This month’s paleo-interview is with Gabriel (Gabe) Santos, who is the Collections Manager and Outreach Coordinator for the Alf Museum in Claremont, California. He’s also the co-founder of Cosplay for Science, which has a goal of using cosplay (dressing up as popular characters) for science communication.
When did you first become interested in fossils and paleontology?
Like most children, I was fascinated with fossils and paleontology from a very young age. According to my family, my bedroom in my very early years was filled with dinosaur toys. It may be their fault, though, for taking me to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the La Brea Tarpits all the time. Though to be fair, it was pretty much in our backyard. Both are such amazing museums, and the Tarpits in particular really stand out in my memories as a place that made feel wonder and awe looking at these animals that are gone. Things that my eyes could never see alive. It was such a weird and consuming concept for me that it just took over my imagination.
There was also of course amazing dinosaur movies like The Land Before Time, We’re Back: A Dinosaur Story, and the best of all, Jurassic Park, that came out when I was a kid that definitely contributed to my interest in paleontology. All in all, I was most intrigued by the stories and untold stories that paleontology held. I love telling stories and creating worlds with my imagination, so an ancient world was perfect fodder to feed my very active imagination.
What do you enjoy the most about paleontology?
What I enjoy most about paleontology is the same thing that I enjoyed most when I was a kid. It’s all about the stories. Stories of an ancient world unseen by humans, stories of individual dinosaurs and the lives they led, stories about the old-time explorers discovering something unknown. All of these kinds of stories still infatuate my imagination to this day. Probably the best part about paleontology is that there are billions of years’ worth of stories left to tell, and as a paleontologist, I get the opportunity to tell some of them.
What’s your favorite fossil and why?
Anyone will tell you my favorite kind of fossils are desmostylian teeth. They are so weird! They look like a bunch of sushi rolls are squished together and there is really not much else like them. And again with my whole story thing that I have going on, we know very little about these animals whose teeth are actually quite common in the fossil record. So yeah, a weird animal with lots left to discover, of course it’s my favorite!
Given your experiences as a professional paleontologist, what advice would you have for people interested in working in paleontology in a variety of careers?
Probably the thing I tell most people interested in becoming a paleontologist is that there isn’t just one specific path to take. A career in paleontology is a winding and branching path that leads to many different destinations. So I say, be flexible and take time to explore these different paths a bit. Find the one that is best for you, because in the end, you want to enjoy your career, especially if you are a paleontologist. We have one of the best fields to have a job in! It should be fun overall.
Oh, and another thing: don’t be afraid or ashamed to have to take things slow or have to take a step back. We understand deep time, so taking more than a few years to finish a master’s degree or a project or a paper or whatever is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But then also don’t stall out on things. If a publication is taking 10 years to get started, maybe it’s time to pass it on to someone else.
You’ve had a number of experiences in education and outreach, including outreach outside of North America and in looking at paleontology education in new and exciting ways – we love Cosplay for Science! Why do you think it’s important for more people outside of academia to know about fossils and paleontology?
Thanks, I love Cosplay for Science too! It’s been such a fun project and the people we have met through it have really shown us the importance of understanding the different ways people connect with paleontology and science in general. We are humans and each and every one of us is a complex being with different backgrounds and what not. For many, practicing science just was not part of the game. But, science definitely plays a part in the many things we love. By helping people find the connection between science and the everyday parts of their lives that they love, perhaps we can open a door that help people to want to learn more about science, understand the need for critical thinking, be less afraid to ask questions about the world around, and maybe even build trust in scientists.