Thursday, November 1, 2012

Interview with Paleontologist: Dr. Adam Stuart Smith

Dr. Adam S. Smith is a palaeontologist and curator at the Nottingham Natural History Museum, UK. He specializes in plesiosaurs and other fossil marine reptiles from the Mesozoic Era and has co-named two new plesiosaurs: Meyerasaurus and Lusonectes. He runs several palaeontology websites: 'The Plesiosaur Directory' (, which all about plesiosaurs; and The Dinosaur Toy Blog (, which is all about prehistoric animal models.  I have had the pleasure of being friends with Dr. Smith for a few years now and was very excited when he agreed to be interviewed for Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs!

Question 1:
You are one of my heroes in the field of paleontology.  Who did you admire growing up?

AS: The vertebrate palaeontologist I was most aware of growing up was Professor Michael Benton. I read a lot of his books. So, when I went to the University of Bristol to study palaeobiology it was great to finally meet him, and even better that he was my supervisor during my Masters project on plesiosaurs.

Question 2:
At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

AS: From a very early age, I always wanted to be a palaeontologist and always had my head in a dinosaur book.

Question 3:
What was your favorite dinosaur (or other prehistoric creature) growing up?  What dinosaur is your favorite now?

AS: My favourite dinosaur growing up was the scaly old version of Deinonychus. Today - I don’t know - there are so many more to choose from! I have a favourite plesiosaur though: Attenborosaurus.

Dr. Smith working on making a cast model of Attenborosaurus, a plesiosaur named in honor of naturalist, David Attenborough.

Question 4:
Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines.  What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

AS: On one hand, play to your strengths. Some people are better at maths, or drawing, or spotting fossils in the field, or something else. That’s what makes you stand out in the crowd, and it is probably what you enjoy most, so harness and develop those skills. On the other hand, it is vital to get as broad an education as possible. As happened with the dinosaurs, if you become too specialised you risk becoming extinct, so a balanced set of skills and knowledge is important. 

Question 5:
Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a daunting task.  Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make it to the finish line.  The rewards are great, but what would you say to someone pursuing professional studies after college?

AS: It completely depends on the person: what are their motivations, their aspirations, what do they want to achieve? Going to university doesn’t guarantee a job in this ever-competitive world, so depending on what field you want to go into, it may be necessary to do voluntary work to gain experience that university courses can’t provide. For example, I got my first work experience by volunteering in museums and helping at education events. This was a necessary first step for me to get on the employment ladder.

Question 6:
What was or is your favorite research project?  What are some of your current projects?

AS: I don’t know if I have a favourite research project, I don’t think about my research in that way. I suppose I have fondest memories of my PhD research on rhomaleosaurid pliosaurs as I traveled around a lot to different museums collecting data. I have a few current research projects. For example, I’m working on a fantastic pliosaur specimen from Lyme Regis, which I think is a new species.

Illustration of a Rhomaleosaurid skeleton.

Question 7:
Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs.  What was your most memorable movie, book or TV program that inspired you with regards to peleontology?

AS: It was Jurassic Park as well. It was released when I was 13, perfect timing for a young teenager with a passion for dinosaurs. I’m sure I would have pursued a career in palaeontology anyway, but Jurassic Park surely put some fuel on the fire.

Question 8:
I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist.  Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met?  Were you a nervous wreck? 

AS: I think the first vertebrate palaeontologist I ever met was Dr David Martill who I met when I first went to university. Dave was an advisor for the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs and I recall being rather impressed by that!

Question 9:
Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures.  Why do you feel they continue to fascinate us?

AS: Prehistoric animals are so weird and wonderful and the world they lived in is so far away. But it all happened right here and that allows the imagination to run wild. Dinosaurs are the closest thing we have to real monsters. They are frightening, fantastic, mysterious, but most importantly, real. Why are people fascinated by towering animals that could swallow you whole? The answer is in the question!

Question 10:
What is your favorite time period?

The Jurassic. When plesiosaurs first came on the scene.

Plesiosaur, Elasmosaurus illustration by Dr. Adam Stuart Smith.

Question 11:
The time span in which the dinosaurs lived in was huge.  How do paleontologists remember all that information from such a vast era?  Do paleontologist focus on one particular subject?

AS: Palaeontologists do tend to specialize on particular groups of organisms or specific fields of research, but it is important to have an understanding of the bigger picture to put the various topics into a greater context. As for remembering all that information, we don’t always. I’m constantly forgetting things. That’s why we have notebooks and why it’s important for palaeontologists to publish our findings - I frequently consult my own articles!

Thank you Dr. Smith!  For anyone who is interested here and here are his websites again.  Join me next week for another post!