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Career Profile

Ellen Thomas, Micropaleontologist

Ellen Thomas is a micropaleontologist and paleoceanographer. She is a Senior Research Scientist at the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University, a research professor at Wesleyan University, and a Research Associate at the Museum of Natural History (New York). She is from the Netherlands, where she attended the University of Utrecht (BSc, MSc and PhD). In high school, she was interested in the sciences, but thought about chemistry and biology, not geology. Then she went to the university information days to look at options in the sciences (way back in 1968), and was told that women do not study geology. That was enough for her to decide to become a geologist, and she never looked back. She met her husband (Joop Varekamp, professor at Wesleyan University) in her first class at the university, a lecture on carbonate equilibria. They now have been married almost 40 years, and have two children. Her career, like that of many professional women, has been shaped by the ‘two-body problem’, the difficulties of finding two jobs close together, as well as balancing work and family.

Ellen investigates the impact of changes in environment and climate on living organisms on time scales from millions of years to decades, with the common focal point of benthic foraminifera (eukaryotic unicellular organisms): Celebrating Single Shells Making Small Shells: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDFg7P1CB5U.  She studies their assemblages, as well as trace element and isotopic compositions of their shells. Foraminifera live in salt or at least brackish water, so she concentrates on oceanic environments, from the deep sea up into tidal salt marshes.

The deep sea is the largest habitat on Earth, supports an enormous diversity of organisms, but is one of the least known.  Ellen studies foraminifera from the deep sea floor, in samples from the International Ocean Discovery Program. She has long been involved in ocean drilling and has served on panels and cooperated in writing successful drilling proposals. She is interested in understanding the development of high-diversity deep-sea faunas through periods of major climate change and mass extinction, such as the mass extinction caused by meteorite impact at the end of the Cretaceous (65 million years ago), which did not affect benthic foraminifera significantly.  She has spent many years working on early Cenozoic extreme warm climates, specifically the effects of warming, ocean acidification and deoxygenation on deep-sea biota. Her discovery of the rapidity of the deep-sea benthic foraminiferal extinction at the end of the Paleocene was instrumental in recognizing the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, now widely considered an analog to future global warming, and for this research she received the AGU Maurice Ewing medal (2012): http://honors.agu.org/winners/ellen-thomas/

Ellen is also looking at deep-sea benthic foraminifera during the end of the Eocene - beginning of the Oligocene, when the Antarctic ice sheet originated, and links between glaciation, the initiation of the AntArctic Circumpolar Current, and the global carbon cycle. Foraminifera are great tools to study anthropogenic eutrophication, and with her husband Joop Varekamp she is studying recent climate change, environmental pollution, acidification and rates of sea level rise in Long Island Sound and Great Salt Pond (Block Island RI).

Ellen is working to make 3D-pictures of foraminifera widely available on-line, with people at the American Museum of Natural History (NY) and at the University of Bristol (UK), where she was a Leverhulme Fellow http://www.bris.ac.uk/cabot/news/2013/260.html. This was recently highlighted at Wesleyan University’s website: http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2015/02/10/thomasmicrofossils/, and in Episode 6 of ‘Shelf Life’, American Museum of Natural History. http://www.amnh.org/shelf-life. Ellen is incorporating 3D printed models of foraminifera in education and outreach.


In 2011, Ellen became a fellow of the American Association for the Advance of Science: