Imaging Technology and its Effect on Interpersonal Relationships in the Paleontology Lab

Trust in Technicians in Paleontology Laboratories. A look into the growing use of computed tomography (CT) imaging and its legitimacy among professional researchers in the lab.

by Caitlin Donahue Wylie

Summarized by Cresencia del Pino 

Cresencia del Pino is an undergraduate geology student at the University of South Florida. After receiving her degree, she intends to join the professional workforce and attain her Professional Geologist title. When she is not studying geology, she enjoys mountain biking, camping and hiking with her pup, Zion. 

What data was used? The author used data from semi-structured qualitative interviews (a set list of questions, but researchers can deviate from them) conducted by researchers, lab technicians, and others in several universities across the United States, Germany, and The United Kingdom from 2009 to 2013. 

Methods: The author created a semi-structured interview to understand professional opinions on CT imaging, fossil preparators, and their role in maintaining a social hierarchy within a scientific research community. 

Results: This study gathered qualitative data on how the emergence of digital imaging techniques has affected the social structures within the lab. The author states a resounding skepticism towards the use of CT scans and images as a proxy for physical fossil specimens. Researchers rely on the trust forged between fossil preparators [people who clean and prepare fossil specimens by chipping away at surrounding rock], over the imaging captured by CT technology. They [professionals in the field] claim that CT imaging is not detailed enough, and subject to too much human error when calibrating the bounds that are used to capture fossil within rock. Therefore, CT imaging should be used as a tool to support fossil discovery along-side true hand samples in a “mixed-method” approach. However, the author notes that this skepticism may stem from innate bias to hold the social structure of the lab constant, where researchers are explicitly or implicitly ranked above lab technicians. 

Synchrotron [a type of digital imaging like CT, where X-rays are used to measure density] image of a burrow that contains two fossils. This image introduces an advantage of digital imaging, where scientists can see inside a rock. This is a faster method than traditional fossil preparation which also preserves the trace fossil of the burrow, as well as the skeletons inside. Source: Fernandez et al. (2013).
Why is this study important? This study elucidates, through interviews, the motives of research professionals being skeptical of digital imaging technology. Although critiques of the technique are valid, it omits otherwise greater advantages, such as being able to see fossil in rock, without the need for skilled, time-consuming preparation. These advantages are overlooked, because the growing acceptance of CT imaging would mean more specialized technicians would be required to combine and create images, leading to a decline in skilled fossil preparators, ultimately upsetting the social structure of the lab. From the interviews, the author notes that there is also an included scapegoat when using digital imaging, that allows disagreements between colleagues to “blame the technology”, instead of the interpretation of their cohort, which ultimately can affect trust between members of the lab. 

The big picture: Technology is advancing at a rapid pace in today’s modern scientific society. In a world where pandemics are a reality, and the need for social distancing and remote learning is a necessity, the demand for digital formats has increased exponentially. Digitized fossil scans can ultimately increase the accessibility of fossils, therefore allowing specimens to be studied remotely from researchers who may not have the privilege, or ability, to travel. There may no longer be room for the stigmatization of digital fossils against traditional hand samples. While technology is still advancing, there needs to be an acceptance for change within the community, and flexibility when it comes to the shifting positions and ranks within the lab. 

Citation: Wylie, Caitlin Donahue. “Trust in technicians in paleontology laboratories.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 43.2 (2018): 324-348.