A week in the life…

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked by visitors is “What does a paleontologist do from day-to-day?” or some variation that suggests that the questioner doesn’t really know what I do (“It must be great to have a job where all you have to do is dig up bones.”) Meanwhile, on the vertebrate paleontology listserv, there is a current discussion among paleontologists about how connected (or disconnected) we are with the “real world” – whatever that is.

My blog entries tend to emphasize the more showy parts of my work, because, frankly, they’re by far the most interesting parts. Even so, I thought it might be instructive to review my work for the last week, as a reality check if nothing else. Besides, it might help explain why I’ve been slow on getting my new posts up!

A little background is also in order; in addition to my museum job, I also frequently teach night classes in geology for various universities. I’m currently teaching an Oceanography class for Radford University.

So, I’ll start one week ago, on Sunday, November 30 (I rarely have a day where I don’t do some work):

Sunday, November 30: I prepared the slides for my elephant lecture, which took about half the day. Afterwards I spent several more hours preparing lectures for classes scheduled for Monday and Wednesday, and writing the final exam for the course. (I didn’t actually complete Wednesday’s lecture that day).

Monday, December 1: I coordinated visits for next week to the Smithsonian, Virginia Living Museum, and William and Mary (I’ll blog about these next week), then reviewed a press release for the elephant lecture. Much of the rest of the day was spent writing and revising text for an exhibit on evolution that opens next February, except for an hour or so to write a blog entry. At 4:30 I left VMNH for the New College Institute where my Oceanography class meets, and gave a lecture on open ocean organisms. I arrived home around 6:30, then spent another two hours reviewing my elephant lecture.

Tuesday, December 2: I met with my supervisor in the morning to go over schedule planning for the holidays. I found out that the state payroll office was mad at me because I was still receiving paper pay stubs; it took a half-hour of phone calls and emails to opt out of receiving them. Spent an hour in a planning meeting for next month’s Dino Day event. After lunch I spent a little time working with a graduate student in an email exchange, and most of the rest of the afternoon was spent working on a manuscript about one of the Carmel Church whales. Late in the afternoon I spent some time with Tim looking at sharks teeth in the collection; he’s going to spend some time volunteering for me to help get the shark tooth collection better organized. I got home around 7:30; Brett teaches a night class on Tuesdays, but I didn’t get dinner made because I had to complete my slides for Wednesday’s lecture. Brett was stuck with it after she got home (sorry!).

Wednesday, December 3: Most of the morning was spent on the evolution exhibit, including meeting with Curator of Mammalogy Nancy Moncrief to look at possible specimens for the exhibit, and scheduling a conference call for next week between several people working on the project. There was a staff meeting at lunch, and after lunch I spent most of the afternoon working on the exhibit. At 4:30 I left the museum to go to class, and gave a lecture on life in the deep ocean basins (below the photic zone), arriving home around 7:00.

Thursday, December 4: Most of the morning was spent making final arrangements for next week’s trip (meeting people in four different places in five days takes some planning). After lunch I spent some time on collections organization, then made the final changes to my elephant lecture. I gave that lecture at 6:00, and arrived home around 7:30. I took the evening off.

Friday, December 5: The morning was spent looking into various grant possibilities, and working on the Carmel Church manuscript. After lunch I spent 5 straight hours in a planning meeting for the evolution exhibit, and got home around 7:00.

Saturday, December 6: I didn’t work the whole day, but I did spend several hours revising evolution text, working on the text for an upcoming stromatolite exhibit, and I responded to an information request from a former student.

Sunday, December 7: I spent a couple of hours working on evolution and stromatolite text. The museum Christmas party was at 5:00, and after that I returned home and wrote this blog entry.

So, that’s a REAL working week in the life of a paleontologist, and most any other person in my field would give a similar account of their typical week, with only the details changed for their particular circumstances. But the other times – eating lunch in the sun while gazing at the Bighorn Mountains, trying to figure out how to get yet another whale vertebra out of the ground, seeing a line of kids faces pressed up against my lab window, or having a student come up after class and saying, “I’ve always wondered about that, but I never understood it until tonight’s lecture” – those are the rewards.

Later this week I’ll be returning to more exciting events, as I head out on my trip next Thursday. As soon as I return, I’m taking a vacation road trip, which (being who I am) will include a number of paleontology-related stops, so I’ll be blogging about that as well.

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7 Responses to A week in the life…

  1. Doug says:

    Sounds like quite a week! Wis I could go on that Smithsonian trip!

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    Should be a fun trip. I’ll actually be at the Smithsonian’s Garber facility. The Smithsonian collections are so large that most of them are not stored at the downtown museums, but at a huge remote facility in Maryland. That’s where the baleen whales are, so that’s where I’ll be heading. I’ll be posting pictures.

  3. Doug says:

    That’s it Dooley, twist the knife in deeper!

    Really, why doesn’t that surprise me, that they have a separate facility? I think it’s the same story with Los Angeles. Sure, you have such a large and perhaps enviable collection of fossils, but where are you going to keep them? Anyway, good luck with that. and follow the link in my name if you want to see the new California Academy of Sciences.

  4. Alton Dooley says:

    I visited the CA Academy of Sciences about 10 years ago (as a tourist) and was quite impressed. Then I tried to visit around 2 or 3 years ago and they were closed for renovations; very disappointing. From your pictures, though, it looks like it was an impressive renovation.

  5. Brian says:

    The pics from the CalAcad site are impressive indeed! I’ve wanted to study the Enhydra specimens there for years, there are supposed to be loads of them.
    As for additional off-site storage, a number of museums have them, though not all as glorious as the Smithsonian’s.
    When I was at the FLMNH they had a separate facility called the “Behavior Lab” on west campus that had the dermestid colony and many of the larger cetacean and manatee skeletal material housed. I undertsand much of that collection is now better housed.
    At the KUNHM, a building that was a former pig slaughterhouse was briefly used to store specimens from some collections. I remember visiting it and its various odors and stains…. likewise, I hear that those specimens are better housed as well now.
    Still, space is always an issue. Right when I was leaving Chicago the Field Museum was still working on its underground storage facility, which will be amazing. And as the for the AMNH – aside from the glass-ceiling rooms with elephants skulls stacked everywhere, I doubt many people visiting the planetarium realize how many cabinets and giant shelves of whales, dolphins, manatees, and giraffes lie almost right beneath it.
    I love museum collections!!!

  6. Alton Dooley says:

    We have several remote sites at VMNH, where our cores, bulk samples, and some of our jackets are stored, as well as exhibit supplies. There had been hopes of moving all that material, but that plan’s been quashed (at least for the time being) due to the state’s budget situation.

    When I was at LSU, we didn’t have any off-site vertebrate fossil storage, but our acid prep lab was shoehorned into an abandoned loading dock in the core warehouse on the other side of campus. I never was quite clear on why the loading dock was there; it opened onto the bank of a stream, and to my knowledge there was never a road there or even room for one (if you cut back the brush it might have been possible to get a bicycle back there).

  7. Doug says:

    Trust me guys, despite all my pictures, you can’t beat actually being there, especially the rainforest!

    I have been in the collections of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and it was very cool. Wish I could go to the LA Museum’s or the Smithsonian’s but hell, I can barely go just to see the museum. Have fun “Butch”!

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