UCMP Profiles
Carole S. Hickman: Techniques
Carole Hickman’s research takes place both in the field and the laboratory, utilizing a variety of skills and techniques to gather data.

Collecting fossils in the field
The most enjoyable part of Hickman’s job at UC Berkeley takes place away from campus. Although the UCMP houses thousands of fossil shells, Hickman collects many of her specimens herself so she can obtain detailed information on what she sees in the field. She enjoys all aspects of field work and stresses the importance of observing fossils where they are found, rather than just collecting them to examine later in the laboratory.

Hickman encourages researchers to spend time taking notes on a fossil’s surroundings before excavating it, noting that “Once you’ve pulled a fossil out of the rock, you’ve lost information about its relationship to where it was preserved, how it was preserved, and the spatial relationships with other things it may have been preserved with.”

Once fossils are brought back to a museum, they are “prepared” for the collections, which involves stripping away surrounding matrix [sediment encasing the specimen]. It is important to note the size and mineral content of the matrix grains because this information can provide important information about the fossil’s history.

Hickman builds phylogenetic “trees,” diagrams that illustrate evolutionary relationships among organisms, so that she can examine how certain morphological characteristics evolved. Hickman considers these phylogenetic trees to be the starting point for the questions she is trying to answer.

SEM image
Scanning electron micrograph.

Stained radula
Color photograph of stained radula.

Light microscope image
Black and white photograph through light microscope.

Tooth interactions
Line drawing illustrating tooth interactions.

Hickman enjoys producing images of the patterns she encounters in her research. A tool called a scanning-electron microscope (SEM) allows her to create striking photos of structures undetectable by the naked eye. Hickman’s images qualify as both works of art and revealing scientific documents.

Because imaging techniques can permanently alter the photographed object, Hickman first decides what she wants to learn about a specimen before selecting a technique.

“Different imaging techniques used on the same animal give you completely different results,” explains Hickman. “For instance, when you cover anything with gold [to do SEM], you lose any color pattern that the organism had.”

She continues, “You have a limited amount of material to work with. You would like to collect different kinds of information, but you can’t get all of them with the same technique, and sometimes you can’t get them all from the same specimen.”

  This sequence compares four techniques for illustrating the structure of snail radula (feeding organs). Click for enlarged views.

Keeping up with the literature
For Hickman, keeping up with her reading is the hardest part of being an academic. Because her research integrates knowledge from the fields of geology, paleontology, and biology, she reads a diverse array of journals in order to keep current on the latest research in these fields.

“If you’re going to integrate material from a number of different fields, you can’t just be in one field and casually borrow from the rest,” warns Hickman. “You want to be in the laboratory, or in the field, but you also need to keep up with your reading for inspiration and correct information.”

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