The Road to Dreadnoughtus: Cool Jobs Alumnus Dr. Kenneth Lacovara’s Titanic Journey

Lacovara headshot“When I get back from Patagonia I’ll have close friends that won’t recognize me until I’m up close… My skin is leathery, my hands are sometimes bleeding because they’re so cracked and cut up, and I usually drop about twenty pounds when I’m in the field.” Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, paleontologist, professor of geology at Drexel University, and Cool Jobs alumnus, is the man behind the recent unveiling of perhaps the largest land animal to ever live on earth—the dinosaur Dreadnoughtus. Dreadnoughtus is quickly becoming a household name, known for its tremendous size (weighing in at 65 tons) and the completeness of its skeleton.

Though Dreadnoughtus has been a media rockstar these past few weeks, I found myself more interested in the story of the man behind this gargantuan discovery. It was he, after all, who explained in his original Cool Jobs article that many of the most profound moments of his life had come in times of discomfort, and the road to the Dreadnoughtus media frenzy was definitely ripe with such experiences. Yet the rewards of Dr. Lacovara’s efforts seem proportionate to the discomfort he endured. If “studying sauropods is like taking out a mortgage,” there’s no doubt that Dr. Lacovara’s investment in Dreadnoughtus has just yielded incredible returns.

Photo Source: drexel.edu

Photo Source: drexel.edu

And an investment it was. A 9 ½ year investment of time and resources that included four expeditions to Patagonia, several years of negotiations with the Argentinian government, 16 tons of fossilized bones, 4 years of prep work on the fossils, 2 years of anatomical analysis, thousands of hours of 3D scanning, and finally, a year of writing and editing the publication that has caused such a media buzz during these past few weeks. Couple these logistical details with the fact that much of the time in the field involves sleeping in tents, spending a large amount of time cold and hungry, and engaging in manual labor that rivals the most physical of professions, and the circumstances surrounding this discovery start to sound quite torturous. Yet what appears as utter misery to one person can manifest as an adventurous thrill ride to another with the introduction of the secret ingredient: passion.

In his original Cool Jobs article, Dr. Lacovara described the number of different hats his profession requires. He moved seamlessly through these different identities as he spoke, slipping on his professor hat when explaining the mechanisms through which a dinosaur as large as Dreadnoughtus adapted to keep its temperature down, then his scientist hat when discussing the gravity of finding a specimen as intact as this one. Yet underlying each of these professional identities was the palpable passion I remembered from the last time we spoke. In this STEM-Works interview, Lacovara discusses how his passion guided his 9 ½ year journey from the moment he first laid eyes on Dreadnoughtus to the time he stood at the press conference podium and felt the weight of the endeavor lift from his shoulders.

When I first heard of your unveiling of Dreadnoughtus, I remember thinking, “Wow. That’s got to be what every scientist dreams of when entering his or her field.” Was this discovery a dream come true for you?

I can’t say that I dreamed of the publicity, but I think every paleontologist has dreamed of one day discovering something like Dreadnoughtus. Being able to figure it out and name it… I don’t think it gets any better than that for a paleontologist.

In your previous interview you mentioned something that stuck with me. You talked about the fact that some of the most profound moments of your life have rarely taken place while you were comfortable. Do you think that the process that went into the discovery of Dreadnoughtus speaks to this idea?

The entire project that led up to the publication of Dreadnoughtus involved a huge amount of discomfort. Where we were working, down in Patagonia, is a really difficult place to work. I remember that during the first expedition down there I had provisioned cereal for the team to eat, which seems like a pretty simple, reasonable thing to do. But we soon discovered that we couldn’t eat cereal in that environment because the wind is so strong that it quickly blows it off your spoon.

During expeditions we were outside for weeks at a time—we only went to town about every two weeks—and it was really cold. We were pretty close to Antarctica, so we’d wake up in the morning and be cold, dig up rocks all day and be cold, then go to sleep at night and still be cold. After experiencing consecutive days of never warming up, it’s easy to get worn down.

Also, just working with these giant sauropods—some of them weighing many tons—and figuring out the logistics of moving them around is pretty hard. Every part of this project was difficult. But, you know, when you get to the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s worth it. You’re not going to get a result like this sitting on a couch.

I think there are a lot of preconceived notions about the glamourous side of jobs like yours, but it really is important to note that discomfort, and the fact that—as another cool jobs alumn said—“you have to work for your discoveries.”

What gets me on television is that they’ll see the scientist at the press conference or the exciting moment of discovery, but that’s such a small part of the process. When doing fieldwork, a lot of your day is worrying if you have enough wood to cook dinner tonight or finding a place to go to the bathroom. Do I really want to get out of my tent to see what is underneath, poking me in the back, or do I just deal with it? Those types of questions guide much of your day.

So once the buzz and the hype about Dreadnoughtus die down a little, what does this discovery mean for your field?

What has gotten the most media attention about Dreadnoughtus is obviously its great size—it’s the largest land animal for which we can calculate a mass. But what is more scientifically important is the completeness of the Dreadnoughtus skeleton. Previously, the largest animals on land were only known from very fragmentary remains—in some cases literally 1, 2, or 3 bones. With skeletons that incomplete, scientists find it difficult to gain a good understanding of their biology. Dreadnoughtus, because it’s about 70% complete, really gives us our first look into the nearly complete skeleton of one of these super giant land animals. People have made speculations about how they walked, how they held themselves, how they regulated body temperature, and other such things. Yet these speculations were all based on very little evidence. Now, because of Dreadnoughtus, we’re going to be able to address many of these questions in a more meaningful way. Dreadnoughtus gives us a chance to really understand these super giants as animals as a biologist would understand a raccoon or a bear.

That segues into my next question: what’s next for Dreadnoughtus?

I imagine that 200 years from now scientists will be reevaluating the bones of Dreadnoughtus. When new specimens are brought to light, scientists start making comparisons between the new discovery and the older discoveries. Also, as new technologies emerge we can go back and use those techniques on the existing specimens. I imagine that in the decades to come there are going to be technological developments that allow us to recover soft tissue from ancient fossils and sequence the proteins and see who is related to whom. There’s no doubt that scientists are going to constantly revisit Dreadnoughtus and learn things in the future that we’ve only dreamed of.

What does that knowledge mean in a larger perspective? What does studying dinosaurs mean for our world?

In terms of biology, we want to figure out how life on earth works. Whenever you’re trying to figure out how a system works, you want to look at the extremes. The smallest and simplest things, and also those that are the biggest and most complex. When looking at dinosaurs like Dreadnoughtus, we’re really looking at something that is pretty close to the end of what is biologically possible. We don’t know for sure what the limit is, but it’s got to be somewhere close to Dreadnoughtus. I’ve worked with Dreadnoughtus for years—this dinosaur is my old friend now—and I have an immense amount of respect for this creature. The problems that these dinosaurs had to overcome on an evolutionary level in order to get so big are just amazing.

For example, if you look at land animals today, we can plot their weight vs. their core temperature of their body and find a pretty solid relationship between the two. The bigger they are, the hotter they are inside. That’s fine up to the size of an elephant—an elephant is pretty warm inside but the high temperature is not going to hurt the animal. If you look at Dreadnoughtus on that plot at 65 tons, the correlating body temperature is a temperature that would cook meat. Yet Dreadnoughtus wasn’t cooking inside due to a number of adaptations that help it get off of that curve and to remain nice and cool. Its long neck and long tail give it additional surface area to help it shed heat. The spinal column has lots of holes and honeycomb-like areas where air bladders connect to the lungs—AKA pneumatic invasions—so Dreadnoughtus was able to gather a lot of heat in those air pockets and send it out through its nostrils.

Paleontology, in addition to being fascinating, puts our existence and our lives into perspective. When you have a really good view of the ancient past—when you realize that there’s been life on earth for 3.8 billion years and homo sapiens appear on the fossil record only 200,000 years ago—that really gives you a lot of perspective. We’re not what it’s all about. There’s a history of earth that doesn’t involve us, and we’re not at the center of things.

There has been a lot of other news about dinosaurs popping up in the past couple of weeks. Do you think discoveries like this will continue to be made, indefinitely?

The future is wide open. If you’re a kid today and you’re interested in paleontology, the one thing you don’t have to worry about is if there be fossils left for you. Dinosaurs were around for 183 million years and have left fossils on every continent. Paleontologists have only been digging those fossils up for 150 years. We’ve only—literally and figuratively—scratched the surface. I have no doubt that we will discover far less than half of the dinosaurs that ever walked, maybe even just a tiny fraction of them. There’s no end in sight.

Well, once again congratulations on this incredible discovery!

Thanks, it feels good. There must have been at least 200 times during the last nine years that I thought that this wasn’t going to happen. I thought that either something mechanical or bureaucratic was going to get in the way. Even when the paper was set up for publication, I lived in fear that maybe someone else has made the same discovery and is going to publish three weeks before I did.

It sounds like there’s a lot of fear when you’re working on something that is so important to you—fear that your project may not be relevant at the time you publish or that a number of other things can cause the project to go wrong. How do you keep going and work through that fear?

It can be super stressful. I spent a lot of nights lying awake worrying about what could go wrong with the Dreadnoughtus project. Many paleontologists choose not to work with sauropods for this reason. There’s a joke in paleontology that working with a sauropod is like taking out a mortgage. Many of my students are smarter than me because they dig up small dinosaurs. With small dinosaurs you can dig them up, conduct your analysis, and publish a paper a year later. Yet I am fascinated by these big giants. I also like the physical aspect of the work—my father was a carpenter and I grew up doing things with my hands. I find physical labor much more satisfying that sitting at a computer. And that’s something that I tell kids all the time. If you’re a really active person and you like to work with your hands, paleontology is a great field to go into.

So is it your passion for it that keeps you moving to the next step?

Oh, it has to be. If you did what I did and you didn’t like dinosaurs or science, it would be horrible. It would essentially feel like you’re cold and hungry and homeless as opposed to being on a thrilling expedition to dig up a dinosaur. If you didn’t have a passion for this, it would just be difficult. But when I looked at my watch coming up the podium at the press conference and saw that it was 9:00… It’s difficult to describe the weight that I felt lifting off my shoulders at that moment.

Future of STEM: Role of Mentors

Every single day, STEM professionals wake up and head to jobs that keep the world afloat. From software engineers to marine biologists, these people apply their extensive expertise and knowledge of the various STEM fields to an incredibly vast array of jobs that help lead the way to new discoveries and innovations.

Before these professionals were running the world, however, they were once young and impressionable. Through the assistance of various mentors and influences, these people were encouraged to develop their strengths and foster their passions into full-fledged careers.

Read more to learn about what or who inspired some of the coolest professionals out there to turn their love of STEM into an absolute reality.

The Animal Kingdom IconAnimal Kingdom/Under the Sea

On land or in the sea, these biologists turned a love of animals and wildlife into lifelong careers. Don’t believe it’s possible? Then ask Dr. Kenneth Krysko, a herpetologist and professor at the University of Florida, who was inspired to pursue a career in herpetology after meeting Dr. Roy Crabtree, a fish biologist who helped him realize that it was possible to find jobs for people who didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day. Amy Eggers is another scientist who merged her passions for marine biology and genetics into one amazing career as the laboratory manager at the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology. When asked about who inspired her, Eggers credits Tanya Vickers, a biology professor at the University of Utah, who provided her with encouragement and support, as well as assisting Eggers with her first laboratory job.

Video Games IconTechnology

For many, video games are a form of entertainment. As a video game designer for Disney, Kelly Murphy’s job is to ensure that gamers enjoy the entertainment enough that they come back for more. Murphy was inspired to pursue a career in video game design by a childhood friend, as well as Shigeru Miyamoto and Yugi Naka, the creators of Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog, respectively. Murphy liked that both Miyamoto and Naka took real-life passions and re-envisioned them into the virtual worlds they created.

Robotics IconSpace

Carlie Zumwalt shot for the stars to land her dream job, and as a flight dynamics engineer for NASA, it’s clear that she succeeded. Now, Zumwalt is hoping to send others into space as well, with particular aims to one day land a human on Mars. When asked about who inspired her, Zumwalt gives credit to her parents and her high school physics teacher, Ms. Warden for being supportive and encouraging her to be ambitious with her goals.

From the looks of it, mentors come in all ages, shapes and sizes. Yet, one thing is certain: without guidance and encouragement, these STEM professionals would not become the great scientists and intellectual beings that they are today. Thus, the future of STEM lies in the hands of parents and teachers who are willing to support and expound their knowledge in a way that excites new generations into exploring careers in STEM. So go out there today, STEM teachers or STEM parents, and be an encourager or supporter for that new generation of STEM lovers.

Escape the Cubicle: Study STEM

Businesswoman reviewing paperwork at deskThere’s hardly a lack of evidence these days that desk jobs can be killers. Sitting at a desk all day can have adverse effects on health, productivity, and creativity. So if our work environments make large contributions to our health and success, how can we arm the next generation with tools to avoid the monotony of the 9-5 grind? The answer lies in four little letters: S-T-E-M.

Within the STEM community, there is a broad spectrum of potential jobs boasting offices in the most unexpected places. Whether on land or in the sea, STEM professionals have access to countless opportunities to explore and study the world. For a job description filled with challenge, excitement, and engagement, a STEM career may be a perfect fit.

Build Software on the Sea

cline_danelle1_underwater When thinking the term “software engineer,” many people conjure images of a professional hunched over a computer staring at algorithms or interfaces. You may know that a career in software engineering requires the ability to analyze problems from various angles and find multiple viable solutions. But did you also know that software engineers can work in a number of environments, including the sea? Just ask Danelle Cline, Software Engineer with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Whether out to sea to support her projects or sitting in a meeting room overlooking the ocean, her daily work environment is far from boring.

Software engineers work in a variety of fields—from aviation to medicine—and job growth is expected to increase by 30% within the next six years. The sizable salary is also a nice perk; software engineers in America make an average of $73,000 per year. Armed with a knack for problem solving, a creative spirit, and a curious mind, the software engineer can take his/her career almost anywhere.

Tour with Tornadoes

WurmanWorking as a meteorologist entails much more than predicting rainstorms and temperatures on the nightly news. As explained by Dr. Josh Wurman, Meteorologist and Storm Chaser, “a lot of my time is spent traveling, whether I am working on our own missions collecting data for tornadoes and hurricanes, or working on projects for other scientists.” The relative youth of this particular field of study means that opportunities for new research and experiments are varied and plentiful. Whether you want to chase storms or study climate change, there is a bright future for prospective meteorologists.

Boast an Office View of the Natural World

Coconut IslandSince biology is a blanket term for the study of all living organisms, a career as a biologist ensures widespread availability of diverse jobs and favorable fields of study. Whether you’re working to conserve endangered plants and animals in their natural habitats or researching gene expression and epigenetics from a lab on Gilligan’s Island, a career as a biologist oftentimes requires a great deal of contact with the natural world. With the continual meshing of scientific research and technology, a career in biology is a sure bet for innovation and job growth.

 

Where Are They Now? Cool Jobs Alumna Shannon Johnson

johnson_shannon_lab2The last time we spoke to Shannon Johnson, Deep-Sea Research Technician with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), she explained that her job as “like watching the Discovery Channel in real-time.” Shannon applies her background in ecology and zoology to solve the mysteries that surround creatures of the deep sea. We recently caught word that Shannon spent an exciting summer collecting deep-sea samples in the South Pacific, so we sat down with Shannon to find out what her tropical endeavors entailed.

Since it has been over a year since we last spoke, why don’t you update us on how you’ve been staying busy as a deep-sea researcher.

SJ: Well, I’ve been working on a number of things. Right now I am working on publishing a paper that describes five new species of deep-sea snails using only their DNA. It’s not totally ground-breaking science, but it’s definitely a new technique. In the past, people have often described animals using their traits—some birds are described using their song, for example—but we are now using DNA for identification.

Can you talk a little bit about what that process looks like?

Since all of the animals I work with are deep-sea animals, collecting them and sequencing their DNA can be a pretty involved process. It isn’t the easiest thing to collect animals from the deep-sea, as many times they are located miles off shore and in specific areas like hydrothermal vents or whalefalls. Another challenging thing about working in the deep-sea is that there is a ton of crypticism, which means that many animals look the same even though they are, in fact, different species with distinct evolutionary lineages.

Since we are working with a number of different types of animals, there isn’t just one way we go about identifying them. Once we have the DNA extracted, there is a number of genes that we can use to tell them apart. My boss has an awesome analogy to describe genetics: all of the different genes we use is like a set of golf clubs. In golf, sometimes you need a putter to make the shot, and sometimes you need a driver. Similarly, we use a number of different genes to identify different species based on the circumstances.

The hard part about DNA sequencing is knowing that the genes mean once it is sequenced. People say that sequencing DNA is hard, but it’s really not difficult. The difficult part comes in knowing what the DNA means once it is sequenced.

So how do you go about matching the DNA to different species once it is sequenced?

Once we get the DNA information for a species, we run it through a database to see if it matches anything. This process is very similar to what happens when someone’s fingerprint is collected and run through a database to find a match. Identifying these deep-sea snails that we have been working with can be particularly difficult because they are so different: they do different things and live in different types of environments. That’s one thing that makes this paper I’ve been working on so important. We need conventional ways of identifying these species.

So if someone were to ask you why the study of deep-sea creatures like these snails is important, what would you say?

That’s an interesting question. I personally like studying these things because I find them really interesting and really cool. But one of the most interesting things about these snails is the unique way that they speciated. Typically animals will speciate—or evolve from being one species to being different species—because of some some long-term major separation that causes a disruption in gene flow. These separations are often caused by physical things like the presence of a mountain range or a large current. These snail species are different because there are three species that actually live together, and yet they are the most distinct species in the genus. That’s a really rare event, especially in the deep-sea, and it presents a really cool opportunity to test evolutionary hypotheses. So in terms of science, these snails are really interesting.

Photo by Yoshihiro Fujiwara

Photo by Yoshihiro Fujiwara

It’s true that these snails will probably never be seen by people except through the photos we take with our underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). I’m trying to grow awareness of what I’m calling the “punk rock” snails—they live in hot acid, they’re covered in spikes and they have purple blood. They’re a pretty charismatic group, they look cool, and I’m naming one of them after the drummer from The Clash. These snails are also interesting in terms of climate change research because they live in hot acid. Oceans are becoming more acidic with the increase of carbon dioxide in the ocean, so in a climate change perspective, these guys might actually be ok.

Something that you said reminds me of something one of our Cool Jobs meteorologists expressed when he stated that scientists are the modern-day explorers. It seems that your field is very similar to that.

Absolutely. I was not at all interested in marine science as a young person because I thought that scientists had the oceans all figured out. But now I get to discover new species all the time. We literally discover new species every time we go to sea, and we’re not always going to exotic locations. Even when we go out in the Monterey Bay we find not only new species, but new genera and new families even.

Shannon will be traveling the oceans again at the end of this month, so be sure to check back to read all about her experiences at sea.

Why we do what we do (and how we’re bridging the gap between our programs)

ThNKYOU

I wanted to start this post by thanking all of you who are taking the time out of your busy lives to check out our blog. On Friday, we officially hit the 6 month mark for this blog and were excited to surpass 5,000 visits to this site in that period. We are honored to be a part of such an incredible community and look forward to continuing sharing the STEM content, ideas, and stories that intrigue us. I hope that our blogs amuse, inform, and even sometimes challenge you and the way you think about and advocate STEM. We always welcome your thoughts and insight so please send us a note or comment on our posts to engage in this important conversation!

This week we hit the road to visit old and new friends in Colorado to host a CSI Teacher Workshop and CSI Camp-for-a-Day and thought it would be a great time to explain a little more about why we do the things we do and how our various efforts are more connected than they may seem at first glance.

We mentioned that our team works & lives all over the country, right?

We mentioned that our team works & lives all over the country, right?

As you may (or more likely not) have noticed, we have two distinct sets of programs within our STEM portfolio: our STEM websites (KidsAhead & STEM-Works) and our CSI camps (Summer camps, camps-for-a-day, and teacher workshops). The websites are the internationally-reaching arms of our portfolio and aim to provide students and advocates around the world with engaging STEM content from around the Internet. Since we pull quality STEM content from around the Internet, as well as add our own novel content, these sites are a great place to find all kinds of materials to advocate STEM (and in the case of KidsAhead, it’s a great place to have your students check out for content that interests them).

On the other side of the portfolio, we have our CSI Camps. This includes three different programs:

  • CSI Summer Camps: offered in Dallas, TX and include a full week of hands-on activities and engaging presentations from real world forensic scientists and law enforcement officials
  • CSI Camps-for-a-Day: a condensed version of our summer camps offered over the course of one day in military-connected communities (we’re headed to Colorado Springs now to meet our next group of teachers and students!)
  • CSI Teacher Workshop: a program geared toward teaching our SMU CSI curriculum to teachers and providing them with resources to successfully utilize this curriculum in their classrooms and communities

So, now that you have a basic overview of the work that we do, and in honor of our CSI events in Colorado this week, we decided to launch a special edition of our bi-monthly scavenger hunts on KidsAhead to bridge the divide between our websites and CSI programs. This scavenger hunt, which was launched yesterday, invites you to take part in the fun and help to solve a mock crime that is related to the one that was investigated this week at our CSI Camp-for-a-Day. For more information about this “Closing the Case” scavenger hunt please visit http://bit.ly/HAoSZS. Try this challenge out and when you complete it and identify the perpetrator share your findings with us here !

Where are they now? Cool Jobs alumna Cara Santa Maria

Ok, I admit it. As a science communicator I was thrilled by the opportunity to interview Cara Santa Maria, science journalist and former host of The Huffington Post’s “Talk Nerdy to Me,” for our Cool Jobs feature in the fall of 2012. Since I last interviewed her, Santa Maria has undergone a bit of a career change. I sat down with her again to discuss her new gig and how her love of science and science education plays a part in this new role.

D: When we last spoke with you, you were hosting a show called “Talk Nerdy to Me”. Since then you have made a career change. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now?

Photo Source: takepart.com/live

Photo Source: takepart.com/live

C: I am co-hosting and producing a show called Take Part Live on a new network called Pivot. The show is tailored toward young people and is somewhat cause-driven. This network was founded by the Participant Media film production company, a company which produces a lot of socially conscious films—documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc., and narrative films like The Help and Lincoln. Many of these films are promoted alongside related social action campaigns. Take Part Live is a live, one-hour news/talk show that discusses what’s going on the news and politics. And, quite often in this role I get to talk about science. It’s really exciting for me because I still get to  be a science communicator, but now I get to present science within the greater context of what’s going on in the world. Now I am really able to reach people who may not specifically be seeking science content.

D: Many of our Cool Jobs professionals spoke about the transdisciplinary nature of STEM. It seems that you are touching on this idea with your mention of the “greater context.” Do you often find that STEM concepts play an unseen role in issues that one might think are removed from these fields?

C: Yes. I recently traveled to Washington DC to moderate an event on the topic of science communication. I got to meet and spend time with wonderful science professionals who work in labs, but also with professionals who studied journalism, business, and marketing. These latter professionals are now using their educational background to communicate science effectively.

When we are presenting our news stories there is almost always a scientific side that may not be visible at first glance. We might be able to incorporate components of science, math, or technology in a story that appears strictly political in nature. I think it still comes down to making sure that we are utilizing our critical thinking skills in all of our conversations—that, fundamentally, is what underpins all of STEM education. Science, technology, engineering, and math are all fields that use heavy critical thinking, and we should use evidence-based thinking to make decisions that are not based on intuition but rather the data. I think that’s something we need to see more of in the news.

If, for example, we are leading a discussion on the sequester, this type of conversation can sometimes get very heated and complicated. We often look for someone to blame, and we want to get at the root of these issues. Being able to use the evidence and data available instead of just jumping to conclusions can empower us to formulate educated opinions. I often use the tools I gained from my science education when presenting different topics.

D: Then do you think it’s a fair statement to say that communication can serve as a bridge between many different stories and concepts?

C: Definitely. It is so obvious now in the digital age that there are great scientists doing great things. But, if nobody is around to tell the public why those things are great, the work of these professionals can seemingly happen in a vacuum. Changes in legislation and opportunities for funding are often prompted by public support. People have to know what’s going on in science. They don’t only have to know about it, but they also have to know why it matters to them, why it’s important.

D: You talk a little bit about how your network is geared toward cause-driven work, but can you explain how empowering people with information can lead to action?

C: Every time we do an interview with someone who has done something impactful, we provide the audience with information for how they can get involved. You also don’t have to be an active participant to take action—even when you’re passively observing you are still participating in the news.

I think that’s a really important point to make. One-way communication is still participatory, because every time we learn something new it illuminates our understanding. Knowledge takes us out of a fearful state. If the information isn’t available to us, and if we don’t take the initiative to choose programming that will bring us that information, it can be difficult to break out of that fear cycle.

I just interviewed a man who wrote a great book about nuclear war. He wanted to write this book because our younger generations weren’t alive during the Cold War, and we didn’t grow up with fallout bunkers and bomb drills. But there are still nations with massive nuclear arsenals, and nuclear accidents still happen, which makes this issue a political problem with  major STEM underpinnings. The takeaway from his interview was that it is important to know this stuff. How better to be prepared than to know what you are being prepared for? I think that’s a really important point.

D: During the last interview, you spoke about how you didn’t initially plan on a career in science journalism, but rather you basically fell into it. Do you know people who work as science communicators and always knew that was the career they wanted?

C: I don’t think I know one person in this field who always wanted this type of career. I have met some young people who are starting to work toward it—they are taking both science and journalism/communication classes and are putting together their own curricula—but every science journalist, on-air personality, and writer that I know didn’t follow a clear path into their respective professions. It’s funny how many things actually happen during the career phase and not necessarily during the education phase.

I do, however, think that we are one of the first generations for which this has become a viable career choice, so it’s cool to see young people making their own path. When someone asks me how they can work into a career like mine, my biggest piece of advice is not to be afraid to walk through doors that are open, even if they don’t appear to be on the path you envisioned for yourself. Almost everyone I know that has been really successful in my field or related fields never anticipated that this was what was in store for them; they either really loved science and grew to love outreach, or they were writers and journalists that stumbled upon science.

D: Is there a piece that you’ve worked on in your new job that you are particularly proud of or that you thought was particularly interesting?

C: There’s a cool segment that we have on the show called NewsVille, which is the game show-esque segment of the show. During this segment we pair an audience participant with one of our comedians, and we ask them questions about the news. There are three different segments of NewsVille: the first one is Headlines or BS We Just Made Up, in which the participants try to discern real headlines from fake ones. In the second segment, called Now or Then, we ask participants to determine whether certain headlines are from 2013 or sometime in the past. In Science or Science Fiction, the third segment, we determine how well participants can separate real science news from fictional science news. I find it particularly fun to work on Science or Science Fiction because we get to present science stories that aren’t necessarily common knowledge. Sometimes we may discuss the discovery of a new species of animal, and sometimes we report a new improvement in solar technology. It’s interesting how often people don’t really realize how far along we are in scientific technology.

I’m also developing a new segment right now, so hopefully in the coming weeks I will be doing a regular “wow” piece about something really interesting happening in science news. I’ve also been able to interview some really great people, which is always one of my favorite parts.

 

So there. Now that you are well and truly inspired by this communication powerhouse, what do you think you can be doing to blend your love of science with communication?

Where Are They Now: Cool Jobs Alum Dr. John Palmer

Source: espn.go.com

Source: espn.go.com

You know the story… Super Bowl XLVII, the Baltimore Ravens lead the San Francisco 49ers 28-6, when all of the sudden… the lights went out. Officials were scrambling, players were pacing the field, and fans were eager to get back in the action. Super Bowl XLVII will live on in infamy for the 34-minute delay caused by a power outage. So how do things like this happen at such crucial times, and, more importantly, who gets called in to deal with them?

???????????????????????????????Forensic engineer, and Cool Jobs alum, Dr. John Palmer answered the call to determine what caused the blackout at the Super Bowl. Forensic engineers like Dr. Palmer are charged with investigating fires, explosions, and electrical system failures. Ironically, Dr. Palmer’s analysis of the power outage at the Super Bowl narrowed the cause of the event to “an electrical relay device that [was] installed specifically to prevent a power failure at the dome.” (source:espn.go.com)

toasterBut this investigation was not an unusual workday in the career of Dr. Palmer. His job calls him to investigate product or system failures, and he focuses, in particular, on cause and origin analysis of electrical accidents, electrical equipment failures, electrical fires, structural fires, vehicle fires, and explosions. The scope of the investigations he conducts ranges from house fires started by a toaster to large power plant explosions resulting in 600 million dollars in damages. If there’s one thing Dr. Palmer can count on from his job, it is a wide variety of projects!

To learn more about Dr. Palmer’s cool job as a forensic engineer, be sure to check out his original Cool Jobs interview!

Where Are They Now: Cool Jobs Alum Tim Marshall

Tim Marshall, Civil Engineer and Meteorologist

When disaster strikes, our cool jobs alumni are there. Tim Marshall, Civil Engineer and Meteorologist, has been busy responding to the devastating tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. Somber events like this one leave an abundance of damage in their wake, and Marshall gets called in to assess that damage—“mother nature’s fingerprint,” he calls it.

Marshall recently spoke to NPR’s Melissa Block to discuss his assessment of the structural damage in Moore, Oklahoma. In his interview with  NPR he drew attention to the positive changes in the structures of Moore following the devastating tornadoes in 1999 as well as the concerning oversights in those structures. He also discussed how buildings leave evidence of how they failed to withstand large tornadoes, even when these structures are no longer standing. “Even a house that is no longer there provides ample evidence for us,” he explained. Something as small as a nail can leave a mark, and that tiny mark can explain how an entire wall had failed.

MarshallMarshall is no stranger to the wrath of tornadoes. During his Cool Jobs interview he spoke of how a tornado he personally experienced as a child amplified his natural curiosity toward weather.  “I really didn’t know what this thing was that came out of the sky and did all of this damage, and I got very interested in the damage itself” he explained. Marshall now assesses the damage caused by major natural disasters in the hopes that he can help communities avoid fatal flaws in building construction.

Check out his full NPR interview, or find out more about Tim Marshall’s journey to his cool job in his original Cool Jobs interview.

Where Are They Now: Cool Jobs Alumna Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle

Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle

Cool Jobs alumna, biochemist, and former Ms. Massachusetts Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle has had a lot on her plate lately. In addition to serving as CEO and founder of Science from Scientists, a Boston-based non-profit that strives to improve science and technology awareness in local middle school and late elementary students, and filming the Dr. Erika Show, Dr. Ebbel Angle has been hard at work establishing her budding biotech company. We recently caught up with Dr. Ebbel Angle to find out how her many STEM endeavors are going.

Dr. Ebbel Angle writes:

KennedyIn the last couple of months I have been actively working on obtaining funding and launching my biotech company called CounterPoint Health Solutions. In order to allow me the time to do this it was necessary for me to hire an Executive Director (ED) for Science from Scientists (SFS).  In my previous post I spent a great deal of time discussing SFS. SFS sends real scientists into classrooms to teach curriculum relevant, hands-on oriented science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lessons twice a week for the entire school year. Our goals for SFS include scaling to additional locations both in Massachusetts and Nationally. We have been fortunate to have forged working partnerships and sponsorships from additional companies such as Raytheon and Cubist pharmaceuticals in addition to institutions such as the Whitehead Institute. Growing SFS is one of my main goals and despite hiring the ED, I will still remain active as Chairman and Founder. Hiring an ED for Science from Scientists will allow me greater flexibility to work on starting CounterPoint.

This transition was emotionally and mentally challenging, as I was used to being the CEO :).  Allowing another individual to have this type of responsibility was definitely something I needed to adjust to. Despite these changes, however, I am absolutely excited about CounterPoint. CounterPoint’s purpose is to discover biomarkers which can be used as early prediction tools for various neurodegenerative and cardiovascular conditions, and which can potentially be used as treatments for these same diseases. It was necessary to create a business plan, decide on the initial goals an plans for the company, rent an office, build a biosafety hazard level 2 lab and to start “pitching” the business plan to potential investors. I had limited experience in understanding how a “for profit” is started. It was necessary to learn many things including various types of “stock” and what it meant to have an “A” round of investing. I have been enjoying the sensation of learning new things even though sometimes it can be overwhelming and tiring.

In certain ways challenges associated with raising money for a non-profit are similar to those of a for profit company. However, the scale at which money is raised is different. Many donations for SFS ranged between 10-25 thousand dollars, whereas initial funding for CounterPoint was above one hundred thousand dollars. Yet another adjustment and growing experience for me 🙂

science from scientistsBeing part of this new start-up is just beginning and I am optimistic. In many ways the experience is definitely challenging, as I had grown accustomed to being CEO of Science from Scientists. I had given the SFS “pitch” hundreds of times, which made it a story I was able to tell in my sleep. There was something “secure” and “safe” about SFS. This sensation has now changed to “mutable” and “new.” I have learned that no matter what my feelings are, patience, perseverance and hard-work will at least help to keep things moving forward.

 To find out more about Dr. Ebbel Angle and the journey that led her to her cool job, check out her original Cool Jobs interview!

Where Are They Now: Cool Jobs Alumna Riana Pryor

Riana Pryor, MS, ATC

When most people think of the medical field, a career working with athletes might not be the first career they picture. People like our Cool Jobs alumna (and sports enthusiast) Riana Pryor, however, spend their medical workdays on the athletic sidelines. Pryor, an athletic trainer with the Korey Stringer Institute in Connecticut, has been hard at work providing the tools and research needed to prevent dehydration, heat stroke, and death in sports. We recently caught up with Riana to get the scoop on what she has been working on lately.

Riana writes:

Working at the Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) at the University of Connecticut, we just finished a year-long study looking at the number of high schools in the United States who have access to athletic trainers (ATs).  Partnering with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), we contacted the athletic directors of over 10,000 high schools!  With the help of over 40 UConn students we received a 50% response rate – much greater than expected!

 

Photo courtesy of ksi.uconn.edu

Photo courtesy of ksi.uconn.edu

We found answers to the number of schools with athletic trainers, number of athletes with access to ATs, position types (full time, part time, clinic outreach, etc), barriers to hiring ATs, perceived medical coverage at schools that do not employ athletic trainers, and much more.

 

With this information we hope to understand how high schools are protecting their student-athletes and where there is room for improvement.  This is a big step forward for athletic trainers, as medical professionals, and we hope to see the number of employed athletic trainers increase as we raise awareness of sport safety in the high school setting.

 I am currently analyzing the data and will present the findings at the upcoming NATA national conference this June in Las Vegas, NV.  Keep checking back on the KSI website  for results!

 To find out more about Riana and the journey that landed her this cool job, check out her original Cool Jobs interview!