The Path to Becoming a Paleontologist: Hidden Struggles

This post is part of a series on Time Scavengers about Hidden Disabilities and how these affect scientists and researchers during graduate school, throughout our careers, and in the field and lab.  We welcome contributions from our community, friends, and colleagues to this impactful series.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Domestic abuse, self harm, suicide attempts, eating disorders

I’ve always known I wanted to be a paleontologist. I was the dinosaur kid and I (kind of) stayed the dinosaur kid. I knew I didn’t look like a paleontologist – all the paleontologists I had seen on TV were white men living their cowboy fantasy, but that didn’t stop me. 

My childhood was spent watching VHS tapes of Walking with…  and Jurassic Park. I would drag my grandfather into the backyard of our tiny apartment complex to look for fossils – often just chunks of limestone with a few bivalves embedded in them. I spent hours at local book sales, looking for old paleontology tomes that I would parse for any bit of knowledge. I began volunteering in our local museum as early as possible and ended up tallying over 300+ hours by the time I finished high school. There was nothing I wanted more than being around the fossils I loved so much.

However, this is not to say there weren’t discouraging moments. During this time at the museum, I learned that museum guests didn’t take me as seriously with my hair down, or that wearing a skirt somehow meant that the facts I was sharing weren’t true. I watched parents shush their daughters and encourage their sons to get excited about the same thing. I heard my mom start repeating their words at home. 

“Stop it. They’ll think you’re weird.”

I started to hate myself, little by little. I couldn’t give up paleontology – it was the one thing I was sure of more than anything – but I hated myself for loving it. This was compounded by the fact that my mother, trying her best to protect me from society’s harsh expectations of women, told me that “boys won’t like [me]” if I kept up this “dinosaur thing”. I’d like to say that this didn’t stop me. I mean, it didn’t stop the paleontology, but I did develop an eating disorder.

There is a common misconception that eating disorders occur because of a desire to be conventionally attractive. That is often not the case. I just wanted to be smaller and have some semblance of control over my life. If you fade into the background, no one notices how you dress like a boy or that your nose is too big or that you can’t shut up about Dilophosaurus. I ended up being significantly smaller – dropping from 140 lbs to 85 lbs in approximately 3 months. Of course, this isn’t normal or healthy for most human bodies. My heart stopped working right. I was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa – a particular type of anorexia that develops in response to anxiety disorders – and missed the last quarter of 7th grade.

The weird thing about being eating-disorder-sick is that people actively encourage you to stay sick. Despite the fact that I couldn’t shower with the lights on or even run without having a heart attack, other students and parents alike told me I was finally “beautiful”. Suddenly, all these boys were paying attention to me. Girls that had bullied me were nice to me. I had my first boyfriend. He told me that when we first met, in 6th grade, he thought I was “fat and ugly” but now I was “gorgeous”. He constantly compared me to my friends. I broke up with him after 5 months. 

It is also important to mention that I was a band kid. Band kids, as the reputation goes, constantly date each other. One of my friends had an obsessive crush on this kid, C. C was quiet. In fact, I had never heard him say a single word during our entire 3 years in middle school band together. I didn’t even know what his last name was. Honestly, he didn’t even seem to have friends – he was always reading and avoiding people whenever we saw him.

Of course, due to middle school peer pressure, we ended up dating.

At first, things were really wonderful. I like to think of him as my first love; we ended up bonding over our mutual love of books and video games. He was the first boy that ever seemed to love me for who I was, and not what I looked like. Due to the large hit to my self-esteem I experienced during my eating disorder and a tumultuous home life, I became increasingly dependent on this relationship. He slowly began isolating me from my friends, insisting that they weren’t good for me or that he absolutely could not stand them. Clinging to him, I cut my friends out with no issue, hoping that it would quell the depression that I had been struggling with. Eventually, he would have anger flare-ups, pounding his hands on the dashboard of the car or throwing things. He began telling me things like, “Oh, I only love you sometimes – you’re not worth it other times.” Things began getting physical, like when he grabbed me hard enough to leave purple-yellow bruises on my shoulders or tried choking me when we got in an argument.

I didn’t leave, though. Not for 5 years. We stayed together through high school and into college, despite numerous suicide attempts on my part, which he encouraged. Somehow, I stuck through. Nothing changed my love of paleontology either; that was the only thing I kept clinging to through all of it. I funneled all that was left of my energy into volunteering at the museum or schoolwork. I knew that if I managed to get into an earth sciences program, I might finally find some sort of peace.

When I was accepted into university, the first thing I did was reach out to our collections manager and begin volunteering in the paleontology lab, months before my freshman year even started. I think I cried actually, when I first walked into the collections. Part of this was joy: it was the first light in a very, very long darkness. The other half was sadness: I had already resigned myself to being killed in a domestic dispute and had mentally given up on my future as my partner became more and more aggressive.

C began using drugs and drinking heavily; during this time, he also got much more erratic and violent. He began making threats towards me and my classmates.

During this time, though, I had managed to build a small, supportive friend group of other geoscience students. As I began opening up to them, I began to see how truly toxic my partner was. These were the first close friends I was allowed to have in years, as C didn’t go to the same college as me and thus, I could experience small tastes of freedom.

Bit by bit, I finally got the courage (and was forced by a mandated reporter) to go to the university police. This was ultimately a very dangerous decision. They notified him that someone at my university had reported him; he got kicked out of his program at his college for substance abuse. Additionally, considering that he was a loner and I was one of his only contacts, he immediately knew that it was me that had reported him. I was also told that none of his texts were immediate threats, so their hands were tied. I stayed with him another 4 months as he became even more erratic. I ended up losing my research position because I had to spend so many hours on the phone convincing him to not do something harmful and scary. I ended up with a reputation for being flaky, despite the fact that I would spend nights scanning fossils while crying into the phone. I couldn’t walk on campus alone anymore and refused to see him, even though we were still technically in a relationship. 

I was terrified that he would kill everyone I knew if I broke it off.

Eventually, I was so exhausted from living in fear that I just… never responded to another text. He responded by calling every member of my family and driving by my house. I ignored him. My family encouraged me to repair the relationship and keep the peace; I didn’t. 

He found new ways, year after year, to contact me and drag me back into his circle of influence. He kept driving by my house. He found new relatives to contact. He sent me letters. 

I found my solace in the museum. I poured every ounce of my soul into paleontology – it was my safe place. I made more friends with similar interests to mine. I became stronger and stronger. He never stopped bothering me, but he became more of a looming background presence than a main presence in my life. I had a home and a family outside of my biological family. I had research that I was immensely passionate about. No one was there to hold me back anymore; yes, C would sometimes send me threatening texts or appear around my house, but this was rare. I finally had freedom and it was amazing.

Eventually, I found my real way out: graduate school. I was able to change my location, and thus, he could no longer find my real position. I have never felt such peace of mind and I have never loved paleontology more. 

Thank you for reading.

Note: Leaving isn’t really an answer, for many people, as not everyone can uproot themselves and escape abusive situations. I urge everyone to find their own way out – my sway is not necessarily the best way to respond to a situation like this; as I said, this is *my* story, and how I managed to find (possibly momental) safety. There are also many details I left out to protect my safety.

If you or someone you love is in a domestic violence situation, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has a list of resources to begin getting help:

You can also call them via:
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

If you would like to learn more about eating disorders, Anorexia nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD; and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA; have resources.

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