Denny at the top of Bear Tooth Mountain

A Very Simple and Pure Process

This was originally posted as a Lab Note on Experiment. You can join us for the 2017 Field Expedition by registering at

When Jason invited me on the dig in 2015, Denny Luan was the first person I asked to join me.

Denny is the one of the cofounders of Experiment, and this year will be his third summer Field Expedition. Denny is a scientist, engineer, designer, and entrepreneur. When he is not found on at his computer fixing bugs on the Experiment, you can find him at a beach on his surf board.

Can you recall the first time you learned about dinosaurs?

The first time I was really interested in dinosaurs was the first grade. I spent a lot of time studying Ankylosaurus and Stegosaurus and then moved onto the Raptors once “Jurassic Park” came out. There was some “The Land Before Time” that influenced my dinosaur interest, and then “We’re Back! The Dinosaur’s Story”.

An intimate moment between the Jasons captured from behind the SUV window

You seem to really like the Jasons. In your opinion, what makes them the ideal team?

Jason Schein and Jason Poole are both just really funny. The fact that they can find humor in any situation makes them really fun to follow. Also, they have a lot of experience you can learn a lot by being around them.

You’ve been on the dig for two consecutive years now. What makes you want to go back for a third field season?

The potential to find something new is what makes it always fresh and exciting. It is a very physical and tangible manifestation of the scientific process. You just go out into a field and wander around looking. If you look long enough, or if you get lucky, you might discover something unexpected. Some people are very systematic when they are out looking for fossils. Others just follow their guts. There’s no real perfect formula for how exactly you find things, but the only requirement is that you show up and are present in the field. Once that happens, the universe just kind of has a way of revealing itself to you. This process also happens in a lab mixing reagents, or in front of a computer running simulations. It is just a very simple and pure process.

Denny’s most prized tools next to the Triceratops fossil

What is one piece of advice you would give a new participant?

If you find a good trowel or brush, make sure you hold onto it. It is very annoying when you get a good tool but then someone else takes it.

Can you tell us about the time you thought you encountered dinosaur poachers?

On our last day in the last dig season, we noticed a truck driving towards us. This is weird because we were in the middle of nowhere, an hour away from the closest paved road, and probably an hour and a half away from the closest town. We heard rumors that there were dinosaur fossil poachers, people who would sneak into active excavations and steal fossils right from the ground. Depending on the fossil find, it could be worth a lot, and apparently these fossils go for a lot of money in criminal or black markets.

Anyways, the rumor was that some poachers had been successful enough the year before that they had come back for another summer, and were spotted in brand new silver trucks (so said the BLM rangers). When this truck was coming out, we thought it was suspicious since we were in a very remote spot, and the truck looked brand new, and was silver. Everyone got kind of anxious because we didn’t want poachers driving up to our site where fossils were visible from the ground, so we approached him and talked to this lone guy in the truck. Turns out he was a researcher tracking birds in the area, so we relaxed and realized it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Denny cleanly dislodged the large piece of granite pictured in the top left

For you what is the most memorable experience from the dig?

Eating three sloppy joe’s after digging a lot one day. Another memory is when you’re working on removing a very hard piece of granite or some other kind of rock that’s in the way of you and the fossil. Sometimes it requires a lot of pickaxing and chiseling, but when you get a very large piece to dislodge cleanly, it is very satisfying.

When the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute succeeds, what will the world look like?

More people will get a chance to be exposed to what paleontology is like. Even though it’s just the field work, and there’s still a lot that goes on behind the scenes in the prep labs, the field work experience of excavating and prospecting is a valuable learning experience. For prospective and younger scientists, even if you don’t end up in paleontology, the skills you learn can still be applied to any other type of research that requires being outside and making observations.

Why is it important to invest in Paleontology?

Because soon enough, we’ll have all the biotech technology that will make all the scientists preoccupied with whether or not we could bring back dinosaurs, they didn’t stop to think if they should. Hopefully paleontology will teach us enough about them before that happens.

Anything else we should know about you?

I am very bad at prospecting.

We’re recruiting 100 new paleontologists and aspiring paleontologists this summer. You can be one of them, by registering for the 2017 Expedition. If you have questions for Denny you can ask them in the comments on the Lab Note.