Paleontology Museum Curator, Dr. Andy Farke @AndyFarke: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME: Andy Farke

CURRENT TITLE: Augustyn Family Curator, Director of Research & Collections, Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at The Webb Schools


EDUCATION: B.Sc., Geology, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology; Ph.D., Anatomical Sciences, Stony Brook University

WEBSITES: Alf Museum; Paleocomm

TWITTER: @AndyFarke


Dr. Andy Farke with a femur of Patagotitan, Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, in Trelew, Argentina. Photo copyright: 2016 Andrew Farke

What’s your job like?

My job is a mix of research and education. As a museum curator and director of research and collections, I’m responsible for setting priorities in what we collect for the museum, as well as helping to guide how these fossils are cared for (in collaboration with our collections staff). I organize field expeditions to collect new fossils and also do the original research to interpret fossils, publish the results in the scientific literature, and share this work with the general public. As an educator, I teach high school students about paleontology and mentor them in their own original research projects. My museum is unique in that we are located on a boarding school campus. Beyond my basic museum and teaching duties, I help out around the dorms and across campus with various student activities.

What’s a typical day like?

I really don’t have a typical day, which is something I love about my job! But in general, I wake up, help get my kids (a 5-year-old and a 6-month-old) ready for daycare, and walk over to the office. I check email and take care of the most pressing emails right away. Then, I’ll touch base with our collections manager, collections assistants, and volunteers to talk about priorities for the day, and see what I can do to help them out. If I’m teaching class, I’ll finish up any last-minute preparations for that, and then teach at the time I’m scheduled. Once I’m back in the office, I’ll continue taking care of email, and I might drop in to talk with my colleagues in the office next door for a few minutes. Then, it’s back to working on the priority tasks for the day–perhaps writing or editing a paper, drafting a recommendation letter for someone, crafting a grant application, or resolving an issue in the collections. Once lunchtime rolls around, I try to catch up with some of my museum and/or teaching colleagues. It’s a good time to hear how everyone is doing and decompress a little. After lunch, there might be a meeting or two (I try to shift my meetings to the afternoons), either in person or via Skype. I’ll finish the afternoon with wrapping up any final tasks that absolutely need to happen. I have an electronic task list I use, and it’s really nice to be able to check off an item or two before the official workday is done. Once the afternoon is done, I’ll walk back home, maybe do a quick round on the exercise bike or a walk, and start supper preparations (I enjoy cooking!). Most of the evening is devoted to family time–after the kids are in bed, I might do a little bit of computer work (no more than an hour or so most evenings), and then watch a television show with my wife. We love sci-fi and are currently working our way through some of the old Stargate SG-1 episodes. One night a week, I am on dorm duty. I check in to make sure the students (all high school aged) are safe and happy and also that they’re studying! This can be fun. I really like getting to know the students, and we have some pretty fun conversations.

If I’m in the field, the rhythm is much simpler. Wake up, do breakfast, get the crew together, head to the quarry, quarry all day, break for lunch, quarry some more, back to camp to make supper, rest and relax a bit with my friends and colleagues, and then early to bed to be ready for the next day!

What’s fun?

I love the travel and opportunities to experience things I never imagined. I’ve traveled to every continent except Antarctica and had the privilege of finding new species of dinosaurs. I’ve been interviewed for national television and flown into my field area in a helicopter while helping the pilot to navigate to our landing zone. Those kinds of moments are pretty amazing!

What’s challenging?

Leading a field crew can be very challenging. You have to plan for the scientific work, while also making sure that everyone on your crew is safe, happy, and productive. It can be really stressful at times if something goes wrong, but it can also be incredibly fun and rewarding!

What’s your advice to students?

If you are aspiring to a career in the earth sciences, particularly paleontology, the number one thing is to work your hardest to develop your skills. Always strive for improvement. Doing well in science and math classes is important, but just as important, if not more, is developing your skills as a communicator. Everything I do in science is through the lens of communication. I have to email colleagues. I give presentations at conferences or other public events. I give interviews for the news media. I write about my research for a broad audience. I write commentary on federal policy that affects paleontology. It’s essential that I have the fundamentals of my science down cold, but if I can’t share them with other people, I’m in trouble! Finally, strive to be kind and make your profession (and the world) better than it was when you started. You will make mistakes along the way, sometimes even because you followed the example of more senior colleagues. But at the end of the day, work towards being the best person you can be and being the best scientist will follow.

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