Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tap Talk Tuesday with Lee Hall!

I am currently a paleontological consultant working out of the Los Angeles area. In 2011 I graduated from Montana State University with my B. Sc. in Paleontology. My job involves a combination of research, writing and field monitoring throughout southern California's deserts and other fossil-laden places. Consulting is a different world than academic paleontology, but it is an interesting and enriching experience. I also maintain some personal research projects on my own time, and I am happy to continue to contribute to the scientific literature. I think 5-year-old Lee would be happy to know I've made it this far.

Striking a pose with a cast of "Stan" at the Discovery Science Center in Anaheim, California. (Photo provided by Lee Hall.)

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

It's kind of weird, but I didn't really have an idol as a kid. In a way, I admired books. Until I started working with museums, everything I knew about science was derived from reading. One of my favorite books was "Hunting Dinosaurs" by Louie Psihoyos. It was (and still is) a great look at the diverse research topics in dinosaur paleontology. That book introduced me to a lot of the scientists who were answering cool questions about dinosaurs. At that point I went from just wanting to find fossils to wanting to be like the people in that book.

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

I got serious about it in high school, and luck played a decent part. I was always the nerdy kid who knew about dinosaurs growing up. I thought I'd just "be a paleontologist" when I grew up. In a small Great Plains farm town. We had one museum with fossils: the W. H. Over museum. I think there was a cast of Archelon on display and maybe an ammonite or two- not much. My hometown did have a small college and there were a couple of paleontologists there: Dr. Gary Johnson, who studied Permian sharks, and Dr. Tim Heaton, who worked on sea cave faunas in southeast Alaska. When I was a freshman, I interviewed them for a big research project for my English class. Later that year there was a visiting speaker for Earth Science Week- Dr. Jack Horner from the Museum of the Rockies. He was kind enough to invite me to work on his field crews in Montana for the next summer. At that point, I got pretty serious about it.

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

Growing up? Probably T. rex, but my favorite dinosaur toy was a crappy Styracosaurus- one with sharp teeth and practically no frill. I think it was orange. Now I would have to say that Styracosaurus is my favorite dinosaur. That head is crazy!

Excavating "T-tops" the Triceratops in 2011 from the Hell Creek. We first found the squamosal bone, the large blade-like lateral bone of the frill. While excavating around it, the syncervical (the fused first vertebrae of the neck) was discovered. This site was notorious for the long hike it took to get there. Another Triceratops site found later that summer was nicknamed the "Not 2 mile Trike" site. (Photo provided by Lee Hall.)

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

Paleontology is a serious scientific discipline. You will have to take a lot of technical geology and biology courses. It isn't just about finding dinosaur bones. Should you choose to pursue paleontology as a career, be prepared to work very hard and make a lot of sacrifices. Be an opportunist and jump at any chance you can get to learn or try something new. Those skills will make you or break you in the long run. Above all else, work as hard as you can.

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

Calculus. I was a terrible math student. I had to take it 5 times at two different schools before I passed it. Looking back, I'll say this about calculus: the 'calculus' stuff isnt' the hard part. It's the algebra. It's always the algebra. Once my algebra got better, calculus was no problem. Algebra is to calculus as instructions are to LEGO sets. You're going to have a hard time without knowing how the guts work.

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

I've really enjoyed working on a two-parter project with my friend Denver Fowler (who is currently pursuing a PhD at Montana State) and my fiancee Ashley Fragomeni (an assistant curator at the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, CA. Oh, and she's an educator at the LA Museum of Natural History. And the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. She does a lot.) A couple of years ago, Denver and I published a paper about sauropod hindclaws. We were assessing the validity of something called the substrate grip hypothesis, which suggested that the unique form of sauropod hind claws lended them to acting sort of like cleats in mud. We compared this to the scratch-digging hypothesis, which suggested that the morphology of hindfoot claws in sauropods was more useful for digging, and perhaps for excavating nests. Fast forward to this past year, myself Ashley and Denver have been working on part 2 of that study, which is essentially a follow up looking through the fossil trackway record for evidence of these behaviors. It's really very interesting! I've also been working with John and Kari Scannella (of Montana State) on a project involving horned dinosaurs, and it has allowed me to do some research into pathologies. Really gross, and really fascinating.

Question 7: Jurassic Park was the movie I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

Well I'm a huge fan of Star Trek, and one of the few movies I got to see in theaters as a kid was the last of the original crew's films (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). But I think Jurassic Park was one of the most fun movie experiences of my childhood. It certainly didn't hurt my enthusiasm for fossils and natural history, and I benefited from the flood of paleontology books and media that inundated television, magazines and book stores for years afterwards. I must have seen it half a dozen times. I'd scrape together pennies and nickels to buy a ticket, and the college kid at the ticket kiosk would take a look at the pile of change and just wave me in. Then I'd use the change to buy popcorn and candy.

The freshly jacketed syncervicals of a Triceratops, excavated from Montana's Hell Creek formation. (Photo provided by Lee Hall.)

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

I was a little nervous. My earliest recollection was with Dr. Gary Johnson at the University of South Dakota. I was amazed by his collection of shark spines, teeth and bones and his office smelled richly of pipe tobacco. He was very nice to me, and very patient with my questions. I remember he had framed fantasy art hanging at the top of his walls sort of ringing the room. They were vivid, stylized depictions of pterosaurs and saber toothed cats, and *ahem* huntresses. My first impression with a paleontologist was pretty unforgettable.

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 don't want to over analyze this question, so the meat of it is this. Our brains love to categorize organisms: food, venomous, predator, fast/slow, bitey, etc. We also recognize that skeletons are direct evidence of an animal having been very much alive at one point, so we can look at a dinosaur and our brains try to fit it into these categories. But we are left to our imaginations to fill in the gaps. It's a very strange place for your brain to be caught- sort of back in time but in the present, imagining behaviors and noises and colors all at once. You ultimately feel that they would surely have eaten you or stomped you or impaled you in life, but those fears are rendered inert by the fact that they're extinct. And that's fascinating to us hominids.

Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

I love the cretaceous. No contest. It's where I've spent most of my time in the field. There's no place like home. On the opposite end of that spectrum is quaternary alluvium. For a dinosaur paleontologist, it's like being forced to visit your grandma's weird friend's house. Everything is different. And it smells funny.

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

I've spent a lot of time in the Hell Creek formation, and I really love finding Triceratops bones. They're just cool. Frills, horns, and beaks- I remember one day I was prospecting and walked up on a small mudstone knob. I froze in place because a Triceratops skull was laying on its side right in front of me. Just like that. I could see all the bones: nasal horn, postorbital horns, orbit, jugal. Nothing beats an experience like that.

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?

Understanding geology allows you to give fossils a time and a place to exist. Rocks give you environments. They give you events. They give you time. Once you realize that you can build a much more complete image of our past Earth. Fossils can be a very powerful tool for understanding how evolution works and for examining its processes and directions. Or they can sit in a foyer. Point being, to get the fully rounded picture you need to look at the rocks. Being a paleontologist is like trying to put together a book whose pages have been dropped from a plane and scattered across the desert for years, bleaching, fading and tearing. You'll never get all those pages back, but if you're going to call yourself a paleontologist and a scientist you'd better never stop trying to find them.

John Scannella (in black) and I assess the logistics of flipping a large jacket at the "Ducky Tail" site. This specimen consisted of most of the legs and tail of an Edmontosaurus from the Hell Creek. It was very cool because the neural spines of the caudal vertebrae preserved a string of pathologies that extended over quite a few of the bones. We ended up flipping the jacket with human power and flew it out with a Huey helicopter. (Photo provided by Lee Hall.)

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

If people want to read some stuff about me they can check out my (unprofessionally maintained) website at: http://sites.google.com/site/leehallpaleo
I spent quite a few years working at the Museum of the Rockies and Montana State University (Shout out to Drs. David Varricchio, Frankie Jackson and Jim Schmitt!) and I detail some of that work on my website.

I have a twitter account (doesn't everyone now?) @paleeoguy

I'll also be gladly accepting offers for fully funded graduate program opportunities if anyone is interested in a self-motivated guy with a BSc in paleontology, 10+ years of field experience and a small (but independently growing!) list of publications (See you at SVP).

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

I love making prop replicas. I made a pretty cool Ghostbusters outfit back in college. I had the whole thing, the pack, the suit, blinking lights. It was legit. If I had a garage I'd probably always be in there trying to put something together. As it stands, I'm currently in a 1 bedroom apartment in Los Angeles and spend a lot of time out in the desert. No room, no time. Someday I'd like to really get back into it. Have I said that I like Star Trek? I've never been to a convention, but I have seen a few actors around LA who played roles in the various TV shows. I have a cat.

We used helicopters to remove large fossil jackets from the field. Jackets would be lifted, rolled or wiggled into a cargo net and a chopper would fly in and drop a cable to pick up the goods. One of us would clamp the net cable to the chopper cable, give the pilot a thumbs up, and get out of the way! (Photo provided by Lee Hall.)

Question 15: Have you ever been to New Jersey?

No! I was actually born in Maryland and lived on the east coast until I was 5 or 6, then the family moved to South Dakota. Is the Haddonfield marl pit gone? I've always thought it would be cool to see the approximate area where Cope and Marsh last parted on amiable terms. Come to think of it, my college roommate was from Piscataway and his mom would send us cheesecake from a local bakery. That's the closest I've come!

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