From Gymnastics to Paleontology: A Conversation with Stephanie Pierce

Jennifer Berglund

Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host!

 

Jennifer Berglund

Today, I'm speaking with Stephanie Pierce, a professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology's very first female curator of vertebrate paleontology. She studies the early evolution of terrestrial animals. I wanted to know how she developed her initial interest in the field and how her interests evolved. It's also March, Women's History Month. So I was curious what it means to her to be the first woman at the helm of the museum's marvelous collection of fossilized vertebrates. Here she is. Stephanie Pierce, welcome to the show.

 

Stephanie Pierce

Thank you so much for having me!

 

Jennifer Berglund

So a lot of paleontologists developed their interest in childhood. But this was not the case for you. You were, in fact, a serious gymnast, the junior national vaulting champion of Canada, in fact. So tell me about that.

 

Stephanie Pierce

For basically the early part of my life, I was obsessed with gymnastics. And I got started in it when I was about three or four years old. And you know, I love jumping around and flipping around. And as soon as my parents put me into gymnastics, I just was like, I found my calling. And since that first class, that first gymnastics class, I just didn't stop. And it really became an obsession of mine throughout most of my grade school, to the point where I was pretty much doing gymnastics 35 to 40 hours a week when I was younger.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And doing schoolwork. And that's crazy. I mean, you hear a lot of people talk about, oh, I was an athlete when I was younger. But no, I mean, you were destined for the Olympics, you know, that kind of athlete, which is crazy to me.

 

Stephanie Pierce

It was definitely my dream. Like, I remember, as a child, literally dreaming about being at the Olympics. And I can think back about how passionate I was about gymnastics. It was my whole identity, I think, and I just really couldn't get enough of it. And I think it taught me a lot, not just about gymnastics, and you know how to flip around on the bars or fling myself off the vault or anything like that. But it taught me a lot about focus and dedication and getting back up and trying again when something doesn't work out. And it really was not only my passion, but I think it gave me a lot of life lessons as well.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So what was it about vaulting?

 

Stephanie Pierce

I guess I could get really high. And I just love flinging myself through the air. And that's one of the events where pretty much the whole thing is flinging yourself through the air. But also, when I was little vault was always the hardest event for me. I was quite small, I found it really hard to get from the springboard onto the vault. It was always my biggest challenge. And so I just kept working on it really, really hard until I found the solution to my problem. And it ended up working out really well for me. So it was such a big challenge. And I needed to overcome that challenge and being able to win a gold medal at that really boosted my confidence.

 

Jennifer Berglund

What would your typical day's schedule be like when you were a gymnast?

 

Stephanie Pierce

I mean, it progressed over time from just going to gymnastics after school, to leaving school a little bit earlier to go to gymnastics, to eventually I would wake up probably around six o'clock in the morning to get ready to go into the gym club. And then we'd train all the way up until lunchtime. And then I would have lunch and I get on the bus and I go to school for the afternoon. And then I get on the bus and I go back to the gymnasium and I train till probably about nine o'clock at night usually and then and then either I would get a ride home or sometimes I would take the bus depending on who was around at the time. So that was six days a week I got Sundays off, but it was, really you definitely need to be very devoted to what you're doing to be able to do that, especially as a young child and none of that was ever a struggle for me. I completely loved waking up in the morning and go to the gym and doing all that. And you know, sacrificing a lot of other things to do that because it really was my passion. And I don't think I've ever found something that I'm as passionate about as that. But I don't know if it's because I was young. And it was sort of the first thing in my life. I obviously

 

Jennifer Berglund

It was your first love.

 

Stephanie Pierce

It was my first love. Yes, I think that's a perfect way of putting it. It was my first love and, and I think, you know, as I've gone through my life, trying to sort of capture some of that first love. And I think I've done a little bit by, you know, studying vertebrate paleontology.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Tell me a little bit about your parents, too. Because I mean, your parents were obviously heavily involved in your gymnastics career, but they were academics.

 

Stephanie Pierce

My parents supported me every step of the way, dropping me off early in the morning, or, or picking me up late at night. You know, making sure that I had everything I needed would help me with schoolwork, you know, on Sundays to make sure I wasn't running behind. But my mom, she was actually a seamstress, and she made all of my gymnastics leotards.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Oh, really? Wow!

 

Stephanie Pierce

She did, and she, she also made lots of sports stuff. So skating leotards, and she worked with ballerinas and stuff like that. And she made very beautiful, beautiful costumes for me. But my dad, he was an academic. He was a professor of behavioral sociology.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Your dad was interested in evolutionary biology? Probably if he had a second life, he may have gone into evolutionary biology.

 

Stephanie Pierce

I think so. He did mention, you know, he mentioned this to me. I mean, I think a lot of his work in behavioral sociology, which is quite different from evolutionary biology, took an evolution slant. So he really thought about how behavior was sort of part of an organism's evolutionary history. So he always took a behavioral slant, but he he was just knowledgeable about so many things. And I was so curious about how the world was and why it was the way it was, and in particular, very curious about animals and other organisms. And so I think that him being a professor and having that background, allowed him to support a lot of my curiosity, and allowed him to dig into those curiosities as well and learn more himself.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And also you say, I mean, it seems like you two were quite the dynamic duo when you were younger, because his interest sort of inspired your interests too, because you talk about how you are always curious about why animals are shaped the way that they are, which is kind of an evolutionary biology question. Right?

 

Stephanie Pierce

It definitely is. Yeah.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So tell me tell me more about that. And you say this is not the case, but I am convinced that your gymnastics career and your interest in the way that animals shaped, they're somehow interrelated with each other.

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yeah, I'm not sure they are. I don't know. I always think of myself as like, my identity was a gymnast, but then my curiosity was science.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Alright, fair.

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yeah. I remember I would always be in the car and I'd be like, oh, why does that look like that? Why is the bird flying? You know, why is the horse running in the field? And I just like, you know, if you asked my mom, I was just like a never ending stream of questions all the time. And having a professor as a father really gave me an outlet to find the answers to those questions. So yeah, I think we were pretty good duo in terms of that. We were two peas in a pod for quite a while when I was younger.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Where did gymnastics end and paleontology begin?

 

Stephanie Pierce

If I think about it, I was probably always somewhat interested in paleontology, but I didn't really know what it was. So I think one of the first times I really thought about paleontology was when I was in elementary school. And we had a science day, science festival, where all the kids were putting together science projects. And I didn't get to do those very often because I was often at gymnastics, but there's one time I was able to participate in this festival. And what I really wanted to know was where horses came from. I also did some horse riding on the side. Because I really loved I really loved horses, but I guess a lot a lot of young people do.

 

Jennifer Berglund

You had so much spare time.

 

Stephanie Pierce

I know. That was my Saturday morning activity. Horses are so amazing. They're giant, yet they can do all these amazing; They can run through fields, they can jump over anything they can. They're so maneuverable, and they're just fascinating organisms. And they do this all standing on one toe which is is just absolutely crazy. You never really think about that. They have these long, skinny legs, and they're literally just standing on their middle toe. So I said, I said to my dad, I want to know where horses came from. And so he helped me find the answers to that and went to the university library, you know, look through the textbooks, found all the articles. And I discovered that they had evolved from very small animals that looked kind of like dogs, and that they weren't standing on one toe at the beginning of their evolutionary history. And throughout time, they got bigger and bigger, and they lost digits and started to run around on one toe. And then they became, you know, really important in terms of human evolutionary history and being our workhorses, and, you know, various other things, and we use them in all aspects of our life, at least we used to, I just thought that that was absolutely amazing. And realize that how much you can learn from looking at the past. I would say that was the first time I really thought about paleontology. But it still was on the backburner for a long time because I was still pursuing gymnastics. So I think it sort of started to bubble up to the surface again, maybe when I was in high school, and I had a biology teacher that always asked whole animal organismal questions. And there were always bonus questions like you could go away. And you could think about these questions. And if you wanted to, write a response to them, and hand them in for extra credit, and they were always really interesting questions. And one of the ones that always sticks with me is he asked, Why are orcas black on the top and white on the bottom? And I thought, yeah, why are they that way? And so, you know, I went and researched it. And I guess at that time, realize that how an animal looks, its colors, its shapes, all of that has some purpose, right? And so I guess that's sort of where form meets function. So that curiosity, I think, was sort of sparked again in high school, and then started to really mature when I went to university.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So why are orcas dark on the top and white on the bottom?

 

Stephanie Pierce

If you think of a predator swimming in the ocean, and let's say, it's gonna feed on a seal, if the seals at the top of the water and it's looking down, and the orcas dark on the top, it won't be able to see it, because the further you look down into the water, the darker it gets. And then if you think about it the opposite way, if you were deep down in the water, and looking up, you'd want a whiter surface so that it looks like you're just looking at the surface of the water. And so you know, it really is functional. It really is important for the biology of the animals.

 

Jennifer Berglund

You did have a significant sort of shift where you shifted from gymnastics. And it was after the Olympic trials. In fact, you made it to the Olympic trials, which is insane. Wonderful, amazing. So tell me, tell me about that. And then your real journey into paleontology, your real academic journey.

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yeah, I did go to the Olympic trials. And it just didn't work out for me. And that was obviously something that I had to deal with and think very hard about, and whether or not I was going to continue on. Or if that was sort of the end of that part of my journey, and that I would try to go on in a different direction in my life, and I think decided to take the latter. I had put so much effort into being a gymnast for so long that it was very difficult to make the choice. But I think it was probably time for me to explore other parts of the world, even. You know, like, I had such a narrow view of the world, I think, because it's just doing gymnastics all the time. And so, you know, to learn new things and explore new things. And that's what I decided to do. And when I went into university, I actually started as a major in genetics. And I think I started in that because I was very good at it in high school. And it was really pushed as sort of like the next big thing that everybody should be doing. And they were right. There's a lot of startup companies now. It's a great field to be in. I found that all the classes I was taking, I was always going back to what does the animal look like? Why does it look that way? How does that animal function in its environment? And in looking at genes and proteins wasn't really getting me to those answers, even though they are important part of an animal's evolutionary story, they weren't really telling me what did the animal look like and why does it move the way it does or look the way it does? And I think that's where I got slowly drawn into the field of paleontology. And the university I went to just happen to have a major in paleontology so it made it a rather smooth transition to go from one to the other and when I found that, it really was what I was looking for. It was starting to give me the answers that I had always asked a billion questions about in the car when we were driving past a field and there was animals in it. And I think that's where that transition happened. And where I started to really get into the field of paleontology.

 

Jennifer Berglund

You also went to school in Alberta, Canada, which is like the fossil capital of the world, right?

 

Stephanie Pierce

Well, it's a fossil capital.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Okay, yeah.

 

Stephanie Pierce

So I was also very lucky to grow up in Alberta, Canada, and there are so many fossils there, you know, you can walk around the Badlands and be walking over fossils everywhere. So it is a fantastic place to learn about paleontology. And to be in this sort of world of adventure and discovery, it was a really great place to learn about paleontology and really be immersed into that field.

 

Jennifer Berglund

As you mentioned before, you study the form and function of both living and extinct vertebrates. So we know how it began, it essentially began in your childhood. But how did your intellectual journey into that field begin? And where did you end up in your studies?

 

Stephanie Pierce

I think it took me a while to get to study function. I was really focused in the initial part of my academic journey on anatomy. Why do animals look the way they do? How do I tell one animal apart from another? And when I'm talking about this, it's not just animals that we see today. But I'm talking about extinct animals. And so really learning about the skeleton and all the different anatomical features on the skeleton and how they can tell us about what group of animals an extinct organism belongs to. And so that was really the foundation of what I needed to know was, what was the anatomy of these animals, anatomy of modern animals, and then the anatomy of extinct animals. And then from there, the logical thing is, why do they look the way? Why do they look the way they do? And to get it that you really need to dive into learning more about the function of organisms. There's this saying that form follows function. Right? And so you can really often tell a lot about how an animal may be functioning or interacting and its environment moving around feeding, you can tell a lot about that from the anatomy of an animal.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So what animals did you start looking at? What was your species or genus of interest?

 

Stephanie Pierce

Well, obviously, I learned as much as possible. And then I started to focus in on research. And so as an undergraduate, I did a research project on hadrosaur dinosaurs, duck billed dinosaurs, which is very Alberta, Canada, lots of dinosaurs there, and lots of duck billed dinosaurs. And so that was really my first big research project was to look at a juvenile hadrosaur dinosaur that had been discovered and describe its anatomy and learn more about where it was found, why it was found there, maybe how it was preserved. And then that snowballed into a master's degree. I studied a group of small marine reptiles that are completely extinct, but may have some important implications for the understanding of the evolution of snakes. And so in that project, I started to learn about a new group of organisms and what is its anatomy? How is it related to other organisms? Started thinking a little bit about how its anatomy may be related to perhaps how the animal was swimming in the water. And then I went on to do a PhD, and it sort of really all came together at that point.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So, hadrosaurs. Why are they duck billed and why did they live in Canada? Or what we now know as Canada?

 

Stephanie Pierce

Well, they lived everywhere. They were like, you know, the giant herding herbivores of their time, like giant cows. But yeah, they had these extra bills, sort of toothless bills on the front of their jaws, maybe, you know, to help nip at vegetation and get it into their mouths so that they could process the plant material.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Okay, so they're like grazers feeding on grasses and things like that.

 

Stephanie Pierce

Well there wouldn't have been any grass then. Because it was so long ago. Yeah, but yeah, so other other types of plants. Yeah,

 

Jennifer Berglund

Shrubbery. So that work, it brought you to Bristol.

 

Stephanie Pierce

I went across the pond, which was really exciting, because, you know, I got to explore another country, a different part of the world. And so like, personally, it was quite a great experience of like, personal growth. But yeah, there's this group of extinct crocodiles that became fully aquatic during the Mesozoic period, such that they started to kind of look like a dolphin. So they started to evolve paddles for swimming. So their limbs turn into paddles, they started to evolve tail fins so that they could use their tail for swimming. And they look completely different than any modern day crocodile. And so it is pretty wild. I don't think a lot of people know about them. But yeah, so I was sort of put on to this area of research about these amazing crocodiles. And not only does their body become really highly adapted to a marine environment, but they have these really crazy skull morphologies, meaning skull shapes. Yeah, skull shapes, where their snout or I guess people might call them snoots. Or boops.

 

Jennifer Berglund

That's really cute. It seems like something you would do to your dog, you know?

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yes, that's exactly right. Like if you boop the snoot of your dog that is this snout that I'm talking about. But these crocodiles, they became really, really thin and really, really long. So some of them would have been over a meter in length, and only maybe an inch wide and very, very unusual morphologies. So some of them had these really long snouts. And then others had skulls that looked way more like a dinosaur, like a Tyrannosaurus rex or something like that. And so they had these, you know, really different shapes. And the animals were feeding on different things. So the ones with dinosaur-like heads, were probably feeding on really big marine animals, whereas the ones with really long snouts were probably feeding on fish that moved really, really quickly. And so I was really interested in trying to understand the relationship between the shape of the skull, how the skull was functioning, how that was related to the diet of the animal. And so all those things were sort of coming together in that project to really link form, function, and ecology.

 

Jennifer Berglund

It's so interesting, I mean, because you were talking about them in this process of becoming wholly aquatic animals. And there's so many parallels between that evolution and the evolution of dolphins and whales. Right? What kinds of similar evolutionary pressures?

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yeah, you see this repeatedly, when land animals, land vertebrates, go back into the water. You see them repeatedly evolving, very similar overall body shapes. So this sort of like typical dolphin morphology that we might be more familiar with. But you see this in various groups of animals that go back into the water throughout evolutionary history. So these crocodiles that I was just talking about, we also see it in various other groups of marine reptiles that are fully extinct now, a group known as Ichthyosaurs, which really went to an extreme, and I think most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between an Ichthyosaur and a dolphin unless you really knew some of the anatomical differences between them. And a lot of that has to do with you're going into an aquatic environment, and you have to become hydrodynamic in order to move in that environment. And so a lot of times you see in an evolutionary trajectory of a group of organisms that are going back into the water, this progression towards more and more hydrodynamic body shapes so that they can start to swim and feed much more efficiently. And that often leads to a complete breaking of ties with a terrestrial environment and becoming solely completely dedicated to living in an aquatic environment.

 

Jennifer Berglund

It's fascinating, so fascinating. So obviously, you're doing this work in paleontology. Obviously, that means you're working in museum collections. So when did that start and talk about the role of museums in your work?

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yeah, it's definitely changed over time. But museums are absolutely central to any paleontologist. They provide the raw information that we need in order to do our jobs. And so they have been a part of my academic journey since the very beginning. Since working on hadrosaurs, I would go to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of paleontology in Alberta, all the way through to when I was working at Bristol for my PhD, I went to all sorts of museums in England, across England, across the UK, across Europe, to look at all of the crocodiles that I needed to look at, to measure, to understand in order to better paint a picture about how these animals evolved. And that has just continued throughout time. Always going back to the museum's which hold the really critical fossil material, but also all critical modern material that allows you to make comparisons.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And when you say modern material, what do you mean by that?

 

Stephanie Pierce

I mean living animals, so living animals today, or maybe recently extinct animals, unfortunately. But they're really critical for my work because if I can see the anatomy, the skeletal anatomy of a modern animal, and I know exactly where that animal lives and what it does, that can provide really powerful information for linking form and function that we can use to better interpret the fossil record.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So can you provide a specific example of that, like an instance where you would have used a modern piece of material and a fossil material?

 

Stephanie Pierce

So a flashy example is I was working on an animal, an extinct animal known as Ichthyostega. I know that's a big word. But this animal is about 360 million years old,

 

Jennifer Berglund

Ichthyostega. So let's just break up the Latin here, right? So Ichthy- meaning fish. And what is what is the last part?

 

Stephanie Pierce

It's like, it means fish skull, basically. It had a fish-like head. Actually, that's pretty important because this animal was about 360 million years old. And it was related to all land animals that we see today. But it did kind of look like a fish as well. And that's because during the course of vertebrate evolution, there was one group of fish that evolved into tetrapods, the land going animals that we see today. And so we call this the fish-to-tetrapod transition. And it's associated as well with a major ecological transition from swimming and water to walking on land. So it's really, it is central to our own evolutionary story as humans, because if this evolutionary event had never happened, then we wouldn't have land going animals today at all. And so very, very critical event in in Earth's evolutionary history.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Like a fins to limbs event.

 

Stephanie Pierce

That's another way of putting it yes, we also have that, like, so many things are happening at this time. And so I was studying this animal, and it's a very unusual, you know, like, you're talking about half fish, half land animal. And I wanted to understand how its limbs functioned. And they're very unusual. They look nothing like anything today. They look very, very different. And that I think that's one of the most exciting things about the fossil record is all the things that are so unusual that we don't see today, but for some reason evolved in the past, it's just absolutely fantastical, some of the things that you find. So I really wanted to understand this. But the only way I could do that was to look at modern animals and say, Okay, so let's look at a fish. How does its fins work? Let's let's look at a salamander. How does it limbs work? Like, let's look at a seal. A seal kind of lives between water and land. So let's take all these different animals, you know, living at the interface of water and land or maybe, you know, more on the fish side or more on the tetrapod side, and see how their limbs function. And then that could give me some insight into what I might be finding in this extinct animal. It gives me some power to interpret the information that I'm collecting from 360 million year old fossil.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So this is a good point to talk about something else that you find really critical in science. So you've talked about sort of gathering all the evidence and comparing different things. But then when it comes time to compile all of your data, you have to tell a story. Tell me about the importance of storytelling and creativity in science.

 

Stephanie Pierce

It's a journey of discovery for me that storytelling is so important. I think when I was a younger researcher, I thought, tell the details, tell the details, collect the data, tell the details. And, you know, as I've matured through my career, I realized that yes, that's important, but then figuring out what that means in the whole scheme of the story of evolution is the most important thing. I have discovered that it's more about filling in that evolutionary story and finding what the small data details mean in the broader scheme of a billion years of organismal evolution.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Of drama, really, it's just another way to look at it.

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yeah, yeah, I think it's it's so weird. I actually have seen myself really change over time, especially since when I was a postdoc, and then starting my own lab at Harvard. Really, whenever I see a new dataset coming together, I'm always thinking about okay, so have we collected the data properly? Are the data robust? You know, have we done our job properly? But then always, I'm percolating ideas in my head about, you know, what does this mean? What does this mean about the biology of the animal? What does this mean about the evolutionary journey of this broader group of organisms that the animal belongs to? What does it mean about perhaps even our own evolutionary journey? And so that's where I think the storytelling is really, really important.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And it's something you emphasize with your students?

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yeah, it is something. And I think, you know, in hindsight, I may have learned a bit of that from my dad, even though I think I pushed back on it, because he would always say, Oh, that's interesting. Why is it important? What does it mean? And and those are always the harder things to address, right? Like I could tell you, Oh, yeah. You know, the crocodile has a snout that's one meter long and one inch wide. But then why is that important? What does that mean? And that's where you need to think broad, you need to think about what does that mean for the organism? What does that mean for the community that the animal is living in? What does that mean for where the animal is living just in time and in space? So all of that comes together and it's really about choosing the story to tell. How do you paint that picture so that the broadest audience can understand why it is important to collect the data that we have and to fill in that part of the evolutionary story.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Yeah, and you know, just thinking about storytelling in general, in any story, you have to answer those first questions who, what, when, where, why, and how? It's the same in science, right?

 

Stephanie Pierce

It is, yeah. As scientists, when we write papers, they're structured, we have certain structure to things. But within that structure, you need to think about all those questions that you've just said, or else we're not doing justice to the data that we've collected.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Paleontology has historically been a male dominated field. And right now we are in Women's History Month, which is March. So I wanted to talk about this a little bit. What impact do you think male domination has had on the field? And how do you see it changing?

 

Stephanie Pierce

The field of paleontology and geosciences as well, sort of broadly, has been very male dominated. And I think what that means is that the the early parts of understanding the fossil record, understanding the evolutionary history of different groups of organisms, it's really been from one narrow perspective. Although, you know, the early pioneers of paleontology did find amazing fossils, and they told us all sorts of amazing things about them. It's still just a very narrow perspective of the fossil record and of science more broadly. And so I think the historical view of how animals evolved, and the deep evolutionary history of organisms, was really, yeah, as I said, from one perspective. From one very narrow perspective. And so I think we lose a lot from that because if you only have, you know, one type of person looking at something, I think you lose some of the creativity that other people might bring to something or the different perspectives and insight that other people from a more diverse background might bring to the things that you're looking at or the questions that you're trying to answer. And so while the field was historically very male dominated. Yeah, it really led to hypotheses and perceptions about evolution that today may not hold.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Even today, it's kind of still an issue that a lot of the paleontologists that actually work in the field that actually go and digs. That is a very male dominated endeavor.

 

Stephanie Pierce

It is and and I think there used to be, and unfortunately, sometimes still are, old boys clubs. And, you know, being part of a club is in itself, very good for the people who are part of it, but it's excluding everybody else. And so that is a huge problem and has been a huge problem in paleontology because if you're part of a club, you have access to things that other people don't have access to. And so if you look back at the first pictures of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, you know, it's all men. It's a quite nice boys club. You might have one woman, or something like that. But, you know, being part of such clubs do provide opportunities for a select number of people. And so it's really important that we get away from that and we break those sort of old historical patterns and diversify the field so that everyone can have access to fossils, and to knowledge, and to have the ability to study exciting things and follow their passions.

 

Jennifer Berglund

You are the first female curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Reflecting on that, talk about the significance of your role as the curator and being the first female. What kind of access do you have now that maybe women in the field didn't have before? And what problem do you hope to chip away at?

 

Stephanie Pierce

It's an honor to be the first woman as curator of vertebrate paleontology. And as you said, following in the footsteps of some pretty famous male paleontologists, could be a bit daunting. But I think also, as a woman, I'm going to be completely different than my predecessors. So I know that, and I'm happy with that. So that's good. In terms of access, obviously, it's completely changed for me because as the curator of an amazing fossil collection, I have the access. Right? I have the keys to the fossils. And so that has completely changed my career being able to have, when I need it, access to the things that I'm curious about. And it's one of the most exciting parts of my job, actually, is being able to see fossils, amazing fossils, whenever I want.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Yeah, and if you have a question about why is an animal shaped this way? Well, you can just go over to the paleontology collection and look at fossils that would help answer that question from really any era, like having access to a massive collection, where all of that's in one place that is so rare. And for men to have really dominated that access for such a long time, it has held back progress.

 

Stephanie Pierce

Yeah, I think it's definitely held back progress. Not for them, but for other people. But yeah, access is a major part of the equation. And it's not only being in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, it's not only that I have access to the fossil collections, but to all of the collections. You know, we have millions and millions of all sorts of different animals here, which really creates a comparative data set to dig into any question that you want to on organismal evolution. So it's a fantastic hub of scientific knowledge and exploration just below my feet, below my office, I have access to this. So that's amazing. And I think, you know, as I've gotten my bearings as a curator, because you know, I wasn't trained to be specifically a curator. So as I've gotten my bearings as a curator, not only as how much it can progress, my own research and the research of people in my lab, but also thinking about the scientific integrity of the collection, and how we can preserve it for as long as possible, and how we can make it accessible to as many people as possible in a more fair and just way, and not just giving access to the people that I know, or the people that I work with, but making sure that there's a fair process so that anyone who wants access, if it's for a legitimate reason, can try to come to the collections or study what they need to study. And that has been hard to try and implement. But we've been working hard as a collections staff, because I have staff that work in the collections as well with me who are amazing. And they work very, very hard to make sure that the material is curated properly, that we don't lose anything, and that they support all the researchers that are interested in studying the collection. And so we're really trying to get away from the I know you you can have access to let's make it equal to everybody.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So how do you hope your work inspires others?

 

Stephanie Pierce

This is a big question. I hope that when people read my work or look at my body of work, that they will be inspired to ask their own questions and find the solutions and answers to those questions. And, you know, I guess that's the power of literature, some of the most important ideas that we have come from the groundwork laid by other people and their discoveries. And so often a question arises based on reading someone else's work, and you're like, wow, that was so interesting, but what about this. You know, so I hope that other scientists as they percolate through their careers in vertebrate paleontology, will be inspired by my work to answer new questions and tell us new stories about the history of life.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Stephanie Pierce, thank you so much for being here. This has been wonderful.

 

Stephanie Pierce

Thank you so much for having me today.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Emma Knudsen, and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to the Museum of Comparative Zoology and to Stephanie Pierce for her wisdom and expertise. Thank you so much for listening. If you like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!