Down to Earth With: Scott Sampson

by Sara E. Pratt
Monday, May 12, 2014

During a recent public lecture at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, dinosaur paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Scott Sampson was making a point as he walked up the aisle when a preschooler charged the stage, grabbed hold of his leg and wouldn’t let go until her mother retrieved her.

Few scientists will ever encounter such an audience response during a professional talk, but Sampson isn’t an ordinary paleontologist. He is known to millions of children and their parents as “Dr. Scott the Paleontologist,” the on-air host of the PBS animated children’s television show “Dinosaur Train,” which is seen in more than 100 countries, and to many other television viewers as the host of the four-part Discovery Channel series “Dinosaur Planet.”

Sampson chalks the recognition up to the public’s fascination with dinosaurs, but it is also due in no small part to his skill as a science communicator, which was recognized last year with the Geological Society of America’s Public Service Award.

In his research career at the Natural History Museum of Utah and the University of Utah, Sampson studied the ecology and evolution of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs. His fieldwork took him around the world, and he participated in the discovery of more than a dozen new species of dinosaurs.

In recent years, he has shifted his focus to education and outreach. Last year, he was named vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he is undertaking a revolutionary project to bridge the divide between children and nature in the 21st century, which is also the subject of his upcoming second book.

He recently spoke with EARTH associate editor Sara E. Pratt about digging dinosaurs as a kid, how dinosaur anatomy is more like human anatomy than we realize, and how transforming our educational system could improve the health of children as well as the planet.

SEP: How and when did you first become interested in paleontology?

SS: My mother started getting me dinosaur books when I was about four and I became fascinated by them. Without exaggeration, “paleontologist” was one of the first words I learned how to spell. A friend of mine gave me a framed dinosaur drawing I had done as a child. At the bottom I had written, “This picture was made by Dr. Salmpson.” I couldn’t spell my last name, but I knew that I could become a doctor of dinosaurs!

When I arrived at university, I first settled on studying human evolution and anthropology, but soon realized that I could collect as many fossils in a summer doing dinosaur paleontology as had been collected in the entire history of the study of early human evolution. So, while at the University of Toronto, I elected to pursue a doctorate in zoology and return to my childhood passion.

SEP: How did the renaissance in dinosaur paleontology that occurred in the 1970s influence your educational and career choices?

SS: The dinosaur renaissance began when Yale professor John Ostrom noticed similarities between birds and a little carnivorous dinosaur called Deinonychus that he had unearthed in Montana. He resurrected a century-old idea — that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs. Amazingly, that simple notion led to a transformation in our understanding of dinosaurs. Almost overnight, the panoply of dim-witted, drab-colored, lumbering beasts, many relegated to Mesozoic swamps, were reinvented as highly active, colorful and complex animals living in herds, or “flocks,” some able to sprint at “jeep-chasing” speeds.

That renaissance charged my imagination and made me realize that we had just begun to understand dinosaurs and their world. I still make this point to kids today. The discovery rate of new dinosaurs is currently at an all-time high. More dinosaurs have been discovered and named in the past generation than in all prior history, and the rate is not slowing down. So, plenty of groundbreaking research remains to be done.

SEP: Early in your career, you spent five years as an assistant professor of anatomy at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine on Long Island. What does a paleontologist do at a medical school?

SS: I was teaching human anatomy, which may sound bizarre, but actually isn’t. It turns out that if you know about the anatomy of a human, you also know a lot about dinosaur anatomy. We share many of the same muscles, bones, blood vessels, nerves and other things that are conservative throughout vertebrate evolution. Studying human evolution changed the way I look at dinosaurs, and it was not that big a leap to go from dinosaur anatomy to human anatomy. After all, paleontologists are anatomists at heart, and plenty of paleontologists still make a living teaching in medical schools.

SEP: Very few people in the world have discovered a new species, living or extinct. What does that moment of discovery feel like?

SS: First of all, it’s important to point out that the discoveries I’ve been involved with were not made solo. Over the years, I have worked with several teams of terrific people. Since 2000, I’ve been running a project in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, the last area in the lower 48 states to be mapped simply because it is so rugged. We’ve found evidence of more than 20 dinosaurs, with at least a dozen of them being new to science. When you find one of these things, it is pretty mind-blowing.

Life in the field lacks the romance and action of an Indiana Jones film. Most field seasons consist of weeks living in a tent in some desolate corner of the planet. Let’s face it: These places are called “badlands” for a reason. But what keeps you going is knowing that you may just walk around the next hill and find something that no one has ever seen before, something completely new to the world. It doesn’t happen often, but often enough.

SEP: One of the new species you helped discover was a small theropod dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous Maevarano Formation of northwestern Madagascar, named Masiakasaurus knopfleri. What’s the story behind its name?

SS: “Masiaka” is a Malagasy word that means vicious and “sauros” is Greek for lizard. The second part of the name honors Mark Knopfler, former lead singer of the band Dire Straits. In total, then, the translation is “the vicious lizard of Knopfler.” Why name a dinosaur after a rock star? Well, we would play music in the quarry and every time we listened to Dire Straits, we would find the bones of a little, previously unknown carnivorous dinosaur with buckteeth. Late one evening, someone suggested we name the discovery after Knopfler. That decision caused a bit of a media firestorm. The British tabloids accused us of naming the creature after Knopfler either because he’s a “rock dinosaur” or because he’s ugly with buckteeth, none of which was true. Knopfler, thank goodness, took it in the spirit intended. He even sent me tickets to one of his shows in New York; the whole crew got to go and we had a great time!

SEP: How did you end up on television and how has it changed your career?

SS: After making appearances in a number of dinosaur documentaries, I was asked to be scientific consultant and host of the Discovery Channel series, “Dinosaur Planet." Several years later, the Jim Henson Company approached me about being an advisor and possible host on this new show called “Dinosaur Train.” When I first heard the name, I said, “Well, you can’t call it that. I spend much of my time trying to convince people that dinosaurs and humans didn’t live at the same time.” But the Jim Henson executive said, “Don’t worry, we’re only putting the dinosaurs on the train.” After a brief pause, I said, “Well, that’s just brilliant, putting together two things kids love, dinosaurs and trains.” So I “got onboard” with “Dinosaur Train.” Today, I still consult on all the scripts and, at the end of each episode, I come out to talk about the science behind the stories.

One of the things I love most is to travel around the country and do events to get children interested in science and nature. Seeing all those kids screaming and excited about science is phenomenal. That’s the real reason that I do “Dinosaur Train.” There simply aren’t many scientist role models on television for youngsters. So having kids, especially those growing up in disadvantaged backgrounds, come up to me and say, “Dr. Scott, someday I’m going to take your job,” is just great.

The media work has definitely changed my life and helped me realize the power of television to reach large and diverse audiences.

SEP: Why is it important for scientists to communicate with the general public?

SS: To my mind, one of the most important things that scientists can do is share their passion for understanding the natural world and, in doing so, inspire others.

We are at a crisis point in human history, relating primarily to sustainability but also to the health of children. At present, the average North American child spends only four to seven minutes outdoors a day, which is about 90 percent less than their parents did as kids. Indoors, those kids are staring at screens more than seven hours a day; among teens, that number reaches about 10 hours a day. Partially as a result of this indoor migration, we are now seeing skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder, diabetes and depression — and all of this has happened in a single generation.

The remedy to this crisis has to include getting kids more active outdoors; the outside part is critical not only for the health of the children but also for the health of the places that we live. We are in the midst of a sustainability crisis, one that will demand that we take care of the places we live. But why would anyone care about their home ground if they don’t spend any time outdoors? A screen looks the same in Timbuktu as it does in Denver.

I think natural history museums have an important role to play in helping to address these challenges — getting children interested in nature, helping them understand how it works, and inspiring them to learn more about their place in the natural world.

SEP: Tell us about your next book, on connecting children with nature.

SS: This book will give parents, teachers and other caregivers the tools to be able to go outside and help promote a deep sense of emotional connection between kids and the natural world. In every major city today, dozens of organizations claim to be connecting kids with nature — among them museums, botanical gardens, nature centers, and zoos. Yet we’ve never been more disconnected from nature and place than we are at this moment. So whatever we’re doing, it isn’t working.

SEP: What do you think can be done differently, and how does it factor into your new job at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science?

SS: We need to stop thinking about nature only as a recreational opportunity and start thinking about it as an integral part of childhood (and adulthood). A growing mountain of studies demonstrates that children are healthier if they spend more time outside. Nature play is essential to physical, emotional and social wellbeing. One part of the solution is likely to be transforming schools. Imagine if all elementary schoolyards included outdoor classrooms, gardens, native plants, and natural playgrounds (with rocks, trees, logs, and various “loose parts”). Imagine if teachers were trained to engage children through the specifics of place, making education more relevant to daily lives. English, math, social studies, history, and science: all of these subjects can be taught effectively outdoors in hands-on ways that truly engage kids in learning. Formal and informal educators need to be thinking creatively about deepening the connection between kids and nature; part of that can occur indoors, but a lot of it has to happen outdoors.

I moved with my family to Denver about a year ago in large part to do something transformational at the nexus of nature, children and cities. My hope is to help establish an alliance of organizations capable of igniting and driving a movement to re-wild the Metro Denver Area and engage kids with nearby nature. I feel privileged to be involved in such work.

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