ASLO Science Exchange: Who’s Behind Deep Time? A behind the scenes look at the Smithsonian’s Paleobiology Department

By Sean McNally and Dervla Meegan Kumar

 

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Henry, the iconic elephant that resides in the rotunda of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was gifted to the museum in the early 20th century.

 

 

For the first time since its inception in 1913, the National Museum of Natural History’s Dinosaur Hall is undergoing a complete gut and renovation. With the help of Dr. Caitlin Keating-Bitonti (who we first met during the American Geosciences Institute Congressional Visit Day), we were able to arrange a tour of the Smithsonian’s fossil collections with the Department of Paleobiology’s Collections Manager and Volunteer Coordinator Matthew Miller, and got an inside look into the new exhibits they are producing.

After receiving our temporary security badges, Caitlin escorted us back into the department and insisted in providing a disclaimer that we shouldn’t expect the glamour and polish of the exhibit halls. She was right, but there was still something warmly familiar about the yellow fluorescent lighting and faded maps adorning the walls - it felt no different than a typical university building. But despite appearances, of course the institute is special. There is no secret that the Smithsonian houses one of the greatest fossil collections in the world, but do you actually know exactly how many specimens are part of their collection?

 

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Smaller fossils, such as megalodon teeth (center) and brachiopods (right), are stored in drawers throughout the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

 

The answer: 40 million. That’s Collections Manager Matthew Miller’s best estimate of how many ancient organisms are squirreled away in the drawers, cabinets, and shelves of the Smithsonian’s Department of Paleobiology/Deep Time. In a way, the Smithsonian’s collection is Washington’s paleontological counterpart to the Library of Congress. Stories of the history of life and Earth contained in each fossil are carefully catalogued and sorted by taxonomy, location, and time, and arranged in endless stacks.

It was a rush to be literally surrounded by so much of our planet’s history in one place. Perhaps what was most exciting was becoming aware that much of the scientific opportunities that the collection offers have yet to be taken. Specifically, although digitizations of a few small portions of the collection are underway, most of the fossils have yet to be digitally imaged and catalogued due to the enormous amount of time and money the process requires.

We also had the privilege of viewing a few of the new exhibits that the department is putting together. Though because these haven’t yet been released to the public, we won’t go into much detail. Still, seeing the exhibits in various stages of creation - from staging with cardboard models, bringing structures up to modern standards (e.g. in the past bones within a skeleton were actually fused together whereas today they are connected by wires so that each piece can be properly cared for individually), and “nature faking” casts so that the reflect a perfect blend of looking like fossil bone but not too real so that patrons can identify the faux from the fossil - put into perspective the degree of careful and meticulous work that goes into preparing pieces for display.

 

NMNH_3.pngThe ASLO Communications team learning about the new Hall of Deep Time layout and exhibits in the Paleobiology "Donut Lab."

 

A great effort is not only needed for preparing the specimens that will go on display, but also in creating the exhibits they are a part of. Prior to this experience, we, perhaps naively, believed that the pace of progress in museums was faster than that of academia. After all, it can take years for a research project to go from proposal to publication. Just as much work that goes into researching, designing, and preparing a museum exhibit, but the Smithsonian is ensuring that the new hall reflects modern scientific knowledge. It will specifically feature a timeline of Earth’s history that extends from Deep Time, through the age of the dinosaurs, and into the Anthropocene. Both of us are involved in research that is directly tied to the environmental impact of human society, so we were thrilled to hear how forthright the Smithsonian plans to be with the topic.

It is amazing to think that all of what we know about Earth’s history can be told using the Smithsonian’s expansive fossil collection. But perhaps even more mind boggling, is that despite this collection’s breadth, it is still only an incredibly small fraction of the life that has inhabited Earth. Collections like these are crucial to digging deeper into our shared history, but with one of the largest collection of fossils in the world fitting in one department building, these scientists can’t help but wonder what else we have yet to discover.

Help us settle an office feud! Does this cart we spotted in the Paleobiology lab seem like a rickety, second rate time machine for traveling to Deep Time or just a piece of lab equipment? Leave a comment if you do or do not see the humor in this!
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Science Exchange with Caitlin Keating-Bitonti

 

As Science Communication Interns we have begun an initiative to bring stories from both ASLO members and the scientists of our partner associations alike to a larger general audience. We have all had experiences throughout our scientific careers that have helped create our identity. It is important to share these unique experiences outside of traditional scientific channels in order convey who we are as scientists and show our personalities. It is our hope that these stories reach readers on a new level and inspire creativity on a larger scale. This model of communications gets us out of our current box of thinking and builds on our core values in order to create stronger narratives that share what it means to be scientists in our global communities.

This week’s science story is focused on Dr. Caitlin Keating-Bitoni (pictured below), a Peter Buck Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, and is also a member of the American Geophysical Union. In this interview she discusses what it’s like to be a researcher in a museum and how the Smithsonian works to help break down barriers between its researches and its guests.

 

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Dr. Keating-Bitoni pictured in front of one of exhibits in the Natural History Museum's Ocean Hall.

 

You describe yourself as a paleobiologist, do you think you could put that in one sentence?

I study how ancient life has changed through time, and the life that I study in particular is foraminifera. The single-celled protists are about the size of individual sand grains, or the period at the end of a sentence, and they grow these little shells that are preserved in the fossil record.

 

Can anyone find forams in sand?

Yes, so most people if they [were to] go to the ocean and scoop up a handful of sand, there would be little microfossils in there, and some of this will most likely be foraminifera. You just can't see them with your eye because they look like all the other sand grains.

 

What inspired you to be scientist?

As a child, I loved the outdoors and nature and that evolved into a curiosity of wanting to understand the processes that underlie what we see here on earth and life.

 

And you started as a geologist right?

Right away. Yeah I took a geology class in high school and went fossil collecting, and so it was easy for me then just to go straight into college and know that that's what I want to do.

 

So when you were applying for the fellowship opportunity did you frame your research questions to be specific to Smithsonian interests?

I did. So, I tailored my application to say how my research could be added to the collections here or help benefit the collections, or their education outreach in some way. But primarily they're interested in people who are going to do exciting research and so that was my number one was to write a proposal about something exciting and then say how that could give back to the museum. And so part of my research involves doing micro-CT scanning my itty bitty single celled organisms. And so what was nice was I could say from all these scans I can then give them to like the Smithsonian's digital collections and they can put those online and make those available to the general public or the greater scientific community as well.

 

How do you find working in a museum compares to working in academia or in a university?

I would say a museum is still academia, it's just not university. It was a hard transition. The first couple of months were pretty lonely and quiet; You walk through the back halls here, and there are no students running around to get to and from classes or taking their labs, it's very quiet. We only have a set number of curators, and there are post-docs, but [post-docs] are temporary so we're always turning over. But once I got used to that, it's fine and I absolutely loved it. It's just you don't have that noise and chaos that the university does with students. It's still a lot of research, but on a quieter scale.

 

In addition to the hardcore science, you're also involved with the Smithsonian's outreach efforts. Can you explain a little bit more about what that entails?

In addition to acting as a mentor to both undergraduates and high school students I also participate in the FossiLab, which is currently in the American Dinosaur Hall. One afternoon a week, I sit up there at a microscope and the microscope is hooked up to a television so that visitors at the museum can stop and see down the microscope at what I’m actually doing. If someone is hanging around long enough and looks really interested, I can then come out from the “cage” to interact with them. I’ll ask if they have questions to start a dialogue and let them know that yes we are curious to know what they are into and what questions they have.

 

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An interested visitor learns about microorganisms at the FossiLab.

 

How do you relate studying benthic foraminifera to everyday people?

Most people don't know about forams, but they are incredibly valuable for understanding past climates. I think what's important is explaining that our planet has existed for billions of years and the current climate trajectory is different from what has happened in the past. We know it's different because we've studied natural climate cycles and what past extinction events caused by [natural] climate perturbations have looked like. One of the ways we have done that is by studying forams, which are preserved all over the oceans and that grow their shells such that they record seawater chemistry.

 

How often would you say you get people who linger and are interested in hearing more about what you do?

Oftentimes people get intimidated. If someone's hanging around for a while and staring at my work, I look up to engage and will wave at them to signal that I'm coming around, they go, “oh no no no no, it's OK!” They think that they're putting me out. Its interesting that they have that perception that they're bothering us, when really we're there to assist them. So I would say it depends on the afternoon, but about one to two visitors an afternoon tend to look really curious and linger for a long time.

 

That must be exciting to talk to them, to share your science?

Yeah, because I think for the most part any visitors coming to the museum are genuinely interested in learning and exploring.

 

The people you have interacted with how has their age ranged? Could they be anyone from little kids to adults?

Yes, and I think one of the most important parts [of participating in the FossiLab] is engaging the younger generations. Not that I'm discounting the older generation, but the younger generation still has the time to grow into geology or palentology, or take advantage of that curiosity in science by actually studying it in college in the future. Again, that's how I got my exposure. I initially just thought nature was cool and that it was a nice pastime, but it wasn't until I actually saw that I could study it that I thought I could actually do that as a career.

I take my time in the FossiLab fairly seriously because often in Hollywood movies, scientists are portrayed a certain way, so I think it's nice - I don't want to like pat myself on the back - but it’s nice to be a young female doing science where people can actually see someone other than an old white guy with crazy hair and a lab coat. I'm in there with normal clothes, with my little ear buds in doing work and I just look like any other person that you may see on the Metro or on the bus.

 

That's great. Do you wear a lab coat in the fossil lab?

No, I just go like this, and I do listen to podcasts when I'm in there, so, just making it real.

 

Are you ever just sitting there [listening to a podcast] and just start bursting out laughing?

Actually that's something that I learned when I was doing my master's. [I was] sitting at a scope, picking [foraminifera] while I was listening to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me or an audio book that must have been funny, and I remember laughing and all of my little samples went everywhere, and because they're itty bitty forams they were lost forever. So I have to be careful not to sneeze or cough or laugh, I always have to like be conscious of that.

 

Forams lost to a sneeze!

Never recovered.



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