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ACHS, WKU grad working on PhD in Paleontology

Where are they now? An Adair County High School Graduate completed his undergraduate work at Western Kentucky University and is now at the University of Kansas where he is a teaching assistant while working on a PhD. His major interest is the fascinating field of Fossil Spiders and he'll special equipment to finish his project. His need is $2,000, which he is raising using a website called "Instrumentl." If he is the first to reach one-half of his goal, the rest will be matched! CM will be posting more shortly. In the meantime, if anyone wants to be a hero and fund the balance needed to let Matt achieve his goal - if he's the one to qualify for the prize - call CM and we'll let you know how you can he the hero - 270-250-2730. In a few hours we hope to have all the details available.

By Matt Downen

I'm seeking a PhD at The University of Kansas and working with Dr. Paul Selden, a Distinguished Professor in Invertebrate Paleontology.

My Bachelor's and Master's degrees are in geology, and I previously worked on volcanoes and meteorites.


After my finishing my undergraduate degree at Western Kentucky University, I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to study in grad school. I enjoyed so many subdisciplines in geology, but later came to realize that paleontology was the way to go (My mother had already predicted this when she made my paleontologist outfit for career day in first grade)!

Now most people may think of paleontologists studying dinosaurs, but I currently research fossil spiders! Many people consider these 8-legged creatures to be their worst nightmare, but spiders are truly a spectacular group with a relatively large diversity (over 45,000 species today).

Fossil spiders are much rarer, but there are still many types of ancient spiders.

Some of the best geologic deposits to find fossil spiders are in ancient lakes. For my PhD research, I will be looking at fossil spiders from several ancient lake deposits from Colorado, Brazil, and China which are approximately 50 million years old, 100 million years old, and 170 million years old, respectively.

My research has two main components: 1) looking at spider biodiversity through time and 2) looking at how spiders are preserved in lake deposits and what they can reveal about ancient environments.

In the first project, I will be using a scanning electron microscope to look at the tiny hairs of fossil spiders, and I will be using a CT-scanner to create a 3-D reconstruction of an exceptionally preserved fossil spider.

In the second project, I will be investigating the how fossil spiders are related to the salinity of ancient lakes. Spiders that die in freshwater lakes typically have their legs extended outward.

In contrast, spiders in very salty lakes tend to curl their legs very tightly. Salinity is closely connected to climate, so data such as this is very helpful in understanding how climate has changed. Both of these projects will help us understand the evolutionary history of spiders, and how ancient environments have changed through time.

Right now, I'm competing in a crowd funding competition through a website called Instrumentl.

It's a site for scientists to raise funds for their research through donations. I am participating in the Fossil Challenge to see who can raise 50% of their funding goal first.

The winner gets an extra $500 toward their research. I plan on using the funds to pay for the cost of using the electron microscope and CT-scanner and for traveling to the University of Boulder Colorado Natural History Museum to use more fossil spider specimens.

This is just the beginning of my projects, and over the next few years I'll continue my research and get my PhD. In addition to my research, I am the head teaching assistant for the introductory geology laboratories.

This is probably the best teaching assignment I could receive because I get to talk about so many different aspects of geology to so many different students, many of which would not otherwise get exposed to such a cool science.

I just started my PhD, but I already know that I want to continue to pursue academia and share the amazing history of our planet with everyone! - Matt Downen


This story was posted on 2015-11-09 15:04:48
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Fossil spider from an ancient lake deposit in northeastern Brazil.



2015-11-09 - University of Kansas - Photo by Matt Downen.
This is a large fossil spider from an ancient lake deposit in northeastern Brazil. It was alive about 100 million years ago and likely spun orb-shaped webs to catch prey. - MATT DOWNEN

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