ROM: Hi Paul, we are thrilled that you are coming to speak at the ROM this Sunday and we would love it if you could answer a couple of questions in advance as we prepare for your arrival. I understand you studied art and biology at Northern Illinois University. How did you go from that to becoming one of the world’s most famous palaeontologists?
SERENO: I came to Palaeontology late. I had just completed my junior year studying anatomy at NIU. I tagged along with my brother who was a palaeo buff to the American Museum of Natural History at Columbia in New York. I had never been to that type of museum before and by the time I came out it had hit me like a tonne of bricks. I have always loved adventure, travel, art, and discovery and a career in palaeontology was a perfect combination of all of that.
ROM: You are an Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society. Other Explorers for National Geographic include Jane Goodall, Wade Davis, Jared Diamond, James Cameron, Louise & Meave Leakey to name just a few. What is it like to be in such esteemed company?
SERENO: The National Geographic Society is an organization which funds research and provides a mouthpiece to scientists and explorers that they otherwise would never have. I feel very lucky to be in that company. It is my pride and pleasure to be associated with this group of people and National Geographic.
ROM: What is Project Exploration and how did it come about?
SERENO: Project Exploration was co-founded in 1999 by myself and my wife, educator Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, to make science accessible to the public-particularly minority youth and girls-through personalized experiences with science and scientists. By the time I got half way through school I was overall a bad student. I did some art, read a dictionary and got into college – that’s my story. Kids sometimes need another outlet outside of school to stimulate their interest. Project Exporation has a three stage model. The first stage is getting kids interested in science and dinosaurs are great for that. The second stage is keeping them interested in science and the third stage is empowering them to pursue their interest. In January 2010 Project Exploration received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring.
ROM: What do you consider to be your most important and your most exciting discovery?
SERENO: That’s a hard one.
ROM: Well your first find must have been pretty exciting?
SERENO: Yes, well you know the feeling you get when you are hired for something you are not trained to do? I had never taken a course in leading an expedition and I had never taken a course on how to teach and yet found myself leading my first expedition in Argentina not knowing a word of Spanish with hardly any money. The pressure was enormous and we were out there for three weeks and almost left. I took one last look and found part of a skull and neck exposed and just visible on the surface of a rocky ledge. It was the first complete Herrerasaurus skull ever found. The Herrerasaurus is the earliest dinosaur on record and finding that skull in those circumstances was the thrill of a lifetime.
ROM: You are an inspiration to many student palaeontologists. Who was your inspiration?
SERENO: I have lots of heroes including Martin Luther King. I actually attended a rally of his in Chicago as a young boy and that can’t help but inspire you. And like most palaeontologists of my age my ultimate hero and inspiration was Roy Chapman Andrews the American explorer, adventurer and naturalist who became the director of the American Museum of Natural History and many say the inspiration for Indianna Jones.
ROM: You have been honoured with many awards throughout your career from 1993′s Teacher of the Year from the Chicago Tribune to People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People of 1997. What award means the most to you?
SERENO: The Teacher of the Year was a great one and in 1999 Columbia University honoured me with the Medal for Excellence, given to an alumnus/a 45 year old or younger who has already achieved significant distinction in his or her field. That year they also awarded honourary degree s to Muhammad Ali and Noam Chomsky. There is a photograph with me and these two icons and it is surreal. A very special award to me is the Roy Chapman Andrews Distinguished Explorer Award which I received in 2009. As I said he was my inspiration and it is amazing to have that bust of Andrews looking over at me every day.
ROM: There are several dinosaurs in the ROM’s Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana exhibit that have a link to you including the Suchomimus, Nigersaurus, and the Carcharodontosaurus. Did you name any of these dinosaurs? How are dinosaurs named?
SERENO: The ones easier to pronounce are the ones I named! I name Suchomimus which means crocodile mimic and Nigersaurus which is named after the country where it was found.
ROM: What are you working on now? When are you next headed back into the field? Where will you go?
SERENO: I taught anatomy to medical students at UofChicago so it was absolutely amazing when in 2008 my team and I discovered a large Stone Age cemetery in the Nigerien Sahara. These skeletons completely enthrally and entrapped me into digging them up. But we did it in the same way we would did up a dinosaur so that they are preserved intact. The bones are telling us amazing stories about the rise and decline of the green sahara. It is a dramatic and relevant story of people versus climate change. I’m going back in October to continue the work and to film a documentary.
ROM: How is the weather there in October?
SERENO: October is the best time to go, but it is the desert and so the temperature is about 125 degrees and the winds can be ferocious. Last year we left a bit late and the wind nearly did us in.
Ah, the adventurous and exciting life of a palaeontologist!
Paul Sereno will be speaking at the ROM on Sunday September 16.