How Not To Apply To Grad School

When it comes to grad school, I did it all wrong. I didn’t know that I didn’t know everything I needed to know.

I didn’t know that I should find a mentor and do an undergraduate thesis if I wanted to go to graduate school. Most of my friends were engineering or fine arts majors with no intentions of attending grad school. I didn’t know that I was doing it wrong.

When I applied to graduate school I didn’t know that I should directly contact the person I wanted to work with. I thought that applying to grad school was like applying to undergrad: just fill out the application and you’re done. I didn’t realize that the process actually takes months when done correctly. It wasn’t until right before I started my Master’s program that I learned I hadn’t even applied to the correct department. Because I hadn’t contacted faculty, I didn’t know that the website hadn’t been updated and the person I wanted to work with was no longer with that department. One of the first pieces of paperwork I had to submit as a graduate student was a change of concentration form: changing from paleontology (the concentration I wanted) to general biology (the one I didn’t). Because I hadn’t done my research, I was the only paleontologist in a department of microbiologists, ornithologists, and entomologists. On the bright side, my lack of planning introduced me to my current research (which I love).

My biggest mistake was thinking that I could do this alone. It never crossed my mind that I might be doing things wrong; I’m smart and capable, couldn’t I figure it out? Maybe I’m the only person to make this mistake, but I doubt it. Why don’t we let grad school hopefuls know what they’re getting themselves into? If I could have attended a session called “So You Want To Go To Grad School” as a sophomore or junior I wouldn’t have gone into my application blindly. I would have known to contact faculty. I would have known that becoming a full professor was not as simple as I had been led to believe. The graduate school process is hard enough, why not make the necessary information readily available? Sure, this information might be hidden somewhere on a university website, but why not just sit down undergraduates and tell them what’s what? My undergraduate university had resources for applying for industry jobs, but not for entering academia.

For me, it was Twitter that got my act together. If Caroline VanSickle hadn’t answered my question about the difference between a personal statement and a statement of purpose, applications would have been more difficult (I referred back to that tweet all 3 times I applied to grad school. Thanks, Caroline!). Twitter helped me to connect with fellow stressed graduate students and to ask experts questions. Twitter introduced me to my PhD advisor and supplied me with elusive pdfs. I cannot stress enough how helpful Twitter has been for me.

As many mistakes as I have made, I can’t complain too much. Despite not understanding the system, it still treated me fairly well. Even though I just threw an application into the fray without a faculty guide, I was still accepted into a graduate program straight out of undergrad. I learned from my experience and I don’t want others to have to jump through the same hoops I did.


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

So Nice They Named It Twice: Gorilla and Bison

I have a fascination with scientific names that have an identical (or nearly identical) genus and species epithet. So nice they named it twice! Here are somebrief introductions to some of these plants and animals. If you know of any more, feel free to include them in the comments and I will add them to my list.

Gorilla gorilla

Cross River gorilla, Limbe Wildlife Centre, Cameroon. Photo by Arend de Haas (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gorilla gorilla is commonly known as the Western gorilla and is divided into 2 subspecies: western lowland gorillas and Cross River gorillas. They are critically endangered great apes endemic to western Africa. After chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas are humans’ closest relatives. Unfortunately human activities including poaching, commercial logging, and civil wars are primarily to blame for the gorillas’ decline.

Gorillas live in groups of up to 20 individuals, with a dominant silverback male as well as several females and their offspring. Despite their immense size and fearsome teeth, their diet consists mainly of plant matter and invertebrates.

Bison bison

American bison. (Photos by Eadweard Muybridge, animation by Waugsberg)

There are only 2 living species of bison: the American bison (Bison bison) and the European bison (B. bonasus). Despite commonly being referred to as ‘buffalo’, bison are distantly related to buffalo. However, bison are very closely related to cattle and are sometimes bred and called ‘beefalo’. As recently as the Ice Age there were other species of bison (with very impressive horns) wandering the plains of North America and into Central Asia and Western Europe (B. antiquusB. latifronsB. occidentalisand B. priscus).

Until relatively recently, bison roamed across much of North America: from the Appalachian Mountains to eastern Oregon and from northern Mexico to Alaska. Unfortunately, as settlers spread across what would become the United States they took advantage of this abundant source of meat (as anyone who has played Oregon Trail knows). Today bison are restricted to isolated patches in the Rocky Mountains of the United States and Canada.

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!

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!

Lots o’ Links: Graduation and Moving Edition May 3-23 2014

Finally moved from my apartment in Tennessee to my temporary place in Colorado, with a quick stop in Michigan. Lots of driving, but I’ve successfully graduated!

Great explainer for the differences between similar animals.

Animal skulls are super diverse and very beautiful.

Biology is biased toward penises.

More from TwilightBeasts: Mr. Darwin’s lost sloth, The one with the sabretooth, The mouse-goat crocodile chimera, and Galloping across the steppes.

How to transport a rhino.

The real story of the jackalope.

The toilet sloth.

How cougars survived the Ice Age‘.

Whales v. dinosaurs: which ones were bigger?

Speaking of whales, dead ones are vital to science and for nature.

This should be obvious, but don’t pet strangers’ dogs.

How the birds survived.

Kiwis and elephant birds are closely related.

Another way to survive a mass extinction: get body armor and become marine.

Sorry Jurassic Park: that T. rex could probably see you really well.

We get too hyped about dinosaurs being the biggest.

Turtles are confusing: new evidence shows that they’re more similar to birds and crocodilians than to snakes and lizards.

The more snakes, the better.

However, Titanoboa was terrifying.

It might be time to rethink what it means to use tools: can fish use tools?

‘24 species of sharks that have killed fewer people than Jack Bauer on 24‘.

Why octopus arms don’t get tangled‘.

The case of the sleeping snail.

Insect pollinators are in trouble.

Have you ever seen an anemone eat a bird?

Thousands of years ago, a girl died in a cave and now she is helping science.

Whatever happened to Francis Crick?

You can thank dead horses for your morning shower.

What if we told kids the truth about sex?

Why humans recognize faces and constellations.

The science behind the 1 inch punch.

Your smartphone is covered with bacteria.

The discovery of element 117 has been confirmed!

See the Earth from space, live!

How to eavesdrop on aliens.

This Alaskan aurora is gorgeous.

Time-lapse of a supercell forming is scary, but cool.

California fires are unique and that’s bad.

May the Fourth was chock-full of Star Wars science. Here are 3: forcefields,  Han Solo and the Kessel Run, and Yoda’s advice was pretty terrible.

The important ring of Canadian engineers.

Correlation does not imply causation.

Should your robot car be able to sacrifice your life?

The Library of Congress wants to destroy your old cds (for science)‘.

Stop using products with microbeads.

The only water where the Coast Guard won’t save you.

Before Pantone: the original color book.

This is petrichor.

That’s okay, everyone draws eyes wrong.

This Week I Found: April 26-May 2 2014

Emily Graslie of the Brain Scoop started a new Tumblr: …is not a dinosaur.

Check out the new blog Twilight Beasts! They’ve had 3 blog posts this week: ‘The forgotten sabertooth‘, ‘The elk that wasn’t an elk‘, and ‘Clan of the cave hyena‘.

Too bad so many cool species went extinct.

Paleo parodies are the best: ‘Do You Want to Build a Phylogram?

How Sheep Became Livestock‘.

Chimpanzees make comfy beds.

Megaherbivores are essential for the environment.

Are lab mice afraid of men?

Mantises wearing 3D glasses.

Plants are tough and can communicate.

Humans grew 4 inches in 100 years. Why?

What do moose milk and ulcers have to do with each other?

3D printed casts are beautiful and practical.

How to dance in prosthetics.

March in Michigan was the coldest in the world.

Sweden should beware the eye of Sauron.

A cold star, right next door.


This Week I Found: April 6 – 11 2014

The Cambrian Carnival of Animals.

How much do you know about pterosaurs?

Some prehistoric animals look like aliens to us.

This is why you should document everything: a reunited, reconstructed slab of dinosaur footprints.

When Evolution’s Controversial, Declaring a State Fossil Can Get Tricky‘: the battle for South Carolina’s state fossil.

Hummingbirds have got it going on and diversity is booming.

The Tet Zoo manifesto: even the most ordinary creatures are amazing.

Drunken Prairie Voles Help Explain Alcohol’s Demons‘.

How one species of bat became seven.

White-nose syndrome has spread to bats in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Nature’s deformities can be beautiful and enlightening.

Shark fin imports may have dropped 90% in Hong Kong and China, but that’s not the whole story.

19 fish not to eat (and their sustainable alternatives).

The importance (and revival) of studying anatomy.

The Aunt who inspired the evolutionary theory that proved the value of aunts.

Confident memories can be completely wrong.

Do color blind people see more colors when they take hallucinogens?

Chemophobia can be more dangerous than chemicals.

Why it’s difficult to recycle cell phones.

10 reasons you should be watching Cosmos.

How the Cosmos remake came to be.

Star deaths are beautiful.

How to Turn a Pencil Into a Diamond‘.

What a computer background can show us about climate change.

Ditch plastic water bottles, 23 national parks have!

A geological map of Westeros.

Timelapses of glaciers show how they flow.