Alejandro Lopez-Vaca, Undergraduate Student in Mechanical Engineering and Biological Sciences

Background is a classroom or lab setting and foreground is a person in flannel holding a cast of a fossil specimen.
Me in the fossil lab of the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera holding a field jacket that I prepared that hasn’t been opened since 1994. It is from an unidentified mammal from the Middle Pleistocene Epoch.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hello from down yonder! My name is Alejandro Lopez-Vaca. I am a 3rd year undergraduate student studying Mechanical Engineering and Biological Sciences at the University of California, Merced which is located in Merced, California. I’m guilty of being a big dinosaur lover and of many ancient fauna (I love the Paleozoic almost just as much as the Mesozoic). My passions/interests include dinosaur and vertebrate paleontology, evolution, functional and comparative anatomy, mathematics, applied engineering, and biomechanics. When I have free time I enjoy sitting down with a piece of paper and writing down my thoughts and/or having conversations with myself on my life, topics of interest, or ideas as it helps me destress and come to my own conclusion on various things. When I’m not being a “philosopher”, you’ll find me reading dinosaur or paleontology books, paleontology literature, and biology books, playing with my Halo figures making stop motions, or playing Halo: The Master Chief Collection. When I’m outside (which is pretty often) I’m usually foraging, taking notes of things I don’t know in my environment, enjoying the beautiful nature in the area, and catching small animals. I also volunteer at a small paleontology museum called the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County preparing fossils for them, helping with events, and giving the occasional tour of the museum.

Me holding the holotype maxilla of my favorite dinosaur, Torvosaurus tanneri, in the storage room of the BYU Museum of Paleontology feeling like a little kid.

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? I consider myself a paleontologist or a paleontology student at heart while being an engineering student in application. I have experience and plenty of understanding of the concepts of engineering. The skills I have gained in engineering have greatly helped me expand into areas of paleontology that deal with the mechanics, biomechanics, and movements of systems. This has led me to study the biomechanics and functional anatomy of dinosaurs and bats, with plans to explore other groups. I am currently slowly working on a personal research project that deals with the bite force and skull function of a large theropod dinosaur, Torvosaurs tanneri. As I slowly work on that, I am researching the function of bat skulls using engineering methods like Finite Elements Analysis to test the breaking point and limits of bat skulls. I have also done fieldwork with the BYU Museum of Paleontology where we found a great quantity of dinosaur fossils, which I have been invited to continue next year.

Me after my first day of field work with the BYU Museum of Paleontology, very happy and proud, stand only a few inches from the bone layer.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? How I got interested in science was through the toy dinosaurs I convinced my mother to get from a Dollar Tree. I was curious as to what they were and thankfully my mother delivered. As poorly as these toys look to me now, yes I still have them, they were my world to me at the age of 4. My mother noticed I enjoyed them a lot and rented a documentary called Walking with Dinosaurs. Since then I haven’t been the same, it hooked me and it was made clear to me that I wanted to be a paleontologist. With this goal in mind, I consumed any paleontology content I could get my hands on, one of which was the limited series Monsters Resurrected. The show greatly inspired me to pursue functional anatomy and biomechanics as I found it fascinating that they figured out ways to reconstruct the motion of once long-dead animals. My favorite part of science is the collaboration and exploration of the unknown. Most of my favorite moments in science are when I am under the sun in the heat of day with fellow peers excavating dinosaurbones not knowing if we will find something new. As well as discussions of research like “Why are these groups of bats so diverse and what parameters can we use to try to get data that will be useful to gain an interpretation of that question?” with friends I do research within the lab. It’s moments like those that keep me going and motivated.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? My work hasn’t yet reached the level to actually contribute to science and thus impact society, but as I said, yet. However, I believe my work with the BYU Museum of Paleontology has impacted the community there as I helped collect new material for a dinosaur that needs studying and load heavy sauropod cervical vertebrae to be CT scanned for the thesis of, now a good friend, a master’s student. I feel that most of my contribution has been through teaching and sharing information on paleontology and biology. I have seen the eyes of kids light up as I show them a fossil, kids deeply impassioned by the words that come after that and the questions that flow in afterward. I’ve also seen people get a spark of curiosity when I show them my fossils and explain what they are and how we know what they are. In this way, this is how I contribute to society by sparking curiosity, helping science, and educating people.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? Some advice I wish I had known before going into science was to be patient, to take action even in uncertainty, and to make your own choice. In my experience it is important to take action however it is equally important to be patient. It is better to do a little work or do things even when you know they won’t be optimal consistently while waiting for things to fall into place than to try to rush things in one go. Taking action in uncertainty is equally important as well, because sometimes you want to do something and you don’t know how it will turn out; science will test your courage and leap to take a new opportunity or think outside the box while remaining consistent in showing up to do the work despite the quality of it will greatly benefit you in the long run to gain success. Finally, the advice from a mentor I greatly hold to heart is to stay open-minded. There are so many fields and ideas, explore them all and read widely, and it gives you drive and knowledge on where you want to go. I believe that is what is most important, for you to figure out where you want to go, no books or person will ever tell you that, so make sure you choose a path that you care about.

Me after my last day of field work with the BYU Museum of Paleontology, holding a pickaxe with honor and pride after finding new material for a dinosaur and working hard in the burning heat.