University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
Interview conducted April, 2008
Dr. Shanan Peters is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Denison University, where he was a published author as an undergraduate. He obtained his doctorate in geology at the University of Chicago, where he focused on the use of fossils he collected to reach large-scale conclusions about paleoecology. In 2003, Dr. Peters won a prestigious post-doctoral position as a member of the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. He is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Q: There are so many things we need to learn about. So, why is the study of fossils important in today's world? Is paleontology really relevant?
Shanan explains the end-Devonian mass extinction, macrostratigraphy, and on-outcrop sequence stratigraphy to UW graduate students. Photo by Alan Carroll.
A: Well, I suppose the standard answer should be that paleontology is critically important because the fossil record provides our only archive of the history of life and its responses to environmental change. So, paleontology really does play an important role in informing us about our own past, present, and future, and is very much relevant to many of the environmental problems that we face today, such as global climate change.
However, I'd like to think that there's more to it than that. All great societies have had an insatiable appetite for knowledge about the natural world, not only so that we can understand and predict it, but so that we can admire and appreciate it as well. I'd like to think that our society is still great in this regard and that paleontology, along with all other sciences, will continue to be valued in their own right.
Q: What got you interested in science and in paleontology in particular?
A: I can't remember not wanting to be a paleontologist. My uncle always had a bent for natural history and that clearly rubbed off on me. He introduced me to the fossils of Ohio even before I started elementary school. I've been hooked ever since.
Contemplating Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park. Photo by Amalia Doebbert.
Q: Did you have a particular academic mentor?
A: I had several. That's the fun thing about academics — you meet a string of great people along every step of the way. I went to high school in a rural school district in Ohio. My physics teacher, David Thrush, saw my interest in paleontology and encouraged me to pursue that interest academically. He even took me on a field trip to the Cincinnati area, on his own time, just to collect fossils. That made a big impression on me. David Thrush was really responsible for showing me the academic side of paleontology … that you could make a career of it. When I got to Denison, Ken Bork encouraged and pushed me further and I landed in graduate school at the University of Chicago. There, my advisor, Michael Foote, along with the whole faculty and student group, were defining for me academically. My interactions with Foote, in particular, were interesting because his research was so far away from my experiences and background when I started. But that's exactly what made our academic pairing so fun and productive, especially for me as a student. I really learned a lot.
Q: What is your area of specialization or interest?
A: My dissertation was on assemblage-level paleoecology and diversity of marine animal communities in the Cambrian and Ordovician. Today, the main thrust of my research involves looking at physical environmental changes encoded in the sedimentary rock record. To do this, I use a new quantitative approach called "macrostratigraphy." I'm interested in macrostratigraphy because sedimentary rocks provide an important spatial and temporal framework for understanding environmental change and the processes of extinction and evolution. Of course, at heart I'm still a field paleontologist, so the other component of my research is to work on cool field projects as often as possible. Currently I'm working in Egypt with Philip Gingerich on stratigraphy and whale preservation, and with Jeff Wilson on Cretaceous rocks in India. Both projects are great and are taking me in new and exciting directions.
The sun sets on Shanan and Eocene marine sediments in Egypt. Photo by Philip Gingerich.
Q: Are you mining the literature for data to use in your macrostratigraphy analysis, or collecting your own data from the field?
A: Both. My work is synthetic in that I incorporate primary field descriptions, but some of the questions I'm asking require a much larger body of field work than any one person could possibly do. Fortunately, a lot of really great field work has already been done. So, right now, my macrostratigraphy research involves digging into the literature, pulling the geology for large areas out of the library, and putting it all together.
Q: Describe a "typical" day for you, if that's possible!
A: My life is bimodal. I spend days in the office and a precious few days in the field. On office days, I'm teaching, doing lecture preparation, interacting with students and colleagues, doing my macrostratigraphic analyses, and, of course, writing papers and research proposals. I also do quite a bit of computer programming to help me manage the large amounts of data used in my analyses.
When I'm in the field, the day typically starts by watching a nice sunrise and drinking a cup of coffee. The rest of the day is spent looking at rocks and fossils. This might involve hiking long distances to measure stratigraphic sections, or it might mean spending the entire day huddled in one small pit collecting fossils. It all depends on the question for the day.
Shanan with the vertebral column of Basilosaurus, found weathering out of Eocene rocks in Egypt. Photo by Philip Gingerich.
Q: What is the most exciting or interesting thing that has happened to you in your career as a paleontologist?
A: Hmmm … that's a tough one because there are lots of little things. Seeing the early results of my macrostratigraphic work has probably been the most gratifying. I've been thinking about this project since grad school, but I didn't really get into it and start collecting data until several years later, when I started as a Michigan Society Fellow. It's exciting to me, discovering how useful this new approach to stratigraphy might be, pushing on it, finding its limits. Of course it's hard to beat the thrill of finding a great fossil in the field. My uncle and I have found some really great stuff over the years. That's really hard to beat.
Q: Do you have a particular "favorite" fossil or fossil group?
A: Not really, but I do have a favorite formation. That's the Waldron Shale in southeastern Indiana. This Silurian (Wenlock) formation has wonderful fossils of marine invertebrates … some really amazing stuff. My uncle and I have collected it for years and we're still not tired of it.
Q: Do you have any advice for young people considering a career in paleontology?
A: To me, one of the great things about paleontology is the connections it makes between the physical and biological sciences. So, I recommend to students that they pursue equally hard both the biological and geological aspects of paleontology, especially early in their careers. Push on those discipline boundaries, break them down, that's where many interesting discoveries lie. And of course, there's nothing more important than getting excited and having fun in your learning!