UPDATED! Vertebrate Paleontology Student, Melanie During @MelanieDuring: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Melanie During, Vertebrate Paleontologist. Photo credit: Richard Terborg 2018

NAME: Melanie A. D. During

CURRENT TITLE: (UPDATED 9/6/18) Master in Earth Science

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Vertebrate Paleontology, applying isotope geochemistry and synchrotron CT on bone histology.


I started my bachelor’s program in Earth Sciences in 2009, including a minor in mineralogy and a minor in paleoclimatology (as paleontological courses were not readily available). Additionally, I took several courses at Utrecht University towards developing my understanding of vertebrate paleontology and tetrapod evolution. I am presently enrolled in a master’s program at the Free University of Amsterdam. My recent springs and summers I have spent in the field, and I have been working as a fossil preparator at the Natural History Museum (Naturalis Biodiversity Center) whenever my free time allowed it. In addition I worked as a teaching assistant for the Big History program of the University of Amsterdam, an interdisciplinary course that covers history from the Big Bang until present times. I did research projects on the sauropterygian fauna and habitat of the early Middle Triassic.

UPDATED 9/6/18! My thesis, with which I graduated in August of 2018 was aimed at the KPg boundary, for which I studied direct victims of the bolide impact. Now that I have graduated, I am temporarily a freelancer while I’m looking for a part-time job in science communication to make ends meet. At the same time I am working on the publication of my Master thesis and writing a grant for my upcoming PhD.

What’s a typical day like?

Extremely varied. Some days I spend them entirely in the lab, whereas others are spent in the lecture hall, either as a student (4 courses left!), a teaching assistant, or as a lecturer. And then there are obviously days in which I spend my hours analyzing and processing my data, and writing about my findings. These working days typically last longer than the standard 8 hours, and often begin and end with managing my emails, and eventually end with a movie or documentary around 10 in the evening. My outdoor days in spring and summer are my favorite days. I’ll be honest, the Dutch weather is generally not very pleasant to begin with, and I therefore have even more reason to enjoy my days digging up ancient forms of life from the Mesozoic in the summer sun. The daily program in the field depends greatly on locality; in Wyoming (USA), our excavating days lasted from dawn until dusk, whereas in Cruzy (Fr), a more relaxed working schedule that includes a rich lunch is followed. I personally do not even have a specific preference for either approach, I enjoy all my time outside, working alongside equally enthusiastic colleagues and even when on vacation I typically look up outcrops beforehand and bring my gear on the trip.

UPDATED 9/6/18! Since I am now graduated, I have picked up some freelance work and am currently helping erect a paleontological museum with a focus on the reptilian history in a dinosaur park in Wedde, Groningen, The Netherlands. This means my typical day currently exists of digitizing the collection, verifying the identification of the fossils, establishing where we can excavate for more or purchase more items for display, and mapping out the allocation of the exhibition items into the new building. These and many other diverse chores are now on my desk, while I look for funding for a PhD. Although this period is slightly uncertain, the work I do makes me very happy.


Melanie During at the centrifuge of the Mineral Separation Laboratory at the VU Free University of Amsterdam. Copyright 2016 Melanie During

What’s fun? (UPDATED 9/6/18)

That has to be the field! From the discovery to the careful exposure of the fossils, it all offers a certain adrenaline rush.  You begin to investigate which bones you are looking at, whether they are complete or not, and which species they belong to. Paleontologists occasionally employ an extremely lame type of humor in the field, where taboos do not exist (I certainly lack any). The plaster-jacketing process, where we encase the fragile large bones in plaster for safety during transport, often ends up in a plaster-fight where you will see several people ending up covered in plaster. In the evenings, we normally enjoy a beer, and especially when staying in a steppe-like environment far from the inhabited world, we gaze up to enjoy the Milky Way in all its glory. Preparating fossils and discovering what is actually hidden in the rock in front of you is another amazing job, and last January, I even got the chance to prepare a recently deceased ostrich chick, which was one of the biggest anatomical learning experiences I ever had the pleasure of undertaking. However, there is also lab work; trying to separate the dentine from the enamel in fossil teeth and performing isotope analyses to recover the information hidden in the archives of these rocks and fossils can be so very exciting!


Excavating Triceratopses in Wyoming. Copyright 2015 Melanie During

What’s challenging? (UPDATED 9/6/18)

Computers. I have to admit, I cannot stand them. However, you need to be a bit of an IT specialist in daily life these days, and since practice makes perfect, I can happily say that I am getting better at it, despite my initial aversion. I like to joke that I experience an exponential learning curve when it comes to learning how to work with new software, and it can take me quite some time to understand how it works; but once I reach a certain point, I really start to enjoy the rest of the learning process.

Another personal challenge for me is outreach, since I have this incredible urge to make documentaries. I wish to make documentaries with a cliffhanger that keep people up at night while wondering how the world works. Since the scientific process comes down to excluding everything that is untrue, the assumption that scientists have figured everything out by now is false. I am looking for a way to inspire; to keep thinking and invite old and new questions being raised, since we can never know it all, and everyone can contribute. I have therefore done away with my shyness in front of cameras but am still looking into how to approach this dream. Now that I have a bit more time on my hands after graduating, I think it’s time for me to actively approach this challenge.

Another challenge that becomes clear directly after graduation is funding. I happen to have my own ideas for a PhD, which my former supervisors endorse, but after graduation a Master cannot apply for grants anywhere. This problem was quickly solved by finding several staff members from my former university wanting to submit the proposal for me, but grants are scarce and my chances therefore are limited. Regardless, I will be the last person to pass on an opportunity or to give up.

What’s your advice to students? (UPDATED 9/6/18)

My former supervisors might disagree, but I say: Stay stubborn! It is your life, your job, your passion, and therefore you need to be happy with what you are doing! This, however, does not necessarily mean that you can have only one passion: life is too short to limit yourself. I am not a paleontologist; I am Melanie and I enjoy doing research in paleontology. I enjoy working on fossils and giving lectures. I am crazy petrol head who loves to talk about cars, and I love to take time off every once in a while to visit a concert or to make music myself.

Another piece of advice is to tread carefully at the same time, as you do not want to unintentionally rub people the wrong way. Make sure you include everyone who is involved in the slightest way, and when in doubt, send an email to inquire if he or she would like to be involved. I was personally not made aware of this pitfall before accidentally stepping on some toes, and having to explain that I was not acting out of bad intentions was quite an uneasy process. By now I have spoken to several PhD students and post-docs about this, and it seems they all have learned this form of etiquette one way or another during their work. In hindsight, as a publishing master’s student I was probably too naive, and I would love to prevent anyone from having to learn this the hard way.

Wyoming at night. Copyright 2016 Servaas Neijens, National Geographic, The Netherlands

Melanie During in Wyoming at night. Copyright 2015 Servaas Neijens, National Geographic, The Netherlands