by Eleanor Gardner & Julie Meachen
This issue we focus on Julie Meachen. Julie got interested in paleontology as an undergraduate at the University of Florida! She is now Assistant Professor of Anatomy at Des Moines University.
Your current research focuses on Pleistocene megafauna. Were you a huge fan of megafauna as a child? Were they your entry point into the field?
Actually, I wasn’t all that interested in extinct animals as a child. I was always interested in big mammals though, so I always knew I wanted to do something with animals. I didn’t realize I wanted to be a paleontologist until I was an undergraduate at Florida. They had a great paleo museum collection and I started volunteering there between my sophomore and junior year in college. That is when I realized that I wanted to be a paleontologist, and work of course, on large mammals.
I read that Des Moines University is a medical and health science university. Are you the only vertebrate paleontologist employed at the university? Do you connect paleontology to modern medicine in the courses you teach?
I am not the only paleontologist here. Rachel Dunn (who collaborates quite a bit with Jon Bloch of FLMNH) was also hired the same year as I was. We also just recently hired Sarah Werning who will start on July 1. We also have two paleoanthropologists here too. So in that regard, I have a nice group of paleo colleagues. Generally, medical students are not terribly concerned with paleontology; however, my knowledge of comparative anatomy does help me because it gives me insights into human developmental biology and some interesting genetic issues that humans can have. I usually try to impart this type of knowledge to the medical students.
What is a typical work day like for you? Or what are some of your favorite parts of your job? Your least favorite?
One of the best things about my job is that my day is always different; there is no formula or regular schedule. Some of the things that I may do in the course of my job are teaching and preparing lectures and labs, working on my research, working with students on research projects, attending meetings, answering emails, talking to reporters, giving talks to high school kids or other outreach, or traveling for field work, museum visits or conferences. My favorite parts definitely include fieldwork, visiting museums and working with students on research projects. My very least favorites are when I have to do administrative busy work.
Given that the goal of FOSSIL is to link amateur groups with professionals, what are your thoughts about the role of amateurs in the science?
Amateurs can be a very important part of science. I especially love dealing with children and science. In my opinion amateurs are very important for two reasons: 1) They are my army of volunteers and helpers to get my research projects done. For example, this fall I brought back multiple hundred fossils from my field site and 6 high school students (with no prior fossil experience) supervised by my research assistant did all of the cleaning, gluing and ID-ing of these fossils. This important step would take so much longer if I didn’t have their help; and 2) Involving the public in science shows them the importance of what we do. Citizen science is the bridge between the general public and the science community. In this day where science is constantly being attacked by politicians, having the public understand what we do and see value in it is more important than ever.
I understand that you had to learn to rappel in order to get access to Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming, where you found the “treasure trove” of megafauna mammals. Can you comment on your experience? Was it nerve-wracking?
Yes, I learned how to rappel and more importantly, ascend to get in and out of Natural Trap Cave. To tell you the truth, I was much more worried about the ascending part than the rappelling part. I am not afraid of heights, but I was worried that I couldn’t make it out of the cave on my own steam. It was a little nerve-wracking. To help prepare me I went to the local rock climbing gym and practiced the single rope techniques we were going to use to ascend. But I still had never rappelled until the day of the first descent. That was actually the fun part. You don’t go very fast and you get to just look around. A little nervousness is good, because it helps to make sure you are prepared. It turns out I am actually pretty good at ascending too. I wouldn’t like to do it for a hobby, like cavers do, but I certainly can do it 90 feet to get out of Natural Trap Cave.
Many of our fossil clubs and societies are very committed to education and work hard to engage youth. Do you have any advice to share about effective ways to get children and teens interested in paleontology and collections?
I think the absolute best way to get children interested in what you do is to love it yourself. Be excited about what you do and make it sound like something fun. Telling kids that I rappel in 85 ft like a female Indiana Jones and then unearth giant extinct ferocious carnivores like American lions automatically makes them interested, but even slightly more mundane things can sound great if you love them. The other important part of talking to kids is to make your research accessible. Don’t use technical jargon and, whatever you do, minimize the number of equations! Almost everyone is scared of math. At the same time, you have to make sure that you don’t talk down to the kids, never assume that they aren’t smart just because they are young.
What research question currently excites you the most?
The research questions that currently excite me the most are: “How did the extinction events of the last ice age affect modern populations?” and “How does climate affect morphology?” These are the two questions that my research program is focused on right now. I find these big picture pattern questions fascinating.
Do you have a favorite fossil discovery?
My favorites include the first paleo project I ever worked on in Florida, where we pulled the enormous sloth that is now on display at the FLMNH out of the ground at Haile, just outside of Gainesville. My ex-husband and I also found a specimen of the bear Agriotherium schneideri at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument when we worked there in 2006, and that discovery pushed back the date of extinction of that bear in North American by almost 1 million years. I was also pretty excited this summer when I found cranial pieces of the American lion at NTC. Now if only we could find more short faced bear…..
To learn more:
Read more about Julie’s work in Natural Trap Cave in the Des Moines Register.
Watch the scientists at work in the cave in this youtube video.
Listen to an interview with Julie last summer on NPR.
Read one of Julie’s papers on coyotes during the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age in PLoS ONE.
And learn more about Natural Trap Cave at this National Park Service site.