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Meet a Paleontologist
Whitey Hagadorn in the field in Saudi Arabia, recording the characteristics of 600-million-year-old rock strata.
Curator of Geology
Denver Museum of Nature & Science
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
As a curator, my job is to do outreach, conduct research, take care of collections, and do just about whatever else the museum asks me to do. My outreach includes helping to shepherd exhibits, training of teachers, volunteers and staff, doing hands-on tables and offsite displays, and giving talks. One of my favorite new outreach activities is writing a monthly science newspaper column, entitled Just the Facts. My research involves working in the field, in the lab, or with citizen scientists and colleagues to decipher how ancient earth operated. The collections I help curate include the museum's rocks, minerals, meteorites, and invertebrate fossils.
What are you working on now?
Our current research is focused on learning what happened in Colorado during two mass extinction events — the 250 million-year-old Permian-Triassic mass extinction, and the 360 million-year-old Late Devonian extinction. There are spectacularly exposed rocks here in Colorado, some only 20 minutes from the museum, that preserve the signature of these catastrophic events.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I went to the University of Pennsylvania for college, and then to the University of Southern California for graduate school.
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
No. But I was drawn to geology in college. See http://vimeo.com/26769368. Once I got to graduate school it was hard to decide what parts of geology were most exciting to me, but soon after arriving I realized that fossils were one of the neatest tools to use as a clue to decipher ancient earth. Like minerals, isotopes, and structures in rocks, they provide one of several clues that we use to decipher processes that occurred in the past, or that occur in places or at scales that we can't see. Paleontologists and geologists are the ultimate detectives in deep time, and fossils are one of the most useful items in our scientific toolkit.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
One day it started to rain heavily while we were working on fossils that were preserved in an ancient tidal flat in Wisconsin. The sandstone bed that we were working was in a shallow bowl-shaped depression. We were nearly done mapping the fossils and sedimentary structures on the surface, so tried to hurry to finish work before our chalk-marks disappeared. As it continued to rain, water puddled around us, forming a large pool. I looked around and realized that we were standing in the middle of a fossilized tide pool. All the sedimentary structures, like the ripples around the pool, marked the boundaries of the pool — except that those structures were now rock. And the water was collecting in this pool, in the exact same fashion it had accumulated 500 million years before! I stopped working and took a moment to appreciate the modern waters showing me the outline of the ancient waters — in a way that I wouldn't have noticed had it not been for the rain.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
Follow your curiosity. Work hard — really hard. Be flexible and open-minded in your educational and vocational pathways. Have fun while you are doing it!