From Michael Bolton to Dinosaurs
I started my summer internship at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences nearly two months ago. I’m an intern in the Paleontology and Geology Lab (Paleo/Geo lab) on the third floor of the newly constructed and recently opened Nature Research Center (N.R.C.). This place is designed to be an interface between scientific research and public interaction. A month ago I also delivered my first talk in the N.R.C.’s Daily Planet. Every Tuesday is the “spotlight” day for the Paleo/Geo lab which means a day of presentations – delivered by members of the lab itself – on past and ongoing research being done here in the lab and elsewhere. I gave a talk on the history of ancient DNA research. My talk was a short ten-minute information session on my research from my Master’s thesis. I’m a historian of science (and a philosopher of science in some regards) and my job is to tell the story of ancient DNA research and to evaluate its impact on the science of paleontology and how the study of fossils has changed, and is continuing to change, over time. It’s funny, however, to think about how I got here and why I do what I do.
I never wanted to be a paleontologist when I was growing up. I never even really liked dinosaurs. In fact, my childhood dream was to be one of those pretty back-up singers for Michael Bolton. One day, however, I realized that I didn’t know much of anything about dinosaurs. So, in order to fulfill my new-found desire to learn about these extinct creatures, I enrolled in a course – just before my sophomore year at N.C. State University – called “Dinosaurian World.” Now, this class was hard. I mean really hard! But, I loved every minute of it and from that point on I was hooked. At the time, Dr. Mary Schweitzer and Dr. Julia Clark taught the course. As a historian and philosopher, Mary pulled me in almost immediately, convincing me that we need some more good historians of paleontology out there. (Currently, there are only a handful of people who study the people who study fossils, such as Dr. Paul Brinkman, the Assistant Director of the N.R.C.’s Paleo/Geo Lab.)
To be honest, I found science to be pretty intimidating. I was never much of a math and science student and I usually steered clear of these subjects. However, paleontology gave direction to my love for history and philosophy, and also my growing appreciation for science. I took three more paleontology courses and joined the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, in conjunction with N.C. State, on a dinosaur dig out west in Montana. I went on to pursue a Master’s in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University, where I was able to hone in on my passion for paleontology. I defended my thesis on the history of ancient DNA research nearly three months ago (YAY!) and now I’m back here in N.C. fulfilling my museum studies certificate with an internship at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ newest addition, the N.R.C. I’ve been assigned a project to transcribe a private journal kept by Elmer Riggs, an American paleontologist who traveled to South America nearly 100 years ago on a search for fossils. I’m also working with the museum’s outstanding summer camp program as an instructor where I teach excited groups of pre-K boys and girls all about dinosaurs.
For me, paleontology has been a sort of gateway drug to other sciences. Over the years I’ve developed a greater interest for a wider variety of scientific disciplines. It’s funny to think about where I am now and what I love to do. This was never my dream growing up, but so far I love it. I guess Michael Bolton will have to wait. The lesson learned here is that science is a fascinating process and you never know where or how you might find yourself in it.
-Elizabeth Dobson, Paleontology/Geology Lab Intern