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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
Samantha S.B. Hopkins
Profile posted: September 2012
Undergraduate education: B.S. Biology and Geology, University of Tennesee, Knoxville - 1999
Graduate education: Ph.D., Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley - 2005
Current position: Assistant Professor of Geology, Clarks Honors College, University of Oregon; Curator, Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon
Q & A with Sam Hopkins
How/when did you first become interested in science/paleontology?
I’ve had a thing for science ever since elementary school; my dad read a lot of popular science, and I was really invested in environmental issues from an early age, so science was kind of a natural direction. I also love the outdoors, and studying the natural world seemed to offer the best opportunity to use my work as a justification for hiking and camping. Paleontology wasn’t really on my radar until midway through my undergraduate training, when I took a paleobiology course on the recommendation of a friend. I realized within a couple of weeks that I wanted to add a geology major, and that’s been my direction ever since.
Samantha Hopkins updating field notes in Juntura, OR.
What was your favorite subject in school?
In high school, I was really into biology, in large part because I had a really good biology teacher who encouraged my curiosity. I definitely enjoyed my biology classes in college, but I think I enjoyed geology more. The best class I think I’ve ever taken, though, was called “Morphology of the Vertebrate Skeleton,” in my first year of graduate school. I really love all the things you can figure out from looking at bones. I try to inspire my students with the same feeling when I teach vertebrate paleontology.
Do you do fieldwork? If so, how do you spend a typical day in the field? The fun parts? The frustrations?
I do about a month of field work every summer, and I really love this part of my job. A typical day in the field is a bit hard to describe; there’s nothing typical about field work. Generally, getting up early, driving to the sites where we’re working, prospecting or excavating until we’re too hungry to keep going, then driving back to make dinner in the dark. I spend less time in the field than some paleontologists, but I make up for it by squeezing in as much work as I can while I’m out there. One thing I didn’t realize when I started this was how much of my time in the field is spent taking the data I need about the fossils; it’s not all looking for stuff and digging holes. My own least favorite part is dealing with the necessary logistics; vehicle maintenance, buying groceries, moving camp. I know I can’t do any of it without that, but it makes me crazy to deal with all that while I just want to go find stuff.
Samantha Hopkins (R) and Jonathan Calede (L) collecting microfossils in the Juntura Formation.
How do you spend a typical day when you are not doing fieldwork?
Since my position is in a university, I usually spend my time at work split between teaching, my research, and what we call “service.” Teaching means not just standing in front of a class, but also grading, writing lectures and labs, and helping my graduate and undergraduate assistants with their research projects. My research involves studying and curating the fossils I collect, and that were collected by past curators in our museum, as well as analyzing data and reading and writing papers. Service is the catch-all term for helping to administer the university, which is part of every faculty job.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most about your work?
I love figuring things out. I got into this field because I love to find out stuff that no one else knows, and that’s still the biggest kick I get from doing science. The time I spend studying fossils, actually handling the bones of animals that died millions of years ago is a big part of the fun in that. I really enjoy working out all the details of the biology of an animal from little tiny bits of its skeleton.
What is the most difficult part of your job? What bugs you most about your work?
Working in the fossil record, I always spend time wishing for more specimens, for the material to ask the questions exactly the way I want to. I’m good at working around the holes in the fossil record, but I can’t help wishing for just a few more specimens in the right time or place. Every now and then, you can actually find the fossils to fill a gap in the record, to make it possible to answer a question, and it makes up for a lot of the frustrations of working with a spotty fossil record of mammals.
Skulls of two Ceratogaulus, showing differences in horn morphology between Ceratogaulus rhinoceros (left) and the later Ceratogaulus hatcheri (right). These specimens are housed in the collections of the University of Nebraska State Museum.
What has been your most exciting discovery?
Exciting to me doesn’t always mean exciting to everyone else. The discovery that I find most satisfying was my study of the horns of Ceratogaulus and their function. It took a huge amount of work to answer what was fundamentally a simple question, but I feel really good about finding the answer to a question that was first asked over 100 years ago. I’m not sure that this one is completely answered though; we’re always getting new evidence to add to the picture.
If you could find the answer to any one question in science, what would it be?
I refuse to be limited to one question. Answering one question only makes you ask 10 more. Right now, I’m really interested in the question of what role climate change plays in driving mammal evolution. We’ve asked parts of this question in a variety of ways, and it’s evident that the answer is complicated. I have a few directions that I’m working on. It’s not a question I expect to find a simple answer to, but I’m currently exploring some of the potential interactions between climate and ecology to try to reconcile some of the things we know from modern ecology with some of the paleontological and evolutionary evidence. It seems to me that this question is pretty important to us right now, given human-mediated climate change.
What is your favorite fossil and why?
Ceratogaulus. A burrowing rodent with horns is such an evolutionary puzzle, and they have a number of other odd anatomical features that led me into some really obscure aspects of functional morphology when I was working on them as part of my dissertation. There are some really spectacular specimens of these little guys in several different museums.
Whom do you admire most in science or the world at large?
I don’t go in for heroes, so the answer to this question changes hourly. There are too many admirable people in the world to name one. I admire anyone who can leave the world better for their presence.
Is “evolution” fact?
Evolution is a pattern, a set of observations. As such, it is a fact. We have observed that living things change through time, both through the study of living organisms and through studying fossils. We also have some excellent process-based explanations of that pattern; we know a lot about the processes that drive evolution. We know this through the accumulation of abundant evidence in support of the processes of natural selection, of genetic drift, of sexual selection as drivers of the evolution we observe. Good theory predicts future observations well. We’ve repeatedly tested the theory of natural selection in this way, and it has proven to be a good theory.
How were you taught about evolution?
I don’t remember not knowing about evolution. My dad read a lot of popular science, and I grew up understanding that evolution was responsible for the diversity of life.
How do you use evolution?
I’m trained as an evolutionary biologist, and for me, every question I ask is an evolutionary one. Evolution dictates the way biological systems work, and my understanding of evolutionary theory is central to my ability to interpret paleontological data. Evolution organized all the fossil organisms I study; it gave rise to the features I examine, and it offers a basis for predicting future observations. It permeates everything I do, scientifically, because I work on changes in mammals in deep time. Dobzhansky got it right: nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution. In addition, it provides a basis for understanding geologic time, because evolution is what allows us to use fossils to find the ages of rocks. Evolution is the most important bit of theory to my ability to understand the science I do.
Can you “see” evolution?
Sure, both in the patterns of change in fossil organisms through time, and in the dynamics of living populations.
What message would you send to “future paleontologists”?
This is a vibrant field, with some essential connections to climate science and evolutionary biology, among other disciplines. That said, it is increasingly a question-driven science, rather than simply exploratory. I would say, bring your questions, your scientific curiosity, and your creativity; it’s an area ripe for creative young minds to build more ways of connecting biological and geological sciences.
Where can I go to learn more?
Your local library or museum. My interests were fostered by the Lawson McGhee library and the McClung Museum in Knoxville, TN. Museums are a great place to learn what questions to ask and how to ask them, and libraries are where you learn how to answer them for yourself.
Ask a Question
To ask Sam a question about fossils, or anything else, just email firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll forward your email. If you don’t hear back right away, please be patient. Remember, she may be off collecting more fossils right now!