07/19/2013 12:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2013

7 Myths About Paleontology

I am a 21 year-old paleontologist. I live and and work in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. While what I just said may seem perfectly clear to me, I get a lot of questions about what I do. People think I run around with a bullwhip. People assume I spend my day dreaming about riding dinosaurs. While it's true that a dinosaur, like Apatosaurus, would make a great, albeit slow, mount, that's not really what paleontology is about. Here are seven major myths I've encountered when talking to people about my job in paleontology.

Myth #1: It's all about dinosaurs.
I frequently run into people who think any prehistoric animal is a dinosaur. While dinosaurs do get the majority of the glory in the paleontological world, they are not the only organisms paleontologists study. Paleontology is the study of ancient life, specifically anything older than 10,000 years. Dinosaurs were only one group of organisms that lived here for about 172 million years, which is only .05% of the time that life has been on Earth. There's a lot of other things to study - fossils are formed from any organic material, so paleontologists study leaves, wood, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, pollen, birds, fish, fungi, bacteria, or even feces.

Myth #2: Paleontologists are like Indiana Jones!
Awesome as he was, Indiana Jones was an archeologist: he studied the past of human activity, usually through the analysis and discovery of artifacts. Archaeologists are similar to paleontologists in that both disciplines have similar field techniques. Archaeologists, however, are concerned with exclusively with humans, while paleontologists study ancient life in a much broader sense. Sometimes our worlds overlap with cases like Homo habilis, an ancestor to modern humans (therefore within the archaeology realm), but who was older than 10,000 years (therefore within the realm of paleontology). Other cases include ice age mammoths that were killed by early North American humans. In instances like these, archaeologists and paleontologists work together.

Myth #3: Paleontologists are like Ross from the show "Friends."
I've only watched a few episodes -- but if Ross was a paleontologist, then I doubt his job was anything like mine based on the amount of time those characters spent inside.

Myth #4: All the fossils in the world have already been found.
Nope, we haven't run out of fossils! It's a big planet and we're constantly finding new ones every year. The dinosaur tracks I work with in Denali National Park were only discovered in 2005 and every year we find more and more. Erosion and weathering expose new areas for prospecting and some fossil quarries have been producing new fossils for decades.

Myth #5: Scientists spend all their time inside.
Indoor work is only part of what paleontologists do -- we have to find the fossils first if we want to study them! I've done paleontology field work in four states now, including Oregon, Wyoming, Utah and Alaska. I've searched for Cenozoic mammals like oreodonts and saber-toothed cats, as well as found bones from the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs. I've stood next to Apatosaurus femurs that are as long me and stared at packs of Utahraptors trapped in rock. I've even walked in the same footprints that a hadrosaur made 70 million years ago.

Myth #6: Paleontologists are men.
It's true, paleontology has historically been a male-dominated science. Nineteenth century women such as Mary Anning had no chance to be a part of the world of paleontology because of their gender and class, no matter their impressive contributions to the field. In the 21st century things have gotten better, but problems still persist. Females only make up 23% of the membership of the Paleontology Society, and at last year's Geological Society of America annual meeting only 37% of the paleontology presentations were by women. Women have to fight a lot of societal pressures that deter them from paleontology. One of my lifelong goals is to be a role model for women in science and I want to encourage more girls to get involved in paleontology.

Myth #7: Girls will struggle on the job.
Paleontology field work requires an extensive amount of time, patience, and equipment. Some outings are to survey new areas for fossil localities. This requires hiking around rock outcrops for hours at a time, with your eyes on the ground, scanning for even the slightest hint of a bone. Sometimes you look for "microfossils" which are very, very small things like mice teeth -- this requires staring at the ground while on your hands and knees, and moving very slowly. Other times I've worked at already existing sites, which is focused on excavating the bones that have already been found and recorded.

Girls growing up are frequently told they can't do math or that girls aren't as good at science as boys, or they aren't encouraged to be as outdoorsy. I know when I was growing up my local Girl Scout chapter invited my troop to a "sewing and quilting workshop weekend" while the local Boy Scouts climbed Middle Sister in the Cascade Mountain Range that same weekend. I remember thinking even then that I would much rather hike a mountain than learn to sew. I now have that opportunity at my job here in Denali National Park where my co-worker (another female paleontologist) and I hike alone through the wilderness for days at a time, battling bush, bears, and swarms of mosquitoes, just to explore fossil localities. We do just fine!

This work is the quintessential image of paleontology: big plaster jackets wrapped around bones drying in the hot summer sun and a handful of scientists hunched over piles of rock, debris, dust and slowly picking away at rocks to safely remove the fossils from the surrounding rock matrix. Field work is usually hot, tiring, dirty, and slow-paced for men and women. After a day in the field you are ready for a shower and an ice cold beverage, and maybe a sympathetic ear to spill your paleo-frustrations.

While there is a lot of misinformation about my job, one of the things that all people from ages 3 to 100 seem to understand is that being a paleontologist is awesome!