“I have little doubt that a Goldwater Scholarship provided a big boost on my Ph.D. program applications, alongside the excellent training and mentorship I received as an undergraduate.”
We paleontologists have the best job on earth. I get to be a time traveler, exploring the Age of Dinosaurs in order to understand the history of life in western North America and beyond. Every day, I see things no human eye has ever glimpsed before, as my team and I uncover the long-buried bones of Mesozoic monsters large and small.
My career path began in Rapid City, South Dakota, during a family vacation to the Black Hills. I was four years old, and my family visited Dinosaur Park, a concrete sculpture park overlooking the surrounding area. I was fascinated by these representations of ancient life from my home state, and even more fascinated when I saw their real bones at the Museum of Geology on the campus of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Virtually at that moment, I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist. I wanted to learn more about the extinct lifeforms that once walked, flew, and swam in this area, and I wanted to make my own discoveries. Education offered a path into these life goals.
Fast forward fourteen years. I was back at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, this time as a freshman geology major. I absorbed the fact that I had to work hard and seek out every opportunity available if I wanted to have a chance at success in the tiny field of paleontology. I found a solid cohort of similarly minded students, and established connections with the professors and graduate students in my department. We had numerous opportunities—many of them at no cost and some of them even with stipends or hourly wages—to learn more about fossils of western South Dakota. It was an exciting time, with a motivated group of friends and numerous opportunities to get our hands dirty! I was incredibly excited for my future career, but also felt that I needed to prove myself just a little bit more if I wanted to have long term success. After all, I was “only” a geology major from rural South Dakota who went to a small regional school. How could I possibly compete in the long term with students from far “fancier” and better known universities?
When I learned about the Goldwater Scholarship, I applied but never really expected to be successful. Imagine my surprise and excitement when I learned that I had received the honor! It changed so many things about the last year of my college experience. The scholarship money helped me to worry a lot less about financial matters, and the national level honor gave me just a little more confidence to “shoot for the stars” in graduate school applications.
I have little doubt that a Goldwater Scholarship provided a big boost on my Ph.D. program applications, alongside the excellent training and mentorship I received as an undergraduate. I suspect these together also helped me land a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which in turn paved the way for a successful graduate career in anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University.
Today, I am a curator and researcher at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at The Webb Schools, the only nationally accredited natural history museum on a high school campus. Not only do I get to do fieldwork and research—something I dreamed of since I was a kid—but I also get to mentor high school students in the sciences. We describe species new to science, explore rocks never before touched by paleontologists, and help to flesh out our understanding of ancient life. Every day is an adventure!