How to Become a Paleontologist with Katherine Parsons

Katherine Parson of Katie Digs Dinos and Dinomite Replicas & Fossil Co.

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?

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 Katherine Parsons of Katie Digs Dinos. She’s been documenting her journey on the path to becoming a paleontologist, her fossil dig experiences, her museum work, and her casting work on her social media channels. 

Be sure to follow her on Instagram  at @Katie.Digs.Dinos, on Twitter at @katiedigsdinos, and on TikTok @katiedigsdinos.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Be sure to check out the full conversation between Zach Vanasse and Katherine Parsons on YouTube and at the end of this interview.

Zach Vanasse: As I’m asking all paleontologists that we’ve been chatting with here at Dinosaur Trips; how does someone become a paleontologist? So far we’ve learned there’s a lot of different journeys to becoming one, so take us on yours. 

Katherine Parsons: So as you said there, there’s a bunch of different pathways that any one individual could take to becoming a paleontologist. I think that I’ve had probably the most straightforward journey that anyone could have. This goes all the way back to when I was three years old and, and for context, I’m 22 now, and turning 23 at the end of 2023.

So, I’ve been into dinosaurs for a very, very long time. And that’s a pattern I’ve noticed with a lot of paleontologists. I’ve had a long time to plan my educational journey and my educational career and calculate what steps that I want to take that would get me from point A to point B.

I actually started volunteering when I was 17 years old at the Earth Experience Museum of Natural History, while I was still a high school student. And I did all sorts of things. A lot of housekeeping, a lot of cleaning cases, a lot of sweeping, a lot of dusting. And I started with my university program about a year and a half later.

I went into college for a bachelor’s degree in geology specifically. Mostly because I’ve seen several people take different paths and geology tends to – in my opinion – have the most overlap as far as an undergraduate degree for something that’s not specifically paleontology, because of course there are schools for [paleontology] as well.

But if you’re in an area where there isn’t a school that has a paleontology program or you just can’t get to that school for whatever reason, geology is always the way to go. I will always push that. Upon starting my degree, our museum director, who is a lecturer at my undergraduate university, offered me a paid position as an employee at the museum, which I took, and that was in September of 2019.

Between then and now I’ve been doing a bunch more around the museum. I’ve gotten a lot of hands-on experience with fossil molding and casting, and a lot of prep work in our paleo labs, [as well as] some collections work, and assessing and cleaning awesome stuff in our collections.

And of course, going out into the field in Montana every summer. I have actually just recently concluded my degree. I graduated this previous December, and I’m starting on a master’s at the University of Memphis, where I’ll be focusing on sedimentology and stratigraphy, which is the science of sedimentary rocks and where fossils are found, as well as investigating some fossils in Cretaceous deposits in Tennessee.

Obviously you were focused on becoming a paleontologist from a very young age. How did you come to be so convinced that this was the right path for you?

I think my earliest introduction to dinosaurs would have been the 1999 BBC series, ‘Walking With Dinosaurs.’ I can’t quite remember because it’s been a long time, obviously, but that was the first paleo series I remember being obsessed with.

I just remember thinking that really big lizards were really awesome, and that was kind of the start of my dinosaur craze. And it never really lost momentum for me. I’ve always been into dinosaurs. I’ve wanted to veer off a couple times – for things like veterinary sciences, conservation biology, animation – but I’ve always come back to paleontology. There’s never really been much doubt in my mind.

Now that you’re into academia and the studying of it all, does it still bring that same excitement for you?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Now more than ever. Especially once I started my Instagram and became more exposed to the other members in the paleo community. I wasn’t aware of how many research areas there are in paleontology. And that freaked me out for a little while, but now I really want to know how [dinosaurs functioned]. Especially from a paleobiology standpoint. Something that I’m really interested in now is functional morphology; better understanding how these dinosaurs would’ve grown up from babies to adults, and how they would’ve lived and moved and worked with their environment, as well as other dinosaurs and other organisms in their environment.

And that’s primarily what has kept me so interested the past couple of years; what can we see in the rock record and in the fossil record that would lead us to believe these things or lead us to certain conclusions about their living situation. 

One thing I find interesting as I delve deeper into dinosaur research and paleontology is that it seems to me like there’s a lot of imagination that still goes into it, especially  when compared to some other sciences. There’s still this spark of imagination within this field of science that really seems to fuel a lot of the most exciting theories and discoveries. So much of it is simply trying to kind of imagine this world that these creatures lived in. 

Yeah, absolutely. Paleontology is a great mixture of both the arts and the sciences. Especially in certain areas of paleontology, like casting, which is what I do mostly at our museum. You have to be able to look at the rocks or your unpainted cast and visualize what this would’ve looked like if it were still in the ground, because a lot of the time we don’t have reference images for that. 

Or you know, from a paleontological standpoint, if you’re doing research, you have to sit and imagine; how would this work? It takes a great deal of creativity, a dedication to the arts and the creative side of thinking, just as much as it does to science and the logical side of thinking.

Now you mentioned before we officially started this interview that you just got back from the museum today. So, talk a little bit about how you got into working for a museum and what that experience is like.

My museum story is kind of funny. Like I said, I was a high school student whenever I started volunteering. I was a junior in high school and earth science actually isn’t a required part of the curriculum in Tennessee (I totally think it should be, I’m a little biased, but I totally think it should be). But I was so excited that our high school had an earth science class.

So much so that I actually skipped taking chemistry whenever I was supposed to take it and decided to take earth science, which I could have waited to take, but I just wanted to really get into it. I was so excited to start learning about the earth, so I did. And at the very end of the year, Alan Brown, our museum director, actually paid a visit to the school and he came specifically to our earth science class.

He brought a bunch of fossils and talked about the museum and Tennessee’s fossils and geologic history. I specifically remember him asking if anyone in the classroom wanted to become a paleontologist and I was sitting at the very back of the classroom. 

My hand shot up. I was the only person in the class and he brought all of the fossils that he had taken with him that day and dropped them all at my desk so that I could take a look at them. And he went into talking about the museum and about how there were volunteer opportunities. I went home and immediately started begging my parents to take me to this museum. 

I was enthralled with everything that they had and a couple of weeks later I started volunteering. I found that most museums will have some sort of volunteer program, whether they’re really, really big, or a small nonprofit, in the case of the Earth Experience.

My very first day volunteering I started in the casting lab. That’s typically where we start our volunteers. It’s the easiest place for them to start. And I mean this in the kindest way possible, it’s the easiest place to start them where they won’t break anything.  

And I’ve always been an arts student. Like I said, I veered off for a little bit because I wanted to do animation.  I’m actually a 2D cartoon artist as well. I just don’t post about my stuff. And when I found casting, everything clicked into place. 

Finding an intersection between working directly with fossils and also using my artistic creative ability, it really clicked for me. I have been working almost every single day in the casting lab ever since. Making replicas, making molds of fossils so that we can make new replicas, and painting replicas so that they look like the original fossils.

So a lot of what I do is gift shop, cast work, because we do sell fossil casts in our gift shop. But I have also been doing larger cast work for exhibits. 

For people who don’t really know what casting is, could you take us through the basics of that process?

Yeah, absolutely. So casts, in a very simple sense, are fossil replicas. They are one-to-one scale exact copies of the original that capture all of the detail.

A lot of institutions are now moving towards 3D scanning and printing, although the technology isn’t quite up there with analog methods as far as getting the most accurate print scanning. Printing still maybe got a couple years to go on that. So we use analog methods. We use silicone rubber.

And so, I have my fossil, I’ll put it up on a clay pedestal of some non-drying clay. I’ll encase that in a cardboard structure – usually just a cardboard box I make from scrap cardboard – and then I’ll mix up some silicone rubber and pour it over top of the original fossil, which takes about 12 to 18 hours to dry, or just solidify, depending on the type of silicone you use.

Once you remove the fossil from that silicone, what you get is a negative impression that has completely recorded all of the details [of the original fossil]. If there’s any bone marrow, you get that on the cast. Any striations, bite marks, any little dents or dings on the bones, you get that in the pre-production.

What you’re left with is a much more durable and a cheaper version of the fossil. And, by cheaper I mean in the sense of monetarily, because it’s going to cost a lot more to buy a real tyranno. 

And so from there, I’ll sometimes have some sharper edges from where the resin leaked off into the rest of the mold and I’ll sand those off with a power tool. Then I’ll paint it to look like the original. 

Oh wow, that’s, that sounds really fun actually. We’re definitely going to include some casting experiences on upcoming Dinosaur Trips experiences for sure. 

Now, another thing that our guests are going to  get to do – certainly with this summer’s trip and in many of our trips going forward, is they will get to take part in an actual, authentic, genuine dinosaur dig. You’ve had the chance to do this. Take me through a little bit of what it’s like being out there in the field  and hunting for fossils.

In Montana, in July, it can get very hot. The heat can get intense if you’re not expecting it. Two years ago, I think, was the hottest that it’s been on any of my field excursions. It reached about 106 degrees Fahrenheit one day on the dig site. We actually didn’t get a whole lot of work done that day. It was mostly just sitting around the dig site and having a few adult beverages of choice.

Haha, yes, I feel that actually speaks to what we’re doing at Dinosaur Trips in a big way!

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. 

So it can get very hot. The terrain can be rugged. The sedimentary rocks out there are fairly loose. It’s a lot of sand stones, mud stones, clay stones. There’s a lot of what we call popcorn out there. That’s where there’s been some recent rain events in the topsoil where it looks like little popcorn chunks of dirt. It can be a little slippery in some places if you don’t have your footing 

But when you get to the dig site or when you’re prospecting for fossils, it is the most fun experience you’ll ever have. 

Now, I myself, am a fan of sitting and working at a dig site rather than prospecting and that’s a very personal issue. This is not something I’ve talked about before; I have a lazy-eye. So I actually have double vision. I see two of everything all the time, which, as you can imagine, does make rock counting and fossil hunting, especially for little itty bitty micro fossils or float – which are tiny little bone chunks – a little bit difficult.

So I like to sit and work at the bone bed sites. It’s also very time consuming because these sediments are looser. It means whenever fossils have been exposed to the surface, they tend to weather and break apart and powderize easier than things that might be preserved in harder sediments, such as invertebrate fossils, and limestone, which is what we have a lot of in Tennessee. So things can start to powderize. And it takes a lot of patience to work at a dig site. My very first year I was working on a triceratops rib, and I think it took me about eight hours to uncover seven inches of bone along the rib.

It was already kind of in the process of turning to powder. I tried to pick up a little bone chunk and it just turned to dust in my hand. So a lot of gluing that. Half of the rib was already exposed, so a lot of the work was already done for me by the time I got out there.

Paleontologists don’t have any set of special tools that we use. It’s a lot of things like paintbrushes and things like that that you’d find at Home Depot or Lowe’s, or any other hardware stores. We use screwdrivers; flathead and pointedhead alike. It makes it easier to get to some of  the fossils underneath the rocks that they’re in. I like to use pocket knives. They’re great. But a lot of our tools are very unconventional. You wouldn’t think that they’re the type of tools you would find in a paleontologist’s field pack. But that means that anyone could go to a hardware store or to a craft store, get clay molding tools or sculpting tools, dental picks – we use a lot of those both in the field and in our prep labs – just anything that could gently get the sediment away from the bone is the stuff that we use.

In my experience we haven’t typically had a need for the bigger tools like rock hammers or, goodness forbid, jackhammers or anything like that, that some other people in different outcrops in different time periods might have to use. 

It’s a lot of patience with some pretty unconventional tools.

Do you have a favorite find?

I do. I actually found a juvenile triceratops toe bone that I got to keep. And anyone who knows me knows that Triceratops is my favorite dinosaur. It’s been my favorite dinosaur since I was three years old. So that was probably the best thing I could have ever found. And it’s not a whole toe bone. It’s about half a toe bone, but it’s a juvenile triceratops toe bone. I will never forget that. It’s probably going to be my favorite for a long time.

That’s so great. Alright. One more thing that I wanted to talk about was your work through social media. How did it come about that you started sharing your paleontological journey and details about museum life on social and growing a pretty huge audience. 

I didn’t start Katie Digs Dinos with the idea in mind that this would be a place to showcase my career or the things that I was doing, or the things that I was finding.

It’s pretty funny. I was actually on a different one of my social media pages and I had joined a paleo artist livestream. I can’t remember who the paleo artist was, but I noticed in the comments that someone was a paleontologist and they were talking with the paleo artist about how accurate their art was.

And they were talking about different paleontological discoveries. I saw that and I was thinking to myself; “Wait a minute. There are paleontologists on Instagram? If there’s one person here who has a dedicated account to paleontology, there are probably more people on here who like paleontology, or that are paleontologists, or who are involved with paleontology.”

And since that was something that I wanted to get into, I transformed my old photography account into my paleontology account.  It wasn’t the same name I had now, it was just Katie Parsons Paleo, which I later changed to Katie Digs Dinos. And I decided from there that, hey, if there’s one person on here posting paleo, there might as well be two. I just decided to go for it and from there it opened a door. I started meeting a whole bunch of other people in the field.

It really became quite a useful networking tool. I got to meet a bunch of other people in the field and really started to learn what it meant to be a paleontologist. It was quite monumental for me to receive feedback from people who are currently in the field and get advice about how I could do the same.

And that’s part of what I like to do with my account as well. Half of it is a documentation on some of the stuff that I get up to around the museum and with fossil hunting and my own business. And then the other half of it is my academic journey and talking about becoming a paleontologist, because I’m sure many people know if you Google ‘how to become a paleontologist,’ it’s not like there’s a great array of resources for people to utilize. 

And, like you said, there are many paths into this, but I found there wasn’t a whole lot of information when I was 17 and looking for it. So that’s kind of been the goal with my account.

Yeah, I was going to ask you what piece of advice you’d have for a young person who wants to be a paleontologist, but I guess that advice would be to follow people like yourself and see their journey. 

Every paleontologist has a different journey to how they came to it and many times, it seems, paleontologists themselves are very surprised by what caught their interest once they started studying, and then they are surprised by the specific road they went down.

Yeah, it’s a very dynamic science. I didn’t even start studying invertebrate fossils until the beginning of last August, because I was required to take an invertebrate paleontology course for my undergraduate, and I have just absolutely fallen in love with invertebrate paleontology. So that’s yet another branch of paleontology I’m going to have to work to narrow down.

My final question for you is: if you could travel anywhere in the world with the goal of exploring through the lens of paleontology; where would you go?

Oh, goodness. That is a tough question. Most of my interest lies in North American paleontology. I actually haven’t been to the Museum of the Rockies yet, but I am going to get to go there this summer. I’m pretty excited about that. 

But besides out in Montana, which is my dream dig location and I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to do that for the past few years now, I also have a really big interest in Abelisaurids, so if I was able to dig anywhere in the world, it would probably be in South America where you can find them. 

Well we’re definitely heading to South America as a Dinosaur Trips destination soon! There are some great dig opportunities and some amazing little museums, especially in Patagonia. 

Well Katie, thanks so much for chatting with me and all the best of luck with your master’s and your PhD. Where can people find you if they want  to follow you on social? 

You can find me on Instagram at @Katie.Digs.Dinos, on Twitter at @katiedigsdinos, and on TikTok @katiedigsdinos. If you go to any one of my pages, I have a link tree  that leads to my shop, Dinomite Replicas, where I sell my cast replicas as well as some mineral specimens and fossil specimens.

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How to Become a Paleontologist with Katherine Parsons

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