Published: March 14, 2017

Women in Science: Akiko Shinya, Fossil Preparator

Akiko Shinya, Chief Preparator, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


Akiko Shinya prepares vertebrate fossils for research, prospects and excavates fossils, conserves specimens, and works with volunteers and students in the lab. 

A woman holding an electric hand tool and a painter's brush, leaning over a large mass of dirt with bones protruding from it

We're highlighting women in science at The Field Museum and their diverse areas of research, paths to working in science, and their advice for future scientists. Hear from Chief Preparator, Fossil Vertebrates, Akiko Shinya: 

How did you get to where you are?

I applied for the job, that's the short answer! A long version is that I became a volunteer in the paleobiology lab at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada, while I was studying Geology/Paleontology at the University of Toronto. I really loved the work I did in the lab and in the field (I went to excavate ichthyosaurs in British Columbia), so I went on to gain more training in the Dr. Reisz lab at University of Toronto Mississauga campus and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in scientific illustrations and fossil preparation techniques. Eventually, I got lucky and got the job at The Field (yay!).  

What does your job entail? What's the day-to-day like?

My main job is to prepare vertebrate fossils for research; that is, to remove matrix (rock surrounding fossil) and expose fossil. I also do fieldwork, where I prospect and excavate fossils. In addition to preparing fossils, I make molds, casts, and thin sections of specimens, and I repair and conserve specimens for collection, research, education, and exhibition. I supervise my staff, volunteers, and students in the lab and in the field. When I'm in the lab, I prepare fossils and supervise volunteers' and students' progress. Curators stop by the lab from time to time to discuss the progress of a project. I often have visitors stopping by my lab to see what I'm working on and what I have in the lab. I will tell visitors about the general work and process of how vertebrate fossils come to the Museum and ongoing research associated with the specimens in the lab. 

A man and a woman in red suits, white helmets, and sunglasses aboard a helicopter.

Pete and Akiko aboard a helicopter in Antarctica. They call their heavy suits "Big Red." 

What has been your favorite part of the job, or a memorable moment?

All of it! I love what I did, do, and will do in the future! I particularly enjoy fieldwork, living under the stars with colleagues and discovering something new. The highlight so far is discovering my own dinosaur, Gualicho shinyae, in Patagonia. I'm going to Antarctica this year. I am super psyched about that!

[Edit: find out how Akiko's time in Antarctica went! She and Curator of Dinosaurs Pete Makovicky sat down to tell us all about it—from dinosaur digs to what to wear (bunny boots) and what to eat.] 

What advice do you have for future scientists?

Try it out. Try volunteering in a museum or in a university and see if you really enjoy it, because you will never know if you don't try it out. Becoming a volunteer as a fossil preparator at the ROM was the best thing I did for my career. I discovered that not only did I enjoy it a lot, but also that I was truly good at this work. Also, don't hesitate to ask for advice and help from people who are doing what you want to do. There are a lot of helpful and kind people out there!

Akiko Shinya
Chief Preparator, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

Akiko is the chief fossil preparator in the Museum. She manages three labs filled with fascinating ancient creatures from all over the world, and works with scientists, volunteers, students and interns everyday. Akiko loves preparing fossils and going out on fieldworks to hunt and dig fossils with her colleagues.