Erin Saupe

Erin Saupe

Year of Graduation: 2007

Major(s): Natural Science

Current Position: Associate Professor of Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, England (Graduate School: PhD, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS)

Please give a brief description of your current position.
I don a number of hats as a professor of paleobiology, including teaching undergraduates, mentoring graduate students and engaging in my own research. I think of myself as both a generator of new knowledge and an imparter of that knowledge back to students. I teach traditional lecture classes and smaller group 'tutorials', the latter of which are unique to Oxford and Cambridge. These tutorials aim to get students thinking critically and discussing Earth science more deeply. My research in paleobiology focuses on how species and communities respond to environmental changes over time. Some of the specific research I have done involves analyzing which ecological traits affect survivorship patterns across extinction events, and testing how the tolerances of species change in response to changing environmental conditions.

What path did you follow to get to your current position?
I loved paleontology ever since I was a child. However, I didn't think I would pursue paleontology as a career until I took an introductory geology class at CSB/SJU the first semester of my first year. I was hooked almost immediately and fell back in love with the fossils that had fascinated me as a child. To me, being a paleontologist is like being a detective: I get to figure out what happened in the past and why. I enjoy the sense of discovery intrinsic to this type of research and the ability to contribute to human knowledge regarding past Earth and life processes. Once I decided to pursue a career in the geological sciences, I majored in Natural Science at CSB and had the opportunity to do a research internship at the Smithsonian's Natural Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. After graduation, I obtained my MSc and PhD from the University of Kansas. Before joining the faculty at Oxford, I was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University through the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies program.

What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?

  1. Paleobiologists work at the intersection of both biology and geology, so take as many courses in these two disciplines as possible. 
  2. Paleobiology is becoming increasingly quantitative, and future success in the field will be predicated - in part - on mathematical skills. Take as many modeling, programming, statistics, and calculus courses as you can stand (statistics being especially important).
  3. Seek out opportunities for independent research (e.g., with faculty at universities, museum settings, or national parks): the more experience you have with research early on, the more successful you will be in the future. Graduate school is increasingly competitive, and having research experience gives you an important leg up in the applicant pool.
  4. Work hard, but never forget the passion that drives your work!  

What skills are important in your field?

  • Critical thinking
  • Spatial reasoning
  • Strong quantitative skills
  • Strong writing skills

What is the most satisfying/rewarding part of your position?
I really enjoy when I am able to help students understand a difficult topic. There is this 'ah ha!' moment that reminds me how exciting it is to learn.  

Most challenging?
The most challenging part of my position is balancing my time between teaching, researching, writing grants, and performing administrative duties. You are constantly being pulled in many directions!

What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?
CSB/SJU helped grow my writing skills, in part because I was Chief Copy Desk Editor, Variety Editor, and Writer for The Record, and I served as Co-Editor in Chief of Studio One, CSB's National Literary Journal. Although you wouldn't necessarily think so, being a proficient writer is extremely important in science because we communicate via professional papers. CSB/SJU also fueled my natural curiosity and drive to learn more about our world. My professors at CSB/SJU actively encouraged me to think critically, and to become a producer rather than a consumer of knowledge.

(October 2016)