Q&A with a Fossil Mammals Curator
What does being a curator mean to you?
A big part of it is doing specimen-based research. Being at a place like the Field Museum that has extensive collections makes it easier to do that work. It also means doing research outside the museum, both in the field and in collections at other scientific institutions (which is what I do in places like Zambia and South Africa).
What are you researching?
I focus on synapsids, the group of animals that includes mammals and a variety of their extinct relatives whose fossil record stretches back about 320 million years. More specifically, I’m researching the evolution of the backbone in the synapsid ancestors of mammals. Mammals have differentiated backbones, meaning that the vertebrae, or individual bones that make up the spinal column, form different regions that are characterized by unique shapes and functions. I’m trying to learn more about when and why those different regions evolved in synapsids over time. Right now I’m in South Africa collecting data from specimens at natural history museums here. They have a great fossil record of therapsids, the advanced non-mammalian synapsids that are close to the ancestry of mammals.
How do you work with collections?
I oversee the museum’s fossil synapsid and mammal collection. The history of work that went into building the collection goes back to around the turn of the 20th century (learn more about the synapsid collection).
Many of the specimens I work with were collected by pioneers in the field of vertebrate paleontology, like Samuel Wendell Williston and Alfred Romer. It’s a great privilege to be entrusted to care for the specimens they collected while also finding new ways to look at these specimens. We’re still learning many new things from fossils collected in the 1920s and ’30s, which allows us to constantly refine our picture of synapsid evolution.
For example, CT scanning of fossils can literally let us see inside specimens in ways that were previously difficult or impossible. Likewise, comparing our specimens with those in museum collections from around the world helps us to better understand their places in the synapsid family tree. My goal is to build on the work previous paleontologists did, but also to answer new questions and gain new insights into synapsid evolution and the origins of the distinctive features that characterize mammals today.
What’s the most interesting part of your job?
Being able to do research and indulge my natural curiosity about paleontology is a real privilege. It’s a dream job; I’ve wanted to be a paleontologist for as long as I can remember. It’s also pretty mind-blowing to excavate a fossil and realize that you’re the first living thing to see that animal in over 250 million years.
What do you want to share with people on Ask A Curator Day?
Everyone uses the scientific method in day-to-day life, whether or not you realize it! When confronted with a question or problem, you make observations, collect available information, and perform tests to see what works. The underlying object is the same as in scientific research. Scientists are constantly working to understand the natural world around us, and we do so by asking questions and trying to find ways to answer those questions.
The Field is a place to exercise your natural curiosity by visiting the DNA Discovery Center, doing community science, volunteering, and starting to look at the world in a different way.
Learn more about Ken’s work in the three-part series “Harvard Adventures” on The Brain Scoop.