Hello and welcome to another edition of Paleo Profiles!
Today, we’re talking with Sara ElShafie, Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
We’re so excited to have you join us for this month’s interview, Sara!
Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you first become interested in paleontology?
I was intrigued by dinosaurs as a kid, but I didn’t know much about paleontology growing up. It wasn’t until college that I really discovered it.
I was looking for a summer job after my first year at the University of Chicago and found an opportunity to work in the Fossil Lab there as a preparator. I started learning more about the bones I was cleaning, and I got hooked.
I really enjoy working with my hands, and the tactile evidence of studying fossils appealed to me.
What do you enjoy about your work in paleontology and evolutionary biology?
I love the combination of science and art that paleontology requires. You have to use both critical thinking and imagination to reconstruct past worlds. I really enjoy the detective work involved in piecing together the evidence – literally, in the case of fossil bones!
I also love having the opportunity to travel all over the world to do field work, visit collections, attend conferences, and work with interesting, passionate people.
Plus, the animals we study are just so cool, and it’s really fun to compare them to animals that we still have around today. I relish drawing connections between living and extinct animals to better understand both.
What’s your favorite fossil, and why?
We have a beautiful skull of a large fossil lizard called Glyptosaurus in the University of California Museum of Paleontology collections.
It’s about 50 million years old, found in Wyoming, and it’s one of the few and most complete skulls known of that taxon. We are lucky to have it right here in our collections.
Tell us more about your involvement in science communication and storytelling. How did your project work in this field come about?
As I was preparing for my PhD qualifying exams, I started to realize how much I was struggling to explain my work to my own family. That really bothered me. So I decided to improve my science communication skills.
My family members love to swap stories, and I have always loved movies, so I figured that using storytelling the way filmmakers do would be a good way to make science interesting and accessible for people.
I started reaching out to professional filmmakers at studios, starting with Pixar Animation Studios, to see if I could learn some strategies from them. To my surprise, I found that these filmmakers were not only happy to help, but also just as excited to talk to a scientist as I was to talk to them!
Those interactions snowballed into an ongoing workshop series that I now run called “Science Through Story.” I also organized a symposium at a biology conference, “Science Through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences,” with speakers from both scientific and artistic disciplines. A series of papers from that symposium, written for a wide readership, is now available for free online.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
I encourage everyone to think about what you enjoy doing, what causes you want to support, and how you might be able to combine those things! And if you’d like to get updates on upcoming “Science Through Story” workshops, as well as some recommended storytelling and science communication resources, I invite you to check out my website and join my mailing list. : )