[Paleontology Profiles] Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs

A Day Trip to Arches National Park
L.A. Hikes: Wall Street Mill Trail at Joshua Tree National Park

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Think of the last time you went to a museum.

Was it a local museum? A history museum? A museum of natural history?

What drew you there?

And, how far away was it from where you live?

I live in Los Angeles, a museum mecca, and it’s a complete privilege to have access to all of this museum diversity. Even with LA traffic – the museums are here, and I even live five minutes from the paleontology museum where I teach and research.

I feel really fortunate.

Museums, Children, and “That Spark”

Many of us have memories of visiting museums as children, and how those experiences opened our eyes to the world of art, history, science, and our Earth’s past.

Some of us even get so jazzed by what we experience in a museum, that we decide to make what we learn there a part of our career, or our hobbies. We share what we learn with others. As kids, we interact with the exhibit, ask questions, marvel at the sheer awesomeness of an ammonite shell or a dinosaur skeleton. We learn to think about a brand new concept, like paleontology, in an altogether new way. It opens our eyes.

Because I’m undeniably sentimental, I like to call that moment “the spark”. Once you’ve got “the spark”, it grabs hold of you and it’s damn hard to shake it. I experienced this weird shivery feeling as an adult, not too long ago – in the ominous museum associated with the Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, Ireland. In that somber place, Jessi and I were all at once fascinated and emotionally tugged by the Irish rebellion.

Kids get that feeling when the exhibit in a museum grabs their wide-eyed attention, makes them think, and maybe changes their life’s trajectory.

But what if children didn’t get that museum experience? Especially a museum experience in paleontology? How many of us within paleontology wouldn’t be on the path we are now, without a museum to guide us, somewhere along the way?

Children in the Gobi of Mongolia Don’t Have a Museum.

And the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs (ISMD) is trying to change that.

Bayanzag, or the Flaming Cliffs, in rural Mongolia. Image via ISMD.
Bayanzag, or the Flaming Cliffs, in rural Mongolia. Image via ISMD.

Since 2007, vertebrate paleontologist and National Geographic Explorer Bolortsetseg (Bolor) Minjin has been cooking up ways to bring a paleontology museum to the rural parts of her native Mongolia – a country that is already the most sparsely populated sovereign nation in the world.

The ISMD is actively involved in outreach and education both in the United States and in Mongolia, especially working to bring quality paleontological outreach education to school children in rural Mongolia, near some of the most famous paleontological sites in the entire world. One of the sites, a breathtaking locality called Bayanzag or the Flaming Cliffs, is where Velociraptor, Oviraptor, Protoceratops, and other Mongolian dinosaurs have been discovered.

It’s pretty incredible that the children who grow up surrounded by the vast natural resources of the Gobi simply have no place to view the fossils carefully plucked from the red and gold sandstone cliffs in their backyard. The national museum in Ulaanbataar is a far trek for lots of rural communities, and scientists like Bolor are in dire need of a modern facility to conduct research in the Gobi itself.

The movable museum. Image via ISMD.
The movable museum. Image via ISMD.

The Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs has developed something amazing: a converted bus, which serves as top notch, movable paleontology museum, to bring science education to the children of the Gobi.

Take a look at the fantastic images of the movable museum, below:

via GIPHY

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? I certainly thought so, and I wanted to sit down and chat with Bolor and her outreach assistant Thea Kinyon Boodhoo. I wanted to learn more about why this initiative is so important, what’s driving them, and how more people could help.

Scroll down to read their interview, but I promise before you do that, you should listen to what I’m about to say.

Turns out there’s a way you can help these children in Mongolia. Help them engage with “the spark” of scientific passion, and help mold and motivate the next generation of Mongolian paleontologists.

Help support the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs!

 

In 2016, the Institute is running a campaign to fund their outreach to those kids who need a paleontology museum in the Gobi – with awesome perks, beyond the incentive to make kids smile. Because who doesn’t love changing a child’s life? Supporting teachers and students in rural Mongolia? Helping them learn more about the paleontological resources in their own backyard?

And maybe, if the spark hits? Helping some of those children become the next paleontologists of the Gobi.

Interested in learning more?

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A Special Interview with Bolor Minjin and Thea Boodhoo

Hey, Thea (TAY-ah) and Bolor! Thanks for taking the time to chat with Outbound Adventurer about the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs.

First a little about yourselves and youth education:

How did you first become interested in paleontology? How did that interest lead to a career as a research scientist?

Thea: I honestly don’t remember how I first became interested in paleontology. When I was three years old I told my parents it was want I wanted to do when I grew up, and they were surprised I even knew the word. So the best answer is probably that my future self traveled back in time to tell me what I was meant to do, sometime around 1987. (*makes mental note*)

Tara: The spark struck young.

Thea: That said, I never became a research scientist. I went to art school and studied advertising because my family’s financial situation was really shaky when I was considering majors, and I felt like I needed to pick something with a surefire salary. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of communicating ideas to different audiences since I was 15, when my mom encouraged me to help create a youth chapter at the 1999 meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, which she brought me to that summer.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I came full circle and decided to pursue ways to apply what I’d learned in the advertising industry to public outreach for paleontology.

Bolor: When I was small, my father used to bring us to museums, and so I’ve seen Tarbosaurus bataar [a relative of T. rex] in the natural history museum [in Ulaanbataar], that mount was mounted back in the 1950s. It was one of the dinosaurs found in the Russian expeditions that ran between 1946 and 1949.

Tara: As a side note, the precursors to these Mongolian expeditions were run by Roy Chapman Andrews, the paleontologist whom some say is the inspiration for archaeologist Indiana Jones.

Bolor: My father, an invertebrate paleontologist, would show a dinosaur slideshow for my birthday, but I never owned any dinosaur toys or had dinosaur books. It was all things I saw in the capitol museum. Of course, the museum wasn’t really very interactive, every time you went it was the same thing. Sometimes I would have an opportunity to go to my father’s school, to his classroom, where he was teaching paleontology.

Tara: The museum in the capitol of Mongolia was a major influence. I think it’s so cool that your father brought you into his classroom, and the dinosaur slideshow is just awesome!

Bolor: For me, those were the things that were exposing me to paleontology and dinosaurs. But then, when I went to college, I became a geology major. Every summer my father used to go out to do field work, and he had been a Russian-Mongolian expedition member.

Bolor helping Mongolian students put plaster on a fossil in the Gobi desert. Image via ISMD.
Bolor helping Mongolian students learn about fossils in the Gobi desert. Image via ISMD.

Bolor: I always wanted to go, but I never had the opportunity to – my brothers did. My mom didn’t feel comfortable for me to go out on those expeditions, so I never had an opportunity like that.

I went to college to become a geology major, from the second year we started to take some upper level classes – and one of them was paleontology, and my father was the paleontology teacher! I started to really know more, learning about my father’s profession.

Especially in Mongolia, the source of vertebrate fossils are rich, but most fossils that were being studied came from out of the country. When I started to think about graduate school, eventually I would have to travel far from home. At the same time, I needed a good adviser. So it would be a challenge to go that direction. One of the things [my father] mentioned was to get involved with anatomy. At that time I found a professor who was teaching the anatomy of domesticated animals at a veterinary school, and she taught me some anatomy.

For me, the anatomy was totally new and different, rather than learning about minerals and rocks. While I was doing my Master’s, my father was asked to do geology mapping for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, so my father asked if he can bring me along for this expedition.

He said only if I could cook could I join the expedition. But I didn’t want to be just the cook. I wanted to do research.

I was born and raised in the city, but I always loved the outdoors – and that field work trip was the tipping point for me getting more in depth into paleontology.

For me, finding fossils in my own country was a turning point.

 

What advice would you have for young people worldwide, if they read this and want to study vertebrate or invertebrate paleontology?

Bolor: Your own personal preparation is more important than anything.

I think if you believe in something, you should stand your ground – it really pays you back. There are many obstacles you can go through, but I think believe in yourself and be persistent.

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Bolor, teaching young Mongolian students in 2015. Image via ISMD.

Bolor: If possible, if you can experience the real stuff – go to the nearest paleontology school, meet with the paleontologists, talk with them. It doesn’t have to be an internship or a class, just visit the lab, see how it looks. Get the real experience first.

Tara: After just coming back from teaching high schoolers about field paleontology, I absolutely agree, Bolor! I think many of us got our start by jumping out of our comfort zones and start talking to prospective mentors, doing field work, and self-educating early on.

Thea: I’ve found the paleontology community very welcoming and encouraging. There are lots of ways for young people to get involved and get started in research. Go to the conferences and join the professional organizations, especially the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Geological Society of America (GSA), and introduce yourself to people. GSA has a great program called GeoCorps that can get you experience in a national park as an undergrad or grad student.

Tara: I’m a GeoCorps alumna and I highly recommend the experience! 

Thea: Find paleontologists on Twitter – I have a list of them on my profile you can mine – and ask if there are any volunteer opportunities at their university or museum. When you’re looking at majors, it can be hard to find paleontology in an internet search, but check out the geology, geoscience or earth science department pages for concentrations in paleontology – or check out the biology department for paleobiology. If you can’t decide between geology or biology, geology majors spend more time outdoors and biology students spend more time in the lab, at least from my experience.

Tara: That’s generally true, and as a former biology major myself, I’d say getting as much of both types of courses as possible is really important. If you’re a biology major, fit in as much geology as you can, and vice versa. 

 

How can our readers get involved with citizen science and community research in their communities? Particularly teachers and students?

Thea: Most importantly, you don’t have to wait until you’re accepted into a university program to get involved [in science]. Start a blog writing about dinosaurs, go to museums and take photos of the fossils, draw the skeletons and memorize the names of the bones as you draw them.

Study modern dinosaurs in your own back yard – birds are everywhere and if you watch them closely you’ll learn a lot.

Thea: And do citizen science like the Great Backyard Bird Count or anything on Zooniverse, just to learn what it’s like working with data. Check and see if there’s a geology hiking group near you on Meetup, or a local fossil club in your area. And tap the Public Library of Science (PLOS) for open-access research papers – you’ll learn a huge amount just by highlighting all the words you don’t know and finding out what they mean. You can build your own paleontology glossary that way, which will be invaluable if you go to a conference. And if you can’t wait to take a class on dinosaurs, I highly recommend Dino 101 on Coursera.

Tara: These are great suggestions, Thea! Just a note, if Dino 101 isn’t available, as it seems to be as of this posting, check out the course on theropod dinosaurs and birds.

Bolor: This is what I really want: one or two kids who are interested in paleontology, to go into college in this field, from Mongolia.

We need some young people who can study this heritage and be spokespeople for the field.

Bolor: Or, from the States – imagine five or ten high school kids from the States going to Mongolia; they will not only learn about dinosaurs, but they will learn about a cultural exchange in a very positive way.

Tara: I think that’s a fanatastic goal, Bolor. Let’s see if we can make it a reality.

If our readers want to help your initiatives, is there a way to do so? Post sharing, blogging about the project, sharing information about Mongolia, the Flaming Cliffs, and so on…?

Thea: Right now our big initiative is the 2016 outreach and conservation expedition, which we’re running an Indiegogo campaign to fund. We’re offering a lot of really fun incentives to backers, like original artwork by paleoartist Emily Willoughby, scientifically accurate fossil reproductions by Lorraine Chure, some rad dinosaur tee shirts that I’m designing, and even a week long adventure in Mongolia, where you’ll get to see one of the famous fossil sites in person. You can put in any amount and every dollar helps – but if you’re flat broke or just want to do a little extra to spread the word, I wrote up these suggestions:

Tell everyone at happy hour about it over a dinosaur-themed cocktail, like vodka. (Ice breaker: “Did you know there was no grain to distill in the Jurassic? Grasses didn’t evolve until the Cretaceous!”)

Casually mention it to the person standing next to you in the elevator.

Share the campaign page on Facebook and Twitter.

Email it to your great aunt and uncle, with a dire warning about an asteroid impact if they don’t share it with 10 other people.

Spread it to your co-workers on the all-company email thread. While they’re distracted by dinosaurs, make yourself look more productive by putting up some post-it notes.

Drop a lead to your local news station with a controversial subject line like “Dinosaurs real? Crazy scientists plan Mongolian hijinks!”

Bring it up in the school board meeting when you start nodding off.

But seriously at the very least share it on Facebook and Twitter.

Tara: I love it. Awesome!

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What are the top goals you envision for the outreach and education paleontology initiatives in Mongolia?

Bolor: I want to have the environment where I can do paleontology research in Mongolia, without the obstacles we are facing for space and funding, and public knowledge.

But our number one focus: generating public interest, bringing paleontology to the children of the Gobi, and educational outreach. Without that, we cannot have the next generation of Mongolian paleontologists.

Thea: That’s our top long-term goal at the ISMD: a permanent museum in the Gobi. We see it as way more than a tourist attraction. This will be a research facility, lab, and center for community learning and gathering. If this isn’t a place where the people who live nearby want to come hang out and have something to do, we’ve failed.

Tara: Powerful stuff. I wish the funding campaign every success!

Bolor: Whenever we start new outreach projects, we go straight to the Gobi, straight to the town next to the fossil site – we want to go to the heart of the problem.

Tara: How involved have local science teachers and officials been with this outreach process?

Bolor: Over 50 science teachers across the Gobi came to the training last year (2015), and the Institute has worked with the local Parliament to actively support the scientific work. Tumendelger (Tumee) Khumbaa – a local government contact – has been a huge help and supporter. He really cares about fossils, the environment, nature and the beauty of the Gobi.

We want to choose a day where science teachers nationwide can teach for 40 minutes about Gobi dinosaurs – an official Dinosaur Day. There’s no curriculum about dinosaurs in our science classrooms, so we wanted ways to include this heritage. The first official Dinosaur Day will hopefully happen this upcoming school year (2016-2017), and the Institute will provide some curriculum and materials.

Tara: Can we get there to be a worldwide movement for this Dinosaur Day? It’s awesome.

Plenty of our readers travel around the world and want to learn more about the cultural and natural history of the countries they visit. What would you like our readers to know about protecting these resources, while learning from them? Is there anything our readers can do to support the protection of natural resources like fossils?

Thea: Here’s one easy thing you can do: don’t buy real vertebrate fossils. Fossil poaching is the number one threat to Mongolia’s fossil heritage. At best it results in fossils getting locked away in private collections where scientists can’t study them and the public never gets to see them or learn about them. At worst, someone without professional experience who tries to excavate a fossil thinking they can sell it for money will end up destroying the fossil so that no one ever gets to learn anything about it. This is much more common than you would think and it can be really heartbreaking for paleontologists and people in the local community who care about their area’s natural history.

Buying fossils can be very tempting, especially when you see them in a gift shop and they look legitimate, but the practice is frowned upon at best by most paleontologists. If you see real dinosaur skulls or skeletons for sale online, flag the sale and report it. On the other hand, if you witness fossil poaching in person, use extreme caution since it can be very dangerous to approach someone who knows they’re breaking the law. If it’s a kid or a tourist messing around and trying to remove a fossil somewhere, that’s one thing and you might want to speak up, but anything more serious and don’t risk it. Just report what you saw to the local authorities, and record the location as best you can.

If you spot an unexcavated fossil in the wild, don’t try to remove it. Just take a photo, record the location, and tell a park ranger or an authority at a nearby museum.

Thea: If you want a dinosaur fossil at home, buy a replica like the ones made by Lorraine Chure on our Indiegogo campaign. That way you’re supporting an artist, helping scientists, and giving the real fossils a chance to be used as tools for learning and inspiration in a community that really needs them.

Tara: Couldn’t agree more, Thea!

Thanks to Bolor and Thea for taking the time to chat with us! I’m excited to see how this project progresses. Who knows, perhaps next time we’ll meet in Mongolia!

A Day Trip to Arches National Park
L.A. Hikes: Wall Street Mill Trail at Joshua Tree National Park