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Meet a Paleontologist

Alton Dooley Alton Dooley working on a field jacket.


Alton Dooley Eobalaenoptera harrisoni


Alton Dooley Alton Dooley excavating fossils in the field.

Alton Dooley

Curator of Paleontology

the Virginia Museum of Natural History

NFD Kid's Page Interview...

What is your job, and what do you study?

I'm the Curator of Paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. I study lots of different kinds of ancient organisms, from microscopic plants to whales. Most of my work involves looking at how whales and animals that lived in the Atlantic Ocean have changed over the last 50 million years, and what that can tell us about how the Earth has changed over that time.

What are you working on now?

I'm studying a site in northern Virginia called the Carmel Church Quarry, which has huge numbers of fossil whales, sharks, fish, and other ocean animals. I'm trying to finds out how many different kinds of animals were there (58 so far!), and how they all ended up in that one place. Some other projects I'm working on right now are reports of fossil ground sloths from Virginia, and studying how eastern fox squirrels have spread across North America since the last Ice Age.

Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?

I went to public schools in rural Virginia. As a college student I studied geology at Carleton College in Minnesota, and did my graduate work in geology and paleontology at Louisiana State University. I always liked my science classes, and in high school I especially liked biology. In college I really enjoyed my paleontology course as well as linguistics (which helped me in paleontology be teaching me about classification).

Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?

I've wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember, and was really interested in astronomy and paleontology. In my first year in college I took a geology class for the first time, and loved it. I was amazed at how my geology professors could look at a single rock or outcrop and describe the ancient events that formed the rock based on the features they could see. That's when I chose paleontology instead of astronomy (although I still follow news about astronomy discoveries).

What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?

I've had a lot of memorable experiences. In one case I had collected a dolphin jaw from a site, and wrapped the jaw and the surrounding rock in plaster to bring it back to the lab. When I cut away the plaster in the lab, I found that there was also a baby whale skull underneath the dolphin jaw that I hadn't seen in the field. It was also pretty exciting when we discovered that we could identify certain genetic diseases in fossil squirrels by shining an ultraviolet flashlight on their bones.

Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?

Take as many math and science classes as you can, and read everything you can about paleontology. A lot of paleontologists put a lot of their research online, including blogs and technical papers. Work at becoming a good writer, because as a scientist you need to be able to describe your discoveries to other people. And don't forget that paleontology is found outside. Take time to observe the plants, animals, and rocks where you live.

NFD Kid's Page Paleontologist Interviews:

Cassi Knight  Roy Plotnick  Thomas Holtz  Sidney Ash  Joshua Samuels  Alan Titus  Vince Santucci  Josh Bonde 
Michelle Pinsdorf  Glenn W. Storrs  Rebecca Hunt-Foster  Arthur J. Boucot  Robert B. Blodgett  Greg McDonald  Eric Scott  Sally Shelton 
Hans Deitre-Sues  Jim Kirkland  Alton Dooley  Karen Chin  Erica Clites  Katie Loughney  Richard Kissel  Andrew Heckert 
John Repetski  Christy Visaggi  John Hoganson  Scott Foss  Bruce Schumacher  Scott Sampson  Greg Liggett  Jere Lipps 
Matthew Miller  David Brezinski  James Hagadorn  Kari Prassack  Tony Fiorillo  Mike Fracasso  Diana Boudreau  Phil Varela 
Mindy Householder  Andrew Milner  Don Prothero  Bill Parker  Kenshu Shimada  Jason Schein  Robyn Henderek 

Cassi Knight
Roy Plotnick
Thomas Holtz
Sidney Ash
Joshua Samuels
Alan Titus
Vincent Santucci
Josh Bonde
Michelle Pinsdorf
Glenn W. Storrs
Rebecca Hunt-Foster
Arthur J. Boucot
Robert B. Blodgett
Greg McDonald
Eric Scott
Sally Shelton
Hans Deitre-Sues
Jim Kirkland
Alton Dooley
Karen Chin
Erica Clites
Katie Loughney
Richard Kissel
Andrew Heckert
John Repetski
Christy Visaggi
John Hoganson
Scott Foss
Bruce Schumacher
Scott Sampson
Greg Liggett
Jere Lipps
Matthew Miller
David Brezinski
James Hagadorn
Kari Prassack
Tony Fiorillo
Mike Fracasso
Diana Boudreau
Phil Varela
Mindy Householder
Andrew Milner
Don Prothero
Bill Parker
Kenshu Shimada
Jason Schein
Robyn Henderek


Last updated: June 12, 2013