Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fossils in Cleveland

Last week I crossed the ocean for the only thing that could draw me out of Europe: Cleveland.

It’s true that I missed Great Lakes Brewing Company a bit, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a pretty cool place, but the real reason I just couldn’t pass on a chance to see the Land of Cleves was because a bunch of fossil junkies were converging on the town. Cleveland was this year’s host of the Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The Society’s members include all of the fascinating researchers who study even more fascinating animals such as the fish that first decided land looked pretty tempting and the dinosaurs that decided the sky was pretty tempting, too. I think you would be bored by a detailed summary of some of the answers to these questions and a laundry list of people you’ve never heard of but I think are some of the coolest people in science right now, so I will list a few vignettes from the previous week:

1. Frankfurt. Katie, a fellow Fulbrighter, let me crash on her floor on her new inflatable mattress which meant I was in Frankfurt to catch a relatively early flight instead of waking hours before the crack of dawn to get to the airport on time. We wandered the city a bit a night so I could see the “massive” skyline. As I’ve noted before, the Germans call the city “Main-hatten” for it’s skyscrapers, an architectural structure you wouldn’t find in any other German city. The buildings are tall, but as Katie observed, they’re more mid-western than New Yorken. The city looks a bit like Columbus, or maybe St. Louis sans arch (though what is St. Louis without its arch, really?).

The highlights of the evening were: A) going to the church where the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned while a contemporary music service played on. The church was destroyed during WWII, but the steeple remained intact making it a powerful symbol of German survivorship. B) Going to a tiny Spanish bar. It was literally a bar, as in there was the place to order drinks on one side and a shelf running around the opposite wall with stools and that was it. The clientele were apparently all regulars as they got into their backgammon game and put a tiny dog up on the bar. This dog is also notable for almost getting squished when I tried to hurry out the door to take a call from home.

2. Wednesday I presented my poster, pictured below. The poster represents about two years of work as an undergraduate thinking about how some mammals survived the dinosaurs and how others bit the dust. I went to California, North Dakota and Michigan collecting specimens and contacted dozens of experts and read (maybe) hundreds of papers. Presenting this poster was my chance to get feedback from people who really know their stuff, who could blast holes through my reasoning and ultimately make this a better research project for publication. I was excited and nervous to find out what scientists would think. Or maybe they wouldn’t care at all.

Last year I went to this meeting with the singular goal of tracking down the people I wanted to work with in graduate school. It was an intimidating prospect, walking up to some of the greatest minds in the field to strike up a conversation and try to make my name and ideas memorable for when my application slid across their desk.

Debbie, one of Dr. Hunter’s graduate students who went with me last year, can attest to the fact that I was a bit on edge as I searched out people on my list and tried to compose my opening line.

This year, most of those people I tried to track down so desperately, sought me out, or at least were interested in my poster. People like Don Prothero, who has written several textbooks that are now standards in Paleontology classes and Ken Rose, who is Dr. Early Mammals dropped by to discuss my work, and I think I held my own in the discussion. At one point I had Dr. Rose and Dr. Padian, Dr. Bird evolution, standing next to me mulling over the implications of my work on mammalian survivorship and the idea that a meteor killed the dinosaurs. I was pretty excited (you can be excited, too).

Really, the trip across the Atlantic was worth just that moment as I stepped in to the world of vertebrate paleontological research and proved my questions and ideas are worth digging into (pun intended).

3. The welcome reception was held at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. This was primarily notable because I got to wander through a packed natural history museum (a pretty cool notion in itself), with a bunch of paleontologists (even cooler) while carrying a Great Lakes Brewing Company “Edmund Fitzgerald” (bringing it all together). There were conversations with Tyler Lyson, the wonderkind paleontologist who discovered Dakota, the dino-mummy (Link here), about the origins of turtles and I overheard tipsy conversations about why the Ceolophysis reconstruction was no good.
A drove of Vertebrate Paleontologists including, in the center, David Weishample, a famous dinosaur paleontologist who literally wrote the book (it's called "The Dinosauria"). He is also notable for being the only other vertebrate paleontologist to call Ohio State his alma mater besides Joe and myself.

4. I went to a Mexican Restaurant with the entire Hunter Lab (including Dr. Hunter) and ordered a beer for which I was not carded. The food was also delicious.

Joe, me, Jessica and Deb at the welcome reception. Joe, Deb and I have spent quality time together in North Dakota fighting wind, bugs and sparse fossils. Jessica is a grad student at BGSU who studies Ichthyosaurs or "dolphin reptiles." I met her last year at Berkeley and was one of our roomies at the conference. We're all buds (as you can tell 'cause we smile together while a Triceratops sneaks up on us.

5. I people-watched actively and there are a few conclusions I came to about attire: If you are wearing shorts and a field hat, you are probably not in academia. If you are wearing a t-shirt with an ironic statement and jeans, you are probably a master’s student or a PhD student in the early phases of your career. If you’re wearing a dress shirt that’s tucked into your nice slacks, you’re probably an advanced graduate student or post-doc looking for job opportunities. If you’re wearing a sport coat, you’re probably a professor. If that coat is made of tweed, you have tenure. I don’t know if this is true of all sciences, or even of all academic disciplines, but it seemed to hold true for people that study dinosaurs, mammals and fish.

6. A list of some things I learned: Beavers could once build crazy burrows. The first tetrapod to climb into the trees was related to mammal-like reptiles. Fish umbilical chords can be preserved in the fossil record. The bigger your eye, the deeper you can a point (if you're a seal). Dinosaurs didn't cause flowering plants to evolve and probably didn't really notice. You can study modern bones in places like Yellowstone and get a pretty good idea of the ecological processes at work without seeing the animals. Whales diverged from hippos...maybe. As tetropods necks got longer, so did their snouts. There are tons of questions that still need answering.

7. Meeting a hero. Last year I was overwhelmed by star-shock. Names that I had only every seen on classic papers, textbooks and on National Geographic and Discovery channel were walking by me attached to the people they belonged to. I wanted to pick everyone’s brain, but didn’t know how to begin. Debbie just shook her head at me.

I was more confident this year, but there were still people that intimidated me. This year I had Joe, another Hunter grad student, along for the ride. Joe, like me, grew up watching every dinosaur program he could find on TV and read every book targeted at young boys about the scaly animals. That’s not to say either of us is solely interested in dinosaurs (I do study mammals and have delved into the crinoid world), but in wandering through all that media about the animals creates a list of heros. One of these is Paul Sereno. Dr. Sereno is a professor at the University of Chicago. I first read about him in a book called “Hunting Dinosaurs.” The book is the journey of Louie Psihoyos, a photojournalist who has been published in National Geographic among others, as he visits the localities and people who were moving and shaking the dinosaur world in 1996.

Dr. Sereno was then on a quest in Argentina to discover the earliest dinosaur. Since then he has become a staple talking head for every dino documentary as he actively seeks to spread new discoveries to the public. This combination of active research and public education makes him the kinda guy I really wanted to talk to. The problem with talking to him is he has many other fans and it was difficult to catch him.

On the final night of the conference Joe and I decided we wouldn’t go to bed until we talked to him. Unfortunately he was always occupied as other researchers and other fans caught him. The other “fans” were particularly troubling. Termed “Dino-weenies” by a condescending crowd, these are the people who still love dinosaurs, but maybe haven’t learned to turn their zeal for Jurassic Park into cool academic distance and might have missed the memo on some key social skills. It’s funny there’s a nick-name for the “nerdy ones” in a community that is committed to the enthusiastic study of fossils, but there you have it.

The point is that Joe and I didn’t want to come off as “Dino-weenies,” but as the intellectually rigorous students we are who just wanted to discuss science and education with one of the leading minds in the field. We waited as an Argentine girl monopolized his time, snapping pictures with all of her friends. The night wore on, we talked to graduate students and the inebriated Patriarchs of Paleontology who told us, “John Hunter is brilliant!” and “This stuff is great!” before launching into stories about the meeting in the early days before there was a program or multiple sessions.

Finally, it was 2:30 in the morning. The bar had long since closed. We made our move, edging in next to Jeff Wilson, a sauropod researcher from Michigan.

Me/Joe: Hi Dr. Sereno my name is (introducing ourselves), we just wanted to catch you to thank you for responding to my e-mail last year about graduate school and for being the public face of this science for so many people. (He shifted his weight and looked uncomfortable)

Joe: Yeah, you really are one of the reasons I am a paleontologist. (More shifting and discomfort)

Dr. Sereno: Thanks, and who are you? (extending a hand to Debbie who was next to me. I was so flustered in the approach that I didn’t even notice she was there and suddenly felt guilty that he would think I had edged her out of the conversation). Where are you all from.

Us: Ohio State.

Him: Something about football and the University of Chicago. Spurring a particularly awkward part of the conversation.

Did he really want to discuss the Buckeyes, or was he at a loss for what to say? I wanted to get his thoughts on the origins of dinosaurs or some perspectives on starting fieldwork in a different country. Instead I was babbling about sports while he shifted anxiously. It didn’t help that right before the conversation started, a glass had been dropped and the janitor seemed ready to sweep everyone out of the lobby along with the shards.

Also, it occurred to us later, it had been quite some time since he had a pee break. So, we were dealing with a man who wanted to get out of there for a couple of reasons. Were we another one?

The conversation didn’t quite go where we hoped, but at least it happened and Joe and I could finally get to bed before I met my family the next morning.

8) Because the meeting was in Cleveland, the Borths family was able to scoop up Josh, who had Fall Break this weekend and meet me for cocktails at the hotel on Saturday and for breakfast before dropping me at the airport. It felt surprisingly normal to be with my parents and brother. We shared stories. I got to hear about Josh's crazy life as a company member in Michigan's opera and as Cain in Children of Eden. I also ridiculed him for not visiting the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum. I made my dad look like a German by giving him Jack Wolfskin gloves for his birthday and made Josh look like a German by giving him a scarf form the Middle East. My mom now has a new crib set to add to the collection. The other major event was when Josh and I voted absentee together. Nothing brings a family together like the Democratic process.

I was also resupplied with my camping gear and all the spices necessary to make Skyline Chili in Germany. I’ll let you know how that goes.

It was a great trip back to the states and now I’m fired up with energy, ready to tear into the fossil record to figure out the history of mammals as they struggle to make it through an ever-changing world. But, before I can do that, I need to get back on this time zone…


KMTK2001 said...

checked in on your blog tonight- thinking that someone who was halfway around the world 2 days ago would not be back to his blog yet ... guess I forgot who's blog I was reading.... LOL

Erin Davis said...

wat up ctown

Matt said...

It holla-ed back.