Impactful discussions about increasing diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in paleontology

By Ian D. Browne, Ph.D. (@ian-browne)

Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology
Oklahoma State University, Center for Health Sciences

I have been a member of the Paleontological Society off-and-on for the past twenty years and am sorry to say that until this year I had never attended NAPC. As second author on a talk my supervisor had submitted, I figured this year would be no different. I honestly did not know what to expect of the NAPC meeting when Dr. Kent Smith told me I would be going in his place to talk about the work we do at Oklahoma State University to recruit and support future generations of Native American physicians and scientists as part of the Native Explorers program. On the flight out I assumed NAPC would be no different than any other conference I have attended. I could not have been more wrong and am so glad for it. The Paleontological Society’s commitment to fostering diversity and inclusivity in the field was absolutely palpable and felt to be light years beyond what I have observed at other meetings. This was by far the most positive meeting experience I have had in my nearly twenty years of attending scientific meetings.

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I found every talk in the “Engaging Diverse Communities in Paleontology” and “Broadening Horizons of Broader Impacts” symposia to be inspirational and continually found myself thinking “we need to do this with Native Explorers.” It was especially heartening to see that the “Engaging Diverse Communities in Paleontology” session was absolutely packed, standing room only. The “Exploring eLearning in the Paleosciences” symposium appealed to my work with photogrammetry and developing digital resources for use in the lecture hall and in outreach. I was glad to see so many talks focused on developing positive collaborations and interactions between “amateur” and “professional” paleontologists, though as was frequently pointed out the line between the groups is now, as always, nebulous and I hesitate to use those labels.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the FOSSIL Project for funding my trip to NAPC. Regrettably I was only passingly familiar with the FOSSIL Project prior to NAPC. The more I learned about the project, both before and at the meeting, the more I found I was kicking myself for not becoming involved sooner. Before returning to graduate school I spent most of my career working in natural history museums. Direct outreach and interaction with the public have always been important to me. So much of what the FOSSIL Project is doing dovetails with my own values and outreach goals. As the project transitions into the next phase of its existence I hope I will be able to do my part to ensure its continued success.

Summing up, I think what struck me most about the NAPC meeting is that while other meetings make an effort to address some of these topics, they always seem to be treated as subordinate to the “real science”. What was so refreshing was that the Paleontological Society clearly put these topics at the forefront. No matter how many museum drawers we fill, or papers we publish, we must ask ourselves if we are not working to ensure that everyone who shares this passion for fossils has the access and support they need to flourish, does any of it really matter?