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Meet a Paleontologist
Andy Heckert in the field.
Andy Heckert testing the size of an Acrocanthosaurus mouth.
Andy Heckert outstanding in the field.
Dr. Andy Heckert
Associate Professor of Geology
Department of Geology, Appalachian State University
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
My job is to teach geology classes, perform research in vertebrate paleontology, and run a small teaching museum. In additional to "typical" vertebrates, like dinosaurs, I work on microvertebrates (bones and teeth less than 1 cm long), principally from the Triassic, but also the Jurassic and Cretaceous as well. These microvertebrates can represent a variety of animals, including reptiles, mammals, bony fish, sharks, and amphbiians.
What are you working on now?
Right now I have research projects on a variety of Late Triassic vertebrates. In addition to microvertebrates I study a group of armored archosaurs (crocodile relatives) called aetosaurs, and I have papers on aetosaur fossils from North Carolina and Argentina in progress with colleagues from around the world. I also have projects related to Triassic fossils I have collected in New Mexico and Arizona, a manuscript on a very strange reptile named Colognathus, and most recently, I've begun working on some fossil footprints and the stratigraphy of the Moenkopi Formation in Dinosaur National Monument.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I earned my bachelor's degree at Denison University, where I loved my geology courses, especially historical geology, sedimentology and stratigraphy, and paleontology. I also took a great evolutionary biology course there. I then went to the University of New Mexico for my master's degree and Ph.D. There I undertook a variety of field projects in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science—we're still getting fossils out of those jackets, so I visit that museum often to see what they have discovered since the last time I was there.
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
I grew up around fossils, collecting invertebrate fossils in southwestern Ohio, but a visit to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago when I was in kindergarten really inspired me—I learned to read in part on dinosaur books my parents bought for me in the Field Museum gift store.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
I vividly remember driving home after spending 18 days in the field excavating fossils from the Upper Triassic Snyder quarry in northern New Mexico. We were totally exhausted after dealing with bad weather and three days of nothing but heavy pick-and-shovel work. Still, I was thrilled with our results, and could not wait to go back again.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
Success in paleontology boils down to just a few key traits: Be willing to read a lot; use that to practice writing; and take as many math and science classes as you can. Go to museums to see the fossils, and legally collect fossils in the real world if you live where this is possible. Spend time observing nature, even if it's a city park, but if possible visit the National Parks—they are some of the best and most beautiful classrooms on the planet.