Science in a Troubling Political Climate – Dr. Chris Widga – Part 2

New Hampshire doesn’t have a state museum.  I never realized there were such things until someone I interviewed mentioned a mastodon fossil in Albany, which prompted me to travel to the NY State Museum soon after to see it.

Not understanding what a state museum is, it shocked me that there was no admission fee; anyone from anywhere could visit the museum at no cost.  I marveled then—as I marvel still—that such places exist. (To be clear: not all state museums are free.)

The Cohoes Mastodon at the NY State Museum in Albany, NY; picture taken by the author of this blog.  I learned of this mastodon thanks to Dartmouth professor, Dr. Roger Sloboda, after interviewing him for a piece I was writing about a mammoth & mastodon exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science in 2012.

 

 

Illinois not only has a state museum, that museum is made up of five separate museums with over 13 million artifacts.  And in 2015, Governor Bruce Rauner wanted to close it completely.

During a messy and contentious budget battle, the museum was shuttered for nine months, only to be reopened this past July with a new $5 admission fee.  But by then, most of the staff had gone, forced to take jobs in other places as their future at the museum was decidedly uncertain.

 

Screenshot from this page of the Illinois State Museum website.

 

No one knows this better than Dr. Chris Widga, who had been a vertebrate paleontologist employed at the Illinois State Museum.  He now works at the Center for Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University (ETSU).

“The whole question of Channel Islands and island mammoths probably got me through last winter,” Dr. Widga explained as we spoke by phone.

We were discussing the effect islands had on proboscidean evolution and the exciting recent research done in part by researchers from The Mammoth Site and the National Park Service.

“In Illinois, as the State government was falling apart around my ears, as the State Museum was closed, I basically closed my door and was doing the analysis for the Quaternary International article. In so doing, I was thinking about these pygmy mammoths. As it’s icy outside and subzero for about six weeks at a time, that kept my sanity.” He laughed.  “So the Channel Islands has been my refuge, I guess, even though I’ve never actually been out on one of them.”

The move from Illinois to Tennessee was not just a contrast in physical environments.  It also meant moving from a scientific institution founded in 1855 to one that has been open for just 10 years.  Dr. Widga explained that a mere two weeks prior to his start date at ETSU, the university formed a partnership with a local science center.   The ETSU staff maintains the collections, conducts research, and oversees excavations at the nearby Gray Fossil Site.  The science center staff is responsible for educational activities within the museum and overall maintenance.

“Their [educational] philosophy is very similar to ours,” Dr. Widga said of the science center. “It’s inquiry-based. We want people to come in and learn through asking questions rather than just be spoon-fed facts.”

So much of what Dr. Widga has done involves public outreach.  From videos about the collections at the Illinois State Museum to long-distance learning programs like The Mammoth Expedition, work he did in conjunction with Dr. Katy Smith at Georgia Southern University and with the Milwaukee Public Museum.

When I commented on how much I loved that kind of publicly accessible information, his response was, “Part of that is because I’m in a museum. I’m not buried under coursework and teaching. Outreach is valued. The way you justify your existence in a museum is to connect with the public.  And part of that is figuring out how we can connect with the public in ways where it’s an exponential relationship.”

In other words, not having a one-on-one conversation with a museum visitor, but creating a website about the Ice Age in the Midwest, for example.

Figure from a presentation done by Dr. Chris Widga as part of the National Science Foundation grant received; image courtesy of Chris Widga.

 

Despite everything he’s gone through, there is no question Dr. Widga loves what he does.  It permeates his voice when he speaks of paleontology, and it prompted me to ask if he ever becomes excited at work.  His response was a definitive ‘YES.’

By way of explanation, he quoted his now-retired colleague, Dr. Jeff Saunders, who used to say, “‘Going to work in the morning was like going to Disney Land everyday.’”

Not only did the two scientists literally work across the hall from each other at the Illinois State Museum, they were apparently known to shout out excitedly to the other whenever one read a great article or wanted to share a relevant scientific image.

“Part of the reason I like museums is because you just never know!” Dr. Widga continued. “Some of the new things come from the collections; some of the new things come from new papers. You read them and you’re like, ‘oh, this explains it!’ It was something that you had been working on for a long time and, all of a sudden, somebody else had that last piece of the puzzle that puts the whole thing together.

“At least once a day—even on the worst days—there’s something that comes through and I’m like, ‘oh, this is so cool!’”

Proboscideans at Morrill Hall at the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History; image courtesy of Chris Widga

 

The seemingly idyllic work environment in Illinois lasted for a decade until 2015. Despite protests, a MoveOn.org petition and public outcry about the museum closing, Dr. Widga and his colleagues were forced to consider other options.  The fate of the museum was out of their hands.

“There was a point as I started looking for jobs last year that I asked myself, you know, do I want to continue in this vein?”

“I’d watched many of [my colleagues] that had taken jobs in Research One institutions [become] totally burned out.  Or they’d kind of gone in weird and funky directions, not because the research was taking them in that direction, but because they were getting pressure from their institution to go in a certain direction or something like that.

“And that was part of the fun of the Illinois State Museum is that I could work on anything. Nobody was saying, ‘You have to work on elephants.’ That was a choice that was mine. Nobody was saying, ‘well, you have to work on dogs.’ That was a choice that was mine. You could chase whatever questions were out there.

“The feedback that I got from the people that interviewed me [was that] they were very interested in what I did.  It was a very different situation than what we were going through at the Illinois State Museum where, essentially, you were being told, ‘what you do is not important.  And none of what you do—your position, your entire existence—is important.’ [The feedback I got while interviewing for other jobs] revived this idea that what we do is important, and it’s exciting.”

I couldn’t help but compare his experience in Illinois to the general anti-science climate in our government today.  It was particularly interesting for me to speak with Dr. Widga about his paper on Pleistocene ecology a day or so after the House Science Committee’s so-called hearing on climate change.  Dr. Widga’s infectious enthusiasm took a very somber turn, as he conceded how difficult things become when “politics starts really driving the boat and reason takes a back seat.”

“That won’t change any of the science,” he added, “[but] it may change how the science is funded. It also won’t change any outreach that we do or the educational activities! In fact, if anything, it’s going to make those seem more important and put more emphasis on those.

“We can talk about the scientific community writ-large, but certainly within the paleontological community, you will find very few working paleontologists, working scientists, who say that education and outreach is not a good thing anymore.

“It used to be that you could just hole-up and do your research and never really interact with the public.  But if anything, this whole process [with the IL governor and the Illinois State Museum] has made us realize that that can’t happen.

“There’s this realization that pre-dates this modern political atmosphere: That you really do need to work with the public and you need to make sure that the point of what you’re doing is out there. Not just in terms of dinosaurs are always cool so therefore that’s why we’re doing it. But we’re also doing it to learn more about how our world works–the nuts-and-bolts of how ecosystems are put together, the nuts-and-bolts of how climate changes impact those ecosystems–that has real-life implications for today and into the future.

“And there’ve been some really loud voices in the last couple of years that have said that over and over and over again. Some of which are people like Jacquelyn Gill! And that is a big shift in science. It’s a big shift in science communications.

“I’m glad that we were moving on that before the current [political] atmosphere because it makes it much more difficult to sideline us as, you know, a bunch of eggheads.”

It didn’t take long for our conversation to take a positive swing upward, as Dr. Widga then described possible future projects involving scientists across the country.

His statement “I’ve always been of the opinion that science is a collaborative effort” couldn’t be more apt.  And I, for one, cannot wait to see what he and his colleagues work on next.

Artwork by Velizar Simeonovski based on scientific research at Mastodon Lake in Aurora, IL; courtesy of Chris Widga

*****

THANK YOU, Dr. Chris Widga, for your generosity of time and spirit in speaking with me about paleontology and the difficulty you’ve gone through.  I loved conversing with you, and I’m eager to read about, watch or see the projects you dive into next!

 

References:

  1. Illinois State Museum reopens to public after nine-month shutdown, John Reynolds, The State Journal-Register, July 2, 2016
  2. Closing decimates Illinois State Museum management, Chris Dettro, The State Journal-Register, December 27, 2015
  3. Much of Illinois State Museum management leaves amid closure, Chicago-Tribune, December 28, 2015
  4. Museums caught in middle of state budget showdown, Steve Johnson, Chicago-Tribune, June 25, 2015
  5. Rainer prepares to close state museums, shutter some prisons to balance ‘phony’ Democratic budget, Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Sun-Times, June 24, 2015
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Fossilized Footprints – Dr. Karen Chin on the work of Dr. Martin Lockley

There is something uniquely spectacular about trace fossils.

Trace fossils—or ichnofossils—are fossilized remnants of animal activity. They are echoes of animal life, many that are millions of years old, that we can see and touch, tantalizing clues into their behavior and environment.

These traces take a number of forms, including coprolites (feces), gastroliths (stones ingested to help digestion), burrows, nests, and footprints.

 

 

[image of dinosaur tracks, Colorado, courtesy of David Parsons and Getty Images]

Footprints are the focus of Dr. Martin Lockley’s work.  Over 30 years of his fossilized track research now resides at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Dr. Karen Chin, another trace fossil specialist with decades of experience, is widely known for her work on coprolites.

Coprolite - Dr. Chin MOS

 

MOS - Dr. Karen Chin coprolite

 

[images of coprolite and display info from the Boston Museum of Science, taken by the author]

The work of these two scientists comes together in the exhibit “Steps in Stone,” now at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.  Showcasing some of Dr. Lockley’s extensive collection, the exhibit is curated by Dr. Chin.

Steps in Stone entrance

[image of exhibit entrance, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

Originally from the UK, Dr. Martin Lockley began teaching at the University of Colorado Denver in the 1980’s.  He retired in 2010, but his research continues today.

“When he decided to retire from his professor position,” Dr. Chin explained in a phone interview, “he wanted his research collection to go to a place where it would be cared for in perpetuity and would still be available for people to study.  And since the University of Colorado Boulder is a sister institution to the University of Colorado Denver, it made sense for the collection to come to us.”

An accompanying website, with text written by Allison Vitkus—one of Dr. Chin’s graduate students—Dr. Karen Chin and Dr. Martin Lockley, describes in more detail the type of tracks Dr. Lockley has collected and donated to the University.

“Because of Prof. Lockley’s efforts, the University of Colorado’s Fossil Tracks Collection is exceptional in having specimens that represent tremendous temporal, taxonomic, and geographic breadth. It includes around 3,000 original or replica specimens of footprints and trackways, as well as about 1,600 full-size acetate footprint and trackway tracings. These specimens come from over 20 countries on five continents (including 21 states within the USA).” – Allison Vitkus, Dr. Karen Chin

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/science/trackways/index.php

Moving such a collection from one university to another is not a small enterprise.

“Martin Lockley and I applied for and received an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant to help us transfer the tracks to our museum.”

Dr. Chin described the process of creating the current exhibit, a team effort of about 15 people from various departments within the Museum of Natural History.

“Allison and I had already been writing about different aspects of fossil track research.  We sat down and asked, ‘what are the things that we think are the most fundamental and interesting concepts of fossil tracks that would be interesting for people to learn about?’  We then put together a list of things we wanted to write about and matched that with tracks in the collection.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents

 

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and exhibit docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“We decided we wanted people to think about the concept of ‘moving’ and to recognize that fossil tracks tell us about locomotion in the past. ”

In other words, it is not just a look backward in time; it encourages the visitor to think about movement in all forms today and the evolution of that movement over Earth’s history.

Embed from Getty Images

Consider, for example, how fish might make tracks: fins brush the ground while swimming in shallow water.  Consider, too, the tracks animals make while running, walking, limping, or even swimming.   The type of footprint remaining and the length between each step (or stroke) offers valuable insight to scientists. Insects, mammals, birds, pterosaurs, dinosaurs….all of these species have left their marks in stone, and all of them are represented in this exhibit.

To help highlight how different body structures affect the type of tracks an animal leaves, members of the museum’s educational department procured imitation animal tails that kids can wear.  Kids are also encouraged to ‘Walk Like a Pterosaur!’ in which they can don representations of pterosaur forelimbs with wings.

“There’s a portion of the exhibit that’s called ‘Locomotion Without Legs,’ that reminds us that not all animals that leave tracks or traces have legs,” said Dr. Chin. “Modern snails and sea urchins and are good examples of this.”

“We discuss the oldest evidence that we know of for movement in the fossil record, which is about 565 million years. We don’t know what kind of animal made the trace. It may have been something like a sea urchin, but we just don’t know.”

“There are a certain number of deposits around the world that preserve weird impressions of animals from before the Cambrian,” she continued. “Actually, we don’t even know whether all of them were animals or plants! There are no modern analogues of these organisms because they went extinct.”

“One of the oldest deposits of this particular biota comes from Newfoundland.  Researchers found an unusual trace in this deposits that extends for several inches.  The trace appears to provide evidence of locomotion.  This suggests that an animal had the capacity to move itself, which further suggests that it had muscles.  This is a huge deal because the fossil trace is so old. I think this is very cool because we often take our ability to move for granted.”

This particular trace fossil was described by Dr. Alexander Liu, Dr. Duncan McIlroy, and Dr. Martin Brasier in 2010.  How fascinating to think that something this small and from an organism that remains a mystery provides important evidence for movement when the Earth was still relatively young. (First evidence for locomotion in the Ediacaran biota from the 565 Ma Mistaken Point Formation, Newfoundland) The actual trace fossil is not part of the exhibit, but its image is available for visitors to see.

“We often automatically think that animals have the ability to move from point A to point B,” Dr. Chin mused. “But there are a number of very successful animals that live without relocating from one place to another, such as sponges and corals.   So it is interesting to think about when animals first developed the ability to move. ”

Another example of the variety and importance of tracks are the Laetoli trackway: a set of prints from Tanzania.  The exhibit displays a life-sized cast of the trackway, footprints from two hominin adults and a smaller set of footprints that might have been a child.

“Their footprints were preserved when they walked on recently deposited volcanic ash. These tracks are important because they provide some of the earliest evidence that our ancient relatives, the australopithecines, walked bipedally.”

“As Dr. Lockley has continued his research on tracks,” explained Dr. Chin, “he has often acquired replicas of fossil tracks from around the world.  That is what is great about tracks: that you can make a lot of different casts of them.”

“It’s an intense process,” Dr. Chin stated, referring to the creation of an exhibit. “There are so many details. But I gained new appreciation for the great work that the exhibit designers and the museum education people do.”

In response to whether it was a positive experience, she said, “I did enjoy it!”

“Now, I have to say,” she laughed, “it’s a lot of work.  I didn’t mind the work, it’s just that I’m also teaching and doing research, so it’s kind of hard to juggle doing all of that at the same time.”

“I think there are two larger points that I’d like people to take away from the exhibit.

“I want people to gain a sense of appreciation for the tremendous amount of research Dr. Lockley has done on fossil tracks all over the world.

“I also want people to appreciate the informative value of tracks and other trace fossils.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents 2

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“At many times we tend to focus on body fossils: the bones of mammoths and the bones of dinosaurs, for example. They are very interesting, and they really fire up our imagination in considering what those ancient animals were like.

“But, I also want people to appreciate that trace fossils–which provide evidence organisms’ activity—also offer important information on the history of life.

“It’s very much akin to walking on a trail these days and looking for animal sign.  You look for tracks and scat and scratches and toothmarks.  And we do the same when we look for trace fossils in the fossil record.  Tracks are just one exciting example of trace fossils.”

 

Embed from Getty Images

——————–

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Karen Chin for her time, her fascinating insight and for generously helping me understand Ediacaran biota!  It was a tremendous honor and pleasure for me to connect with her.  An enormous thank you to Cathy Regan as well for providing wonderful images of the exhibit!

Steps in Stone” is available through December 31, 2015: http://cumuseum.colorado.edu

If you are interested in learning more about trace fossils, Dr. Martin Lockley has written a number of books.  Dinosaurs Without Bones by Dr. Anthony J. Martin was published this year, and this author highly recommends it!