This page is designed especially for kids. For more, return to the KID STUFF homepage
Meet a Paleontologist
This is me posing with the latex mold and an epoxy cast I made of a fossilized plant cataloged in the Smithsonian as USNM 8806, Cycadeoidea puicherrima.
This is me working on the deinstallation of a trilobite exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. I am cutting foam to cradle a delicate trilobite fossil.
Matthew T. Miller
Museum Technician (Contractor)
National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution)
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
My job as a work-for-hire paleontologist allows me to work with fossils in many different ways. I prepare fossil vertebrates by removing them from the rock, mold and cast fossil replicas for exhibit and scientific study, conserve or 'fix' broken fossil specimens and preserve and care for fossils in museum collections so that they will exist for future generations of scientists.
Besides the different fossil plants and animals I also study new techniques developed by other scientists that help preserve the fossil specimens in museums for longer and longer periods of time. The animals I love to study the most are dinosaurs from 66 million years ago and the mammals that have lived on the planet since the dinosaurs died out.
What are you working on now?
I just finished making a mold and cast of a fossil Cycadeoidea or "cycad", which is a type of plant. The cycad came from in what would one day become Fossil Cycad National Monument in South Dakota in 1893. You can see photographs of how I made the mold and cast here. I have also been helping move fossil trilobites off display in preparation for the National Museum of Natural History fossil hall renovation.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I attended college at the State University of New York at New Paltz and received my Bachelor’s Degree in Geology. I later earned my Master’s degree in Vertebrate Paleontology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Some of the classes I was most fond of were Physical Geology where I really learned what it means to be a good Geologist and Paleontologist and my Field Methods in Paleontology course where I first learned how to dig up a skeleton without damaging it. Really I loved most of my school work and the great friends I made along the way.
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
My grandmother bought me a book on dinosaurs when I was 3 years old. That one book lit a fire in me that burned to know more about extinct life and I told my whole family that I was going to be a paleontologist someday. Later, when I was in the cub scouts, we went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I remember thinking how amazing all the bones were and I also remember being very afraid of the Megalodon jaws that hung above one of the passageways.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
I have a lot of memorable experiences with fossils but the one that stands out most in my mind is the first time I found fossils. I was probably eight or nine and exploring the woods on the mountain behind my house in rural New York State. I happened to come upon a large outcropping of rock and happened to turn over a large, flat piece of the yellowish sandstone. In the sandstone were dozens of brachiopods which are a group of clam-like mollusks. The block was far too large for me to bring home; I could barely even lift it. I ran home to tell my parents about it and later on I could never relocate the exact spot where I left the fossils. Even as an adult I never found the spot again. I think of that day often and the smooth surface of the shells against the grainy rock. I couldn't carry that rock but I will always carry the memory of it.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
Observe the natural world around you. Look at the rocks and learn the different types. See how streams cut into hillsides. Watch how quickly plants grow over days. Stare at animals without startling them to watch how they move and behave. These observations and others like them over time will help you find fossils in the field and infer the behavior of extinct organisms by looking at modern ones. The present is the key to the past!