Dr. Catherine Forster: Dinosaur Hunter

Posted: September 5, 2012 - 12:58 , by Patti McCabe

Meet Catherine Forester, the first speaker in our Dinosaur Hunter SpeakerSeries.

If you thought all dinosaur hunters were men, you’d be wrong. Our first palaeontologist in the Dinosaur Hunters Speaker Series, which starts this Sunday September 9, is Dr. Catherine Forster. She has toughed it out in some of the harshest climates and conditions in the world making significant discoveries in China, Madagascar, and South Africa.

When not out in the field, Catherine is teaching, researching and publishing papers from her home base of George Washington University in Washington, DC.

In anticipation of her arrival at the ROM we took the opportunity to ask Dr. Forster a few questions to find out how she became a dinosaur hunter.

When did you know you wanted to become a palaeontologist and can you remember the first dinosaur you ever saw?
I wanted to become a palaeontologist when I was about 4 years old and got a set of toy dinosaurs for Christmas. The first dinosaur mount I remember is Triceratops — and I ended up doing my dissertation on Triceratops!

What was the first fossil/bone you ever dug up?
I remember collecting invertebrate fossils when I was a kid in Minnesota- brachiopods and clams and such. They were from the Early Palaeozoic. I loved fossils of all kinds as a kid. The first dinosaur-age trip I was on was in college when my professor, Dr. Bob Sloan, took a group of us to Montana. That was a real key experience in my life. I loved it! I remember finding hadrosaur and theropod teeth, multituberculate teeth, turtle shell, and lots of other bits and pieces in the badlands. I felt like a real palaeontologist!

As a dinosaur hunter you must have had many adventures and travelled all over the world. Where have you been and what is the craziest, most dangerous, or funniest situation you have ever found yourself in while on the hunt?
I’ve had the opportunity to travel through some of the most amazing desserts in the world- the high plains of Argentina, the Gobi and Sahara Deserts, the dry highlands of Madagascar, the deserts of western North America. Beautiful, amazing places. I’m usually so happy just to be out there that little seems dangerous- even the sometimes treacherous driving. But one thing that really gets to me are… poisonous snakes. South Africa has cobras, boomslangs, black and green mambas, death adders and a host of other deadly things. We were walking down a trail into the field one day- just below where the little dinosaurs I will talk about come from- when the guy walking about 20 meters in front of me stopped and stood very still. When I walked up to him he was white as a sheet. A big cape cobra had just crossed onto the trail in front of him, raised up and spread his hood, stared him down, then continued on his way! Glad it wasn’t me! On that same trip we were prospecting some rocks on a game preserve, right next to the lion enclosure. The lions watched us, licking their lips, the entire time. That was unnerving.

It seems to me that as a woman, you may be in the minority as a dinosaur hunter, at least in terms of media recognition. Have you faced some challenges as a “women in a man’s world” and do you consider yourself to be a role model for girls – especially girls who study science?
When I started in palaeontology there were few women in the field, but the few that were there were true giants in the field. I never felt marginalized as a woman in palaeontology. The few challenges I recall came not from within palaeontology but from without. For example, working in northern Africa where folks may have difficulty accepting a woman in charge. I would hope that I and other women in the field could be role models for girls in science. My advice to girls interested in science is to not distinguish between male and female roles- concentrate on the science and not the gender of the scientist. Go for what interested you most! There are certainly challenges that women face that men don’t, such as having children and raising families; but as more women enter science, and as more women assume leadership roles in science, this is becoming easier as well.

What is it that you would most want to find or discover? What is your palaeontological holy grail?
I don’t think there’s any one thing I would like to find yet- no holy grail. Every project and field area is different. You never know what you’re going to find. I like that — the serendipity of field collection. It’s always a lovely mystery and every find is like a birthday party!

What are you working on now? Where and when is your next field expedition?
Right now I’m working on some very large monographic descriptions of dinosaurs from South Africa, Madagascar, and China. We’re finishing up field work project in western China at present. I’m not sure were I’ll head next, but I have some ideas!

What is the best advice you give your students or would give anyone wanting to become a dinosaur hunter?
Work hard. Be diverse in your studies and keep an open mind. I always tell my students they should “learn a trade.” By this I mean that they should learn a useful new technique that sets them apart from others- like finite element analysis, or CT imaging, or bone histology. Also…there are lots of interesting and amazing fossils out there that aren’t dinosaurs. Some of my favorite projects have been on fossils other than dinosaurs. Remember that dinosaurs lived in a world full of other plants and animals that are also well worth studying.

Great advice from a fascinating woman. Don’t miss Dr. Catherine Forster this Sunday September 9th. In her talk Little Giants: Baby Dinosaurs from South Africa.

Forster will introduce a new group (taxon) of iguanodontian dinosaurs discovered via the remains of twenty-seven babies. Using these tiny specimens she will explore the bone histology, growth, geology and the process by which they became fossilized in order to weave the fascinating story of environmental catastrophe that spelled the end for these little giants before it even really began.

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