Hi everyone! For this month’s Paleo-Interview, we’re excited to chat with the Paleontological Society social media guru, and paleontologist, Tara Lepore.
The interview below is a transcript of the audio file, edited for flow. In case you’re wondering, the Interviewer is none other than Ms. Lepore’s girlfriend, Jessi!
[Interviewer] Hi Ms. Lepore. Go ahead and tell us a little bit about your background in research and paleontology. How did you first become interested in the field and what are some of your favorite things to study right now?
– Hey everyone. That’s a great question. So, I’m Tara Lepore and I’m a research associate at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, and I’m also a high school teacher at The Webb Schools. The Webb Schools are a high school in Claremont, California; two schools lumped together into one in what’s called a coordinate model, we educate both coed and single-sex in our classes. It’s a fabulous independent school and we have the Alf Museum of Paleontology on campus.
To talk just little bit about my background and how I got to do what I’m doing now, originally I studied biology; I earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from UMass Amherst in 2006.
And then I spent some time in the working world. I worked in a pharmaceutical lab for a few years to save up money to go to grad school. After that point in time I moved out to Boulder, Colorado and pursued a master’s degree in museum and field studies in the University of Colorado program for museum and field studies, which is a great program, and graduated from that program in 2012. My research focus in both of those programs [undergraduate and graduate] was in trace fossils.
Trace fossils are any remnant of a living organism that tells us about its behavior. So, it might be a trackway. It might be something it left behind like fossil droppings. It might be a burrow. Anything that will tell us about more [about behavior] than just the skeleton of the organism. I worked on both trackways and fossil poop – which is awesome.
My current research in paleontology kinda has two different focuses. One is still in trace fossils where I still conduct research on trackways and fossil droppings.
And, I’m also tailoring a secondary side of research where I’m conducting work at a national monument that has been in the news recently. It’s called Bears Ears National Monument, and the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument are still under – well, a contested situation. We’ll just call it that, a situation.
So the fossils that I work on from Bears Ears in Utah are largely fossil teeth and also some tracks and some burrows from this area of protected land.
That’s kind of how I got to be where I am now and it’s also a little bit about what I’m currently working on plus what I’ve traditionally worked on. I really enjoy it – I love teaching.
I previously taught in two public high schools, so that was my first foray into public education whereas now I teach at a private school. I’ve also taught as a museum educator for a number of years in different museums, served as a GeoCorps intern at Fossil Butte National Monument, worked as a fossil mitigation paleontologist, and trained in fossil preparation and repair.
[Interviewer] Let’s dig into that education piece a little bit. You’ve done a lot within the realm of paleontology education. What’s up with paleontology education now? How are you involved in it? What is your favorite current project going on?
– I’m so glad that we could talk about paleontology education, because I think at so many different levels, science education is so critical for young people and for people at various points in their careers, whether we’re talking about paleontology education in the K through 12 – primary and secondary school – level or whether you’re discussing how paleontology is taught and innovated at the undergraduate or graduate school level or even in medical schools, how paleontology and this sense of deep time can be connected and evolutionary biology can be connected to the kinds of things that medical students also learn.
My area of expertise is in high school science education, so I’m really passionate about helping students recognize that even if they may not have been the strongest science student, or maybe their math skills aren’t the best, that they can still definitely find a way to be involved in science, in paleontology.
Paleontology’s a very interesting topic for a lot of students, so it gets them engaged very quickly. In relation to that there’s also the whole idea of field science or outdoor education where students are getting outside of their classroom, whether that’s in paleontology, or in another field where [students are] able to go outside and really do field work and really answer scientific questions out in the field. I think that that’s extremely important.
To that end, last August I was involved with co-leading the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Paleontology Education Workshop with some fabulous colleagues of mine. Our goal was to really open up a dialog about how paleontology is communicated, how paleontology is taught and get our minds wrapped around a set of best practices for paleontology education and science education in a number of different levels of teaching, whether that’s K through 12, undergrad, grad school, med school. And then, how do they all relate into one another, how can we help use the same kinds of skills and communicate with one another so that we’re really doing the best service [that we can] for all of our students.
There’s also a paleontology education Facebook group, which is a great forum for people to share ideas. We’re really hoping that paleontology education and science education in general can be something where people truly feel comfortable collaborating. Within the paleontology education group we have teachers in the K through 12, we have teachers at the college level, we have students who are interested in paleontology and we even have parents who are curious about how to get their own kids involved in paleontology. So it really runs at many different levels.
– [Interviewer] And you’re the founder of that group, right?
– Yes. I am the founder of the paleontology education group. We also have some really great admins and we all work together as a team, but it’s been really great to spearhead that kind of initiative.
– [Interviewer] That’s really exciting. You really are straddling two worlds between teaching at a high school and conducting paleontology research. So what is it like to straddle those two things and how does it look in your everyday life, and how do you see it progressing?
– Teaching science in a high school classroom, as many high school teachers know, really can be a roller coaster. And just like teaching at any level can be a series of logistic and emotional and practical, informational ups and downs, teaching at a high school level, I feel, is really special. [It’s not] without its challenges, but it’s special to me. Because it’s a great place where we can catch students at this formative age, where if you’re teaching younger students, say elementary or middle school students, you’re really teaching them at an age where they are still trying to figure out what they enjoy. Then at the high school level they’re looking ahead to college or a career and they’re really looking ahead to check in with themselves and say here’s what I’ve always thought I was good at, here’s what I always thought science meant to me.
So how can we reframe that and help students become confident science communicators, well rounded science-educated people and just everyday citizens in the world who are better informed about science. I think it’s important that no matter what level – or I don’t even wanna use the word level, because all educators are able to collaborate together – but in terms of age, whatever age range you’re teaching.
[It’s important to be able to] connect with other educators and learn what works best, and bring your research into the classroom. If you don’t conduct research, you’re able to communicate with researchers and even feel confident conducting some research of your own, whether it’s paleontological research, whether it’s education research and that sort of thing. So it’s, I think, opening the dialogue up and opening the conversation with researchers, and empowering teachers and educators of all levels to be researchers themselves. It’s really critical.
[Research is] also something that’s super easy to get passionate about, because as educators if you become more invested in the world of science research or even education research you really are giving yourselves the tools to know what to teach your students. It’s a really great feeling.
– [Interviewer] Beautiful. Let’s switch gears to the most important paleontology question. What is your favorite fossil and why?
– Picking your favorite fossil is like picking your favorite child. I don’t have children, but if I did it would be hard to choose which one was my favorite. I have a few favorites, but I’m probably going to have to choose, right? I have to choose?
– [Interviewer] You have to choose.
– The first fossil that came to mind is Archaeopteryx, the feathered dinosaur, kind of this emblem of the first bird, and I have a tattoo of it on my back; I know one of our previous interviewees also had this animal as her favorite fossil, but it’s just such an iconic fossil that I feel like it’s super important.
To me personally it symbolizes species undergoing change. It symbolizes, in a more broad philosophical sense, not being afraid of change, the fact that it’s always going to happen, so I really like Archaeopteryx.
I think it also helps symbolize realizations in science that help you connect to seemingly disparate ideas together, in this case are dinosaurs and birds related, and when those first conversations first started to happen it was really eye opening. Then as people started to really accept the idea of dinosaurs and birds being related, now we think of birds as – wow, these are living descendants of dinosaurs. In a sense, some things really never change, even if they might change outwardly.
– [Interviewer] Last question. If you could share any advice with people who are interested in becoming a paleontologist what would you tell them?
– I would say don’t be afraid of following your own path. Make sure that you are following the path that is right for you in your own time and as long as you’re happy doing what you do and you have passion to drive you then you’ll go really far in life and don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for help when you need it, because there are a lot of people out there who really wanna help.
– [Interviewer] Great; beautiful. Thank you so much Ms. Lepore. – Thanks everyone and don’t forget to follow us on Paleontology Education. Thanks so much for reading the Paleontological Society Blog. Bye for now.