NAME: Melanie A. D. During
CURRENT TITLE: Master Student
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Paleoclimatology and Vertebrate Paleontology
I am presently working on the sauropterygian fauna and habitat of the early Middle Triassic. I started my Bachelor’s program in Earth Sciences in 2009, including a minor in mineralogy and paleoclimatology (as paleontological courses were not readily available). Additionally, I took several courses at Utrecht University (The Netherlands) towards developing my understanding of vertebrate paleontology and tetrapod evolution.
EXPERIENCE: My recent springs and summers have been 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 has allowed it. In addition, I work 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.
EDUCATION: I am presently enrolled in a Master’s program at the Free University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
What’s a typical day like?
Extremely varied. Some days I spend entirely in the laboratory, whereas others are spent in the lecture hall, either as a student (4 courses left!), a teaching assistant, or as a lecturer. 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, often beginning and ending with managing my emails. I eventually end the day 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, so I 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), there was a more relaxed work schedule that included a rich lunch. I personally do not even have a specific preference for either approach. I enjoy all of my time outside, working alongside equally enthusiastic colleagues. Even when on vacation, I typically look up outcrops beforehand and bring my gear on the trip.
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 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. Last January, I even got the chance to preparate 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!
Computers. I have to admit — I cannot stand them. However, you need to be a bit of a computer 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. Once I reach a certain point, though, 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 others to keep thinking and raise old and new questions, 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.
What’s your advice to students?
My current and previous supervisors might disagree, but I say: stay stubborn! It is your life, your job, your passion, and therefore, your 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 a 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. 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. 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 too.