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International Master in Geosciences: Palaeobiology

Student Ally Award 2020 Recipient Tasnuva Ferdous Ming Khan


Tasnuva Ming Khan at a microscopeTasnuva Ferdous Ming Khan received the Student Ally Award 2020 for the class of 2019-2021 for her support and engagement for our student community. You can find her on Twitter as @Ming_tfk27 and visit her webpage.

What is the topic of your research and makes you excited about it?

I am presently studying patterns of mass extinctions, specifically asking, why certain organisms go extinct while others survive. Is this a function of their biotic traits, or their abiotic interactions? Before trait based selectivity can be measured, it is important to quantify uncertainties in the fossil record. For my project, I am assessing how sampling tendencies and fossil preservation potential affect our present understanding of extinction risk metrics.

How did you decide to become a palaeobiologist? What sparked your interest?

I spent an afternoon exploring the evolving history of life on earth as documented through fossil evidence in the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York. This was the first time I truly realized what “deep time” meant, and that fossils existed to tell this story of changing life. The field made me realize I could combine my interest in biology with my interests in earth science, and so I chose to become a paleobiologist.

What would you like to do next?

I would like to pursue a PhD in paleontology in the immediate future. Some decades later I would like to establish a natural history museum, aimed at increasing public understanding of earth science, in my home town of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

What in your perception are the main struggles faced by students in Palaeobiology? Are there any difficulties that are specific to this field?

Similar to all of geosciences, paleobiology suffers from a singular image of what a student looks like. The typical Jurassic Park-esque swashbuckling explorer trope exists strongly in popular representations of paleobiology, which, in my opinion, excludes many potential students. Earth scientists are generally perceived to be athletic and outdoorsy, which excludes students with disabilities or students who did not grow up with access to the “great outdoors”. Right from the onset, this can feel like gatekeeping, and if you somehow slip through the cracks, it is extremely easy to continue feeling alienated if you don’t subscribe to the explorer trope, or look different.

How do you see the situation of international students in the programme? E.g. is it easy to find a support group and learn how to function in the German system?

International students bring a much needed diversity to geosciences and paleobiology in Germany. In my opinion, the German system suffers from the aforementioned “singular image” problem, as many students remain in the same field at the same university for multiple academic degrees, and it is very easy to form an echo chamber of the same school of thought. International students in the programme break this monotony by bringing a fresh perspective of how science is taught and conducted, and how being different affects science.

Functioning in the German system can be quite challenging, and knowing where to find help is key. The latter only often works when German students take international students under their wing. Shoutout to Isabella Leonhard for helping me navigate in my early weeks!

What can academic staff do to support good relationships among students and between students and the staff? Do you have ideas how to inspire teamwork and collaboration?

I personally would love to know the “failures” of academic staff. We all see the highly cited papers, but I want to know if my mentors also had rejected graduate school applications, failed a course, or was unsuccessful in an experiment. Not only would this humanize academic staff, but show us that despite shortcomings, it is still possible to be in academia. I also want to know everyone’s stories – what lived experiences inspired students and staff to pick paleobiology as a field, and how did they arrive at FAU?

As for teamwork and collaboration, we should all solve a locked room mystery or go bowling. 😉 On a slightly more serious note, my undergraduate professors always stressed that we worked with them and not for them. A small change in vocabulary can go a long way in making everyone feel they actually belong, and that their scientific opinions, questions and work are legitimate.

What would you do if you could teach a Palaeobiology course for a day?

I would love to teach about the history of Paleobiology with a focus on the contributions of women and people of color scientists, both past and present. We are all familiar with Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Lyell, but I want to make Mary Anning, Tilly Edinger, Winifred Goldring, and G. V. R. Prasad household names as well.