Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tap Talk Tuesday with Ashley Hall!

Two people who I admire in the field of paleontology are Ashley and Lee Hall. I consider them both to be very good friends and I'm honored to have met them. I entered the field of geology and paleontology with the innocence and excitement of a kid. Meeting these two fine paleontologists reminded me to stay the course, study hard, and never give up on your dreams.

Hi there! My name is Ashley Hall and I work full-time as a Gallery Interpreter (educator) at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County where I give tours about dinosaurs, alleviate fears about arachnids, and get drooled on by opossums. As part of this job, I also give tours of the La Brea Tar Pits; the largest Ice Age fossil locality in the world. On my 6th day of work, you can find me at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology where I’m one of the Assistant Curators of Paleontology.

Photo provided by Ashley Hall.

Question 1: You are currently involved in the field of paleontology. Who did you admire growing up in regards to this fascinating field?

I really admired Jack Horner and Robert Bakker. As a little girl, I loved going to the library with my Mom to pick out new books and VHS tapes about dinosaurs (YES, VHS tapes are now fossils themselves)! One of the VHS tapes I remember vividly featured paleontologists in the field digging up dinosaurs—we didn’t have fancy CGI back then, so real paleontologists digging up dinosaurs in the field were the stars of the show and I grew up idolizing them.

Photo provided by Ashley Hall.

Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

Age 4. I was in love with dinosaurs from the minute I knew what they were. I wasn’t your typical little girl. I loved jewelry and playing with Barbies, but I also had a huge bag full of dinosaurs. If you ask my parents, they’d tell you that I used to walk around at family gatherings telling relatives which dinosaurs lived in which time periods. I was determined to work with fossils when I grew up. My parents, who used to take me on holiday vacations to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, told me that if I wanted to be a paleontologist, I could. They’ve always been my cheerleaders.

Question 3: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

Parasaurolophus. I had a pink Playskool Parasaurolophus toy that I LOVED. Ironically, the Raymond M. Alf Museum, where I work now, is the only museum in the world to have a complete, articulated baby Parasaurolophus in its collection. I was able to help excavate, curate, and catalog its’ bones, which was a dream come true. Whenever I look at it, I feel like I’m five years old again.

If you want to learn more about the baby Parasaurolophus named “baby Joe”, go to http://dinosaurjoe.org or see him in person at the museum. Parasaurolophus is still my favorite after all these years. There’s just something about that fabulous crest. 

Question 4: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

READ read read! Research by reading books, browsing the web, or by visiting local natural history museums.

Also, don’t set your mind on working exclusively with dinosaurs when you grow up—try to keep an open mind. You may end up falling in love with fossils that aren’t dinosaurs like Dimetrodon, invertebrates like trilobites, or even fossil plants. The world is FULL of wonderful and weird groups of fossil organisms that aren’t dinosaurs (believe it or not)! If you have it in your mind that you’re going to specialize on one group of animals, you’re only limiting yourself to what you’re willing to work on.

Question 5: Were there any subjects in college you dreaded?

Algebra. I put it off until my senior year of college. Don’t do that. I barely passed!

Question 6: What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects?

Oooh! I have a few research projects going on. See Lee Hall’s interview for details.

Question 7: Jurassic Park was the movie I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?  How do you feel about the new movie in the series from what you’ve heard?

Jurassic Park, of course! I saw it when I was 9 years old and it changed the way I looked at dinosaurs forever. Jurassic Park was the catalyst that fueled my fire to pursue paleontology. I love Jurassic Park so much that my husband, Lee Hall, proposed to me at the original filming site where Dr. Grant scares the kid with the Velociraptor claw. Lee, dressed as Dr. Grant, made me reenact the entire “6 foot turkey” scene and then pulled the claw out of his pocket—except he didn’t use the claw to slash at me--instead, he had a beautiful ring delicately placed on the end and asked me to marry him. A year later, we had a Jurassic Park themed wedding! You could say Jurassic Park has had quite the effect on my life. ;) You can actually watch our proposal on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpaP-loki-k

Photo provided by Ashley Hall.

Question 8: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist. Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?

Honestly, I can’t remember. It might have been Dr. Luis Chiappe and yes, I think I was quite nervous! He’s famous for his research of the evolution of birds—something that I’ve always been enamored by—so meeting him was like meeting a celebrity!

Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

I think people like dinosaurs because they’re similar to animals today, but just different enough to really challenge our imaginations. Fossil mammals like mammoths are great, but they’re SO similar to elephants today. There isn’t anything quite like Brachiosaurus or T.rex around today, and I think that’s why they’ve captured our imaginations. It’s almost unimaginable to think that we walk on the same planet where they once ruled for millions of years. It’s also hard for us to grasp the concept that something so big and successful can become extinct. It helps put our own human existence in perspective.

Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

The Late Cretaceous. Most of the excavations I’ve been a part of have been in Late Cretaceous sediments. I’ve walked on eggshells, gotten stuck in Cretaceous mud, and have held hundreds of dinosaur, crocodile, and turtle bones in my career. If I had to go back in time, it would be to the Late Cretaceous of Montana or Utah so that I could finally see and smell the environment and all of its many, awe-striking animals and plants. 

Question 11: Coelophysis is my favorite dinosaur from the sites I’ve work in! What is your favorite dinosaur from your fieldwork sites?

Probably Troodon formosus from Egg Mountain in Montana. Troodon was toothy, large, and was an awesome parent based on what we’ve learned about their nests. Seeing them take care of their tiny, fuzzy chicks would have been an adorable sight. 

Photo provided by Ashley Hall.
Question 12: Geology, among many disciplines of study, is such a vital subject when studying the past. Why do you feel this background is important to know when hunting dinosaurs?

Geology is the glue that binds paleontology together. Erosion helps us find them in the first place. Delicate footprints, like pterosaur tracks, are only preserved because of the type of substrate the animal walked on. That same sediment can help you determine what type of environment the animal lived in and possibly died in because of tiny microfossils. Geology, most importantly, can help us understand what forces helped preserve the fossils in the first place. In paleontology, nothing makes sense except in the light of geology.

Question 13: Where can our audience go to learn more about your work and support what you do?

You can visit me at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (http://www.nhm.org), The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits (http://www.tarpits.org) and at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, CA (http://alfmuseum.org). Follow me on Twitter: @ladynaturalist and on Instagram: lady_naturalist. 

Photo provided by Ashley Hall.

Question 14: What else do you enjoy? What other interesting hobbies do you have?

Recently, I’ve taken up taxidermy through Allis Markham’s classes in Los Angeles. I have a fascination with ALL dead things—taxidermy, fossils, and bones. I also draw and paint, love listening to music by Gwen Stefani and Taylor Swift, and love shopping. Like I said, girls can still be girly girls and love dinosaurs, too.

Question 15:  Have you ever been to New Jersey?

No! But I’d love to visit someday!

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