Editor’s note: This issue we feature David Bohaska, a collections manager of Vertebrate Paleontology and research assistant at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Can you describe your path to becoming a paleontologist? Were you into fossils as a child? Did you begin college thinking you would become a paleontologist?
I’ve had an interest in nature for as long as I can remember, and dinosaurs in about 5th grade, but it was a field trip (April 1964) to Calvert Cliffs, Maryland (marine Miocene) in a 7th grade nature club that really got me interested. I went to college planning to be a paleontologist.
It must be amazing to work at the Smithsonian! What was your route to finding your current position?
Since the Smithsonian was relatively nearby, I dreamed of working here from grade school on. I checked that goal off my bucket list after I was a summer intern here in 1975. After receiving my Masters, I worked as Registrar at the Calvert Marine Museum from 1979-1989. I was mostly accessioning and cataloguing maritme history and fisheries artifacts (which I enjoyed, particularly after reading “Beautiful Swimmers”, but that’s another story) but kept my hand in paleontology, mostly collecting on weekends. (Paleontology of Calvert Cliffs is one of the major themes of the CMM). I eventually decided I wanted to get back into paleo full time, and asked Clayton E. Ray (formerly of University of Florida) to let me know if openings came up, and became his research assistant in 1989.
As a collections manager, what is a typical work day like for you? What are some of your favorite parts of your job? Your least favorite?
Lot of paperwork, which can be frustrating when worrying about legal issues (Did the collector/donor have permission to collect?). [Do it right when collecting yourself, document as if writing for someone who doesn’t know what you’re thinking (field notes) both for legal possession and scientific data value]. Often the historical research in old collecting records is interesting however.
I’m still here at 67 (yikes!) partly because of my colleagues, many in other departments. I’m still learning, often at lunch or over coffee. I’ve done and had help with fossil and modern bone IDs, and had conservation questions (what consolidants, storage containers, archival papers okay to use?) over coffee. And it’s not just the job; in the last week I’ve attended a retirement party (51 years service), birthday of emeritus curator (90), and grad student wedding. They’re the best, and it’s been an honor and privilege to work with them.
Least favorite: There’s a certain president of the US who instituted performance appraisals, and I curse him every year when I have to spend days tabulating what I did for a year.
I understand that you have been involved with the Aurora Fossil Festival and the amateurs who participate for quite some time. How did you become involved and why do you find the experience rewarding?
Do you think I ever find any decent fossils? (Just joking, on rare occasions I have). I get down to North Carolina for example maybe three times a year. It’s by developing local contacts, who can hit an outcrop frequently, or can head out when they see the conditions are right, who are going to make the finds.
In my years at the Calvert Marine Museum, it was Norm Riker (boat builder) who would wake me up early Saturday mornings when he saw the tide had blown out. (Why he continued to drag me out after all the times I cursed him over the phone at sunrise I don’t know). Another amateur, Wally Ashby (retired FAA) lived at Scientists Cliffs, and I was often up just north of there salvaging specimens he had seen in the cliff.
I actually began attending fossil fairs and festivals with Smithsonian crews before I was hired in 1989, so I’ve known some people for decades. See above about wonderful colleagues at work, and substitute “amateurs”.
Admittedly, we add to “our” (really your) collection through donations at fossil fairs, and get into localities while there. But I have the best job in the world, am paid with tax money, so I feel I owe something back.
Often you hear about three aspects of museums: research, outreach/education, and collections. I don’t think they should be separated, all benefit the others.
What is one of your most memorable field experiences? Do you have a favorite locality or site?
Got started, grew up visiting Calvert Cliffs (about a two hour drive from Baltimore area where I grew up), and now I live there.
Of course, Lee Creek Mine in Aurora, North Carolina was always the highlight of our North Carolina-South Carolina fossil fair/collecting trips. You knew you would always find something on the Lee Creek spoil piles.
I was a volunteer field assistant to Eugene Gaffney at the American Museum of Natural History the summer of my freshman year in college (1970). He had just been hired, and was sent out west to see many of the classic fossil reptile localities.
Do you have a favorite fossil discovery (can be your own, or a famous historical discovery)?
Hard to pick, sort of an apples or oranges or which of your children is your favorite kind of question.
Early in my Calvert Marine Museum days, went out to field check several specimens Wally Ashby had found. One was a partial true (or earless) seal (Phocidae) skeleton; up to that time, that animal had been found only one bone at a time, and those were rare. That species was also the earliest record of the family at the time (still among the earliest). The origin of seals is a major evolutionary land to marine transition, and there were questions about monophyly versus diphyly of the true seals, sea lions, and walruses.
I did find (I actually saw it first!) a partial auk skeleton at Calvert Cliffs, where finding single bird bones is a major event. Norm Riker also involved with this one; real challenge for the two of us to collect it from a fallen block in freezing water. Eventually named after me, and was one of many fossil birds used to calibrate a molecular clock [see bit below about getting broad background in college].
What advice would you give to a student thinking about pursing paleontology as a career?
Major in geology; smaller department, and you’ll get to know your professors and other students more easily. But take lots of biology, particularly whole animal. (I eventually ended up in a biology department in grad school, and had to make up in organic chemistry and physiology, so maybe better to get those out of the way as an undergraduate. Glad I took physiology, rather not talk about organic chemistry). You’ll use the chemistry in collections care and fossil preparation. These days we worry about what our preservatives and storage materials will do to our specimens in 200 years and more. Naturally you’ll be required to get a broad background in math and the other sciences (chemistry, physics). Of course learn to write well. Sometimes I found it hard to keep the long term goal in sight, while taking all the required courses. I was advised to think how I might use some of what I thought less interesting to be able to do something original in the future. Having a mentor helps, and you should keep doing something rewarding (field work, visiting colleagues in museums) to keep your morale up.
For vertebrate paleontologists, a medical school human anatomy course is a great idea. (I didn’t). Human anatomy is the most detailed known, you develop coordination doing dissections, and teaching anatomy in med school is a good way to get a job. (You teach anatomy, but your research and field work can be paleo. A number of med school anatomy departments have multiple vertebrate paleontologists on staff. I was lucky; museum jobs are rare).