Editor’s note: This issue we feature Emily Lindsey, Assistant Curator and Excavation Site Director at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. Emily is also Assistant Adjunct Professor of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.
Can you describe your path to a PhD in paleontology? Did you begin college with paleontology or graduate school as long term goals?
When I entered college I knew that I wanted to be a field scientist, and I suspected that I would need to go to graduate school, but I actually started out as a marine biologist. I spent several years SCUBA diving in cold murky waters, and even got to go work in Antarctica! I loved ecology – the process of asking questions about how different organisms interact with one another and with their environment – but I also loved the past, and I would sneak off periodically and volunteer on archaeological digs. It wasn’t until I had been out of college for a couple of years that I learned that I could combine the two fields!
On your web site, you state that your research “integrates neontological and deep-time information” and that you use primary data from field research and “large-scale biogeographic analyses” to answer questions. Can you explain a little more about what this means—for students or novices to the field?
I am always looking backwards and forwards – what can we deduce about ecosystems that don’t exist anymore by looking at modern ecosystems, and what lessons can we learn from what happened to plants and animals a long time ago when the climate changed, or when humans showed up, or when all the big animals went extinct? I study this both by looking at particular sites I am excavating at (like the La Brea Tar Pits!) and also by compiling information from lots and lots of sites and fossils across an entire continent, and looking at patterns — what went extinct when, what else was going on at the time. It’s all basically detective work.
Where has your field work taken you? Do you have a favorite locality? Have you had any particularly exciting experiences in the field?
One of the reasons I became a paleontologist is because I wanted a job that would let me travel. I’ve been lucky to work in a number of amazing places, mostly across South America. Most of my recent fieldwork has been at a tar pit site in Ecuador. After Antarctica, probably the most interesting place I’ve been is Guayana – to get to the site involved a boat trip, a day in a pickup driving through water as deep as the windows sometimes, sleeping in tent-hammocks, and trekking through the rainforest with machetes. And after all that, we learned that the site had been destroyed by superstitious locals who were worried the bones were cursed!
What currently excites you the most about the science of paleontology?
More and more, scientists are starting to recognize that if we really want to know how animals and plants are going to respond to climate change, it would be useful to look at how they have responded to past climate changes thousands or even millions of years ago. It’s called Conservation Paleobiology, and it’s helping to inform things like land management and the planning of new nature preserves.
Working at the La Brea Tar Pits seems like a pretty unique situation for a paleontologist. Is there any other place like it in the U.S.? Can you describe what your typical day is like as the Excavation Director?
The La Brea Tar Pits is one of the only places in the world where you can go and see the excavation, preparation, and study of fossils all in one visit – certainly the only one in an urban area! My whole title is Assistant Curator and Excavation Site Director. As a curator I am in charge of all of the research activities at the Museum, and as the Excavation Director I have to make sure that the fossils are being excavated in the right way and that all of the important information is being collected with them. I am also responsible for the operations at the excavation site, making sure the excavators have all the equipment they need, etc. We excavate 361 days a year, so it’s important that everything is running smoothly!
Do you have opportunities to work with amateurs in your current position at the Tar Pits or have you elsewhere in the past? What are your thoughts about amateur contributions to science?
We have a huge volunteer program at the Tar Pits, with over 80 people helping in the excavations, the fossil lab, and the collections each week! We absolutely could not do what we do without them. We also have been running a program partnering with middle-school classrooms to help sort our microfossils, which include all the tiny lizard jaws, squirrel teeth, bird bones, seed pods, insect wings, clam shells, etc. that are in the dirt stuck to the big bones. These are actually our most important fossils, because they can give us such detailed information about what the Los Angeles ecosystem looked like thousands of years ago, but there is no way we could possibly sort it all ourselves.
Many in our audience are passionate about education and outreach. What kinds of programs do you have at the Tar Pits? Based on your experience, what makes a program successful?
One of the reasons I was drawn to work at a natural history museum was the potential to impact so many people through the museum’s exhibits, educational initiatives, and public programs. There is a huge problem of public misunderstanding and mistrust of science right now, but most people trust museums, so they are a good way to teach our community about scientific concepts and empirical reasoning. We have a phenomenal staff and volunteer team who work in the museum gallery and teach visitors about Tar Pits research, and our Excavators and Fossil Preparators give presentations as well. I think every museum needs to have a variety of types of programs, because you reach different groups with each one. But they all have to be engaging in some way, and leverage your most valuable resources – the authenticity of the specimens, the scientific research, and the scientists themselves.
Do you have any advice for someone interested in going into the field of paleontology?
Study biology, study geology, and if possible get some hands-on experience in the field or in a museum collection. We can always use more volunteers at the Tar Pits!
To learn more:
Visit Emily’s website
Ellwood E, Estes-Smargiassi K, Graham N, Takeuchi G, Hendy A, Porter M, Lindsey E (2018) Project Paleo: Citizen Curation and Community Science at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Biodiversity Information Science and Standards 2: e25980. https://doi.org/10.3897/biss.2.25980
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