Alison Olcott

Headshot of Alison Olcott


Department: Geology

Describe your work in a few sentences that we can all understand: I am a paleontologist, but the fossils I look for are preserved chemicals once made by organisms, rather than more traditional fossils like bones or shells. I am interested in how signs of life can be preserved in rocks over millions and billions of years, what that tells us about ancient life on Earth, and how we can use that information to look for life elsewhere in the universe.

Q: How did you first get interested in doing research or creative work?

A: I have always been very curious; as a kid I was forever making messes and breaking things as I tried to figure out how things worked (my parents still tease me about the time in first grade when I decided to see how cheese was made by hiding a glass of milk in my closet for a month and then tried to get my brother to eat the ‘cheese’ that resulted). However, it was not until college, when I began to work in a professor’s lab, that I realized that this experimenting and poking around and trying to figure out how stuff worked was something I could do forever as my job.


Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?

A: One of the things I love most about my field is that the research is like a giant puzzle: we use multiple techniques and lines of evidence to explore something from many different perspectives. This is a big, iterative process, and often those multiple lines of evidence create new questions and new directions for research. This is something that a student won’t necessarily get to appreciate in a class, where information tends to be presented in nice linear sequences, hiding this glorious messy process.


Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?

A: I love getting a better sense of what the world was like through time. Life has been on Earth for billions and billions of years, but we have really only had multicellular fossilizable animals for the last 540 million or so. Chemical techniques let me figure out what life was doing for all of that other time, and I think that is so amazing.


Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?

A: Talk to professors who you think are doing cool stuff! You are surrounded by researchers working on things that they are passionate about, and almost everyone is happy to share that excitement with students, and to carve out a piece for you to work on.


Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems.  Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected?  Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?

A: I feel that my research almost never goes the way I think it will at the beginning of the project, and that is the glory of it. This is how science works—you have a hypothesis about what will happen, but proving that hypothesis wrong is just as important as proving it right. In fact, one of my most high profile papers is the direct result of nothing going the way I thought it would go—we started with rocks that everyone believed contained the oldest fossils on Earth, and so we wanted to look at those fossils more closely. However, every test we did on these fossils pointed to the conclusion that these were not fossils at all! We then threw out all of our planned experiments, re-assessed the project, ran different experiments, and then eventually ended up with a paper in Nature Geoscience, one of the most prestigious journals in my field. I am forever reminding students that difficulties and strange results, while initially frustrating, are a sign that science is progressing as it is supposed to.


Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?

A: I have two small girls, and we spend a lot of time adventuring around Lawrence and the surrounding countryside. Luckily they are always happy to look at rocks or fossils or bang rocks with a hammer, so I get to incorporate them in my field work, too!