This page is designed especially for kids. For more, return to the KID STUFF homepage
Meet a Paleontologist
A career in paleontology can take you all over the country and the world. Kari has done field work in Tanzania, Wyoming, and Idaho and she has traveled to Kenya, Ethiopia and Australia for conferences and other official business. You get to meet great people from all over the world, are exposed to new foods and customs, and see animals in the wild that you would normally only view at a zoo back home.
As a paleoecologist, Kari has collected data the condition of modern bones in different environments to recognize preservation bias and to better understand the environmental context of fossil accumulations. Sometimes this means tromping around in the mud.
Networking and presenting your research is an important part of being a paleontologist. You need to let others know what you are working on and it is a great way to find collaborators, gain new insight, and develop project ideas. This poster was presented at a conference on microbiology which goes to show that paleontologists can be found just about anywhere.
Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
I am the paleontologist in charge of research and collections at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument (National Park Service). This is a Pliocene age site in Idaho that is most famous for its fossil horses, but it is actually very diverse with birds, carnivorans, rodents, peccarys, turtles, fish, and even frogs! I monitor the monument for fossils and make sure that they are properly collected, identified, and curated. I interact with the public and park partners and supervise our field crew and any students who come here to gain research experience. There is also lots of reading of the scientific literature and writing of reports and manuscripts for publication. When I am not doing any of those things you can find me happily working on my latest research project.
What are you working on now?
I am interested in how extinct animals behaved and interacted with their surroundings (paleoecology) and how preservation bias (taphonomy) in the fossil record affects our understanding of the past. This requires the study of both fossil and modern animals and ecosystems. My current research is on Pliocene mustelids (for example, weasels, otters, skunks, and raccoons) to understand their functional role, including predator-prey relationships and niche partitioning, at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. I am a recent PhD (2012) and I am still finishing the writing and publication of manuscripts from that research. As a graduate student I had studied the environmental utility of fossil birds from Olduvai Gorge, a late Pliocene hominin site in Tanzania. Data from the birds were used to better understand the role of environment on hominin behavior and evolution. Part of my research involved time in Tanzania observing where birds died and what happened to their bones in different environmental settings. That is what I love about paleontology; your research can take you to a fossil site, a computer or chemistry lab, a wetland, or even a zoo!
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I received a B.S. in Paleobiology (self-designed) and a B.A. in Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, but I actually started off as an art major. During my sophomore year I enrolled in courses on anthropology, conservation, and oceanography, and surprised myself by doing well and enjoying them. It did not take long for me to regress back to my childhood dream of being a paleontologist.
The anthropology came in handy when I went on to the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies (Department of Anthropology) at Rutgers University for my PhD. Most paleontologists go into biology or geology programs, but many of us who work in Miocene-Pleistocene deposits can be found in anthropology departments, because we work at fossil localities where hominin remains have been recovered. I also received a graduate certification in Quaternary Sciences, based on my dissertation research and coursework I took in ecology and geology.
I was bored in high school and did not care for most of my classes, but in college there were so many cool topics to study. My two favorite undergraduate classes were Invertebrate Paleontology and Mesoamerican Art and Architecture. In both, it was about learning how to identify form and function. It is amazing how much information can be found in a pottery shard or fossil shell. I suffered through my chemistry and physics courses, knowing that they were important subjects but not enjoying them very much. In graduate school I loved all of my classes as they focused on topics like community and landscape ecology, paleoecology, hominin evolution, and taphonomy.
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
As an undergraduate I was given the opportunity to join a field crew led by Dr. Chris Beard, from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, at a Paleogene site in Wyoming. I loved being in the field, crawling around over rocks looking for tiny rodent teeth and imaging what the landscape had been like 55 million years ago. We got dusty and sunburnt, bathed in the creak, dug our own toilets, and had our campsite invaded by ticks and prairie dogs. It was awesome! Before then, I had thought of paleontology as an unattainable career, along the lines of becoming a rock star, actress, or astronaut.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
I was incredibly fortunate to spend almost three years of my life living and working in Tanzania, in affiliation with a research team working at Olduvai Gorge. While in Tanzania I spent a great deal of time studying modern birds and their death assemblages. I observed many National Geographic quality moments: I was chased by a hippopotamus, watched a leopard cub harass a porcupine, worked at a site that changed the way we view our own evolution, and best of all got to walk in the footsteps of Mary Leakey, a brilliant and adventurous scientist and one of the first female paleontologists! A definite "wow" moment was at the National Museums of Tanzania, where I was allowed to observe Olduvai hominin foot bones that had been chewed on by a crocodile. Very few people have seen those fossils in person and I got to do it with the researchers who had identified the tooth marks. This identification was made almost 50 years after the fossils had been excavated, so don't worry, we will never run out of cool things to discover. There are many amazing discoveries hiding away in collections or waiting to be excavated by the next generation of paleontologists.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
I am a first generation college student and I took that all the way to the PhD. If you have the dedication and passion, then a career in paleontology is in your reach. Ignore the naysayers. First grade, Career Day, I proudly showed off my bag of "fossils" (chicken bones) and babbled about dinosaurs, only to have my teacher tell me that it was not a realistic career choice! Adults patted me on the head and suggested that I become a medical doctor or veterinarian. My only regret is allowing others to discourage me: I love being a paleontologist! In college, don't be afraid to ask if you can visit behind the scenes of a museum, join a field crew, or work on someoneâ€™s research project. Be patient and someone just might say yes. You will need that experience to know if field or museum work is right for you (you don't have to love both), plus this experience is essential if you want to go to graduate school. Plan to be in school for a very long time. Many paleontology jobs require a PhD, especially if you want to do research. Take as many science courses as you can, but also explore the arts: paleontology requires creativity and the ability to think outside of the box. Paleontologists come from different backgrounds: geology, anatomy, ecology, art, anthropology, computer science, evolutionary theory, and chemistry are all important subjects to learn. Learn them all as an undergraduate and decide what aspect of paleontology most interests you. Hate the outdoors? That is okay, because lots of paleontologists work in labs. Love the outdoors? Be prepared to get hot, cold, wet, sweaty, dusty, sunburnt, bored, stung, sick, and exhausted. If you are doing what you love it will all be worth it!