Paleontology Profiles: Stephanie Lukowski
What’s up, intrepid readers!
Tara, here. It’s time for another installment in our Paleontology Profiles series – and we’ve got another seriously awesome guest interview.
Steph Lukowski, paleontologist and all-around bad ass extraordinaire, took the time to answer a few questions for us on what it’s like to work as a paleontologist.
Take a look at her great interview below! And, as always, let us know if you want to know more about Steph’s work in the comments. We promise, she doesn’t bite.
Hi Steph, thanks for interviewing with us! Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your current job, and how did you become interested in paleontology/science/the natural world?
Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this blog! I grew up in the Chicago area near a forest preserve. As a child, I was fascinated with the natural world. My parents like to tell stories of how I used to bring frogs and snakes from our backyard into our house. I loved family trips to the Field Museum of Natural History. I could spend all day looking at the fossils on display, if my parents would let me. My favorite family vacations as a child involved camping or driving out to Montana for ski trips. I made my family visit the Museum of the Rockies every time we went through Bozeman.
I knew that I wanted to be a paleontologist from a very early age. I attended a religious school from kindergarten through 8th grade that taught creationism in science class. Despite being strongly warned against learning about evolution, I read everything on that subject that I could get my hands on—whether I could understand it at my grade level or not.
As soon as I was old enough, I began volunteering at the Field Museum. At first, I joined the education department, where I got to engage the public about all sorts of natural history topics—everything from owl pellets to fossils. Later, I joined the geology department as a volunteer, where I learned to prepare fossils.
I received a Bachelor’s degree in geology from Tulane University in New Orleans, and my Master’s degree in vertebrate paleontology from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. For my Master’s research, I studied Paleocene-aged mammals (phenacodontids) from the Crazy Mountains Basin in Montana. As much as I enjoyed spending time in the lab measuring small teeth, I really loved the months we spent in the field searching for fossils in Montana and Wyoming.
Once I graduated, I became the Assistant Curator/Secondary Educator at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. It was a big change of pace to go from working on small mammals to giant Columbian mammoths!
Tara’s Note: This is totally how we met, Steph! Readers, if you haven’t been to the Mammoth Site, it’s a great place near Mount Rushmore.
My job at the Mammoth Site was a lot of fun. I got to interact with the public and school groups visiting the site, work with volunteer field crews and interns in the summer, and care for the amazing fossils in the in situ bonebed.
Tara’s Note: They are pretty amazing.
After I left the Mammoth Site, I spent several years working for environmental consulting firms as a paleontologist. I worked throughout the western United States searching for fossils in areas of proposed development and monitoring active construction sites. It was pretty neat to learn how roads, solar panels, wind turbines, oil pads and pipelines actually got made while salvaging fossils and collecting scientific data.
Later, I was lucky enough to be a part of the Panama Canal Project with the University of Florida and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Not only was living in Panama for four months a bit of a culture shock, the challenges of doing field work in a tropical environment were quite different than what I had been used to up to that point. The heat and the afternoon rains shortened our field days, so we needed to learn to make the most out of the time we had. All the hard work was worth it, because we found a lot of great Miocene-aged fossils.
Tara’s Note: Sounds like an amazing – and challenging – place to do field work. Super cool.
One of my favorite jobs was working for Bryce Canyon National Park as a GeoCorps intern. I got to spend a summer searching the entire Park for fossil resources—and I found a lot of invertebrate fossils in the process.
Tara’s Note: That sounds like such a great experience! Bryce Canyon is gorgeous. I love the GeoCorps program, and would highly recommend it to our readers, too.
Currently, I am the paleontologist at the Ice Age Discovery Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado. My main focus is education and outreach; however, I also design exhibits, run our social media and website, help with fundraising, care for our live tiger salamanders, and keep track of the fossils and replicas on display.
Tara’s Note: Whoa. Talk about wearing tons of hats. Rock on!
Describe your most interesting day so far, in your varied job experiences.
This is a tough one; every day is interesting when you’re a paleontologist!
One of my favorite parts of my current job is interacting with the general public and school groups. Snowmass Village is the location of the finest, high elevation, Ice Age fossil site in the world. Thousands of pristine fossils were unearthed just a half mile away from the ski slopes. It’s really fun educating people about the amazing fossil find in their own backyard.
I love seeing our visitors, both adults and kids, become excited when they learn about the changing ecosystems and the megafauna that once occupied this area. I also get to appear on our local TV channel, Aspen 82, every Saturday morning for a 5 minute segment on our fossils. I never thought I’d be doing outreach via live TV but it’s a great way to get the word out!
What are your thoughts on blogging about science, in general?
I think blogging is a fantastic way to educate the public about science. Most people do not read scientific journals (and why would they?). Blogging can bridge the gap between academia and the general public in an engaging, relatable way. Not only that, but bloggers can give the people a glimpse into how science works and what goes on in a museum or lab setting.
What is our responsibility as scientists to ensure we’re communicating to the general public?
It is incredibly important to ensure that the public is receiving accurate information regarding science. The media and politicians tend to sensationalize or politicize information that we as scientists may view as uncontroversial.
Tara’s Note: Sad, but true.
Not every scientist is an effective communicator or has the time to do so. Those scientists who are able to communicate well to the general public should make the effort. However, we also need educators and trained science communicators who can bridge that gap. The more understandable, accurate information out there, the better.
Tara’s Note: Totally agree. For our readers who are attending the 2017 meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Calgary, check out the paleontology education workshop that will be held there; it’ll be a great forum for academic and museum folks to share ideas on how best to communicate our science, and for the public and K-12 educators to learn about science communication.
Whew! Okay, back to the questions!
Tell our readers about your favorite organisms. What sorts of questions do you want to answer, as a scientist?
This is another tough one! I’ve gotten to work with a lot of interesting fossil organisms throughout my career. Right now, I’ll have to say ground sloths are my favorite. They are pretty strange animals.
Tara’s Note: Totally my friend Dave’s fave.
They have giant claws and simple, peg-like teeth that never stop growing. Even though they were not slow like their modern tree-sloth ancestors, ground sloths probably looked pretty awkward while moving about. They got quite large too. The Jefferson’s ground sloth found in Snowmass would have been 10 feet tall when standing on their hind legs. Some of the species found in South America could be twice as big.
My favorite questions are those involving how organisms fit within their ecosystems and how ecosystems adapt to changing climates.
Any hobbies beyond the realm of science? Share them with us!
I love being outdoors: hiking, camping, white water rafting, skiing, visiting hot springs, etc.
When, I’m not being active outdoors, you can find me practicing yoga, reading, or knitting while watching sci-fi or horror movies and shows. Right now, I’m also teaching myself to speak Polish.
Additionally, I am an avid traveler. So far, I’ve visited every continent with the exception of Australia and Antarctica. I’m always planning my next adventure.
What would you recommend to young people who are interested in paleontology, and want to get more hands-on experience while they’re in high school or younger?
Volunteering at the Field Museum was a great experience for me as a high school student. If you are lucky enough to live near a natural history museum, look into volunteering opportunities.
Tara’s Note: 100% agreed!
It’s a great way to interact with museum staff and learn about the inner-workings of a museum. A number of museums also offer opportunities to participate in field work as a volunteer either for free or for a small fee to cover costs. If you are unable to do either of those things, read as much as you can about paleontology, geology, biology, and ecology. Work hard in school, especially in math and science. Also, be on the lookout for paleontologists giving talks that are open to the public in your area. Local fossil clubs can be great resources too.
Steph, thank you SO much for taking the time to chat with us about your awesome career experiences. It’s so great to catch up with you!