Riley Black, Science Writer & Paleontologist

What is your favorite aspect of being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? 

Science thrives on curiosity. Even though we can talk about Science as an apparatus of journals, schools, and theories, basic questions like “What’s that?” are what draw us into a richer understanding of nature. For myself, dinosaurs were my introduction to science. I wanted to know everything I could about them from the time I was little. I wanted to know how they moved, what they ate, why they dominated the world for so long, and more. And while a career as an academic paleontologist wasn’t in the cards for me, I’m glad that writing about the past gave me an alternate route to engage with paleontology and contribute to the field in my own way.

What do you do?

I’m a writer! My career is centered around writing about paleontology and the animals the science studies, which means I freelance for publications such as Smithsonian, Slate, and Nature when there’s something neat to say about prehistoric life. I’ve also written several books. Written in Stone, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Skeleton Keys are fossil-based books for adults, while Prehistoric Predators is a children’s book about ancient carnivores. And I’m just starting a new adult-audience book about the mass extinction that ended the Cretaceous. The flexibility in my career also lets me go out on fossil expeditions, and I’ve been going out every summer since 2011 to join different museums and universities all across the American west to help them find and excavate fossils. I never expected to become a writer, but searching for old bones is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.

A Brachychirotherium track Riley found!

What methods do you use to engage your audience and community? 

There’s no single way to best communicate science. The methods that work in a museum, a podcast, Twitter, a book, or a talk are all different. And that’s what’s wonderful. There are so many ways to tell stories about science, who engages in the quest, and what questions we most want to know. My biggest bit of advice would be to think about your format and audience. Who are you trying to reach? What stories do you want to tell? Connection can take many forms, and simply keeping that goal in mind can have a huge difference. Science isn’t an Answer or a dictate. It is, and should be, a conversation.

How does your research and writing contribute to the understanding of paleontology?

We often think of the past almost as an alien world. We focus on the strange and unusual. But the fact of the matter is that the world around us today evolved from times of the past, and we can trace everything around us through Deep Time. Every species alive today has connections through the fossil record, for example, and we can look at how organisms in the past reacted to issues we face today – from forest fires to sweeping climate change. I see my role as an interpreter of these stories. I want to remind people that we have an inextricable connection to our favorite extinct species and that a richer view of the past helps us appreciate the world we’re now in. I also try to comment on how science gets done and changes through time. Science is done by people, after all, and that means the history of paleontology and how the science is conducted is just as important as its results.

Riley pointing to Permian aged (~280 million years ago) Walchia fronds (fossil plants).

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Ask questions. Not only of what you want to know, but about the paleo pathways you might travel. There’s a common misconception that becoming a professor or curator is the pinnacle of paleontology and what everyone aspires to. This isn’t true at all. Some of the happiest paleos I know are collections managers, preparators, mitigation paleontologists, or have taken positions outside the tenure track lane. And paleontology offers many opportunities to stay involved even if studying fossils isn’t your career. The field thrives on amateur expertise and assistance, from searching for new fossil localities to assisting in museum collections. Whatever you do, don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that there’s only one way to be a paleontologist or that you need to give up your identity to fit a certain mold. There are so many ways to engage your wonder about ancient life, and the greater the diversity of voices in the field the stronger our understanding will become.

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2 thoughts on “Riley Black, Science Writer & Paleontologist

  1. Brian Rouse December 2, 2019 / 9:43 am

    Is it possible to get a hard copy subscription on paleontology?
    From Brian Rouse Toronto, Canada.
    Thank you.

    • jenebauer December 3, 2019 / 6:04 pm

      Hi, Brian – Do you mean of a specific journal? In many cases publishers have an option for a hard copy.
      Talk to you soon,
      Jen

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