Thursday, June 28, 2018

Interview with Paleontologist Amy Atwater

Amy is the Paleontology Collections Manager – Registrar at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT. Her research focuses on North American Eocene primates called omomyids. The closest living relatives of omomyids are tarsiers of SE Asia.  Atwater grew up in Eugene, Oregon and spent her summers in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument where she fell in love with paleontology and being outside. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Geological Sciences and a minor in Anthropology from the University of Oregon Clark Honors College. At the UO she studied the drivers of Plio-Pleistocene mammalian diversity of the Great Basin and the Great Plains of the United States and studied body size changes in Eocene primate. Amy received her Master’s at the University of Texas at Austin where she studied Eocene mammals from West Texas and Southern California as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. For her Master’s thesis, Amy described three new genera of Eocene omomyids from the Friars Formation of San Diego County.

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

AA: I remember being about 4 years old and looking for fossils in Utah (where I was born) and Michigan (where my parents are from) with my family. We visited the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon when I was 5 years old and I remember being mesmerized about all the different fossil mammals that have been discovered there.

Amy at age six

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?

AA: Ted Fremd, who was the park paleontologist for the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument for a long time, has always been a role model of mine, and still is to this day. I watched videos of him doing fieldwork when I was little, and then I was lucky enough to do fieldwork with him in the park as a high school student and during my time as an undergrad at the University of Oregon.

Question 3: 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?

AA: I was lucky enough to be able to volunteer with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) at Arches National Park in Utah. I also was selected for a GeoCorps internship through the Geological Society of America in Denali National Park and Preserve where I was a paleontology/GIS technician. During graduate school I was a paleontology intern at Big Bend National Park in west Texas. My time volunteering for the NPS not only allowed me to meet a variety of scientists who became references for me, but I also gained tons of first-hand experience.
Networking is also extremely important. I have always been very proactive in reaching out to professionals in paleontology who I might be able to volunteer with, or who I share research interests with. Maintaining those connections is vital for your future, you never know who might help you land your dream job or connect you with a great collaborator. 

Question 4: Much of your professional experience is with prehistoric mammals, most notably Eocene primates.  Was this specific content within paleontology something you already planned on working with, or did it “choose you” in a sense?

AA: I have always loved mammals. Living and extinct. Spending my summers as a child in the John Day Fossil Beds really cultivated that love and I honestly didn’t care too much for dinosaurs until college. I was always drawn to human evolution during middle and high school, and that plus my experience with North American mammals made falling in love with Eocene primates like omomyids quite easy. Omomyids closest living relative are tarsiers, and who doesn’t love those bug-eyed prosimians?!

Fossil omomyid skull

Question 5: What was or is your favorite project in paleontology so far?  Would you be able to tell us about some of your current projects?

AA: I learn so much about myself with each project I take on! My first paper heavily relied on databases, which made me realize that I want to work on projects that actually involves handling real fossils.
I have a paper that is going to be out any day now on my master’s research, where I described three new genera of Eocene primates (omomyids) from Southern California. I wanted to see the omomyid material at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and when I got a chance to look at the specimens there, I realized they represent new taxa. I did the comparisons and measurements necessary to write up the Systematic Paleontology, and I also ran phylogenetic analyses to understand how these new taxa relate to other North American omomyids. Parsimony is the most common phylogenetic analysis used in paleontology, but parsimony doesn’t investigate the total solution space, it’s just looking for the shortest route. So in addition of parsimony analyses, I also ran Bayesian analyses in order to have a better understanding of the evolutionary relationships within omomyids. Now I am at Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT, where I am studying a close primate relative called Plesiadapis, which lived before true primates during the Paleocene age.

Fossil bird track in Denali.

Question 6: Tell us about Mary Anning’s Revenge!  How did that start?

AA: Mary Anning’s Revenge is a collaboration between Dr. Meaghan Wetherell and myself. We started the blog in 2012 when I was finishing up my B.S. at the University of Oregon, where Meaghan had just started graduate school. Meaghan and I already knew each other, she had actually been my camp counselor at science camps in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument back in the day, so we decided to live together in 2012. Meaghan and I have a lot in common, we love science but we aren’t fans of the horrid sexism and prejudice that is pervasive in paleontology. We decided that we could use a blog as our platform to get our voices heard, and during a brainstorming session I brought up Mary Anning and how much bullshit she had to put up with (I had just read Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier) and the name Mary Anning’s Revenge was born. 
The blog is mostly our commentary on current events in science, mixed in with a whole lot of sass and laughs. We like to balance humor with informed opinions on what it is like to be an underrepresented voice in paleontology, usually with lots of statistics and research papers cited to back up what we say. Now that Meaghan and I don’t live together (or even in the same state for that matter), we don’t post as regularly as in the early days. We make up for this with our Instagram and Twitter accounts. I run our Instagram (@Mary_Annings_Revenge) and Meaghan runs our Twitter (@MarysRevenge), which you can follow for our musing on life and for updates on our latest blog posts.

Amy and Dr. Wetherell in West Texas

Question 7: Despite being busy in the museum, you make time to frequently post educational snippets of information with photographs of specimens on social media.  Why do you think scientists being active on platforms like twitter and Instagram is beneficial?

AA: Science communication is hugely important. I get a lot of messages from parents who are so grateful that they can show my posts to their young daughters who are interested in paleontology. before social media, the image of paleontology is typically that of an old rich white dude, and our field has so much more to offer. I want to inspire underrepresented groups in paleontology and also show the general public there isn’t a cookie cutter mold for all paleontologists.

Question 8: Where have you traveled for your career?  Do you have a favorite destination when it comes to fossils?  Why?

AA: All of my paleontology research has been focused on North America, so I’ve traveled a lot within the United States. I have worked in Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, Texas, Montana, California, and Alaska. Alaska is probably my favorite places to do fieldwork. I felt so lucky to live in a place where I could hike mountains, look at the tallest peak in North America, see incredible wildlife, and find dinosaur tracks. One day we were headed to a track locality and we had 13 grizzly bear sightings. A momma with two cubs walked within 5 meters of me (I was with a group of 7 and we all had bear spray, we were very safe), it was a thrill and working out in the wilderness was a dream come true.  

Big Bend Cretaceous strata

Question 9: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work?  How do you handle it?

AA: Yes, I get criticized on my work. I am very open to constructive criticism, it improves your science. The most obvious way I have received constructive criticism is through reviewers for my research papers. It can be hard to read all the comments and edits, and sure, I frequently need a beer or two to read all that. But I am confident in my ability to do scientific research, and I know that these suggestions are about my work, not myself, and I repeat that in my head (or out loud…) when I’m going through everything.

Question 10: Jurassic Park and The 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?

AA: I loved watching documentary shows, like Steve Irwin in The Crocodile Hunter, Kratt’s Creatures, Zoboomafoo, The Jeff Corwin Experience, Bill Nye The Science Guy, etc. My friends and I would make and film our own nature documentaries in elementary school, it was a blast. I remember always being drawn to the outdoors and natural history, and it has always bothered me how many nature docs feature men and hardly any women.
And I have to be honest, the Jurassic Park films never really did anything for me (keep in mind I was 2 years old when it came out), I never saw it until I was well into high school. While I think it’s cool how much JP gets the public excited about paleo, I have issues with the stereotypes that are still rampant in those films, which I think can be damaging for our field in the long run. I really want media to change the depiction of paleontologists.

Hunting for primate fossils in Wyoming.

Question 11: 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.  Do you think paleontology has a bigger part to than this?  How?

AA: Well, honestly I think films like Jurassic Park are largely contributing to that assumption. But I have seen how paleontology has larger importance than just entertainment. I study early primates that went extinct in North America about 35 million years ago. Today, primates are one of the most endangered group of mammals on the planet. If we want to work to understand and prevent the extinction of these incredible animals, then using the fossil record where we already have an extinction recorded in the rocks will dramatically enhance our conservation approaches for living primates. If we are serious about conservation, then we must use the past to inform our future. So much of life that has existed on Earth is now extinct, to me it seems obvious that we must study the past to understand and protect the modern and the future.

Question 12: Who was the first paleontologist you met?  How was that interaction?

AA: The first paleontologist I met was Ted Fremd. I was attending summer camp in the John Day Fossil Beds during elementary & middle school, and he would frequently stop by the camp for lessons and hanging out. Ted was and is so approachable and friendly. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, I can make a career out of spending all my time outside looking for fossils? And I can be funny and have an awesome life like Ted’s? SIGN ME UP.”

Excavating oreodont fossils in Oregon.

Question 13: Why do you think prehistoric animals are so influential to us today?

AA: I think we love that sense of discovery and mystery about what existed on the planet before us. I have never found buried treasure (though I found a message in a bottle once in Alaska, it was from a preacher and it said I was going to hell), but I like to think that discovering fossils gives a similar rush. I think paleontology also offers a wonderful combination of science and creativity, which is really appealing to a wide audience.

Question 14: What is your favorite prehistoric animal?  Was it different when you were younger?

AA: My current favorite prehistoric animal are omomyids, which are tarsier-like primates that lived across North America, Asia, and Europe during the Eocene. When I was younger I think I liked Lucy the most. I remember being in 6th grade learning about Australopithecus afarensis and thinking that was the coolest thing ever. It helped me feel connected to our planet, knowing that humans evolved like all other life and we can study our own rich history.

Omomyids in the lab

Question 15: 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?

AA: Omomyids. First, I believe these early primates were likely adorable and I’d like to see that beauty in real life. Second, I am fascinated, like a lot of scientists, about what the heck a species is. Being able to observe my study animal as it lived could shed a lot of light about how these creatures were related to each other.
Question 17: 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?
I would want to go back to North America during the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum). This slice of time was the warming part of the Cenozoic and it really catapulted many mammalian groups to diversify and expand, and I would love to see all of the factors contributing to that explosion of life.

Question 16: Which is your favorite museum?  Why?

AA: My favorite museum is the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman Montana! I am biased, because I work here! MOR is great because it houses the most T. rex and Triceratops fossils in the world, AND it has lots of cool fossil mammals, too. Bozeman is also a really fun town with tons of amazing outdoor opportunities, like being so close to Yellowstone National Park.

Finding fossil plants in Denali

Question 17: What hobbies do you have?  (Don’t have to be paleo-related.)

AA: I am the type of person that has to have time away from paleo to do my best science. I need a balance, and I am a firm believer in focusing on all aspects of my wellness, not just my occupation. This means my weekends are my weekends and I fight the urge to be working all the time. It’s easy to burn out because science perpetuates this notion that if you’re not doing science all the time, then you aren’t being productive, and therefore you are a bad scientist! I know my science improves when I give myself a break, and when I take care of myself. I learned this the hard way, I had all sorts of mental and physical health problems in undergrad and graduate school, including lots of trips to the Emergency Room. That was my wake-up call, my life and my health are so much more important than science.
So to actually answer the question, I have always loved being outside, that’s how I recharge. I love rock climbing, bouldering, river rafting, hiking, climbing mountains, or just sitting by a creek in the sunshine with a beer in my hand. I love to scrapbook, I like making jewelry, and I really love to sew. Spending time with my significant other, my family, and my friends is extremely important to me. And sometimes I just want to be alone on my couch watching Rupaul’s Drag Race while painting my nails and eating ice cream.

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