Academic Thankfulness

It may be a little bit unoriginal, but I think this would be a good place to talk about things that I am thankful for, especially right now during the pandemic.

  • So many connectivity tools either are free to use or have been made available to us by the university. You know before lockdown, I’d never heard of zoom and I’d wager that most of us have not. Up to that point, I had actually uninstalled skype from my computer because I never used it, but I’ve probably used zoom 2 out of every 3 days in the last 9 months. Through zoom I’ve had meetings with international collaborators and had a thanksgiving family meeting, seeing family I only typically see on Christmas and in the summer.
  • My advisor and professors in general have done a great deal of work to stay abreast of COVID guidelines and have kept us grad students both well appraised of the situation, but have also created the circumstances for us to be able to access facilities in regimented and safe manors.
  • Lockdown has given me more experience with multimedia. While it’s not our primary role, the necessity of prerecording lectures and other class material has given us all new tools to approach both education and outreach, and I’ve appreciated being able to stretch those muscles.
  • While I could not attend conferences this year and I found the platforms used a bit frustrating, it is still nice that for the Geological Society of America meeting, that I have the better part of a year to catch most of the talks I wanted to watch, even if I found it very difficult to concentrate during the main conference time.
  • It’s been stressful this year, and I’m glad that I have several hobbies that are conducive to social distancing, like building and painting models, or collecting rocks and fossils from obscure road cuts.
  • Institutional research access. While working at home, I’d often try to lookup papers online, only to be confounded by paywalls, paywalls that fell once I logged on through the VT library system. I tend to look up most of my papers on campus, so this served as a strong reminder of how inaccessible a lot of research is and how fortunate I am to have access to the research I need.
  • I tend to be an office talker. I’d frequently go by a colleague’s office to pick up something and then spend 20 min talking with them, which I obviously cannot do now, but thanks to communications technology I can still talk regularly with friends, even those I hadn’t spoken with in quite a while.
  • Silver linings. I don’t want to be blasé when I say this, as the pandemic has caused and exposed multifaceted human sufferings, but some of the changes brought on by lockdown have improved things for people I care about and for institutions that I support. Forced to work from home, my aunt, an academic advisor, set up her first at home internet connection and now has a smartphone. While she is computer literate, I feel that both steps will help her keep up with technology. Similarly, my grandma got a new computer and better internet access to help one of my cousins with his school assignments, which I think is an improvement for her as well. Additionally, the difficulties conducting standardized testing has forced universities to revaluate their relationships with major testing. I for one am glad to see the waning of the GRE.


hat all have you been thankful for this year?

Morrison Musings: Modern Matriculation Moving towards More Meaning

So for changes I’d like to see in higher ed, I have some disconnected thoughts I’d like to share.


Undergrad path content: As an undergrad, I was a geology/chemistry double major. In my chemistry program, I often felt frustrated because the curriculum seemed very geared towards a medical school/research perspective. I understand why this is; medicine and medical research are both obviously important and employable, but that is a limited lens of chemistry. There are many other realms of chemistry that are not particularly related to orgo/physiology that are industrially significant or otherwise major areas of research. I knew I wanted to go into a geo/bio/paleo direction, and I often had to work to make classes relevant to what I was interested in (Quantitative analytical chem and physical chem were a little bit more compelling in that regard). While my experience is limited to chemistry at one particular university, it is easy for me to imagine that a biomed curricular focus sucks the oxygen out of most chemistry undergrad degree paths and that other programs probably have similar overly narrow focusses that make it harder for students to pursue their professional interests. So, I’d like to see more alternative course paths for degrees that accommodate the broadness of the field.


Academic structure: People understand the basics of what an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree is, but I often feel that there are many things that I should know that I was expected to know without having had it explained, like the different types of research universities for instance or certain insights to how grants/departmental funds/other monetary concerns actually work. I feel that this knowledge could be better explained, starting with incorporation into undergrad classes rather than extracurricular informational sessions.


Academia and politics: Academics often feel pressured to be “above” or outside of politics. While I wholeheartedly agree that it is wrong for professors to expound on political viewpoints to students, it is grossly unjust to grad students, professors, administrators, and staff for us to be expected to be apolitical. In the past four years, changes to tax law nearly increased students’ tax burden to a substantial degree, the status of international students was repeatedly made more tenuous, and top-down agency actions dramatically influenced research priorities in ways that were driven by politics rather than the outcomes of research. It is clear that academics must fight in the political arena and we should be armed to do so and not shamed for protecting ourselves. It would be useful for undergrads to learn about what policies govern their disciplines and how those policies may change and what proposed changes to policy would do to our fields. Likewise, I think more departments should set aside programming for the policy-shaping aspects of the field; I’ve seen several internships looking at geoscience policy for thinktanks and regulatory agencies, but I’ve never had policy or political participation incorporated into a class I’ve been offered. This needs to change.

Sticks and stones may break my [CENSORED]s, but science words will never hurt me

So, this blog post is going to be a bit meander-y and humorous, but it is an interesting exploration of the limits and pitfalls of our current digital conference age, and also a discussion of serious and unserious aspects of science communication. Enjoy


We are knee-deep in conference season – at present, I am gearing up to catch Geological Society of America talks, but other conferences have already played out, including the most notable paleontology conference, the meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, held online this month. Converting such a conference from an in-person to a digital affair requires a tremendous amount of work and planning. Unfortunately, as the adage goes, no plan survives first contact with the enemy; it was unfortunate though that the enemy here was the inbuilt censor for the platform the talks, posters, text-chat, and presentations were hosted on. The most notable victim of the censor was the word “bone,” which as you might imagine is a bit of an obstacle for discussions by members of a society dedicated exclusively to organisms that possess bones, and whose work is highly related to bones. Several other words that anatomists and population ecologists use were also censored, like sexual, pubic, and stream. One particular victim “Hell” may seem at first like a small loss for a paleontology conference, but be aware that the major end-Cretaceous (i.e. T. rex, triceratops, and end of the dino days) locality in North America is Hell Creek, dubbed “Heck Creek” by conference-goers to evade the censor.


So in and of itself, this isn’t a huge story, and I imagine any conference-goer can relate similar humorous events from other conferences. The difference is that this story caught steam and was carried by major news outlets, most prominently Vice News (, which was widely shared on other social media. Now I am a paleontologist, but I am not a vertebrate paleontologist. I did not attend this conference. I did not first learn about this snafu from the Vice article; I heard it from my friends who were at the conference and from robust popular science humor social media. Paleontology is a very public-facing science and as such it pops up in all sorts of science communication spaces, ranging from serious but compelling blogs and podcasts (Paleocast , Past time , Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week , Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs, and my own podcast Muview with Mo  come to mind), the highly interconnected world of academic-amateur-artistic discourse of #PaleoTwitter, to the humorous and flippant realm of online paleo-humor, like the Facebook page  Paleontology Coprolite posting (coprolites are fossilized excrement) – a hub of memes about current developments in paleontology with a highly irreverent tone and 36.8 thousand members, including notable paleontologists like Dr. Thomas Holtz, quoted in the above Vice article. This censoring debacle has circulated widely in each of these three spaces, catching the attention of wider audiences beyond the attendees of the conference and the narrow band of academia. Established scientists and eager members of the public participate in these spaces, both out of personal enjoyment (I often share and discuss paleo-memes with my fellow grad students, and I love the world of online paleo artistry), and desire to spread new and emerging information in their field (twitter artists are orders of magnitude more competent at and willing to present currently accurate depictions of dinosaurs than any major popular media, and frankly have done a better job of disseminating that knowledge). I use my twitter for professional paleo and geosci purposes, and I appreciate the freedom that paleo discourse allows me to participate in, after all, can you think of another scientific conference that made headlines that was not for a deep scandal? I’m glad to see that more sciences are looking at the informality of online paleontology and are adapting and incorporating those techniques (in these past weeks I’ve seen great twitter posts regarding #Thinsectionthursday and #Tooidsday as part of geoscience outreach).



P.S. I’d would be remiss to discuss paleontology blogs without mentioning my favorite, the sadly discontinued Underwhelming Fish Fossil of the Month, but Mark Carnall, previously of the University College of London Museum,smelling%20because%20life%20can%E2%80%99t%20always%20about%20the%20best.

Open Access Open Minds:

Paleontology and Geology are rich fields of study and well-developed research programs around the world. As such, there is no shortage of journals dedicated to these fields and broad journals that disseminate information related to these sciences. I was looking for nice compendiums of these journals and found these two very useful indexes: and

From these lists, here is a sampling of open access journals in the geosciences/paleontology: Science Advances

Nature Communications

PLoS One

Scientific Reports


Ecology and Evolution


Palaeontologia Electronica

The Fossil Record

China Geology

As an observation, additional open access journals tend to be national or regional journals produced by organizations in and focused on those regions, like Denmark, the Andes, or Poland (Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales strikes me as being one of the most comedically specific and African Invertebrates impresses me with its specific directness). Several of these journals are pretty significant and well known publications, so for this post, I’m going to discuss PLoS, which is notable as having been established as an Open Access publication.

PLoS One is one of the Public Library of Science’s open access journals. The Library grew out of a collaboration between prominent scientists in the early 2000s calling for more open access publishing. PLoS One was founded in 2006. It is headquartered in San Francisco. It is quite broad in its scope, accepting a wide range of research on science and medicine.

The journal describes itself thusly:

“The research we publish is multidisciplinary and, often, interdisciplinary. PLOS ONE accepts research in over two hundred subject areas across science, engineering, medicine, and the related social sciences and humanities. We evaluate submitted manuscripts on the basis of methodological rigor and high ethical standards, regardless of perceived novelty.”

Despite it’s breadth and avoidance of direct concern with novelty, PLoS One publishes a huge quantity of material and retains a relatively high impact factor (2.740 in 2019 – not high for esteemed medical journals, but pretty good for geosci).

The journal is funded by fees submitted by the researchers or their institutions.

The journals takes great pride in its history as an internet based journal – with full color articles, continuous “as accepted” publication, allowing fairly extensive supplementary materials, and utilizing a wide variety of multi-media file types in its supplemental material.

Summer of Blood … Amber

So, the example I want to talk about is not from the ORI, but it is recent and is deeply tied to my field, and is on a topic that we at VT’s Paleobiology group discussed extensively over the summer.

Many of these examples of ethical breaches deal with deliberate obfuscation or fabrication of medical or bioscience experiments. My example comes from a very different realm: Paleontology. Early this year, a paper came out about a spectacular find: a tiny skull exquisitely preserved in a gem-quality piece of amber. The paper put forth the idea that not only was this skull a bird, but it was quite possibly the smallest bird known from the fossil record (,we%20name%20Oculudentavis%20khaungraae%20gen.&text=The%20find%20appears%20to%20represent,smallest%20living%20bird%E2%80%94in%20size). This stunning find captured the vertebrate paleo-community’s attention, but for all the wrong reasons. Early commentaries suggested that based on the skull morphology, it was far more likely the specimen was the skull of an unusual lizard ( As academic debate over the merits of this purported bird grew, another concern emerged: there were uncertainties about the provenance of this specimen. Specimen provenance and private ownership status are hugely controversial issues in the vert paleo world (earlier this month, a famous T. rex specimen called Stan went up for auction – stoking fear that this rare sample would enter a private collection and thus be removed from future scientific study But amber specimens like this one raise additional concerns – the region these ambers come from, in Myanmar, has been rife with rebel and military-sponsored violence in recent years. And there is evidence that military forces have occupied amber mines and profited from the sale of such amber while utilizing exploitative and dangerous labor practices while also potentially bypassing both Burmese and international law governing the sale of fossils ( – for a brief intro).

As discussions of both the academic and ethical merit of this find grew, a formal rebuttal to the original paper came out, offering very solid support for the lizard interpretation ( In light of this, the authors of the original paper retracted their findings – from the journal Nature. In the same time frame, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology issued a moratorium on work on Burmese amber collected after 2017 and called on 300 journals to take similar actions (,-Press-Releases/On-Burmese-Amber-and-Fossil-Repositories-SVP-Memb.aspx).

Here at VT, none of us work directly on amber, but we did read and discuss these proceedings “in real-time” as they developed over the summer. Personally, I’m very glad that SVP stepped up to deter work on these so-called “blood ambers.” The provenance and acquisition of fossils is often deeply tied to land rights, post-colonial concerns (the extent to which wealthy countries with well-developed paleo research do work on material from poor countries with fewer native scientists), but it’s rare in this time for fossil extraction to be directly related to state-sponsored violence, so I’m glad SVP is taking steps to reduce the “demand” for such material, though this does mean unfortunately that more specimens will be lost to private collections.

In terms of scholarship, this kerfuffle is rare and a bit hard to process. It is so hard to get a paper into Nature and to have it retracted must have been a huge blow, especially for these respected and highly published dinosaur paleontologists. In our discussions here at VT, we thought that this research would have benefitted from more early bird experts, as to avoid these disastrous mis-findings.

Some questions for the reader – and I invite you to look up additional sources, much has now been written about this case. Were the original researchers too rushed in getting out their research? To what extent is this the fault of the reviewers? Are there aspects of the ethics of fossil provenance and acquisition that you would like to learn more about?

Blog Post on Mission Statements

Thoughts on University Mission Statements

So, I’m going to talk about three mission statements here: the mission statements of the University of Georgia, The Ohio State University, and University of Chicago. I’d like to talk about these because I did my undergrad at Georgia, so clearly that university shaped much of my perception of academia, many of my relatives attended OSU, and one of my aunts has been an academic advisor there for many years, and has been a source for much of my early knowledge of Universities, and University of Chicago is an institution where I applied both for undergrad and graduate programs, though I did not attend; furthermore it is the type of institution conducting the type of research that I would like to one day work at.



The University of Georgia, a land-grant and sea-grant university with statewide commitments and responsibilities, is the state’s oldest, most comprehensive, and most diversified institution of higher education. Its motto, “to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things,” reflects the University’s integral and unique role in the conservation and enhancement of the state’s and nation’s intellectual, cultural, and environmental heritage.

The University of Georgia shares with the other research universities of the University System of Georgia the following core characteristics:

  • a statewide responsibility and commitment to excellence and academic achievements having national and international recognition;
  • a commitment to excellence in a teaching/learning environment dedicated to serving a diverse and well-prepared student body, to promoting high levels of student achievement, and to providing appropriate academic support services;
  • a commitment to excellence in research, scholarship, and creative endeavors that are focused on organized programs to create, maintain, and apply new knowledge and theories; that promote instructional quality and effectiveness; and that enhance institutionally relevant faculty qualifications;
  • a commitment to excellence in public service, economic development, and technical assistance activities designed to address the strategic needs of the state of Georgia along with a comprehensive offering of continuing education designed to meet the needs of Georgia’s citizens in life-long learning and professional education;
  • a wide range of academic and professional programming at the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral levels.

With its statewide mission and core characteristics, the University of Georgia endeavors to prepare the University community and the state for full participation in the global society of the twenty-first century. Through its programs and practices, it seeks to foster the understanding of and respect for cultural differences necessary for an enlightened and educated citizenry. It further provides for cultural, ethnic, gender, and racial diversity in the faculty, staff, and student body. The University is committed to preparing the University community to appreciate the critical importance of a quality environment to an interdependent global society.

As a comprehensive land-grant and sea-grant institution, the University of Georgia offers baccalaureate, master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees in the arts, humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, physical sciences, agricultural and environmental sciences, business, ecology, engineering, environmental design, family and consumer sciences, forest resources, journalism and mass communication, education, law, pharmacy, public health, social work, and veterinary medicine. The university is also home to the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership.

The University attracts students nationally and internationally as well as from within Georgia. It offers the state’s broadest array of possibilities in graduate and professional education, and thus a large minority of the student body is post-baccalaureate. The predominantly Georgian undergraduate student body is a mix of highly qualified students originally admitted as first-year students and selected transfer students principally from other University System institutions.

With original scholarship, basic and applied research, and creative activities constituting an essential core from which to draw, the impact of the land-grant and sea-grant mission is reflected throughout the state. Cooperative extension, continuing education, public service, experiment stations, and technology transfer are all designed to enhance the well-being of the citizens of Georgia through their roles in economic, social, and community development.

As it has been historically, the University of Georgia is responsive to the evolution of the state’s educational, social, and economic needs. It aspires through its strategic planning to even closer contact and interaction with public and private institutions throughout the state as well as with the citizens it serves. –


This extensive statement attempts to highlight basically all of it major academic programs and drives while positioning itself as a major focus of research and education for the state and nation.

UGA’s is the longest of the three statements, and I think that there are interesting things not said by this statement. The first thing that stands out to me is that this statement has not been updated since 2016. Much has happened since then, both nationally and around the University. The mission claims that it “is responsive to the evolution of the state’s educational, social, and economic needs” and twice affirms its commitment to a diverse student and faculty bodies. However, since 2016 the university has struggled to live up to this responsiveness. While African American representation is growing, it still vastly lags both state wide demographics, and other major state institutions ( Similarly, the university was slow to correctively act following the exhumation and reinternment of African-American (quite probably former slaves) graves during the expansion of one of the academic halls ( – I have access to the ~800 page report mentioned if interested). The mission statement also interestingly mentions its status as the oldest land-grant university in the state, but strangely doesn’t assert its claim to the country’s oldest land grant university, which by some measures it is. I notice emphasis in parts of the statement that I believe reflect political moves by the University System of Georgia: notice the mention of the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership, which utilizes space acquired from the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School, part of a broader trend within the University System of Georgia to combine and consolidate institutions.

I feel like this evaluation comes off as negative, and I don’t want to give that impression; I enjoyed my time there and I know that members of the administration are aware of challenges facing the university through my meetings with president Jere Morehead. I think in some respects, the university often is constrained by it institutional size and age, along with decisions by the USG and State Legislature.




The Ohio State University is the model 21st-century public, land grant, research, urban, community engaged institution.



The university is dedicated to:


Creating and discovering knowledge to improve the well-being of our state, regional, national and global communities;

Educating students through a comprehensive array of distinguished academic programs;

Preparing a diverse student body to be leaders and engaged citizens;

Fostering a culture of engagement and service.

We understand that diversity and inclusion are essential components of our excellence.



Shared values are the commitments made by the University community in how we conduct our work. At The Ohio State University we value:



Diversity in people and of ideas


Access and affordability


Collaboration and multidisciplinary endeavor

Integrity, transparency and trust

Core Goals

Four institution-wide goals are fundamental to the University’s vision, mission and future success:

Teaching and Learning

To provide an unsurpassed, student-centered learning experience led by engaged world-class faculty and staff, and enhanced by a globally diverse student body.

Research and Innovation

To create distinctive and internationally recognized contributions to the advancement of fundamental knowledge and scholarship and toward solutions of the world’s most pressing problems.

Outreach and Engagement

To advance a culture of engagement and collaboration involving the exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of reciprocity with the citizens and institutions of Ohio, the nation, and the world.

Resource Stewardship

To be an affordable public university, recognized for financial sustainability, unparalleled management of human and physical resources, and operational efficiency and effectiveness.



OSU’s statement is much shorter, and far less specific than UGA’s. It doesn’t specifically define what these categories of Vision, Missions, Values, or Goals mean. Nor does it try to identify its strengths and focuses the way UGA’s does. This makes some sense that OSU would need a broader articulation of it’s mission; it has ~68,000 students to UGA’s ~39,000 and must by its nature embrace a broader view of its goals. Between the two, I think UGA’s is more useful. It may be long, but it clearly states what programs it treasures and the role that it envisions for itself – the fact I can criticize .UGA’s as I do earlier is because it engages with it’s history and goals far more directly than does OSU’s. Frankly, nothing about this statement feels specific to OSU; it could almost serve as a boiler plate statement.


University of Chicago:

I cannot find the Mission Statement for the overall university, but their about page has the properties of a mission statement:

The University of Chicago is an urban research university that has driven new ways of thinking since 1890. Our commitment to free and open inquiry draws inspired scholars to our global campuses, where ideas are born that challenge and change the world.

We empower individuals to challenge conventional thinking in pursuit of original ideas. Students in the College develop critical, analytic, and writing skills in our rigorous, interdisciplinary core curriculum. Through graduate programs, students test their ideas with UChicago scholars, and become the next generation of leaders in academia, industry, nonprofits, and government.

UChicago research has led to such breakthroughs as discovering the link between cancer and genetics, establishing revolutionary theories of economics, and developing tools to produce reliably excellent urban schooling. We generate new insights for the benefit of present and future generations with our national and affiliated laboratories: Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

The University of Chicago is enriched by the city we call home. In partnership with our neighbors, we invest in Chicago’s mid-South Side across such areas as health, education, economic growth, and the arts. Together with our medical center, we are the largest private employer on the South Side.

In all we do, we are driven to dig deeper, push further, and ask bigger questions—and to leverage our knowledge to enrich all human life. Our diverse and creative students and alumni drive innovation, lead international conversations, and make masterpieces. Alumni and faculty, lecturers and postdocs go on to become Nobel laureates, CEOs, university presidents, attorneys general, literary giants, and astronauts.  –


UChicago’s self-description is much like UGA’s, though it uses embedded links to do some of the heavy lifting of specificity. Also, like UGA’s statement, it engages with its own institutional history. I like that this statement addresses UChicago’s relationship to the community that it exists within. Athens-Clarke County, the home of UGA, is one of the poorer counties in GA, lagging also in healthcare access and employment opportunities ( Given UGA’s educational mission, its huge premed program, and its pride in its own business school, I think UGA should honestly evaluate its relationship to the community around it and should address that in its mission statement.


I think it is interesting that these two major land grant universities mission statements are structurally different and that one is more similar to that of a major private university. This is speculative on my part, but I think that these differences reflect the ways UGA has tried to distance itself from its reputation as a “Party School.”  In 2012 UGA was the No. 1 Party School in the US ( and finally escaped the top 20 in 2017 (, while OSU has not been in the top 20 in this time period. It makes sense that administrators would want to distance themselves from associations of excessive parting, hence the specific focus on international recognition and academic programs in UGA’s statement. This struggle for legitimacy is perhaps heighted by the contrast in public conception between UGA and Georgia Tech, which is seen as the major STEM school in Georgia, and too which UGA is compared academically. In this regard, both UGA and UChicago express concrete goals for their academic output, which makes their mission statements more meaningful as means of evaluating their accomplishments and goals.