Cam Muskelly, Citizen Scientist and Paleontology/Geology Educator

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?

Collecting fossils from Lower Carboniferous (Upper Mississippian) rocks from Huntsville, Alabama

My favorite part about being a citizen scientist is that I get to talk to and meet different people of all ages who want to know what lies in the Earth’s rocks. There were many things that drew me into the fields of paleontology and geology. One of the main reasons was my exposure to a teacher’s fossil collections while I was in the 2nd grade. I knew what fossils were but I had never actually held one at the time. At this time, a 4th grade teacher invited me and a friend (who was also interested in fossils) to her classroom to look at her fossil collection.

She pulled out a drawer and inside were various kinds of fossils. She had fossil specimens such as trilobites, plants, shells, and even a dinosaur coprolite (fossilized feces). She gave me a crinoid stem that she found in the Fort Payne Formation of Tennessee and thus began my journey into paleontology and later geology.

What do you do?
I provide lectures and communicate with the public about paleontology and geology. I have given talks in museums, geological societies, schools, and other events about the various topics in geology. My main focus is in historical geology and deep time geology. I try to communicate with the public about how vast geological time is by using the telltale signatures in the fossils and rocks around you. I have keen interests in early Earth and the remnants of that time as well as Paleozoic and Mesozoic paleontology and geology. I also discuss things such as the fossils that have been found in the state I live in, Georgia.

How do your efforts contribute to the betterment of society in general?
Fossils and rocks are key to the Earth’s long history. In order to understand how we as a species will survive the next few million years on this planet we call home, we have to look into how life and the factors affecting life have evolved through time. As the great geologist Charles Lyell once said, “The present is key to the past.” I constantly have my head buried in scientific literature and read what others have built on and even how it has changed based on new data that has been collected by scientists across the world.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?

Fossils through geologic time table set up for Science/Technology night for Puckett’s Mill Elementary school in Dacula, Georgia

When I communicate to the the public, I always stress the understanding of deep time and the importance of that concept. The concept of deep time isn’t new. It has been known since the days of James Hutton (1726-1797). Deep time is the vast expanse of time locked inside the rock and fossil record. When we think of time we normally think in terms of minutes or seconds. Geologists talk about time in the order of thousands, millions, or even billions of years. It is hard for average person to grasp such an immense scale of time. I try to make this more understable by setting fossils in chronological order to give people a idea on how fossils and environments change through each interval of the geological time scale.

I also use the “Pen Method”. Let’s say I order a new set of ink pens from the store. I open the top of the pen and on it is a small plastic ball to protect in pen from drying out. If you take all of human existence and crunch it up, human existence would fit on the plastic ball of the tip of a new pen. That would be example on how small we are in the vast geologic history of planet Earth.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Never ever give on up on what you are passionate about. There is more than one way to become a paleontologist. Let nothing get in your way. Find opportunities around you and take advantage of them. Communicate with scientists and ask questions. Learn how to to read the secrets that are locked in the rocks. Even the smallest secrets can tell you a huge story of a lost world.

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