Alec Baines, Undergraduate Researcher in Vertebrate Paleontology

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

Whether it’s watching alligators carrying their hatchlings or seeing a T. rex skeleton towering above me in a museum, I have always loved an amazing group of animals called “archosaurs”. This group includes living members like birds and crocodilians, as well as their extinct cousins, the dinosaurs and pterosaurs. I love being able to learn more about these creatures and figuring out what their extinct relatives were like when they were alive. Although I love the living birds and crocodilians, there is something wonderfully monstrous about their extinct relatives that sparks my curiosity.

What do you do?

I make digital models to study how archosaur brains have changed throughout Earth’s history. Birds have brains that fit closely to the inside of their skulls but their closest living relatives, crocodilians, do not. This means that we can assume the shape of bird’s close extinct relatives, like theropod dinosaurs, can also be modeled from the inside of their fossilized skulls. Living birds and crocodilians’ brains as bookends can then be used in comparison with the models to gain a better understanding of what structures are present and how it fits in evolutionary history.

Scarlet macaw (left) and a digital model of its brain (right).

I also use a combination of photography, scanning technology, and 3D imaging software to make digital models that look exactly like the real fossil. The models can then be 3D printed or viewed on a computer from anywhere across the globe. Fossils are subject to so many risks – theft, damage, even being sold into private collection where they are unavailable to the public. Having a digital model acts like a backup, so if something bad happens to the fossil there is still a way for future generations to interact with and learn from it.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution and the betterment of society?

Although some archosaurs are extinct, like pterosaurs and dinosaurs, many birds and crocodilians are still alive today. The more we know about how this amazing group of animals has changed in the past, the better we can predict how this amazing group of animals will continue to change in the future.

Talking to people with assistance from an Eastern Screech Owl.

Fossils can be difficult to access due to distance from where they are located and potential for damage when handling them. By making 3D digital models and print files available, it makes it possible for anyone to use them in their classroom or study them that wants to.

I also do zoo education as a way to talk about evolution, climate change, and conservation with people. By introducing people to these animals, it makes it easier to have friendly conversations about how these sometimes touchy subjects like evolutionary history and how climate change is currently affecting them. I believe that people protect what they care about and there’s no faster to a person’s heart than introducing to the furry friends affected by all this.

On being disabled and queer in STEM

My passion for archosaurs and paleontology largely comes from the fact that I’m autistic. Many autistics, like myself, develop intense interests in specific subjects and so I’ve turned mine into a career that has brought me so much joy. My disability has also made me great at creative problem solving. I often run into sensory difficulties when handling fossils and the dusty boxes they’re kept in, so I figured out solutions like wearing compression gloves that help me to tune out the bad textures. I’m constantly practicing critical thinking skills to work around my difficulty with social cues, which inadvertently sharpens my critical thinking for things like working on a research problem. Being disabled can admittedly be frustrating but it has also made me uniquely great at what I do. Also, vaccinate your kids. Vaccines cannot cause someone to become autistic and people like me aren’t worse than polio.

Celebrating both paleontology and queer identities with people all over the world online!

I’m transgender and biromantic/grey-asexual. Let’s just shorten that to “queer” to save some breath. I’ve admittedly had some people in science be nasty about it and even refuse to work with me because of my identity, but they aren’t worth talking about. On the flip side, I’ve met many people in paleontology that are very supportive of queer people and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many other queer people through shared research topics. Growing up, I didn’t know about many queer people in science at all and thought I would end up quite lonely in my career. I look forward to continuing to prove my younger self wrong and being visible for the next generation to see how welcome they are in science.

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