Don Prothero, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
What is your job, and what do you study?
I am a vertebrate paleontologist - I study animals with backbones. I've published an entire book on the evolution of fossil rhinos of North America, and I continue to work on extinct camels, horses, peccaries, and several other fossil mammal groups in North America, most of which are now extinct. I have taught geology and paleontology at the college level for 35 years, 27 years at Occidental College in Los Angeles, as well as many years at Caltech, Cal Poly Pomona, and previously at Vassar College and Knox College.
What are you working on now?
For many years, I used the changes of the earth's magnetic field to date fossil-bearing beds all over the western U.S. Now that I am retired from Occidental College, I focus on my main interest: the evolution of extinct hoofed mammals from North America. After 25 years working on North American rhinos, I'm now working on extinct North American peccaries and camels. This means many months each year studying enormous collections of unstudied fossils in many different museums (especially the American Museum of Natural History in New York) to describe new fossil species, and figure out which species are real, and how the group evolved through time.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I did my undergraduate work at the University of California Riverside, which had outstanding programs in geology and biology, so I majored in both. They had both a vertebrate and invertebrate paleontologist on staff then, so I got an incredibly good background for paleontology. Naturally, my paleontology classes were my favorites. In addition, I almost had a third major in Greek and Latin, which are very useful languages if you are going to be a paleontologist.
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
I got hooked on dinosaurs at age 4, and never grew up or gave up on my dream of becoming a paleontologist. And this was back in the 1950s, when dinosaurs were not popular and there were no dinosaur movies or books or toys. I visited the Los Angeles Natural History Museum every chance I got, and by fourth grade I was lecturing the sixth graders about dinosaurs. In sixth grade, my teacher rewarded her best students by taking us on a LA Museum trip to the fossil beds at Redrock Canyon. When I was in 10th grade, I spent the summer working as a volunteer at La Brea tar pits. However, when I reached college, I learned that there is much more opportunity to do cool research in fossil mammals than in dinosaurs (which have too many people and not enough specimens compared to mammals), and that's what I've done ever since.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
I was fortunate at beginning my graduate career at the American Museum of Natural History in 1976, when the enormous unstudied Frick Collection of fossil mammals finally became available for study. There is a whole floor of horses, a whole floor of rhinos, a whole floor of camels, a whole floor of mastodons and mammoths, and three floors of everything else. It had been collected since the 1930s and remained unstudied until the 1970s. Suddenly, we had hundreds of skulls and skeletons of most fossil mammals where we used to have just a few teeth and jaws. Everything we had ever thought about American fossil mammals has been rethought and redone with these new collections, and there are still large numbers of fossils that have not been studied almost 40 years later.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
First of all, take all the science and math you can in high school. If you have any opportunities to volunteer in paleontological work in your community, get involved. Once in college, you need to major in geology and/or biology, but take a many classes as you can of both. Get into the best college or university you grades and SATs will get you into, but make sure they actually have a paleontologist on staff and teach paleontology. (Most colleges and universities don't have paleontology these days). And finally, be aware that the job market for paleontologists is horrible! After 10 years of college to get your B.A. and Ph.D., you'll be among 100 people competing for just a few jobs each year, and the jobs for Ph.D.s is getting worse each year as paleontology is vanishing from the curriculum. Most paleontologists with Ph.D.s teach in college and university geology or biology departments. There are just a handful of jobs in museums in the US, and that number is shrinking. Many people have to focus on other career paths: consulting paleontology, which is working on environmental surveys of construction sites is now growing; working in governmental agencies; teaching in junior colleges or high school science classes. Many anatomically trained paleontologists teach human anatomy in medical schools. But you should be aware that it's a very hard profession to get a job in, especially now that it's way more popular among students than the job market can handle.