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Meet a Paleontologist
Richard teaching about Devonian invertebrate fossils at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, held in 2010 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Little Richard at the National Museum of Natural History, years and years ago.
Richard and the dinosaurs at Yale's Peabody Museum.
Dr. Richard Kissel
Director of Public Programs
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
As a vertebrate paleontologist, my research has focused on reptiles and early mammal relatives from before the age of dinosaurs—animals like the great fin-backed Dimetrodon and its contemporaries. But in addition to studying these particular creatures, I'm very passionate about educating others about all of ancient life. At Yale, I lead both education and exhibits at the Peabody Museum, where thousands of visitors enter our doors every month to learn about not only dinosaurs but also all aspects of our natural world!
What are you working on now?
My most recent research has focused on an odd little group of amphibians called diadectids (dye-uh-DEK-tidz). As some of the first big animals to evolve a diet of plants, rather than meat, they are very important to life's great history. Here at the museum, we are also planning to renovate our great fossil galleries, which are populated by the historic skeletons of O.C. Marsh and his crews.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I received my first degree in Geology from Bowling Green State University; it was a great program and my advisor Don Steinker was a phenomenal teacher. Dr. Steinker has since retired, but I'm very happy to say that Dr. Peg Yacobucci continues the program. I then received a Masters in Geology from Texas Tech, working with the wonderful Dr. Tom Lehman, and then my PhD in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto, where I had the great fortune of working with Dr. Robert Reisz. Among my most valued classes were my vertebrate anatomy courses, classes on stratigraphy and sedimentology, and the classes on invertebrate paleontology, which made me a much better vertebrate paleontologist. Finally, though it wasn't a specific course, working on my illustration skills in Dr. Reisz's lab was so beneficial to help train my eye to truly see the fossils that I was studying.
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
Growing up in western Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, my parents would kindly take me to the Carnegie Museum and its grand gallery of dinosaurs. While those displays are now gone—victims of changing science and resulting renovation—that original parade of skeletons will forever remain my favorite. The scientist and educator in me was born in that hall.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
That's a great but difficult question. During the summer of 1998, I participated in the excavation of a skeleton of the huge crocodilian Deinosuchus. Exposing its five-foot-long skull within southwestern Texas and its summer heat, as well as locating a fair number of vertebrae and limb bones, was simple incredible. An equally great experience was excavating the remains of a mastodon in Illinois with a group of teachers and high school students. The program was called Mastodon Camp, and I’m so very proud that some of its students are currently pursing paleontology as a career.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
For aspiring paleontologists, I would certainly suggest that they embrace both geology and biology. As scientists, paleontologists study extinct life. But the remains of that life are found trapped within the rock record, which is an endless source of information on the environment of that life. To know the animals but not the rocks provides a very incomplete picture. Know your rocks, and the secrets they contain will help make you a much better paleontologist. Secondly, and most importantly, anyone can be a scientist. Look out the window, see the natural world that surrounds us, and be inspired by its beauty. Scientists are simply those kids that never stopped asking, "Why?"