Location: Baylor University
Current job/title: Associate Professor, Department of Geosciences
One word that describes how you work: excited
Favorite thing you do at work: collect and study fossil leaves
Favorite plant: Cycads (Cycads have existed for about 300 million years, fossil cycads are really cool and were ubiquitous in the Mesozoic (~225 – 66 million years ago), and modern cycads have
One interesting project you have been working on: My research is pretty varied because I work on both modern and fossil plants, and I’m working on a bunch of different projects at the same time. One interesting project that we are working on in my lab right now is focused on examining how leaf traits, and more specifically, traits related to leaf teeth (or serrations) vary through a plant’s growth during one growing season and between years. In this project we’re working with Dan Chitwood of the Danforth Plant Science Center and we are looking at the leaf traits of a bunch of different species of Vitis that Dan sampled from vines in upstate New York.
Paleobotanists and ecologists have known for a long time that there is a strong relationship between climate and leaf traits. In particular, plant species with teeth are more common in colder climates with shorter growing seasons and vice versa. The relationships between leaf traits and climate have been used to develop models for estimating ancient temperature and precipitation using fossil leaves.
However, there are still a lot of unknowns about what drives the relationship between leaf traits and climate and how these relationships change. One major question is how or if leaf traits change through leaf development. In other words, as a leaf matures through a growing season, do its leaf traits change? We are trying to address this by looking a leaves at different states of maturity (i.e., different ages) along single vines in different species of Vitis. Our hypothesis is that leaf traits will scale as leaves mature so that the leaf traits of young, immature leaves and older, mature leaves are statistically indistinguishable from one another.
Right now we assume that leaf traits are scalable between leaves of different ages, but this idea has never been tested. So, the results of this project have important implications, especially for applications to fossil leaves, because if traits aren’t scalable, we’ll have to rethink the way we apply our paleoclimate models. So far our preliminary data suggests that leaf traits scale with leaf maturity, but we need to analyze more leaves from other species to more completely test this hypothesis.
What does a normal day look like (if there is such a thing as a normal day)?
I don’t really have a “normal” day. My wife is a professor of Biology at McLennan Community College in Waco, and we have two young children (3 year old daughter Anna and 1 year old son James). We coordinate our work schedules based on our teaching and childcare. This semester, we both teach on Tuesday and Thursday. We have a part-time nanny that watches James on Tuesday and Thursday and then we alternate when we stay home with him. I stay home with James on Mondays and my wife stays home on Wednesdays. We alternate Fridays depending on our schedules. That means this semester I work from home on Monday, work from the office on Tuesday-Thursday, and work at home or in the office on Friday. Tuesday and Thursday are my “teaching days” and I focus almost exclusively on “research” on Wednesday.
What is your workspace setup like?
I have both a home and work office. My home office is really just my desk, a laptop, and a computer screen. I do a lot of writing in my home office because it’s a great place for me to work without many distractions. At work, my office and lab spaces are down the hall from each other. My work office is pretty standard (desk, computer). In my lab, I have a couple of microscopes, a rock and sample preparation area, a photo stand, and a bunch of space to lay out and study specimens all dedicated to my ecology and paleobotany research. Because the other half of my research focuses on investigating the earth’s magnetic field, the other half of my lab is dedicated to instrumentation and equipment focused on that research (see some lab photos here: http://danielpeppe.com/). I use my lab on days when I’m looking at fossils, taking photographs of modern plants or fossils, or when I’m meeting my students about their research.
What are some tools, apps, or websites that you use or visit every day? Do you have a favorite resource?
I use a variety of different programs depending on the work I’m doing.
When taking photographs of large specimens, I use the program DSLR Remote Pro, which is a simple image capture program that allows a “live view” of the specimen(s) being photographed. It also saves the images directly to the computer which eliminates the need to a SD card that is easily lost or corrupted. In cases where we need more magnification, we use my Nikon SMZ 1500 zoom stereo microscope with a Nikon DS-Fi1 5-megapixel digital camera and use the program NIS-Elements to take the photographs.
When doing leaf trait measurements, we used Adobe Photoshop to process the leaves and then use ImageJ to make the measurements.
The other programs that I used on a regular basis are Google Hangouts and Skype. Almost all of my projects are collaborative, so my collaborators and I regularly talk using video conferencing. The thing I really like about Google Hangouts is that you can share your screen with the other people in the video conference, so you can show people images, data, etc. that you’re working on in real time. It’s also a great tool for teaching people how to do a computer based method remotely.
If you could eliminate one thing that you spend a lot of time doing, what would it be?
I spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks, such as tasks related to general lab upkeep like ordering lab supplies, which keep me from doing the things I really want to be doing (i.e., research). If I could eliminate those kinds of responsibilities, I definitely wouldn’t miss them!
What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is that sometimes it’s just as useful to figure out what you don’t like as it is to figure out what you do. This advice was given to me as an undergrad when I was deciding on whether or not I wanted to take an internship that was in the oil and gas field. I took it and quickly discovered that I definitely didn’t want to go into industry. That experience was really eye opening to me and helped push me onto the path I am on now, and I couldn’t be happier.
How do you learn new things?
I’m definitely a visual learner, so I need to “see” things to learn them well. If it’s an experiment and type of data analysis, I need to see it performed and then try it myself. When it comes to reading a paper, I tend to focus a lot on the figures to help me more completely understand the points the authors are trying to make.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
My wife jokes with me that my super power is hyper-focus. Hyper-focus is a blessing and a curse. It means that I’m able to focus deeply on the task at hand and can work through distractions around me. Unfortunately, it also means that when I’m working on something, I can forget/ignore the other things that need to be done.
Music, silence, white noise – what works for you?
Music. I like to listen to jazz or classical music when working.
What do you do when the pipette is down and the computer is powered off?
I really like being outside, which is one of the things that drew me to geology, paleontology, and ecology and to doing fieldwork. When I’m not at work (in the office, in the lab, or in the field), I’m spending time with my family and we all like to spend it outside. I live in Texas, which means we can be outside almost year round, and we take advantage of that. We have a large backyard with a big vegetable garden, some fruit trees, and lots of flowers, and we spend as much time as possible out there. We also regularly take our two dogs on long walks and hikes in the many green spaces around Waco.
I also usually spend about three hours a week doing hot yoga. It’s great exercise and it’s also a time during the week when I am able to shut out everything and not think about anything else except my yoga practice. Afterwards, I’m always refreshed and it helps my brain recharge so that I’m usually most productive on days when I do yoga early in the morning.
How do you work on projects with colleagues/teams/groups?
Almost all of my projects are collaborative and they all work in different ways mostly based on the people working on the project. At this point in my career, I’ve mostly winnowed my collaborative projects down to a place where I’m working with people I genuinely like working with, which makes a huge difference. In most cases, my collaborators are my friends and that makes working with them a lot easier and a lot more fun. My collaborative projects typically involve a lot of emailing and periodic video conference calls, especially when we are writing up a manuscript or planning a field season. Since most of my projects have a field component, we also usually have a field season together which helps us all stay connected to the project.
In most of these projects, the project participants have relatively well-defined roles, and if we didn’t at the beginning, we’ve worked to figure them out as the collaboration has matured. Having defined roles is something I’ve found make a tremendous difference in project outcomes and functionality. It allows each of us to focus on the area of our greatest strength, and also tends to mean that projects are more productive and there are fewer issues with project contributions.
What do you spend time thinking about that’s not your next proposal, publication, or project deadline?
Only from the research perspective here, I often find myself thinking about broader questions related to leaf traits or paleoclimate and ways to answer them. On occasion, I even come up with a good idea and it ends up being something that gets turned into a project/proposal!
If you’re OK sharing, what’s one way readers can get in touch or follow along with your work (email, blog, twitter, etc.)?
lab website: www.danielpeppe.com
I’d love to see Dan Chitwood answer these questions.