Editor’s Note: Daring to Dig is a new children’s book published by the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), featuring the stories of twelve women paleontologists from both the past and present. Aimed at ages 8-12, the graphic-novel style book highlights the challenges and achievements of women in paleontology, while showcasing some great science illustrations and content to boot. Sadie Mills, coordinator of the FOSSIL Project, interviewed author Beth Strickler and illustrator Alana McGillis to learn more about the book which is available from PRI and Amazon.
At the FOSSIL Project, we love learning about women in STEM, and were so excited to learn about Daring to Dig. What inspired you to write this book?
Beth: When I was the Director of Exhibitions at the Paleontological Research Institution, I worked on several projects that centered on the history of the Institution, which was founded in 1932. I was intrigued by the surprising number of women paleontologists who were involved with PRI or attended Cornell University at a time when most women weren’t going to college, let alone working in the sciences. The more I looked into it, the more I realized there was an opportunity to tell some seriously fascinating and generally unknown stories. Who were the earliest women paleontologists, specifically in the United States? What kind of work were they doing, and why weren’t there more of them?
I proposed a broad project at PRI about these women, eventually titled Daring to Dig, that would include a traveling exhibition, a history book, a children’s book, a website, educational programs, and so on. I gathered together a team of experts and we delved into the history of women in American paleontology from the late 18th century to the present. Much of this work was possible thanks to a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. So the book was just one part of the project, but was the most fun to work on. Alana and I got to explore the personal histories of the women as well as their professional accomplishments in a very playful way.
In addition to featuring amazing women, Daring to Dig also includes great paleontological facts. What is your connection to paleontology?
Beth: Besides a typical general interest in dinosaurs, my involvement in paleontology began in 2010 when I started at PRI. I came with a Bachelor’s in Classical Civilizations, an MFA in Museum Exhibition Planning and Design, and a few years experience taking raw information (mostly American history based) and transforming that into an engaging visitor experience. At PRI I was thrown into the natural history deep end. I worked with many scientists, from paleontologists to climate scientists to entomologists. So one of the most exciting things about my time at PRI was that I was being paid to learn new things about the natural world and its long history.
Alana: I took my first paleontology class at Smith College as an undergrad. I ended up majoring in geoscience, but always had a particular soft spot for the history of life and loved studying foraminifera. After college, I got a job at the Paleontological Research Institution as an assistant. Paleoart was a field I hadn’t thought much about until I got to PRI, but the ways we depict past life and how our art has evolved really interests me!
Daring to Dig’s illustrations are so fun and engaging! What process did you use to develop them?
Alana: The process to make the book was very collaborative. Beth gave me a word document with the text she wanted me to include and a huge file full of reference images. From there I was given a lot of freedom to map out a page design. Every week, we went back and forth, where we gave each other feedback, adding sentences, changing pictures. Beth was a great partner to work with! In terms of depicting different critters, I looked to fossils, papers, and other paleoartists. The maiasaura and thalattosaurs were both critters that I looked to fossils in order to bring them to life. I read up a bit before drawing the podokesaurus to find out it probably had protofeathers and figure out how to best draw them.
How did you go about finding and researching women to include in Daring to Dig?
Beth: Once we decided to pursue the larger Daring to Dig project, I knew we had to assemble a team of experts who could contribute their individual knowledge – this included museum educators, paleontologists, and historians. One of the first things we did as a team was to compile a list of women who have contributed to paleontology through the years. We came up with quite a long list at first and had to decide how to trim it; for now, focusing on women in the United States. While it was encouraging that the initial list was fairly long, it was obvious that it was heavily skewed towards the present. It was challenging to come up with many women who were active before the 1960s. I personally only knew about the women who had some affiliation with PRI and so the team, several interns, and I spent time digging up whatever we could. We relied on archives at museums, universities, and professional societies for this process. With the NEH grant, we were able to hire a consulting exhibition developer who traveled to different institutions and gathered information for the team about the short-listed women’s paleontological collections, labwork, and personal histories.
Was there anything that surprised you as you researched women in paleontology?
Beth: Despite the fact that most other women had been excluded from the sciences due to their gender, I was still surprised that those who did find work were greatly underpaid, or completely unpaid. Even if these women managed to finish school, gain entrance to a graduate program, eventually find work in the field, and generally go against social standards, they were not paid enough money to support themselves. Many of the women featured in the book were only able to make the discoveries that they did because they had financial support from their families. It made me think about all the barriers women were facing – money, education, race – and wonder about the stories of the unknown women who wanted to pursue paleontology but never could. If it was difficult to find records of past paleontologists, it was near impossible to find records of those who were pushed out.
Who do you hope will read the book, and what do you hope they’ll take away?
Beth: I hope that parents and children, regardless of gender, enjoy the lively stories of discovery and the fun details in Alana’s illustrations. Overall, I hope they will simply enjoy the stories. But it’s important to me that both boys and girls see women in roles such as “Paleontologist,” so that one day people just ask, “What’s it like to be a paleontologist?” rather than “What’s it like to be a woman paleontologist?”
I want kids to be thrilled by the women’s adventures, and so interested in the science behind them that they look things up on their own and visit museums to learn more. I also hope that readers recognize the value of diversity in science, and see that although much has changed in the last 125 years, there is still a ways to go. Scientific progress benefits from diversity.
Alana: I hope young girls and boys will read it. I think it’s important boys also learn they can look up to girls, that women role models are role models for everyone. I hope that hearing these stories makes girls feel like there is a place for them in paleontology and that there always has been. Kids are naturally interested in fossils, mostly dinosaurs, so I also hope this book helps expand the perspective for kids on what paleontology is. This book has crinoids and forams and horses and birds, much more than just dinos. I did my best to try and put my enthusiasm for these critters into the book, so hopefully that will come across.
Daring to Dig is such hit! What kind of projects do you hope to work on next?
Alana: Thank you for the kind words! It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a project. Next I hope to keep telling science stories through comics and illustrations! I’ve been very fortunate to get to make comics for the Critical Zone Observatory, and I draw geology doodles for fun online. My goal is to help more scientists tell their stories in compelling and fun ways through art, so I’ve got my eyes peeled for more projects!
Beth: I will probably always work in museum exhibition design, but I’m thrilled by this first foray into children’s book writing. PRI’s Daring to Dig project as a whole should continue to expand, especially the website (daringtodig.org) and exhibit, and I hope to contribute more to it. In the meantime, Alana and I have talked about the possibility of other books, and I have a couple fun ideas I’ve been pondering. Giant ground sloths, anyone?