Tell us a little bit about yourself. My name is Jamie Stearns. I am 34 years old, a trans woman, interested in gaming, sci-fi and fantasy, and have been with my spouse Mariah for six years. I volunteer at the Arizona Museum of Natural History as a fossil preparator and a museum educator.
What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? As a fossil preparator, I spend a lot of time preparing fossils in the laboratory after they have come in from the field. This typically involves opening up plaster field jackets used to transport specimens to the lab and carefully separating the specimens inside from the surrounding rock, or matrix. This can involve anything from dental picks and brushes to air scribes. To preserve specimens for the museum’s collections, I use special types of glue to stabilize anything fragile and to put broken pieces of a specimen back together. Sometimes support jackets have to be constructed for irregularly-shaped specimens. I also screen wash matrix from the fossil sites and sort through it for microfossils, and I occasionally help out in the field as well.
As a museum educator, I explain the significance of specimens to visitors and answer any questions they may have about what they are seeing. I have a number of smaller specimens used in demonstrations where visitors can handle and discuss them; everything from a Tyrannosaurus rex tooth cast to an ammonite preserved in mudstone.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? My interest in paleontology goes back to when I was only five years old. My family had just moved to the Washington, DC area a few months before, and I was in preschool when February 1993 was declared to be “Dinosaur Month”. In the process, I got my hands on a copy of National Geographic with a double feature on dinosaurs. I was immediately fascinated by all these different creatures with their sharp teeth, long necks, armor plates, horns, and crests and wanted more. I eagerly read through all the dinosaur books at the library and watched the latest documentaries, absorbing as much knowledge as I could find. My family took me to see the fossil halls at the Smithsonian afterwards where I could actually see them in person, too. At one point I even called my kindergarten teacher out when she said that dinosaurs were cold-blooded. Although I was exclusively a dinosaur nerd throughout primary school, I worked at a lot of different museums and fossil sites in and shortly after college, which helped me see a bigger picture; as amazing as dinosaurs were, no less impressive were the reptiles that shared the earth with them, or the variety of mammals that came later.
This interest led me into a bit of an uncomfortable spot with some of the Evangelical Christian groups I was with in middle and high school, where I initially thought nobody could possibly believe in a literal six-day creation due to all the evidence against it. It turns out, of course, that most of them did believe that the geological timeline I had come to memorize was nothing but lies, made up by people because they didn’t want to believe in God. I couldn’t accept this, and this was only the first point on which I started to disagree with them. I never lost my faith despite that, but given everything I eventually found out about myself, I am not sure what they would think of me now.
My favorite part of working at the museum is when I discover something new in the field or uncover something in the lab for the first time. I’m the first person to see this thing in millions of years, and that’s pretty special. I also enjoy being able to share my knowledge and passion about prehistoric creatures and their environment with visitors and seeing them learn new things they hadn’t thought of before.
How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? My work in fossil preparation helps scientists find out more about what the world of the past was like and what kinds of animals lived back then, and screen washing for microfossils can reveal details of the environment of the time as well. This adds to our understanding of how the earth’s climate changed over time and how life evolved in response to that.
I would like to hope that I have made an impact on those visiting the museum as well. Many people come in with preconceived ideas about prehistoric life and earth’s history, and what I do helps challenge those ideas and get people to think more critically about what they may have read or seen.
What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Get involved in volunteer work in your field when you have the opportunity. There is probably a local institution of some kind that deals with what you’re interested in, so see if they have any opportunities. It’s an excellent way to get a feel for what working in your field is like, and you can make connections with experts who have already been working in the field too. Don’t lose sight of your goals, and never stop learning.