Earth Science IROPs

IROP 1 - Preservational Pathways Responsible for Exceptional Mazon Creek Fossils

Objectives and Methodology

This project proposes to utilize the world-class Carboniferous (~360-300 Ma) Mazon Creek fossil collection at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in order to evaluate the preservational pathways involved in the preservation of soft-tissues in the fossil record. Soft tissue fossilization requires a precise series of biological, sedimentological, geochemical, and mineralogical pathways which are only possible under truly exceptional circumstances. However, in order to inform and correctly interpret soft-tissue data, understanding the inherent biases in exceptional fossilization must be understood. The goals of this project are to quantitatively score the “taphonomic index” (i.e. qualitative decay indices) of numerous anatomical structures between a large number of individuals from a single plant species in order to identify relative decay rates, thus allowing for inferences on tissue strengths and direction of decay in extinct organisms. This is particularly important in paleontological studies since the evaluation of stem-groups (i.e. the most primitive ancestors of a group) relies on the inference of “missing characters”; i.e. are they missing because they have yet to evolve, or are they missing because they were not preserved. Complementing the taphonomic index will be geochemical studies of fossil specimens via environmental scanning electron microscopy (ESEM) allowing us to determine the chemical and mineralogical relationships involved in specific character preservation.

Description of Student Participation

This project will allow a student to build a foundation in several highly sought after paleontological skills. The ROP student will be responsible for selecting an appropriate fossil plant species of interest, and in recovering a large sample size from the ROM collections. Undocumented specimens will be entered into the ROM database, giving the ROP student expertise in database management.

List of Skills Required / Instructor Preference & Student Experience

Background in either Biology, Earth Sciences, or Geography.


IROP 2 - Portable Laboratories in Geology

Objectives and Methodology

Sharing the joys of science with prospective students is an important part in our continual goal to educate and expose the public to discovery and innovation. After speaking with several high school educators, it was made apparent that tangible, hands-on activities are the most influential approaches to excite grade 10-12 students in classroom settings. As such, I am proposing to build a portable suitcase that would include a multitude of geology-based activities that showcase the many exciting facets of geology and paleontology. The suitcase will include specific hands-on activities such as micro-earthquake replications, illustrative rock samples, exceptional fossil specimens, and do-it-yourself projects targeting core geological principles.

Description of Student Participation

ROP students will be directly involved with the design, construction, and implementation of these geological activities. Students will gain valuable insight into outreach activities, all the while learning career-generating skills associated with pedagogy. Furthermore, students will learn how to use AutoCAD and 3D-Printing technologies allowing them to build low-cost instruments specifically tailored to our stated goals.

List of Skills Required / Instructor Preference & Student Experience

Background and interest in education and public outreach. Background in geology preferred. 


IROP 3 - Geology of Toronto and Mississauga

Objectives and Methodology

Integrating hands-on field-based activities in paleontological undergraduate research programs is a desirable means of increasing the visibility of our discipline all the while promoting proper research initiatives to students. One of the most popular aspects of our discipline is field work, however budgetary concerns have significantly restricted the scope of such initiatives, especially in introductory courses were student numbers are prohibitive to field learning. My proposed ROP project will use the Ordovician to Devonian fossiliferous sections surrounding the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in order to design and construct a series of local, day-long trips targeting large-scale paleontological questions including 1) how faunal distributions change in time and space, 2) how limiting factors such as light and salinity control animal diversity, and 3) how sedimentological and paleontological data is combined to explore ancient ecosystems. These day trips will then be made available online, complete with detailed GPS geocaching targets, downloadable colorful and informative maps and field-guides, and a “spot-a-fossil” checklist which provides accessible information about the fossil diversity around Toronto.

Description of Student Participation

Initial research prerogatives will be to identify easily-accessible and safe geological outcrops that showcase important fossil communities combined with sedimentological characteristics that allow for paleoenvironmental interpretations. Each section will be mapped, digitally logged with precise GPS coordinates, and photographed via high-resolution GigaPan Photography allowing for mm resolution of sedimentary structures and fossils. Combined, this data will allow students to explore local geological outcrops either in the flesh, or digitally from the comfort of their own homes and classrooms. ROP Research will begin with a thorough review of the geological maps of the GTA available through the Geological Surveys of Ontario and Canada. These pre-digitized maps will be integrated into Arc-GIS, and combined with high-resolution photography and digital mapping software available through Google Earth™. These digitized maps will be integrated with non-georeferenced material (for instance, field guides), allowing the combination of physical and digital media into a single, freely-available educational tool. Direct field experience will supplement this body of knowledge.

List of Skills Required / Instructor Preference & Student Experience

Background in geology or Geography. Preference will be given to students with experience in app design and Arc GIS.


IROP 4 - Petrography of Exceptional Mazon Creek Fossils

Objectives and Methodology

This project proposes to utilize the world-class Carboniferous (~360-300 Ma) Mazon Creek fossil collection at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in order to evaluate the preservational biases across different tissue types preserved in the fossil record. Students will be expected to petrographically-describe a series of fossiliferous concretions.  

Description of Student Participation

Fossil concretions will be thin-sectioned and investigated from a mineralogical and diagenetic perspective. Students will be responsible for thin-section description, and developing a diagenetic model for the formation of concretions.

List of Skills Required / Instructor Preference & Student Experience

Students will be expected to have completed ERS201H5 and/or ERS203H5.


IROP 5 - Paleoecology of Exceptional Mazon Creek Fossils Sites

Objectives and Methodology

This project will utilize a large dataset of world-class Carboniferous (~360-300 Ma) Mazon Creek fossil localities in order to evaluate the paleogeographical and paleoecological aspects of this ecosystem, in addition to investigate preservational biases associated with soft-tissue fossilization. The goals of this project are to utilize the previously-collected database to make statistical inquiries into the paleontological signals hidden within the data. Students will be expected to have a strong background in biology, earth sciences, or geography, and to have taken introductory statistics courses. A familiarity with Excel and multivariate statistical approaches is highly desirable.

Description of Student Participation

This project will allow a student to build a foundation in several highly sought after paleontological skills including statistical analyses and data interpretation in paleoecology. The ROP student will be responsible for digitizing the original dataset, and statistically investigate the data.

List of Skills Required / Instructor Preference & Student Experience

Background in either Biology, Earth Sciences, or Geography. Familiarity with statistical methods


IROP 6 - Educational Board Game

Objectives and Methodology

Designing and constructing a competitive educational board game in which players take control of a bacterial strain, and "evolve" to adapt to their environment and eventually dominate the ecosystem. Students will translate the complex primary scientific literature into jargon-free resources for science educators. This will also aid in the construction of the board game rule book, which will provide a one-stop subject guide for players and educators. 

Description of Student Participation

Students will aid in game construction through 3D printing technology, as well as taking part in play-testing the final product. ROP Students will help with documenting and processing the required background literature.

List of Skills Required / Instructor Preference & Student Experience

Background and interest in education and public outreach. Background in biology or geology preferred.