Robert L. Carroll

Paleontology, paleobiology

Vertebrate palaeontologist who recognized and described the oldest known ancestor of all reptiles birds and mammals; the origins of terrestrial vertebrates, the origin of various amphibians such as frogs and salamanders.

"Any high-school kid can go out and make fossil discoveries."

So You Want to Be a Paleontologist

Besides chipping away at fossils and identifying them, paleontologists must spend a fair bit of time in the field, looking for fossils. Once found, they must be carefully removed from the site, transported and then prepared. This may require a great deal of research into the biology of the creature and the time period when it lived. Carroll says, “What I like best about vertebrate paleontology is that it provides an excuse for research in almost any aspect of biology.” During his four-decade career he has come to know something about every group of vertebrates, and he is now becoming interested in the nature of micro-organisms and how they originated.

"I sometimes think of paleontology as being an extension of history, just going on for much longer periods of time and involving a diversity of other organisms besides humans,” he says. However, paleontology is really a science because it investigates the natural world, a world that would be out there whether or not there were humans. Science is based on observations, followed by hypotheses to explain those observations. Scientific data may be the positions of stars, or the sequence of the genetic code. For paleontologists, data come in the form of fossils that record changes in the structure of bones and the natural history of life on Earth.

“What sometimes disappoints me, as a career scientist, is that many scientists become so committed to a particular area of research, or a particular way of doing science — either their techniques or their concepts — that they become isolated from other related problems, other periods of time, or other ways of learning about the world around us,” says Carroll. As a result, he feels, some scientists are unable to advance either knowledge or understanding as much as they could. Science simply becomes another job, rather than a continuing quest.

Careers in paleontology include being a government paleontologist, a university professor, laboratory scientist, chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical or pulp and paper industry staff scientist, petroleum/mining consultant, or a private consulting scientist.

Career ideas:

  • Paleontologist

Other scientists who may be of interest:

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