Thursday, May 9, 2013

Interview with Paleontologist: Steve Brusatte

I have been working hard to get really good interviews from paleo-artists and scientists as of late.  Last week we heard from the brilliant artist, James Gurney.  This week I had the pleasure of hearing from a great paleontologist, Steve Brusatte! 

Steve Brusatte is a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He is American and recently moved to Scotland to begin his new job. Steve has a BS in geophysical sciences from the University of Chicago, two MSc degrees from the University of Bristol, and a PhD from Columbia University in New York. Steve studies vertebrate anatomy and evolution broadly, but is specifically interested in theropod dinosaurs, the rise of dinosaurs during the Triassic, the extinction of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, and the rise of mammals after the dinosaur extinction. He has written 60 scientific papers and four books (including the technical book Dinosaur Paleobiology and the coffee table book Dinosaurs), and has named several new species of dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates. He has done fieldwork in the US, China, United Kingdom, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Lithuania. His work is frequently profiled in the popular press and he is the "resident paleontologist" for the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs program (

 Question 1: Who did you admire growing up?

SB: Like many kids, I admired my parents more than anybody. I was also a big sports fanatic and was especially obsessed with baseball, basketball, and football. So I admired a lot of athletes. And for some reason I was fascinated by US politics and read a lot of books about the presidents, so I had a strange infatuation with Bill Clinton! I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I didn't really admire any scientists, or know much about science at all. It wasn't even on my radar. 

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

SB: I wasn't one of those five-year-olds who knows the names and pronunciations of every dinosaur. I meet a lot of kids like that when I go into schools and talk about paleontology, and I always tell them that they are way ahead of where I was at their age! I didn't care much for science as a kid. I found it one of the more boring subjects at school, something to plod through. It didn't come very naturally. I was much more interested in history and social studies and English. But I became obsessed with paleontology very quickly when I was 14 years old, during my first year of high school. My youngest brother Chris was going through the "dinosaur phase" at the time. He had a room full of dinosaur books, toys, and posters. It was like the Jurassic Park franchise was sponsoring his bedroom! He asked me for help with a science fair project he was doing, so I started to read some of his books, and within days I was hooked. Sometimes people say dinosaurs are a "gateway drug" into science for kids. For me, dinosaurs definitely had a drug-like effect! 

Question 3: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  What dinosaur is your favorite now?

SB: I never really had a favorite growing up. And it's hard to answer that question today. I've been privileged to work on a lot of neat dinosaurs, to examine specimens in museums and find new dinosaurs in the field. So I feel a bit like some parents probably do when somebody asks them to pick their favorite child. I just can't do it, and it wouldn't be fair to all of the other dinosaurs I've worked on. But I will say that the theropods are my favorite group. 

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

SB: Anybody who is seriously interested in pursuing paleontology as a career should be sure to study a diverse range of subjects in school. Paleontology is truly a multidisciplinary science. Many of the techniques we use are borrowed from other fields, like chemistry, engineering, and physics. So students should be sure to take as many science courses as they can, and math as well. Statistics are particularly important--it's hard to be a paleontologist without at least a basic understanding of statistics and how to handle large datasets. And don't forget about English and writing. All successful scientists have to communicate their findings to other scientists, and to the public. Being able to write in an understandable, coherent, and inspirational way is really key. You don't have to be a poet laureate, but you will need to do a fair bit of writing.  

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?

SB: Being a paleontologist is a lot of fun. I can't imagine a better career. But it's a long slog to get here, and I've had a much shorter and more fortunate career journey than many of my colleagues. So I feel a bit guilty even talking about this. For me, I spent four years in college, two years doing my Masters', and then four and a half years doing my PhD. So the whole process took me about a decade. College is expensive, of course, but once you get into graduate school you are usually getting your tuition paid for, and you're getting a stipend. So it's basically like a real job, albeit a low-paid one! The real trouble is making that jump into a permanent academic job. There just aren't that many professorships these days. Science funding is getting cut left and right. So the job situation is not good. Anybody wanting to pursue a career in paleontology needs to know this. They need to understand this. Paleontology is really fun, and it is a great hobby for some people, but making a career out of it is a different matter. So if you want to do it you need to be very committed. It isn't always easy. As a grad student, you see your friends getting real jobs and earning real money, while you're dragging away in the lab all day for peanuts. You may need to move to a god-forsaken corner of the world to do graduate work (or take an academic job). It can be hard on your family if you have one, or put plans for starting a family on hold. But if you love it, then go for it! 

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

SB: I've had the great privilege of working on a lot of neat projects with a lot of wonderful colleagues. My favorite part of the job are the travel we often get to do, and the friendships that are fostered through scientific collaborations. Many of my best friends are fellow scientists. I've been able to work on some really interesting projects concerning the origin of dinosaurs (was the rise of dinosaurs rapid or slow? why were dinosaurs able to become so successful?), the anatomy and phylogeny of carnivorous theropods, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. It's hard to pick a favorite. Right now I'm working on a lot of different threads. My PhD thesis, which I finished last November, is on the phylogeny of coelurosaurian theropods and patterns of morphological evolution during the dinosaur-bird transition. I'm working some of that into publication now. I've just started my new job at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, so I'm building up my research lab right now, applying for grants to try to get on my feet and to bring new students and postdocs into my lab. I'm doing fieldwork in New Mexico and Romania this month, and just returned from a fieldtrip in Scotland, looking for Jurassic dinosaurs. I'm doing projects now on theropods, Paleocene mammals that lived right after the dinosaur extinction, marine crocodiles from the Jurassic and Cretaceous, archosaur evolution during the Triassic, and various other things. I like to work on a lot of different projects at once. I like learning new things, new methods.

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 paleontology?

SB: Jurassic Park and Walking With Dinosaurs were both very inspirational. I remember watching a lot of television documentaries when I was in high school, and I remember being awed by scenes of scientists out in the desert, doing fieldwork. But what I really remember is reading books on dinosaurs and fossils--a lot of books! During high school I must have read hundreds of books on paleontology. I was especially inspired by Jack Horner's books, Bob Bakker's Dinosaur Heresies, and the books of Stephen Jay Gould and Peter Ward. 

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

SB: I think I probably met paleontologists for the first time at the 1999 Burpee Museum PaleoFest in Rockford, Illinois. The Burpee Museum has been hosting these wonderful events for well over a decade now. They give the public a chance to meet paleontologists, hear lectures, and see real fossils. I grew up about 90 miles from Rockford so I would drag my family to PaleoFest every year. I remember meeting various paleontologists at that first PaleoFest, and then sometime around that time I also met Paul Sereno for the first time. This was a huge moment in my life, in hindsight. Paul is a professor at the University of Chicago. Growing up near Chicago, I would see him on the news and in the newspapers constantly. I was in awe when I met him. And I remember him being so nice--he took the time to talk to me and my family, and answered all of my nerdy teenage questions. And he kept in touch over email, which was incredible. I remember feeling so privileged--that this famous scientist was talking to me. A few years later, after graduating high school, I went to the University of Chicago for college and was Paul's student. He introduced me to studying fossils, to dinosaur anatomy, to digging up dinosaurs in the field. I owe a lot to Paul. 
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?
SB: This is the million-dollar-question. I suppose the important thing is that they do fascinate us, for whatever reason. They are such a perfect way to reach children and the public, introduce them to science, articulate that the world is a very old place, and pique their curiosity about the natural world. But why are dinosaurs so fascinating? I suppose it's because they're old and weird-looking, and many of them are big. There is nothing alive today that looks remotely like Tyrannosaurus or Brachiosaurus. These are monsters from ages past, but they are real! They really lived! They are distant enough not to be threatening, but real enough to invoke awe in anybody who looks at them. I think dinosaurs are much more incredible than any mythical creatures ever invented in human myth or fantasy. 

Question 10: You took part in writing a scientific paper about Dryptosaurus.  Tell us about that! 

SB: That's right! And that's one reason why I'm so happy and honored to be featured on this blog! Dryptosaurus is a very special dinosaur to me, just as I know it is to Chris and Gary here on the blog. Dryptosaurus was found a long time ago, just a year after the Civil War ended. It was one of the first dinosaurs known from a decently complete skeleton, from anywhere in the world. It was studied by Cope and Marsh and displayed in Philadelphia, to much public acclaim. But then for a long time it was largely forgotten about. It just wasn't clear what kind of theropod Dryptosaurus was. More recently it's become clear that it is a tyrannosaur--a close relative of T. rex and Albertosaurus, but a bit more primitive. I was working on tyrannosaurs as a PhD student so I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the Dryptosaurus skeleton and reassess its anatomy and its genealogical position. So I joined up with my friend and colleague Roger Benson, a specialist on theropods, and my PhD advisor, Mark Norell, and we took another look at the specimen, photographed it, measured it, compared it to other tyrannosaurs, and put this together into a new scientific paper giving the latest information on this very old dinosaur specimen. 
Dryptosaurus reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Question 11: You wrote a new book.  Can you tell us a little about it?   

SB: Yes, about a year ago I published a book called Dinosaur Paleobiology. It was published by Wiley-Blackwell, the academic publishers. So it is a somewhat technical book, more for professionals and graduate students than the general public. But it is meant to be accessible to younger students and members of the public with a background knowledge in dinosaurs and anatomy. The purpose of the book is to describe what we currently know about dinosaur biology and evolution, and what methods we use to derive this information. We have learned so much about dinosaurs over the past decade. We probably learned more in the last decade than in all of the previous decades of dinosaur research combined. Scientists are finding a new species of dinosaur once per week on average. The field is moving at a very fast pace, and this book aims to summarize what it is that we actually know about dinosaurs. Of course, by now, it is already quite outdated! Hopefully I'll have the chance to revise it in a few years. I also have a new kids' book coming out in November: the Walking With Dinosaurs Encyclopedia. There will be a new WWD 3D film hitting theaters around Christmas this year, and I have been involved in a lot of things surrounding the film, including this book and the Walking With Dinosaurs website. I consult on the website and answer weekly questions from readers. So if you have any questions about dinosaurs, head on over to the website ( and send them in!

Question 12: What is your favorite time period?

SB: I am a big fan of the Triassic Period, from about 252-201 million years ago. This was the time when dinosaurs got their start. It's also the time period immediately after the devastating end-Permian extinction, the biggest mass extinction in earth history, when up to 95% of species may have gone extinct. So the Triassic was a time of recovery and rebirth. Not only did the dinosaurs originate and begin to proliferate during this time, but the oldest turtles, mammals, pterosaurs, and lizards are also found in the Triassic. So the roots of our modern world can really be found in the Triassic.

Thank you Steve!  

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