Personal website for Kiersten Formoso, Vertebrate Paleobiology & Functional Morphology PhD candidate,
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California.
I am a Vertebrate Paleobiology PhD student in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Southern California and Graduate Student-in-Residence at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I am broadly interested in using functional morphology and biomechanics to answer the evolutionary question which arise in major transitions. I am happy to be here, but how did I arrive at this place in life? My story is long, but every bit as relevant to my identity and how I got to where I am.
I grew up in Sussex County, New Jersey, a large, yet low population county in the densest state in the nation. Sussex County is comprised of many undeveloped forest areas, lakes, and mountains in the northwest corner of the state and the county's slogan is “People and Nature Together.” This slogan truly reflects growing up there with being surrounded by forests and wildlife helping to nurture my passion for nature which in turn influenced my love for biology and all science. I was also naturally interested in how the nature I saw around me came to be and this is the root of my love for paleontology and the ancient earth. Like many paleontologists, I grew up with tons of dinosaur and animal toys and books, and was drawing, reading, and watching all things dinosaur/ancient life related as far back as I can remember. Though my upbringing was not the most secure financially as my younger sister were and I were raised by our single mom, and in fact there were actually some pretty bad times, my mom never let these hard times cloud or distract me from my love of science. Whenever it came time to sell or leave behind items in our lives, my dinosaur toys and books were not among them which I am so grateful to her for.
These passions for ancient life, science, and nature merged together and followed me throughout my academic development. My best subjects were science, particularly biology, and so I stayed this course through high school and aside from my junior year where I thought I wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force, I set myself up for a biology focused career. Officially, I wanted to be an evolutionary biologist because I became absolutely amazed by the concept of evolution, the foundation to all of biology and I didn't think paleontology was an attainable job at the time! The interest I have in evolution stems from the humbling idea that there were tons of very different and magnificent creatures that existed and thrived well before us, and that all life is connected at its origin.
For college, I enrolled at Rutgers University’s flagship campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey, my state school, and majored in ecology, evolution, and natural resources. Rutgers stood out to me because of all the schools I applied to, it was the only one with an undergraduate major that had the word “evolution” in it. Rutgers would soon become the place where I had the greatest years of my life (so far). A place where I not only officially began my scientific career (being helpfully guided to it by my amazing undergraduate department), but where I forged relationships that will last a lifetime, and where I had amazing, unforgettable experiences. From performing at the Super Bowl with the Rutgers Marching Band and being a summer orientation leader for new students, to working in two research labs and hiring and mentoring a unit of sixty awesome student workers as student unit manager of a dining hall, my Rutgers experience was incredible. Because of my perfect undergraduate experience, I’m definitely one of those people who is just absolutely nuts about their Alma Mater. It’s tempered in these few years after my graduation, but it’s still very strong. I am a very proud Rutgers Alumna and forever Scarlet Knight and this will always be a big part of my identity. I couldn’t write an “About” section about myself without sharing this. I graduated in 2016 with a B.Sc. in Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources and a Minor in Music.
In my senior year I began applying to graduate programs in geology, ecology and evolution, and biology to start in right after undergrad like any aspiring scientist “should be” doing. I developed a research proposal to share with programs, prepared for a paleontology career by taking my first geology class, and did a senior project in the Rutgers Paleoenvironmental Research Lab. I was doing everything “right” except for listening to this faint, yet nagging, “maybe not yet” feeling in my head. I felt that I had to keep the momentum going, but I realize very clearly now that I would have done well to have taken a break after graduation. While my Rutgers career was amazing and fulfilling, it was also a lot of work. I graduated in exactly eight, credit dense semesters coupled with a student job, my music activities, and research. There were financial reasons for this, as I could not afford to stay in school for an extra semester or two, nor afford to take summer and winter session classes. Four years flat is a great way to lessen student debt (though I still have a mountain of it), but it is not easy as reflected by the growing trend of college students taking extra semesters to complete their degrees. I was tired, burnt out, and I shouldn’t have gone to graduate school right away. But I did, and that is as big a part as any of how I got to where I am now.
Of all of my wonderful graduate options, I decided to go to Virginia Tech to pursue a master’s degree in Geosciences doing research in vertebrate paleontology with the excellent group that is the VT Paleobiology and Geobiology Research Group. The decision to pursue a master’s instead of a PhD was last minute because I wanted to “test the waters” so to speak with being a scientist and paleontologist. This was my way of "listening" to the "maybe not yet" feeling that I had. This decision backfired because it turns out that feeling was actually burnout, and I didn’t know is that doing a two-year thesis-focused master’s program, without having sufficient background in the subjects, I find, is a little bit like hitting the ground sprinting. I just wasn’t ready for that and all which came with it at the time. And so for personal reasons mostly stemming from my burnout and academic fatigue, I left the program after one year. It was not at all was a waste, however, and I truly appreciate my experience as I made lifelong friends, made great connections, established a great foundation in vertebrate paleobiology, and learned so much about myself, my specific research interests, what I needed in a graduate program, and how to properly take care of my overall being. In addition, at the end of 2019 I achieved my first scientific publication based on the work that I did at Virginia Tech.
Admittedly, immediately after leaving, there was a moment in time in which I was fully intending on leaving paleontology and academia forever. Fortunately, an impactful conversation with someone who I greatly look up to at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s 77th Annual Meeting (which I intended to be my last) helped reignite and affirm my passion for the field. In the year off after I left my master’s program I primarily worked as a server at The Cheesecake Factory, a difficult, but mentally relieving job, which helped ease some of my academic burnout, and I decided to apply to graduate programs yet again. This time, however, I applied to PhD programs with an entirely new focus, experience, and perspective. I was grateful to have also been awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which I truly believe I never would have received if I didn't go to Virginia Tech (VT's Paleobiology Research Group truly makes amazing science writers) and with that I was accepted to the University of Southern California to start my PhD in the Earth Sciences department, where I could commence research which focused on my interests and questions in a vibrant city more suited to my personality. Now here I am at the end of my third year of my program, I have reached PhD candidacy, and I am moving along well in my research and am excited to obtain my degree in a few years!
Interests and Hobbies
My interests and hobbies are many. I have recently taken up Twitch streaming where I play video games while casually talking science! I am an active musician with my primary instrument being trombone, which I used to play in the Rutgers Marching Band and still play in a student run symphony at USC. I also recently acquired a digital piano and have been refining my piano skills. In addition to playing, I arrange music scores for fun! Outside of music, I am an avid sports fan, namely college football and, of course, I root big time for Rutgers. I am an editor and sports writer for an SB Nation site that covers the Big Ten Conference which I have been doing for about 5 years now. I actually have quite the sports writing portfolio and once every year I have merged paleontology and science with sports via our "Power Poll Rankings" that rank the Big Ten football teams based on conference standing using a particular ranking theme. They’re big hits!
More Interests and Hobbies
I have a particular passion for aircraft and aviation. I’m always looking up in the sky for planes and helicopters, can identify a good chunk of modern and historical aircraft, and I have a major weak spot for military aircraft especially heavy-duty helicopters. I love birding and wildlife spotting, working out, playing tennis, beach-going, hiking, camping, and cooking, and recently got into stand up paddleboarding. I'm a huge fan of popular TV shows, video games, movies and movie franchises, and instrumental music.
I am a big believer in a work-life balance and the cyclical manner in which I keep up with all of these hobbies and interests compliments, not overshadows, my studies, and keeps me whole and happy.