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Allison McCabe

All of the knowledge and valuable skills I’ve learned during my time as an intern will stick with me forever

 August 10, 2021

I have spent the last half of my summer working with my teammates, Jiaming and Jenny. Our project compares the extinction rate and threat of molluscs (gastropods, cephalopods, and bivalves) during the Cambrian and Ordovician periods to modern day with respect to body size and ecology to determine the relevance of past extinction trends to modern day extinction. While my teammates and I have learned how to run t-tests, analyze datasets, and how to use ImageJ for data collection, we’ve also learned that molluscs (the most superior animal phylum) are extremely fascinating. One of my favorite parts during research was getting to look through the IUCN database. During the first week of projects, I spent some time discovering many cool-looking gastropods species like the Alviniconcha strummeri, a snail with purple blood who can be found in the most hot and acidic environments in the ocean. Just imagine being so punk rock that you get named after the iconic Joe Strummer from The Clash.

Before developing our research project, my group and I found inspiration from Drs. Payne and Heim’s 2016 paper on the ecological selectivity of the emerging mass extinction in the oceans after Dr. Payne came in on a Friday for a Q&A session. I was shocked to hear that climate change was not the driving factor of the modern biodiversity crisis. Instead, human fishing and hunting was the dominant threat to modern marine fauna. I also learned that in comparison to past extinction events, the extinction threat in the modern oceans is strongly associated with large body size.

Another one of my favorite guest speakers was Sandra Schachat, a 2021 Schmidt Science Fellow, who taught us about insect biodiversity. I enjoyed learning about the “Hexapod Gap” in which insects mysteriously disappeared from the fossil record for many millions of years.

Toward the end of the summer I was lucky enough to join a few of Professor Payne’s paleobiology lab meetings on Wednesdays. I got to meet Ph.D students and hear them talk about their research. Ardi, a postdoctoral research fellow, shared a presentation about all of the emerging opportunities for AI in geoscience which was extremely interesting. I never knew that AI is starting to be used to examine the ancient fossil record to find patterns in mass extinction events! Not only did I get to learn about really interesting research, but I also received a lot of advice from the lab fellows. They advised the rest of the interns and I that it’s okay to not know what’s happening all of the time and to not be afraid to be ignorant when it comes to learning science. They also advised us to be open to all fields within the earth and environmental sciences and to never box ourselves into a specific field. There is no end to my pursuit of scientific knowledge and as I plan to continue exploring the earth and environmental sciences, I will implement this mentality.

To any SEYI applicants reading this, I highly recommend both the education and biodiversity program. Joining SEYI is a great way to build connections and join a community of people deeply passionate about earth science research. I’ve met so many new people — other high schoolers, undergraduates, professors, and PhD students. I have also learned about both the present and emerging fields within earth science that I could pursue a future career in. Who knew that you could study soil as a job? This makes me even more confused (in a good way) as to what I want to be someday as there are so many different pathways! Joining SEYI will launch you into the field and provide you with the place to explore your scientific interests, understand your strengths, and can help you picture what a future career in STEM could look like. Not only that, but you’ll learn so many other things that you can take with you for the rest of your life, regardless if you plan to pursue a career in the earth science field. You’ll learn how to work with a team and how to be more confident in yourself and in your ability to produce a research project.

Before I end this extremely long blog post, I want to give a thank you to Micheal for helping my group with coding, Dr. Payne and Jenny for organizing the internship program, and Dr. Heim for providing us with the datasets. And of course, I want to give a thank you to Pedro for teaching me all about coding, statistics, and the history of life. I never knew lectures could be so fun.

My curiosity for paleobiology has grown tremendously over the past three weeks as a summer intern.

 July 7, 2021

My curiosity for paleobiology has grown tremendously over the past three weeks as a summer intern. I remember when I was younger my parents bought me a book called Just the Right Size: Why Big Animals are Big and Little Animals are Little. Ever since, I have always been interested in why "super-hero" qualities, like walking up walls and flying only appear in small animals. Now, I finally get the opportunity to investigate the links between environmental change and evolutionary patterns across Earth's history. The first week of the internship we jumped right into learning about Bergmann’s rule and Cope’s rule.

This summer, our team is focusing on investigating life during the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. In the first week of the program, we were joined by Josh Zimmt, a grad student at UC Berkeley who is particularly interested in researching the Late Ordovician mass extinction (LOME). He talked to us about his experiences conducting research on Anticosti Island in Québec. On the island, a perfectly preserved layer of ancient seafloor allows scientists like Josh to gain insight into Late Ordovician marine communities and what factors could have potentially caused the mass extinction event 440 million years ago. Factors such as volcanism, cooling, ocean anoxia, and even gamma rays are potential culprits that could have driven the LOME. I assume that it is a combination of multiple factors, but for now, it remains a heated debate. I was fascinated by his presentation, and one day I could picture myself in his shoes, collecting fossil data as a paleontologist. We also got to look at many different types of fossils including ones of brachiopods, gastropods, and bivalves in the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life which was pretty cool.

During the second week of the program, we began learning how to code with R. In the beginning, I was extremely nervous to start coding. I had no prior coding experience before the start of my internship, and because of that, I felt intimidated. Eventually, I stopped seeing error messages in my code and started to get in the hang of everything thanks to all of the interns who helped me out in break-out rooms. I remember that Pedro told us that R is the universal language of science. This makes me very eager to continue working in R as it is a very valuable skill to learn, especially for someone like me who wants to pursue a career in the STEM field.

Although I dislike waking up early in the morning to get on Zoom, I am always eager to start my day as an intern. So far I have enjoyed every moment in the program, from learning how to code for the first time ever to playing Among Us with all the interns. I have never learned so much about earth and environmental science in my life and I’m so happy that I get to immerse myself in this field of study, both in the biodiversity and education program. In school, I have only ever gained a broad and basic understanding of earth science, statistics, and biodiversity but this program has allowed me to dive deeper and get a more complex understanding of all things related to science through Pedro’s lectures, article readings, and breakout room activities.