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Friday, Aug 22, 2014

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Alycia Stigall

Photographer: Ben Siegel

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Associate professor makes connections between past and modern world


Time is a circular entity. The past, present and future create loops and arches that eventually turn to recognizable patterns repeating throughout time. And for Alycia Stigall, associate professor of geological studies, it's not just another fact of life, but part of her job.

Stigall's specific field of geology is evolutionary paleobiology, which combines the works of geology, biology and paleontology. By looking at fossils preserved in rocks for hundreds of millions of years, she is able to determine what type of organism the specimen was, how old it is and how it lived. More importantly, Stigall can further that information to determine similar organisms' behavior in the modern world.
 
"It's hard for us in the modern time to understand the long-term impacts, because we can watch the way an ecosystem responds in over maybe a decade or maybe even over a couple decades, but that's really a short-term response," she said. " So to understand the long-term trajectory, we actually have to go back and look at the fossil record, because changes like habitat destruction, changes like global warming, all of these have happened before. And so if we look at how organisms have responded in the past, it can help us understand what the potential is for the modern ecosystem as we move into the future."
 
Her current project collaborating with Bruce Lieberman of University of Kansas digitizing fossils was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant. The project is taking specimens preserved in museum fossil collection and compiling and digitizing all the information on each fossil into one place. With that information they will be able to map where species habituated in the past and track their gene movement through time.

"Eventually we're going to build a web platform and an iPad app or smart phone app in general where you can actually type in the name of a species and then see a map of where it lived and also a picture of what it looked like," said Stigall. "The idea is to take this data, this old data collected a long time ago, and move it into the modern era so that not only scientists can use it, but also the general public."

But the cyclical patterns of time aren’t just reflected in her work as a scientist. Stigall first became interested in fossils as a young girl in Cincinnati. She explained that she grew up collecting fossils found in streams and "wondered about what kind of animals these were and how did they live." Now, as a professor at Ohio University, Stigall is continuing to foster others' interests in science.

Her educational outreach expands outside of the colligate world, however. Stigall also actively works to promote the sciences to girls from kindergarten to high school.

"Geology is still heavily male-dominated, so it's always important to increase diversity, not only gender diversity, but ethnic diversity," she said. "Because every time you can bring in a new group of people that haven’t been involved in a scientific endeavor before, they have new insights and new creativity and we can learn and build a much better understanding of nature if we can increase the interaction of everyone. So increasing women in science is a really important thing to do."