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Meet a Paleontologist
Alton Dooley working on a field jacket.
Alton Dooley excavating fossils in the field.
Curator of Paleontology
the Virginia Museum of Natural History
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
I'm the Curator of Paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. I study lots of different kinds of ancient organisms, from microscopic plants to whales. Most of my work involves looking at how whales and animals that lived in the Atlantic Ocean have changed over the last 50 million years, and what that can tell us about how the Earth has changed over that time.
What are you working on now?
I'm studying a site in northern Virginia called the Carmel Church Quarry, which has huge numbers of fossil whales, sharks, fish, and other ocean animals. I'm trying to finds out how many different kinds of animals were there (58 so far!), and how they all ended up in that one place. Some other projects I'm working on right now are reports of fossil ground sloths from Virginia, and studying how eastern fox squirrels have spread across North America since the last Ice Age.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I went to public schools in rural Virginia. As a college student I studied geology at Carleton College in Minnesota, and did my graduate work in geology and paleontology at Louisiana State University. I always liked my science classes, and in high school I especially liked biology. In college I really enjoyed my paleontology course as well as linguistics (which helped me in paleontology be teaching me about classification).
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
I've wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember, and was really interested in astronomy and paleontology. In my first year in college I took a geology class for the first time, and loved it. I was amazed at how my geology professors could look at a single rock or outcrop and describe the ancient events that formed the rock based on the features they could see. That's when I chose paleontology instead of astronomy (although I still follow news about astronomy discoveries).
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
I've had a lot of memorable experiences. In one case I had collected a dolphin jaw from a site, and wrapped the jaw and the surrounding rock in plaster to bring it back to the lab. When I cut away the plaster in the lab, I found that there was also a baby whale skull underneath the dolphin jaw that I hadn't seen in the field. It was also pretty exciting when we discovered that we could identify certain genetic diseases in fossil squirrels by shining an ultraviolet flashlight on their bones.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
Take as many math and science classes as you can, and read everything you can about paleontology. A lot of paleontologists put a lot of their research online, including blogs and technical papers. Work at becoming a good writer, because as a scientist you need to be able to describe your discoveries to other people. And don't forget that paleontology is found outside. Take time to observe the plants, animals, and rocks where you live.