Geobiology student wins 2016 Undergraduate Excellence in Paleontology Award

Jesse Westbrook
October 24, 2016

Anna Whitaker, a Schreyer Scholar and junior studying geobiology in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), was recently honored with the Association of Women Geoscientists (AWG) 2016 Undergraduate Excellence in Paleontology Award. She was recognized during an awards breakfast at the Geological Society of America’s (GSA) annual meeting in Denver on Sept. 26.

“I was very excited when I heard I won the award,” said Whitaker, who is also pursuing a minor in anthropology. “There are so many great candidates out there, so I’m honored to be selected for the award.”

Whitaker won the award for her paleontology research, which she conducted through Penn State professor of geosciences Mark Patzkowsky’s paleoecology laboratory. As a Penn State undergraduate student, Whitaker has researched fossils from the Ordovician Period, which ended approximately 445 million years ago.

“Dr. Patzkowsky supported me throughout the process,” Whitaker said. “I was already a member of AWG, so we both saw this as another opportunity to interact with women scientists.”

“Successful scientists are curious and self-motivated,” said Patzkowsky. “Anna has both of these qualities. She has been an eager and welcome participant in my lab, producing high quality data that we can trust. Her future is bright.”

A rare fossil discovery in central Pennsylvania

During the spring 2015 semester, Whitaker discovered a rare starfish fossil while exploring Tussey Mountain, just a few miles from the University Park campus. The 445 million-year-old fossil is from the Ordovician Reedsville Shale, a mapped bedrock unit in the Appalachian Mountains. The fossil discovery was the first of its kind in central Pennsylvania, which was immersed in water during the Ordovician Period.

The starfish fossil played a role in a presentation that Whitaker made during the 2016 GSA meeting. Her presentation, “Environmental Affinities and Distribution of Fossil Taxa in the Taconic foreland Basin, Tennessee to Pennsylvania, USA,” focused on the Appalachian region 450 million years ago, when it was covered by a shallow basin. She analyzed how the marine communities differed, and what their composition may reveal about water depth and the environment.

“Presenting at the conference was a fun experience for me and was an opportunity to showcase some of my research to other students and scientists,” she said.

As a member of AWG, Whitaker also presented research during the 2014 and 2015 GSA meetings in Vancouver and Baltimore, respectively.

Founded in 1977, AWG is an international organization devoted to enhancing the quality and level of participation of women in geosciences and introducing girls and young women to geoscience careers.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 24, 2016