Ponderings of an Evolution Teacher: Why do Students Insist that Cavemen and Dinosaurs Lived at the Same Time?

     Often I have wondered why undergraduates and other educated people think that dinosaurs and cave men lived at the same time. It can’t be solely because they watched the Flintstones cartoon, could it? I am sure that does not help the whole problem; however there must be more to it. I mean, dinosaurs roamed the earth for approximately 165 million years and were extinct for almost 65 million years before humans evolved!
     During several recent encounters, I am beginning to see a trend in this misunderstanding. Hollywood has often produced movies and cartoons that put man and dinosaur together. But children specifically are targeted by this uninformative fairytale. For example, I was at a local (southeastern Virginia) elementary school for a craft fair when I observed a large mural displayed in the main hall. This mural shows a young boy and a dinosaur walking through a modern day landscape. Upon my asking as to why this mural existed, I learned it was because a young boy had passed away and he loved dinosaurs. Beautiful thought and action on the part of the school to immortalize this beloved child, however it does begin to improperly educate children that dinosaurs and people roamed the earth together…especially once the boy’s classmates leave the school and new, unfamiliar children enter. When you add this to toys that exist – children do not stand a chance to learn properly!
     Toys are a constant way for children to learn about many things. Parents often tailor what toys their children play with because they do not want their children to be exposed to violent or sexual situations. However, some parents will give their children toy guns, maybe because they live within a hunting community and this is a normal part of growing up. With all of the focus on making strong learning toys and creating environments that are realistic for children to learn in…why do toys like The Dinosaur Kit from Colorforms exist?

     Yes, this toy was originally marketed in the 60s, so it definitely helps explain why my generation has the misconception; however these misinformed parents continue to propagate the misconception and other toy offenders still exist.  I do think something so simple makes an even stronger impression on children than TV shows or movies. It is a simple message: dinosaurs and humans lived together! Yikes! Please, when buying toys for children, do not support the cave men and dinosaur myth. Help the next generation with their evolution education and their evolutionary acceptance.


Thank you.

Marketing, Botany, Confusion…Oh My

I was walking around my favorite craft store and noticing everything that filled the shelves.  As I dreamt about the crafts that I could do “if I had time” I noticed a particular collection of small plastic terrariums packaged in bright and happy colors.  The maker, DuneCraft, was able to connect plants to a theme (for example, the Venus fly traps had a horror monster packaging) but one package caught my eye more than the others.

I noticed the happy faced dinosaur who appeared to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex – little front arms and a large head full of teeth gives it away every time.  The plant being touted was the “Prehistoric Fern.”  Recently being enamored by ferns, I wanted to see what was going to grow in the egg shaped hothouse.  Carefully I examined the pictures and was perplexed.  “Grow your own ferns from seed!”  What?  Ferns grow by spores, not seeds!  I examined the plant labeled a fern and noticed it was Asparagus sprengeri which is not a fern at all!   This is a flowering plant – far from ferns evolutionarily.  I flipped the package over and noticed that the DuneCraft states the plant is not a fern yet continues to tout it as “Asparagus Fern.” 

The educator inside of me screams – “Stop confusing our children.”  We should not be creating scenarios that just make plant education and excitement hard!  The mom in me says, “at least this is a fun way to get kids interested.”  Torn is an understatement, but I think the educator always wins.

Until next time–


M.D. or Ph.D. — A degree by another name is still DOCTOR

Going to medical school is a dream of many young people.  Sometimes parents are  pushing us to strive to go on to be “the family physician.”  Sometimes we think that doctors have all of the glory and we are driven by the thought of  prestige.    Sometimes there is an internal drive to help mankind.  For me it was the last, I wanted to make a difference in the world by stopping suffering, making people well.  I took all the classes, studied really hard, forgot about a social life, took extra curricular activities seriously, and built up a fantastic resume to apply to medical school.  I took all the exams, did all the research and applied to the best schools by the first semester of my senior year in college.   I even got early acceptance into my #1 choice!   I always knew I wanted to be a doctor — and my family’s first through professional school.  Sounds like a dream. Sounds like things went smoothly for me, right?  Well up that point they did, then Whamo!

On my way through college I had to work several campus jobs to help pay for my education.  It was my job as a lab assistant for the developmental biology professor that would change everything.  I kept sea urchins, frogs, and chicks alive and had to aid in their experimental demise.  But the day that same professor told me that I had to grow plants from seeds, I was mortified.  I mean really, I did not have any plants in my dorm, my mom used to say she “killed silks,” and I was sure I would have the same genetic tendency to present a death sentence to these organisms.  I begged for curriculum changes so that I would not have to attempt to grow these plants.   To no avail, that Friday I was sent to the greenhouse with a few packs of seeds and directions on how to fill pots; hopefully I would get something to grow in 7 to 10 days.  Upon my arrival to the greenhouse, my fear turned into horror.  I arrived to a mess and in order for me to accomplish anything I had to clean it up (side note here:  I am impulsive about things being clean!).  I found the broom and began my daunting task.  Organization was not something my predecessor knew, and in between sweeping and washing surfaces, I needed to find ways to make “sense” out of the piles of junk.  About 3 days later, my boss walked up into the greenhouse and he found a sparkling area that was organized down to the labels on the drawers.  He stood there and asked where the magic potion was that created such a miracle.  My smile grew and he knew his “anal lab tech” made this magic, but my drive for cleanliness was not what drove me.  I enjoyed this mess, it was its own education surrounded by dirt and mayhem. 

Once I learned how to set up pots and plant seeds I thought my torture was finished.  To my dismay, I did not realize I had to water these dumb things…everyday!  Yikes.  After my first attempt to grow plants was a disaster, I tried it again.  Planting was easier this time around and I set up a watering schedule that worked.  In 10 days I had the most beautiful little organisms looking upon me.   I was ecstatic and managed to wrangle up everyone I could to see my marvels.  Most people were polite and laughed with me (or was it at me?) enjoying the daily changes.  I was so taken by the wonders of life that I would go up to the greenhouse to study, to be alone, or even to read a good book.  My boyfriend  said I was going to turn into a plant due to all the time I “wasted” there…he was sort of correct…but that comes soon.

I got the ever-so-important envelope in the mail — the one telling me “You are accepted intoMedical School,” or the one stating “we are so sorry to inform you….”  I took the envelope to my greenhouse, and I opened it.  I read it slowly and I started to cry.   I called my mom and dad, told them the good news, and they started to cry.  I called my grandma, she was crying.  I told my boyfriend, he was happy for me (no crying…but he was a boy!).  My gal pals were crying for me.  Everyone was crying happy tears, but my tears would not stop. 

I went to the greenhouse a lot the next few days.  I re-read my letters  several times and would start crying all over.  What was wrong with me?   After about 2 weeks of spending even more time in the greenhouse alone I realized I was crying because I was not sure I really wanted to go to medical school.  How could I think this now?  I was getting ready to graduate and I began doubting my career path.  How was I going to tell my mom and dad?   I needed a plan.  I needed to be able to answer the question, “What are you going to do instead, dear?”  But that was a very good question…what was I going to do.  I began to think about alternative careers with a biology degree and what else did “life science” have to offer me.  Several more days passed and it came to me.  I wanted to go to graduate school for plants.  YUP you read that right, plants! 

I mustered up the courage to call my parents and tell them that I had my life all figured out.  My father cried, not happy tears this time, and my mother yelled, “WHAT the hell do you know about plants?  Have you ever taken a plant course?  Botany?  That is a dead science?  Why plants?”  These were interesting questions…I knew nothing about plants since I never took a plant course.  I wasn’t really sure what botany was all about; I just knew that I was amazed at plant development and felt like I needed to try that direction. 

Applications to graduate school are not that different from medical school applications.  They are full of essays, questions about why you want to attend, and of course you still need those “credentials.”  At the time I put my applications together they were very close to being past due.  I rushed, got them in and to my parents’ dismay, got in to graduate school.  You see, they told me they were not ok with my last minute switch but if I got in, tried it for a year and hated it, I would re-apply to medical school.  I got in, went through my first few years, loved it and finished my PhD.  Over the years my parents came to go from acceptance to appreciation for my education choices.  At my PhD graduation, my mom was full of happy tears again…because she still could say, “look at my daughter, the Doctor in the family!”  Now she likes to tell people that I went to school for 23 years and that she is so proud of me.  My father is equally proud; his statement is more of the lines “this is my daughter the PhD.” 

The moral of this story is to know that just because you think you know what you want to do in life, don’t let your heart and head disagree with what is right for you.  You need to learn what truly excites you and go with that avenue of what ever you do.  Your life is short and you spend most of your life at work.  You should enjoy it and if you do, success comes much easier.  Your parents are a strong influence, and should be,  but the ultimate choice is yours. 



Meeting and an Adventure

On June 20th the Poli lab embarked for Roan Mountain TN at 6m to attend the American Bryological and Lichenological Meeting.  Roan Mountain was about a 3 hour drive from Roanoke and was easily done the morning the meeting started.  Adventures ranged from informative meeting talks, workshops, field trips, poster sessions, and social hours. 

The next morning we all got together to travel to Beech Mountain –and the real adventures began.  Our first stop was at the brand new Beech Creek Bog State Natural Area; beautiful ferns reached for the sky and guarded the area, but we pushed through mountain bog full of sphagnum, lycopods, and lichens galore. Here the students were able to watch bryologists in action, looking at all types of plants in the field.  They watched experts name species on the spot; Bryan and Laura feverishly took notes and kept their ears peels to soak in the most knowledge possible. 


Since one of our recent projects looked at lycopods, the group was very attuned to the different lycopods that occurred.  In one spot we noticed four species growing in less than a three foot by three foot location!   One was a trailing rhizome variety and the other three were from the Lycopodium genus.  The one pictured below was determined to be an actual hybrid of the other two LycopodiumLycopodium gametophytes are generally underground, and if the area doesn’t stay wet, they will not germinate successfully.   The Sphagnum bog beds kept the area moist enough to allow the tricky life cycle to occur and the beautiful diversity to prevail. 

Wednesday morning, the students began to feel the pressure of presenting their data to the society.  However, by the time the poster session occurred, both Bryan Piatkowski and Laura Kellam did an excellent job representing the evolution of polar auxin transport!  Bryan, like a pro, gave a succinct summary of his uptake and efflux work.  Laura filled in for Jessica Branning; Laura was able to calmly and accurately represent the polar auxin transport work in Dicranium gametophytes.  Together, the evolution was obvious!  Good job Poli lab…EvoKat is proud of you!  

Even in Moss Heaven, Laura finds bones!

And through it all…Laura still found bones!  I guess it really was a wonderful trip!

Career Possibilities with a Biology Degree

As an educator I am constantly being asked, “other than going into medicine, what can I do with a degree in biology?”  At a time when our country’s President is calling for people to become educated in the sciences because it is the only way the US will stay a super power, I felt compelled to respond to this question in a more public domain. 

Below is a list of potential jobs you can get with a degree in biology.  Some of these jobs may need further training but getting your B. S. in biology is the first step.  Many of these jobs may seem obvious, but many others may seem strange.  Think about what your life’s passions are and how your degree in biology could be bent to fill that niche.  That is what Biology is all about – it is the study of life, it is the use of your life to observe and make the world better through understanding! 




Greenhouse manager or technician

Golf course grasses manager




Research scientist

Wildlife management

Fire management

Water management

Department of Defense/Homeland Security

Fish hatchery

FDA scientist

EPA scientist


Companion animal adoption coordinator

Animal Shelter worker


Farm owner

Chemical safety officer

Forensic scientist



Public relations for a scientific company or community

Zoo keeper

Kennel owner/operator

Scientific editor

Scientific illustrator

Lab technician

Hospital technician

Vet technician

Pharmaceutical sales

Microscopy technician/sales

Biotech technician/sales


Environmental Science


Biology Specialization once you have your biology degree:










Economic botany


Food Science and Technology






Molecular biology



Natural Resource Management







Plant Breeding



Systems ecology



So in other words, if you love something living enough to be obsessed with it (like turtles or sharks, maybe roses?), then study it in depth.  Adventure into that realm to its fullest.  Never stop learning and pursue your love.  You never know what may come from it!

Until next time…


The role of the scientific meeting

Today my research lab is gearing up to attend the Virginia Academy of Sciences annual meeting in Richmond VA.  Student tension is high, nerves run deep.   Tomorrow Laura presents a talk on the discovery of a new fossil whale, Brandi reports her findings on broken fossil shark teeth, Bryan prepared a poster on the evoltuion of polar auxin transport in gametophytes, and I will be carting Jessica’s poster on polar auxin transport in the moss Dicranium.  Students are nervous and they are preparing and practicing.  Posters have been finalized and are ready to be shared with the world.  Talks are prepped and look great…so why do scientists attend meetings?  Are they just ways to showcase what you have accomplished?  Should we be nervous?

Well the general scientific meeting like VAS is set up to give local scientists and students the opportunity to present their findings to a friendly audience.  Local meetings give us many ways to connect to other local scientisits, also!  The local general meetings are great practice and should not be feared — but attended every time possible!  Relaxed, yet inquizative folks are your audience.  Sometimes another specialitist is there, but these conversations usually give insight into how we can improve our work.  These opportunities should be welcomed and explored.  At VAS, science is broken into categories.  For example, the lab’s fossil whale and shark teeth talks are together in one section and the plant posters are in another.  We get to wander in and out of areas of interest throughout the meeting– we are allowed to be curious and ask questions.  This is what probably got many of us intreseted in science in the first place…curiousity. 

The local general science meeting is a different world from the specialized society meeting.  I belong to several plant biology groups (e.g. American Society of Plant Biology, Botanical Society of America) that are giagantic, and because of it they often possess that same feeling of curiousity…but since the entire meeting is on a much larger scale (usually international in attendance), your ability to jump around is limited because the chances of something in your specialty happening simultaneously with something “just interesting” is high.   

When you compare these meetings to super specialty societies like the American Bryological and Lichenological Society or the American Fern Society we change gears again; these meetings are intense.  Everyone knows everyone.  Workshops and forays into the woods happen.  People strike up collaborations and talk “shop” around the clock.  Your strongest competitor is probably in the audience and listening to every word you are speaking.  I personally find super specialty societiy meetings the most tiring but also the most invigourating.  Hearing the latest cutting edge science in my specialty gets my mind and my scientific spirit racing.  Competition pumps in my veins and I want to run to the lab and work on the latest crazy idea to pop into my head. 

So should meetings be so nerve-wracking?  No!  Approach your next meeting with interest and curiousity.  Use it as an opportunity to learn something…anything.  I have been to meetings where my botanical knowledge grows immensely and I have been to others where I realized to never give a talk like Professor X just did!  Take something away with you and grow on it.  Our scientific selves are usually introverted, but remember, these smart adults were once geeky comic book readers and Dungeon and Dragon players just like you (or for my newer generation, video game players and Netflix junkies).  They, too, quest for knowledge and are curious. 

My last piece of advice is that when in doubt, go sight seeing.  Most meetings happen in locals that inspire.  Explore and have fun.  Eat well, get some sleep, and think…always think!!

Until next time…


What is EvoKat?

Upon taking my current job, I moved to Virginia and needed to find a way to express who I am.  I have always been an evolution advocate and so I tried many 6-7 letter combinations to represent my passion on a license plate; what resulted was “EVOKAT.”  Many have questioned why I did not choose “EVOCAT” but the answer is simple, it was taken! 

As I have tooled around the Bible Belt with this pecular spelling and mash of words, the response has been rather intriguing.  Some people stop talking to me, pray for my soul, or (even worse) try to convert me once they realize I am pro-evolution.  Others think I am a little crazy for even being that bold as to represent such “strong beliefs” around “these” parts.  But why is my expression any different than “COLE & DB” or “4MYPOMS”?  Is “JSS4EVA” any less bold?  (NOTE:  I have seen all of these plates in VA and the first one is not about  my dog Coal and me! ) 

 At least my “belief” is founded in facts and put to the test by the scientific method.  Evolution is the basis of medicine, and people generally welcome medicine into their lives.  Evolution is not something to be feared…it is just the way populations of organisms continue to shift and change in response to the world around them.  There is nothing sinister about it.  

I am always in awe at how  uneducated people can be about basic science. I guess that is what drives me to use EVOKAT as a license plate…  (sorry, the pun was absolutely necessary!)  The United States continues to slide scientifically , we send less students on to college and graduate school than most other countries and only a small fraction of those students are scientists!  Without science,  the United States will not be able to remain a super power.  Defense, medicine, and Green initiatives are all based in science.  We must become better educated.  That is why EVOKAT exists…