Faculty spotlight: Yvette Bordeaux

Just like traditional on-campus classes, Penn LPS Online courses emphasize communication and connection with instructors as well as peers. Our courses are designed and delivered by Penn faculty who bring years of teaching experience as well as professional expertise to the classroom. The Faculty Spotlight series aims to introduce you to some of the outstanding instructors who make our courses so immersive and effective. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Meet Dr. Yvette Bordeaux

Dr. Bordeaux is the Director of Professional Master's Programs in Earth and Environmental Science at Penn. She also directs Penn LPS Online’s Certificate in Climate Change, and teaches two of the courses: CLCH 2300: Climate Change and CLCH 3100: Global Environmental Issues. She studied biology and geology at the University of Rochester, and earned her MS and PhD in Geology from Penn.

What attracted you to geology and paleontology?

I’ve always been very into being outside—picking berries, fishing, hiking, all that kind of fun. When I got to high school, we had some career professionals come in from US Fish and Wildlife, and I thought, “Wow, you can do this for your job.”

In my first year at the University of Rochester, I was really into rocks and I wanted to do research. I met [paleontology professor] Dr. Brett, and he said, “We’re going out in the field Saturday with a bunch of grad students. You can come.” And that’s how I got hooked on paleontology: that hands-on field experience was my introduction to paleontology, and I just threw myself wholeheartedly into it.

I try to bring that experiential learning into my own teaching and directing. This is how we get students excited—we get them involved.

What exactly does one study in paleontology?

Paleontology sounds like it’s all old fossil stuff, but you can actually do field experiments. You take things that are in the fossil record and try to figure out what happened to them: how did they get here, how did they get in this condition? And you can use modern-day examples as analogs to figure out what happened to a fossil.

I got interested in brachiopods working with Dr. Brett, and so he connected me with Dr. Thayer here at Penn, who was one of the foremost brachiopod specialists. Brachiopods are marine organisms that look like very small clams—although they’re not around much anymore and they’re not very tasty, so don’t eat them. Brachiopods were the most common living thing living on the bottom of the ocean back in the Devonian period 350 million years, and then they almost disappeared. So, what the heck happened to them?

One theory is that brachiopods don’t make as many eggs as, say, an oyster or a clam, so one of Dr. Thayer’s students was studying the fecundity of brachiopods. Another theory is that there were organisms burrowing in the sediment, disrupting the surface where the brachiopods were laying, so my dissertation was to look at Devonian rocks and see if bioturbation increased during that time. Another student was looking at predators to see what was munching on them, because you can see tooth marks in their shells. It was really neat because everybody was doing their own thing, but it was all around this one problem.

It sounds very collaborative.

Yes. My husband was one of Dr. Thayer’s students—I met him in grad school, and we bonded over brachiopods. We’re still married.

What got you interested in studying climate change?

It was a natural transition from paleontology. Brachiopods like clean water with good light coming down; they like shallow water, warm water. If you see a lot of brachiopods, that’s a lot of shallow water. And it turns out that when brachiopods were around, there was shallow water over most of New York state and Pennsylvania. The sea level was much higher back then, which means that the ice caps were melted or melting and the sea level had come up.

So that got me interested in climate and how climate has changed over time, with and without human intervention. The change that happened to cause those ice caps to melt took millions of years. Today, we’re seeing it happen in 10 or 50 or 100 years. Studying climate transitions is really, really interesting.

What do you do for fun?

I like mountain biking because I love to get out on a trail and hear nothing but birds. There’s a lot of great trails if you get up to the Poconos, and there’s just so much fun to get out on a bike and ride. We have two Great Pyrenees; they love hiking too.

This is why I like to get people excited about the environment. If I can get people interested, even if they don’t make a career out of it, they’ll know more about it. And the more people know, the more they’ll care, and the more interested they are in conservation. People who go out to parks and go hiking are also the people that are more likely to be composting or recycling.

How do you incorporate that approach into an online course? 

We try to encourage students to get out in the field. In Oceanography, we have video of all these different things: waves crashing, shoreline movement, sediment movement. But if you’re able to go to a shore and see this for yourself, that’s the way to go. If I was teaching an online geology class, I would say, “Okay, you have to go find a rock and you have to bring it back and try to identify it.”

Would you have to lick the rock, too?

Oh yeah, you do. If you want to figure out if it’s halite or not, you do lick it. And you can rub your teeth on it to see if it’s a silt or a mud stone. It’s not going to kill you, it’s just rock.

To learn more about the Certificate in Climate Change, read the Penn LPS Online feature “What is climate change, and what should we do about it?

To learn more about Penn’s Earth and Environmental Sciences department and their approach to remote learning, read the LPS News article “Challenge accepted: Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies takes the field with creative solutions.”

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