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From Sauropods to Microfossils: Meet Professor Jacqueline M. Richard

In our first instalment of "Profiles in Paleontology" we share a lively and informative discussion with geology professor and paleontologist Jacqueline M. Richard. Several topics were covered, including her pathway to a career in paleontology, teaching experiences at Delgado Community College, fieldwork in Nevada and North Dakota and the challenges of excavating sauropod bones. She also spoke about her fascinating work with microfossils aimed at understanding the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago. 

 Paleontologist Jacqueline M. Richard conducting fieldwork along with her son Henry Palaeontologist Jacqueline M. Richard in Nevada. Professor Richard's children, Henry (pictured here) and Jaeden, often accompany her during fieldwork.

What institution do you currently work for?

I am an assistant professor at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

What courses do you teach?

I teach Geology 101: Physical Geology, Geology 102: Historical Geology, Geology 103: Physical Geology Laboratory, Geology 104: Historical Geology Laboratory, & Geology 211: Sedimentology & Stratigraphy.

What do you like most about teaching these courses?

What I love most about teaching in general, is I love seeing the students get the connection between their lives and what I am teaching. This is especially important living in Louisiana, where topics like erosion and sea level change affect us greatly. Once a student can see that what they are learning in class can either be directly applied to their lives, or help them understand a topic that applies to their lives, they become more invested in the course. Having students leave my classroom as informed citizen scientists is honestly my biggest reward.

Where have you studied geology/paleontology? What were some of the most interesting courses?

I started my education at a community college: College of DuPage. For many students community college is a great way to start diving into higher education. It is more affordable, and offers less trouble temptations than universities.

I completed my undergraduate degree of Biological Science at the University of Kansas in 2003. While I was there I was a student fossil preparator and in charge of running the volunteer fossil preparatory lab. It was a fantastic, well rounded experience. I must say my favorite class as an undergraduate was both lower & higher vertebrate paleontology. Really digging my hands into evolutionary pathways was truly exciting, and the classroom discussion was always challenging. 

I completed my masters of science degree in Geology at the University of New Orleans in 2006, less than a year after Hurricane Katrina. It was quite a profound experience. My favorite class, as a graduate student, was Global Tectonics. It was quite incredible to take all the knowledge I learned as an undergraduate and join it with real life geology. It was a very challenging class, but to truly dig into how plate tectonics works from a physics standpoint was mind blowing! 

Can you describe your first experience encountering or collecting a fossil?

I grew up outside of Chicago, so I have many fond memories of going to the Field Museum of Natural History as a child. The dinosaurs always amazed me, especially the sauropods! They were so big! But the first time I ever encountered a fossil in the wild, I was in 8th grade. I signed up for a fossil collecting (Mississippian invertebrates) class that was open to the public through a local community college. We went out to a limestone quarry, and I could not believe how many fossils were just lying around! They were everywhere I turned! And it was truly amazing to hold something in your hands that is over 300 million years old, when Chicago was part of a sea! I was absolutely hooked.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in palaeontology?

My Dad will tell you that he is the reason! When I was three years old, he took me to a dinosaur event at our local library. From that point on, I wouldn't stop talking about dinosaurs!

What questions or topics in geology/paleontology do you find especially exciting?

My love for palaeontology and geology is almost equal. So I love topics that show the interaction between the two. Using fossils to understand what environments were like at any given point in the past is an incredibly fun topic; I could create paleogeographic maps every day! I tell my students the Earth is like a giant episode of CSI, there are clues everywhere waiting to be interpreted!

I truly enjoy finding evolutionary patterns, some things crop up several times in the fossil record, and it is really fun to figure out the 'why' and the 'how'. 

Currently I am in a research group that is investigating what life was like immediately after the Cretaceous extinction event. There are so many micro clues, both in the rocks and in the fossils that it really is a fun puzzle to figure out.

Professor Richard's research group out in the field in North Dakota. Her children come to learn hands-on science! Professor Richard's research group out in the field in North Dakota. Having her children, Henry and Jaeden, join her to experience hands-on science is one of her favourite aspects of fieldwork.

What was the most challenging thing that you or your team encountered in the field?

Field work is the best part of palaeontology! Field work is like Christmas morning - you are the first person on earth to see the fossil that you are uncovering. It is truly remarkable!

The most difficult thing out in the field, in my opinion, tends to be the removal of bones to bring back to the laboratory. There is a lot of thought that goes into removing bones in a way that will minimize breakage. It definitely isn't as easy as it sounds. When I was an undergraduate, we found these beautifully complete Brachiosaurus ribs out in the field. These ribs were long, much longer than I am tall, so it was an incredible challenge to remove this delicate, very long and thin object from the field, that was 145 million years old! We ended up using the traditional plaster method, but added rebar to it for stability. It was quite a feat!

Can you share a humorous story from the field?

I think one of the most humorous moments for me was when I was taking a group of citizen scientists out in the field. We were discussing coprolites and why they are important. That there is definitely a lot of poop in the rock record, and it actually gives us great insight into what the animals ate when they were alive. The particular section of North Dakota we were in preserved lots of invertebrate coprolite material. I showed the students how to identify it, and once they got the hang of it, a particularly elderly woman turned to me and said, 'Are all rocks full of this much poop?' It was her honest questioning about fossil poop that was quite hilarious.

What is the most exciting discovery that you or your team have unearthed and how is it significant?

What comes to mind are two field experiences in North Dakota. When I was a graduate student, I was extremely fortunate to have a summer internship with the Pioneer Trail Regional Museum. The summer summer I spent there we undertook a lot of really great fieldwork and research. One particular research venture was when we decided to go take a look at fossil leaves and their density. When you take a census count of fossil leaves, you generally take a 1m x 1m x 1m block, count and identify all the leaves found within. What the principal researcher and I did was go through the leaf block layer by layer instead. It was significant because we were actually able to see something very similar to a seasonal change in the leaf layers that were preserved, which was a new recorded observation. And how neat is it to see season change in fossils that are over 65 million years old?

The other experience that has certainly left a deep impression on me was the first time I was able to get nose to rock with the K-Pg boundary. We didn't discover it, but the first time you see that layer in person, it is quite remarkable. It is amazing to think that everything below the layer had dinosaurs running around, and everything above is mammals. It's such a quick change. And of course inside the layer one can see the shocked quartz spherules from the asteroid impact. The work that we are currently looking at deals with the Paleocene layers right above it, so it is certainly significant to see this incredibly important moment in earth's history and to see how life survived after the event.

Professor Richard and her team stand right at the K-Pg boundary.Professor Richard and her group stand right at the K-Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) boundary. This thin band of rock marks the end of the Cretaceous Period, 66 million years ago.

What did you learn from examination in the lab or through further research? What did the lab work entail? 

With the leaf block mentioned above, the lab work was tedious. As previously mentioned, most times one will go through the block and just take a census. Instead we went millimeter by millimeter, uncovering layer after layer of leaves stuck to each other. We carefully recorded each leaf position and identity. Then we removed each leaf as we went, trying our best to keep them intact. We learned quite a bit about how these leaves were deposited, definitely a lot more detail then we thought we would find! We had leaves stacked on top of leaves, millimeters apart. And from one layer to the next, you could see the diversity of the species change. Even though it was incredibly tedious, and fine tuned, it showed us some really remarkable things that are generally missed! Slow and steady definitely wins the race!

What do you hope to accomplish with your research?

No matter what the research topic is, all I hope is help further our understanding of past organisms and the environments they lived in. It is critical for us to understand why and how things happened in the past, because they are bound to happen again in the future. We may not be able to prevent geological events from happening, but it is important for us to understand why something is happening. The 'why' not only gives us clarity into our own environment, but can actually help save lives. 

So, as long as I am helping in the scientific pursuit of the truth, I will definitely be satisfied with my scientific contributions.

What future projects do you have planned?

Currently we are working on looking at thousands of microfossils (less than 1mm - 10mm) from the layers right above the K-Pg extinction event. It is easy to define an extinction event, because you can look at all the big animals that died. But, how did life recover? The key to that answer lies in the microfossils. Big organisms have a much larger tolerance to their environment. However, smaller organisms are a little bit more particular and can tolerate less variance. So these microfossils will be giving us lots of clues as we comb through them! 

Another project I will soon be starting looks at niche partitioning. Ecological niches are a concept that haven't truly been proven with any hard evidence. It is my hope to dig into some material from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic to see what I can find. Again, niche partitioning is another great topic that involves both Geology and paleontology, so it is hard for me to resist the topic!

Professor Richard points to stromatolite fossils, the oldest organism on our planet. The fossils look exactly like the modern ones!Professor Richard points out that invertebrates are important too! Stromatolites are the oldest organism on our planet, and the fossils look exactly like the modern ones.

How do you envision the future of palaeontology? How might new technologies advance the field?

Palaeontology is evolving so fast, it is almost mind blowing. I remember when computerized cladistics was a brand new thing and everyone jumped on that band wagon! Now here we are, 2017, and we can actually tell the colour of a fossilized feather by looking at the bacteria preserved with the feather. How amazing is that? I think there are two great things in play here - 1. The technological advances are astounding. We can see things we've never seen before. 2. I think we've finally made the leap where we are bridging the gap between chemistry, physics, biology, and palaeontology. We all know that we need to use these topics to understand palaeontology, but many research groups are including active organic chemists to help them break down certain fossils to look for proteins. Or using physicists to help us understand the complicated math behind how a footprint is made. Bringing all these scientists together, and combining that with the technological advances, there is almost no telling how far we could go with the science. I truly see palaeontology growing in this more eclectic way - it isn't just the study of some long dead bones by measuring and identifying them, it is combining the critical sciences together to see how things move and work.   

What resources would you recommend to people who are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of palaeontology and geology?

There are so many directions one could go on any of those topics, it's hard to narrow it down to just a few things! I would honestly advise that if you want to learn more about any of these topics, go listen to an expert give a talk. It could be a lecture series at a museum, a class at your local community college, or a free online class through Coursera, but truly give a listen. As you listen, jot down the things most interesting to you, then hit Google. I find that when you start researching a topic you’re interested in, you learn and absorb so much more!

Finally, can you offer some advice to aspiring palaeontologists? 

Dare to consider answers that don't seem plausible at first. Consider every route. Nature and the earth do some funky things sometimes, so explore all your possibilities! 

June 27, 2017 by Peter Lovisek
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