A career in science is very much NOT limited to being in a lab. And this is very much the case for today’s Scientist in the Spotlight. You will find him most of the time at the Raymond M. Museum of Paleontology where he is a paleontologist. Specifically, he is the Collections Manager and Outreach Coordinator for the Museum – a perfect fit for a scientist whose true passion lies in storytelling and education. But this first generation Filipino-American born and raised in sunny Los Angeles, California embraces his inner nerd outside museum life too where he can usually be found playing video games, reading comic books, hanging out with friends and so much more which will be revealed in the interview below. So, without further ado, please let me introduce you to today’s Spotlight feature; Gabriel S.
What is involved in a typical day in the life of a paleontologist?
Gabriel: That’s kind of hard because paleontology is such a big field with many different kinds of jobs out there! For me at the museum, I don’t really have a typical day because my day depends on what needs to be done at the museum. There is always something new and exciting coming up! Sometimes I can start out the day organising a new collection of fossils brought in from the field, but then a student comes in with a broken fossil that needs to be fixed. After that, I may need to do a video conference about some education workshops I am helping on, but then I also need to update the museum’s social media account. By lunch, I may be needing to give a quick tour to a school group followed by an hour of figuring out some server issue in our database. In the afternoon, I do help teach the after school museum science program where our students can work in the museum to learn about curation and preparation, but even that varies based on what is priority in the museum. I guess no matter what a typical day in the life of paleontologist will always be awesome!
Wow! That really is varied and must constantly be reigniting your passion. But what sparked your interest in paleontology in the first place?
Gabriel: So this is kind of a two part story. I may have always had an interest in paleontology, but I didn’t always want to be a paleontologist. As a kid, I had real thirst for knowledge and also a love for stories. I had a real overactive imagination and I guess it had a lot to do with my fascination with the unknown. So science was like the perfect thing for me! Shows like Magic School Bus and Bill Nye the Science Guy were on constant rotation at my house. Learning about the wonders of the universe not only satisfied my questions about the unknown, but also gave me new stuff with which I could fill my imaginary worlds. Being from LA, I was lucky because we had regular access to the Natural History Museum and the La Brea Tarpits too. Seeing those fossils really sparked my imagination and I had to know everything I could about these extinct animals that no human had ever seen alive. But that was about it for that. Paleontology was just not an option for me as a career choice. Being Filipino, I had certain cultural expectations placed upon me about my future career goals. I was to be a successful doctor and that was kind of that. I didn’t question it. That was just my future at the time and I actually wanted to do it..
Fast Forward to 1st year college Gabe, I still was pretty much the same kid with an overactive imagination with a love for science and a thirst for knowledge, but I was also a pre-med/biology major. Going through the experience of being a premed – along with the added hardship I guess of being diagnosed with major depressive disorder at the time – made me really not want to be a doctor. I didn’t love the field. It was not for me and it did nothing to fulfill my passions in life. So after graduating, I left that path behind and tried to find a new path. Fast forward again to a couple years later – and a diagnosis of my depression – I was working for my parents at their healthcare business. I was doing well, so my parents took me to New York City for my birthday. While I was there, I finally got to visit the American Museum of Natural History, a place I had been wanting to go for years! Walking around those halls and seeing all the exhibits and stories held within its walls really sparked something for me. Coming up to the giant Paraceratherium (giant rhino), I stood under that amazing fossil for like 15 minutes just thinking about how someone had to find that fossil. Someone had to figure out what it was. Someone had to put it together. Someone had to tell its story. Right then and there, I decided I wanted to work in a museum. So as soon as I got home, I started volunteering at a local paleontological research center and fast forward again to 6 years later, I am now a paleontologist at a museum getting to tell stories and learn something new everyday!
What is the most interesting fossil you have ever come across and why?
Gabriel: The most interesting fossil I have ever come across is actually the first fossil I ever published on! It was the mandible or lower jaw of a very strange marine mammal known as a desmostylian – picture a hippo with a long face that was the size of a small elephant and lived in the ocean! It was so interesting to me because it was so weird! First of all, it was huge. The bone on this animals was thick and robust, I had never seen anything like that before. Secondly, it had no teeth to speak of! Which was really weird for a desmostylian since they are known and named after their unique teeth that look like a bunch of california rolls bunched together! The questions I had about this specimen eventually led me to doing research with my advisor, Dr. James Parham, and my friend and mentor, Dr. Brian Beatty, and all of us publishing on the specimen!
What is something not everyone will know about a career in paleontology?
Gabriel: I would say that it is that there is no one way to be a paleontologist. Like I said before, paleontology is such a big and varied field. You can be an academic vertebrate paleontologist at a big university and study dinosaurs. You can be an invertebrate paleontologist that studies ancient snails in a museum. You can be a mitigation paleontologist dodging excavation equipment to save fossils on a construction site. You can be a teacher, a science communicator, a policy maker, a park ranger, or even a show writer. There are so many ways to have a career in paleontology!
So now for one of the questions that everyone has about fossils. Do you think we could ever use fossils to bring back extinct species?
Gabriel: I think Jurassic Park answers that question. Haha! This probably won’t work since DNA degrades really fast and we have yet to find any viable DNA from anything yet. Even if we did, I don’t think its a good idea to bring back extinct species like dinosaurs. The world they were adapted for is long gone. Let’s learn about them as much as we can, but let the dead rest. Now that’s not saying we can’t use it for modern species or those on the brink of extinction.
If you weren’t a paleontologist, what would you be?
Gabriel: Oh that’s easy. I wanted to be a theatre kid so bad. I love theatrics and drama. If I wasn’t a paleontologist – and if I were actually good at acting! – then I would love to be a stage actor! The glitz. The glam. The stage. It has always called to me! I have always wanted to play the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera or Alexander Hamilton! Haha!
I know you are also really passionate about education too. What would you love to start to spark inspiration and teach more people of all ages about fossils?
Gabriel: When it comes to education, I have come to learn that there is no one perfect way to teach someone or even get someone interested in starting. From my background, I also know that good science education is a privilege that few can really obtain. There are those who just don’t have access to science education, those who shun, and those who have been denied it. And there are many reasons too, from social/economical background to cultural reasons. What I want to do is develop programs that allows for easy access to science education and create ways to make science education more relatable, inclusive, and accessible to a wide range of audiences. I find that using familiarity and relating science back to people’s everyday lives is a great way to get people to start to develop interest in learning about science. By connecting scientific concepts to something a person can relate back to in their usual days, I hope they can remember information a little better and maybe be inspired to learn more.
To accomplish this, I have two big dreams when it comes to education. One is already in the works and that is the Cosplay for Science Initiative I co-found with my good friends and colleagues, Brittney Stoneburg, Michelle Barboza, and Isaac Magallanes. The other is to create a non-profit in the Philippines that can work as a mobile classroom to teach Filipinos about natural history and conservation with the final goal of building my own museum and school. I would like to help inspire a new generation of Filipino scientists and give back to the homeland that my parents cherish.
Tell us more about your love for Cosplay.
Gabriel: Cosplay is so much fun! For a brief moment, you get to become someone else with amazing powers or someone who goes on amazing adventures. You can be a space marine with the power control gravity. You can be a Pokemon master ready to take on the Elite Four. You can become a Guardian ready to defend Earth against the Darkness. During that time when you have on that costume, you become whoever you want to be and you gain a confidence to just be awesome. That feeling is just so frakking cool!!
What made you start your Cosplay for Science initiative?
Gabriel: Cosplay for Science Initiative is a small, fun science communication project that my friends and I started. It came out of our love for nerdy things like comic books and cosplay and our want to be better science communicators and educators. It started out with just four paleontologists, but we now have a chemist (Kellen Kartub), a neuroscientist (Matt Hudgens-Haney), and a physicist/education specialist (Ginny Liz). What we hope to do is use cosplay to make scientists more relatable and less intimidating and then get people interested in learning about science behind their favorite franchises like Jurassic Park or Pokemon. Most of us work in museums and we know the struggle it is sometimes to get people to engage and really want to learn. A lot of people also see scientists as scary to approach out of fear of sounding stupid. So by dressing up, we hope to get people to and get them to engage with us. For example, let’s say we are at a comic con, a place full of people who are already likely to have some interest in science. They walk around to our booth and then see a bunch of dinosaur fossils on a table with people dressed in costumes from Jurassic Park. If that were me, I’d be hella interested to talk with those people about Jurassic Park and ask them questions about the real science behind Jurassic Park. We’ve only been around now for a year, but we’ve definitely noticed that people are much willing to stay and talk at our booths during comic-cons to talk about science when we relate it back to something they are interested in! Also, we get to be professional cosplayers and that is just freaking awesome! Haha.
That sounds amazing! But delving into your science communication, why are you learning Tagalog to help?
Gabriel: Learning Tagalog for science communication is important to me because like I said earlier, good and meaningful science education is not readily available to most in the Philippines. Many people don’t even know what a dinosaur is! I once even had a relative ask me whether or not dinosaurs were real. Here in America, I got a really good education and had the privilege to choose science as my focus. I know there are many kids in the Philippines who love to have the opportunities I had. So I want to use my skills and privilege to bring science education to the Philippines that many people can enjoy. By learning Tagalog and using it when I talk about science, the people that I hope to interact with in the Philippines will see a Filipino scientist talking and maybe help them see that they can be a Filipino scientist too.
And finally, where in the world should I be visiting next?
Gabriel: I would say you must visit the Philippines and do a food tasting trip. Filipino food is my favorite and in our culture sharing food is sharing love. Its the best way to experience our unique mix of cultures in the Philippines and an experience that both your soul and stomach will never forget.
Huge thank you to Gabe for taking the time to answer my questions and give us an insight into being a paleontologist and your passions outside of the job. I have definitely discovered that we have a lot of shared passions and hopefully I can embrace some Cosplay for Science soon 🙂
If you have any questions for Gabe about anything you have been introduced to here then please ask them in the comments or head over to Instagram or Twitter to follow him! Or if you are interested to know more about CosPlay for Science, find them on Instagram, Twitter or their website to embrace all your inner nerdiness 🙂
And, where are they now?
If you missed what Spotlight September was all about then check back here. But this is the second year that I am doing this monthly special on my blog, and as well as bringing you NEW stories from scientists and engineers around the world, I also want to catch up with the scientist’s I have previously featured on my blog.
Today we are catching up with Ironman and my school friend Alex T. Check out Alex’s Scientist in the Spotlight feature from last year’s Spotlight September to see how far he has come in a year and how you can follow him on social media.
S P O T L I G H T S E P T E M B E R 2018 is in full swing, and I am very excited to bring you more stories from scientists across the world. Make sure to check back in every Monday and Friday in September to meet another scientist and learn about their story, and to catch up with our previously featured scientists too. Did you enjoy this story today? Is there anyone you would love to see featured on my Scientist in the Spotlight features over the next year?
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