Dr. Caroline Strömberg is the Estella B. Leopold Associate Professor of Biology and Curator of Paleobotany at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Originally from Sweden, Dr. Strömberg considered careers in art and engineering before choosing paleontology. As a young student in Sweden, she found her teachers were very supportive of her interests in science and engineering. However, her experience changed when she participated in a recruitment immersion week at an engineering university as a high school student and encountered what she perceived as a chauvinistic atmosphere in this still very male-dominated institution. Nevertheless, Dr. Strömberg continued to cultivate her love of science and eventually pursued her doctorate in Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2006 she was offered a faculty position at UW and accepted thanks to the university’s excellent Biology Department, the opportunities at the Burke Museum, and the many fossils available through the Pacific Northwest region.
Q&A: Paleobotany and Phytoliths
Q. Can you go into a little more depth about Paleobotany?
A. Paleobotany is the study of fossil plants. I’m interested specifically in the evolution of grasses and the spread of grasslands in the last 70 million years, and what that meant for evolution for animals and other plants on earth. People don’t usually think about it but grasses are a huge part of our life. Most of what we eat are grasses. Up to 40% of earth’s surface is covered in grass. People have a hard time imagining earth without grass, but at the same time people don’t think about them as something particularly noteworthy.
Q. What is your proudest accomplishment?
A. I started using this type of fossil called phytoliths that no one else seriously used for paleobotany before. No one seemed to see the potential in using them. However, when I started, a whole world of possibilities opened. Initially, I encountered resistance to the idea, for example, many senior colleagues told me that my project wasn’t going to work, but, luckily it did. Also, there are some old articles saying that phytoliths don’t preserve very well or they’re not very specific, but that’s not true. No source of paleobotanical data is necessarily easy to work with—there are always biases and problems. But as long as we recognize these biases, and focus on the questions that, in this case the fossil record of phytoliths can answer, then phytoliths are very useful.
Learn more about Dr. Strömberg via her lab website: http://depts.washington.edu/strmbrgl/StrombergLab_website/Home.html