NGS/Waitt Grantee, Expeditions Council Grantee, Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee
Photograph courtesy Mick Ellison
Photograph courtesy Ryan Carney
Birthplace: Robbinsdale, Minnesota
Current City: Providence, Rhode Island
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always wanted to be an artist—as a kid I drew all the time and loved going to the Science Museum of Minnesota to sketch the dinosaurs. I was also fascinated by the great diversity and complexity of the natural world, and especially the evolution of modern-day dinosaurs: birds. Ultimately the science geek in me won out; I remember when I first heard the term “evolutionary biologist,” I thought, “Wow, people can actually study evolution for a living? That’s awesome.” Now as an evolutionary biologist myself, I get to combine both childhood interests into my research: dinosaurs and animation! In fact my dad recently found a series of anatomical drawings I did when I was 6, entitled, “How to make a bird fly.” The funny thing is, that’s exactly what my PhD dissertation is all about!
How did you get started in your field of work?
I got started during college at UC Berkeley, where I majored in biology and studio art. For the former I wrote a thesis on the evolution of flight in dinosaurs, and for the latter I took courses in Maya, the 3D modeling and animation software. Shortly after graduation, one of the sculpture professors acquired a 3D laser scanner, which I used to digitally image the arm bones of a dinosaur (Deinonychus), a pigeon, and an alligator, and then animate them using Maya. While I subsequently explored some different career paths, this type of research is what I’m still doing today.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to paleontology and evolutionary biology?
What I love about science is the intellectual freedom to pursue the questions that truly inspire me, such as the mysteries of how flight evolved and what dinosaurs looked like. This research also provides me the opportunity to study and compare the locomotion of modern birds and their closest living relatives—alligators and crocodiles—to gain a better understanding of how extinct dinosaurs may have moved. I’m also inspired by the role that new technologies can play in discovering secrets hidden within fossils for millions of years—from imaging the insides of bones to detecting original pigments in feathers and skin!
What’s a normal day like for you?
Currently it’s a mix of working on various research projects, teaching anatomy to medical students, reading and writing scientific papers, and keeping up with emails.
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
Leonardo da Vinci. He was the archetypical Renaissance man and brilliant polymath who mastered every discipline he set his mind to. In addition to his great accomplishments in fields like painting and engineering, he even wrote on such topics as bird flight and paleontology. His genius left an indelible mark on human culture, and it continues to inspire hundreds of years later.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
I recently had the opportunity to do fieldwork in Panama, and it was amazing to witness the great diversity of life down there—from the sloths in the trees to the dolphins swimming alongside our boat. The trip also included a visit to the San Blas archipelago, to islands inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. It was absolutely fascinating to learn about their culture and practices, hear their native language, and see their colorful traditional molas, a type of clothing. On one of the islands we were fortunate enough to observe the tribe preparing a great feast for their most special of occasions, a three-day-long coming of age celebration for the girls called inna suid.
Incidentally, the least pleasant field experience occurred later that same day, when our team visited an old sunken shipwreck off a different island, which was uninhabited but used as a recreational spot for tourists. The stunning beauty of the marine life, which included elegant corals, dazzling fish, and color-changing reef squid, was unfortunately overshadowed by the large amount of trash floating all around the island. It was a disgusting and heartbreaking reminder of the impacts of irresponsible human action (and inaction).
What are your other passions?
Drawing, painting, and sculpting; listening to and writing music; cultivating exotic plants; and pursuing other research interests such as epidemiology.
If you could have people do one thing to help support the biological sciences, what would it be?
It would be to help keep the anti-science movements of creationism and intelligent design out of the classroom. I would also invite those unfamiliar with evolution to learn for themselves about its fascinating role in the history and diversity of life on our planet—such as how dolphins and whales evolved from land-dwelling mammals, and how birds are actually feathered dinosaurs.
Find out more about Ryan Carney on his website: http://www.ryancarney.com
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In Their Words
As an evolutionary biologist, I get to combine both childhood interests into my research: dinosaurs and animation!
Dinosaur: Feather Color Determined