Mentorship Strategies to Boost Diversity in Paleontology

Erynn Johnson and Aja Carer work with a 3D printer
Erynn Johnson (left) and Aja Carter both earned their doctoral degrees in paleontology from Penn, employing pioneering techniques, such as 3D printing to replicate the forms of ancient creatures. In a new publication, they share advice for attracting and retaining students and trainees from underrepresented groups to paleontology. (Photo: Eric Sucar)

According to data from the National Science Foundation, just three people of color earned doctoral degrees in paleontology in the United States in the year 2020. Two were from Penn.

Aja Carter and Erynn Johnson, both of whom are now pursuing postdoctoral studies—Johnson at Yale, and Carter here at Penn, in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s GRASP Lab—were taken aback by the news of their singularity. But the news lined up with other experiences they had had in the field. More digging revealed that Carter was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in paleontology at Penn and the first African American woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science.

In a new perspective piece in the paleontology section of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, they draw attention to the lack of diversity in their chosen field and offer concrete advice for how to address it through effective mentorship.

Penn Today spoke with them about the publication, which they coauthored with Elena Schroeter, an assistant research professor at North Carolina State University.


What have you been up to since finishing your doctoral degrees two years ago?

Aja Carter: I was awarded a Vice Provost Academic Diversity Fellowship at Penn, so I’m doing my postdoc work here. Instead of taking a footstep into a new field, I took a big leap into a different field, and now I’m working in the KodLab which is part of the GRASP Lab in Penn Engineering. I’m slowly trying to build up new work in paleobioinspired robots.

Erynn Johnson: And I’m at Yale, doing more paleo research, but I’m actually also based in an engineering school. It’s funny that we both moved in that direction.


Was there a particular experience or observation that led you to write this piece?

Johnson: In grad school, when the two of us went to conferences together, we would look around and realize we were the only people in the vicinity who looked like us. It was a strange thing to absorb. But once that thought is planted in your mind, you carry it through the rest of the conference, how few people in that room are representative of your background.

Carter: One of my favorite professors at Penn, Hermann Pfefferkorn, who is retired now, was basically the unofficial historian of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department. Every year I was in grad school he would give this presentation of the grand history of the department. And at some point we realized that I was the first African American woman to earn her Ph.D. from the department. My initial reaction was, ‘Surely not. Me? That’s absurd.’ But Hermann and I did some digging and found it was the case.

I thought it would be great to write this paper because there are relatively small things that could be changed to make a big difference. The big thing is money—we all need more—but so much of what Erynn and I did in our Ph.D.s, like learning how to use 3D printers, was free, we just needed to know who to talk to. Adapting our teaching and our mentorship and our outreach often doesn’t require money.

Continue reading at Penn Today.