Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) and the Museum of the Earth (MotE), Ithaca, NY, USA
A: I was born in New York City and I remember first going to the American Museum of Natural History when I was three years old. The love of paleontology just stuck with me. I collected my first fossil at age 12. I was so into dinosaurs in elementary school that it became a standard joke in art classes that, no matter the medium du jour, "Warren is going to make a dinosaur!"
I have to be in a museum. I knew that if I didn't end up in one, I would have to build one! One reason is that I never met a fossil I didn't want [laughing]. The notion of not having a fossil collection is awful. I pick up fossils all the time. After the North American Paleontological Convention last summer, I stopped at a roadcut on the way to the airport and collected 100 pounds of fossils. Those slabs are now in the Museum of the Earth.
Q: What is your particular area of expertise within paleontology?
Q: Would you describe for us a "typical" day for you at PRI?
Through all of this, I have learned not to let little crises get to me. Big crises do still get to me.
A: I do work at least 60 hours every week, which isn't enough, but now that I am a father, my priorities have changed a bit.
Q: Do you get to do fieldwork anymore?
Of course, I really wouldn't have to go into the field at all to do research. I have our whole fossil collection downstairs to keep me busy.
Q: Would you tell us about the most exciting thing that has happened to you during your career to date?
The other exciting perhaps I should say overwhelming project was designing and opening the Museum of the Earth here at PRI. We started planning for it in 1994, and the Museum opened in 2003. It was a huge undertaking for such a small organization. But the hardest, most expensive part of the whole thing was actually done before I was born, with the assembly of the large Cornell and PRI collections PRI houses all of Cornell's non-botanical fossils. So we had the specimens, a world-class collection of them, without which there could be no museum. Furthermore, there was no natural history museum between New York City and Buffalo, so there was a "market" for one, and with its spectacular geology and abundant fossils, Ithaca was a perfect site. A big part of our motivation was that we sincerely believed that it was important to have this kind of museum here, as a resource for Cornell and all of upstate New York, particularly in this time of global change and public ignorance of science. While the exhibits in the MotE certainly reflect Rob Ross' [Associate Director for Outreach] and my view of how you study evolution, the exhibits and the museum would not exist if it weren't for the dedication, hard work, and support of many other people! We're very pleased with the results.
Q: What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a paleontologist?
I tell students that paleontology integrates biology and geology, so you need a really strong grounding in both disciplines or you won't be a good paleontologist. Double major, if possible. And an important pat of this is that some subjects that might not seem necessary for paleontology like physics and math and languages, and even history is still stuff you need to know.
As to where to go to grad school, I give undergraduates interested in grad school a speech about "it's not a fair world." In a fair world, grad schools would be judged only by the quality of their program, but in truth they're judged first by their overall reputation, so you need to go to the graduate school with the biggest name you can get into. This discriminates against smaller or lesser-known programs, but there's no way around it. The thing is that you're actually probably going to be hired by a geophysicist or hydrogeologist, not another paleontologist, and he or she won't be looking at your paleontology courses or even know much about paleo at your Ph.D. institution; they're going to be looking at your institution. Also, pick a research project that you are truly passionate about; you'll hate it in the end, and passion will be the thing that carries you through! Choose a specimen-based project, not a taxon-counting, literature-based one. That can come later.
This sounds syrupy to say, but I had wonderful, supportive parents. They indulged my interest to an incredible degree. I could have done anything in life. But, I can't think of anything more important I could do with my skills than using fossils to understand the history of life and evolution … and telling people about these.
Rob [Ross] and I think of paleontology as an umbrella science, because we were trained in graduate school together to think of paleontology not as a narrow specialty, but as a broad concept encompassing all of biology and geology. To study paleontology is to be a naturalist. Who is better equipped to deal with important problems arising in areas such as conservation and climate change than paleontologists? It is patently obvious that the rest of the world doesn't see this. Everybody is interested in the environment and global change, but they don't understand why paleontology is useful in dealing with them. If everyone did understand paleontology, a lot about how and what we do with respect to these problems would change.
A: There's a New Yorker cartoon that I keep posted near my computer in my office, and I show it frequently in lectures. It shows a crowded living room with members of an extended family of all ages doing all kinds of things. In the back corner, clearly marginal to the activity, is a very aged "Grandpa," looking at fossils with a magnifying glass. What I love about this cartoon is that it shows what most people think about paleontology that it's an arcane, slightly daffy, and certainly peripheral pursuit. And yet in reality it's the exact opposite. To be a paleontologist is to fathom the connections between life and the Earth one of the biggest of all possible scientific topics. And it's a topic that has never been more important. Think about the most important problems facing humanity today those that will ultimately decide how our children's children live: global climate change, energy, water, food, environmental degradation. And look at the declining levels of scientific literacy with which people are trying to solve or even recognize these problems. Paleontology is the perfect field to address these and to equip others to address them. I really believe this. With all the enormous problems in the world today, I think that improving people's understanding of the Earth and its life and how science gains this understanding is one of the most important things one could be doing with one's career.