Interview with Mark Norell

Part of the Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries exhibition.

The curator of Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries discusses his lifelong passion for paleontology.

Why do you like paleontology, and what is your particular interest or concentration in this subject?

I like Paleontology because it's a really synthetic field, because it combines lots of different sciences into one thing. For instance that there's a lot of biology, there's a lot of geology, there's even things in…things people wouldn't really expect like computer science and engineering in some of the stuff that we do. Because it combines all these different things, it makes it really, really interesting to be both a project and leader and a paleontologist because you get to learn so much about so many different things. My particular interest in paleontology is multifold, I'm interested in both some of the theoretical aspects of it, but also I concentrated the last several years on the relationship between what we traditionally call "dinosaurs" to modern birds.

What do you enjoy most about being a scientist at the museum? What do you enjoy most about the museum itself?

Being a scientist at the museum is great. There's a lot of resources here, we have excellent collections, we attract wonderful students, and there's always a lot going on. It allows me to be involved both in my scientific research as well as in exhibitions and education. The American Museum of Natural History is a real New York City icon. It's one of the most famous natural history museums in the world, both … If you like working at museums, it's probably the best place on the planet to pursue your career.

Tell us a bit about the research you do here. What are you working on now?

The research I do here is a combination of lots of different things. Probably the biggest percentage of my time though is devoted to studying small, carnivorous dinosaurs and how they relate to modern birds. There's a lot of field work involved in this, both in the Gobi desert and in parts of China, where we found the feathered dinosaurs, and we found a whole host of other animals that bear in this question. It's really been fun working with my Chinese colleagues in Beijing on these projects and I think it's really changed the way in which we look at dinosaurs.

If people could take away just one important point about the Dinosaur exhibition, what would you want that to be?

That dinosaurs aren't extinct, we just call them birds now.

What is your favorite dinosaur and why?

My favorite dinosaur is whatever I happen to be working on at the time.

Tell us a bit about the Gobi exhibitions and one of your favorite discoveries there.

Well the Gobi desert expeditions have been going on for over a decade now. It's really been wonderful working in Mongolia every summer. I love the desert, I've worked in deserts all over the world, and we've found some amazing fossils. Everything from animals sitting on top of their nests eggs brooding them to embryos in eggs, to lots of different new dinosaurs that we've described, many of which have important bearing on how theropods, dinosaurs relate to one another, as well what they may have looked like and some of their habits.

A lot of funny stuff happens in the Gobi, too much to even talk about. It's almost on a daily basis. We've been really fortunate working, and having a number of extremely talented people who worked on the project, all of whom had great times while we were out there.

What exhibits have you worked on in the museum in addition to dinosaurs?

I've worked on lots of different exhibits here in the Museum. Most of them have been dinosaur related, everything to the Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to the Fighting Dinosaurs which highlighted the Mongolia project. I've also helped curate the dinosaur halls and the fossil halls when we redid those a decade ago. I'm interested also in other kinds of exhibits. I've served as chair of the exhibition review committee for several years, and I think that it's really important for museums like this one to put the research that the scientists do out on display, for the public both to see the objects but also to give them an education into what goes on here.

Do you have any plans or ideas for any future exhibitions?

Right now I'm so involved in this current exhibition that I really haven't thought about it, but I'm sure that in year or so we'll be thinking about what we can do next.

What were your early scientific influences?

I was always really interested in science as a child. My father was an architect and an engineer and he was always really interested in science also. I was always catching animals, having pets, doing experiments, taking apart machines when I was a child. I was always interested in paleontology too, and I started collecting fossils...when I was quite young. Growing up, I did volunteer work at the Los Angeles County Museum and there I was really introduced for the first time to real professional scientists who were doing their work, and even in my teens I was able to accompany them to expeditions to Mexico and in the California deserts and things, basically doing what I do now. I've done lots of different kinds of things in science. As a graduate student, I departed from paleontology and was working in molecular genetics and some computational biology, so, I came back basically to paleontology shortly before I moved to the Museum here. The important thing is that science educations are great ones. You can do lots of different kinds of science, but just learning about how science works and how to analyze data, because it's all just data sets which are pretty much analyzed in the same way. Also I think a science education allows you to do other things. Many of my friends who have gotten science educations do everything from working on Wall Street to working as attorneys to working in conservation biology.

What advice would you give to kids who might want to pursue paleontology as a future career?

To pursue paleontology, because it is such a synthetic field, it really requires lots of different skills. So I would suggest that people get as broad-based an education as possible. Of course, you have to know something about mathematics, you have to know something about basic biology, but there's lots of things which are important also. I mean, if you do expedition work in foreign countries, it's important to learn how to be good traveler, perhaps to speak a different language. Also, to feel comfortable outdoors and under extreme conditions, so there's a lot of different skill sets that people really need and the best way to do that is to pursue as many different things as possible.