Ancient bones, modern problems: One scientist’s trash is another scientist’s data
by Maria Viteri, editing by Anna Thanukos
I’m Maria. I’m 26, a mystery novel enthusiast, an avid hiker, an ice cream connoisseur — and a scientist! When I was a kid, I never thought I would end up becoming a scientist. But I was always fascinated by natural history museums and all the bizarre extinct creatures in them. In fact, some of my earliest memories are from the dinosaur hall in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. When I got to college I decided to join a dinosaur paleontology lab to see what it was all about, and I was hooked! There was something about working with bones and digging up the past that was so satisfying. I knew I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. However, I’ve also always loved modern animals — from the fuzzy to the scaley. And as I learned more about how human activity causes extinction around the world, I wanted to do something to protect vulnerable species. So I decided that my ideal career path would combine my passions for both past and present animal communities. I now use ancient evidence, such as fossils, to figure out how to protect modern species threatened by human activity.
As a PhD student at Stanford University, I’m learning to conduct research at the intersection of paleontology, ecology, and conservation biology. I work in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Hadly, where I’m compiling data on past and present small mammal communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. And by “compiling,” I mean spending months pulling tiny, 1000-year-old rodent teeth from archaeological samples and painstakingly dissecting owl pellets (a.k.a. owl vomit)! This work helps me understand the role of humans in reshaping small mammal communities over time and space. It also illustrates how scientists share and scrutinize each other’s evidence to build a better understanding of the natural world and our role in it.
This case study highlights these aspects of the nature and process of science:
- Scientists’ often choose to research topics that can help solve practical problems (like protecting biodiversity) and that satisfy their personal curiosity.
- Scientists document and preserve data so that they can be reanalyzed, reused, and reinterpreted by others.
- The scientific community builds on and scrutinizes the work of others.
Scientists like Maria are often motivated to do research that will both make the world a better place and satisfy their personal interests.