Meet a Paleontologist


Paul M.A. Willis

Technical Adviser to Dinosaurs At Large

The classic image of a scientist is a man, usually old enough to have grey hair (which is never combed) wearing a white lab coat and completely incompetent at anything other that their particular area of science. But most scientists do not fit this mould and no palaeontologist has ever looked like this.

For a start many palaeontologists are female. In fact about half of the professional vertebrate palaeontologists (those who study animals with backbones) working in Australia today are female. It is a relatively recent trend to have so many female in palaeontology but women have always been better represented in palaeontology than in most other areas of science. The first professional fossil collector was Mary Anning who collected many wonderful specimens in the south of England during the early 1800′s. Anning sold most of her fossil shells as curiosities and it is she who is the subject of the old rhyme “She sells sea shells by the sea shore”.

As a 30 year old professional palaeontologist, I take great exception to the image of all scientists being old! Most of the palaeontologists I know are under 45, many being younger than me.

The shabby, unkempt image of scientists is also a bit of an insult as is the scatter-brained nerd image in a lab coat. None of my colleagues (or myself for that matter!) fit these preconceptions. I don’t even know a single palaeontologist who owns a lab coat.

So what are palaeontologists like? Like any other profession, a wide range of people are attracted to palaeontology. So to describe a “typical” palaeontologist is impossible. We are united by a love of fossil and a fascination with the history of life. Generally, this love and fascination with our work far exceeds our desire to be rich because palaeontology is not a particularly well-paid career and positions for professional palaeontologists are very few. Some of us have full-time positions in museums and universities but most of us subsist on student grants, part-time jobs or other forms of employment that allows us some free time to pursue our real interests.

While not being a well-paid career, there can be few other jobs that give the range of activities, the depth of satisfaction or the height of thrills that are all part of a palaeontologists lot. A field trip can find the palaeontologists driving a bulldozer, flying around in a helicopter or setting off explosions. There is no feeling remotely akin to the joy of finding a beautifully preserved animal from the Earth’s ancient past or the reward of taking hundreds of hours in a laboratory to remove stone from an entombed beastie and be the first to see its ancient grin. The intellectual and physical challenge of reconstructing a denizen of the past from its few earthly remains is unique. And for all these rewards, palaeontologists gladly forsake other, more prosperous careers.

There is usually at least one kid in every primary school that wants to be a palaeontologist but, because of the paucity of Australian palaeontologists, most children have never met a real palaeontologist. Most of the presenters of the Dinosaurs at Large school incursions are professional palaeontologists and already we have met thousands of young, budding palaeontologists who are eager to follow in our footsteps. Knowing the current over supply of palaeontologists in this country, it is probably a good thing that most of these children will not follow through on their ambition. But, just for a day, that childhood dream comes one step closer.

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