Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and#realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.
Hello first graders! I am so excited to share with you our first scientist of the month, Penny Higgins, PhD. I asked Penny a bunch of questions to find out more about what she does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about her. Below you can read my interview with Penny, and if you’d like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!
Erin: What type of scientist are you?
Penny: I am a vertebrate paleontologist, which means I study fossil animals that have bones (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Dinosaurs in are in this category too.) I am also a geochemist, which means I study the chemistry of geological things like rocks. These are related because bones and teeth are made of a mineral (called apatite). I study the chemistry of fossil teeth and bones to learn about what extinct animals ate and what the environment was like (how warm was it? how much did it rain?) when they were alive.
Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?
Penny: I studied both geology and biology in school, since fossils come out of rocks (geology) and represent animals that were once alive (biology). I also took a lot of chemistry classes. I ultimately got a PhD in Geology. I went to school in Colorado for five years, then went for another five years in Wyoming, where I got my PhD. Then I studied another four years after that in Florida. Now I live in Rochester, NY.
Erin: Where do you work?
Penny: I work at the University of Rochester, in Rochester, New York. My main job is to manage a laboratory where we measure the chemical properties of rocks and minerals. We also analyze things like hair, bugs, and flowers. I also teach beginning geology and a couple of paleontology classes. During the summer, I travel all over to collect fossils (and rocks) for my research.
Erin: What do you do on a typical day?
Penny: Most days during the school year, the first thing I do in the morning is start a set of analyses on our mass spectrometer. Then I go and teach classes, work with students on their research projects, and make sure that everyone is getting good data. When things are quiet I do my own research.
Erin: Why did you become a scientist?
Penny: I loved science from the moment I knew what it was. I was hooked by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos videos [Cosmos is an old TV series, you first graders wouldn’t know it but maybe your parents will!] I also enjoyed drawing animals, especially horses, and started to study their anatomy and the shapes of their bones. Once I realized I liked bones, I wanted to draw dinosaurs and started to study them so I could draw better pictures. That’s why I became a paleontologist. What’s funny is that, now that I really am a paleontologist, I’ve never done anything with dinosaurs, but I have looked at fossil horses!
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Penny: My favorite thing is the discovery. I learn things that no one else has ever known before. And I get to share what I learned with other people, so everyone can know more. I also get to go to some really neat places, like Bolivia, or the Arctic, where no-one else hardly ever goes!
Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?
Penny: I work in a laboratory, but it’s nothing like what you think. We only sometimes wear white coats. We listen to loud music. I’ve named all of the scientific instruments (Specky, the mass spectrometer; Norm, the water analyzer; Tina, the laminar flow hood). And there’s a talking chicken hanging in the lab.
Erin: What are some of the things that you like to do for fun?
Penny: Besides being a scientist, I have other hobbies. I am a writer, and I am about 600 pages into writing my first novel. It’s not about paleontology at all. It’s set in medieval Europe. I like to sew and make costumes, and then wear those costumes at Renaissance Festivals (where people dress up like it’s the time of knights and swords). I am really interested in medieval history.