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Ancient “Sea Monsters” Reveal How the Ever-Changing Planet Shapes Life, Past and Present

Never-Before-Seen Fossils From Angola Bring a Strange Yet Familiar Ocean Into View

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will open a new exhibition Nov. 9, 2018 revealing how millions of years ago, large-scale natural forces created the conditions for real-life sea monsters to thrive in the South Atlantic Ocean basin shortly after it formed. “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” will offer visitors the opportunity to dive into Cretaceous Angola’s cool coastal waters, examine the fossils of striking marine reptiles that once lived there and learn about the forces that continue to mold life in the ocean and on land.

Over 134 million years ago, the South Atlantic Ocean basin did not yet exist. Africa and South America were one contiguous landmass on the verge of separating. As the two continents drifted apart, an entirely new marine environment — the South Atlantic — emerged in the vast space created between them. This newly formed ocean basin would soon be colonized by a dizzying array of ferocious predators and an abundance of other lifeforms seizing the opportunity presented by a new ocean habitat.

“Because of our planet’s ever-shifting geology, Angola’s coastal cliffs contain the fossil remains of marine creatures from the prehistoric South Atlantic,” said Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the museum. “We are honored by the generosity of the Angolan people for sharing a window into this part of the Earth’s unfolding story with our visitors.”

For the first time, Angolan fossils of colossal Cretaceous marine reptiles will be on public display. Through Projecto PaleoAngola — a collaboration between Angolan, American, Portuguese and Dutch researchers focused on Angola’s rich fossil history — paleontologists excavated and studied these fossils, which were then prepared for the exhibition by a team of scientists and students at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. The exhibition was made possible by the Sant Ocean Hall Endowment Fund.

“Fossils tell us about the life that once lived on Earth, and how the environments that came before us evolve over time,” said Louis Jacobs, professor emeritus of paleontology at SMU and collaborating curator for the exhibition. “Our planet has been running natural experiments on what shapes environments, and thereby life, for millions of years. If it weren’t for the fossil record, we wouldn’t understand what drives the story of life on our planet.”

The exhibition will immerse visitors in this Cretaceous environment with lively animations and vivid paleoart murals of life beneath the waves — courtesy of natural history artist Karen Carr — that bring to life 11 authentic fossils from Angola’s ancient seas, full-size fossil reconstructions of a mosasaur and an ancient sea turtle, as well as 3-D scanned replicas of mosasaur skulls. Photomurals and video vignettes will transport visitors to field sites along Angola’s modern rugged coast, where Projecto PaleoAngola scientists unearth the fossil remains from this lost world.

A Strange but Familiar Ocean
“Sea Monsters Unearthed” paints the picture of a flourishing ocean environment that in some ways will look strange to modern eyes, yet still bears striking similarities to today’s marine ecosystems.

Peculiar plesiosaurs — massive reptiles with long necks, stout bodies and four large flippers — swam alongside 27-foot-long toothy marine lizards called mosasaurs and more familiar creatures like sea turtles. From surprising mosasaur stomach contents to the one of the oldest known sea turtles found in Africa, fossils and reconstructions of these species will offer visitors a fuller picture of their remarkable life histories and the ecosystems they were a part of.

The exhibition will also explore deeper similarities across the ecology and anatomy of ocean animals then and now. After the marine reptiles that dominated these waters went extinct 66 million years ago, modern marine mammals would not only later replace them as top predators in the world’s ocean, but also converge on many of the same body shapes and survival strategies.

The Forces That Shape Life, Then and Now
This unique period in Earth’s history reveals how key geologic and environmental forces contributed to the early establishment and evolution of life in the South Atlantic. As Africa and South America drifted apart and a new ocean basin formed, trade winds blowing along the new Angolan coastline created the conditions for upwelling, an ocean process that drives the circulation of nutrients from the deep ocean to its surface. These nutrients in turn jump-started the food web that attracted the ferocious marine reptile predators featured throughout the exhibition.

Just as tectonic forces helped create this Cretaceous marine environment, they also shaped the arid coastal cliffs where the fossils are found today. Starting 45,000 years ago, a geologic process called uplift caused Earth’s crust to bulge along Angola’s coast, lifting part of the seafloor out of the water — and along with it, the layers upon layers of fossil-filled rocks where Projecto PaleoAngola scientists work.

Though humans do not operate on a tectonic scale, their actions also have major impacts on ocean life. Humans are now the ocean’s top predators, with one-fifth of the world’s population relying on food from upwelling-based ecosystems. Scientists caution that with such great pressure on modern upwelling-based fisheries, overfishing could change the future of life in the ocean by threatening fish populations, marine ecosystems and even human health. — National Museum of Natural History

About the National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is connecting people everywhere with Earth’s unfolding story. The museum is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world with approximately 7 million annual visitors from the U.S. and around the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum on its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

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SMU students share their research at SMU Research Day 2018

SMU Research Day 2018 featured posters and abstracts from 160 student entrants who have participated this academic year in faculty-led research, pursued student-led projects, or collaborated on team projects with graduate students and faculty scientists.

SMU strongly encourages undergraduate students to pursue research projects as an important component of their academic careers, while mentored or working alongside SMU graduate students and faculty.

Students attack challenging real-world problems, from understanding the world’s newest particle, the Higgs Boson, or preparing mosasaur fossil bones discovered in Angola, to hunting for new chemical compounds that can fight cancer using SMU’s high performance ManeFrame supercomputer.

A highlight for student researchers is SMU Research Day, organized and sponsored by the Office of Research and Graduate Studies and which was held this year on March 28-29 in the Hughes-Trigg Student Center.

The event gives students the opportunity to foster communication between students in different disciplines, present their work in a professional setting, and share the outstanding research conducted at SMU.

Find out the winners of the poster session from the SMU Office of Graduate Studies.

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The CW33: Dark Matter Day rocks SMU’s campus

The CW33 TV visited SMU on Halloween to get a glimpse of International Dark Matter Day in action on the SMU campus.

The CW33 TV stopped at the SMU campus during the early morning hours of Halloween to interview SMU physics professor Jodi Cooley about the capers afoot in celebration of International Dark Matter Day.

The SMU Department of Physics in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences hosted the Oct. 31, 2017 Dark Matter Day celebration for students, faculty, staff and Dallas-area residents.

As part of the festivities, there were speaking events by scientists in the field of dark matter, including dark matter expert Cooley, to explain the elusive particles that scientists refer to as dark matter.

Then throughout Halloween day, the public was invited to test their skills at finding dark matter — in this case, a series of 26 rocks bearing educational messages related to dark matter, which the Society of Physics Students had painted and hidden around the campus. Lucky finders traded them for prizes from the Physics Department.

“In the spirit of science being a pursuit open to all, we are excited to welcome all members of the SMU family to become dark matter hunters for a day,” said Cooley, whose research is focused on the scientific challenge of detecting dark matter. “Explore your campus in the search for dark matter rocks, just as physicists are exploring the cosmos in the hunt for the nature of dark matter itself.”

Watch the full news segment.


By Shardae Neal
The CW33

On Halloween (excuse us) “International Dark Matter Day,” SMU students hosted a public witch hunt to search for the unknown: dark matter.

“What we’re doing is hiding 26 rocks that we have with the help of our society of physic students,” explained SMU Physicist Jodi Cooley.

What exactly is dark matter?

“Think about all the stuff there is in the universe,” Cooley added. “What we can account for makes up only four to five percent of the universe. The rest of it is unknown. Turns out 26% of that unknown stuff is dark matter.”

Watch the full news segment.

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SMU Dark Matter Day celebration culminates in a dark matter rock hunt on Halloween

“In the spirit of science being a pursuit open to all, we are excited to welcome all members of the SMU family to become dark matter hunters for a day.” — SMU physicist Jodi Cooley

This Halloween, people around the world will be celebrating the mysterious cosmic substance that permeates our universe: dark matter.

At SMU, the Department of Physics in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences is hosting a Dark Matter Day celebration, and students, faculty, staff and DFW residents are invited to join in the educational fun with events open to the public.

To kick off the festivities, two speaking events by scientists in the field of dark matter will familiarize participants with the elusive particles that scientists refer to as dark matter. The first talk is oriented toward the general public, while the second is more technical and will appeal to people familiar with one of the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering or mathematics, particularly physics and astrophysics.

Then throughout Halloween day, everyone is invited to test their skills at finding dark matter — in this case, a series of rocks bearing educational messages related to dark matter, which the Society of Physics Students has painted and then hidden around the campus.

Anyone lucky enough to find one of the 26 rocks can present it at the Physics Department office to receive a prize, says SMU physics professor Jodi Cooley, whose research is focused on the scientific challenge of detecting dark matter.

“In the spirit of science being a pursuit open to all, we are excited to welcome all members of the SMU family to become dark matter hunters for a day,” Cooley said. “Explore your campus in the search for dark matter rocks, just as physicists are exploring the cosmos in the hunt for the nature of dark matter itself.”

Anyone who discovers a dark matter rock on the SMU campus is encouraged to grab their phone and snap a selfie with their rock. Tweet and tag your selfie #SMUDarkMatter so that @SMU, @SMUResearch and @SMUPhysics can retweet photos of the lucky finders.

As SMU’s resident dark matter scientist, Cooley is part of the 100-person international SuperCDMS SNOLAB experiment, which uses ultra pure materials and highly sensitive custom-built detectors to listen for the passage of dark matter.

SuperCDMS, an acronym for Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, resides at SNOLAB, an existing underground science laboratory in Ontario, Canada. Located deep underground, SNOLAB allows scientists to use the earth as a shield to block out particles that resemble dark matter, making it easier to see the real thing.

The SuperCDMS SNOLAB experiment, expected to be operational in 2020, has been designed to go deeper below the surface of the earth than earlier generations of the research.

“Dark matter experiments have been a smashing success — they’ve progressed farther than anyone anticipated. The SuperCDMS SNOLAB experiment is quite unique,” Cooley said. “It will allow us to probe models that predict dark matter with the tiniest masses.”

For more on Cooley’s research, go to “Hunt for dark matter takes physicists deep below earth’s surface, where WIMPS can’t hide. — Margaret Allen, SMU

Dark Matter Day events at SMU:

  • Sunday, Oct. 29, 4 p.m., McCord Auditorium — Maruša Bradač, Associate Professor at the University of California at Davis, will give a public lecture on dark matter. A reception will follow the lecture from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Dallas Hall Rotunda with beverages and light snacks. This event is free and open to the public, and is designed to be open to the widest possible audience.
  • Monday, Oct. 30, 4 p.m., Fondren Science Building, Room 158 — SMU Associate Professor Jodi Cooley will present a seminar on the SuperCDMS direct-detection dark matter search experiment. This event is part of the Physics Department Speaker Series. While this event is open to the public, it will be a more technical talk and may appeal more to an audience interested in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, especially physics and astrophysics.
  • Tuesday, Oct. 31, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., SMU Main Campus, Dark Matter Rock Hunt — The SMU Department of Physics has hidden “dark matter rocks” all across the SMU main campus. If you discover one of the dark matter rocks, bring it to the main office of the Physics Department, Fondren Science Building, Room 102, and get a special prize. All SMU students, faculty, staff and community members are welcome to join in the search.
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Class of 2017: SMU professor named outstanding teacher by UT Regents

Alisa Winkler is an SMU adjunct faculty member and research assistant professor of paleontology in the SMU Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.

The University of Texas System has recognized SMU Research Assistant Professor Alisa J. Winkler for extraordinary classroom performance and innovation in undergraduate instruction.

Winkler, who is an SMU adjunct faculty member in the SMU Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, was named to the Class of 2017 for the Regent’s Outstanding Teaching Awards of The University of Texas. It is the Board of Regents’ highest honor. It recognizes faculty for the highest quality of instruction in the classroom, laboratory, field and online.

Winkler earned her Ph.D. in geology from SMU in 1990, specializing in mammalian vertebrate paleontology.

“To be honest, when I was young I never thought about being a teacher. Later in life it just came with the territory of being in academia,” Winkler said. “What I discovered as a teacher, however, is how much I enjoy, learn from, and am inspired by my students. Their passion for knowledge is both a challenge and a stimulus for me to continue learning myself.”

She is an associate professor at U.T. Southwestern Medical Center in the Department of Cell Biology, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

In addition to her teaching commitments and some contributions to the higher education literature, Winkler maintains an active research program in vertebrate paleontology as a research professor in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

In recent work, she analyzed research literature for “Fossil Rodents of Africa,” the first comprehensive summary and distribution analysis of Africa’s fossil rodents since 1978, according to SMU professor of geological sciences and vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs, a world-renowned dinosaur expert and president of SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

“Alisa has been recognized for her teaching skills at U.T. Southwestern, but she is also globally recognized for her research on East African fossil mammals, which constrains the age and paleo-environments of human evolution,” Jacobs said. “Working from her research office in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, and in the field in Kenya and Uganda, she is a great asset to our students and adds depth to our program.”

Winkler received a B.A. in Biology from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville in 1978. She then earned an M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1982.

She has been teaching anatomy at U.T. Southwestern since 1990. Winkler is currently co-director of the Human Structure course (anatomy, embryology and radiology) for first year medical students, and director of the Anatomy course for health professions students. Both courses focus on a cadaver-based dissection laboratory, and require extensive administrative, organizational and teaching commitments.

Winkler is the recipient of numerous teaching awards from the medical students, including seven pre-clinical teaching awards and a Katherine Howe Muntz Award for Teaching in Anatomy (2010). The Human Structure course was awarded the best course award for first year courses in 2016. She was awarded an outstanding educator award in health care sciences from the health professions students in 2014.

The Regent’s Outstanding Teacher Award was established in 2008 and is offered annually in recognition of faculty members at the The University of Texas System’s eight academic and six health institutions. With a monetary award of $25,000, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards are among the largest and most competitive in the nation for rewarding outstanding faculty performance.

Faculty members undergo a series of rigorous evaluations by students, peer faculty and external reviewers. The review panels consider a range of activities and criteria in their evaluations of a candidate’s teaching performance, including classroom expertise, curricula quality, innovative course development and student learning outcomes.

Winkler is one of 56 faculty members from across U.T.’s 14 academic and health institutions honored with the award by the Regents Aug. 23 in Austin. — SMU, U.T. System