Nicholas Pyenson


Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Photo: Nicholas Pyenson in the field.

Photograph courtesy of Nicholas Pyenson

Photo: Nicholas Pyenson

Photograph courtesy of Nicholas Pyenson

Birthplace: Montreal, Canada

Current City: Washington, D.C.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

As a young kid, I went through many different stages of obsessions (dinosaurs, sharks, Egyptology), mostly depending on what books were available at the library. I remember being particularly torn between wanting to be a professional baseball player or a paleontologist, and I spent days trying to figure out how to schedule field seasons around team travel schedules. Fortunately, my parents let me pursue my interests wherever they would lead, and I'm thankful that they let me figure out the dilemma for myself. (Now I use my rotator cuff muscles to carry heavy rocks and plaster jackets laden with fossils.)

How did you get started in your field of work?

My parents made a special point to take me to natural history museums when I was younger, and those experiences really fueled my imagination at the time. When I was in college, I finally had the opportunity to study natural science disciplines that involved going out into the real world, which made me realize that a lot of my childhood natural history interests actually mattered. Once I realized that a career in paleontology was actually possible, I never looked back, and kept on pursuing my interest in the history of life.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to your work?

I'm most inspired by reading about my academic predecessors-both those I have met and know personally, as well as those who I only know through their writings, some of which are 50, 100, or 200 years old. I'm continually awed by the diligence and insights of these early anatomists and paleontologists (some of whom were doing my job before the word "scientist" even existed). In many cases they worked under difficult circumstances and didn't have the advantage of rapid air travel and email communication that we take for granted today.

What's a normal day like for you?

I really don't have a normal day. Some days are spent entirely outside doing fieldwork (often times in foreign countries); other days are spent inside, writing in my office, or working at the various facilities we have at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, including our museum's on-site collections, fossil preparation laboratories, and off-site storage and field stations. I really enjoy any occasions to interact with the public.

Do you have a hero?

My personal heroes are working parents everywhere, who balance the competing demands of family and a professional life. Both of my parents worked when I grew up, but aside from being late for a few hockey games, they were always there to support me and my siblings.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

Discovering fossils that no one has ever seen before is a real thrill, and I think it's the kind of experience that drives many paleontologists. My best memories from fieldwork are over meals at the end of the day-or especially refreshing lunches-talking about science, or anything else, over food with colleagues in the field. It's also easier to laugh about accidental fires, broken field equipment, and getting trucks stuck in the sand and mud when you're retelling the event rather than when it actually happens.

What are your other passions?

I'm very fortunate that my passion directly overlaps with my profession, and so I try to make the most of what I do. I've always thought that if I didn't do science, I would really enjoy doing graphic design for advertising firms, or work for Pixar. I appreciate compelling stories told through visual media.

What do you do in your free time?

I try to diversify myself by engaging the cultural and artistic sides of my brain, but I'm usually happy just to send free time outside, and learn more about the natural history of where I live. It's a mistake to think that natural history happens only inside museums-we live and breathe it every day, even in big cities.

If you could have people do one thing to help preserve fossil records, what would it be?

I think one of the most thrilling and visceral aspects of paleontology is being able to hold or touch the direct records of extinct life. The tangible quality of fossils anchors the more implausible, but real facts about them (i.e., that they tell us about geologic time, evolution, and extinction). I think if everyone had the chance to hold a real fossil, even just for a moment, it would improve their appreciation for what they tell us about Earth's past, future, and our place in the evolutionary tree of life.

In Their Words

I think one of the most thrilling and visceral aspects of paleontology is being able to hold or touch the direct records of extinct life.

—Nicholas Pyenson

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