I started my training as a researcher in paleontology in 2005. I did a research experience for undergraduates in south Florida where we were reconstructing paleo-environments from approximately 30 million years ago within that region. Since then I’ve worked with a variety of groups and capacities studying paleontology and I’ve been here at the Museum at Prairiefire for two years.
What type of training, or schooling, do you need to become a paleontologist?
You need a really strong background in basic science fields so biology, mathematics, chemistry, are all really important parts of being a paleontologist today. To become a paleontologist you need to go to college to become a geologist. There are no colleges that grant paleontology degrees. It is always a specialty within geological sciences. But not all people who become paleontologists go to school for it. There are some people who are, you know, what we call “rock hounds” who go out and collect fossils and educate themselves on the history of life. So there are different ways of going about it but to become a paleontologist who works in say a museum, or research setting, usually you would go to school at a four-year institution in geology.
Did you go on to get a graduate degree?
Yes, I did my master’s degree at Indiana University in Bloomington and I did a dual PhD in paleontology and anthropology so I’m a paleontologist/archeologist.
What is the difference between a paleontologist and an archeologist?
So, paleontologists and archeologists both study the past. But archeologists are particularly interested in humans where as paleontologists study pretty much all life forms except for humans.
When did you become interested in artifacts?
It really was in college. I took a class on the history of life and I didn’t realize that there had been so many different forms of life that had previously existed and had gone extinct and how different our landscapes had looked throughout the history of life. And just understanding how immense those timelines are — you know, a 4.5 billion-year-old planet and 3.5 billion years of life on it. There is a lot of stuff that has happened in that time.
Looking back at your childhood, were there any attributes that you had as a child that you can look back and say, “Oh, that was really setting the foundation for becoming a paleontologist”?
As a kid I spent a lot of time outdoors and I enjoyed crawling around on rocks. I never would look at them very closely and notice that there were fossils in them as a kid, but I remember really enjoying having those outdoor experiences, and going on to learn that there was so much more to learn about the rocks that I had enjoyed spending time with as a kid was definitely one of those formative experiences that led me to find a passion as an adult.
What do your days look like as a paleontologist here at the Museum at Prairie Fire?
Well, it’s always something different here so in any given day I can be preparing a program where we are going to learn about fossils, preparing fossils. We did a summer camp that was all about paleontology. We are going to be doing that again next summer. So, kids spent four half-day sessions here at the museum learning the basics of geology and paleontology and all of the tools that you need to be able to go out and make observations about rocks. And then that culminated in an overnight sleep out. We went out to Wilson Lake, which is in central Kansas, and were collecting fossils and minerals and talking about what we saw and interpreting what was the geologic history of Kansas. And the kids were able to put all of their observations to use and make the interpretations for themselves about what has happened over the last 80 million years in this area because they got those skills and those tools here at the day camp. We get to do things that are as direct as that, to thinking about what are our upcoming exhibitions and the artifacts that we are going to display here — what stories do we want to tell?
Working at a museum, in this type of role, is different than what you might do at a research institute. A lot of paleontologists work with universities and in that setting a lot of times what you are doing is doing your own research. So, asking questions about the history of life on our planet and finding ways that you are going to try to answer those questions. So, whether you want to know what the sea surface temperatures were like when the mosasaurs were swimming in the ocean or if you want to know what a certain type of animal was eating 100 million years ago you can answer those questions by using different chemistry techniques actually. So you might spend your day doing a lot of background reading, doing lab preparations in a typical lab setting, and you would also spend a lot of your summers going out into the field and collecting the rocks and fossils that you are going to use to ask those questions about what was life like in the past.
Do you miss being in the field now that you are working in a museum?
I do and I don’t. There are different advantages to each setting. One of the great things about working here is that we are able to go into the field in the summer. It’s just different. One is not necessarily better than the other.
What is the most exciting job, or moment in a job, that you have had in your career so far?
Let’s see. I think for me it is the moments when students understand — where they really have those “aha” moments and connect with an in-depth understanding of something that makes them feel passionate about the history of life on the planet. So, you can really tell the difference when you are telling a student information versus the moment that it really clicks the importance of that information. Those are really exciting moments and really the reason that I went into the museum setting as opposed to the university setting, because of those types of opportunities to share my passion with other people.
On television paleontologists, and other people in the field of science, are kind of portrayed as the nerdy side kick. I’m thinking of Ross on “Friends.” What are your thoughts on that and how do you get kids interested in the field?
I think all sciences kind of get that rap of being nerdish, or book worm types of kids, but the thing about geology is that there are opportunities for all different types of people. Some people really enjoy the field work that is involved in geological sciences, so being able to go outside and collect rocks, to hike mountains. I work with underwater scientists so they are diving and looking at corals and trying to understand what is the history of corals and how have they changed over time — so people who enjoy being in water instead of on mountain tops. And there are people who don’t really enjoy being outdoors at all and they thrive in a lab environment. There are places for all of those types of interests within geology and paleontology. I think that just finding what people are passionate about and just helping them realize that there are ways to be involved in paleontology that are for all different interests.
We hear are lot of these days about getting girls involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathmatics) careers. As a paleontologist, and woman, and educator, how do you try to get more girls involved in the sciences?
Well, I think, doing this kind of outreach, and being visible, is always important. So, having that visibility of women in the field is always really important. I’ve always made outreach a priority — just to be seen and visible. But again, trying to find what are different people’s interests and passions and showing them how paleontology connects to what they are interested in already is important.
Do you have any upcoming events that our readers might be interested in at the Museum at Prairiefire?
We always have a lot of different programs going on at the Museum at Prairiefire — not just for paleontology but for people who are interested in science in general. We have Little Explorers, which is for 3- to 5-year-olds. It explores different science topics twice a month. We do a JAM Session, which is for elementary school kids, that is once a month. This fall we are doing robotics. Next spring it will be all about paleontology. We’ll do our summer camp again next year.
And as far as our exhibitions go, we are opening our exhibition “Amazing Species: Life at the Limits” on Oct. 1. It’s all about incredible adaptations. So, you might not think about that as being paleontological in focus, but really our understanding of adaptations is something that is deeply rooted in paleontology — the study of the history of life. How do animals become specialized and what are the abilities that they have to thrive in different environments, which is exactly what the exhibition explores. That opens on Oct. 1 and will be here through Martin Luther King Day in January. And then following that, in February we will open with “World’s Largest Dinosaurs” in the exhibition hall, which is all about the very long neck sauropod dinosaurs — long necks, long tails, big bodies. It’s all about their biology — how did they function and get around when they had to pump blood up 30 feet to get from the heart to the brain? How does that work? So, learning all about our biology through the lens of a dinosaur.
We always have new exhibitions that are going on in our exhibition hall, organized by American Museum of Natural History in New York and then displayed here. It’s a traveling program that we have here so there is always something new to see here at the museum.
And then our discovery room upstairs is six different sections of science. One of them is being a paleontologist so there is a fossil dig pit — all kinds of hands-on activities for kids and adults to explore together.
The Museum at Prairiefire is located at 5801 W. 135th St., Overland Park, KS, 66223. More information is available at museumatpf.org.
Arley Hoskin has lived in the Kansas City area for 15 years. She enjoys taking her toddler to area parks and book stores. Hoskin currently resides in Raytown with her energetic and outgoing 2-year-old daughter.