2023 Randolph W. “Bill” and Cecile T. Bromery Award

Presented to Karen Chin

Karen Chin

Karen Chin
University of Colorado Boulder


Citation by Louis Jacobs

Karen Chin is often labeled a dinosaur scientist, but she is much more than that. She is a paleontologist who specializes in ecosystem dynamics using coprolites — fossil feces — as ecological and geochemical proxies for testing hypotheses in deep time. Because coprolites are fossilized excrement, they reveal the inner workings of their host species and they contain the primary residuals of diet and sometimes their parasites, thus they can reflect behavior, community structure, species interactions, and species composition. Their taphonomy can reveal evidence of natural recycling and sedimentary conditions, and they can provide samples for isotopic analysis. Yet coprolites have largely remained curiosities since the 19th Century when the Reverend Buckland first approached them from a scientific perspective. Using such samples in scientific research was met in Buckland’s day in two ways, either with disgust or curiosity. That is pretty much the way it is today when the term coprolite is first introduced to someone not familiar with the word. Even so, everyone instinctively recognizes a connection if not a significance.

The Bromery Award honors a person of color who has made significant research contributions to the geological sciences or who has opened the geosciences to minorities. Karen Chin has done both. She is a woman of African American, Chinese, Native American, and European descent. Her paternal grandfather emigrated from China and her maternal great-great grandmother was Native American. Through her originality in unlocking the potential of coprolites as under-appreciated fossils, she created her own niche. Karen credits her father for her limitless curiosity. He was a Tuskegee Airman at the end of World War II, as was Bill Bromery. He later became a materials scientist. Karen, a paleontologist, is clearly proud to follow in her father’s footsteps as a scientist, albeit in a different discipline.

Karen’s approach is inherently multidisciplinary and collaborative because coprolites contain unique and significant geological, biological, and environmental information. To unlock their vast potential requires ever expanding expertise. Each of her studies has its purpose, whether determining diet, symbiotic relationships, taphonomy, paleoclimate, bacterial and fungal effects, or other phenomena. All contribute to understanding fundamental paleoecological and paleoenvironmental patterns. She pushes the data as hard as she can to flush out as much new knowledge as possible.

Before obtaining her Ph.D., Karen honed her ecological expertise and her ability to explain complicated subjects to an interested audience through working for fourteen years as a Seasonal Park Interpreter for the U.S. National Park Service, which started her down an important path. When she became a dinosaur paleontologist she stood at the entrance to the gateway through which many children are first welcomed to science. Add to that her specialty: coprolites. Welcome the twitters, even younger children recognize the certain connection in the natural world. The easily amusing subject of her informal science is — well… digestible for children and adults of all ages. Classroom studies have shown the effectiveness of such an approach. Karen’s broad ethnic background, the respect she garners as a female Earth scientist, her enthusiasm as a teacher and mentor, her experience in informal STEM education, and the welcoming manner of her presentations are all good reasons for her standing as a role model. Less fleeting than personal appearances or television, her co-authored biography, The Clues are in the Poo, written for children, has just been published and will introduce Karen’s story and her important work more broadly to the most important audience.

Karen was included in The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science. When the exhibit of portraits from the book was on display at the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum of Natural History, Karen’s picture was displayed prominently at the entrance with the provocative question, “What does a scientist look like?”

One answer is Karen Chin.


Response by Karen Chin

I am incredibly honored to receive the Randolph W. "Bill" and Cecile T. Bromery Award and to join the ranks of all the previous highly-accomplished awardees. I appreciate that this award recognizes the subset of racially and ethnically diverse geoscientists within our broader community. As a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, Dr. Bromery helped shatter the low expectations of what people of color were capable of. He continued to challenge stereotypes as a Black geologist. I feel a kinship with Dr. Bromery because my dad was also a Tuskegee Airman who became a scientist. I am grateful that pioneers like Dr. Bromery and my dad made it easier for people like me to become scientists.

When I began my academic journey, I was always surprised (but delighted) when I encountered other geologists of color. These days it is exciting to see many more diverse faces in the geosciences than there were at meetings thirty years ago. Yet, barriers to diversifying the geosciences still exist, and the percentage of geologists from underrepresented minorities remains small. We must not forget that diverse voices invigorate the geosciences by contributing different perspectives and ideas. There are many diverse, budding geologists out there who will make great contributions to our science if given the chance. I am gratified that GSA offers opportunities to diverse geology students and urge continued support of all students who have faced discrimination, economic hardships, medical challenges, and/or difficult family circumstances.

I myself was fortunate indeed to be given wonderful opportunities and support from generous mentors. Dinosaur paleontologist Jack Horner hired me to work at the Museum of the Rockies when I couldn’t tell a Velociraptor from a Styracosaurus. I will never be able to thank paleobotanist Bruce Tiffney enough for accepting me as a doctoral student despite my less than stellar undergraduate record; I could not have asked for a better graduate advisor. Geochemist Simon Brassell patiently introduced me to the challenges of organic geochemical lab work and ichnologist Tony Ekdale helped demystify the study of fossil burrows. I am deeply grateful that the late geophysicist Peter Molnar took time from his work on tectonics and climate to read my papers and offer counsel and much-needed support when I struggled with the pressures of being an assistant professor. Vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs supported my research before coprolite studies were widely accepted. He also spearheaded my nomination for this award, along with five other generous colleagues, Paul Barrett, Kay Behrensmeyer, Derek Briggs, Tony Ekdale, and Laura E. Wilson. There are countless other people whose names I have not mentioned who have helped me. I am sorry I can’t name you all, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your encouragement and for introducing me to the wonders of geology and paleontology. As a paleoecologist, I am convinced that it takes a diverse and vibrant academic ecosystem to raise a successful academic.