Thursday, June 7, 2018

Rocking On In Career Transition

Hello Dear Readers!

Whenever I'm asked, "Do you want the good news or the bad news?" I choose to receive the bad news first. There are two reasons for this. One, I want to know the exact nature of the challenge I must face. This appeals to the collections manager in me, as a lot of what I did as a collections manager involved picturing plausible threats to the fossils for which I am a steward, and then doing my best to mitigate those threats. Two, I am pretty good at turning the good news I receive second into an opportunity to mitigate the bad news. So for this particular post about my in-progress transitioning from Collections Manager & Curator to ????, I'm going to start with the "bad news."

There is still no long-term solution for the continuation of the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre since the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation's (our parent non-profit organization) funding for 2018 was denied by the District of Tumbler Ridge in March.

This is the definite low point of the year for paleontology in our part of the world (northeast British Columbia), and this particular low point brought friends. The first Low-Point Tag-Along is the imminent threat to the continuation of the fossil archives (a.k.a. collections) at the PRPRC. Anyone who follows my Twitter account (@Lisavipes) has seen me tweet with some ferocity and vigor on the importance of stable, well-supported natural heritage archives. This isn't for self-serving reasons: museum archives are still poorly understood and little appreciated by the public (although I see this changing) and by the administrators who decide which areas of museum life get support (that I do not see changing as quickly as I would like).

I'll share one of my Twitter threads on the importance of supporting natural heritage archives here.
This tweet and the associated thread describe why the collections are the foundation of a museum's activities: educational outreach, high-profile research, student opportunities, marketing, displays. Sure, you can have an interpretive center that shows some nice displays of, say, birds in your area (also part of our natural heritage), but all of the information that goes along with the visual imagery of the display originates from research and a collections facility.

(Anyone familiar with my Twitter feed also knows that I communicate in gifs. True Story.)
The "who what where when why and how" of those birds was figured out from a bird scientist (a.k.a ornithologist) looking at birds in the wild and in a museum's collections. Collections don't just preserve individual specimens: they preserve patterns. Collections reveal to you what birds were once common in an area, but are no longer common. Collections reveal that what we thought was one bird was actually two really similar-looking species after the genetic information was studied. Collections preserve specimens collected throughout the years so we can see what toxins might be contributing to the decline of a bird species.

What us scientists call research is really just us figuring out the detailed story of the critters that we study. The collections are the library of ideas and information that make the story (scientific papers, displays, educational programming) possible.
We don't really describe the step-by-step detail of how discoveries are made. We usually present the Highlights version of the journey because, let's be brutally honest here, reading about the step-by-step, day-to-day grind of data collection, data analysis, surveying, etc. would be a tedious read. When I was a graduate student, our lab would informally hold a "Tedious-Off" competition. The person doing the most tedious task to tell the story of their fossil research would "win." There were no prizes, but we did get to share with our colleagues some of the slogging that we did to get from idea to science story. Common Tedious-Off entries were editing noise out of 3D model images, finding the one bad data entry in a spreadsheet of 10,000 entries, and counting all of the bumps on the cutting surface of a theropod tooth (that one never won, because we were looking at an actual specimen so that was still cool.) TL:DR is that collecting information and getting the story ready to tell isn't all excitement and surprised gasping at discoveries.
When I document fossil bird footprints on rock slabs, it's a pretty mellow scene.

Take a look at the above picture. This is a small part of the large bird and dinosaur track surface of the Gajin-ri Track Site in South Korea. The paleontologists who study this site made a trackway map (basically a drawing of all of the footprints as they appear on the surface) by spending hundreds of hours crouched on the surface finding and tracing each individual footprint in low-angle light. This is the standard operating procedure for studying small tracks. I've spent many a day in collections, pitch black save for one lamp, lying on foam pads on the concrete floor as I trace out bird tracks and invertebrate burrows on to plastic sheets.

I can't speak for everyone, but for myself, I am not looking for a new discovery when I'm documenting tracks. I'm simply transcribing what I see on to plastic and paper. It's only when I keep seeing the same "different" thing over and over that my brain starts to think "Hey, that's odd. something's going on here." It's not scientific montage process typically shown in movies, where scientists are looking for X, struggle to find X, and then - against all odds - find X. Perhaps this is why collections do not receive the respect they deserve: their use (except for display specimens: those are part of the collections) is behind the scenes and progress is careful and slow.

A curiosity question for me: is there anyone out there that would truly be interested in seeing an unedited video of a researcher like a paleontologist doing the Tedious-Off portion of their work? My working hypothesis is that the answer to that question will be chirping crickets.

When I gave the occasional tour of the collections facility, there are one of two reactions:

"Oh my God this is so important! Look at all of our heritage!"


"So how can we make money off of this?"

Maia demonstrating the Head Blanket, because sometimes Head Desk is too hard.
When I attempt to explain to this type of responder with how collections are the source of the displays and discoveries, I see eyes glaze over. I have not yet found the right combination of words that can break through this attitude.

As a result, I am now faced with the very real scenario of having to find a stable home for the fossil archives. We do not "own" the fossils. The town does not "own" the fossils. They are technically the property of the Province of British Columbia, and my colleague (and fellow termination notice holder) and I are the qualified stewards of the fossils.

The second Bad News Tag-Along is that there will be no paleontology field exploration done this summer. One misconception that I encounter is that field paleontology is cheap/free to do. This might be because the field survey methods are not necessarily high-tech. Fuel to get to field sites costs money. If you find something large, moving that specimen costs money. Also, our time has a cost associated with it. Just as artists can't pay the bills using Exposure Bucks, paleontologists can't pay the bills using Excitement of Discovery Bucks. And no, despite what people believe, making big discoveries does not make it easier to find funding to continue work. Media exposure =/= money in paleontology.

So, those are the Bad News items. Now on to the Good News items.

1. Tomorrow is my one year Bird Glamourversary! To celebrate this milestone in my journey as a science communicator, I will be launching a Bird Glamour YouTube channel that will combine me applying the Bird Glamour looks with cool facts about the featured bird! Once the link is live I will include it in this blog post!

UPDATE: Here is the link to the Bird Glamour YouTube channel!

2. I am working on two non-fiction book proposals! One book is purely in the proposal stage, while the other book has a couple of sample chapters already written. When I feel a bit more certain about the process and the progress, I'll talk about those projects here!

3. I am collecting the information I need for gaining certification as a professional geoscientist in British Columbia. It's a long process, but with the combination of schooling and 15 years of experience as an active paleontologist, I think that I have a great chance at succeeding.

4. I will be working on some post-secondary program development. Once the details of that project are ironed out, I can talk a bit more about the projects.

5. Of course, I am applying for jobs. I'm constantly reminding myself that it is not my job to tell myself I'm not right for a posted position...within reason, of course: I'm not going to apply for a physics or a botany position. I am making a conscious effort not to select myself out of potential opportunities.

That is my life in the sciences at this point in time! I am excited that I have the opportunity to explore options and opportunities within science communication through Bird Glamour and book writing.  Who knows where these opportunities will lead?


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