Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Interview with Paleontologist: Shaena Montanari

Today we have the pleasure of interviewing paleontologist,  Dr. Shaena Montanari!

Dr. Montanari is currently a Newton International Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She grew up in Connecticut and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she got a B.S. in Geological Sciences. She got her PhD at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History and before coming to Edinburgh was a Columbia Science Fellow at Columbia University. Shaena uses stable isotopes to discern the diets of extinct animals and learns more about the changes in paleoenvironments and dietary habits over time. She also applies stable isotope analysis to extant vertebrates in order to uncover elusive lifestyles of endangered animals.

Question 1: Let’s start from the beginning.  What was your earliest sign of interest in paleontology that you can remember?

SM: I’ll start off by saying I am perhaps not a typical paleontologist in the sense I only became really interested in paleontology in college. I have always been a “science nerd” though. I loved animals, exploring outside, collecting rocks, twigs, etc. I did not know much about paleontology as a kid but just tried to read anything to do with the natural world I could get my hands on. My favorite place to go as a kid was the aquarium actually!

Question 2: Did you have any professionals or family members who served as role models when you were younger?  Do you still have any now?

SM: None of my family members are academic or scientists in any way, so I was a bit of an odd duck in that respect. I remember really loving nature documentaries and science TV shows—I definitely grew up with Bill Nye always being on the TV. I was lucky to have lots of incredible teachers in primary school all the way through high school who were great role models for me too. I still keep in touch with many primary and high school teachers—some of them were huge influences on my career even all the way back in grade school!

Question 4: Was there anything you did or learned as you were on your way to your current career that you feel got you to where you are?  By this I mean any sort of field experience, a class, networking with the right people, or possibly something different or all three?

SM: Good question…as I described, I didn’t know much about paleontology growing up. I wasn’t really in that “world” from a young age. I came from a non-academic family but just worked really hard to get to a great university. I obtained a competitive internship at a pharmaceutical company in high school that helped me break in to scientific research for the first time. Studying geology at the University of North Carolina was a big break for me because the class sizes were so small I got to know my professors and get solid research experience.  From there, I took a risk and applied to AMNH for graduate school. I didn’t realize when applying to graduate school you should usually be familiar with your mentor before hand! I didn’t know anyone at AMNH at all but I was naïve in that respect and just went for it. I feel getting into AMNH for grad school was my real big break. Without getting into that world, I would never be where I am today.

Question 5: Is the field of paleontology different now than from when you started as far as you can tell?  How about from when you were a child?  What would your advice be to anyone trying to make a career in paleontology (or science in general for that matter) now?

SM: I have only been in the field for about 7 years or so, so I don’t think it has changed in that short period of time. I can speak to how I think academia has shifted from the “good ol’ days” though (even though I wasn’t around). These days, students are expected to publish more and be more productive than ever. We are also expected to have a very diverse, interdisciplinary set of skills. If you want a career in paleontology today I would say examine what an academic career is really like. It is mainly focused on obtaining grant money. It definitely isn’t all fossil digs and fun. Also, even before you get the job, getting a PhD is grueling. You need to make sure you really want it before you try—I recommend talking to friends and other scientists who have gone through it already.

Question 6: What was or is your favorite project in paleontology so far?  Would you be able to tell us about some of your current projects?

SM: I like all of my projects to be honest! I really enjoyed looking at the chemical signatures in dinosaur eggshells from Mongolia. No one has ever done that before and I was able to tell a lot about the paleoenvironment of the Gobi Desert 80 million years ago. Currently, I am also analyzing the chemical signatures in fossils, but this time in teeth from the Paleocene of New Mexico. I am interested in exploring the dietary radiation of mammals after the K/Pg extinction event.

Question 7: You have traveled to a lot of interesting places around the world for your research.  What was your favorite traveling experience so far?  Do you see yourself traveling more in the future?

SM: It is hard not to say the AMNH Gobi Desert expeditions were not my favorite experiences. I went out with the team for two summers and both were just fantastic. That place is incredible and I was so lucky to be able to go out on such a historic dig with my PhD supervisor Mark Norell. One of the best parts of being a paleontologist is the travel! I love doing fieldwork. At Edinburgh, I have gone to the Isle of Skye with Steve Brusatte, and I also plan on heading out to New Mexico with him next year to dig up mammal fossils.

During time doing field work guessed it, Australia!

Question 8: A popular image of paleontologists is that they are constantly out in the field digging up fossils, which is true to an extent.  What people don’t realize sometimes is that a lot of paleontology work is conducted in a lab as well.  In your experience, how much of your projects (in general) take place in the field, and how much are in the lab?

SM: Most of my work is in the lab. I work on specimens that have already been collected most of the time, so I spent time inside analyzing them. I probably only get about 1 month total of fieldwork a year since my work is based in a chemistry lab. Also in general most of our days are spent on the computer!

Question 9: A lot of your work involves chemistry, which is not something many people think of immediately when thinking about paleontology, but in reality it plays a huge part!  How does it allow you to do the work that you do effectively?  Would you say it is a big part in all aspects of paleontology?

SM: I wouldn’t say it is a big part of paleontology in general, but geochemistry and other analytical techniques are surely extremely useful in our field. Looking at bones can only get you so far—there is so much more to say when we examine them closer using methods like stable isotope analysis, SEM, and CT scanning. I just like thinking of new analytical methods to approach old questions.

Question 10: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work?  How do you handle it?

SM: You get criticized all of the time in academia. Either by supervisors, professors, peer-reviewers, mean blog commenters…the list goes on. You have to develop a thick skin because some of the things people say to you about your research are just ghastly! I handle mean peer-reviews by reading them once, getting mad, then taking a break and coming back to it to reply later. Once I’ve cooled off I can sometimes see the point the person was getting at and it might be helpful. If it is just super mean I shrug it off and ignore!

Question 11: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum, I know) were just two of the programs I remember as a kid that helped fuel my obsession with paleontology.  Did you have favorite shows, movies, or even toys growing up that fueled your passion?

SM: I hate to say this but I wasn’t HUGELY into those movies or shows. Sure, I watched them, but I wasn’t obsessed or anything. I mentioned before I liked Bill Nye, that was definitely my favorite science show by far. I also was so excited when my mom would take me to the IMAX theater that showed nature documentaries that was 45 minutes away from our house. I remember seeing the “Tropical Rainforest” IMAX film about 4 or 5 times and just loving it.

Question 12: You have worked with a number of great institutions. (My new place of work is actually your old graduate school, the American Museum of Natural History!) Were there any drastic contrasts in the way work is done between any of these various places that you needed to adjust to?  Do you have a favorite place you have worked at?

SM: The bulk of my true academic career has been spent at AMNH (PhD and postdoc research), so I really cut my teeth there. I’ve only recently moved on for the first time to the University of Edinburgh. It is quite different after spending all of these years at a museum to be back at a “real” university. But luckily I came to work with my old AMNH friend Steve Brusatte, so it isn’t as different as it could be. I still talk about AMNH like it is my home and since I was in the first class at the Richard Gilder Graduate School, I feel like it will always be a big part of me!

Question 13: Possibly my favorite thing about your work is the fact that, in addition to fossil animals, you also do research with living endangered species.  Could you explain in a little more detail how exactly your research helps conservation?

SM: It is often hard to explain to people what I do because while I love paleontology, I really love studying animals over all time periods! I use a lot of the stable isotope techniques I’ve applied to fossils and apply them to conservation issues. Knowing the diets and habits of living animals can help us conserve them and their food sources. I have worked on projects with tigers and snow leopards so far and hopefully I can continue the same sort of work in the UK to learn more about the dietary ecology of threatened wildlife.

Fossil mammal tooth from the Paleocene of New Mexico Dr. Montanari is working on now for stable isotope analysis

Question 14: One of my pet peeves is when people assume paleontology doesn’t really do any real good in the grand scheme of things and is just a “for fun” science.  It’s amazing how many people I have met in my line of work at zoos who are experts on extant animals, but know practically nothing about anything that is prehistoric.  Do you think paleontology has a part to play in preserving endangered species today?  How?

SM: I absolutely do. Studying how organisms have responded to changing climates and environments over millions of years will inform us on what might happen to the biodiversity of our modern planet in the future. Also in order to understand evolution in general we have to examine the fossil record—it is the only way to see how the diversity of animal shapes, sizes, and populations change over time.  

Question 15: Who was the first paleontologist you met?  How was that interaction? 

SM: The first paleontologist I met was probably John Flynn at my graduate school interview at AMNH. It was an amazing interaction because he is an exceptional person, scientist, and mentor. I am lucky he was my co-advisor in graduate school.

Question 16: Why do you think prehistoric animals are so influential to us today?

SM: Besides the scientific importance, it is just so much fun to imagine a time where huge paddle-finned reptiles were ruling the seas and giant winged lizards were soaring through the air. The study of paleontology is a fantastic way to introduce people of any age to science. Sometimes it seems all we do it examine fossils but when you get down to it—to really be a good paleontologist—you have to know about chemistry, biology, evolution, geology, and physics. Paleontology is truly the ultimate interdisciplinary science.

Question 17: What is your favorite prehistoric animal?  Was it different when you were younger?

SM: Not sure I have a favorite actually! Probably Tanystropheus…it’s neck is so confusing!

Question 18: If you could use a time machine to go back and pick only one prehistoric animal to bring back from history and observe alive and in person, which would it be and why?

SM: This is too hard of a question. I would really like to see a Velociraptor though, just to know if they could be trained like the ones in Jurassic World.


Question 19: Back to the time machine.  This time you can go back to any place and time period and have a look at what the environment was really like.  Which one would you pick and why?
SM: I would like to go to the Permian/Triassic boundary and see what caused that extinction. It is fairly mysterious and perhaps if I was standing there I would be able to see an impact event (if it happened!).

Question 20: Which is your favorite museum?  Why?

SM: I’m sure I sound biased but…AMNH! I have been to many museums around the world and I still think it is the absolute best.  There is nothing like walking into the Rotunda for the first time and laying eyes on the Barosaurus and Allosaurus mount. It will change your life!

Question 21: What hobbies do you have?  (Don’t have to be paleo-related.) 

SM: I actually do a lot of other things believe it or not! I really enjoy yoga, writing, baking, cooking, drawing, watching TV and movies…and now that I live in Scotland I make sure I do a lot of hiking.

Thank you so much, Dr. Montanari!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page.  For more information on Dr. Montanari and the work she does visit her website, here.  

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