Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fortune Cookie Advice...for Real

I'm picking up a shift at the Prehistoric Pub today. Faces come and go, but if they are the faces of students starting out in paleontology, there is a look they all have in common at one point or another: that look when you jump into the deep end and realized at the last moment that you aren't as strong a swimmer as you thought. The look of feeling in over your head, feeling overwhelmed.

That feeling that makes you sit down and mumble to your confidant "I don't know if I can do this."

If that describes you or someone you know, have a seat at the bar. I've got some advice that I've accumulated from time, some experience of learning from dumb-ass mistakes, and some experience of learning from events that you simply can't control, and hopefully a way out of the seductive mind-traps that we all fall into.

Wine? Beer? Soda? Mineral water? Hot chocolate? The virtual bar is well-stocked.
I can only speak from my experiences, and the experiences of what I observed in student colleagues, colleagues, advisers, and mentors. All of my advice comes to you through my personal filter. 

Do what you love, and you will work harder than you have ever worked in your life.

If I could find the person who first said "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life", I'd give them a metaphorical smack on the back of their head. (This quote gets attributed to Confucius, at least according to goodreads.) More accurately, I'd give this metaphorical smack to those who use this quote to say that doing what you love is easy, while doing what you don't like is difficult.

I love paleontology. The exploration, the discovery, analyzing data, writing up the papers, telling the stories of the past of our planet to kids, the public, and colleagues - it's an honor to be part of the system that opens the doors to understanding our past.

If it feels like a difficult system to be a part of, it is. It takes a lot of time, a lot of training, and a lot of discipline to get into a position where you can start unraveling the mystery of the history. In short, it takes a heck of a lot of hard, hard work.

I was at a conference, standing around and chatting with colleagues in between talks. A prospective student who was interested in joining a certain lab had joined the conversation. Student started asking questions. These questions started to piss me off:

Student: "I know So-and-So-Grad-Student in this lab, so that will make it easier for me to get in, right"?
Us: "That's not how you get into a lab. You have to contact the PI and see if they are taking students. Even if they are, you have to submit your proposal and application like everyone else."

Student (persisting): "You people are clearly succeeding. What are your tricks?"
Me (rather irritated at this point, and yes, I swore): "Tricks? There are no tricks. This is hard-ass work, and I'm a tenacious bitch. That's why I've made it this far."

The others who were with me started giving the now shocked Student, um, softer good advise (for lack of a better word), but I was annoyed by this line of thinking. Clearly hard work was not first and foremost in this Student's mind. They persisted on believing there was a gimmick, a trick, a sham that made all of this seem so easy.

My wish is that I never make this look easy. I don't ever want to fool people into thinking it is easy. There is no innate brilliance that makes paleontology easier for some and harder for others. It. Is. Not. Easy. This shit is hard - hard to do, hard to keep the energy and ambition up to do it. Loving what you do gives you something to focus on when you're submitting yet another grant application, when you're rewriting that paper that got rejected again, when you're told by your funding agency that they support museums but don't support research. Maybe you've made a mistake that is now going to cause you seemingly endless hours of work to correct. Maybe you're trying out something new, and there is no clear path to follow. That happens. That love for your path is your carrot, the hard work is the stick. You can't have one without the other. Loving what you do doesn't make the bullshit easier to deal with - it just gives you a target at which to look past the BS. Do what you love, and you will work harder than you ever have in your life because you will want to make it work.

Who are you?

This next story makes me sad. The Student character represents several individual students I've seen through teaching labs, running volunteer programs, and being in labs.

I know this Student is bound and determined to pursue paleontology as a career, and I have not even spoken to them yet. How can I tell? Student has come to class wearing an Indiana Jones fedora, hiking boots, canvas pants, and a pocketed photographer's vest. They announce in grand tones that they are going to study dinosaurs, and scoff at using mammal bones in osteology labs. It's bones, after all. Student knows bones, because dinosaurs. Student receives soul-crushing 20% (or lower) on the bone lab, and, fighting back tears of disappointment, comes to the lab instructor all confused. HOW?

Here's a confession. I was that student. On my first comparative anatomy bone lab I crashed and burned, Chicxulub-style. I may not have had the fedora or the vest, but I was convinced that years of being a dinosaur fanatic was enough to prepare me for what it takes to be a scientist. Hell no.

Why does this scenario make me sad? I saw the same familiar pattern repeated in each new set of undergraduates. They are so determined to assume the mantle of paleontologist that they take an idealized, TV-promoted distillate of what a scientist appears to be and lose themselves in that ideal because that is all they know about the people who do paleontology. They only know what they have seen in the media, in books, in movies. These students have no sense no real sense of who the people they idolize are, and no sense of who they themselves are as individuals. Cosplay is all fun and games until someone loses their identity.

Make sure you develop who you are, inside and outside of the scientist realm. If you don't yet know, that's OK. It's a constant work in progress. An easy way to do that is start by a fill in the blanks exercise. "I am a scientist who feels/does/thinks _________." What's in your blank? Is it art? Jazz dance? Bar tending? Archery (guilty)? Martial arts (guilty)? Are you a bird fanatic (guilty)? Do you have causes you are passionate about? Great! You do not have to give up who you are or the non-paleontology (or science) things that excite you to be a paleontologist. They are part of your identity. Being comfortable in your own skin, quirks and all, will go a long way to helping you identify who you are as a scientist. Scientists are people, and people have varied interests. Be a person...

Do Unto Others...

...unless that person is a jerk. Do. Not. Be. A. Jerk.

All paleontologists are people. Some people act like jerks. Therefore, some paleontologists are going to act like jerks. You will encounter jerks. I'm sorry. It sucks to be on the receiving end of such behavior, especially if others brush it off as "Oh, that's just So-and-So. Pay it no mind."

There is no rule that someone has to be who you would classify as a good person to be a good scientist. There are no end of stories of people who have done good work, even brilliant work, and have been people you would not want to go to the pub with, be in the lab alone with, or share research ideas with. Some people are just jerks. It might be that they don't know they're jerks. It might be that they just don't care. Regardless, the outcome is that they hurt colleagues and students, building resentment and distrust in a community which is so much more than a sum of its parts.

Some people, intentionally or otherwise, try to emulate their jerk-heroes, or buy into the destructive culture of a particular lab setting. Here's a personal example: I interned at a (non-paleo) lab in my youth. My supervisors were two men in their mid-late 30s. The room in which they conducted my orientation was decorated with female porn centerfolds. It was also the room in which my temporary desk was placed.

I did not feel like I belonged in that lab. It felt like the supervisors were symbolically telling me this was a no-girls allowed space. It gave me a sick, disgusting feeling when they would look at their centerfolds while talking to me. I was horridly uncomfortable. I was also scared. I was scared to tell anyone because I thought I would get in trouble for making a fuss. I was scared that, by not playing along with this lab environment, I was not cut out to be in science. I was scared of not being accepted by the boys' club culture of the lab. Not only did I make it through the one day introductory orientation, I chose that lab to work in to prove that it didn't get to me, to prove that I belonged. I didn't want to rock the boat and call this out for what it was: inappropriate and unacceptable in a professional setting.  I thought speaking out was a weakness. I was so wrong. It is never weak to call out BS. Always stick up for yourself. Always stick up for people who are not in a position (or don't feel they can) stick up for themselves. Don't contribute to a culture you would not want to be on the receiving end of.

Here's some advice that needs to be emphasized a heck of a lot more than it is now: the ends no longer justify the means in science. The culture of accepting crappy behavior from someone just because they do exciting work is dying a long-deserved death. There are now enough people in paleontology that you don't have to suffer a jerk when you encounter one. And, in the event that you do encounter a jerk, there are people and resources there to help you. Don't keep it silent.

You do not need to belittle others, downplay their work, be jealous of them, steal their work or credit, or marginalize them to do good science. If you feel the need to do that to be in science, to be in paleontology, sit yourself down for a second and ask "Why am I doing this?" If "being the best" is your goal instead of "doing your best", it's deep self-reflection time. Take-home message: if you wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of your actions, your actions are inappropriate. If someone tells you your actions are inappropriate, you owe it to yourself and the people you work with to consider that they might be correct.

...Oh, and if you are called on jerk-like behavior, DO NOT try to justify it as "Oh, I was just so excited and eager" and other lame-ass excuses. When people say that to you, they are saying that their obnoxious behavior towards you is justified because of science. No. Science does not need people who try to use students to access your data for a paper that they have not told you about, but are going to try to publish first (for an extremely specific example). Science does not need the person who is so desperate to be noticed (or is a show-off) that they belittle someone during the Q & A of their talk. As Andy Farke said, to quote the great ones, "be excellent to each other."

Who are you racing against?

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel as though you are "behind"? You're publication list is woefully small compared to that of a lab colleague. You were rejected for that NSF/NSERC grant, while your lab colleague's was successful. Here is my favorite: did you start your program before those people who are now Ph.D.s?

Welcome to the race. Except that it isn't a real race. Oh sure, there is competition for research money, for publication spaces, for talks, for jobs. Even so, one of the biggest morale killers is feeling and behaving as though you are competing against someone. (That feeling could also tempt you down the Jerk Path.)

I get it. It's likely the most common mind-trap I fall into. I've looked at people younger and better funded than me and have thought "I don't stand a chance against this. How can I possibly compare?" The honest answer is that I can't compare. No one can compare, because every person's situation is unique to them and them alone. The only person in your race is you. You have to find your own academic pace so that you can complete a marathon, not a sprint. Don't feel that you have to burn yourself out: there is a culture in academia that accepts stress and pushing oneself to the breaking point as some sick badge of honor, and it's dangerous. There are enough challenges in academia without approaching it with the attitude of being "better" than someone, or trying to "win". Also, do not buy into the notion, if you find that academia isn't for you, that you are a failure. I call shenanigans on that idea. You are going to feel loss and disappointment over a plan that did not work out. You have to rethink the idea of failure. If A doesn't work out, then that means you should try X. A plan not working is an opportunity (albeit a bloody frustrating one) to try something different. You have failed no one.

You are not alone in feeling the way you are. You are surrounded by people at all stages of their academic careers who have felt this way at one time or another. There are people who will give you advice. Some of it will be good. Some of it won't be good for you. You get to choose what advice you follow.

Remember the way you feel now. One day a student or a colleague is going to come to you and say "I don't think I can do this.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Prehistoric Pub Welcomes Paleontologist Dr. Andrew A. Farke!

Gary:  The Prehistoric Pub is proud to have Dr. Andrew A. Farke as its first guest!  Greetings Dr. Farke. Please, take a virtual seat at the bar and let’s talk.  You are one of my biggest heroes in the field of paleontology and it’s an honor to have you. Let me pour you the first pint!

Andy:  Thanks, Gary! And just “Andy” is fine...I don’t know if I’m quite worthy of hero status, but I’m certainly flattered.

Andy with Centrosaurus. (Photo provided by Andy.)

Gary:  Tell us a little about yourself and then we’ll dive right into some questions for our patrons.

Andy:  Well, where to start? I’m a paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, where I’ve been serving as curator since 2008. I was born and raised in rural South Dakota, and did my undergrad work at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. I got my Ph.D. at Stony Brook University. As a paleontologist, I’m really interested in what makes dinosaurs tick--how they used their bodies, and how they evolved into so many amazing species. The horned dinosaurs are where I spend most of my time.

Gary:  You are currently involved in the field of paleontology. Who did you admire growing up in regards to this fascinating field?

Andy:  I am a child of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, so I grew up admiring the work of folks like Jack Horner, Bob Bakker, and John Ostrom. I got a copy of Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies when I was about 10, and that completely hooked me on the field. It was amazing to think about all the things we could learn, just from fossils and rocks! Of course, I’ve since learned that some of the ideas in Dinosaur Heresies are now outdated or perhaps exceed the data available; but even so it’s a landmark book in my mind. It got me excited like nothing else. I also loved the artwork of folks like Greg Paul, Mark Hallett, Don Henderson, John Gurche, Stephen Czerkas, and Sylvia Czerkas. Their work brought dinosaurs and other animals back to life!

Gary:  At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

Andy:  I first “discovered” dinosaurs when I was four years old; on a family vacation, we went to Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota. It’s a 1930’s era conglomeration of concrete dinosaurs overlooking the city, and my parents bought me a package of plastic dinosaurs in the gift shop. That was the beginning of the end for me! By the time I was in fourth grade, I made up my mind that I was going to be a paleontologist when I grew up.

Gary:  What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

Andy:  It has to be Triceratops on both counts. I love the history of this animal, and I just love the way it looks, too. The skulls are pretty nifty!

Andy in the field in Madagasar.  (Photo provided by Andy.)

Gary:  Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

Andy:  First, cast a broad net in your interests and skills. Learn to communicate well, whether that’s in writing or speaking. I’m still refining my style of communication, and still learning stuff after a few years in the field! If I were to do it all over again, I’d probably seek out a stronger background in computer coding--and I think I’ll probably do that at some point in the future. Software like R is immensely useful, so learning the math and programming behind it is a definite plus. Not to mention some of the most ground-breaking work in paleontology these days relies on R!

Second, keep broad interests in extinct organisms. Lots of people want to study tyrannosaurs, for instance, but the reality is that charismatic groups like this only have so many specimens to go around. Even the study of horned dinosaurs is more crowded than it used to be! It’s not just enough to make a new cladogram or name a new species--what are you going to do with it once you have it? What’s the bigger picture? I advise people to think in terms of general questions, rather than particular species.

Third, be open to opportunities, and be persistent. Time and again, I see people pass up great opportunities to expand their skillsets just because it isn’t exactly the kind of job or internship or whatever that they are looking for. Or, they just drop the ball and miss out. You won’t get any of the opportunities you don’t pursue. As an undergrad, one of the most unintentionally important things I did was sign up to volunteer for an afternoon with a geology professor who was running a seismic line, during my first month of school. It was completely outside my immediate interests at the time (dinosaurs, dinosaurs, and more dinosaurs), but it broadened my experience in geology, and I now have a better understanding for how that technology works. Even more important, the two other students (both freshmen too!) who signed up ended up as some of my best friends in college. We’re all working in paleontology now, and still keep in touch. I benefited immensely from seizing that opportunity, in ways I couldn’t imagine at the time.

Finally, be excellent to each other. A little kindness goes a long ways. I owe a lot to people who were kind to me, and try to pay that forward as best I can (imperfect though my attempts are sometimes!). You still need to stand up for yourself, of course, but if someone tries to feed you a line that it’s necessary to scoop, cheat, or elbow your way into success in paleontology, find some different advice. That’s not the kind of field we need, and not the sorts of colleagues I want. Avoid those sorts of people. If there’s one other thing I’ve learned as I’ve grown older, it’s that your friends’ and colleagues’ worth is not based on the number of papers they publish, or the name of the journals they get into, or the value of their grants, or the title on their office nameplate (or if they even have an office). There are lots of ways to be a paleontologist, and be a successful one at that. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they’re wrong.

Gary:  Were there any subjects in college you dreaded?

Andy:  Oh, I wasn’t too big of a fan of my physics classes. I think it had more to do with the mode of instruction than the subject itself, because a lot of what I’ve done for my research since then is rooted in physics. Also, I’m married to someone with a Ph.D. in physics, so it can’t be all that bad.

Andy on a helicopter lift in Utah.  (Photo provided by Andy.)

Gary:  What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects?

Andy:  I think my favorite project to date centered on a baby Parasaurolophus that one of my students found. It is such a cute little specimen, and we were able to squeeze so much information out of it! Hadrosaurs were a fairly new group to me, and a lot of the work we looked at with dinosaur growth was also new territory. I learned so much! There really is nothing better than having a research project where you get to dive into the literature and learn. I also had some talented students on board, and got to work with paleontologist Sarah Werning as a co-author. She taught me a lot about bone histology (microanatomy) and documenting your methods. And as an added bonus, I liked that we were able to put all of the CT scans, laser scans, and high-resolution images online for everyone to use. We went to the trouble of digitizing the dinosaur--let’s make it available for all! You can see the results at

As for current projects, I’m doing a lot in the Kaiparowits Formation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Our museum has a tyrannosaur quarry there (well, it’s more like a hadrosaur concretion overlying some tyrannosaur bones…), and lots of other nifty irons in the fire.

Gary:  Jurassic Park was the movie I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

Andy:  Absolutely Jurassic Park! I still love watching the dinosaur scenes from that movie--beyond the nostalgia value, I think they really nailed the “feel” of seeing live dinosaurs. The scene where they show all of the dinosaurs off in the distance, just doing their dinosaur thing--that still sticks with me!

Gary:  I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist. Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?

Andy:  I think the first professional paleontologist I met must have been Phil Bjork, who was director of the Museum of Geology in Rapid City many years back. I can’t say I was a nervous wreck, but I certainly wanted to make a good impression (I must have been 12 years old at the time).

If I was ever “nervous” to meet a paleontologist, I think it was when I met José Bonaparte at SVP a few years back. I saw him across the lobby at the conference hotel, and I knew I had to take the opportunity to meet him (when would the opportunity come again?!). He was wonderfully gracious, and we had a nice, brief conversation.

Gary:  Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

Andy:  I think a lot of it has to do with their status as “real monsters.” Many of them were unlike anything that’s alive today, yet they are real, and are a part of our planet’s history. That long distance in time yet close physical proximity is a winning and fascinating combination.

Gary:  What is your favorite time period?

Andy:  Cretaceous, no doubt! My favorite animals lived during that time, and it was a pretty cool juncture in earth history from just about every angle.

Andy with a pint of homebrew.  (Photo provided by Andy.)

Gary:  What is your favorite dinosaur from your fieldwork sites?

Andy:  As a grad student, I had the good opportunity to do fieldwork in Madagascar, and I just love the dinosaurs from there. Majungasaurus has to be one of my favorites, particularly because I got the chance to help excavate one of the most complete skeletons known, after my buddy Joe Sertich found the site. They’re such funky animals--kinda like the weiner-dogs of the dinosaur world. Stubby hind legs, ridiculously tiny forelimbs, and a long body.

My second favorite dinosaur find from Madagascar is probably the braincase of the sauropod Vahiny--it is amazingly cool to learn that the specimen you found is going to be the holotype (name-bearing example specimen) for a new species. You can check out the blog post to learn more on the story for that one.

Gary:  Where can our audience go to learn more about your work and support what you do?

Andy:  I’m pretty active on Twitter, so you can find me there @andyfarke. I also blog at The Integrative Paleontologists ( You can learn more about my museum at its website (, on Twitter (@alfmuseum), or on Facebook. There’s always something going on!

Gary:  What else do you enjoy? What other interesting hobbies do you have? I hear you brew your own beer!?

Andy:  Outside of my immediate work in paleontology, I’m pretty passionate about facilitating access to fossil specimens as well as the research on these specimens. I find it a bit ironic sometimes the emphasis that paleontology places on ensuring fossils are safely preserved in a museum--something I absolutely support!--against a background of publishing scientific papers in journals that many folks can’t access, or assembling 3D digital specimens without ever making them downloadable, or even letting people know who to contact to access the data. A lot of my time is spent supporting open access publication as well as encouraging colleagues to make their data available. Fossils belong to the world--so let’s make them available to the world!

And my other passion--which lately has probably tipped into the territory of obsession--is of course homebrewing! I started in the hobby as a teenager, when I helped my dad (who is also a homebrewer) with his projects, even though I couldn’t enjoy the product. A few friends and I got back into it during grad school, and then I began brewing mostly solo when I moved out to California. It’s an immensely fun and rewarding hobby. Of course, you get beer out of it, but like all hobbies the end result is not the whole point. I love being able to switch my mind into a different gear--even though paleontology is awesome, and I really like what I do, it can be refreshing to step away for a few hours and think about something else. It recharges my mental batteries. Also, the hobby of homebrewing can be really sciencey, in a good way. During a brewing session, I’m measuring temperatures and specific gravities, calculating boil-off rates for liquids, culturing yeasts, etc. Basically, running a laboratory. Not all of that stuff is absolutely necessary to get good beer, but I’ve found it to be an enjoyable part of the process (and I end up with better beer than when I don’t do those things). Also, there is a real creativity to beer. You might have a mental image of what the beer will look and taste like, and then have to figure out what grains and yeasts and hops will get you there. There’s always a new challenge. And in the worst case, you still get beer.

Gary:  Have you ever been to New Jersey?

Andy:  I have indeed, many times! My wife is from central Jersey, so I make it out that way every once in awhile to visit her family. I think I was even technically a New Jersey resident for a short time, during a few weeks between moving from South Dakota (where I was born and went to college) to New York (where I went to grad school). For all of the bum rap the New Jersey gets (and I am guilty of picking on it every once in awhile), there are a lot of beautiful corners to the state. Plus, Hadrosaurus!!!! What’s not to like about a place that has the hadrosaur to end all hadrosaurs?

Gary:  It was great having you and I appreciate you taking the time to visit.  I understand you are a busy man.  Could you do me a favor and sign your glass before you go.  We’d like to place it on the wall for all to see!  

Andy:  Done and done. Thanks for hosting!

Gary:  Wow, this is amazing.  Absolutely beautiful.  Thank you!  Anytime Andy and please stop by again!  I owe you a pint next time you are in Jersey.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Welcome to the Prehistoric Pub!

Welcome to the Prehistoric Pub!  My name is Gary Vecchiarelli.  I'm a student of geology and paleontology with a passion for making good drinks.  Being a mixologist has paid for most of my education and the profession has become dear to my heart.  This site is meant to be fun and educational.  A place where science and suds meet.  So kick back, relax, and welcome to the Prehistoric Pub.