Associate Professor of Geoscience Nan Crystal Arens was recently interviewed for the “People Behind the Science” podcast, which gives scientists an opportunity to promote their research as well as share their journey through science. Arens and the host Dr. Marie McNeely discussed her life outside of work – including the fact that she has been learning to make bathing suits for her eldest daughter’s synchronized swimming team. The full podcast is available on iTunes and on the “People Behind the Science” website.
When asked to describe what she does, Arens noted, “As a paleobotanist, I describe myself as a time traveler.”
She said she is interested in biological questions in organisms, particularly plants, but she’s interested in those questions not in the present but in the past. “I use the fossil record to go back in time and think about how plants were in the past, how they changed in time and how they responded to our changing world,” said Arens.
Arens and McNeely also talked about how she became interested in paleontology and geology. “Every kid is a natural scientist,” said Arens, adding she loved being outside and playing in the woods and streams where she grew up in Connecticut. She explains, however, “I was not encouraged as a child – as a girl – to do science, so I didn’t pursue it in college.” Instead, she pursued journalism, with the intention of becoming a science writer.
It was a science course she took to fulfill a core that ultimately led her to change her major from journalism to geoscience. “I started with a couple more classes and just fell in love with that exploration. I didn’t really have a plan. I went from one interesting thing to do to the next, following my curiosity.”
While she has had success as a researcher – one of her studies is now widely used in terrestrial geology – she now counts among her favorite successes “Seeing those students who come to college not really having any idea why they’re here and then having them find something that just grabs them intellectually and propels them to do interesting and original things -and then move into a career they find fulfilling,” she said. “Those moments when the light bulb comes on… these are the successes that I particularly enjoy celebrating.”
A member of the faculty since 2001, Arens earned her B.S. and M.S. from Pennsylvania State University where she studied Earth science and English as an undergrad, and invertebrate paleontology as a grad student. She went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.