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 Of course, I’ve since learned that some of the ideas in Dinosaur Heresies are now outdated or perhaps exceed the data available; but even so it’s a landmark book in my mind.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.

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