Teaching with Dinosaurs – An Interview with Scott Persons

by Chris Berger

Scott Persons is a man who has devoted his life to discovery, education, and public science outreach.  A researcher and teacher already lauded for his contributions to the field of paleontology, Edmontonians may know him from his appearances at Nerd Nite events around the city; Canadians, from his Summer 2016 series on CBC radio featuring Alberta dinosaurs; and people the world over, from his engrossing lectures in the University of Alberta’s Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on various paleontology topics.  The first of these, Dino 101, was a pioneer in the genre and garnered a massive rate of participation globally, introducing laypersons of all knowledge levels to fundamentals of science through the medium of dinosaurs.

While his formal position engrosses him in his post-doctoral work at the University of Alberta alongside his doctoral advisor, renowned paleontologist Philip J. Currie, it’s his engaging manner and overwhelming breadth of knowledge regarding all things dinosaur that has made him known to the public at large.  Doubtless many future paleontologists will cite their exposure to his energetic talks as the spark in their decision to pursue science.  And if, like me, your interest in paleontology is more dilettantish, you will not regret checking out the following MOOCs in which Scott appears:

Chris

I’m sure you’ve been asked this more times than you can count, but what drew you to paleontology to begin with?

Scott

I’ve been told that I’ve been interested in dinosaurs, and been wanting to be a paleontologist since I was two and a half years old. I’m ‘told’ because I don’t remember that far back, so I’ve quite literally wanted to be a paleontologist as long as I can remember.

I grew up in North Carolina on a ginseng farm.  Once when my dad was away for a business meeting in Las Vegas, he wanted to bring me back something. While he was there, he visited the Las Vegas Desert Museum.  As in all good museums, he was forced to exit through the gift shop.  In there, he found a small paperback storybook called The Big Little Dinosaur. He brought it home, he read it to me, and he read it to me again, and again, and it just grew from there.

Chris

Coming originally from America, what was it that brought you to the University of Alberta?

Scott

Well, I came here for the dinosaurs.  And, of course, for the gentleman in the office next door here, Dr. Phil Currie.

Chris

What is it like studying paleontology here as opposed to elsewhere?

Scott

The thing that really comes to mind is the location, in the summer of course more than during the school year proper.  So many field sites are close by. In fact, one of them is right here in Edmonton.

Chris

What is the focus of your research here?

Scott

I’ve done both my MSc and PhD here, and now I’m doing my Post-Doc.  My MSc was on trying to understand the tails of meat-eating dinosaurs and how they relate to locomotion.  Those who have taken the MOOC, Dino 101, may recall that I talked to students about the caudofemoralis, the big muscle at the base of dinosaurs’ tails that’s connected to the upper leg bone.  That’s the muscle that provides the locomotive ‘oomph’ when the dinosaur runs.

My PhD was a continuation of that, but focusing on the proportions of a dinosaur’s leg and how that may be an indicator of how strongly it’s been pushed by the forces of evolution to adapt to running quickly. We know from modern-day animals that if you want to be a fast runner, like a gazelle or a cheetah, you need to have a relatively long leg.  That’s compounded by limits on how long your leg can be if you’re really big and heavy.

I was working on a way to factor out the competing force there – even if an animal is very large, it may still have a proportionately long leg.  One of the cool things that came out of that is, of course, that tyrannosaurs, even though they’re really big, seem to be strongly adapted for speed.  They’ve maximized their skeleton for running quickly. And some smaller theropods that we tend to think of as being highly adapted for speed – like Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame – really weren’t.  There are a lot of other dinosaurs the same size as Velociraptor that were much quicker on their feet.

Chris

Relating to this, a lot of dinosaur enthusiasts debate the controversy over whether tyrannosaurs were scavengers or active hunters.  How does your research weigh into your position on this?

Scott

If you were going to imagine Tyrannosaurus rex as a hunter, it’s hard to envision an animal that could be successful in that way if it couldn’t run.  If you’re chasing live things, you need to catch them.  Not so much if you’re chasing dead stuff.  There is and definitely will continue to be a lot of debate about whether or not Tyrannosaurus rex specifically, as the largest of the tyrannosaurs, could run, and how fast it was able to do so.  But without question I think we can say that the tyrannosaurs as a group, including animals like Gorgosaurus, Albertosaurus, and Daspletosaurus, are runners.

As far as what I think based on the evidence I’ve seen, I think Tyrannosaurus rex is also a runner.  It wasn’t as fast as the smaller tyrannosaurs, but it was definitely faster than any herbivorous dinosaur that comes close to it in size.

Chris

What was it about locomotion that interested you?

Scott

I got interested in locomotion through a prior interest in dinosaur tails.  The tail is very important for dinosaur locomotion, not just for balance or as a rudder, but directly.  This is because of that caudofemoralis.  It’s just like studying the glutes and their importance for our own ability to run.

I got interested in dinosaur tails because I was working one summer at the Paleon Museum in Glenrock, Wyoming.  We were putting together a display case on the theropods of the Morrison Formation – the big meat eaters of the Jurassic in North America. These were from an animal called Allosaurus, and from another animal called Torvosaurus.  We were comparing the two animals, and one of the differences we noted was in the tail vertebrae, which were very different in shape.  I asked the curator: why are they different?  What’s different in their function?  He didn’t know, and we couldn’t find an immediate answer.  That’s what got me curious about dinosaur tails and their function to do different things.  That then led to locomotion and ultimately to my current post-doc research into tyrannosaurs specifically, including some work on soft tissue samples that have been preserved.

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Chris

You’ve been engaged in a number of public outreach activities in recent years, especially here in Edmonton as well as through the MOOCs offered by the University.  What made you make the leap from research to educating the public?

Scott

It was never a conscious decision.  Back when I was in third grade, I had a homeroom teacher named Ms. Cameron.  At one point we had a week on dinosaurs, and in one of our activities, we were encouraged to bring to school one plastic dinosaur from home.  That didn’t sit well with me, because we were only allowed to bring one!  I broke the rule and packed up a whole sack of dinosaurs, brought them in, and scattered them across the room.  When my time came to stand up and say something about what I brought, I talked about this dinosaur, then moved on to talk about that one, and the next one.  I must have talked for at least a half hour, and to this day I’m grateful to Ms. Cameron for indulging me – I’m sure she had other things planned.  And when I finished, she went next door and arranged for me to take my dinosaurs over and give the same presentation.  That wasn’t even the end of it – the next year I came back to that class to do it and started giving these presentations, even as a little kid, to other classes and even other elementary schools.  It just became something I did regularly, and it’s continued from there.  While it wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, now I’m very aware of the need for improving public science literacy.

Chris

Does teaching take up a lot of your time now?

Scott

Right now I’m doing research. Previously of course I had a lot of TA-ships here, and taught paleobiology of dinosaurs and mammals. I’ve also taught comparative anatomy and vertebrate diversity as a sessional instructor.  And then, of course, the MOOCs that we’ve been doing on paleontology.

Chris

Are there any additional MOOCs in development?

Scott

We have revised and updated versions of each of the currently available MOOCs that will all be coming out shortly – Dino 101, Theropod Dinosaurs and the Origin of Birds, Ancient Marine Reptiles, and Early Vertebrate Evolution.

Chris

Aside from formal academic teaching, many people in Edmonton will likely be familiar with your involvement with Nerd Nite – a more informal, fun setting, but still retaining a focus on learning and education. How have you found the uptake of and interest in science and paleontology in that setting, compared with an academic environment?

Scott

With students there’s more anxiety, despite their obvious passion for the subject – it’s a specialized area tailored toward paleontology, after all.  They’re in those classes for that reason.  The difference with something like Nerd Nite is that everyone sits back, has a beer, and is there for a good time.  There are advantages and perks unique to each setting, and you take a different approach.

Chris

How did you get involved in Nerd Nite and informal public outreach generally?

Scott

As far as that goes here in Edmonton, it came about because I had done a number of interviews with people who were contacting me to talk about my research – newspapers and radio shows talking about new discoveries, things like that.  I think Nerd Nite heard about me on the radio, and they invited me to present.  On another occasion, I gave a talk at the ‘Dark Matters’ event at the Telus World of Science about dinosaur sex.  And most recently, I had my wedding – the first ever Nerd Nite Wedding, where myself, my now wife Amanda, and our guests Dr. Phil Currie and Dr. Robert Bakker all gave fun talks about our areas of expertise.

Chris

My fiancée and I actually attended that. It was a blast, and a very unique idea for a wedding!

Scott

Glad you enjoyed it!

Chris

On a personal note, the great clichéd question: where do you see yourself and your research going down the road?

Scott

That question is very much at the front of my mind.  My post-doc here will be wrapping up fairly soon, and I’m in the process of planning a future direction.  Generally speaking, there are two career paths open to the paleontologist: one is to get on as a professor in university, and the other is to get on as a curator for a museum. It’s a situation in which beggars can’t necessarily be choosers, but I would be thrilled to be doing either of those things.  On the one hand, I really like teaching, which is a very important part of both paths.  Especially if you’re a curator for a museum, one of your major priorities nowadays has to be outreach. You can’t hide in your Ivory Tower anymore!

Chris

That’s one of the exciting things about the MOOCs, at least for me. It allows for people who might not otherwise have access to what people like you are working on to engage more actively.  Speaking of that, what’s most exciting for you on the horizon of paleontology right now?

Scott

That’s a pretty big question – one of the things I’m excited about is the work we’re doing with our colleagues in Asia.  It’s focusing on great specimens of feathers preserved in amber, and this could have interesting implications for learning about colour and pigmentation.

As for the field of dinosaur paleontology more generally, one of the big changes that’s going to happen will regard how we approach thinking about dinosaurs.  There will be a new focus on understanding small dinosaurs – for a long time dinosaurs have always been these big, big creatures.  Murals in museums always show these enormous dinosaurs dominating the setting, with maybe a few crocodiles, birds, and small mammals filling up the smaller niches of an environment.  We’re learning now that this is largely due to a preservational bias; early on we found lots of big dinosaurs because they’re easier to find.  Those large specimens preserve more easily, so you tend to find more of them. But as time goes on, we’re discovering more and more small dinosaurs. So I think that, just like today where we have a full range of large to medium to very small mammals, we’ll find the same for dinosaurs.  I think our understanding of the ecology of dinosaurs is going to change as we increase our familiarity with the little guys.

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Chris

On a final note: as a researcher and educator, what does paleontology mean for you and for society?

Scott

A question I often get asked is why people should care about paleontology.  My answer is always: because it’s awesome!  And I think most people already know that.  But sometimes we search for a more self-satisfying or self-serving answer – how does this affect society, to learn about Tyrannosaurus rex?  My first answer to that is that, obviously, science literacy is important.  It affects the well-being of society in a huge way, and not very many topics are as good as dinosaurs for getting the public interested in science and sparking people’s imaginations.  You can teach anything with dinosaurs: physics, geology, biology, anatomy, ecology.  So paleontology is very important in that regard, and has a major contribution to make to society.

One other point that I like to make is that the story of dinosaurs is tightly interwoven with our own story, our own evolutionary history.  Dinosaurs and mammals evolved at roughly the same point in time.  Non-avian dinosaurs were around for a long time – around 160 million years.  That means there’s more time separating the very first dinosaurs in the Triassic from the very last non-avian dinosaurs in the Cretaceous, like Tyrannosaurus rex, than there is separating Tyrannosaurus rex from us.  We mammals didn’t just coast through the age of dinosaurs and then suddenly start up again once dinosaurs went extinct: our current biology has been strongly influenced by coexistence with dinosaurs.

I’ll give you one quick example of that: throughout the age of dinosaurs, most mammals were small and nocturnal.  They were little shrew-like critters that avoided dinosaurs by spending the day underground and coming out at night.  One thing that did for us is to lead to a trade-off in the rods and cones in mammals’ eyes so that they were really good at taking in lots of light.  But as a result, mammals are really bad at seeing in colour, as a general rule.  We’re aware of the stereotype that dogs and cats are ‘colourblind’ – while that’s not entirely true, they do see a narrower range of the colour spectrum, comparatively speaking.

And we think of ourselves as being an exception to that rule – it’s true that we see in colour, because our primate ancestors needed to be able to find fruit, were active in the day, swinging from trees, and things like that.  But our range of colour is still not nearly as good as that of most reptiles, birds (i.e. avian dinosaurs), amphibians, and a lot of fish.  We can’t see into the ultraviolet range, for instance, whereas a lot of these other animals do.

So right now the way you perceive the world in a literal and immediate sense is being influenced by dinosaurs and how they impacted our ancestors’ ecology.  This is just one small example of how studying dinosaur paleontology can help us to understand ourselves and our history.

Photos courtesy of Scott Persons.

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