Who are the people of SVP?
Members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology come from many different backgrounds and live and work all around the world. Here we highlight the life and work of one of our members so that you can get to know them better. Paleontologists that have been profiled in the past are also listed so that you can go back and get to know them as well: Past PaleoProfiles
Wade Elliot Miller
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Undergraduate education: A.A., El Camino College, California; B.S., Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (Major: Geology)
Graduate education: M.S., University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona (Thesis title: “The Pleistocene Vertebrates of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, California”); Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, California (Dissertation title: “The Pleistocene Vertebrates of the Los Angeles Basin, California”)
Current position: Professor of Paleontology and Geology, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
My professional background has encompassed both teaching and research beginning at Santa Ana College in Southern California, where I developed and taught a one year course in physical science as well as taught geology. After three years I was accepted as a Ph.D. graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. My dissertation was done In Absentia at the Los Angeles County Museum where I became a research associate. For three years I taught at Fullerton Junior College before coming to BYU in 1971. In addition to teaching and research since this time, I’ve served as a paleontological advisor to the state of Utah, the BLM, and to the University of Mexico. I have been an active member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the major professional organization for vertebrate paleontologists, since 1965.
I do a great deal of fieldwork. I recently returned from an exciting visit to a site in Mexico where I collected Pleistocene fossils. A typical day at this site begins by walking around the site taking notes and photos of the geology and physical context of the fossils. I collect any fossils that are on the surface and note any important concentrations. It can really be frustrating when you hike for a whole day and find nothing worth collecting. When I find fossils worth collecting, then I may have to make choices about which ones I collect. This may be dictated by the need to protect important specimens with a plaster jacket. I have to be careful not to make the plaster jacket too big and heavy to handle. This often means that I must cut through many other fossils to extract the most important specimens.
Q & A with Wade E. Miller
Wade E. Miller with high school students at a dinosaur tracksite in Utah. Photo courtesy of Wade E. Miller.
How/When did you first become interested in science/paleontology?
I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t fascinated by nature and science. My first grade teacher in Los Angeles wrote a note to my parents saying that I had an unusually high interest in nature and science. However, I first became interested in fossils and paleontology when I took an historical geology class at El Camino College. Seeing fossils in the lab and going on field trips to fossil sites really triggered my interest. Going to the Los Angeles County Museum and seeing the Pleistocene fossil exhibits especially intrigued and grabbed me.
How do you spend a typical day when you are not doing field work?
A typical day spent on campus includes teaching. I like to use experiences from my own field work whenever possible. When I am not teaching, I work on fossils that were collected on my various field trips. I often work on papers describing the results of my fieldwork. Unless the findings are described in a scientific paper, they are not of value to other scientists. I may write articles specifically for the general public at other times.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you about your work?
I love teaching and writing about the things I have discovered in the field. It’s thrilling to find something that no one else knew about before. It’s also exciting to share these new discoveries with others.
What is the most difficult part about your job? What bugs you about your work?
The difficult part of my job is serving on committees, going to lots of meetings and grading tests. However, nothing “bugs” me more than just wasting precious time.
What is your most exciting discovery? What are the other important discoveries yet to be made that are of interest to you?
When I was a graduate student, I found a complete mammoth tusk over 12 feet long. Finding anything new is very interesting to me, especially at the rare times when the animal is new to science.
Wade E. Miller presents a poster at a meeting at Harvard University. Photo courtesy of Wade E. Miller.
What is your favorite fossil and why?
This is a difficult question for me to answer, as I have many favorites. To me, the saber-tooth cats are a mysterious group that we still know so little about. There were many varieties in the past, but all are extinct now and nothing quite like them is living today. This means that we have to speculate and infer what their habits and behaviors were like.
Who do you admire most in science or the world at large?
In my field of science, I admire those people who collected and studied fossils before there were trucks or cars to take them into the field, and who endured many hardships to further the science of paleontology. Some even risked their lives to do so. I most admire those people who are totally honest and do their best to help others.
What message would you send to future paleontologists?
I would repeat what a paleontologist told me when I was first considering a career in paleontology. He told me that there were few positions for professional paleontologists, but if I was really determined to be a paleontologist, I could probably succeed. This turned out to be true for me. I would also point out that people who do not earn their living by paleontology could be of great help to the science by working with professional paleontologists. More and more people from all types of backgrounds are doing this — from children to retired people. Many, if not most, important paleontological finds have been made by non-professionals or hobbyists. I have had many people who had an interest in paleontology help me a great deal throughout my career. It started with 11- and 12-year-olds helping me collect fossils when I was a graduate student.
To learn more about this research, follow this link to Wade’s BYU page.
Ask a Question
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