be substitute teaching again next school year (much to the sadness of some of my students), I must say that I enjoyed the experience. Oh goodness, was it a learning experience.

I learned the importance of rephrasing and synonyms. If I had a dollar for every time I had to define a part of speech I wouldn’t need to substitute teach, and I can’t tell you how many times I would answer a question, ask the student if they understood, only to be told no. Alright, back up, try again. I take pride in my ability to explain just about any concept (as long I understand it myself!) to just about everybody.

I gained a renewed appreciation of special education teachers. A few times while I was substitute teaching I covered special education resource rooms. I must admit I found these assignments overwhelming. The patience and abundant teaching methods that these teachers possess is astounding.

I learned the importance of asking questions. Lessons plans (like all written instructions) only tell you so much. It is always best to get insight from someone who knows first hand. For me, that meant asking the students how things were normally done. Most students are creatures of habit and were more than happy to tell me how things “should be done”.

I learned my limits. There are just some things I can’t do. Try as I might (no matter how many times I substitute taught it), I don’t know how to speak Spanish; I can’t even roll my R’s! Geometry lies outside of my wheelhouse as well; give me algebra, give me trigonometry, give calculus and I’ll be happy. And I don’t know how to teach the basics. When one of my students didn’t understand the relationship between addition and subtraction, and between multiplication and division I didn’t know how to help. I find it quite simple to break something down to the basics but I struggle to teach the basics themselves. Perhaps I’ve been in school too long and simply take them for granted.

I learned that students ask the best questions. Children ask the exciting questions such as “Why did mammoths have little tails but dinosaurs had big ones?” and “If dragons were real and lived with the dinosaurs, how would they be classified?”. And their enthusiasm is infectious.

I learned something new every day. Just as youth is wasted on the young, high school is wasted on high schoolers. I definitely appreciated high school more the second time. History class became so much more meaningful to me once I left the tiny Midwestern cornfield I grew up in. Shakespeare was funnier once I didn’t need all of the jokes explained to me. I had a chance to make a chalk mural and helped make (and eat) liquid nitrogen ice cream twice.

So if any of my former students are reading this, thanks for making this year so much fun. I’ll miss you guys next year!

Plants Aren’t Boring, You Are

I dislike the assumption that plants are boring. When I mention people that I am a paleobotanist, or that I was looking forward to taking a botany class, I’m frequently met with confusion and disinterest. “Why would you study plants? They’re so boring?” “They don’t even move. Who cares?” “My study organism eats your study organism!” I’ve heard it all.

I must admit, I haven’t always been enamored by plants. I have always been curious and plants often were included in the long list of things that caught my interest, but the fascination went no further. As I grew older, my interest in ecology and paleontology led me to taking botany classes and I changed my tune.

My first reaction to my college botany classes was anger. Why hadn’t anyone told me that plants were so cool? This anger turned to frustration. Why wasn’t everyone interested in botany?

Botany is given a bad rap. In my experience, everyone can find something interesting about botany. From middle and high school students to grad school friends to strangers on planes, I will teach anyone who will listen. And people love it! (My go-to fact is telling people that oranges, pumpkins, and cucumbers are all berries.) Students who claim to dislike science and say it’s boring will wave their hands in the air to ask questions. Why do coconuts have milk? Are blackberries berries? How does a cactus work? How big can a Venus flytrap grow? Why does the top of that pine tree look so weird? Here in Michigan we find ourselves surrounded by trees and plants, and we think nothing of them. But when given the chance to learn more, we jump at the opportunity.

Chestnut and beech

I wish that more people could meet botanists. Instead of refrains reminding us that plants don’t move, we could have conversations about the amazing adaptations plants have to survive in unforgiving habitats. Instead of talking about how plants are defenseless, we could talk about the complex and deadly defenses plants have to herbivory. Instead of dismissing plants as boring, we could marvel at the diversity of extinct and extant plants.

Plants are not boring. Everything is interesting if you look hard enough.

How To Make It Plural

Everyone has that small linguistic pet peeve. For some, it’s the differentiation between well and good. For others, it’s the improper use of apostrophes. For me, it’s improper plurals in scientific jargon.


When most English speakers need to make a word plural, the first instinct is to just add an ‘s’ to the end; if one is femur, then two must be femurs. Nope. Of all of these linguistic sins, in my experience this one is the most common. To make the word ‘femur’ plural, you add an ‘a’ instead of an ‘s’ (and tweak the spelling a bit); one is a femur and two are femora. Besides, femora is just more fun to say!


Let’s stick with the osteological focus. Again, for most people their first instinct is to turn ‘radius’ into ‘radiuses’ in order to make it plural. Instead, take off the ‘us’ and add an ‘i’; one is a radius, two are radii. Radii is one of my favorite plural words and it’s just so much fun to say!


And the last osteological term: scapula. And again, don’t add an ‘s’, just add an ‘e’. That probably seems counterintuitive but one is a scapula and two are scapulae.


Genus is a tough one. Some people default to trying to simply add an ‘s’ but others seem to know thats not right and try something else. Others don’t change the word at all in order to make it plural. I’ve heard many variations but the most common are ‘genuses’ and ‘genii’. Genus doesn’t act like the other words in this list; the plural form of ‘genus’ is ‘genera’. So that’s it.

Femur -> Femora, Radius -> Radii, Scapula -> Scapulae, Genus -> Genera.

And if this is confusing, just do what I do: use a different word! I tell my students that synonyms are for when you can’t spell or pronounce the word that you actually want to use. But really, don’t let this scare you. When in doubt, just power through and act confident even if you don’t feel it.

I still listen to a lot of podcasts (Part 2)

My brother asked me when ‘soon’ is, so it must be time for more podcast suggestions!

If you’re looking for hours of podcasts, look no further than Science… sort of. They currently have more than 200 episodes, most of which are at least an hour in length. This podcast features a rotating cast of characters, drinking beer and talking about “science, things that are sort of science, and things that wish they were science”. I have done hours of data analysis while listening and I would often giggle to myself (My brother’s Christmas gift was inspired by this podcast). If you’re not interested in the science, you can at least be impressed by their beer choices!

Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine has a bit of an unwieldy name, but it is a fantastic podcast. Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin talk about the history of medicine. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s disgusting, but it’s always enlightening. Episodes are about 30 minutes long, so they’re easy to marathon (and I definitely have). If you have any interest in science or medicine, I highly recommend Sawbones!

If you like food and science, listen to Gastropod; I like to listen to it while I cook. Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley talk about the intersection between food and science. Topics range from the way that our cutlery influences flavor to apples varieties to the importance of entomophagy. Regular 45 minute episodes are interspersed with smaller ‘Bites’, so you don’t have to wait too long between episodes. Nicola and Cynthia are obviously passionate about the topic and I honestly wish the episodes were longer!

No Such Thing As A Fish isn’t quite like the other podcasts on this list, but I still think it deserves a place. This is a weekly trivia podcast that covers every topic under the sun, from why Scottish military men no longer wear kilts in battle to mouse lingerie to special editions of Chuck Norris films. I often bring up things that I have learned from the podcast in conversation. If you want to sound clever at parties, listen to No Such Thing As A Fish.

This is all for now, but I’m sure I’ll add more podcasts as I discover them. Happy listening!

2014 by the numbers

I love quantifying things, so here I go quantifying 2014 (I took the idea from Alex at The Lab and Field).


The roundtrip distance (in km) of my trip to Vancouver for the GSA Annual Meeting. (It would have been less if I hadn’t had to fly to Canada by way of Texas.)


The total number of page views on this blog! Thank you everyone for your interest!


The total number of followers on Twitter. Twitter has been my source for academic insight and I’ve had many great conversations with these people.


Page views for my most popular post this year: Video Game Paleontology: Piranha Plants, Yoshi, and the Fossil Record.


The number of people who backed my crowdfunding campaign to present at the GSA Annual Meeting in Vancouver. To be honest, I was surprised that strangers were willing to support my research financially. Crowdfunding was an eye-opening experience in many ways.


The number of posts on this blog. Abysmally low, but I’d like to think it shows quality over quantity.


The number of applications submitted this year.


The number of states I called home this year: Tennessee, Colorado, and Michigan.


The number of conferences I attended: North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) in February and Geological Society of America Annual Meeting (GSA) in October.

Here’s to 2015 and a new set of numbers!

I listen to a lot of podcasts (Part 1)

If you know me, you’ve probably heard me start a story with “So I was listening to this podcast…” My love of podcasts was born for two reasons: my need to be listening to something while I work and my dislike of driving. I have cultivated my podcast collection over the last year of long distance driving and long nights in the computer lab. So here is a list of podcasts, mostly focused on science, that get me through.

The first science podcast I found was Palaeocast. Like the name suggests, Palaeocast focuses on paleontology, with hosts interviewing scientists about their research. It’s run by Dave Marshall, Joe Keating and Liz Martin, and new episodes typically come out every two or so weeks. Episodes range from 30 minutes to an hour. This is probably the most serious podcast on this list. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dave Marshall, and you can hear me on the podcast from the 2013 GSA Annual Meeting.

I then discovered the Tet Zoo podcast (Tetrapodcats!). The Tet Zoo podcast is hosted by Darren Naish and John Conway. It covers all sorts of topics, from new tapirs to the most flammable tetrapod to movies. New episodes come out a least once a month and range from 1 to 2 hours. This podcast fluctuates between serious and not-so-serious topics, but the conversation is always approachable and relatable.

The Past Time podcast is hosted by Matt Borths and Adam Pritchard, two graduate students at Stony Brook University. Their episodes are short (5-20 minutes) and very upbeat, focusing primarily on paleontology. They use sound effects and theme music to get their points across, making this podcast more enjoyable for a younger audience.

Unlike most of the podcasts on this list, the Dragon Tongues podcast is the solo effort of Sean Willett. He focuses (surprise!) on paleontology, with a very thought-out and soothing delivery (He sounds a little like Carl Sagan). He hasn’t released many episodes yet, but they tend to be 12-18 minutes long and are released once a month.

Palaeo After Dark is definitely my favorite paleontology podcast. It features James Lamsdell, Amanda Falk and Curtis Congreve discussing paleontology (and just about everything else) over drinks. The discussions can be NSFW, but they usually make me laugh out loud. New episodes come out every two weeks or so and range from 1 to 2 hours in length. I had the pleasure of meeting James and Curtis at the 2014 GSA Annual Meeting and they are just as entertaining in real life as they are on the podcast.

Look out for Part 2 of this list soon!

Video Game Paleontology: Piranha Plants, Yoshi, and the Fossil Record

Recently, my brother asked me a burning question: If a carnivorous plant ate an animal, would we be able to see that in the fossil record? That question is misleading. He was really asking “If a piranha plant ate Yoshi, would you be able to see it in the fossil record?”

So, let’s break this question down into three parts: did carnivorous plants coexist with dinosaurs, could carnivorous plants grow large enough to eat a dinosaur, and could we recognize this interaction in the fossil record? Here is the quick and messy, Wikipedia driven answer.

Did carnivorous plants coexist with dinosaurs?

That is a complicated question. There are many different types of carnivorous plants (pitfall traps, flypaper traps, snap traps, etc) and they do not constitute a monophyletic group; carnivory has arisen independently multiple times in plants (though some instances of carnivory are due to shared ancestry). To simplify, let’s focus on the species most similar to the piranha plant: the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

It closes more slowly than you expect. (Gif by Mnolf)

The Venus flytrap is in the family Droseraceae, which includes 2 species of snap trap plants and the sundew. The fossil record for Droseraceae dates back to the late Cretaceous, which means that there was some overlap between the last non-avian dinosaurs and early Venus flytrap relatives. Yes, carnivorous plants coexisted with dinosaurs.

Could carnivorous plants grow large enough to eat a dinosaur?

Let’s ignore that fact that humans and dinosaurs didn’t coexist (We’re sorry, but the fossils are in another sedimentary layer). To answer this question, we need to make a few assumptions. Firstly, let’s assume that Mario is the height of an average Italian man (just for the sake of the math). That’s about 1.75 m or 5 ft 9 in. Secondly, we want this dinosaur to be some sort of theropod from the late Cretaceous that would be large enough for that average guy to ride. We’ll use Erlikosaurus, a herbivorous theropod, as our Yoshi (T. yoshisaur munchakoopas) stand-in.

Not quite Yoshi. (Erlikosaurus by ArthurWeasley)

So, how big do carnivorous plants grow today? The largest carnivorous plant is Nepenthes rajah, a type of pitcher plant. However, in this respect “large” is a drastic overstatement. The pitcher can only grow up to 41 cm (~16 in) tall and 20 cm (~8 in) wide, meaning that it’s only large enough to trap small animals. No, carnivorous plants couldn’t grow large enough to eat a dinosaur large enough for a person to ride.

Nepenthes rajah (By Rbrtjong)

Could we see a carnivorous plant eat a dinosaur in the fossil record?

This is the most complicated question. If we assume that carnivorous plants could coexist with dinosaurs and that a snap trap plant could (and did) grow large enough to eat a decently sized theropod, would we recognize what we were seeing? Now, many of the fossil occurrences of Droseraceae come from pollen or seeds rather than leaf impressions. It requires remarkable preservation to preserve a recognizable leaf impression. By itself, fossilization is an uncommon outcome for remains. When comparing the likelihood that a particular structure will fossilize, bone ranks higher than leaves.

This is an oversimplification that ignores many realities of paleontology. Most of what happened in geologic time has not been preserved in the geological record; different environments preserve material better than others and some materials are more easily preserved than others. Many fossils will simply weather away or otherwise never be found. Some will be found by people with little or no interest in fossils or interest only in vertebrate remains. Others will sit in boxes on museum shelves for decades because there is no money to prepare them.

But again, let’s assume perfect conditions. While paleontology is pioneering better 3D imaging and study of fossils, many fossils-particularly plant leaf impressions-are 2 dimensional. Depending on how the fossil is uncovered and who is doing the excavating, it might not be clear what has been preserved. For example, if the fossil was found laying horizontal, the bones might appear to be laying on leaf litter. However, if the fossil had a demonstrably different part and counterpart with bone surrounded by leaf material, high-tech imaging might be able to piece together the story. However, some scientists might see that interpretation as overly fantastical. Paleontologists can be conservative with their interpretations due to the nature of the materials they work with. There is the possibility, though remote, that if the perfect fossil was ever found of a carnivorous plant eating a dinosaur we would be able to recognize it.

The moral of the story is this: any carnivorous plants that did live at the same time as the dinosaurs wouldn’t have been big enough to eat one, but we might be able to recognize it if it did. 

Experiment, JapaDog, and Vancouver: GSA 2014

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the GSA Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada. The decision was relatively last minute and I wouldn’t have been able to go without the support of my backers on (I recommend using Experiment. It was really simple and I got lots of help). You can read my summary from last year’s meeting here.

I flew from Detroit to Dallas, then from Dallas to Seattle. I had a window seat on the flight from Dallas to Seattle and enjoyed watching the plains change to mountains. I took a lot of pictures.

After a beautiful drive from Seattle to Vancouver, I checked in to the conference and flipped through the program book trying to figure out how I would spend my week. As always, all of the paleontology sessions were clustered together in a corner, but I must admit it was a beautiful corner.

Unsurprisingly, I spent the vast majority of the conference in paleoclimate sessions. From using phytoliths to reconstruct canopy cover to paleomycology, and from the Pleistocene African Rift Valley to the Eocene Arctic Circle, I learned a lot about what is going on in paleoclimate and paleoecology research right now. I came away with pages of notes and renewed motivation to work on my research. On Tuesday night I went out to dinner with the Friends of Fossil Plants. That was the first time that I had ever spent time with a group of people who I could bounce paleoclimate ideas off of and it was a very rewarding experience.

I also branched out and went to talks by some of my friends. I went to a handful of talks on Paleogene mammals and spent an afternoon in a session of talks on phylogenetics (most of which went right over my head).  If nothing else, I filled the margins of my notebook with terms that I didn’t understand to look up later.

Like last year, I was able to meet up with the people behind one of my favorite podcasts: Palaeo After Dark. James and Curtis kept me entertained throughout the conference and it was a pleasure to finally meet them face to face.

When I wasn’t sitting in sessions, I was eating. I tried to eat as many new things as I could while I was in Vancouver. My first night I tried Indian food for the first time, and almost every day for lunch I took advantage of the abundant food trucks (including JapaDog, see photo below). If nothing else, I definitely ate very well in Vancouver.


After a long, exciting week I headed back to Michigan. Here’s one last glimpse of Canada (Windsor this time) before I settled home. I had a great time at GSA this year and I hope to go again next year!

Help Me Present My Research in Vancouver!

When I’m not writing blog posts or hanging out on Twitter, I research paleoclimate.

I spent this summer at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument as a GeoCorps Paleontology/Museum Intern where I studied the paleoclimate of Eocene Colorado. To do this, I took the lists of fossil plants that have been identified from the area and figure out where the modern relatives live today. Then, I narrow it down to where all the plants can coexist. That gives us an idea of what the paleoclimate was like.


My abstract was accepted for presentation at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada. I went last year and wrote about what happened. I’d like to go again so that I can meet with colleagues and potential Ph.D. advisors, as well as spread the word about climate and paleoclimate research.

You can help me! I started a project on, which is a crowd-funding site for scientific research. You can help to support me here. Every little bit helps.

Thank you so much for reading my blog and for any help you can give me.