Editor’s note: This issue, Jennifer Bauer interviews Gabriel-Philip Santos, Collections Manager and Outreach Coordinator at The Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology.
Can you describe your journey through paleontology? Were you always interested in caring for specimens as a collections manager?
So my journey through paleontology, my path of the paleontologist if you will, did not actually start out with the same destination in mind. Sure, when I was a kid, I loved science and dinosaurs was definitely up there in my list of interests. And being in Los Angeles, I had two amazing museums just up the freeway that I could force my family to take me to all the time. But really, that was more of a phase in my life. As I got older and responsibilities started to become a thing, I started to go down the path of a doctor. While that path choice was more influenced by my background and family (lots of Filipino nurses and health care professionals in my family), I didn’t really complain too much because I got to take lots of science classes, which I absolutely loved. It wasn’t until after I graduated from UC Irvine with a B.S. in biological sciences that I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor. Wish I had realized that before I took the MCATs.
Throughout most of the undergrad studies, I was actually very unhappy with my career path and also I was undiagnosed with major depressive disorder. I didn’t feel like the medicine was what was going to be fulfilling in my life. See, deep down, my passion that connects most things in my life is my love of storytelling. So while I could have told and learned some stories as a doctor, they just weren’t the kind of story I wanted to tell. It was a couple of years later after kind of wandering around a bit that I found myself at the American Museum of Natural History in New York for my birthday. Walking through the beautiful paleontology halls of that museum, I found myself walking through the pages of the most amazing tale, the story of life itself. Ending up at the giant Paraceratherium, I must have stared at that fossil for at least 15 minutes just in awe of its grandeur and thinking about how someone had to find it, had to put it together, had to study it, and had to tell its story. Right then and there I decided to work in a museum which eventually led me to volunteer at another collection in Orange County (previously the Cooper Center) a few weeks later.
Eventually, I got hired and began working as a collections assistant learning about museum science and collections management. I also got to dabble in science communication and outreach, which really appealed to my love of storytelling. From there, I eventually started my masters at Cal State Fullerton in geology with my amazing advisor, Dr. James Parham, who taught me what it meant to be a scientist and the responsibilities that come with being one. Then by chance, a collections manager position opened up at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology about a year and a half into my graduate program. The museum is the only accredited museum on a high school campus and does a lot for science education, so this was basically my dream job! Never thinking I would actually get the job, I applied and the rest is history.
So to answer your question, no I was not always interested in working with fossil collections. That sort of just developed over time. I think what really attracted me to paleontology, and I guess science in general, was that there are literally billions of years worth of stories to learn about and tell. As a storyteller, what more could I want?
Your research interests include understanding Southern California Eocene vertebrate fauna, specifically marine mammals. Can you explain your projects and interests in studying these animals?
So those are actually two different, but super fun projects I did while I was a graduate student with Dr. Parham. My first real research project that was studying the ontogeny of Desmostylus. There was a really big and weird looking mandible in the Orange County collection. It was a desmostylian, but it was huge and didn’t have any teeth, super weird for mammals known for their unique teeth. So I started to look at other desmostylians from other collections and compared them to the Orange County specimen. From there, my co-authors and I were able to develop a life stage series for Desmostylus based on their tooth eruption and wear! It turns out the Orange County specimen was an elderly specimen that had worn down its teeth to the point of its teeth sockets had closed up!
The Eocene project was actually my masters’ thesis describing specimens and stratigraphy of a 45 million-year-old bonebed that was found in Southern California during the construction of a housing development! That one was fun because I got to learn a lot about many different taxa and really got to learn about deposition and stratigraphy. Something I had never learned about as a biology undergrad.
You are also heavily involved in innovative education and outreach, can you share with our readers about your efforts with Cosplay for Science?
I would love to! So Cosplay for Science is a science education initiative that looks to use cosplay and pop culture narratives to make science more relatable and scientists more approachable! What we mainly do is try to bring science education to places not traditionally known for science education like comic-cons. By developing pop-up museums inspired by things like Pokemon, Star Wars, or Harry Potter, and dressing up as characters from those franchises, we hope to make it easier for audiences to engage with us scientists and get them to learn about the science in a fun way. We started as four paleontologists, but have since grown to include scientists from all over the US and from so many different fields. We also have started a research and education team! In the end, Cosplay for Science is about getting people to see the science in their everyday lives and hopefully inspire them to ask the right kind of questions when it comes to science in other aspects.
Your students have used myFOSSIL to upload around 350 specimens to our database. Can you explain your reasoning for having them upload and a little bit about what they gained from the experience?
So when I started helping out with the afternoon museum science program at The Webb Schools (the high school the Alf Museum is part of), I wanted to figure out a way for our students to learn about cataloging and even have them help us add uncatalogued specimens to the database. My problem was that cataloging can be quite difficult for some people because it is so detailed oriented and also mistakes are not good to have in our database. I needed a way to teach the students the basics of cataloging without having them play around in our database. So after learning about the FOSSIL project at a GSA workshop, I was inspired to have them learn how to catalog museum specimens by having them practice on my FOSSIL with real museum specimens. By having students upload already cataloged specimens, they could learn best practices for data entry and the internet could have access to some cool specimens from the Alf Museum collection! Win-win! I think, in the end, our students realized the importance of collecting good data for specimens and also a little bit about a different side of paleontology outside of research.
Do you have advice for people interested in getting into the field of paleontology, museums, and/or outreach adventures?
First off, my advice is to make sure you are doing what you love. Be sure you are following your passion. Second, don’t think that there is a single path to finding your dream career. Sometimes its gonna curve off, sometimes it will merge with someone else’s path, and sometimes, you’re gonna have to make your own path! It’s gonna take time and a lot of hard work to get into a career in museums or paleontology, but it’s totally worth it if this is what you love. And I guess last for people, especially when it comes to outreach, is to have fun with it! Find a way to make sure your personality shines through and you will find an audience that connects with it and want to learn from you. It’s not about how many followers you have or how many views your videos have (I mean those do mean something, but they aren’t the only metrics to gauge your success as an educator or science communicator). If you are actually engaging with your audience, even a small one, then you are doing something right. And often those smaller audiences are the ones that need it the most.