Monday, September 13, 2021

Interview with Paleontologist: Rhiannon LaVine

Rhiannon (Rhi) LaVine is an invertebrate paleontologist who is an NIH-IRACDA postdoctoral fellow in the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. Her research interests revolve around questions relating to the mechanisms that generate and influence patterns of morphological diversity in organisms and how that shapes their evolutionary trajectories. She is particularly interested in exploring this topic using fossil arthropods such as trilobites and trilobite-like animals. Rhi received her Ph.D. from the University in Chicago where she began this line of research using agnostine arthropods. Prior to graduate school, she received her B.S. from the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater where she investigated the response of gastropod faunas to the end-Permian mass extinction both in her undergraduate research and through the Natural History Research Experiences (NHRE) internship program hosted at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Rhi with an assortment of fossils

Question 1: What was your earliest sign of interest in paleontology that you can remember?

RV: Doesn’t everyone around my age say, “Jurassic Park”? I hate to say that I’m not much different in that respect. Before the film was released, my late father read the book and shared it with me when I was around 7 or 8 years old. He was also a substitute teacher at the time and (hilariously) read passages of it to some of his classes---namely the gruesome Nedry vs. dilophosaur scene, which was our favorite. It was one of the many things over which my dad and I bonded, and following the film’s release (which we saw in theaters), I had my big ol’ dinosaur phase that just about every kid goes through. That led to a deeper interest in fossils and geology which, unfortunately, became somewhat stifled as I became more recognized for my artistic talents instead of my academic interests. Thankfully I was in the right place at the right time in college to have that passion reignited.


Question 2: Did you have anyone who served as a role model when you were younger?  Do you still have any now?

RV: I am my father’s daughter and have always looked up to him. He was someone who never hesitated to chase his dreams (even the ridiculous ones that took him out to LA to be a drummer) and stand up for what was right. He was a much-loved high school teacher who served as inspiration to many and a kind ear to all. I’ve always said that if I end up being half as good of an educator as he was, my career will have been successful.

More recently I have been lucky enough to learn quite a bit from Sue Kidwell, whose career of pioneering work has really shaped how we address and ask questions of the fossil record. I can honestly say that she is an inspiration, especially when it comes to maintaining the drive to continue pushing against the status quo in our field.

Question 3: You primarily work with invertebrates.  Tell us more about your work and what it's all about. 

RV: The first thing that I was asked in grad school was “what’s your question?”, which was a not-so-subtle hint that I should divorce myself from focusing on a particular study organism and think about questions that could be applied broadly. That being said, my work gets at questions relating to how patterns of morphological diversity are generated. Heritable variation is the raw material upon which natural selection acts, after all. I’m interested in figuring out what causes that variation and how, if at all, it scales up to trends that we see at the macroevolutionary level. I tackle this using geometric morphometric methods, meaning that I rely on shape data. As for the system, it just so happens that marine invertebrate fossils, specifically arthropods, are ideal because they preserve very well (often minimally-distorted) and there are a lot of them (allowing for good sample sizes). As an example of the sort of work that I like to do, for my dissertation I worked with agnostine arthropods, which are tiny, blind, trilobite-like critters. I measured them in a way that would reveal developmental constraints on their form, which could indicate long-term constraints on morphological diversity in this group of organisms as a whole. The current work that I’m doing in my postdoctoral position doesn’t get at the generation aspect of variation, but instead explores the extent of morphological variation in a group of trilobites and how it manifests phylogenetically, biogeographically, and through time.

Left: an agnostine arthropod cephalon (head) mounted on the tip of a toothpick. Right: Landmark and semilandmark configuration for geometric morphometric analyses.

Question 4: Was there anything you did or learned as you were on your way to your current career that you feel got you to where you are?  What sort of field experience, a class, networking with the right people, or possibly something different?

RV: I would say that networking and early research experience were the key elements. I often talk to prospective undergraduates who are worried that if they don’t go to a big name school, their hopes and dreams of becoming a paleontologist will be dashed. Well, here I am with my start in a relatively small undergraduate institution and I somehow stumbled upon this career. I firmly believe that I got to where I am because my undergraduate advisor pushed me to network and get involved in research early on. I went to and presented at GSA and other conferences, talked with other students in my field, reached out to potential advisors, and I was generally enthusiastic and active in the geoscience community. I feel as though if I did go to a bigger school for my undergraduate degree, I may have been just another face in the crowd. The fact that I did go to a small school provided me with the opportunity to receive more direct mentorship and guidance.


With colleague and “trilobite twin” Matt Witte at GSA

Question 5: What would your advice be to anyone trying to make a career in paleontology (or science in general)

RV: Get involved in research as soon as you’re able to do so. Even if you’re in high school, contact your local club to see if there are any outings that you can join. Reach out to paleontologists at a nearby museum or university to volunteer to help with their collections or, even better, see if they need someone to do some otherwise tedious fossil counting/measuring for a project. Get your hands dirty and make yourself visible to those who are in the field of study that you’re aiming to pursue.

Question 6: What was or is your favorite project so far? (geology or paleontology)

RV: My favorite project is not so much a project as it is a long-term endeavor that focuses on figuring out what’s going on in a particular unit called the Spence Shale: a middle Cambrian Lagerst├Ątte on the border of Utah and Idaho. Not only does it contain a wide array of complex and, frankly, weird preservational environments, but it is bursting with such diverse and amazingly-preserved fossils, many of which remain undescribed. I started working on this unit near the beginning of my dissertation, specifically targeting the agnostoid fauna. Later on my colleague, Julien Kimmig, spearheaded the bulk of the work on this unit. Now, with help from L.J. Krumenacker (who we temporarily coaxed over from the vertebrate paleo side), we are hopefully beginning to put the pieces of the Spence puzzle together.

Rhi (center) with colleagues L.J. Krumenacker (left) and Julien Kimmig (right) after trenching the type section of the Spence Shale.

Question 7: Do you have a favorite destination when it comes to fossils?  Why?

RV: A a perfect continuation from the previous question: my favorite destination is Spence Gulch, the type section of the Spence Shale. It’s an idyllic little stream cut within a forest in Idaho. It’s quiet, scenic, and one can just spend the entire day easily splitting apart the rocks to find bountiful and beautiful fossils. This site really spoils you. I’m pretty certain that if it was someone’s first fossil-hunting site, it’d ruin them for any other site because the bar would be set so high. I’ve not encountered too many other places like it.

Views of Spence Gulch

Question 8: A popular image of paleontologists is that they are constantly out in the field digging up fossils, which is true sometimes  What people don’t realize is that a lot of paleontology work is conducted in a lab as well.  In your experience how much time have you spend in the lab and in the field?  What do you prefer?

RV: For me it’s about 10% fieldwork and 90% “in the lab”. Of course, “in the lab” means a lot of things: in the lab prepping/sorting fossils, rifling through museum collections, sitting behind a computer running analyses, doing literature reviews, etc. I wish I could justify more fieldwork in my research. There’s really nothing comparable to getting out there, cracking open a piece of shale, and finding something new that no one has ever laid eyes on. “Lab” work is the price I pay to be able to go out into the field from time to time.


Question 9: Are there any fossils you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?

RV: I would love to work on insect fossils! Unfortunately I can’t think of too many questions that both pique my current interests and that the fossil record of insects can reasonably accommodate.


Question 10: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work?  How do you handle it?

RV: Don't we all? In my experience thus far, the vast majority of my colleagues are wonderful people who offer criticism in a helpful manner. I have encountered people who get possessive over their study system of choice and are on the lookout for anything to pick apart, though. I’d like to say that I handle it with the practiced grace of a respectable academic, but my inner (outer?) punk tends to get riled up. I usually end up taking a deep breath, stopping myself from being confrontational, and reminding myself that it comes with the territory.


Question 11: A common idea is that paleontology is just a “for fun” science, with no real impact or noticeable effect that helps the world.  Do you think paleontology has a bigger part to play to than this?  How?

RV: One of the main things that I try to drive home with all of my students (or even just people with a passing interest in what I do) is the absolute vastness of deep time, and I think that’s something that we can only begin to wrap our heads around via the study of paleontology. It’s easy for someone to rattle off numbers associated with absolute ages of the earth without actually understanding what that number means. It’s also pretty easy to look at all of the life forms that exist today and think that’s all we need to consider in order to understand the natural world.  By contrast, when you’re able to incorporate the fossil record, you’re able to begin to understand how life has emerged and changed over enormous spans of time, resulting in the mind-blowing diversity that we see today. Suddenly we’re able to start to piece together the puzzle of how modern biodiversity came to be within that structure of seemingly unfathomable vastness of time.

Collecting from Miners Hollow in the Wellsville Mountains

Question 12: Who was the first paleontologist you met?  How was that interaction?

RV: Rex Hanger, professor at the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater. At the time, I was an art major who was severely dissatisfied with my program and career path. As a lark, I took the Geology 204: Earth and Life History course because I’d always had an interest in geology and paleontology, but I never really saw myself as a STEM person. Rex made the subject incredibly accessible and thus I came to the realization that I could maybe pursue paleontology as a career. I approached him one day after class and told him that I was considering changing my major to geology. I will never forget the big smile on his face---of course, I probably would have grinned too if a weird, tattooed kid in a tattered Bauhaus shirt came up to me and asked me to be their advisor. From that moment on he became my mentor, immediately plugging me into a research project and setting me on the trajectory that led me to where I am now.


Question 13: What is your favorite prehistoric animal?  Was it different when you were younger?

RV: Oh dear, can I pick one from each phylum? I’m probably expected to pick a trilobite, so in that vein I’ll choose Zacanthoides typicalis. It’s a somewhat common trilobite found in my favored field site, but even so I always get excited when I find one. They’re so charismatic! I refer to this group of trilobites as “the punk rockers of the Cambrian trilobite world” for a reason. When I was a kid, I was into dinosaurs and, of course, I was enamored with the “velociraptors” from Jurassic Park. I wasn’t even really deterred when I found out that Velociraptor sp. was, by comparison, a puny little thing. I thought it was even cooler that it was a knee-high terror.


Question 14: If you could use a time machine to go back and pick only one prehistoric animal to bring back from history and observe alive and in person, which would it be and why?

RV: Opabinia regalis because, well, just look at that thing! What was it even doing?!


Opabinia regalis watercolor by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 15: Back to the time machine.  This time you can go back to any place and time period and have a look at what the environment was really like.  Which one would you pick and why?

RV: The ​Cambrian, of course! I may have a bit of a bias, but being able to see that comparatively alien world in action would be extraordinary

Question 16: Which is your favorite museum?  Why?

RV: I ​will always have a soft spot for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. It was the first big museum that I ever visited. In fact, I found a picture of me as a kid with Bushman the Gorilla and recreated the picture over 30 years later before I left the city for my current position

The Evolving Planet exhibit is a wonderful walk through earth’s history. There were many days that I would visit it and space out to the soothing sounds of the Cambrian seascape.

Rhi and Bushman at the Field Museum, over 30 years in between.

Question 17: What hobbies do you have?  (Don’t have to be paleo-related.)

RV: I definitely make an effort to keep a work-life balance, which means that my hobbies are not related to paleontology. When the weather cooperates I get outdoors to go running or hiking; the latter of which usually involves me taking my camera along so I can dive into the underbrush and take photos of neat insects and such. I am also an avid curler (the sport, not the hairstyling). Beyond it just being great fun and challenging, I’ve met some of the coolest people in the curling community. It’s a sport with a foundation in good sportsmanship and camaraderie---I highly recommend that anyone who has ever had even a passing interest to try it out if they can. Finally, no shame: I’ll admit that I get really into tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: the Masquerade. I always play a ranger in the former and Clan Brujah in the latter.

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