by Alexa (age 9, @KNEstemGirls)
Carl Mehling is a Senior Scientific Assistant in the Division of Paleontology of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Carl has a deep interest in all aspects of paleontology, especially the unusual areas such as bizarre modes of fossil preservation and anomalous discoveries. He’s collected fossils in 32 states and across 4 continents. I had the opportunity to interview Carl recently at the AMNH.
Why do you think STEM is important?
Carl: Because that makes more of me! (*laughs*) If you can give kids a really strong foundation in inquiry and science and math then you can get more people working on the stuff that I love. I wish that was around when I was a kid.
What is your favorite specimen in the museum?
Carl: I would say it’s the mummy on the 4th floor. It’s a hadrosaur and it’s laying on it’s back. Its head is exposed bone but almost the entire rest of its body is covered in skin. My favorite stuff is soft tissue preservation. It’s rarer and it gives you a better idea of the living animal.
What got you into this field?
Carl: I can’t remember exactly, but I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was a kid. Then, when I was in high school the museum here had an exhibit on the history of dinosaur art. I thought, well, I know about dinosaurs so I’m going to go see that. When I saw the exhibit, I realized I actually didn’t know a lot about dinosaurs and the art just blew me away. I was completely in love with paleontology right then all over again.
How did you end up as a senior scientific assistant?
Carl: I actually started as a volunteer in the department. It was great because I knew about the academic side of science, where people go collect fossils and then produce the science. But I didn’t know about the people who took care of the fossils, the people who prepared them and took them out of the rock. I actually fell more in love with that part of it. I had various jobs in the museum to try and get closer and closer to this area and now I’m in my dream job. This is exactly where I belong and where I want to be.
What is the most amazing thing you have experienced working in this field?
Carl: In 1997, I was on an expedition in Argentina and we were trying to find fossil birds, which is really hard to do. Instead we stumbled on a dinosaur nesting ground where there were literally miles of eggs broken on the surface and that’s cool itself, but eggs are only really useful as fossils if you can tell who laid them. The only way to absolutely know who laid them is to find an embryo inside the egg. So we immediately tried looking for an embryo, which are really rare. Within an hour, I was sitting on a nest and I was taking little pieces of egg and looking at them with my lens and I saw what turned out to be the very first piece of embryonic fossil dinosaur skin in the eggs. It was a sauropod. And it was the first sauropod embryo ever found in the world. It was amazing! That was the high point of all the collecting I have ever done. We found more skin and we found skeletons in the eggs. Lots of them. And lots more skin. People have been digging at that site since 1997.