|Photo provided by Jeffrey Martz|
Gary: What is a paleontologist and what do they do?
Dr. Jeffrey Martz: A paleontologist is a kind of scientist, and being a scientist is not simply about acquiring knowledge, but about contributing new knowledge by learning things that no one else has learned before. This is a lot more time-consuming than just reading about someone else’s work, so just knowing a lot about dinosaurs does not make someone a paleontologist. A paleontologist is also not the same thing as a preparator, which is someone that removes fossils from rock (and a lot of other tasks related to the upkeep of fossils), although one can be both a paleontologist and a preparator.
Paleontologists tend to specialize on a few particular subjects in their research, because research is a very time-consuming process. When pursuing a research question such as “how did this group of animals evolve,” or “what ancient environments did these animal live in”, you have to collect a lot of information before those questions can be answered. It takes a lot longer to acquire first-hand knowledge on a subject and write a scientific paper than it does to read one. As a result, most paleontologists select a few subjects on which they can become experts with more first-hand knowledge than almost anyone.
My own work focuses on the Late Triassic, which lasted from about 235-201 million years ago. The Triassic Period followed the Permian mass extinction, the largest in the history of life. As with other periods following mass extinctions, the Triassic was a time of evolutionary radiation, and a lot of strange new groups of animals appeared, including the first dinosaurs, lizards, sphenodontians, frogs, turtles, mammals, and relatives of crocodylians, as well as survivors of the Permian extinction. Overall, the Triassic fauna was a strange menagerie of old and new groups of animals, most of which would not survive past the end of the period. Moreover, the ecological changes that occurred during the period had critical consequences for the rest of the Phanerozoic, eliminating some groups of animals and establishing others (including the dinosaurs) who would thrive for the rest of the Mesozoic Era. Climate change, massive volcanic activity in eastern North America, and at least one major asteroid or comet impact all probably played a part in these ecological changes.
Most of my research focuses on Triassic rocks and fossils in western North America. One major project is to more closely examine the Chinle Formation and Dockum group, the sedimentary rocks of Late Triassic age that occur throughout Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. After leaving Texas Tech, I spent three years working at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, collaborating with my friend and colleague Bill Parker on revising the stratigraphy and vertebrate fauna of the Chinle Formation within the park and elsewhere in Arizona. I have also been working with researchers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Dinosaur Discovery Center in St. George (Utah), and Utah Museum of Natural History to understand how these rocks vary across the region, and what this tells us about changing environments and faunas throughout the Triassic Period. Additionally, I am also studying the fossils of the Chinle Formation, especially pseudosuchian archosaurs (relatives of crocodylians) and dinosauromorphs (dinosaurs and their close relatives) to understand their evolution throughout the Triassic.
|Photo provided by Jeffrey Martz|
Gary: What was it like growing up as you put it, a "dinosaur geek"?
Dr. Jeffrey Martz: Like probably the majority of people in this field, I was interested in dinosaurs from an early age. When I was really little, I went through a phase of drawing cows and horses for a while, and then graduated to dinosaurs and dragons. Tyrannosaurus rex was always my favorite dinosaur by far, and has never been eclipsed (even though I now have a deeper affection for crocodylian-line archosaurs, since they are what I actually study).
Old stop-motion movies (especially Ray Harryhausen’s) were a major source of inspiration; One Million Years B.C., Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and Valley of Gwangi are the three I probably remember best. Gwangi was a particularly convincing creation, and got an amazing amount of screen time for a stop-motion effect. When you know how difficult and time-consuming stop-motion and old school (pre-computer) optical compositing is done, it makes Harryhausen’s work even more incredible. The brain damage was probably irreparable by the time I was 6 or 7. I suspect that a lot of vertebrate paleontologists had similar childhoods to people who went into the special effects industry.
Naturally, I read a lot of dinosaur books when I was little as well. Being visually oriented and artistically inclined, I cared more about looking at the pictures than what I learned reading them. Probably the most important book for encouraging me to retain an interest in paleontology into my adult life was The Dinosaurs, a magnificent book illustrated by William Stout and written by William Service. I collect copies of the original volume whenever I encounter them, and get Stout to sign them for me whenever I meet him. I also remember Donald Glut’s Dinosaur Scrapbook fondly, which tied in nicely with my love of both dinosaur movies and dinosaur art. I hope Glut eventually does a sequel covering the dinosaur pop culture of the past 30 years, or better yet, a humungous two-volume in full color covering everything.
When I was a bit older, I saw Phil Tippet’s work for a television program called Dinosaur that was hosted by Christopher Reeve; it included his amazing short film Prehistoric Beast and a lot of additional stuff he did with other Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs for the program. His animation has a degree of scientific accuracy, realism, and atmosphere that was unparalleled at the time, and hasn’t really been equaled since; I think there is more drama, tension, realism and beauty in Prehistoric Beast than in all the subsequent BBC and Discovery Channel programs put together. It reminded me a lot of William Stout’s book. I’d love to see Tippet produce a 1-2 hour cgi dinosaur movie in the same vein as Prehistoric Beast; something that spanned the Mesozoic like the BBC/Discovery Channel shows, but with a cinematic (rather than fake documentary) feel, and without the absurdist melodrama, anthropomorphizing, and lame narration that those shows tend to have.
Tippet of course went on to work as “dinosaur supervisor” for Jurassic Park, the first film in which stop-motion (and go-motion) was replaced pretty much permanently by cgi. Jurassic Park came out the summer after I graduated from high school. I saw it in a special showing the evening before it officially opened, and again the following day with a big group of people from the Denver Museum. It was one of the few movies I’ve seen that felt like it was actually made for people with my particular type of psychosis.
|Photo provided by Jeffrey Martz|
Gary: Who are paleontologists you admire?
Dr. Jeffrey Martz: The paleontologists I tend to admire the most are those who are motivated, creative, and practical enough to be highly productive, and yet also decent people. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from them, although I am not always successful at emulating them. My earliest mentor in vertebrate paleontology was Kenneth Carpenter, who I met while still a high school student in the early 1990s. I met Ken indirectly through a high school social studies teacher named Susan Roberts, who was friends with Richard Stucky at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (then the Denver Museum of Natural History). Richard gave me Ken’s phone number, and I was able to arrange to be a student intern in the fossil preparation lab there.
At the time Ken was the chief preparator at the Denver Museum. Ken was someone who was able to juggle a large number of jobs and skill sets and get things done. He was a fossil preparator who was also participating in the construction of a major exhibit (Prehistoric Journey); his duties included preparing fossils, molding and casting, and welding. At the same time he was conducting fieldwork during the summer prospecting for and excavating dinosaurs, which requires a lot of knowledge about geology, fossil excavation, local bureaucracy, and running a field camp for a dozen or so people. Ken is also involved in various research projects, and produces a large volume of scientific papers.
William Parker, the park paleontologist at Petrified Forest National Park, is also someone I have a lot of admiration for. Bill has also been a good friend for over 10 years. Bill is someone who is extremely motivated and patient, and very good at figuring out how to use the resources and political machinery available to him to accomplish what he wants to get done. When Bill first went to work for Petrified Forest, it was a temporary summer position to locate fossil localities in the park. He made himself indispensible and never left. Ten years later, “park paleontologist” has become a permanent position because of him, and he has produced a massive research program in which he orchestrates numerous institutions undertaking multiple geology and paleontology projects within the park, as well as sometimes acting as temporary head of two divisions within the park. Bill has been able to do all of this and generate a great deal of respect for himself within the vertebrate paleontology community, even though he only has a master’s degree, which PhDs often misguidedly look down on. In addition to all this, he is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin while juggling both his job and a family.
I was certainly nervous the first time I met Richard Stucky and Ken Carpenter at the Denver Museum of Natural History, but this wears off pretty quickly. Most vertebrate paleontologists are unpretentious and easygoing people; this is a field people stay in because they enjoy it, and it shows. Paleontologists have faults, like to have fun, and have a history of doing stupid and inexplicable things, just like the rest of humanity. If you don’t believe me, go to conferences, talk to people at parties, and watch what happens when they have had enough to drink. You will learn the truth soon enough.
|Photo provided by Jeffrey Martz|
Gary: What does it take to become a paleontologist?
Dr. Jeffrey Martz: If you want to be a paleontologist, you will probably be in school for quite a while. It is possible to learn to do scientific research and papers without a degree of any kind, but the more degrees you have, the more jobs you will be eligible for. Most paleontologists with permanent jobs teach at universities, and it is virtually impossible to get a professorship without a doctorate.
At the undergraduate level, your primary purpose is to acquire knowledge, learn how research and scientific thinking work, and if possible get a head start on making connections you will really need to be making as a graduate student. Paleontology requires an extremely broad knowledge base, being essentially the bastard child of biology and geology. When I first started my undergraduate degree, I was just a zoology major; I later pursued studies in geology, and realized too late that I really should have double majored. I didn’t take quite the right combination of classes to get a geology minor, but I took so many upper division courses that I almost got a second bachelor’s degree; I even instructed some labs for physical geology in my junior and senior years. I was fortunate in that CSU has excellent biology and geology programs. It doesn’t hurt to take a few germane anthropology classes either (e.g. paleopathology, paleoanthropology, and field archaeology).
If you go to a university that does not have a straight up paleontology program with classes and professors specializing in vertebrate paleontology, you will need to educate yourself. Popular science books are a good start, but you need to start learning how to read scientific papers as well. It’s a bit like learning to read Shakespeare; the language is befuddling at first, but you eventually pick it up. Learn what all those weird and complex terms mean.
Remembering all of this information is not as difficult as it might seem; people have an amazing capacity for packing in obscure facts and information, especially when they find it interesting. Any sports fan or geek can certainly understand this; think about football fans that can give you detailed information on a player’s record, or geeks who know the name of every marginal character in the Star Wars movies, or the production history to every episode of Star Trek. Paleontologists often come from a solid geek childhood that included collecting information on dinosaurs (or for that matter, Star Wars and Star Trek) from an early age, and I suspect this makes them good at collecting facts.
If you go on to graduate school, keep in mind that you are not just acquiring knowledge anymore, but building toward a career. Paleontology is a field with few jobs and little money. You are not simply going to get a degree and have doors automatically open up for you. To make it as a professional paleontologist, you need to assimilate yourself thoroughly into the professional community, meet people, and let them get to know you and what you are capable of.
As you begin to research your master’s or PhD project, find out who the experts are in your field on your subject, and what other students are working on the same subject. These are your future colleagues (and friends), the people you will be collaborating on projects with, notifying you of employment opportunities, research projects, and funding projects, and helping you find jobs. They also know lots of things your don’t, and will appreciate things that you can teach them. If they get to like you and care about you, and recognize that you are useful to know, they will want to help you. Go to meetings to meet these people, and try to get out to the field to work with them at fossil digs, hang out and get to know them. At times when graduate school feels like a crushing weight and jobs are hard to find, having these people in your life will make most of the difference as to whether or not you stay in paleontology, or even want to.
Also learn to sell yourself as a paleontologist to people who don’t know you, namely to people who can offer jobs and grants. Learn to develop a professional persona that you can project to potential funding sources. Accumulate job skills and experience, and practice describing these skills confidently and in as few concise sentences as possible. You need to sound like you have a clear plan about what you will do for the people funding you, and you need to make people feel like they are biggest fools in the universe if they don’t give you money. You need to become a good writer and speaker, someone who can get a message across clearly and confidently with as few words a possible. If you can practice these skills while still a grad student, you will have a major leg up when you finish your degree. Look for student research grants and summer employment opportunities, write your own applications and proposals, and let your colleagues and advisors read and critique them. Like any other skill set, you get better through practice and accepting constructive criticism.
Also, be aware of what you are in for in grad school. It will be a lot harder than you think, and there will be times when it seems like you are barely inching forward, the work load is too heavy, the prospects are too small, your motivation is almost nonexistent, and you want to ditch the entire thing and go work at Burger King. I’m not trying to discourage you; just be aware that it is perfectly normal to go through this. If you make the firm decision that you will finish no matter what happens…then you will finish, no matter what happens. Stick with it. When you need to, take a little time now and then to do fun things and hang out with friends to keep yourself sane. The future will arrive if you make yourself keep moving.
|Photo provided by Jeffrey Martz|
Gary: Why do you believe dinosaurs continue to fascinate the public?
Dr. Jeffrey Martz: Although the American public’s attitude towards science is not always a respectful one, paleontology is a science that is relatively easy to get people enthusiastic about. I think dinosaurs continue to fascinate people because they are so unlike anything alive today. To young children and the lay public, dinosaurs are huge, strange and cool-looking animals that include some predators that would be terrifying to meet in person. To the young dinosaur enthusiast and paleontologist, they become even more fascinating when one learns about their connections to modern animals, especially birds. Learning about dinosaur biology, phylogeny, and ecology links them firmly to the real world without taking away the strangeness that makes them so interesting. I thought Scott Sampson’s book Dinosaur Odyssey did a fantastic job of presenting dinosaurs as living animals inhabiting living ecosystems; for my money, it’s the best popular dinosaur book on the market.
Other than global warming, evolution is the science that suffers the most widespread resistance from the American public, which is a real shame since it tells an utterly fascinating story about how we got here. Because paleontology has such an appeal to the public, I think it provides a useful gateway to presenting evolution. My House of Bones blog at Labspaces (which I still hope to return to at some point) was largely an attempt to communicate evolution to the public via paleontology. However, this requires laying some groundwork; since paleontology combines aspects biology and geology, it requires a bit of background in both sciences before it can be explained what paleontology tells us about evolution. The strategy I adopted was to present a series of blogs giving introductory information on the fields of geology and biology that are relevant to reconstructing evolutionary history.
As I have done more reading into astronomy and cosmology, even more interesting to me is coming to realize how apparently disparate fields of knowledge such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology are connected, how these connections help reinforce what is know about each field, and the big picture this gives us about how and why we got here. For example, Life on Earth is based on carbon, which is a molecule good at making complex molecules with other atoms, especially oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Life on Earth also depends on water, a molecule which is has a variety of properties useful to metabolism, as well as being slow to change temperature, which creates a more stable environment for aquatic organisms. Now, of all the planets in our solar system, only the Earth occurs a distance from the Sun that allows large quantities of water to remain liquid rather than freezing or vaporizing. Moreover, although hydrogen is the most common element in the Universe because of its simplicity, heavier and more complex molecules such as oxygen and nitrogen form within stars during their lifetime and during supernovae, so one or two generations of stars had to pass through their life cycles and explode before it was even possible for many planets and complex organisms to exist. Therefore, our form of life appeared where and when it did in the history of the Universe for particular reasons that make more and more sense as you see more and more pieces. This example really only scratches the surface of what we’ve learned.
Aside from resistance to science for religious reasons, I see two big problems for explaining to the public what we know about how we got here. One is how much basic information needs to be learned before the big picture starts to come into focus. The other is what a truly bizarre picture that is; the story of how we progressed over 13 billion years from an unimaginably dense and hot concentration of pure energy to a species of ape than can build spaceships and computers is almost to incredible to be believe, even though we have more than enough evidence to see at least the broad outlines of this story, and many parts of it in greater detail. And yet, the bulk of the public still thinks that science is so clueless about how we got here that invoking a supernatural being to make things poof into existence through some vaguely defined process (i.e. “magic”) is still a reasonable explanation. I think that the widespread acceptance of such a simplistic and uninformative explanation, which glosses over the amazingly complex and fascinating picture being uncovered by science, is a real tragedy.