For this month’s paleo-interview, we’re pleased to talk with paleontologist and paleontological educator Ashley Hall of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Hello, Ms. Hall! Please tell us about your background in paleontology and how paleontology became a part of your daily life.
Thanks for the interview! My name is Ashley Hall, and I am the Adult Programs Coordinator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
From age four, paleontology has been a never-ending passion.
I have a non-traditional background in paleontology (if there is such a thing!) as I came from the field of anthropology—the study of humanity, our culture, and our evolution. I wanted badly to be a paleontologist, but my school did not have a program at the time, so I studied paleontology by piecing courses together. I signed up for several individual earth science and geology courses, and for my major, I studied animal bones at proto-historic archaeological sites in our zooarchaeology lab collections in order to figure out which animals these hunter-gatherer groups were eating. Learning how to tell a deer tibia from a moose tibia from an elk tibia really helped me in paleontology, because modern-day mammals have not changed much from their ancestors that we find in the fossil record, and learning the vertebrate body is essential to paleontology.
After college, I moved to Los Angeles and became an intern for the Bureau of Land Management at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology under Dr. Andrew Farke and Dr. Don Lofgren. When hearing that my job was to identify and catalogue fossil mammal bones from 15 million years ago, I was thrilled! The courses and identification of bones that I had studied so hard in college had paid off. After my internship, I was hired on as Assistant Curator of Paleontology at the Alf Museum, where I worked for five years and where I excavated, cleaned, catalogued, and curated thousands of fossils—not just from mammals, but also from dinosaurs, birds, fish, turtles, and invertebrates.
While working at the Raymond M. Alf Museum, I worked full-time as a Museum Educator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the world famous La Brea Tar Pits, where I developed tours, educational programming, and taught school classes on field trips. Working in both paleontology and education helped in my passion for teaching the public about the importance of fossils and museums.
How did you first become interested in the field and what are some of your favorite things to study right now?
I’ve always loved dinosaurs and can’t remember a time where I wasn’t obsessed with them. My parents loved museums, so they fostered my love for fossils and natural history by taking my brother and me to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, which was two hours from my house. We visited the Museum at every vacation, birthday, or special holiday that we could. Walking into the grand Stanley Field Hall still gives me chills every time I walk in. It’s an incredible place.
Right now, I’m obsessed with pterosaurs! Pterosaurs are an incredibly interesting and enigmatic group of animals that evolved a huge diversity of lifestyles during their time in the Mesozoic. Currently, I am slowly working on collecting data for a pterosaur project, which has been great fun, but challenging to do with a full-time job! We know so much more about dinosaurs compared to pterosaurs, which is why they’re intriguing to me. I love a good mystery, and pterosaur evolution is fairly unknown still, so it’s piqued my interest.
You’ve done a lot within the realm of paleontology education. What’s up with paleontology education now? How are you involved in it? What is your favorite current project going on?
Paleontology education is something I am passionate about because it combines my love of fossils and telling people about them! Right now, I am a moderator on the Paleontology Education Facebook Page, a collaborative page for educators who teach about paleontology in all realms of teaching—from pre-kindergarten to college. We welcome teachers of all backgrounds, both formal and informal, to share their methods, ideas, lesson plans, and programs with us in order to better educate people of all ages about paleontology. As Adult Programs Coordinator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, I work with our Vertebrate Paleontology staff (as well as all curators and collections staff) to create educational programming for people in the Cleveland area.
Right now, I am really into social media. I’m passionate about sharing fossils and paleontology on the #FossilFriday hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, as well as finding creative ways to share science content on Instagram Stories. Follow @thescicommunity on Instagram if you need new science content from scientists of all fields on your Instagram feed. The Scicommunity is a collaboration of scientists, science educators, and others who use social media to share their research. It’s a wonderful thing!
What is your favorite fossil and why?
Archaeopteryx lithographica! It’s so beautiful and meaningful. Archaeopteryx is meaningful to me because it changed how people viewed dinosaurs and bird evolution. We now know that theropod dinosaurs were covered in feathers and that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs. Archaeopteryx exhibits features from both birds and early theropod dinosaurs. Warning: If you read up on Archaeopteryx, you might just fall in love with it, too.
If you could share any advice with people who are interested in becoming a paleontologist, what would you tell them?
Ask questions. Write paleontologists online (Twitter!). Volunteer for a week on a dinosaur dig. There are more resources available now at our fingertips than any generation that has come before us, so go to your closest museum of natural history and find out how you can get involved. Volunteer. Study hard. Be persistent. Most importantly, do your research if you are interested in pursuing paleontology in college. Joining the Paleontology Education Facebook Page is a great place to start!