Women in Science: Akiko Shinya, Fossil Preparator

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.  

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A woman sitting on the ground in the desert with blue sky, using small tools to work on something not visible in the rocky ground

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! 

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!