February 11th, 2021

This year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day meant to celebrate the contributions of women and girls in science, and remove barriers that hold them back. 

Throughout February, The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum wants to celebrate the contributions that women have made to the field of palaeontology!

Statistics provided by the United Nations

On December 22nd, 2015, the United Nations adopted a resolution to establish an annual International Day to recognize the critical role women and girls play in science and technology communities.

Today, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women. According to UNESCO data (from 2014 – 2016), only around 30% of all female students in higher education select STEM-related fields. 

Around the world, female student enrolment is exceptionally low in the following: 3% in Information & Communication Technologies, 5% in Natural Science, Mathematics & Statistics and 8% in Engineering, Manufacturing & Construction (as seen on the graph).

More statistics regarding Women in Science! 

Historic WOmen in palaeontology

True story of Mary Anning: The girl who helped discover dinosaurs | BBC Ideas

Mary Anning

1799-1847

This amazing woman is sometimes called the “Princess of Palaeontology”! Her discoveries helped to create palaeontology as a scientific field but her contributions were not recognized in her lifetime.

Tilly Edinger, courtesy of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology

Dr. Ottelie (Tilly) Edinger

1897-1967

Dr. Ottelie (Tilly) Edinger, the woman who founded a new field of inquiry – paleoneurology, the study of fossil brains. Dr. Edinger was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany in 1897. She was educated first by private tutors at home, and then as a teenager at Schiller-Schule, a secondary school for girls. Dr. Edinger father, Ludwig Edinger, was a neurologist and she quickly adopted his scientific interest.

However, her father was against her pursuit of a career in science, as he thought women should not have professional careers, and her mother referred to science as her “hobby”. Despite this, Dr. Edinger was determined and studied zoology, geology, and palaeontology, eventually receiving her doctorate from the University of Frankfurt in 1921.

For the first 15 years of her career, she worked in a series of unpaid positions. It was during this time that she wrote her foundational work on paleoneurology “Die Fossilen Gehirne” (Fossil Brains).

Her life changed dramatically with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s. Dr. Edinger was at great risk of Nazi persecution, as both a Jewish woman, and a woman with a disability—having suffered from progressive hearing loss since her teenage years.

In 1939 her friends in the international science community helped her escape first to London, and eventually to the United States. In 1940 she took up her first salaried position at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. That same year, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was founded, with Dr. Edinger as the only female member. Dr. Edinger would go on to become the society’s President in 1963. She continued to make strides in paleoneurology throughout the rest of her career.

After her sudden death in 1967, colleagues completed and published her final work, an annotated bibliography which still serves as a foundational text for the field today. 

Sources: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/…/woman-who-shaped…/ & https://www.museumoftheearth.org/daring…/bio/tilly-edinger

Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls

1946-2004

Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls was born Elizabeth Roberts in 1946, and knew she wanted to be a palaeontologist from the time she was 6 years old! After completing her bachelors degree in Palaeontology from the University of California, she moved to Calgary with her husband Jim in 1969. 

After completing her master’s degree on Campanian Turtles at the University of Calgary, she stepped back from her academic career to raise two daughters. Even during this time though, she never stopped working with fossils, excavating, preparing and mounting several including a Jurassic plesiosaur that remains on display today at the University of Calgary.

She completed her PhD on marine reptiles in 1989 and began work at the Royal Tyrrell Museum as their marine reptile specialist. Her work not only made her a leading expert but established western Canada as one of the world’s most important regions for Triassic marine reptiles. Her most famous work was the excavation and preparation of the world’s largest known marine reptile, a 23-metre long Triassic Ichthyosaur. The project took 10 years to complete and won her a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2000. She named the reptile Shonisaurus sikanniensis in her final paper complete just before her death in October 2004.

Sources: https://searcharchives.ucalgary.ca/index.php/dr-elizabeth-betsy-nicholls-fondshttps://archive.macleans.ca/article/2000/10/9/a-big-fish-story https://discoverfossils.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/PRESENTATION-VERSION-MAY-6-2017-BETSY-NICHOLLS.pdf

Current WOmen in palaeontology

Calla Scott

Collections and Research Technician – Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum

How did you become interested in palaeontology?

I first became interested in Dinosaurs after learning about the Museum’s Preparation Lab Volunteer Program. Getting to work with dinosaur bones is a really incredible experience, as you work you uncover bone that has never been seen by any other person before you. It is a very surreal experience. It has definitely been interesting learning more about dinosaurs over the last three years!

What is your favourite dinosaur? (and why?)

I think I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Museum’s star dinosaur, Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, since that is the animal I have gotten to work on the most. I’m currently working on a Pachyrhinosaurus skull and every time I look at it I feel like I’m nose to nose with a real life dragon.
 

What does you day to day look like?

As the Collections and Research Technician, I’m responsible for taking care of the fossils. In the summer I get to help the palaeontologist with excavations, and in the off seasons I spend my time cataloguing and preparing fossils with our volunteers, either for research by paleontologists or for display. I also build display supports for the fossils.

What did you study/ where did you study?

I have a bachelor’s degree in anthropology (the study of humans) from the University of Victoria. I knew I wanted to work in museums but at the time, I didn’t know I would find myself in a Dinosaur Museum! Luckily, Archaeology and palaeontology use a lot of the same techniques and principles so that training has been a big help. My human osteology courses have also been very useful since often the same terms are used in both human and animal anatomy.

Do you have any research you’d like to highlight?

I was able to help prepare some fossils for Graduate students Rebekah Vice for her research on post-cranial elements from Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, and for Bray Holland for his work on hadrosaurid bonebeds.

What barriers do you think women face when going into palaeontology/ working in palaeontology?

Not a lot of girls are given dinosaur toys to play with so there’s a false assumption that dinosaurs are just for boys and girls don’t grow up dreaming of being palaeontologists in the same way. Know that you are never too old to become interested in dinosaurs!

What advice would you give to girls aspiring to be palaeontologists? 

Volunteer! Volunteering is a great way to get an insight into the field. You get to meet other people interested in palaeontology and the staff can answer a lot of your questions. You don’t have to already be involved in palaeontology, if you’re just curious like I was look into volunteer opportunities either at the Philip J. Currie Museum or at another natural history museum.

Dr. Darla K Zelenitsky

Associate Professor, Department of Geoscience – University of Calgary

How did you become interested in palaeontology?

I became interested in dinosaurs when I was four years old, an interest fostered by museum visits and reading books as a child.

 

What is your favourite dinosaur? (and why?)

My current favorite is Thanatotheristes because it is a new species of tyrannosaur from southern Alberta discovered by Jared Voris, a Ph.D. student in my lab at the University of Calgary. Also, I really like a group of dinosaurs known as oviraptorids because they cared for their eggs more than any other dinosaur we know.

 

Who do you look up to in the palaeo world? (and why?)

Among more senior researchers, definitely Dr. Philip J. Currie (University of Alberta) because he has remained true to dinosaur research/fieldwork over the decades (and humble) even after his numerous popular successes. As well, the late Dr. Karl F. Hirsch (University of Colorado, Denver Museum) who, in the 1980-1990s, tirelessly dedicated himself to the advancement of our knowledge of dinosaur eggs, reproduction, and nesting sites. Among more junior researchers, I am in awe of people like Dr. Steve Brusatte (University of Edinburgh), Dr. Lindsay Zanno (North Carolina Museum), and Jasmina Wiemann (Yale University), whose brilliance and determination have made them tremendous young achievers in dinosaur paleontology.
 

What does your work focus on?

As a professor at the University of Calgary, my work is primarily focused on studies related to the anatomy, growth, behavior and evolution of dinosaurs. I am most interested in dinosaur eggs, dinosaur young, and a group of dinosaurs known as theropods which are ancestral to birds.

 

What did you study/ where did you study?

For my undergrad program, I took coursework in both geological and biological sciences at the University of Manitoba, with a degree in geological sciences.  I did my graduate degrees at the University of Calgary where my research was primarily related to dinosaur nesting sites.

What achievement(s) are you most proud of?

At this stage in my career, I am most proud of the achievements made by my students at the University of Calgary and by students at other universities with whom I have had the opportunity to work.

 

Do you have any research you’d like to highlight?

Yes. These are all projects that I have published over the past year with dedicated and motivated students or former students. My PhD student (Jared Voris, University of Calgary) recognized and described a new tyrannosaur dinosaur from Alberta, one of the geologically oldest members of its family in North America. This dinosaur, Thanatotheristes, name means the Reaper of Death. My former Ph.D. student and current professor (Dr. Kohei Tanaka, University of Tsukuba, Japan) reported on the first dinosaur nest found in Japan, a discovery that also became a Guinness World Record for the smallest known dinosaur eggs! Yale University graduate students (Jasmina Wiemann, Matteo Fabbri) reported on the first soft-shelled eggs known for dinosaurs in the prestigious journal Nature (they also had other research featured in NG magazine!). All these studies made the news this past year.

 

What barriers do you think women face when going into palaeontology/ working in palaeontology?

I believe that women face many barriers in science, particularly if they are trying to establish themselves as career scientists/researchers. Although we are more aware today, there are systemic barriers in society and workplaces (too much to explain here, but do an internet search) that have made it incredibly difficult for women to succeed in research beyond the doctoral/postdoctoral level. In sciences, discrimination against women is a systemic issue, which in my experience, is not necessarily perpetrated by a particular gender.

How do you feel your gender has impacted your experiences in your career/research/education?

I believe that my gender, although not necessarily always in a positive way, has had a huge impact on my experiences, extending back to the early 1990s as a student initially and then as a researcher/professor. Although there have been improvements along the way, I believe that there is still much work to be done to achieve gender equality in scientific research. Now, I work hard with the young generation of graduate students preparing them to become researchers and academics, and hope that they will not endure such hardships.

 

What changes do you think need to be implemented to help encourage women in palaeo/ open more doors for women in palaeo/ remove barriers?

Because women only started to make research strides in dinosaur paleontology in the 1990s (when I first started my graduate career), today we are essentially still just breaking ground in the field. As there are many more female graduate students in the field now, I believe the biggest challenge (also for science in general) is for women to establish and maintain themselves as career researchers beyond graduate school. Women who are serious about dinosaur research need strong and continual support by their institutions and supervisors in order to be successful scientists/researchers.

 

Are there any recent positive changes that have helped remove barriers for women in palaeo?

In Canada, there are more dinosaur paleontologists who are working as professors and research scientists in major universities and museums than ever before, although few are women. That said, this increase in dinosaur workers has opened up positions for more graduate students of all genders, including women, who want to become paleontologists. I really hope that this will translate to more women supported in major research positions in the near future. The University of Calgary had the foresight, many years ago, to hire me as one of the first women at a major institution in Canada whose main role has been, along with my students whom I supervise, to study dinosaurs.

 

What advice would you give to girls aspiring to be palaeontologists? 

If you love the outdoors, the natural world, making observations, or figuring out mysteries, paleontology may be the field for you! One thing I have learned is that most paleontologists working now loved dinosaurs during their childhood. If you are still in secondary school, work hard and focus on the sciences, and try volunteering for a museum.  If you are already a university student, focus on your studies and try research so you can potentially help us make new discoveries about dinosaurs!



Dr. Jingmai O’Connor

Associate Curator of Fossil Reptiles – Field Museum

How did you become interested in palaeontology?

I found paleo relatively late in life. My interest in evolution was sparked while taking a historical geology class my freshman year in college. I had a wonderful teacher, a paleontologist named Donald Prothero – I guess you could say his passion was infectious! He introduced me to every aspect of being a paleontologist, from field work to research, collections visits, and academic conferences.

What is your favourite dinosaur? (and why?)

The Late Jurassic scansoriopterygid Yi qi. It dramatically changed how we viewed the evolution of flight in dinosaurs, forcing upon us the revelation that flight evolved multiple times in the Dinosauria. The group is very enigmatic, only known from five specimens. There is so much we don’t know about these weird little “bat-wing” dinosaurs and thats what makes them so fascinating.

Who do you look up to in the palaeo world? (and why?)

Jasmina Wiemann. She may be just finishing her PhD, but her work is already dramatically changing paleontology. She’s super smart but also passionate, very kind, helpful, and humble.

What does your work focus on?

The early evolution of birds and other flying dinosaurs


What did you study/ where did you study?

I did my BA in Earth Sciences at Occidental College with Don Prothero studying Miocene mammals and my PhD at the University of Southern California working with Luis Chiappe on Mesozoic birds

 

What does you day to day look like?

I spend almost everyday in front of my computer analyzing collected data and writing papers. I also spend smaller amounts of time studying specimens (fossils and groundsections of bones) under the microscope, which sometimes involves visiting other Museums, and a blissful few weeks each summer collecting new specimens.

 

What achievement(s) are you most proud of?

Paleontological Society’s 2019 Schuchert award for excellence in a paleontologist under 40. I’m constantly blown away by how smart my peers are so to even be considered for an award was enormously flattering. I’m not sure if I deserve it or if I was just really lucky to work on exceptional fossils.

Do you have any research you’d like to highlight?

The preservation of ovarian follicles in Early Cretaceous birds from the Jehol Biota, which we published in Nature. This discovery showed that the loss of the right ovary in birds evolved very early, probably to reduce body mass for flight. It was really shocking to discover that these types of tissues can fossilize.

What barriers do you think women face when going into palaeontology/ working in palaeontology?

If you get a good advisor who is unbiased and not insecure, there are no barriers and this is how it should be!

How do you feel your gender has impacted your experiences in your career/research/education?

If anything, I have feared to be given preferential treatment as a female as part of a recent push to encourage women in science – I think we should see ourselves as scientists and not male vs female scientists!

 

Are there any examples of anecdotes that you feel comfortable sharing with us?

To be honest, I’ve been very lucky pretty much every step of the way with wonderful advisors and teachers who treated me fairly and encouraged and supported me. That’s why it’s important to me to help share this experience with others. We do paleo because we love it – it’s hard work but should still be fun! Sadly, in the rare instances where I felt I was treated unfairly it came from other women but I understand how competition in a male-dominated profession can produce unpleasant reactions in some people. To me, it was a striking example of what I never want to become – I do my best to support students, especially females.

 

What changes do you think need to be implemented to help encourage women in palaeo/ open more doors for women in palaeo/ remove barriers?

There needs to be harsher consequences for advisors who create problems for students and colleagues because of their race or gender – a zero tolerance policy for such behavior should be adopted. For this to work, people need to SPEAK OUT about psychological abuse or any form inappropriate conduct they experience or witness. If people remain silent, the abuse continues in the next generation of students.

What advice would you give to girls aspiring to be palaeontologists? 

If paleontology is your passion don’t let anyone take that from you! But remember you don’t have to go it alone, there are lots of resources and people out there who can offer support and advice (like me!).

 

 

The bearded lady project

“The Bearded Lady Project” is a documentary film and photographic project that has two goals: to celebrate the amazing women working in field sciences today, and to educate the public about the inequalities and prejudices that exist in the field.

Lexi Jameison Marsh, Ellen Currano, and Kelsey Vance in Hanna Basin, Wyoming during their first shoot for the project in July 2014. Image © 2017 Draper White.

In 2014 Dr. Ellen Currano and Lexi Jamieson Marsh met for dinner. Both were frustrated with the way they were treated within their professions; both women working in a traditionally male dominated fields. To lighten the mood, Ellen suggested putting a fake beard on her face as a way to “finally be able to do her job” and fit the mould. To her surprise, Lexi took that suggestion seriously and ran with it. The next morning, the two joined forces, collaborating art and science to begin The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science.

“This book pairs portraits of the scientists after donning fake beards with personal essays in which they tell their stories. The beautiful photography by Kesley Vance and Draper White—shot with a vintage large-format camera and often in the field, in deserts, mountains, badlands, and mudflats—recalls the early days of paleontological expeditions more than a century ago. With just a simple prop, fake facial hair, the pictures dismantle the stereotype of the burly, bearded white man that has dominated ideas of field scientists for far too long. Using a healthy dose of humor, The Bearded Lady Project celebrates the achievements of the women who study the history of life on Earth, revealing the obstacles they’ve faced because of their gender as well as how they push back.”

The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science is a documentary film that demonstrates the competencies and passions of female paleontologists and how the unfair, gendered stereotype can be easily diminished with the donning of a beard.

“With insights into the benefits of scientific careers for women, a glimpse at professional role models, and a positive dose of wit, the Bearded Lady Project is invested in changing the face of science, and encouraging a new generation of women to focus on a career in this field of study.”

Looking to be inspired? Check out our female Virtual Speaker Series presenters!

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