Thursday, July 29, 2010

Interview: Lindsay Zanno

Today, as part of Field Museum week, I'm very happy to present an interview with Dr. Lindsay Zanno, John Caldwell-Meeker Postdoctoral Fellow in the museum's geology department. After watching Waking the T. rex, I told my wife that I may have been the only person in the theater to think, "hey, there's Lindsay Zanno!" when she entered the frame, searching the desert for pieces of the Mesozoic.

Her profile may be low for now, but I suspect that her star will continue to rise as her career progresses: she was a natural on screen, and as you'll read, she's an enthusiastic, insightful ambassador of science. She gave her thoughts on the Field, Robo Sue, her doctoral advisor Scott Sampson, and her important work on North American therizinosaurs.

Can you tell us a bit about your own childhood experiences with museums, or any other formative experiences that encouraged your interest in natural history?

As a child I can remember visiting the American Museum of Natural History near my home in NY. It was a profound and wondrous experience, full of mysterious objects in looming glass cases. At the time I thought that to work there was the most venerable job to which one could aspire; and yet, I’d have to say my love for natural history stems from a deeper place. Put simply, I have a primal fascination with the ancient, an emotive connection with history (last week I had the immense pleasure of discovering a hand-forged tack in the 19th century sofa I am reupholstering and spent a few glorious moments imagining the workshop in which it was made and the man who hammered it in 150 years ago).

To my mind, fossils are the epitome of antiquity. Fossils illuminate a foreign world almost beyond human comprehension, yet incredibly accessible. You can stand where a tyrannosaur once stood, you can hold a dromaeosaur tooth that ripped the flesh of an unfortunate victim in your hand, and you never know what lies around the next hill waiting to be discovered. Therein lies the rub. It’s a simple draw to the antiquity and the wonderment of its history.

Had you been familiar with the Field Museum before you pursued your fellowship?

Yes of course! The Field Museum is a pillar of science and culture. It was founded on the idea that to educate the children of the Midwest about the natural world was a noble and paramount endeavor and it now continues that legacy by educating people all over the world about their past, present, and future.

Has working for the Field offered you any unique opportunities? What parts of their collections do you find most exciting?

Working at the Field is a great honor and not a day goes by that I don’t recognize it as a gift. The staff, scientists, and volunteers are extremely dedicated and exude a pure and contagious joy for their work. Being part of such a brilliant and talented team of individuals who strive every day to better understand the world we live in for the protection of our past and the uncertainty of our future is by far the grandest part. They are my favorite part of the museum’s “collections!”

Lindsay and Fossil Vertebrates Collections Manager Bill Simpson at a Waking the T. rex shoot. Photo credit: David Clark

What is your perspective on museum exhibits like "Robo Sue?" As a visitor, I have a pragmatic attitude towards them, though they're not really my cup of tea. Do you think that they have a real impact, positively or negatively?

Exhibits such as “Robo Sue” are not designed to educate the public and no doubt there are individuals who don’t favor the concept. To my mind the role of the modern museum is about more than just education and research, it’s also about inspiration. In our technologically frenzied and increasingly displaced world, inspiration brought on by tactile exploration, by physical interaction, is hard to come by. Many scientists that I know believe this is one of the greatest problems facing modern society—a disjunct with our own natural environment and I concur.

“Robo Sue” is intended to be an immersive experience; the point is to embrace visitors, allow them to step inside the Cretaceous for a moment and feel the enchantment. It may not transport everyone, but with a little bit of imagination, there is the great opportunity to ignite a fascination with the natural world.

You've done a lot of work on therizinosaurs. What brought you to their study and what questions about them do you most want to explore?

Therizinosaurs fell into my lap as a grad student and I knew very little about them. In fact, to be honest, I had never even heard of them! I had just graduated with a degree in biological anthropology and was a dinosaur neophyte. I feel terribly lucky to have been given the opportunity by Jim Kirkland and my advisor to work on a new species of therizinosaur from Utah and the more I studied the group the more interesting they became. Therizinosaurs are certainly oddballs in the “predatory” dinosaur world (in no small part because they were plant-eaters). I used to think this little incongruity set them apart from their maniraptoran cousins; however, my latest research supports the idea that plant-eating was widespread among maniraptorans and likely had a big impact on their evolutionary history. This is the aspect I am most interested in exploring.

Do you participate in the on-line science community (i.e. blogs, mailing lists, forums, open-source journals) at all? Do you feel that it's becoming an important part of the scientific dialogue?

Yes, somewhat on all counts. The on-line science community has its place but as I said I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to technology--we are a TV-free house and I only carry a cell-phone because it was gifted to me! I fear that technology is taking the place of real exploration. Open-source journals are surely a positive advance and the increased ease of communication with colleagues a benefit of mailing lists etc., but we should take care to get away from the computer screen now and then. Science is best done hands-on.

Do you think you'll stick with Mesozoic beasts or are you interested in other extinct animals?

Surely I am interested in life beyond the Mesozoic. For now, however, my feet are firmly planted there, research-wise.

Scott Sampson has a growing reputation in pop culture, between Dinosaur Odyssey and his work on "Dinosaur Train." Do you think he could be a Sagan/ DeGrasse-Tyson level science popularizer?

Oh, I think he’d be delighted at the comparison. Scott is a brilliant man, a talented writer, and has a great passion for inspiring the populace to connect with their environment and take responsibility for securing its future. He seems to have found his niche in the public realm and I believe it is his true calling. Being a vector between science and the public is not something we all can do and, unfortunately, it is often greatly undervalued in the academic realm making it difficult to achieve in any great capacity. I am grateful he is out there fighting the good fight and I know that the rest of the paleontological community is as well.

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Huge thanks to Dr. Zanno for doing this interview. For more, read my posts on her recent osteology of Falcarius and therizinosaurs' place in the maniraptoran family tree.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome interview. I've also really enjoyed this weeks Field Museum content. You've officially inspired me.


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