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It's a 'Threepeat' for UC's Paleontology Program

UC’s paleontology program, within the Department of Geology of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, continues to be recognized as one of the nation's best.

Date: 4/23/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, Peter Griga

UC ingot   “Critical mass” is a term repeated frequently when describing paleontology at the University of Cincinnati.

It especially applies to professors Arnie Miller, Dave Meyer and Carl Brett. These three internationally renowned invertebrate paleontologists are the heart of the paleo program at UC. And they’re a primary reason U.S. News & World Report recently ranked UC’s graduate paleontology program as 7th best in the nation — for the third time in a row.

Carl Brett.
Carl Brett

Miller specializes in evolutionary paleobiology and paleoecology, including biodiversity and mass extinctions. Meyer’s specialty is invertebrate paleontology, including coral reef ecology and paleoecology.

Brett’s focus is on stratigraphy, taphonomy (how formerly living things become fossils), and paleoecology. Along with Madeleine Briskin, who researches micropaleontology and oceanography, and Brenda Hanke (an adjunct based at the Cincinnati Museum Center), they represent the core of UC paleontology.

“The synergy between Arnie Miller, Dave Meyer and Carl Brett is terrific,” says geology professor Warren Huff. “Although their areas of expertise are slightly different, there is tremendous interaction between the three. And their students as well — there are no loners, no prima donnas in the department.”

Dave Meyer.
Dave Meyer

"I’m a strong believer in the value of interdisciplinary research, one of our UC|21 areas of focus,” says Arnie Miller. “However, it’s also important to have a critical mass of good people to focus on a single discipline.”

Miller cites the interaction as being vital to the positive atmosphere in the department, saying that their graduate program encourages the students to interact with each other, not just the faculty. “Our seminars are lively,” he says. “We have quite the esprit de corps!”

The second key element to the peer recognition that this ranking represents is the Geology Department’s presence at national and international conferences and their articles in multiple journals. Again, both faculty and students are highly active in attending conferences and publishing. For example, the Second International Palaeontological Congress took place in June 2006, in Beijing, China. Not only did many UC faculty and students attend, but Miller chaired a session on “geo-biodiversity.” All four of Miller’s students presented, along with other geology faculty and students, including Carl Brett.

Arnie Miller.
Arnie Miller

In fact, the University of Cincinnati Geology Department has been referred to as the “Cincinnati Mafia” when it comes to the meetings of the Geological Society of America (GSA).  UC was asked to apply to be the host site of the 2009 North American Paleontological Convention, an international meeting of paleontologists that is convened every four years. The Paleontological Society reports, “This group reviewed a proposal from Arnie Miller, Dave Meyer, Carl Brett and Glenn Storrs to hold NAPC-2009 in Cincinnati. This proposal was enthusiastically accepted.”

Geology colleague Huff points out that the calibre of their geology graduate students is improving, resulting in and thereby causing a rise in the paleontology program’s rankings.

“The level of quality among our doctoral students is extremely high,” he says. “The quality of publishable research goes up an order of magnitude with PhD students. Our expectation is that by their third year, PhD students must be publishing.”

Graduate Kate Bulinski completed her undergraduate coursework at Penn State but was happy she came to UC for her grad work.

Kate Bulinski
Kate Bulinski's expectations were far exceeded when she chose UC geology for graduate school.

“I [had taken] a geobiology course and fell in love with paleontology,” Bulinski says. When it came time to look at graduate programs, her paleo professor told her that Cincinnati had a good program. She came to UC for a Master’s degree — and stayed for the community. “I found here a dynamic community of paleontologists from different backgrounds and a vibrant group of students who interact with each other and are not afraid to discuss their theories and ideas. UC geology offers classes that are innovative and far-reaching.”

After one year as a Master’s student, Bulinski switched her project to a doctoral one. “It was the perfect fit,” she says. Upon receiving her doctorate, Bulinski was given a tenure-track position at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., where is the first person to teach geology in their Chemistry and Physics Department.

"I initially came to UC to work with my advisor, Dr. Carlton Brett,” says PhD recipient Alex Bartholomew. “Dr. Brett is famous for his work in both the areas of paleontology and sedimentology/stratigraphy, the latter being vital to our understanding of how life has changed through time.”

The feeling in the Geology Department is one of collegiality. The individual specialty areas have the depth of expertise, but also the breadth of interaction with other areas in the department.

Alex Bartholomew.
Then-student Alex Bartholomew (now an assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz) explains the geologic time scale at UC's 2006 Science & Engineering Expo.

“Sedimentology and stratigraphy deal with the actual rock record that preserves the fossils,” says Bartholomew. “One of the aspects of our department that I believe makes it great is our focus on field-related studies. Unlike other programs, which tend to focus on the data of the fossil record alone, our program tends toward a more integrative approach, looking at both the paleontologic data as well as the rock record to better understand the history of life on Earth.”

UC’s paleontology program first entered the top ranks of U.S. News & World Report’s graduate school rankings in 1999. Although their presence on the list was surprising to some outside the field at the time, it certainly isn't now.

"They are clearly recognized by their peers in the science, as this ranking shows," says Lewis Owen, interim head of the Department of Geology. "It's a reflection of their enthusiasm and dedication to the science and the subject, as well as the quality of the students and colleagues that they attract to this department."

Professor David Meyer thinks that UC’s program in paleontology “has for a long time been regarded as one of the strongest programs for graduate student preparation. So we benefit from a long track record as well as a currently active and visible faculty and student body.” 

Cover to 'A Sea Without Fish.'
The paleontology faculty and students are active in publishing.

“I think these results do reflect the visibility of our graduate program in paleontology,” says Meyer. “When I first came to UC, one of my senior colleagues in paleontology told me that ‘visibility’ was always important, so it's something that has been a factor for a long time. The fact that our faculty and students are currently doing exciting work in the field, and are active in publishing in good journals and presenting our work at meetings and other institutions across the nation and even internationally, contributes to the recognition that we have a strong program.”

Recently, Meyer coauthored "A Sea Without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati Region," with Richard Davis of the College of Mt. St. Joseph. (Released in January 2009 by Indiana University Press, the book is a comprehensive look at the Cincinnatian fossils of the Ordovician period.) And at the core of this growth? Meyer sums it up.

“We are fortunate to have the ‘critical mass’ of faculty that enables us to offer students a diversity of research problems and different experiences.”


About Paleontology at the University of Cincinnati
Scientists Bring New Life to an Ancient Ocean — Covering Cincinnati and the Tristate
David Meyer and Richard Davis bring 'A Sea Without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati Region' to Joseph-Beth Booksellers for a book signing on Sunday, April 26, at 1 p.m.

What Makes a Fossil?
It is the rare plant or animal that becomes a fossil, in the form of a mineralized Doppelganger of its former self. To then become part of the published fossil record is an even rarer occasion in that someone had to find that fossil and document it in writing somewhere.

Kate Bulinski — A Great Find
A diamond in the rough might be an appropriate description for a geologist. Diamond is the hardest naturally occurring substance, created by intense pressure. But Kate Bulinski is not rough. And she’s not a mineralogist; she’s a paleontologist.

Paleontologists Honor UC’s Arnie Miller for Significant Work
The Paleontological Society has awarded UC scientist Arnie Miller with the prestigious Centennial Fellow title in recognition of his contributions to the field of paleontology.

More About the North American Paleontological Convention 2009 (NAPC)
The 9th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) will be held on the campus of the University of Cincinnati, June 21-26, 2009. The centrally located Cincinnati region is world renowned for its Upper Ordovician fossils and strata, and has a long-established heritage of paleontological research and teaching.