An open letter to science imposters

Marmarth Research Foundation is special. Plenty of other people will show this through their photos, videos, and posts this summer. I worked with a myriad of people, from those looking for a bit of adventure after retirement to professionals doing field work for their scientific research. I'm not there yet, but I want to be a professional paleontologist more than anything, so I relished the time I spent with everyone at Marmarth. You've heard about the cool research coming out of the foundation all summer long, but MRF has another value that is hard to express in words. 

Here’s something you don’t hear many of us say:  becoming a scientist is hard, and becoming a paleontologist is even harder. The networks of peers, mentors and colleagues that you create through your hard work is often just as important as your credentials on paper. After graduating in May, I’m at a weird crossroads in my education and career. I grew up always wanting to work with dinosaurs in whatever way I could, and I’ve worked very hard to pursue that goal. I’ve done collections work, and even some field paleontology through the years. I have a decent job working with fossils and trying to work my way up the ladder, as they say. But finding ways to participate in real scientific research hasn’t been easy, even for a dedicated student like myself. But where do you look for those opportunities? How do you get involved with researchers that can help grow my networks and gain the experience I need to move to the next level? 

I know having a PhD is important, maybe a make or break for my career, and I'm definitely smart and driven enough to earn one, but so far I haven’t tried to pursue that path. Maybe because I didn't think I would be accepted into a program. I’m scared I don’t know the right people. I feel a bit like an imposter at times. With years ticking away, sometimes I feel behind everyone else in this field. Like they got some memo that never made it to my inbox about what to do next. There's no map for how to do this. 

“Are you there Paleontology? It’s me, Megan.” 

This field season, The Marmarth Research Foundation answered loud and clear.  

“Hurry up and get out here…we need your help.”

As soon as I arrived in this tiny town, my network started growing.  Walking around this collaborative research facility were some people that I consider giants in the field of paleontology. There were researchers from Yale, Brooklyn College, The Smithsonian, The Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Royal Ontario Museum and they needed my help and input. They gave me a role and a chance to actually participate in the real science happening here in the field. Spending time in the trenches (literally) with these people gave me a valuable chance to learn what a career in paleo actually looks like. Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s taken a unique pathway into this field or felt like an outsider at times. 

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Tyler Lyson for allowing me be part of this summer’s field work at MRF. This is a place for emerging scientists like me to see research in action and find a connection with professional paleontologists already working in the discipline. As a resource for mentorship it’s priceless. 

I also owe great thanks to Dr. Lou Taylor and Dr. Stephen Chester for taking time to talk to me and ask about my interests and experience. Such a simple act made a bigger difference in my life than they can know. And all of the other staff, volunteers, and students who made the experience fun…thank you.

After years of feeling directionless, Marmarth gave me a bit of clarity. I often feel like I'm the only person who is struggling, but in reality, every scientist or hopeful scientist has gone through a similar crisis. 

It's really hard to admit that you sometimes don't see the next steps that will help you achieve the career you envision for yourself. Sometimes I need to vent about the feeling of being a bit ‘lost’ in academia. But the movers and shakers in science, the only people qualified to help me address these feelings, are the very same people that I need to impress with a well polished vision and resume. Opportunities like this field work experience at MRF give us the chance to make real connections with the people doing science and lets us observe the way that scientific careers bloom.

Lately I’ve felt a bit like there was one singular, definitive path to becoming a paleontologist. I’ve been paralyzed thinking that it was a path I might not even be on. Now, after having spent time out in the field working side by side with all of these professionals I’ve realized that each of them has a story as unique as mine. Everyone here has a different life experience, educational background and life story that has led them to their varied careers.  Yet they here they all are, in Marmarth, North Dakota, involved collaboratively in one of the coolest paleontological research projects in science. 

As I write this I’m sitting in an airport flying back to my life at home with a funny thought in my head. On a map Marmarth, North Dakota is the absolute middle of nowhere; yet in terms of research paleontology it’s pretty much the center of the universe.