01/31/2014 02:23 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

Paleontology Interview: Gettin' Zeigy With It

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

This October Amy sat down with her mentor, professional geologist Dr. Kate Zeigler. Yes, that means this interview contains everything from A to Z. Also Z to A, since Kate was the one actually being interviewed. Kate is the sole owner of Zeigler Geologic Consulting and adjunct faculty at New Mexico Highlands University in Albuquerque, a kick-ass rock climber, and she likes finding out which direction minerals in rocks point (which is a lot more important than you might think).

Poor/Lucky Kate was assigned to work together with Amy as a mentor/mentee pair through the Huffington Post's Girls in STEM blog where they both write about their experiences as female paleontologists, student and professional. Amy and Kate met up this year at the annual Geological Society of America's (GSA) meeting in Denver, CO. Below is the result: a glimpse into Kate Zeigler's life as a badass lady paleontologist/geologist (Slow Loris Rarely Included).


Many imaginary friends including Meaghan and Mary Anning made guest appearances in the following interview with Dr. Kate Zeigler

A: You have your own consulting company and do a lot of geologic fieldwork: paleontological, paleomagnetic, now hydrologic, too. Was that always your plan? Or how did your path change from when you were a kid and wanted to be a Triceratops and from where are you now? How did that happen?
K: Well once we figured out I couldn't be a Triceratops I decided to be a paleontologist instead, because that was the next best thing. I realized in high school that you cannot really go get a degree in Vertebrate Paleontology at very many places.
A: Right, no, you cannot.
2014-01-28-phytosaurdimorph21.jpg MS side-project: Gender dimorphism in phytosaurs

K: It seemed like the more I thought about it there were really two ways to go at it. One way was to go the Biology route and do morphometrics and osteology and that kind of stuff. Or the other was was to go at it from the geology perspective to get the context and I also really liked rocks growing up. I always brought home dozens and dozens and dozens of rocks (laughs) and so I thought "Oh I'll do Geology!" I did my undergraduate as straight Geology; my senior thesis was on a deep-sea sediment core, so it was kind of micropaleontology but it was really a paleo-climate project. I decided to do my Masters at the University of New Mexico and it ended up being a pure Vertebrate Paleontology project. I was actually going to do stable isotopes in dinosaur teeth, but then I got to looking into the stability of phosphate and went "eh... maybe not." So I ended up doing a straight paleo project and I really enjoyed it. I just really really loved working with fossils, learning how to do fossil preparation, learning how to analyze them both from a sedimentology and biology point of view.
But by the time I got about midway through my PhD, which had a biostratigraphy component, I really realized I could not handle the personalities and the politics [in academia]. People would not listen to you if your data was contradictory to their precious hypothesis. People were so close-minded in their science. I watched people get up during someone's presentation at a professional conference and scream at them. I realized I did not want to work with those people anymore. The other aspect of my PhD was doing magnetostratigraphy so I was learning how to do magnetic analyses, which (laughs) has a steep learning curve.


Kate collecting paleomag data in the field

A: I bet, that stuff is still a giant mystery to me
K: I realized that magnetostratigraphic data can compliment paleontological data, so I can do this work while also help my colleagues who I do still want to work with. But I do not have to directly deal with the drama and politics that often seem to occur in academia. Once I finished my PhD I started my own company. I ended up branching out into hydrology, geoarchaeology, structural mapping, paleontology surveys, it just blossomed. And it is certainly not what I thought would happen.
A: But you like where you are I take it?
K: Yes I do very much like where I am.

A: Meaghan has come up with her idea of an interpretive dance that explains paleomagnetism. She has recorded a video for you to watch. How good was it? Where could she make improvements?

K: (laughing) If she could go from the whole "I am normal polarity" to a hand-stand "I am reverse polarity" that would do it.
A: Oh there we go! Meaghan worked really hard for ten minutes last night for that interpretive dance so I hope you enjoyed it.
K: I may have to present that to my 101 classes.

A: In your own words though, how would you explain paleomagnetism?
2014-01-28-Kucksetal.2001.png Paleomag map for New Mexico (Zeigler et al. 2005; Kucks et al. 2001)

K: It is basically studying how Earth's magnetic field changes. So we think of it as a stable thing; that our compasses point toward north pole and life is grand and sea turtles and birds migrates just fine. But when we think about the magnetic field it is not a stable thing. It changes through time and we are trying to understand those changes. When they occur, do they have any impact on life as we know it? How is it recorded in the rock record? And the useful thing is it is a unique pattern, because the field does not change its direction every ten thousand years on the dot, because it does change effectively randomly, so there is a unique pattern through time. You can pattern match as an aid in putting together chronology for different rock types.

It's also fun to know that paleomagnetism was basically the final nail for plate tectonics. It was the final data set that said seafloor spreading does happen, the plates are moving. I think that is really cool. It is a relatively young field, it just came around in the 50's and 60's but that it had such a powerful implication right off the bat, that is just really fun.


Kate extracting a core to analyze

A: How about the ladies in your life, who inspires you? And how do they inspire you?
K: I think my mom was probably the first of my inspirations because she is a lawyer. When I was a little kid we moved from Montana to Houston so that she could go to law school and I saw her working really hard to become a lawyer to go through the bar exam, which is kind of a big scary deal. Then when I was in high school she took the Canadian bar exam. Watching her I knew nothing was going to stop me from doing what I want to do. Then as I got into graduate school and I was meeting a lot of professional paleontologists and geologists, female professionals, who were very confident and very calm in the face of sometimes unintended sexism. They were very calm and confident and said "no, this is my science and we are not going let you browbeat us" like my colleague Anne Weil from Oklahoma. She is a very competent, confident person, I really look up to her. Another is a colleague of mine at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology Sherry Kelly. She is probably one of the most competent geologists I have ever met and she works on everything: structural geology, aquifers, geothermal, and just is very calm and confident.


Women participating with ARMAS in Education, a STEM program between NM Highlands University and Luna Community College

A: What was your inspiration for applying for the Huffpost Girls in STEM Mentorship program?
K: I think that it's because I have seen young women struggle so much in undergraduate level courses. When I was a Teaching Assistant (TA) at University of New Mexico (UNM), when I was a graduate student I saw young women who would come into the class and right off the bat say "I can't do math" or "I can't do science" because someone had told them that girls cannot do science and math and they went "okay" and that just made me mad. There are plenty of us who are perfectly capable of doing math and science. I want to be able to spread that message to as many young women as possible. Yes, you can do this, it is not that hard and do not let somebody tell you you cannot do it. That just, just makes me mad! (Laughs)
A: And with every right to be mad!
K: I've also volunteered for some one-day STEM workshops with middle school girls doing a little two-hour geology lab session and that is really fun, but that is one age group, I also wanted to be able to reach out to the whole spectrum. So when I saw that opportunity I wanted to reach out to our level, even through high school and middle school, you know? It starts early.
A: I think that is where we lose a lot of women, that is a critical age when they are going from elementary school where everyone is in the classroom more or less as equals, but then hormones hit and it is not cool to be good at math and science anymore, and that is not girly. That is, at least in my experience, where we seem to lose a lot of interest in the sciences.
K: It was an opportunity and I didn't know if they were going to pick me, I thought I will throw my hat in because geology is such a niche science. A lot of the STEM workshops I have been to are focused on engineering, computer engineering, biology, mechanical engineering. You don't get the field sciences.
A: Right, that is very true. In my experience going through grade school Earth Sciences were the dumb kid classes! I tested out of those classes in high school because I was in the "AP/IB" Biology classes and and Earth Sciences was like, "oh you are not ready for Biology yet, you get to go learn about rocks..." I feel there is that stigma within the school system against Geology.
K: It's the whole Rocks for Jocks thing, which is really funny because they get into Geology 101 and you go "okay let's talk about solid state convection." and they go "whaaaat?" Yes, we are not just going to learn how to identify rocks and minerals, we are going to figure out how they form! Chemistry, physics, oh God! (laughs) But I think you are right, there is a massive disconnect that happens in middle school and I am not really sure how to bridge that gap, except by talking about these types of issues.
A: Right, doing what you are doing, it is a start!

M: Yeah, so I wasn't actually able to make it in person... so I interviewed using the almighty power of Youtube!

K: Well Amy and I do not talk all the time, we keep up with each other on Facebook so we are both aware of what is going on, but I feel like she's on her own path really, I do not need to be like "oh wait, wait, wait don't do that oh-my-god!" I like mentorships where the mentee drives the process, like when you feel like you do not have enough information to make a decision, so you need to ask somebody who might be able to shed more light on the situation. It is more of a friendly, "Hey! I have a question for you!" instead of me breathing down your neck and saying "have you applied to grad schools?! Where are you applying to grad school?! Have you done your letter of reference?! Have you done this have you done this..." because that is just going to drive you nuts and it is also going to destroy your self confidence. It is not my job to hold your hand and drag you kicking and screaming into what I think would be best for you. You have to figure out what is best for you.
Amy, Kate, and a eurypterid hangin' at GSA

A: So do you think I'm obsessed with jelly beans and lemurs?
K: A little bit on the lemur end but lemurs are cute! So I have no problem with that obsession. But yes, I like this sort of, not totally hands-off, but I do not want to micromanage someone. At the end of the day you know what is best for you.
A: But you are a support, a great support.
K: Yes a support, and when you do get to a point where you are like "ehhhh I do not know what is going on here!" Then I can help out. I do this with our students, I do not like micromanaging.

A: You own your own company, attend professional meetings, and are an active member of professional societies, how do you balance that and still find time to inspire undergrads to pursue science?
Students on the outcrop at the 2013 NMGS Fall Field Conference

K: Actually a lot of those things go together. One, we really encourage our undergraduates and our graduates students at Highlands and at UNM to become a part of the New Mexico Geological Society (NMGS), GSA, and AGU. We take them to conferences so they learn how science works, and they see the good and the bad. My student saw the whole spectrum of people who came up to her poster. She got the really thoughtful people who asked her questions and who were legitimately interested in what we are doing, and she got the hard-asses who just came over to give her a hard time. But when you come to a conference like this and you bring your students along I think it really inspires them because they see this huge community of geoscientists who are all communicating. You see collaborations develop among people, you network with people you would have never met before. So I take my conference duty, my society membership duties, and my teaching duties as a way to pull students in and say "hey look at these really cool things that we can do as scientists." Like the NMGS fall field conference: 3 days of professional geologists on the outcrop talking to you about what they do. You can't help but get excited about it. Also, I am hyperactive enough that I can transmit a lot of my excitement to my students, even my Geology 101 students. I tell them that geology does not have to be scary. I do not mind if they do not go into Geology, but I want them to at least stop and say "oh that is actually really cool I had no idea that the interior of the earth did this, or the Earth's magnetic field did that." My goal is really more to have undergraduates become less afraid of science and math. One of the fun things that we do with my consulting business is we do try to bring in student interns.
A: Oh cool!
K: We do not have money for them, but we do offer them a chance to get some experience: measuring wells, mapping, doing paleo work. We do try to offer all the students I know the opportunity. Even if it is just a weekend here or there, we encourage students to come hang out with us just see how geology really goes. Not Hollywood, or pure academics, because those are sort of end-member states.
A: Almost the extremes.
K: I try to let our students know that you do not have to go into academia. Everybody always thought that I was going to become a faculty member somewhere. My PhD adviser got really mad when I told him I was not going to apply for faculty positions. And so I do want to try to let students know that if you are not comfortable in academia you do not have to do that. There is industry. There is hardcore petroleum, but there are these niches that you can find your place in, just do not be afraid to look outside the ivory tower.


Also, she writes books.

A: We talked a little bit about this at lunch too so it is funny that this comes up. We've seen that you do work with archaeologists and while we appreciate your bipartisan approach, does it make you feel a little bit like a paleo traitor? Be honest.
K: No, no. Though I do get this question a lot, "oh you're a paleontologist, have you been to Egypt?"
A: Oh I bet, all the time. "You are Indiana Jones, right?"
K: Now I tell people I work with really dead things, really really dead things, beyond mammoth dead. The work we do with archaeologists is mostly rock and mineral identification and provenance analysis. It is up to them to figure out what it is; how old it is, is it an Archaic projectile point or whatever. But I am wondering why did they pick that material? And where did that material come from? And how did it get to where we found it? I'm looking at how humans interact with our landscape but I do not do what they do, and a lot of what they do is quite mysterious to me. Some of their hypotheses I do not have enough information to understand. Part of that is because I just do not do archaeology. I do not understand their motivations, I do not understand where they are trying to get to at the end of the day. I am more interested in the rocks and really dead things.
A: Well they can do their job and you can do yours and you'll play nice if they play nice!
K: Exactly.

A: How do you feel about the movie The Core? Any choice corrections? Have you even seen it?
Super accurate clip from The Core

K: I actually saw the previews for it and went "oh my God no." I never watched it because the previews pissed me off enough that I decided I could not sit through it without throwing something through the screen.
A: That sounds like me during Jurassic Park.
K: Jurassic Park though to me, that moment when you first see the Brachiosaurus step out, that was amazing.
A: True, and for its time it was incredible.
K: The animation was just, I mean it made you shudder. You know your little mammalian hind brain that gets freaked out about things from an evolutionary standpoint is going "oh God." They probably got that pretty close to right because something back in here (motions to head) is reacting to that sight.
A: So which plot is more probable here? Drilling to the core of the Earth or bringing back dinosaurs from extinction? Which one will happen first?
K: Well given that they are trying to clone mammoths now I think we are trending more towards doing something stupid and bringing back extinct life forms. There are so many physical encounters and problems with getting to the core of the Earth.
A: Like how we haven't even gotten past the crust yet?
K: Yes, not even close! So now we are going through extremely high pressure, extremely high temperature, and then we're going into a liquid outer core. Oh yay molten iron nickel. So I think genetic information is a much closer goal.
A: Though I am not looking forward to either, I have to admit.
K: No, I think both of those are bad ideas. Humans just cannot help themselves.

A: Something that Meaghan and I love to do is rock climb. Last spring break we on a went climbing trip to Smith Rock and Yosemite and had a great time. We have noticed that a lot of geologists, including yourself, like to rock climb and we are wondering what is it about geologists that make us so attracted to this sport? Is it coincidental or is there a link? And what is your favorite rock to climb on?


Kate crushin' the rock routes

K: I was thinking about this because yes, I have noticed that a huge proportion of us are also climbers. I wonder if it stems from true field geologists. There are lots of geologists who are really more lab geologists and then there are hard core field geologist, and there are some who bridge over those. Your hardcore field geologists always have to climb to the worst possible part of the outcrop, the most dangerous part of it, usually in a lightening storm in order to look at something that is really cool. I think that it lends itself in transitioning to climbing because we already do it. And not safely. Not by any means do we do it safely! But we already have that predisposition to get to the top, to see what is up there. I remember climbing with my really good friend Brandi Proffitt (seen in photo above with Kate in lower right corner). We were climbing outside in Ouray, Colorado limestone sequence, and it was my first lead climb. It was like a 5.8 but it was long, it was seven or eight bolts long.
A: Still pretty freaky for a lead climb.
K: Well I got about 4 bolts up and I was between bolts, so I was above my last clip, and I saw this pocket filled with pyrite crystals. And I derailed in the middle of this climb. And I stop, all "look at the pyrite crystals!" and Brandi's like "Omg keep climbing you need to clip because you're gonna get tired and if you miss the bolt..." I mean, I was high enough up I wasn't going to deck or anything, but I was definitely between bolts.
A: You could have taken a nasty whipper.
K: And I stopped to geek out on some pyrite crystals and she was like "What is wrong with you?!" So yes, if you really love rocks you want to climb all over them! I think my favorite to climb on are the pyroclastic rhyolites in Central New Mexico. Those are so much fun.
A: I remember doing a similar thing while climbing a multi-pitch in Joshua Tree National Park where the routes are really long and strung out. My partner was leading this route, it was super windy that day, and we were two pitches up and I was completely freaking out. But then that quartz monzonite rock centered me. I had just finished my petrology class and I just focused on the quartz crystals and plagioclase and biotites, and slowly worked my way up the route. So geology can help us and hinder us in these rock climbing situations!


Kate climbing/doing fieldwork in Petrified Forest NP

A: Okay these are our "rapid-fire" questions. We don't want you to think about it, we just want you to answer.

A: This question comes from one of our readers:

A: One that I think would be a nice way to tie everything up: What would be your one piece of advice for a woman who is interested in a STEM career or a STEM lifestyle?
K: Do not be afraid. If you find something that truly interests you, do not be afraid to try it. Also do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid of two steps backward, one step to the left or that sort of thing. There may be aspects of your path that are not clear right off the bat, but do not be afraid to keep trying. Do not let other people shake your confidence to the point where you settle for doing something you actually do not want to do. That is a hard one to do, but important.

Like this interview? Read more by Amy and Meaghan on their blog, Mary Anning's Revenge.