We are all excited to welcome the Science Museum’s new Fitzpatrick Chair of Paleontology, Dr. Alex Hastings!
We first introduced Dr. Hastings to you when he accepted his position way back in August. Since then, he and his wife have welcomed a son, wrapped up their time in Virginia, and moved their family - including two dogs, three cats, two lizards, and a snake - across the country. Dr. Hastings officially began his work at the Science Museum in October. Now that he's had some time to settle in, I sat down with him to discuss his new job. Read on to hear his thoughts on why paleontology is cool, what's going on in his lab right now, his recommended comic book series, and the best ways to keep up with his work.
How has settling in the museum been?
It's been good! I'm getting to know the folks here, and I'm starting to remember where things are - though I still have to ask what's where on occasion. I have no doubt though that it will feel like home soon enough.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with paleontology, can you tell us a bit about the work that a paleontologist does?
Paleontology is the coolest science there is! You get to study ancient life, which can range from dinosaurs to bacteria and everything in between. A lot of my background has been crocodiles, which the Science Museum has an amazing collection of, so this place is particularly fantastic for me.
Another big part of the job is outreach, communicating the science and the importance of the collection to as wide an audience as possible. In the past, I've worked a lot with exhibits and education teams to help get the word out about how awesome ancient life is. Social media is also really important for reaching a broad audience.
What are some cool facts about crocodiles?
Looking at their 240-ish million year history can be really fascinating. A species of crocodiles I worked on in the past are horse hunters that had serrated teeth.
How did your passion for paleontology start? Can you pinpoint one memorable moment?
Honestly, I've been geeked out on dinosaurs as far back as I can remember. I do have some vague memories from when I was really little - less than five years old - of going to the dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian and being so excited to see full-size versions of the dinosaurs I had only seen pictures of before. I was already super into dinosaurs, but the movie release of Jurassic Park was a major point in my life that 100% solidified my career path.
What’s your favorite dinosaur and why?
Therizinosaurus. They were vegetarians that used their giant claws to bring down leaves and branches for food and for defense. They were like the giant sloths of the dinosaur world.
What is the most interesting thing that you’re working on right now?
I've got a lot of projects going now, all of which I think are incredibly interesting. They range from crocodiles to dinosaurs to whales to mastodons to lungfish and so much more. I started an outreach project that fuses my passion for paleontology with my other lifelong love: comic books. I ran an after school program in Virginia called Comic Books and Dinosaurs, which explored the use of paleontology in comic books to get kids interested in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). Kids made their own comic books using STEAM concepts to help retain knowledge about science. It's something I'd really like to explore here at the Science Museum and figure out new ways to get kids excited about paleontology and science in general.
I had heard you were into comic books! What's your favorite series?
If it’s not science-related, then my favorite comic books series would have to be Superman. A dinosaur-related one is the Marvel comic book series Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. The comic is very kid-friendly and written well. They’re actually launching a cartoon show of the comics soon.
The Science Museum's first-ever Object ID Day occurred during your the first week on the job. How did the event go?
Object ID Day was really fun. We had so many great science enthusiasts coming in. I'd say the neatest - and most unexpected - object that came in was a fossil whale vertebra. It's not something we have here in Minnesota, and from talking with the man who brought it in, we learned it was from California. It was in good shape, and based on the information he shared with us, we were able to tell him a little bit about the type of whale it came from, as well as an estimate of how old it might be.
Are you planning to continue community engagement through public events like Object ID Day?
Absolutely! My view of responsible science includes communication to a broad audience. I want to make paleontology as accessible as possible. The best way to do that is with in-person interaction. I hope to work with everyone at the museum to reach out to people of all ages and all walks of life to share what I've learned, and maybe to pass along some of my enthusiasm for these ancient creatures.
How can people stay connected with you and your work?
For right now, folks can follow me on Twitter and Instagram (@Dr_Crocogator). In the future, I hope to be putting content out there at least semi-regularly through Science Museum communication channels, as well. I think it will take a little time to develop exactly how that would be conveyed.