Photograph by Gaby Parker
Photograph by Cory Dinter
Birthplace: Tacoma, Washington
Current City: Salt Lake City, Utah
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I've always been fascinated by the world and how it works. Growing up, I sought answers about it from my dad; as an electrical engineer, he had an answer for everything, relating the system and its parts to circuitry and software, and somehow every instance in the universe fit this model. But when I was about seven, I started asking him questions about biology and organismal life, and it totally deviated from his engineering-based explanations. I was so fascinated by how complex and unpredictable nature was—it was nothing like a computer or a TV that I could just turn on and off when I wanted, input commands, and get a predictable response back from. From that point on, I was hooked; I had to investigate this idea of life and all its complexity, and I am still wondrously perplexed.
How did you get started in your field of work?
During the summer of my sophomore year of college, I participated in an undergraduate research program in Ireland, funded by Science Foundation Ireland, called UREKA (Undergraduate Research Experience and Knowledge Award), and I spent the summer in Dublin studying the paleoecology of the giant Irish elk, Megaloceros giganteus. The primary focus of my work was looking at the stable carbon and oxygen isotopes of their tooth enamel to reconstruct their ecology—and these animals lived 12,000 years ago! I had never heard of stable isotope geochemistry or even considered paleoecology as a possible career, but after that summer I was pretty much hooked for life on the idea of using this method as a window to the ancient world. After I was accepted into graduate school, my advisor called me up one weekend in March, before I had even finished my undergraduate degree, and asked if I wanted to spend the first summer of my Ph.D. in Kenya. While flying in a Cessna from Nairobi to Lake Turkana, I asked my advisor if anyone had ever studied paleoenvironmental change in the basin over the last 10,000 years, and he said, "No, but that would be a great project!" I couldn't have chosen a more challenging, exciting, and adventurous place to work.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to paleoecology?
As an undergraduate, I was traditionally trained as an ecologist. Over time, I became fascinated by ecological change over time periods exceeding those of the life of a researcher—thousands to millions of years. I love thinking about the history of planet Earth before life as we know it in modern times, and sharing the rich history of Earth's ecological past with other people, and I love the thought that in the grand scheme of the history of life on Earth, we have played a rather marginal role in its development for such a clever species as we are. I like studying the world before cities, freeways, and industrial development and using that as a rubric for assessing how much we've changed it.
What's a normal day like for you?
When I'm in the field, we typically wake up around 5:30 a.m., long before it gets too hot to work. We have a small breakfast, which is usually uji, or porridge, and Kenyan-style chai. After that, we load up the Land Rover with all of our tools for either geologic mapping or excavating (such as sieves, big picks, and tools to dig huge trenches so we can get a better look at geology, and lots and lots of samples bags), a simple lunch (my favorite field meal is canned corned beef and chapati), and plenty of water. We head out around 6:30 to 7:00 a.m. to look for archaeological sites or geologic outcrops, often guided only by GPS coordinates and waypoints taken during reconnaissance trips.
When I'm collecting fossil teeth, I take careful notes about the location and the geologic context, and I take GPS coordinates of where I find them. I also take photographs of the teeth in situ and collect them in cotton bags. We leave the site around 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. so we can return before dark, either to one of the Turkana Basin Institute's permanent field camps or to a camp we've set up. After we return, we have some Kenyan-style chai, sort through the day's notes and/or collections, and write in my field notebook about the day's work. We have dinner, usually a curry or a stew made from goat or some fresh fish purchased from Turkana fishermen—Nile perch and tilapia—and if we're lucky we have lots of pili pili sauce, a hot sauce, to go with it. Everything we eat is very salty or sugary because we sweat so much during the day. One time, after a long field day, I added nearly two tablespoons of salt to my soup to recover from how much salt I had lost from sweating that day!
If we're at the field station we might even have good Internet so we can check email and catch up with the rest of the world. After dinner, we fall asleep in tents or cabins if we're at TBI, often with no sheets or blankets because of the heat, and rest up for another day of fieldwork.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
Working in the Turkana Basin is always challenging due to the extreme conditions. If it's your first time there, it can be very disorienting, and the incredible heat (often reaching temperatures of 45º to 50ºC) can be difficult to get used to. Also, there are many dangerous animals—cobras and carpet vipers, deadly scorpions, hippos, Nile crocodiles, and hyenas, and there's rumored to be lions still remaining in some part of the basin. On one occasion, I nearly stepped on a sleeping carpet viper as I was walking through a wash to map a geologic section. When I heard it menacingly rub its scales against each other to warn me I was too close, everything stopped moving for a second, and I was out of the wash with my hand on my machete so fast I couldn't remember how it happened!
The desert has an enchanting beauty, and sometimes I am completely overwhelmed by the thought of being able to work in a place where our species' ancestors lived. Often at night, I sit out and look at the stars, and often there's a thunderstorm rolling out from the Ethiopian highlands over the lake, and you can hear the sounds of fishermen and herders talking and calling to each other, hippos pulling themselves out of the lake to graze at night, hyenas filling the air with their chilling "laughter," and I think about the species of humans that have come before us and wonder if they experienced what I am experiencing at that moment, and there's honestly no place else in the world I would rather be.
What are your other passions?
I love to be outside, anywhere. I am an avid rock climber and I try to get out and onto the incredible rocks in Utah whenever possible. When you're hundreds of feet in the air making a vertical ascent, secured to the rock only by your hands, feet, and maybe a few pieces of protection, it feels like you're walking on the surface of the moon.
What do you do in your free time?
Finishing my Ph.D. occupies most of my time, and I spend as much time camping and climbing as I possibly can when I'm not working. I also love to bake artisan bread. The entire process is a complicated chemistry and biology experiment in your kitchen, with a delicious final product.
If you could have people do one thing to help save the environment, what would it be?
My focus is the environment and how it's changing, and people often forget about how connected we are to nature and how much it influences our daily lives and why we should care about it. But there is nature everywhere, and we can't separate ourselves from it. Our environment strongly shaped our evolution in the past, and it continues to do so now. We can't disconnect ourselves. I wish that people would start looking closely at the world around them, seeing nature in all its intricacies and beauty, and realize that we can't be a healthy species without a healthy planet and a better understanding of how it works. Go to your local park and look at how much diversity is there. Go to your local natural history museums and explore, and next time you're driving and you see a road cut with lots of exposed geological strata, stop and take a good look at it. You'll get a small glimpse into the incredible past of our planet. Anyone can be a scientist—all you have to do is be curious, ask good questions, and take a close look at the world all around you.
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In Their Words
I like studying the world before cities, freeways, and industrial development and using that as a rubric for assessing how much we've changed it.
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Paul Sereno earned a doctorate in geology at Columbia University and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1987.
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