Paleontologist Bethany Burke of BK Bones
At Dinosaur Trips, we’re not just interested in dinosaurs and prehistoric life, we’re also interested in the history of paleontology, the paleontologists across generations who have shaped our understanding and appreciation for prehistoric life, and the incredible adventures that are tied to some of the most exciting discoveries in paleontology history.
Which begs the question: How do you become a paleontologist?
And; what’s it like working in a museum? And; what’s my work day like if I become a paleontologist? Am I too old to become a paleontologist?
As it turns out, there’s a lot of different ways people become paleontologists and a lot of different things you can do in the world of paleontology, fossil hunting, museum curating, and dinosaur research.
To learn more, Dinosaur Trips founder & director Zach Vanasse is chatting with people from all across the paleontology spectrum to learn more about what it’s like to be a paleontologist.
For this edition of ‘How to Become a Paleontologist,’ Zach had the awesome opportunity to talk to Bethany Burke of BK Bones. BK Bones is a big proponent of STEAM education and Bethany makes questioning, exploration and creativity the heart of her approach. Expect eye-catching images, fossils (and fossil replicas) and lots of high-energy interaction.
She also has experience working at dinosaur museums and educating the general public on all things dino and more!
Be sure to follow her on Instagram (@bkbonesdinos) and TikTok (@bkbones.dinos). Bethany also hosts truly engaging, educational, and fun virtual BK Bones shows for anyone, anywhere. You can learn more and book your virtual show here.
Zach Vanasse: So, how did you become a paleontologist?
Bethany Burke: My journey is kind of winding. I have always been obsessed with paleontology. I was three years old the first time I can remember being just obsessed with dinosaurs. I found out about Mary Anning; the great mother of paleontology. I learned how she would accidentally find all these great [fossils] in Lyme Regis. So I thought, as a child, that if I closed my eyes and ran into the greenbelt behind our house that I would trip on something and it would be a fossil. It was not.
It was only about three years ago that my mother actually found out that I wasn’t actually an accident prone child. I was trying to injure myself, somewhat on purpose, to find dinosaurs.
My journey took a turn when I was very ill as a teenager – I had MRSA; I was actually the national spokesperson for the MRSA Survivors Network – and paleontology was off the table because you have to be outside a lot to be a paleontologist, and that’s not something you can do when you are critically ill.
Once I recovered I wound up going to college for research. I have a degree in theoretical and rhetorical communication, which is just a fancy way to say “research writing.” So I have an extensive bachelor’s in research and a certification in fossil preparation.
[Becoming a paleontologist] definitely happened because of the pandemic. I was working as a video game producer and then the pandemic hit and I really re-evaluated what I wanted to do. And that has always been paleontology.
With my health in the clear, I really chose to be myself and go for what I wanted to do in life. I started signing up for college courses. My goal is to soon go to grad school for vertebrate paleontology or evolutionary biology. I’m up in the air on that. It’s definitely been a bit more of a winding road.
Why did you decide to start BK Bones?
I founded BK Bones because I love teaching children. I’ve been teaching children for 11 years. That was in the capacity of being 17 and a camp counselor, but also teaching in schools as a lead teacher, and I was the STEM teacher and coordinator for a foster home here in Texas. So I’ve always been really passionate about teaching and I’ve always been passionate about paleontology. I asked myself how do I get those two things together? My answer was BK Bones. It’s been a great journey.
I wouldn’t say I ever paused on my love of paleontology, it just wasn’t as active. I would still go fossil hunting and things like that in college. And my family would still go on vacation and there was something fossil related each time.
Which is why I love seeing a company like yours because it’s very difficult to get into paleontology. There’s a lot of restrictions about what you can do legally. It’s not just going out and being able to go and dig up dinosaurs. There’s a lot of processes that go into it. Having someone like Dinosaur Trips take care of that for you sounds pretty neat.
Yeah, in the early days of Dinosaur Trips when I was just getting the plan together, the big questions were: “How do we gain access? What are we allowed to do?”
Because it’s a science, but I think to a lot of outsiders there’s something about dinosaurs and paleontology that almost seems mythical, or at least inaccessible, almost from a different world altogether. So just getting into questions like “Can you go on a fossil dig?” Once I got into it, it was about finding the right contacts; the people who do have the permits and permission and aligning with them, as we have done for this first trip to Alberta. It’s very exciting.
I grew up in Quebec in Canada, and unlike in Texas or Alberta, you can’t just go out and find fossils with ease. That just seemed like something that happened in distant lands. So it’s exciting to find out that this is something people can do. That anyone can look for dinosaurs and join that experience. We’re pretty excited.
I’ve visited Canada twice. I went to Drumheller for less than 40 hours. I was visiting a friend who worked at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. It’s really cool. It was really pretty. Canada’s really high up there [on my list of my places to visit for dinosaurs]. I really don’t think people in the United States know that ya’ll up there in Canada have a lot more protection on fossils than we do here in the United States, which I think is fantastic.
The main legalities around the fossil trade and excavation came around in the United States in about 2009. [Canada] has had it nailed down for decades and decades. Is paleontology more accessible in Canada because of those? Is it a more common thing that people go out and fossil hunt?
From my research in creating Dinosaur Trips, I can say that there’s a lot more digs in the United States. There’s a lot more fossil hunts where anyone can just join. It’s much more rare for that to happen in Canada. The other part of being in Canada is Alberta and British Columbia are the two provinces that really have that significant paleontological footprint.
Whereas in the United States, it feels like right across the country, from the New Jersey and New York area, right across the midwest and into California, there are opportunities everywhere. Just between Montana, Colorado, and Texas there’s a lot more dig opportunities in the United States.
So when it came to connecting with the Philip J. Currie Museum or the Royal Tyrrell Museum – and the Dinosaur Research Institute in particular, who are putting on the four-day dinosaur dig that we’re taking part in, as part of our larger trip in Alberta – I was excited. One, obviously, because it’s Dr. Currie and he’s a legend in paleontology.
And two; I’m excited that it’s happening in Canada. The Dinosaur Research Institute does digs on an annual basis – or until the pandemic they were looking to do digs on an annual basis – but even some of those were in the United States. So a dig in Canada that the general public has access to is quite rare.
Yeah I haven’t heard of anything like that before. Canada, in my opinion, has some of the best fossils and preservation. It’s a great opportunity.
But back to you! What’s your favorite part of being a paleontologist?
I am an eclectic type of person. People have a lot of specializations. I have friends that just focus on one thing like sauropods; or long-necks. Or I have a friend that is more interested in trace fossils, so she studies things like footprints or literal snail trails. She tried to show me one and I was like “I don’t know what that is.”
I’m a vertebrate paleontologist. And I am a field paleontologist, which means I’m the one that’s going out there and digging things up. There are so many different kinds of paleontology. You don’t necessarily have to be the people out in the field.
I feel that the general public doesn’t really know that. Some people just prefer to work in collections in museums and don’t want to go out into the elements. And those people are just as important; they’re the researchers. I’m a little more eclectic because I am also a researcher and educator. I go around the state of Texas and talk at elementary schools, libraries, and children’s homes; and I talk about paleontology and I teach.
I also have a primary focus on marine reptiles. Mostly mosasaurus, but I am part of an active research team for a plesiosaur. I got to be the lead researcher on that and that’s a huge opportunity.
I’m a very get-in-the-dirt-and-dig kind of person. So half the year it’s teaching, half the year it’s research and digging for fossils. My favorite part of digging fossils, quite genuinely, is the part where I am the first person to ever see that fossil. I am the first human being to ever lay eyes on it and that is kinda astronomical as far as how cool it is.
Of course every paleontologist dreams of discovering and naming a new species and having a really big impact like Dr. Currie. Everyone wants something like that. But just the fact that I am the first person to ever see a bone that has been in the ground for 70 million years; that’s definitely my favorite part of digging up dinosaurs.
I know exactly what you mean. So much of what we talk about in travel when we are presenting it to the public is all about “discovery, discovery, discovery.”
But, it’s not really true discovery. You’re not actually discovering anything when you travel. I mean, personally you’re discovering things about yourself or your partner, for better or worse perhaps. But you’re not discovering anything the world has never seen before; or at least in 70 million years. This is one of the real authentic ways you can literally discover something.
There’s a chance you’re going to see something that has literally not been unearthed by anyone, certainly any human, ever before. It’s been dormant for 70-150 millions years. It’s exciting that we can say “discovery is something you can actually do on these trips.”
I think that’s definitely one of my favorite parts about what your company is doing. Especially for the younger crowd. How young can people be to go on your trips?
We have a few categories. You have to be at least 12 years old or for this first Badlands & Beyond trip. That’s the age the Dinosaur Research Institute has set for their fossil dig. But we will be returning to the Badlands of Alberta for the Fall, and for those we’re looking at 5 years old as the minimum age. So the holiday packages are going to be offered in a variety of ways. Some trips are going to be geared towards adults and the science might go a little deeper. Though I say that and then most people I talk to say “Oh my kid actually knows everything about dinosaurs.”
Five-year-olds sometimes make me uncomfortable with their knowledge! I’ll be like “I learned that in college!”
Speaking of working with kids, that leads to my next question. What’s it like working in a museum?
Oh boy! I have always worked at small museums. I’ve been fortunate enough to work at three. Most recently The Heritage Museum of the Texas Hill Country where I was a docent, and where I am still on board as their paleontology advisor. I am the person that is going to be coordinating their dig sites as well as identifying fossils that are brought in by the community.
I’ve worked at the Montana Dinosaur Center in Bynum, Montana. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place. Formerly the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center. And then I have lectured and I am a researcher at Texas Through Time Paleontology Museum. That’s where my plesiosaur research is happening.
There are more small museums than there are large museums. When you see these large museums that are perfectly greased machines, I’m just kind of like; “wow, that’s so cool.”
Because when you work at a small museum, you do everything. Even when I’m out there doing research, I’m also running the gift shop. I’m also the one that is changing the light bulbs. I’m out there in the rain patching parts of the dinosaur statues to make sure they don’t get ruined. It’s very all over the place, being a jack-of-all-trades.
It’s very rewarding because these small museums are doing research that is just as important as these large ones. Small museums tend to be a little more niche to certain areas, such as the Montana Dinosaur Center. They have a very clear idea of the area that they are working in and the wonderful work that they are doing is in Montana. That is their big thing. They are the Montana Dinosaur Center so they have Montana fossils.
And Texas Through Time is completely dedicated to the fossil record of Texas. So it’s not just dinosaurs, it’s going all the way to our earliest fossils going through the Permian and all the way through the Mesozoic, and even getting closer to the human age for our nice, gnarly sabercats and all of the animals from that era.
Working at a small museum, you have to be really passionate. I would love a position at a larger museum someday of course, but I feel that’s probably a little further into my career.
Having experience at a small museum is like working at a start-up. Even if the museum has been open for 25 years. I think [working at a small museum] is a very important part of developing not only a backbone in the industry, but understanding what goes into the public facing aspects of paleontology.
You know, everything needs to be funded. For all of this wonderful work that is being done, there are only so many grants. I write grant applications all of the time.
Yeah I can imagine that’s a big part of what you do.
Exactly. It’s the public that truly supports small museums, and even the larger museums. Working at small museums is definitely my favorite. I would love a curator position after I have kids for a more stable position.
I joke with my fiancée that we’re going to be the classic millennials and get a van and we’re going to gut it and do one of the van life things, but only for the summers, so that I can drag our kids out to digs and mommy doesn’t have to sacrifice her job! I’m slowly needling him into acceptance. Because it is happening.
Definitely the best part of working in museums is educating the public. Of course people do come in that have very strong opinions about how deep time works and all the authenticity of the fossil record. It is not my job to change someone’s opinion. It is my job to demonstrate and share the science that the institution I’m working for has. It’s never that I’m trying to belittle anyone’s religious beliefs or any core values that they have. All of us that are working at museums are trained on those kinds of interactions with the public and we’re all working to share what we have.
There’s something called the public scientific trust, which is where a fossil that is entered into the trust can be viewed by anyone in the entire world; they belong to the public. Researchers from the entire world can go look at a specimen in say, Detroit, but they come from Lithuania. Museums are trying to make science more accessible for people and that’s definitely my favorite part.
Though I will say, learning all the handyman parts of working at small museums has been pretty cool. I know how to do fiberglass insulation now, which is something I never thought that I would learn in my life.
Yeah you’re not expecting that to be something you learn from your paleontology career!
Yeah! But it’s great! I can identify lots of fossils, but I can also fix a boat if it breaks, which I totally need.