Student Spotlight: Abby Kelly

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School. 

Abby holds a large bone on a grassy field with trees.

Abby holds a modern bison vertebra during fieldwork in Yellowstone National Park collecting modern analog samples for comparison to northern Pleistocene fossils.

“Big mammals are certainly charismatic,” Abby Kelly tells me when I ask what sparked her research interest. As a non-scientist, this descriptor amuses me; I can’t help but picture an elephant at a party, dazzling everyone with its wit and charm. But her point is true, though I had never really thought about it before. Bison, horses, wooly mammoths—they hold an almost universal appeal. And paleontology as a field tends to hold a similar sway over people; as children, many of us had fantasies of ourselves as Indiana Jones types, excavating dinosaurs while wearing big floppy hats. I like to think that there is some universality in being fascinated by stories of the ancient history. But for Abby, paleontology not only about the past, but our present and future as well. “[When I started my PhD] I was immediately hooked by the big picture questions… you can really start to think about ‘How do animals evolve to respond to climate change? What happens when climate changes really rapidly? What happens when things go extinct? How do ecosystems shift through these grand time series?’”  

Abby, a 5th year paleontology PhD student and recent winner of the Graduate School Dean’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship, studies Ice Age megafauna—specifically bison and horses from the late Pleistocene era (an epoch which ended roughly 12,000 years ago) in Alaska and Canada. She examines which traits confer survival advantages during times of environmental turbulence, a topic that certainly holds relevance for modern times. “I have this really cool dataset right now of Yukon bison… they’re so well preserved that in many cases they are fossils in name only. The teeth still have little bits of plant matter in there, sometimes there is still jerky frozen onto the bones… it’s this incredible dataset that spans 50,000 years of environmental change,” she tells me enthusiastically. Abby uses a variety of cutting-edge techniques to piece together the behavior and diet of these ancient animals; the microscopic pits and scratches of the bison’s teeth can yield clues regarding the texture of food they are consuming. Radioactive isotopes can serve to both age the specimen and hint at the chemistry of their diet. 

So what can these ancient bison tell us about adaptation to environmental change? According to Abby, it’s more of a cautionary tale than their team had initially hoped. “We hypothesized that [their survival] was probably because they’re flexible and were able to change their diet in response to changing environmental conditions… [but] we actually found very little evidence of flexibility. In fact, they seem to be doing the same thing through the period of warmer, rapidly fluctuating temperatures before the Last Glacial Maximum.” 

Abby says that her research has also shown that Pleistocene bison actually narrowed their dietary range after the glacial maximum, contrary to expectation. “Their populations were really low, and suddenly there’s enough food for them to thrive again. And they’re really able to eat only the best things for bison, so they sort of narrowed their environmental niche.” And as Abby points out, this pattern holds sobering implications for large mammals today. “It suggests that climate change really can be quite powerful and the reason that bison were able to survive that genetic bottleneck is because of the return of optimal conditions [rather than dietary flexibility]. So, the larger implication is that we really have to conserve big swaths of the environment for these large mammals, because as climate changes, they’re going to move slightly farther north… we need this natural habitat for [their] recovery.”

Abby stands in a grassy field, smiling and wearing protective gear.

Drop-off for fieldwork on the North Slope of Alaska (caribou historical landscape ecology, led by Dr. Josh Miller). Abby is wearing a bug net for mosquito protection. Photo credit: Mat Cameron, NPS”

It is clear from Abby’s case that paleontology is not all about dinosaur bones and dirt. Her work involves weaving the past and present together in order to understand and preserve our contemporary natural world. But there are elements to her experience that have been just as adventurous as the work of paleontologists on television or in the movies. Abby’s face lights up when she talks about fieldwork. In her career, she has gotten the chance to snorkel in Panama, collecting modern mollusk samples and dredging ancient fossils via boat. She has travelled to museums in Alaska and Canada to sample curated specimens. And one of the highlights of it all? “My advisor, Joshua Miller, runs a project looking at the sort of historical landscape use of caribou in the far north… I accompanied him on a trip collecting caribou antlers from the area above the Arctic Circle. We took a bush plane and a helicopter to go out to these sites, rafted down the river to collect antlers, had a bear fence up around our tents.” This experience of being in such a remote, wild landscape was very powerful for Abby and prompted her to think, as always, about the past. “The vast expanse of land looks like it should be the African savanna and the specimens I study tell us that it was in some ways analogous to [it]… there were mammoths and elephants and bison and horses. An incredibly diverse ecosystem compared to today. And that perspective, that illustration of change, was profound.” 

Along with this sense of adventure, Abby is also an abundantly curious person. Yes, science is her work, but it is also her passion, and she loves to think and talk about it as much as she can. Abby is interested in science communication, which can be understood as the process of making scientific research broadly accessible to the general public. We discuss how deceptively difficult it can be to distill knowledge down from its heady, jargon-filled academic form to something that is understandable and digestible on the go. Abby points out that this question is becoming more and more critically important in the age of the coronavirus and public health crises. In the past, science communication attempted to simply provide people with information. “It turns out that just telling people more science is not especially effective at change perspectives or opinions,” says Abby. And how can we get people to see the story behind the facts? “I don’t feel like I have the answer… [but] I personally think that communicating the awe and inspiration of science is important. It makes you appreciate the world we’re in.” Abby conveys this awe through her blog, The Scale of Science: Musings Inspired by the Grand Timescale of Earth History, where she covers a wide range of scientific topics from cicadas to space travel.  

I am impressed that someone as busy as Abby still has time to write for enjoyment. So, I ask the question that has been on my mind for much of the interview—"How do you do it all? And what advice do you have for the rest of us?”

Abby’s reaction takes me by surprise. She looks taken aback, laughs, and says, “I just got a wave of imposter syndrome. Who am I to offer advice, when I’ve struggled so much?” Thoughtfully, she continues, “I guess that’s the first thing—realize that struggling is part of the process, and that learning to move through those struggles is part of why we do a PhD, because it’s a valuable learning experience.” Abby is also quick to emphasize that she hasn’t gone through this process alone; she encourages students to take full advantage of the academic community that comes along with a PhD, and the chance to learn from peers who have gone through similar struggles. She also credits excellent mentorship to her success, especially as a woman in STEM, which comes with its own set of challenges. “I have benefited so much from really incredible mentors…it was easy for me to see myself as a scientist because I had examples of people ahead of me showing me that it was possible.” Abby is excited to pay it forward by being a mentor to others throughout her career. After defending her thesis and graduating in the spring, she plans to apply to postdoctoral research fellowships and museum positions, both of which would allow her to combine her dual passions of research and teaching.  

While she is certainly excited for what lies ahead, Abby wants to be careful to fully enjoy the time she has left at UC, and to avoid letting stress about the future get in the way of the present. “I try to remind myself, and it is difficult sometimes, but it is such a privilege to be paid to be curious and pursue a PhD. It’s just fun to do science, or whatever it is you’re doing, and it shouldn’t just be the destination of graduation [that matters]: you gotta enjoy the way there.”

Abby and her advisor, Josh Miller, kneel by a partially buried bone.

Abby and her dissertation advisor, Dr. Josh Miller, with a partially buried and likely old caribou antler found during fieldwork in Alaska. They are wearing bug net shirts for mosquito protection. Photo credit: Mat Cameron, NPS