The Glamorous Life of the Jet-Setting Paleontologist
If you come to this page looking for scientific content, you might want to just skip over this entry … this one is largely a travelogue.
What is your mind’s eye image of the travelling paleontologist? For many people outside the profession, it seems to be somewhere between Roy Chapman Andrews, Indiana Jones, and the characters from Jurassic Park. Certainly this is the impression that I get when I tell people that I am off on a trip. Almost invariably, those who don’t have experience of this life seem to assume that, if I am going to the field, it will be an exciting adventure. Uplifting scientific discoveries will alternate with encounters with dangerous animals, animated intellectual discourse, dramatic landscapes, perhaps some interesting local people, and food served up on white linen and fine bone china at a luxurious field camp staffed by trained international chefs.
Yeah, of course there is some of that, other than the trained international chefs. But the great majority of fieldwork seems to consist of endless hours of tedious, repetitive labour, far too many biting bugs, bad weather (too hot, too cold, too wet, too snowy, too many tornadoes, …), uncomfortable beds, and barely passable food. It is often fun, but this fun is achieved despite the conditions, not because of them. I enjoy going to the field, but I generally enjoy returning home even more.
The same goes for travel to conferences or committee meetings. When I say that I am off to a meeting in another city, I often seem to get the response, “You’re lucky!” And there is a grain of truth to this. I like to see the world from above, I enjoy seeing strange cities, I love going anywhere that has a seacoast, and who wouldn’t appreciate it when they are given the chance to see things on the other side of the world? But it is also often true that my favourite view of some places is in the rearview mirror (Russia, anyone?), with home the next visible point on the horizon.
The germ of these thoughts was forming as I sat in Winnipeg Airport’s international departure lounge late one morning last month, on my way to the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati. After a “lunch” consisting of a diabolical watery pap-filled microwaved wrap, I spent most of the remainder of the day being bumped around on United Express’ commuter cattle-car flights, punctuated by a wander through much of the length of O’Hare Airport in Chicago (actually, this part was rather pleasant; the Field Museum has added a shop with an immense Brachiosaurus replica, almost worth the price of a plane ticket to see).
Arriving at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport was a revelation. The terminal was small, smaller than Thunder Bay Airport, and the heat and humidity were so shocking as to be confrontational, but the people were friendly and genuine. I reached the university residence towards evening and met my roommate, John Handley. John is a fascinating guy, a mild-mannered industry mathematician by day who spends his spare time helping paleontologists make their statistics make sense. I discovered from John that the campus food services would not be open for several days prior to the start of the conference itself (we had arrived early to take part in pre-conference field trips). As the breakfast restaurants within reach seemed to consist of Arby’s, Arby’s, or Arby’s, I deposited my bags and headed out to scope the environs before darkness set in.
I really should have taken some time to think about this, as I realized several agonizing blocks later. I had not changed from my travel clothes of black blazer, black jeans, and black boots (my wardrobe is nothing if not imaginative), and was now discovering that, even though we were well into the evening, the heat of the sun and air packed a tremendous wallop. It began to feel as if I had entered a sauna dressed for a formal occasion, and the friendly greetings of the lightly-dressed people I met just made me feel even hotter, more uncomfortable, and more foreign. Nevertheless, a mile or so from campus I found a restaurant and shopping district and had dinner.
After dinner (Thai Noodles!) I made the rounds of the IGA, picking up all those glamorous international paleontologist breakfast supplies: bagels, cream cheese, instant coffee, and yogourt, but was defeated in my attempts to find a microwave-proof coffee cup. Again, the remarkably friendly people of Cincinnati came to my aid, as various store staff left their posts to assist this strangely-accented and dressed foreigner with his quest. The young man from the bakery section asked if I was an artist (the black jacket, I guess!), while the lady from the deli kindly helped me locate a glass measuring cup in which I would be able to heat the morning Maxwell House. Then it was back up the hill to the university, hauling grocery bags through the stifling heat as I continued to be greeted by the friendly locals.
After this literally pedestrian introduction to Cincinnati, the field trips on the subsequent days were another revelation. Here in Manitoba we have fantastic Ordovician marine fossils (some of the best in the world, in my humble opinion), but these are generally located in quarries and outcrops that have little vertical extent. We can find a lot of fossils at a given site, but they all come out of just a few beds. In the Cincinnati area, by comparison, there are also abundant Ordovician fossils, but they are located in roadcuts that may expose a thickness of many metres or tens of metres of rock, along stretches of a kilometre or more of road.
We were led on the Ordovician field trips by Carl Brett, Pat McLaughin, Steve Holland, and Mark Patzkowsky, scientists who have put together a remarkable three-dimensional view of how the environments and organisms in that region changed through time. Seeing the vertical sections they have been studying, I could begin to appreciate how they have been able to apply sequence stratigraphic principles related to sea level change. I could also appreciate the immense amount of work that has been done by them, and their colleagues and students, and marvel at the creative way in which this picture has been assembled.
These field trips really made the conference worthwhile for me. Even though I had been reading their papers for years, having the rocks explained by these people really opened my eyes to their ideas, and gave me inklings of how I could apply some of the same principles to our ongoing work here (more on this later, perhaps). As has occurred elsewhere, I was also inspired by the knowledge and dedication of some of the amateur paleontologists who took part in the field trips. Members of the Cincinnati Dry Dredgers, such as Steve Felton, carry a depth and breadth of field knowledge that must be envied by every professional paleontologist with whom they come into contact.
But the rest of the conference was also superb. Arnie Miller and his entire team at Cincinnati put on what has to be one of the best-organized meetings I have ever attended. Meeting rooms were well planned, the equipment worked, the refreshment breaks were perfect, and there were always people available to answer any question one might have. Each evening, after the scientific sessions were over, groups of scientists reconvened in the restaurants and beer gardens near campus to continue their discussions (sometimes in a more and more animated manner, I admit). Even the heat began to seem benign, as it was relatively pleasant to sit outdoors in the long warm evenings. If one had a cool beverage to hand, and didn’t actually have to get up and go anywhere, it was just fine.
Still, it was a long time to be away (so long that the conference was beginning to feel like a job), and we were living in a dorm and not a hotel. I really felt I could take no more of the heat by the time I boarded the plane for home. This time around, O’Hare took on a less pleasant quality. The Winnipeg flight was supposed to depart from the same commuter-plane gates as at least six other flights, the space was full of very grumpy people waiting for a long overdue departure to Charlotte (NC), the airline staff were apathetic, there were no audible announcements of any sort, and I was almost out of US money. It was very good to finally be back on the ground in quiet, cool Winnipeg.
Back with my unwashed laundry. Back to all the unanswered e-mails, reports to be written, monthly forms to be filed. Work life. Travel is often necessary. It is sometimes exciting. But I can foresee a time when I will travel very little. And I really won’t mind.