This page is designed especially for kids. For more, return to the KID STUFF homepage
Meet a Paleontologist
Michelle Pinsdorf working on cleaning a Triceratops femur in the paleontology prep. lab at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History.
Michele Pinsdorf removing an old surface coating from the skull of a Columbian Mammoth at The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota.
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
I am a vertebrate fossil preparator. My work mostly involves cleaning rock away from fossils to expose them fully for scientific study or public display. I take lots of notes, photographs, and drawings to make sure I'm documenting information about the fossil and the rock it is preserved in. Broken and cracked fossils are repaired with chemically stable glues. When preparation is finished, I build a removable hard 'jacket' around the fossil, to cradle and support it as the rock used to do when it was in the ground. Sometimes fossils in our collections break, and I help to repair them and make them useful again for research or display.
Before I start a project, I study research done on similar fossils, so I know what the shapes and sizes of the bones are before I start excavating them. This helps me to know what I can expect to encounter as my work progresses.
What are you working on now?
One of the fun things about being a preparator is that I get to work on many projects at once. That way, I can switch between projects if you have to wait for glue to dry, or your hands get tired. Right now, I am working on preparing Jurassic dinosaur bones out of a block of sandstone from Zimbabwe, repairing the femur of a Triceratops so it can go on public display, assisting volunteer lab workers with their projects, and helping to plan for new paleontology exhibits that will be opening at the museum over the next few years. The variety in the types of projects I do and the different fossils that I get to work with means there is always something new to learn.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I went to college at the State University of New York in Albany, and received a Bachelor’s degree in geology. After that, I received my Master’s degree in vertebrate paleontology from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Some of my favorite classes included a field camp to map rock outcrops in central Maine, and Comparative Osteology, where everyone in the class had to de-flesh and clean the skeletons from the bodies of two different animals. Since these animals were usually roadkill, it was an interesting - but very stinky - experience!
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
I wanted to be a paleontologist before I even knew the word for the science! Some of my earliest memories are of playing with dinosaur toys. I didn't have the chance to work with fossils in a museum setting until I was in college. When I did, I quickly realized that I specifically wanted to be a fossil preparator, because I enjoyed the work so much.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
Some of my best experiences happen when I am looking through a museum collection and come across a fossil that I have worked on before. It's almost like seeing an old friend. Preparation and repair are links in a long chain of specimen care, and it's a special thing to work with specimens that have been excavated, prepared, or researched by famous scientists in the past.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
Visit museums whenever you have the chance, and don't hesitate to ask questions of the people who work there. Take a notebook and a camera to record and remember your experiences and questions. Work with your hands on arts, crafts, and other projects that build fine motor skills and your patience. And get outside too! You can learn to read the rocks, the land, and what they record about the area's past.