Juliana Thomas is a biologist and educator who’s been teaching for more than 30 years and has a passion for getting students involved in science at a young age. She helped design citizen science lessons for middle school students in which they collect and analyze shark teeth from the Miocene and Pliocene.
We spoke to Juliana about her perspective on citizen science, what it’s like being a biologist, and more. Here’s what she had to say.
What is citizen science, and why is it important?
Citizen science is a way in which non-scientists can become scientists. You can become a “scientist” yourself by collaborating within a real research project where you are helping find answers to scientific questions by helping collect “real” data and then analyzing the data collected. Anyone interested can become a citizen scientist; you just need to be interested in being part of a team looking for answers to a scientific question.
There are many projects on a range of topics that use the help of citizen scientists to collect a vast amount of data. Some projects wouldn’t be possible without the collaboration of citizen scientists. In some projects, citizen scientists all over the world are helping collect data for a single project. A single scientist or small group of scientists wouldn’t be able to collect all that amount of information themselves.
Students can also be citizen scientists, at any grade level. It just depends on the project you are interest in. If you are interested in paleontology, you can be part of the Shark Tooth Forensics Project. If you are interested in astronomy, there are various projects you can be a part of. If you are interested in plants, there are many projects available to you as well.
Another beautiful thing is that as you collect data and collaborate with scientists, you’re also learning a lot of new information that no one else knows. You’re being one of the first people to make those new findings. That’s why you’re becoming a real scientist yourself!
Tell us about fossilshark.org.
This is a website (in progress) where you can obtain some information on what is happening with the Shark Tooth Forensics Citizens Science Project. It includes background information about the scientists and teachers/collaborators involved in the project, and what the project is about.
Viewers can see pictures of various shark teeth found, some very interesting in shape. Additionally you can see the results of data collected on shark teeth sizes found at various sites; these results are displayed as frequency graphs, and you can compare the distribution of sizes from the different sites sampled.
What’s the most fascinating specimen you’ve ever worked with?
In college I studied the aggressive behavior of a species of lizards found in Colombia, South America. They’re called false anoles because they look like anoles, but live in cold climates and move slowly. They present head-bob displays, like anoles. Interesting reptiles! I have also worked with an alligators species and a crocodile species, studying their behavior.
My students and I have also done a lot of work with shark teeth. They come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from 1 mm to 25 mm, and the big Megalodon tooth, which can be 5 inches or more. Every time I find a new shark tooth in sediment, I get that feeling of excitement, no matter how many shark teeth I’ve found before.
When did you know you wanted to be a biologist?
Since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in science. It was always my favorite class in school, and as a 9-year old, I would collect different plants and butterflies with my brother just for fun. In high school, I enjoyed looking at cells, plant tissues, and protists through the microscope. But I didn’t decide to be a biologist until my senior year.
When I started college, I knew that’s what I would pursue. After becoming a biologist, I went for a master’s degree in herpetology – animal behavior. By then, reptiles and amphibians were what I was most interested in.
What do you like to do when you’re not working as a biologist?
Apart from being a biologist, I’m a middle school teacher. I always like to bring those two disciplines together in my class: biology and teaching. I enjoy guiding students into their future. Getting my students excited about anything in science is something I like to do daily.
For fun, I enjoy going on nature walks, growing orchids, and doing origami. I also enjoy photography, particularly taking pictures of animals and plants. I like travelling, too, as well as sitting down in a quiet space to read a good book.
No matter what, when, where, or how, I always like to learn new things. That’s something I am excited about doing every day.
What advice would you give young aspiring biologists?
If you dream of being a biologist and doing work like I do, just keep developing that grit and growth mindset you have in yourself. Be curious about nature, about life, and always observe how nature solves problems. Keep working hard, overcoming challenges. Set small and big goals that will take you to your dreams (no matter how crazy they might seem sometimes). Don’t give up when things don’t go well and when they don’t seem easy. Easy is not fun; challenges are fun.