The PaleoNet Pages

A communications system for paleontologists.


The recent PaleoNet post from Phoebe Cohen about the upcoming Paleontological Society networking and careers event (see here) got me thinking. The event features a panel discussion provided by a group of experienced academic paleontologists all of whom were referred to as “mentors”. What is a mentor? How do mentors differ from supervisors, teachers and colleagues? And how do you know when you’ve found a mentor?

The dictionary definition, I’m afraid, isn’t much help. Most dictionaries define the term succinctly as a “trusted friend and adviser”, especially in juxtaposition to someone less experienced and/or knowledgeable. We all have, and will have, many friends and an even larger number of colleagues at each stage of our careers, but we’ll only have a few true mentors. Thus, these designations seem misleading. The true sign of mentorship is trust.

Mentorship goes well beyond the standard social relations we have with friends. Of course, this is not to say friends are either unimportant or untrustworthy. Only that, for the most part, we don’t tend to choose our friends in order to advance us in any particular area of our lives. Friends can, and often do, help us accomplish particular goals in our lives. But to me this is a fortuitous by-product, rather than a necessary condition, of friendship. Indeed, our friends can lead us down paths that make accomplishing our life goals more difficult as often as they can make it easier.

Mentorship also goes beyond the (largely) transactional relations we have with most of our teachers. In most cases teachers feel a responsibility to impart the course information to the students and, in many cases, they will go to great lengths to meet that expectation. But in most academic course programs this represents part of a transaction mediated through the college or university. The university hires the teacher to teach, the students pays the university a fee to be taught. The telling character of this relationship is that, in most cases, the teacher feels no responsibility to provide the student with instruction or support in areas outside the topic being taught. In some cases the teacher might supply a student with a letter of reference for a further prospective job or university placement, but this hardly qualifies as mentorship.

Academic supervisors often serve as mentors in a limited sense, and on occasion can tip over the (ill-defined) line into true mentorship. But all-too-often it takes the form of another transactional relationship. In large academic departments undergraduate students are typically assigned academic advisors or tutors whose role is to “look after” the student while they are in the department’s course program. So long as the interaction remains formal and infrequent the more holistic aspects of true mentorship rarely come to the fore. The academic supervisor provides a service to the student as part of their professional duty. Of course, on occasion the student’s needs are, or situation is, such that deeper engagement on the part of the supervisor is required. But even in such extreme cases the service-provision aspect of the interaction is rarely overcome.

The hallmark of true mentorship is its deep, yet informal, character. You don’t apply to become someone’s protégé. By the same token, “mentors” don’t select mentees at the beginning of a school term from a pool of available candidates. Like a fine wine, the mentor-protégé relation develops over time as a result of the frequency and quality of interactions that occur between the participants. Contrary to the dictionary definition, true mentors is rarely, if ever, a matter of advice per se. Rather, it’s grounded on the informal transfer of knowledge about aspects of a field of study, an institution, and/or a professional community that lie well outside the facts and figures of academic instruction. Moreover, true mentorship is grounded on a mutual exchange of psycho-social support that’s difficult to define objectively, but unmistakeable when present. The protégé gains valuable knowledge, understanding and insight into the more intangible – but no less important – aspects of the communities they wish to become part of and be accepted by. The mentor gains a receptive audience for the information and experience they possess and the satisfaction that comes from rendering assistance to someone who’s life they have become part of. Often the impetus for becoming a mentor is to fulfill a perceived personal debt to former mentors from the time they themselves were the protégé.

Unlike simple friendship, mentorship can, at times, involve much criticism. Yet, unlike simple supervision, the mentor wields no power within the mentor-protégé relationship to force the protégé to do anything. Whatever influence the mentor has over the knowledge, attitudes and actions of the protégé, those must be acquired and/acted upon, or rejected by the protégé freely and without any sense of coercion. In this sense it is a mistake to conceptualize a true mentor-protégé relationship as a one-sided exercise in inter-personal power dynamics. Indeed, while a protégé might will enter into a mentoring relation in what they perceive to be a relatively powerless state, the purpose of mentoring in its purest sense is not to train or guide them per se, but to empower them through informal training and guidance. The result of being mentored successfully is to increase one’s independence rather than reinforce subservience.

I suppose it's possible to complete an academic career without having been mentored by someone at sometime along the way. But I think it’s unusual. Most academics can point to several turning points in their careers that were facilitated in one way or another by mentors. My own career certainly has been. Consequently, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those who have mentored me over the years, though one – arguably the most important – is no longer here to receive that acknowledgement.


Bob H. Slaughter - Bob was undoubtedly the most unique, iconoclastic, unconventional, generous and supportive person I ever had the good fortune to meet. In 1978 I arrived at Southern Methodist University’s MSc program on probation, after a lackluster academic record as an undergraduate geoscience major at the University of Missouri. Having spent two years teaching high-school science in Dallas, Texas I was scared to death I wouldn’t be able to re-enter academics and compete successfully alongside my younger and — undoubtedly smarter — fellow MSc students. But I was determined to try. One day, a few weeks after arriving on campus, I approached Bob, who seemed to be the only paleontologist around, and more-or-less demanded he give me a research project to work on in the spare time I’d have outside my classes. Although he had no particular reason to do so, Bob took me to a lab and showed me slab of chalk with some unusual teeth sticking out of the matrix. I could have that as a project, provided I was able to research what sort of teeth those were and identify them correctly. They turned out be the teeth of the Cretaceous pavement-tooth shark, Ptychodus rugosus Dixon, which I studied, reconstructed the dental arcade of, and about which I wrote my second scientific, and first single-authored, article. Oddly, I was never a formal student of Bob’s having been lured away from vertebrate paleontology by other SMU faculty members and, ultimately, by micropaleontology. But I never lost my interest in VP and, as my formal advisor was hardly ever on campus, Bob was the one who taught me, inspired my love of all paleontology's aspects, and set my feet firmly on the path I would follow henceforth in my so-called career as well as, to a large extent, in my life. What did I learn from Bob? Everything that really mattered, and much more besides.


Emile A Pessagno - Emile was my PhD supervisor and a world-renown planktonic foraminifer and radiolarian biostratigrapher and taxonomist. My own research interests lay well beyond these topics per se. But Emile, much to his credit, insisted that all his students learn not just the fundamentals, but the detailed theory and application of these critical aspects of paleontology. I had no objection to this instructional program. But my other research interests ranged so far from these areas it often left Emile and I with little to talk about regarding the details of my research project. In addition, much of my time was spent away from the university campus at the nearby Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) research facility where I held several consulting and software-development contracts. I’m sure such extra-curricular activities were not typical of Geoscience graduate students. Quite probably they were contrary to university policy. Nevertheless, Emile understood my family situation at the time and allowed me the freedom I needed to get through my PhD program while, at the same time, make financial ends meet. I never became the taxonomist and biostratigrapher Emile’s program was set up to produce. But the training in these areas I received from Emile stood me in good stead not only to understand how important these topics were to the the practice of paleontology, but how they could be incorporated usefully in the quantitative analysis of palaeontological data. All my subsequent work with paleontological databases, high-resolution stratigraphic and extinction boundaries and various forms of graphic correlation began in Emile’s classroom.

Tim Carr

Tim R. Carr - Tim had just arrived at the ARCO Research Lab from the University of Wisconsin where he’d completed a PhD in conodont paleontology. We met at one of Bob Slaughter’s Friday afternoon “seminars” at a local Dallas bar not far from the SMU campus. That meeting led to an invitation to visit Tim at the ARCO lab, which led to our having regular discussions about current paleobiological research, which led my being offered ARCO contracts to write reports about useful morphometric methods for sediment-particle and porosity analysis and to develop new morphometric software, which led ultimately to Tim encouraging me to apply for, and be awarded, a post-doctoral position in the University of Michigan’s prestigious Michigan Society of Fellows program under the supervision of Tim’s fellow UoW student, Jennifer Kitchell who was, by then a member of the UM Geoscience Faculty. Tim’s interests and enthusiasms for paleobiological research and morphometrics sustained me intellectually during my PhD years and his support in the lab brought the contracts my way that sustained me financially. More importantly, though, through Tim and his colleagues at ARCO I saw that commercial work in paleontology had its own unique character, challenges, joys and disappointments which mirrored those of academic life.

John Whittaker

John Whittaker - John was Head of the Micropalaeontology in The Natural History Museum’s Palaeontology Department when I arrived in 1993. I don’t think he knew quite what to do with an expat American paleobiologist who was far more interested in general morphological and extinctions-related research problems than foraminiferal taxonomy and systematics. But John was unfailingly welcoming, encouraging and supportive, both of myself and my research interests, even when others in his group, not to mention the larger department, were far less so. This extended throughout the time I worked under his supervision and continued when, after 1999, he worked under mine, first as Associate Keeper of Palaeontology and then, in 2000, as the NHM Keeper of Palaeontology.


Paul Henderson & Richard Lane - Paul and Richard are considered together here since they where successive NHM Directors of Science under whom I served as Keeper of Paleontology. Although they were my direct supervisors and neither was a paleontologist, the guidance and support they gave to me in my administrative role were a large part of the reason I was able to make that role successful. Both also had a knack for forming and leading a team of senior scientist-administrators with grace, style, fellowship, good humor and a palpable sense of shared purpose.

If you’re young and just starting out in this business, be on the lookout for those who might make good mentors. Your career, and you personally, will benefit in ways you can scarcely imagine. If you’re in the middle of your careers, be mindful of what a good mentoring relationship is all about and strive to live up to that standard. Like your own protégés, you too will benefit in ways you can scarcely imagine. And if you’re towards the end of your career, as I am, take the time to thank the mentors who helped you along the way. The time will come when some won’t be there to thank personally so don’t leave it too long. You probably contributed to their lives, and their careers as much as they contributed yours, albeit in different ways. But that’s beside the point. If you have any difficulties sitting down to write that letter or make that call, just try imagining how things might have turned out if they hadn’t been there for you.

Norm MacLeod
12 October 2020

Top Science Cities 2020

Last week the Nature released its Science Cities Index which I find to be a somewhat unusual, but informative, summary of where in the world science is actually getting done. Obviously, this effort is linked conceptually to the ever-popular academic “ranking lists” (US) or “league tables” (UK) that purport to summarize the quality of colleges/universities, academic departments, secondary schools, kindergartens according to some standard set of criteria. In terms of their accuracy, such lists are dubious at best as the ranking achieved by any institution depends entirely on the degree of conformance between the realized strengths and effective priorities of the institutions in question and the set of characteristics used to establish the ranking. Often the latter are evaluated subjectively by a comparatively small group of evaluators whose identities, and qualifications to be members of that group, are rarely made clear. As a result, such exercises usually fail to meet scientifically acceptable standards of rigor or transparency as well as being rather easily capable of manipulation to produce virtually any outcome designed a priori. Nonetheless, such logical quibbles fail to explain the extraordinary diversity of topics for which ranking lists have been produced, much less the way they quickly become talking points around the water coolers (or now, at the ends of Zoom meetings) around the world; even among scientists. Based on this circumstantial evidence I suspect the appeal of such lists lies in what appears to be a fundamental human social need to compare themselves to other humans and other humans to one another. So, having noted these caveats, what does Nature's 2020 Top Science Cities Index tell us?

According to Nature’s Cartherine Armitage, its science cities were evaluated on the basis of the combined output of all institutions that publish peer-reviewed scientific articles in 82 high-quality science journals selected by a panel of 58 leading researchers as the journals to which they were most likely to submit their best work and validated by a survey of more than 6,00 researchers worldwide. Unsurprisingly, no specialist paleontological journals are included in this list though a number of general geological journals in which paleontological research articles appear regularly are (e.g., Geology, PNAS, PRS-B, Science, Science Advances, Nature). The list is dominated by Nature titles (22%). Among the field specific journals there is a sub-equal split between physical and biological titles (52%:48%), but almost half the latter are medical journals. And the list includes only seven (9%) of titles that could be considered “general science”. Nevertheless, the number of articles that appeared in these journals during 2019 varied widely from a high of 3088 for Chemical Communications to a low of 92 for Genes & Development. On this basis the skew is definitely in favor of the physical sciences. Still, for large metropolitan areas with a mixture of universities, research institutes and medical facilities it seems a reasonable source of comparative data, not too small to be grossly unrepresentative and not too large to introduce too many classificational complexities.

The top 10 list for 2020 (compiled for the year 2019) is both surprising and consistent.

  1. Beijing, China
  2. New York Metropolitan Area, USA
  3. Boston Metropolitan Area, USA
  4. San Francisco-San Jose, USA
  5. Shanghai, China
  6. Baltimore-Washington D.C., USA
  7. Tokyo Metropolitan Area, Japan
  8. Nanjing, China
  9. Paris Metropolitan Area, France
  10. Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, USA

Compared to the 2019 Index (compiled for the year 2018), the top four cities remained unchanged, Shanghai rose two levels, Baltimore-Washington,Tokyo, Paris Los Angles, and Chicago all dropped one level, and Nanjing rose four levels. Based on these data it’s difficult to avoid the impression that Chinese cities are on the rise in terms of their scientific research output and so their influence as global hubs of scientific activity. Other somewhat surprising changes over the past year include Wuhan (+6 levels), Guangzhou (+10 levels), Hefei (+7 levels), Tianjin (+24 levels), London (stayed the same at 14), Cambridge (-2 levels) and Oxford (-2 levels). Of course, these data don’t take either the population or areal sizes of the different cities into consideration. Nonetheless, performance is performance and it’s worth noting that some of the top US “cities” are actually amalgams of multiple metropolitan areas (e.g., Baltimore-Washington D.C.).

Moving on to the rankings for the earth & environmental sciences, there are more surprises.

  1. Beijing, China
  2. Baltimore-Washington D.C., USA
  3. New York Metropolitan Area, USA
  4. Nanjing, China
  5. San Francisco-San Jose, USA
  6. Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, USA
  7. Boulder, USA
  8. Boston Metropolitan Area, USA
  9. Wuhan, China
  10. Zürich, Switzerland

No city-level data for the previous year appear to be available from the Nature Index. However the presence of three Chinese cities in the top ten, alongside such traditional powerhouses as Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and Boston, seems unexpected. Prior to the release of this table I doubt many would have listed Beijing, Nanjing or Wuhan as noteworthy global centers of earth-science research.

When I was a graduate student, back when we still lived in caves, the University of Texas at Austin was a rising star in the US academic rankings and the put-down on the older, more “established” campuses was that UT was the “best university money can buy”. I’m sure something along the same lines will now be said about the rise of China’s universities. However, money is, and never will be, the whole story. Today, Texas has a GDP of $1.887 trillion, second in the US only to California and larger than the entire economies of South Korea and Canada. Yet, in 2019 Austin was listed as the 40th most productive science city whereas, in the raking just released, it’s dropped to 62, below the rankings of Daejeon (58), Montreal (44) and Toronto (31).

So, congratulations where congratulations are due. Well done Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Hefei, Tianjin and all the other cities whose rankings were raised in 2019. Very good Beijing, London and all the other cities who maintained their rankings. As for those whose rankings fell, if the fall was just one or two levels it might not matter much in the long run. There's lots of variation in the system, the ranking criteria are a bit idiosyncratic and anyone - or any city - can just have a bad year. Outside this envelope, however, you might want to dig deeper into the data and try to understand the reasons for the fall a bit better. Far outside this envelope though, and assuming you care one way or the other, I'd say further investigation is a must … and must work harder.

Norm MacLeod
(23 September 2020)

Teachers' Day

One of the joys in working in a “foreign” country is learning about the traditions and outlooks of the people there; the stories behind and alongside the stories the home media decides to tell, which are often the only stories the home audiences are told. I was reminded of this simple fact recently when my partner, Jacquie, and I were the surprise subjects of a Teacher’s Day online celebration, organized by the Paleo, Group staff and students at Nanjing University (NJU) in China, where I now teach.

Since the lockdown last Spring I have been teaching online from the UK; first, a Statistics and Data Analysis in the Earth Sciences course during the Spring semester and then a long, three module “short” course in Writing a Scientific Article in English, with Jacquie in the Summer. As I’m sure many of you realize, online teaching has its own positives and negatives for both teachers and students. But one thing both groups can agree on, it’s a lot of work, made even more difficult in my – and the students’ – case by the eight-hour time difference between Nanjing and London.

The writing course finished at the end of August and was quickly followed by Teachers’ Day in China which fell on 10 September this year. As it turns out, most countries have a Teacher’s Day to recognize the efforts and contributions of its educators. But owing to the fact that many counties celebrate this day on different dates, the international impact of the celebration is diminished. Thus, you can be forgiven for not recalling when Teacher’s Day is in either the US (the Tuesday of Teacher Appreciation Week which falls on the first full week in May) or the UK (5 October, the date of World Teachers’ Day). Suffice it to say, in the west Teachers’ Day seems to have the same status as innumerable other obscure group-recognition days (e.g., Squirrel Appreciation Day, 21 Jan; National Weatherperson’s Day, 5 Feb; Middle Child’s Day, 12 Aug.) in which nothing much happens or is noted. Not so in China.

It will come as no surprise to many that China imbues education in general, and teaching in particular, with a reverence only westerners older than myself might recall, dimly, from their own youth; a time when teachers were accorded a level of status in their local communities akin tho those of medical doctors, lawyers, clergy and bank managers. Sadly, this is very much the exception, rather than the rule, today at least in the west. But the teaching profession is highly regarded in China and has been throughout its long an eventful history.

Anyway, to get back to my story, Chinese Teachers’ Day came and went this year and Jacquie and barely noticed it. Last year I received bouquets of flowers from the Nanjing University Earth Science Department and a few students, but I had only just arrived in Nanjing to begin teaching my first courses there and didn’t have any students yet. But this year, thanks to the COVID virus, it was back to the western standard of “no big deal”.

Then Jacquie received an unusual e-mail request from my NJU colleague Prof. Junxuan Fan that she attend the first part of regular — now online — graduate student research seminar which had been scheduled for last Friday (18 Sept.). Jacquie’s not a paleontologist so this stuck us as somewhat odd. We assumed it was going to be a wash-up discussion of the Scientific Writing course, but it seemed bizarre to us to include that discussion at the beginning of a series of graduate student research-project updates. However, over the past year we’ve learned to “go with the flow” in matters such as these with our Chinese friends and colleagues.

Once we’d logged into the Zoom meeting we were surprised to see that the whole of the NJU Paleo. group was in attendance. On close inspection (while we were waiting for a few stragglers to join) I was even more surprised to see the students we’d had on the final, and most intensive, module of the Scientific Writing course in attendance as I knew, from their manuscripts, they were not paleontologists. Indeed some were not even NJU students. But it came as a complete surprise when my secretary, Shuyi (Ariana) Xu announced that the first part of the program would be Jacquie’s and my Teachers’ Day Celebration!

The students quickly organized under the direction of Ariana and Huiqing Xu (not related) to introduce themselves and thank us personally for our teaching of the Scientific Writing course, which all had attended in some form. Then the students joined together to recite stanzas of the Kevin Huff poem, Teachers (see below), and Robert Frost’s well-known Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood; all in English. Needless to say, Jacquie and I were both moved and touched by the outpouring of emotion and kind regard; justified, for the most part, solely as a result of our work on a single course (albeit unusual) course. Such a contrast with the importance teaching is accorded in the US and UK.

The lesson? We should all take care to remind our own teachers of how much influence they’ve had on own lives and to both thank and honor them for their efforts. The wider society might not accord teachers much respect these days, but that doesn’t mean we have to succumb to its philosophies and standards. Also, we should spare a thought or two of thanks for our students. Their road is difficult, as was our own when we were students. Many have sacrificed much to be students and work toward a goal whose successful attainment is all too uncertain, at best. After all, without students willing to listen to, and learn from, what we have to say, we couldn’t be teachers.

I’ve long regarded academic communities as islands within the larger towns/cities, regions, states and countries in which they are located and, like any island, they usually play host to an amazing variety of more-or-less endemic species. The larger culture may regard these endemics as objects curiosity or surprise; on occasion distain. But they are all part of the intellectual ecosystem that’s sustained us for critical parts of our personal voyages of discovery. For some lucky few, we’ve been fortunate enough to spend the whole of our lives there. Recognizing and giving simple thanks to those who have helped us along our way doesn’t seem like a lot, but when we take the time to do it, it’s importance is immeasurable, as is the responsibility we bear for assisting, encouraging and teaching those younger and/or less experienced than ourselves.

Norm MacLeod
(21 September 2020)

by Kevin William Huff

Teachers paint their minds;
And guide their thoughts;
Share their achievements;
And advise their faults.

Inspire a love;
Of knowledge and truth;
As you light the path;
Which leads our youth.

For our future brightens;
With each lesson you teach;
Each smile you lengthen;
Each goal you help reach.

For the dawn of each poet;
Each philosopher and king;
Begins with a teacher;
And the wisdom they bring.

New PaleoNet Pages

I've (finally) gotten around to redesigning and updating the PaleoNet Pages web site. Hope you like the result.

Norm MacLeod
(8 September 2020)