Episode 5: Dinosaurs!
It may surprise you to learn that the enormous dinosaur skeletons that wow museum visitors were not assembled by paleontologists. The specialized and critical task of removing fossilized bones from surrounding rock, and then reconstructing the fragments into a specimen that a scientist can research or a member of the public can view, is the work of fossil preparators. Many of these preparators are volunteers without scientific credentials, working long hours to assemble the fossils on which scientific knowledge of the prehistoric world is built. In this episode we speak with social scientist and University of Virginia professor Caitlin Donahue Wylie, who takes us inside the paleontology lab to uncover a complex world of status hierarchies, glue controversies, phones that don’t work—and, potentially, a way to open up the scientific enterprise to far more people.
- Read Caitlin Donahue Wylie’s article, “What Fossil Preparators Can Teach Us About More Inclusive Science.”
- Check out her book, Preparing Dinosaurs: The Work behind the Scenes, which is available for open access.
Jason Lloyd: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University. I’m Jason Lloyd, the managing editor of Issues. On this episode, I’m talking with Caitlin Wylie. She’s an assistant professor of science, technology, and society at the University of Virginia. She wrote an essay for the fall 2021 Issue called “What Fossil Preparators Can Teach Us About More Inclusive Science.” And she recently wrote a book, Preparing Dinosaurs: The Work Behind the Scenes, published by MIT Press, which is about the workers in fossil preparation labs and their often unacknowledged contributions to science. So Caitlin, thank you very much for joining us today on our podcast.
Caitlin Wylie: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Lloyd: You wrote a fantastic piece for the fall Issue about preparing dinosaurs and what the role of fossil preparators is in paleontology research. So I thought a good place to start might be if you could talk a little bit about Keith, who’s one of the fossil preparators you describe in your essay.
Wylie: Yeah, thanks. So Keith—and that’s not his name, that’s a pseudonym—he is a volunteer at a museum and he works in the fossil prep lab. And he’s a pretty typical volunteer in the sense that he’s retired. He was self-employed, so he ran a business for most of his career. He’s a veteran. And for him, the point of being in a lab was really to be able to contribute something back to society—which is interesting, because usually when we retire, we think we’ve done enough for society. But he was really attached to the idea that he was serving science by preparing fossils. And of course, volunteering in a lab is different from volunteering as a museum docent, say, or at a soup kitchen, because the work of preparing fossils is really skillful. So Keith had to invest a lot of time learning how to work with these specimens under the guidance of more experienced preparators. And once he put the time in, he was showing up every day, sometimes putting in a full work day just because he found it so satisfying and rewarding.
Lloyd: I’m curious how Keith got interested in this job. Was he really into paleontology? Was he a frequent museum goer? What was the initial reason that he did this in retirement?
Wylie: It’s interesting because a lot of volunteers say, “I’ve always loved dinosaurs. I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was a kid.” But Keith was unusual in that he did not love dinosaurs. He wasn’t all that interested in dinosaurs. But he was very good with his hands. He really liked doing home improvement projects. He was into carpentry as a hobby, and he liked the idea of working in a lab where the tools are tools that he’s familiar with: basic hammers and chisels and little drills. And he found that setting very familiar and comforting.
So for him, it wasn’t so much about the dinosaurs as about the work itself. He often said that he found it relaxing. He was scheduled to come like, I don’t know, Mondays and Wednesdays every week. And then sometimes he would show up on a Thursday and the staff preparators would say, “Hey Keith, what are you doing here?” And he would say, “Well, I did all of my chores at home and I ran out of things to do, so here I am.” But for him it was really a place to go. He had a lot of friends among the other volunteers. He loved to talk to the staff preparators. So for him, the community aspect was strong and the tools were something that he loved, but not so much the science, which is interesting.
Lloyd: So what did he do as a volunteer preparator? What was he doing?
Wylie: Yeah. So the staff preparators would assign volunteer preparators a bone, and that would be their bone until it was finished. And that’s a really important way of training volunteers, that they really do a bone from start to finish and see all of the steps along the way. So I followed Keith because I was following the bone that he was working on, which was a vertebra of a hadrosaur, which is like the cow of the dinosaur era. They’re pretty common, and the vertebra he was working on was broken into several pieces. So basically he was handed this field jacket, and he had to dig the rock out and find out where the fossil was in all of this wrapping that they’ve put around it to protect it on the journey to the museum.
And then once he did that, he put it under a microscope and used what’s called an air scribe, it’s pneumatic, an air-powered sort of hammer and chisel type thing. It’s basically a little drill, handheld, to get the rest of the rock off the bone so that you could see the surface. And then he moved into a reconstruction phase where he had all these bits of dinosaur bone, and he was trying to piece them together to make the vertebra look more like it would in life. For that, he used a variety of different glues and adhesives—which is something that fossil preparators care about a lot. Glue is absolutely central to vertebra paleontology because the specimens are always fragmentary because of the process of fossilization.
You can’t really follow a bone without following the person who’s working on it. So I sat next to Keith for a lot of hours as he was chipping the rock off or trying to piece bits together and telling me what he’s working on. He would narrate while I was watching.
Lloyd: When he gets the jacket and starts opening it up and trying to find the fossil inside, is it fairly clear what’s bone and what’s not, or is that part of the skillset of the preparator?
Wylie: That is a crucial skillset of the preparator. So no, it’s often not at all clear what is fossil and what is rock. Because, of course, the fossil and the rock, the fossil is rock. They’re made of the same minerals. The bone has been replaced with minerals over millions of years. And so they are, materially, often identical. Sometimes there’s a difference in color, which is very helpful. Sometimes there’s a slight difference in texture. And of course, bones are porous when rocks are usually not. So if you see little bumps or little holes in the specimen, you know that’s bone and you’ve gone too far because you’ve penetrated into the inner bone instead of the surface.
Usually to become a preparator, you have to pass what they call the “prep test,” where you walk into the lab as an applicant and they hand do a crappy fossil, usually a fish or something that museums have a lot of and is not very scientifically important. And they hand you a tool and they say, “Take the rock off,” with no training. And if you pass that—basically if you don’t damage the fossil—then they’ll take you on and train you. And they think that that prep test is testing for certain innate skills that you have to have to be a fossil preparator that you cannot learn. Isn’t that fascinating?
Lloyd: Yeah. That’s really interesting. What are those innate things that they think this tests for?
Wylie: Attention to detail, manual dexterity, so like fine motor skills, and patience. Are you willing to work really slowly? And basically, if the applicant passes, then they start the process of training with the staff preparators, where basically they just get another fossil to work on and the staff preparator checks in on them a bunch to see how they’re doing and give them advice. So for example, I’ve seen preparators use a Sharpie to mark the rock, to show the volunteer what to remove, to show them the distinction between the fossil and the bone. And through instruction like that and through lots of time spent staring at these materials, that’s how volunteers learn how to distinguish fossil from rock.
Lloyd: You mentioned adhesives before, and those sound extremely important for reconstructing a fossil. And one of the things that I found really interesting—I don’t think you mentioned it in the essay, but you do talk about it a bit in your book—is that different institutions and different places have different cultures around the kind of adhesive they use and whether they use it or not. Could you talk a little bit about that? This gets to maybe how you got interested in this subject when you were studying abroad in the United Kingdom, right?
Wylie: Totally. Yeah, thanks. The cyanoacrylate controversy was a massive disagreement—continues to be a massive disagreement among the community of fossil preparators. Cyanoacrylate is the chemical name for super glue. It bonds two bones together in an instant, and then you can’t take it off, you can’t dissolve it. And some preparators think that’s great, because it’s really strong and it works fast. You don’t have to wait for it. And their thought is, “I’ve put this piece together perfectly. Why would anyone ever want to take it apart?” So that’s the camp that really believes strongly in cyanoacrylate. It tends to be a more American-heavy camp. And the opposing view is the idea, borrowed from conservators, that all materials put on a specimen and should be removable. The conservation-minded camp argues for adhesives that are basically based on solvents, so you can re-dissolve them if you wanted to take them off and actually remove the chemicals altogether. But those take a long time because for them to adhere, the solvent has to evaporate. So you have to sit there and hold the bits of bone together in a precise location while it dries. And it’s not as strong as cyanoacrylate.
I learned about those two opposing views because I was a student preparator at the University of Chicago, and I was taught to use cyanoacrylate—probably because I was working on not very important bones, right? I was a student, I was learning. And so probably no one ever will take those bones apart. And then as you said, I volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London for a semester. And they were, like, appalled that I asked for cyanoacrylate, and they introduced me to this other family of adhesives which are solvent-based.
I found them really hard to work with because they were so different from cyanoacrylate, in terms of how you line up the joints and how you apply them. In college, I just constantly had glue on my fingers. My fingers were just permanently super glued. And so for that not to be a part of fossil preparation, I struggled to learn that. That made me wonder, how can fossils be prepared in such different ways—and be compared and studied in the same ways? And none of that preparation work is documented in scientific papers. It’s beginning to be documented in specimen records, but even that is not universal. So it just blew my mind that the work of making a fossil researchable could be so different in the United States versus the United Kingdom and other places. And yet, the fossils are considered basically the same kinds of data.
Lloyd: Yeah. Actually, that really segues really well into the preparator’s role in research. So as the preparators work in putting together fossils, what role is that playing in paleontological research?
Wylie: So you might think that scientists would prepare their own specimens. And this is true in paleoanthropology, because there are so few fossils of human ancestors that scientists do prepare them themselves. But for vertebrate paleontology, there’s so many vertebrates compared to hominins that the bulk of it is just too much. It would take scientists forever to prepare the specimens and study them. It’s not sustainable in that sense, so they needed a division of labor.
The interesting thing about vertebrate paleontology is that the division of labor is so strong. Very few vertebrate paleontologists know how to prepare a fossil. They automatically take it to a preparator and preparators, the vast majority, have no idea how to study a fossil. I guess they would know what species they’re working on, but they don’t know how to identify species versus one species versus another. They don’t see that as relevant to the work they’re doing of revealing that specimen. And so that’s the part that I find really interesting, that that division is so strong even though they’re working on the same specimen. The handoff between fossil preparation and fossil research is a clean break. No pun intended.
Lloyd: Yeah. That’s really interesting. How do preparators talk about what they do?
Wylie: They say that they are serving science. They take a very long-term view, and they see that as their responsibility, to take a long-term view of the benefit, or the protection of, the specimen itself. They consider themselves advocates for the fossils, sometimes against their bosses. Scientists are the ones who hire staff preparators and pay for them through their grants or through institutional funds. So technically, the preparators work for the scientists. But preparators would say that they work for science in general. So not just this scientist who needs the fossil tomorrow to write a paper, they’re in a big hurry to publish or perish. Whereas preparators would say, “No, I need more time to prepare this fossil well,” or “I need more time to prepare it in a way that is conservation friendly so that the fossil lasts for another generation and isn’t just useful for you tomorrow.” So in some ways, fossil preparators are like the mediators between the specimens and the scientists, even though they’re all arguably working towards the same goal, which is learning about the distant past.
Lloyd: I’m interested in the disagreements that occur. I think you mentioned this in the book, that occasionally scientists will not allow a preparator to look at a jacket or an unprepared fossil yet, or vice versa. The preparator will keep a specimen from the scientist until he or she is ready to hand it off. Do those disagreements, those kinds of conflicts, occur frequently, or is that a pretty rare occasion?
Wylie: That’s a good question. The disagreements arise when preparators do research and when researchers do preparation. So there’s very much a territorial sense. That’s when they get upset. For example, in one lab, there was a scientist who would sneak into the lab at lunchtime when nobody was there and work on fossils. And he found it relaxing and just described it as like, “I just needed something brainless to do,” which is pretty offensive to the preparators.
And so the preparators installed locks on the specimen drawers so that he couldn’t get the specimens out, because he was hurting them. He was causing damage and, mostly, he was insulting the preparators by invading their territory. And the reverse happened too, in the sense that I talked to preparators who wanted to do research on fossils, like to write a paper describing a new species or comparing species, and their bosses, the scientists, would say, “No, that’s not your job.”
Some preparators got pretty dressed down by their bosses, yelled at. Others got fired for doing too much research. That wasn’t considered part of their job. And so the disagreements are very unequal in the sense that scientists have more power than preparators do. So preparators can’t fire our scientist for coming into the lab and breaking a specimen by trying to prepare it. But of course, scientists can fire a preparator. So yeah, they do a lot of work—both groups do a lot of work to distinguish themselves from each other, if you see what I mean. So yeah, that’s one way in which they do it is those conflicts.
Lloyd: Yeah. And that brainless comment made by the researcher sort of hints at the larger power dynamics. But just to get into that, how does the scientist conceive of what the preparator is doing? How do they describe what the volunteers are up to?
Wylie: Yeah. The difference in language here is really interesting. Often, scientists will say that preparators are cleaning fossils. And cleaning’s pretty easy, right? Anybody could wipe the dust off a countertop. And preparators never say that they’re cleaning fossils. They say that they’re preparing fossils, or sometimes they say that they’re sculpting fossils because those micro-decisions of “what is rock” and “what is fossil” feel like they’re sculpting or they’re creating. And those are really different ways of talking about this work, in the sense of the scientists kind of dismissing it as merely technical or grunt work that anybody could do, whereas preparators are likening it to art, which is much higher status than technical work.
Lloyd: That really gives you a sense of the hierarchies in the lab. So just to describe that hierarchy with some specificity, am I right in thinking that volunteer preparators are the lowest status and then there’s staff preparators and then it’s the research scientist, the paleontologists themselves? Is that sort of the general order?
Wylie: Officially, yeah. So in a museum, in the list of job titles and salaries, yeah, that’s the order. And sort of formal institutional power, yeah. In practice, it really depends on the context. For example, when fossils get broken—often by scientists who are trying to study them, and these fossils are super heavy and super fragile and they break under their own weight, so it might not even be a mishandling. But if a scientist breaks a fossil, it’s amazing how the power dynamic immediately shifts to the preparator. So then whatever the preparator says is going to happen. So the preparer might say, “I’m just going to glue this for you right now and give it back and you can keep working on it,” or the preparator might say, “You mishandled handled this. You can’t study it anymore.” Which is amazing, right? Very different from the formal hierarchy of the scientists having power over the technicians. So in case, preparators have that much power because they are the only ones who know how to fix that broken fossil.
The other case in which preparators have power is over the volunteers. So the scientists usually say, “The volunteers are not my problem.” And so it falls to the preparators to train them, select them, manage them as a workforce. And actually, that’s an incredible amount of power for technicians. And especially for technicians who don’t have standard credentials or a shared degree. In that sense, I think that volunteers are a major source of empowerment for preparators. And it also means that the preparators are in charge in the lab. Deciding what preparation methods to use totally falls to the preparators, scientists have no say in that. Partly as a power thing—preparators would never listen to a scientist who said, “You must use this tool,” because it’s not their expertise—and partly as a knowledge thing, that scientists really don’t know which tool to use. They wouldn’t know what recommendation to make.
So in that sense, preparators have a lot of power within their domain of the lab, over the other workers, volunteers, over how they’re going to prepare those specimens. And so then the power that scientist have really comes down to funding and what specimens the preparators are working on. So the scientists say, “I really want to study this bone. I need it in six months to write this paper.” And then the preparators do whatever they think is best to achieve that scientist’s goals.
Lloyd: So do the staff preparators, the paid preparators, do they have similarly varied backgrounds to the volunteer preparators, or do they have generally more a scientific background or a post-secondary degree in some sort of science?
Wylie: Yes. All of those things. Almost all preparators start as volunteers, which is interesting because the number of volunteers who become preparators is very small, percentage wise. But almost all of the staff preparators begin as volunteers and get that early training and exposure. Some of them have PhDs in paleontology, some of them have PhDs in literature. Some of them have only a high school education. It’s a really wide variety.
Lloyd: Does that very general hierarchy apply throughout paleontology, or do different institutions or maybe different kinds of institutions, such as museum labs versus university research labs, are there differences there? Or is it generally pretty much the same?
Wylie: It’s pretty much the same. I studied 14 labs in three countries. About half were in museums and about half were in university labs, and it seemed pretty much the same. The major difference was the number of workers. Generally, museums have a larger staff of everybody, more scientists, more preparators, more volunteers, whereas university research labs might only have one or two preparators. And they’re generally doing more specialized work. A scientist might only study fossil lizards, and then that lab’s only going to work on fossil lizards. The university ones tend to be more specialized in that sense.
There’s a slight difference in responsibilities towards the public. In universities, preparators work with grad students. Not necessarily to teach them how to prepare, but more to prepare specimens for them. And then in museums, preparators are somewhat responsible for the mission of the museum, as are all the staff, which is outreach and education. So they do a lot of lab tours. Training the volunteers is a form of outreach. I think if you work in a research lab, a university lab, you probably do less outreach and a little more work with students than in a museum lab. But yeah, those are the main differences.
And also, there are a couple of labs in museums that are for demonstration only. They’re not specifically research labs, and those are really different from taking a lab and just turning the walls into windows, which is the basis of most of the glass-walled labs that I studied. But there are a couple where they just have a couple of tools lying around, a couple of junky fossils. And they prepare them to show groups of school children, for example, as a demonstration, rather than actually preparing the specimens to be studied.
Lloyd: Oh, okay. That’s interesting. They’re like ersatz labs that are only for showing kids how it works.
Wylie: Yeah. So that’s more of a traditional display as opposed to an actual workplace that you can watch.
Lloyd: But there are some museum labs that are sort of fishbowl glass-walled labs, where the preparators are actually doing research and the public can see them doing what they’re doing.
Wylie: Totally. And I would say that’s the majority.
Lloyd: Okay. How do preparators feel? Do they like being on display in that sense, or are they annoyed by the attention, or do they just not really even think about it and get used to having people looking over their shoulder?
Wylie: It depends. A lot of the volunteers really like it. They like to be seen as someone who gets to work in a science lab. So they’ll wave at kids through the windows, or sometimes they’ll go outside and chat with visitors and stop working and take a break and serve as a public face of the lab. But staff preparators generally think it’s a drag, right? They’re in this business because they want to work with fossils. I don’t think I’ve ever met an extroverted fossil preparator. They really prefer the sort of solitary, focused work and they do outreach, like working in the glass-walled lab, as kind of a chore, as a service, but not as their favorite thing, for sure. And almost all museums that have glass-walled labs also have backstage labs, behind-the-scenes labs, and that’s usually where staff work.
And then it’s often the volunteers who are out in the public-facing lab. Part of that is because staff preparators are working on more complicated and more important fossils, so it’s just easier to do that in a place that’s quiet and has ideal air filtration and all the noisy tools that aren’t allowed on the museum floor, for example. I heard a couple of stories from labs that had been designed so that visitors and preparators could talk. So visitors could ask a question while a preparator’s working. And almost every single lab then removed that feature because it meant that the preparators were just answering questions all day long and not preparing fossils. And they found that infuriating. So yeah, lots of these labs have a telephone on the wall that doesn’t work or it used to connect into the lab.
Lloyd: It’s really fascinating that the most public-facing aspect of this research that occurs in museums would be enacted by these folks who are essentially members of the public themselves. They don’t necessarily have specialized scientific credentials, and they’re on a volunteer basis, and they’re the closest to the public. That just seems really interesting. Do they see themselves as sort of citizen scientists? That’s a very broad movement that comprises a lot of different sorts of research and people. But I wonder if they’re sort of enveloped in that broader movement to open up science a little bit more to the public.
Wylie: I think so. I don’t think they would identify as citizen scientists. They describe themselves as volunteers because most of them, like Keith, see themselves as distanced from the science. So they’re serving science, or they’re doing this work to help out scientists or to help out the museum, but they don’t see themselves as researchers. And most of them are like, “Why would I want to be a researcher?” They’re kind of dismissive of the very idea. And Keith would say things like, “I like working alongside people who are furthering the world of knowledge, and I’m just along for the ride.” And so there’s this sense of being science-adjacent that people like, rather than actually doing research.
Lloyd: That’s an interesting conception of their role. When the average, I don’t know if you studied this, when the average museum goer goes and sees this person working in a glass-walled lab, who do they think that person is? Do they think that that’s the paleontologist, or do they know what’s going on in the lab? Maybe this gets to why they were installing telephones that no longer work to ask them questions. Do you think the public has a sense of who these folks are and what they’re doing?
Wylie: No, they don’t. I thought a lot about what these labs are doing, because there are text panels around these labs and they say things like, “This is an air scribe, this is a microscope.” None of them, I never saw a sign that said, “These are volunteers. If you want to volunteer, take this flyer.” I never saw a recruitment form, I never saw any information about who these people were or what they were doing. So yes, I would stand outside the lab and eavesdrop on visitors to try to understand what they thought this was. And they would mostly say things like, “Look at the scientists” or, “Are those robots?”
Lloyd: Like at Disney World?
Wylie: Exactly, because that’s what you expect to see in a museum. You don’t expect to see people at work. And of course, fossil preparators don’t move very much. The movements they’re making are very small, so you can believe that it’s not a person, it’s a stuffed model or something. The conclusion I came to about the purpose of these labs is partly that they’re a scientific workplace. Volunteers are producing specimens that are going to be studied, in most cases. And the other function they serve I think is to show that a museum is a home of research. So we might think of museums as being a home of just dead stuff and finished facts written on these authoritative text panels. But actually, they’re housing a lot of research, and this is one way to show visitors this is a research lab. Research is a process, research is work, research is done by ordinary looking people wearing jeans and drinking coffee and chatting.
So it’s a pretty different front portrayal of science from the rest of a typical natural history museum. And the coolest part about it, I think, is that again, the text panels don’t really explain what the preparators are doing. They’re usually about the specimens or the tools, not about the people. And so I think that creates an opportunity for visitors to actually practice skills of scientific meaning making. You’re making observations, you’re trying to make sense of what you’re seeing. You’re asking yourself questions, “What are they doing? Who are these people?” And then you’re drawing conclusions. And that’s what scientists do. I think that’s what museums want to be teaching the public, is how to think like a scientist.
In that sense, these labs are very good for that because people don’t understand what’s going on. And the funny thing is that sometimes their conclusions are not what the preparators or the scientists would intend for their conclusions to be. I heard one woman approach one of these labs with a little kid and she said to the little kid, with great excitement, “Look, people making fossils.” So no scientist, no preparator would ever say they’re making a fossil. But yeah, you can understand why she got that idea, right? There’s plaster everywhere, there’s tools all over the place. You could totally understand why she would think that. And that’s drawing an evidence-based conclusion.
Lloyd: I did not realize that about the signs around the glass-walled labs, that they just don’t even mention who’s in there. It’s just maybe the tools that they’re using. But that does get to one of the things that you talk about where the preparators get very little, if any, credit for their work anywhere. And one of the things you talk about is potentially doing, in order to give credit, potentially provide some authorship to papers or to research papers that the scientists have written or, even just acknowledging them in the methods section. And I was wondering, is that a moral stance, or would that have some effect on the research itself or the products of research?
Wylie: Yeah, that’s a great questions. So I started this project from a Marxist perspective where I’m like, I’m going to go empower the proletariat, these oppressed workers who get no credit. And I very quickly abandoned that perspective because I realized how much power preparators actually have. They control the volunteer workforce. In effect, they control the space of the lab and the work that happens there and the decisions that go into each fossil. They choose their tools, they choose their materials. And so I started to think that actually being missing from scientific papers provides that space for preparators to have autonomy over their work and their workforce. And so I was thinking, there’s some evidence that as things become documented, as work becomes documented, then surveillance increases.
The classic example is nursing. 50 years ago, nurses pretty much did their own work because they were trusted as experts and professionals. And then as more and more documentation became common in the medical workplace, nurses lost some of that autonomy. So instead of saying, “I checked on the patient,” you had to document how you checked on it and what measurements you took, and so it lost that space for creative problem solving and judgment because it was becoming more documented. I worry that adding preparators to papers might increase scientists’ involvement in fossil prep decisions, which actually would be bad news for the preparators because that’s their main area of power. So I’m not sure that authorship is the right answer.
What I do think should be transparent is preparation methods. And preparators agree with me on this, and they really push each other to improve their documentation practices because it’s not a typical, traditional part of their work. For example, certain glues will screw up geochemical tests. So if you try to carbon date a fossil that has cyanoacrylate on it, it’s not going to work.
So that’s important to know for a scientist in 50 years who wants to date a particular specimen, and they have no idea what glue is in there—that’s going to impact what tests they can do. Keeping track of those kinds of materials and also who prepared it, because preparator skills are really different, and their decisions are really different, I think would be an awesome contribution to science, as part of the metadata of that specimen. And it would serve as a form of recognition, right? So if it’s in an institutional database of each specimen that includes the name of the preparator and all the materials they used and when it was prepared, that would make the preparator’s work look more legitimate, I think, more respectable, more scientific in a sense. But it would protect them from the surveillance that might come from being part of scientific papers.
Lloyd: Yeah. That’s really fascinating. I didn’t know that that would be a concern. It makes sense. And actually, that nursing example is helpful to extrapolate a little bit beyond the focus of your research: Are there positions comparable to fossil preparators in other fields? Nursing wouldn’t be one of them, they’re very specialized with a great deal of education. But I’m just thinking of other fields that may have people who come in on a volunteer basis, or maybe don’t have a scientific background, and do similarly very critical work for the research.
Wylie: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I would argue that the skill-based nature of research is ubiquitous, widespread. Even scientists have embodied skills of doing experiments, for example, that they don’t really describe. They get written out of papers that the rest of us outsiders wouldn’t know about. So the dependence of science on skill, I think, is ubiquitous. But the lack of credentials is really unusual in science. Lots of sciences have a history of lots of amateur participation—think of anything from natural history, botany, mycology, people who collect fungus as a hobby or people who study astronomy as a hobby. Those are very long histories of public involvement, but most of those fields have now specialized or credentialed those positions. And so now, if you like to look at the stars in your backyard, you’re not going to be considered a contributor to science; that’s your hobby.
I think preparators are not amateurs because they’re part of an institution. They’re working in a museum, they’re working in a research lab. Even if they’re volunteers, I would say they’re not amateurs because they’re not doing it on their own. I guess I would love for other scholars to tell me whether this position for people with a wider background, wider variety of backgrounds, exists in other fields, because I suspect that it does.
And one way which I know it does is with undergraduates. We all think that undergraduate research experience is a good thing for students. I’ve done a lot of research on undergraduate engineers, and I’m finding that it’s actually an excellent thing for the labs that these undergraduates work in, because undergrads bring this very interdisciplinary mindset that the grad students and the professors don’t tend to have, because they’re so much more specialized, right? They’ve had so much more education in engineering than the undergrads. So in that sense, the undergrads are kind of playing the role of preparators in the sense that they’re bringing in outside information, they’re having a different approach to problems that the professors think about in a very specific way.
Lloyd: So what would that look like, if there was a bigger focus on skills, maybe, rather than credentials, at different levels of the scientific enterprise, if you had to guess?
Wylie: I know, right. I’m a professor in an engineering school, so I hate to make this argument, but if we broaden paths to doing scientific work, that can only be a good thing. So I’m not arguing against STEM education, but education in science and engineering has a long history of discrimination and exclusion. I hope that we all will someday overcome that. That day is not today, it’s an ongoing process of making science and engineering education available to anybody. And so in the meantime, yeah, I think it would be awesome for science to include more kinds of people as volunteers, as technicians, as people watching from the outside—even that is a way of extending science beyond the lab. And I think this is good for people to participate in science, to learn that it’s not as elite and exclusive as it might seem, because that spreads scientific literacy. It spreads a sense of appreciation for science. It makes public trust in science stronger if people understand that science is just work done by people. It’s not magic.
And the other crucial thing it would do, I think, if we had a more diverse workforce in science, would be to bring ideas to scientists that are different. So to expose scientists to people who have backgrounds very different from theirs, which will bring in new skills that science, at the moment, doesn’t have or new ideas or new ways of understanding things that will improve the science for all of us. And crucially, watching the scientists chat with the preparators and chat with the volunteers, there’s a lot of knowledge exchange that happens just by having people around, hanging out together in the same space, talking about the same bone, people share a lot of knowledge.
And I think that that information sharing can help scientists learn to ask more relevant research questions. So for example, how can they use fossils to study how species adapt to climate change? Something that is crucial to our world now. How can they use fossils to study how environments change over time or change in response to rapid flooding, natural disasters, widespread wildfires, things that we’re experiencing that paleontology actually has enormous insights to offer? But I’m not sure those are the questions that scientists would come up with on their own. I think they need our help.
Lloyd: That’s a fantastic message for inspiring people to get more involved. So thank you for joining us for this episode of The Ongoing Transformation and thank you to our guest, Caitlin Wylie, for talking to us about the work fossil preparators do behind the scenes. Check out the show notes to find links to her Issues article, “What Fossil Preparators Can Teach Us About More Inclusive Science,” and to her book, Preparing Dinosaurs: The Work Behind the Scenes.
Please email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions. And if you enjoy conversations like this one, you should visit us at issues.org for many more discussions and articles. And I encourage you to subscribe to our print magazine, which is filled with incredible art, poetry, interviews, and in-depth articles. I’m Jason Lloyd, managing editor of Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for joining us.