I went on a fossil collecting field trip with the Stovall Museum and the University of Oklahoma when I was about six years old and I was hooked. I especially loved invertebrates such as brachiopods, trilobites, and crinoids. Years later, when I started college at the University of Oklahoma, I majored in Geology and started volunteering for the museum two nights a week through their vertebrate paleontology prep program. I met Roger Burkhalter, Invertebrate Paleontology Collections Manager, one night while volunteering and he introduced me to Steve Westrop, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology. From there I was on track to study trilobites and I went on to do a senior honors thesis with Steve on Ordovician trilobite mass mortality beds from south central Oklahoma.
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?
Right now we are working on two major digitization grants, so a typical day for me includes responding to emails, working on database issues related to the grants, and making sure the student workers have work to do. I also give tours, manage loan and image requests, write grant reports, and work on initiatives to make sharing our collections data easier. My favorite part of the job is working with specimens. My least favorite part of the job is writing reports.
When you reflect back on your decision to go into paleontology, what surprises you most about what your life as a paleontologist vs what you thought it might entail?
I spend a lot more time sitting at a computer than I thought I would. I also spend a lot more time managing student workers for our grant projects than I anticipated.
You are involved in a variety of collaborative projects that rely heavily on technology. I know you are part of at least two NSF-projects to digitize fossils (Fossil Insect Collaborative and Cretaceous World) and have taken a leadership role in running training webinars related to that. You’ve also helped develop an online resource called iDigPaleo, are working with a team on a project called ePANDDA that aims to improve connectivity among geoscience databases.
I also believe you may be developing an app? Do you have a strong background in technology or has your interest or involvement in tech projects simply grown as opportunities arose? What skills have you needed to make all those projects successful?
I do not have a strong technology background, but it is quickly becoming a requirement for collections managers. You have to know the basics of how a relational database works, how to archive and manage digital data, etc. When we need someone with a specific skill set (e.g., mobile app developer), we will hire an expert on contract.
Some of the projects I mentioned above are focused on education and outreach. What are your thoughts about using web-based resources to engage teachers and youth in paleontology versus direct experience collecting fossils and the like?
I love the idea of bringing fossils into the classroom. Not everyone has the luxury of having an outcrop down the road where they can collect fossils, but with technology we can bring that experience to more people. Additionally, fossils are a finite resource and there are so many amazing specimens already in museum collections just waiting to be discovered. Being able to share those specimens via the web is a major goal for me.
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?
I am very much in favor of amateurs participating in science and many have made wonderful contributions to museum collections. I would like to see more citizen science projects involving museums and fossil club members as well. These kinds of projects are a great way for the amateur community to gain better insights into what we do behind the scenes at the museum and how research data are collected.
Do you have a favorite fossil discovery (can be your own, or a famous historical discovery)?
I love the story of the Burgess Shale, how it was discovered, described, and then described again. The specimens are so amazing as well.
What do you currently find most exciting in the field of paleontology?
The fact that we are mobilizing museum collection data via digitization projects and making these data available online is really exciting. Some of these collections have been sitting in museum drawers for decades or longer and they have a lot to tell us.
You can follow Talia on Twitter @paleojabb
To learn more:
Explore ePANDDA — Enhancing Paleontological and Neontological Data Discovery API.