By Kyawt Aye (Kk), she/her
If you ask former peers from school about what I am up to now, they would be surprised that I became a scientist. If I asked my younger self what I would like to be when I grow up, I would have said a doctor or a lawyer. For some reason, being a scientist never really crossed my mind. But my interest in becoming a scientist started during my Geography A-levels when I was excited to learn about volcanoes and earthquakes. Not only did I love learning about physical geography, I was also intrigued by what our planet may have looked like many millions of years ago. After my A-levels, I decided to pursue a degree in Geology at the University of Brighton. It was through Geology that I was introduced to Micropalaeontology, and even though there were only a few lectures offered for this course, it didn’t take long before I was captivated by the subject and I have been working in Micropalaeontology ever since.
So what exactly is Micropalaeontology?
When people think about Palaeontology, most would automatically think of those famousdinosaurs like Tyrannosaurs or Stegosaurus, but there’s a lot more to it than just dinosaurs. Palaeontology is essentially the study of fossilized life and that includes all matter of plants and animals. Micropalaeontology is a discipline of Palaeontology that deals with animal and plant fossils less than 1mm in size, known as microfossils. Some key microfossil groups scientists research are marine organisms such as foraminifera, ostracoda, radiolarians, diatoms and plant microfossils like pollen. Here are some microfossils up close – look how cool they are! The advantage of working in Micropalaeontology is that you only need a good microscope and some microfossils!
Foraminifera taken from (https://thegenerator.news/an-introduction-to-foraminifera/)
Two images of ostracods taken with a special camera. Each of those ostracods are around 0.3 mm so they’re really tiny.
These little guys are fundamental to our global biogeochemical system and they are very sensitive to any environmental changes. As such, we can use microfossils as a window to our past to understand how our climate-ocean systems interacted. Their shells are composed of calcium carbonate which can be used to reconstruct past climate and ocean changes so we can understand how our current and future climate change will alter our biosphere.
As I delved further into my Geology degree, my interests evolved from classical geology to past environments.After my Bachelor of Science, I decided to pursue a Masters in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol in the hopes to learn more about Micropalaeontology. It was through my Master’s project that I truly got to experience working in a laboratory environment and conduct research experiments. My project was to analyse the ecological response of foraminifera to oxygen loss in the modern and past oceans. Honestly, I had an absolute blast whilst working on it and the experience of conducting research and the support from my mentor motivated me to continue a path of scientific research.
The left picture shows how I collected these microfossils - the samples are placed on a slide under a microscope and the microfossils are collected with a picking brush. The right picture shows an internal image of the microfossils by scanning them.
A picture is of me at a Palaeontological Association conference at the University of Birmingham.
It’s been quite a tough journey so far but I am now a PhD student at the University of Hong Kong where my research interlinks with both oceanography and micropalaeontology to look at impacts of marine microfossil biodiversity from the Caribbean Sea extinction event 3-6 million years ago.
Me in my natural environment, you’ll never see me without a microscope – at the University of Hong Kong
If you’re still interested in what I’ve said so far here are some academic ways you can become a research scientist in micropalaeontology:
At least two of the following in A-Level Geography, Chemistry, Maths, Physics, Biology and Geology
University – Bachelor of Science and Master of Science:
A university degree in Geology, Environmental Science, Botany, Zoology, Chemistry and Palaeontology. Some degrees are quite specialised but it is better to pursue a degree that will give you a broader skill-set and then you can narrow down your specialty during the masters
A master’s degree in Palaeontology, Oceanography and Micropalaeontology
University – PhD:
A PhD is essential if you want to be a researcher, but not essential if you want to work in other job sectors like industry or environmental consulting.
If you’re keen and want to have some set of skills under your belt, you can get hands on experience by volunteering at a museum in a Palaeontology department or any department as you please. You’ll be able see the variety of fossils on display, help care for them and maybe teach others! Or you can join some Geology-focused societies like Rockwatch, a society for people under 18 who are interested in rocks and fossils.
Looking back my younger self would have never believed I am where I am today. I love working in micropalaeontology, and I love being a scientist. The best part about being a scientist is that you’re learning something new every day about the topic you love, not only by yourself but also being able to share your science with others. And the microfossils are so beautiful I never tire of looking at them through the microscope. Finally, a big perk of being a scientist in the Geology field is you get to go on multiple fieldtrips anywhere in the world to collect your samples!
Overall, my advice for any young students reading this blog is to have a natural curiosity of the world around you. And sometimes it’s okay to not have a concrete idea of what you want to pursue, whether that’s a scientist or something completely different. What matters is you keep your grades up in your courses so you have more opportunities available to you in the future.
You can find Kk on Instagram: @kakitaa_ or if you have any questions about the world of micropalaeontology, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org