This interview was originally published here:
Libby Ellwood, Primack Lab alumna and researcher extraordinaire, will be taking over the @TerriersAtWork twitter account next Tuesday, September 12th! She will walk us through a day at her fascinating job at the La Brea Tar Pits and answer questions along the way.
I asked Libby a few questions in preparation for her big @TerriersAtWork takeover:
Amanda: Hi Libby! What are the La Brea Tar Pits, and why are they special?
Libby: The La Brea Pits are located in urban Los Angeles, California. Technically, the tar pits are asphalt seeps. Asphalt deposits from deep underground have found their way to the surface due to tectonic activity along the San Andreas Fault. The asphalt forms viscous pools which become covered in leaves, dirt, and water. Unsuspecting animals get trapped in the asphalt, then predators attack the trapped animals and become trapped themselves. The asphalt has preserved the dead organisms, leaving us with an incredible record of plants and animals from the late Pleistocene epoch, 40,000-11,000 years ago. There are very few places in the world where this combination of geologic history has occurred to produce asphalt seeps. Also, fun fact: La Brea is Spanish for "the tar", so The La Brea Tar Pits can be translated to the the tar tar pits!
Mammoth sculptures in the La Brea Tar Pits
A: So, what is your job at The The Tar Tar Pits?
L: I'm a Research Fellow working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to reconstruct ancient food webs. For a long time, scientists were mainly interested in the saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, mastodons, and other macrofauna -- and who can blame them, those are really cool animals! In order to get a more complete picture of ice age ecosystems though, we need to take a closer look at the smaller organisms. In this project, we are piecing together smaller elements of the food web, like plants and small mammals, to better understand why species go extinct and how species cope with climate change.
My part of the project is to develop citizen science activities that engage students in sorting microfossils as they learn about food webs. With a little bit of training, non-scientists can sort through fossil materials, pull out plant and mammal bits, and therefore directly contribute to piecing together ancient food webs!
Microfossils awaiting sorting under a microscope
A: If you had to choose, what would you say is the best part of your job?
L: La Brea is an active excavation site. Every day, scientists are chipping away at blocks of asphalt and are uncovering all kinds of fossils, everything from rabbit teeth to ground sloth ribs. A short walk to the excavation area makes for a thrilling lunch break! And after excavation, I get to share the thrill with citizen scientists and volunteers, who play an important role in evaluating the massive amounts of excavated material and readying it for direct application in research.
A volunteer excavating fossils!
A: What skills from your time at BU and in the Primack Lab do you use most now?
L: My time at BU, and specifically in the Primack Lab, prepared me well for the highly collaborative and cross-disciplinary research that I am currently undertaking. I regularly work with paleontologists, ecologists, educators, geologists, and citizen scientists, to name a few. My experiences at BU provided me with a solid foundation from which I feel comfortable learning about new areas of research, working with people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and collaboratively working towards a common goal.
A: We are very excited for your Terriers@Work twitter takeover! What will your main message be?
L: In the twitter takeover, I'll have a few related messages. I'll be tweeting about La Brea and the awesome research that takes place here. I'll also be providing information about our food webs project, the amazing researchers involved, and our plans for the work. And I'll be tweeting about the citizen science aspects of the work at La Brea. More broadly, I'll be encouraging people to take part in citizen science projects near them. Contributing to scientific research is a great way to be active and make a difference in your community. I'll be answering questions along the way, so please ask away!
To hear more from Libby Ellwood, and to ask her your questions, follow @TerriersAtWork on twitter to catch Libby's takeover, all day on September 12th!
Update: Read the Storify here.