Picture a paleontologist. What do they look like?

Thea Boodhoo
Feb 2, 2017 · 15 min read
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If they look like paleontologist Kevin Madalena, you’re ahead of the game. (Photo courtesy Kevin Madalena.)

Inspired by a conversation with paleontologist Ali Nabavizadeh, I decided to do a photoshoot at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. (Vertebrate paleontologists study prehistoric animals with backbones, like mammoths and dinosaurs.) It was informal and it was a Dreadnoughtus-sized amount of fun, but it also had a purpose.

Fossils turn up on every continent and important discoveries can be made as easily by a twelve-year-old carpenter’s daughter as by a Ph.D. While there was a time when the scientists below would have been discouraged–even prohibited–from attending such meetings, at SVP2016, even the oldest, whitest, and male-est noted with pride that this was the most diverse meeting in our 77-year history. Paleontologists, overall, get it. (See SVP’s official stance on the US immigration ban for proof.)

The popular image of paleontologists, on the other hand, is as tragically out-of-date as a featherless Velociraptor. This is my small effort to change that.

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Advait Jukar, Paleontologist

Advait Jukar

“I broadly describe myself as an ecologist who is interested in how species, populations and communities respond to environmental changes. My current research is about how mammal communities in the Indian Subcontinent have changed over the last 3.5 million years. I am also a researcher at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s Department of Paleobiology and Fossil Lab, where I currently am sorting through and classifying microvertebrate fossils that were found by O.C. Marsh in the Lance Formation, and performing morphometric analyses on theropod teeth from the same localities, and assisting with the curation of the Deep Time Exhibit. I am also a curator for the Encyclopedia of Life and write articles on extinct species, many of which are located in the exhibits and collections of the Natural History Museum.”

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Aja Carter, Paleontologist

Aja Carter

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Ali Nabavizadeh, Paleontologist

Ali Nabavizadeh

“I am an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences teaching Human Gross Anatomy at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. My research explores the functional diversity of craniofacial musculature in large herbivores, including dinosaurs (e.g., ornithischians), mammals (e.g., proboscideans), and dicynodont therapsids. I have also had opportunities to dissect exotic large herbivorous mammals, including an African elephant and white rhinoceros. I earned my PhD in Functional Anatomy and Evolution at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Both of my parents immigrated to the US from Tehran, Iran in the late 70s/early 80s and I am incredibly proud of my Persian heritage. I am excited to bring more attention to my culture and to see more inclusion of all different cultures into the heart of SVP, as I believe diversity is so valuable to the overall growth and prosperity of our continuously evolving field and the impact it has on our society.”

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Bolortsetseg Minjin, Paleontologist

Bolortsetseg Minjin

“My name is Bolortsetseg Minjin, and I am a Mongolian paleontologist. I learned about fossils when I was a child; my father Minjin Chuluun was one of the first Mongolian paleontologists and he traveled to the countryside every summer to collect Paleozoic corals. With his encouragement I received BS and MS degrees in geology and invertebrate paleontology from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology. While a Masters student, I jumped at the opportunity to join the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) expedition in Mongolia, and continued to participate in these expeditions after entering a joint Ph.D. program between AMNH and the City University of New York. My dissertation focused on the phylogeny of multituberculates using characters from the postcranial skeleton. After receiving my doctorate, I established the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs (ISMD), where I continue to act as its President. The mission of the ISMD is to educate Mongolians about the fossil riches of their country and to support young Mongolians pursuing careers in paleontology. Since 2012, I have been representing the government of Mongolia, spearheading a successful effort to repatriate dinosaurs stolen by poachers and commercial collectors. With the ISMD, I am involved in educational outreach projects that teach Mongolian school-aged children about the fossils of their country. Our latest initiative is to build a museum at the Flaming Cliffs, where dinosaur eggs and nests were first discovered by the AMNH in 1923.”

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Carlos Peredo, Paleontologist

Carlos Peredo

“I am a paleontologist specializing in the evolutionary history of marine mammals. My research interests span broadly from the geology, biology, morphology, systematics, ecology, and comparative anatomy of both extinct and extant marine mammals. At present, I am a doctoral student at George Mason University, where I am studying the morphological implications of tooth loss and the evolution of baleen in mysticete cetaceans. This has included the description of a new species of transitional whale. As a whole, this work attempts to integrate data from paleontology, geology, embryology, histology, evolutionary biology, genetics, and gross anatomy in order to more fully understand the transition from teeth to baleen as a feeding apparatus in baleen whales.”

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Celina Suarez, Paleontologist

Celina Suarez

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Crystal Cortez, Paleontologist

Crystal Cortez

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Danii Carrasco, Paleontologist

Danii Carrasco

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David Wilcots, Paleontologist

David Wilcots

“I am a geologist, paleontologist and artist living in Philadelphia where I grew up. I am a registered professional geologist in Pennsylvania and Delaware and earned my Bachelor’s degree in geology at Temple University (Philadelphia) and Masters degree in geology from Fort Hays State University in western Kansas. Over the past 22 years I have worked as an environmental geologist for several environmental-engineering consulting companies in the Philadelphia region. Currently I am a senior geologist for Sci-Tek Consultants, Inc., an engineering and environmental consulting company in center city Philadelphia. I am also proud to be a volunteer paleontologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences museum in Philadelphia in the museum’s Dinosaur Lab. At the museum I speak to parents and children visitors and answer their questions about dinosaurs, fossils and related sciences. Each summer I am part of a paleontological expedition in Wyoming for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture of Seattle, Washington. I give presentations about fossils at schools and have presented at S.T.E.M. programs for young people. In 2012 I was featured on the Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership DVD entitled Life in the Age of the Dinosaurs.”

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Gabriel-Philip Santos, Paleontologist

Gabriel-Philip Santos

“My name is Gabriel-Philip Santos. I am a first generation Filipino-American and I am a paleontologist. Born and raised in Southern California, I spent a lot of my childhood roaming around museums, watching episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Magic School Bus, and occasionally pretending I was a Green Lantern or a Jedi.

My career goals didn’t always involve paleontology. For my undergraduate work, I was a premed and eventually got my degree in biological science. After graduating, though, I decided medicine wasn’t for me. So after a short period of searching, my passion for science and education reignited after a visit to the American Museum of Natural History. A few weeks later, I began volunteering at the Dr. John D. Cooper Paleontological and Archaeological Center in Santa Ana. It was here that my love of science and passion for educating finally combined in the form of paleontology and my future career was finally decided.

Forward to a few years later, I am now the Collections Manager for the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California where I also dabble in education and outreach programs for the museum. I am also finishing my master’s degree in geology at California State University, Fullerton studying under Dr. James Parham. My master’s thesis revolves around studying a bonebed from San Clemente, CA that holds the fossils of animals from a rainforest that existed 45 million years ago. My other research interests include studying marine mammals like the hippo-like desmostylians. As a paleontologist of color, it is also my career goal to develop outreach programs for underserved and underrepresented communities.”

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Henry Tsai, Paleontologist

Henry Tsai

“I am a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I study the evolution of locomotion in vertebrates, with a particular interest in archosaurs — crocodilians, birds, and extinct forms like dinosaurs. My research focuses on combining anatomical, histological, and imaging techniques to reconstruct joints of extinct archosaurs, and to understand how the morphology of joint soft tissues, such as cartilage, relates to the evolutionary history of archosaurs.

Ultimately, I seek to understand the mechanical functions, kinematics, and developmental significance of archosaur limb joints, as well as how joint functional morphology relates to behavior, performances, and ecology of archosaurs throughout their remarkably diverse evolutionary history, including the largest animal ever to walk on earth.”

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Jordan Claytor, Paleontologist

Jordan Claytor

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Juan Liu, Paleontologist

Juan Liu

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Kevin Madalena, Paleontologist

Kevin Madalena

Kevin wasn’t able to attend SVP2016 where I did the photo shoot, but he heard about the project and sent in his own photo, which I love.

“My name is Kevin and I am from the Pueblo of Jemez reservation in northwest New Mexico. I was raised traditionally by my parents, along with my five siblings, as a diligent and studious boy on a rural reservation. I have always been fascinated with rocks, science fiction and dinosaurs. I never outgrew my love for Tyrannosaurus rex, and it culminated into a career as a geologist and a vertebrate paleontologist. I am fortunate and have enjoyed the honor of being educated in the earth sciences at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, New Mexico. I specialize in vertebrate paleontology and do work in stratigraphy and sedimentology.

As I matured in my professional life as a student and a scientist, I have had the honor and experience of working with staff and faculty in the biosciences and geosciences along with teaching staff. My experience was born at The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, New Mexico, The Pueblo of Jemez Natural Resources Department and TBA Power Inc., as a field geologist and paleontologist. A wonderful minority outreach program as a paleontologist under Dr. Anne Weil and Dr. Kent Smith in Native Explorers, in conjunction with the Whitten-Newman Foundation and Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. Recently, I completed an internship through the Geological Society of America’s GeoCorps program and The Bureau of Land Management in Moab, Utah for archaeology, geology and paleontology. I have been lucky in being published work in the Geological Society of America, Society Of Vertebrate Paleontology, and the New Mexico Geological Society. It has been an adventure and a blessing in teaching, being fluent in our native Jemez tongue of Towa and Spanish. I have recently begun doing natural resource advocacy and cultural preservation for my people, practicing traditional agrarian way of life, having served in appointed and traditional leadership as a governor in Jemez Pueblo, and being a single father to two beautiful daughters.”

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Lisa White, Paleontologist

Lisa White

For much of my career I have trained and guided diverse groups of college and high school students in wide-ranging geoscience learning experiences. Prior to coming to UC Berkeley in 2012, I was Professor of Geosciences at San Francisco State University from 1990–2012 (including stints as Department Chair and Associate Dean). In those roles I directed the SF-ROCKS (Reaching Out to Communities and Kids with Science in San Francisco) and SF-METALS (Minority Education through Teaching and Learning in the Sciences) geoscience programs instructing urban youth in Bay Area watershed science and leading them to field trips in the National Parks. Part of my dedication to increasing diversity in the geosciences stems from my own experiences growing up in San Francisco and participating in summer programs that helped to develop my love of museums and outdoor spaces (my B.A. in Geology is from San Francisco State and my Ph.D. in Earth Sciences is from UC Santa Cruz).”

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María Chavarría, Paleontologist

María Chavarría

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Marina Suarez, Paleontologist

Marina Suarez

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Matthew Jones, Paleontologist

Matthew Jones

“I study the evolution of bats by comparing bat fossils to those of other proposed close relatives of bats including the extinct nyctitheres and eulipotyphlans (e.g., shrews, hedgehogs). I use parsimony-based analyses of these groups to reconstruct a phylogeny of fossil bats and insectivore-like mammals in an effort to understand early bat evolution and biogeography.”

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Óliver Ariel López Conde, Paleontologist

Óliver Ariel López Conde

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Shooka Shahbazi, Paleontologist

Shooka Shahbazi

“My name is Shooka Shahbazi and I am an Iranian-American. I am currently an undergraduate student at California State University of Fullerton, pursuing a future in paleontology. My current and first research consists of analyzing and identifying an undescribed fossil walrus of the late Miocene from the North Pacific. I hope to eventually broaden my research horizons as I continue my academic and professional paleontological career.”

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Talia Karim, Paleontologist

Talia Karim

“I’ve been the Collections Manager for Invertebrate Paleontology and Paleobotany at CU-Boulder since 2010 and I’m also an instructor for the Museum Studies Program at CU. I earned a PhD from the University of Iowa in 2009. I attended Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship and earned an MSc. I graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2001 with a BS in Geology and a BA in Classical Culture. My general interests research include systematics and phylogenetic relationships of Lower Paleozoic trilobites, taphonomy, biostratigraphy, care and management of museum collections, collections cyberinfrastructure, museum based outreach and science education. My mom is from the US and my dad is from Pakistan. They met while attending college at the University of Oklahoma and decided to settle in Norman, OK where I grew up. I spent a lot of time on the OU campus and at the Natural History Museum growing up and eventually landed there while attending college.”

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Kiersten Formoso

“Hello! My name is Kiersten and I am a first year Master’s student in Virginia Tech’s Vertebrate Paleobiology Research Group. I am working on a description of a unique archosauromorph reptile from the Triassic of Tanzania. I’ve been slowly but surely clearing the rock from the bones and it’s a lot of work, but a ton of fun! The second part of my project involves looking at convergent evolution across Triassic archosauromorphs to better understand how evolutionary patterns proceed after extinction events. Archosauromorphs are a great model to address these interesting questions and there’s something special about the Triassic Period in terms of what it gave way to!”


To everyone who participated, thank you again and keep sciencing. ❤

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And here’s your feathered Velociraptor, courtesy Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs.

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