Tuesday, October 2, 2012

SFSYO Scientist of the Month: Penny Higgins

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.

Penny in the Canadian High Arctic
Summer 2012. Courtesy of Penny Higgins.
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!

With a helicopter in the Canadian High Arctic, Summer 2012
Courtesy of Penny Higgins. 
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.

What do you think first graders? It seems to me like Penny has a pretty cool job, and that she has a lot of fun too! Is there anything else you'd like to know about her work as a scientist? Be sure to leave her questions in the comments. 

For any of my regular readers, all kids at heart I know, you can also check out Penny on twitter @paleololigo. If you'd like to be featured as a scientist of the month, send me an email or DM me on twitter, I'd love more volunteers - but I'll beg if I have to!


  1. Hi Erin, We loved learning about Dr. Penny. What kind of experiments does she do? Where is her favorite place to look for fossils? Why doesn't she look for dinosaurs? How does she know where to look for fossils?
    Dr. Penny is cool!!

  2. OOH! Questions!

    What kind of experiments does she do?

    'Experiment' is a funny word, because it makes people think of test tubes, scary chemicals, and white lab coats (and I do actually do a bit of that). Most of what I do, though, is grind rocks to powder, or drill some tooth enamel from a fossil tooth. The powder that I get is carefully weighed into a glass vial and put into this machine called a 'mass spectrometer.' The mass spectrometer measures how much carbon and oxygen is in the powder and I can learn all sorts of things about the animals lifestyles and environments from that!

    Where is her favorite place to look for fossils?

    I look for fossils where ever I go, but I enjoy it the most when I'm somewhere difficult to get to. Looking for fossils in the Arctic was amazing. I had to take a helicopter to get to the fossil locality! I also like to go back to places where I've collected fossils before, because you can never collect them all and new finds are so exciting. That's why I go back to Wyoming every summer!

    Why doesn't she look for dinosaurs?

    Dinosaurs are interesting, and lots of people study them. But lots and lots of other animals have existed. Dinosaurs only existed for a very short period of Earth's history. I study fossil mammals (animals with hair). There are lots and lots of cool mammals like saber-tooth tigers, giant ground sloths, and mammoths. I have friends who only study swimming reptiles, and others who study basically nothing but turtles. Every group of animals is interesting to study.

    How does she know where to look for fossils?

    You're right in thinking that a person can't just walk to any rock and expect to find fossils. I often rely on the work of other people to know where to start looking. Geologists before me have drawn maps that show the kinds of rocks that are exposed in an area. There are maps like this for most of the world! I look at their maps, and how they've described the rocks, and decide whether the kinds of fossils I want to look at might be found there. Then I figure out if I can get to that land and see what happens next. I should add that sometimes, fossils are just accidentally found. Mammoths are found a lot when people try do dig a hole for a new pool. The fossil site in the Arctic that I go to was found when someone literally tripped over a fossil turtle sticking out of the ground!

  3. Thank you for the answers Penny! First, graders let us know if you have any other questions!

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