Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Museums, Northeast Ohio, STEM Career Series, STEM Careers, STEM Resources

STEM Career Interview Series: Dr. Caitlin Colleary, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

I am so excited to introduce Dr. Caitlin Colleary, who is the Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in my STEM Career Interview Series

Dr. Colleary is a native to Los Angeles, California and joined the museum as Assistant Curator in January of this year.  She specializes in molecular paleontology and preservation. Her research focuses on how to find molecules preserved in fossils and how to use that information to learn more about these ancient animals.   She was recently featured on the museums “Scientist on Saturday’s” YouTube series where she shared more about her role at the museum and information about one of CMNH’s oldest dinosaur, Coelophysis bauri!  She was also recently in a clip with the Greater Cleveland Aquarium discussing the history and evolution of sharks!

Dr. Colleary also has a very unique and interesting story about how she became interested in STEM and what led her to her field.  I am so excited to share it with you in my STEM Career Interview Series below!

MTF: In your own words, how would you describe your job as Assistant Curator of the Vertebrate Paleontology department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to a child?

Dr. Colleary:  My days are all pretty different and I’m running around a lot. Some days, I feel like a librarian, except with fossils. In the collection, we have rows and rows of cabinets full of fossils and we organize them and take care of them a lot like a librarian does with books. On other days, I am in the lab doing experiments. Some days, I get lost in the collection, opening up drawers and learning about the animals that lived in Cleveland 360 million years ago, when it was underwater. Other days, I am in meetings all day or writing and I never leave my desk. In the summers, I get to go out and dig up fossils. And I also get a lot of opportunities at the museum to talk to people about fossils, which is definitely one of my favorite things about being a paleontologist.

MTF:  What are your favorite exhibits at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and why?

Dr. Colleary: I just started at the CMNH in January, so I’m still learning about all of the really cool ancient animals that we find here in Cleveland. So those are my favorite exhibits right now. I spend a lot of time looking at the giant, armored fish and sharks  and want to know more about them. The exhibit at the museum is also something I think about a lot because it hasn’t been updated since probably the 1970s and I like to come up with new ideas of what we should put on display and what cool new stuff we can tell people about.

MTF:  When and how did you become interested in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields?  Do you have a specific memory or event that happened in your life that helped you choose your career path?

Dr. Colleary: When I was a kid I was always really curious and I loved a good mystery. But I never really thought I was interested in science. I think if I had really known what science was, especially the natural sciences, I would have been excited about it at a much younger age. Science is really just about being interested in and asking questions about the world around you and wanting to understand how things work. There are still a lot of things that we don’t know or understand and there are still so many questions to ask, which makes science super exciting! I didn’t actually start getting interested in science until college.

MTF:  Growing up, what were your favorite subjects and why? 

Dr. Colleary: I was a lot more involved in English classes in school and I wanted to be a writer when I grew up like a lot of the people in my family, including my parents.

MTF:  What did you study in college and how / why did you choose it/them? 

Dr. Colleary: I studied anthropology in college, which was a subject that I didn’t even know existed until I got to college. The earlier schools I attended did not teach about evolution.  When I began learning about human evolution and the way life on Earth has changed over millions of years, it put things into a context that made everything feel like it made sense and I just wanted to know more.

MTF:  What were your college / university experiences like as a student?  

Dr. Colleary: I started at community college because I was sort of aimless and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I definitely didn’t graduate high school interested in pursuing anything in school. When I was at Los Angeles Valley College, I had some amazing professors who encouraged me to get involved and started teaching me about evolution and environmental science. I was so excited about learning these new things.  I ended up transferring to UCLA and then after I graduated I volunteered in the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The first job I had as a volunteer was to re-label the dinosaur collections.  I felt so lucky to get the chance to learn about these amazing extinct creatures by pulling open drawers and studying their bones. I also had the opportunity to go on a dinosaur dig with a museum in Utah.  That’s when I realized that I wanted to be a paleontologist – it was the coolest!

MTF: Why did you decide to pursue an advanced degree?

Dr. Colleary: When I realized I wanted to be a paleontologist, it became pretty clear that getting a Masters degree would help me get the job I wanted. So I went to the University of Bristol in England to study paleobiology. While I was there I did my first research project which involved studying pigments preserved in fossil hair and feathers to try to figure out what color ancient animals were. That’s when I realized how much I loved doing research and I decided to pursue my PhD at Virginia Tech.  Through my PhD, I was able to continue asking questions about what biological molecules might still be preserved in fossils and what ancient animals can teach us today by studying them.

MTF:  What roles / job titles have you had in your profession and how would you describe them?

Dr. Colleary: Because it took me a while to figure out how much I love science, I’ve had a lot of random jobs. Starting in high school, I worked at a movie theater, as a door-to-door canvasser for an environmental organization, as a doctor’s assistant, a professor’s office assistant, a nanny and a tutor. I’m so glad that I had these experiences because I learned how to work with and talk to a lot of different people.  I also gained a few practical skills that you don’t necessarily learn in grad school (like how to fix a paper jam in a photocopier!).

Once I started pursuing paleontology, I began volunteering and doing internships. I volunteered for 2 years at the Natural History Museum in LA between my undergrad and Masters. Before my Masters, I did an internship at The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota where I got to work in a sinkhole with over 60 mammoth skeletons preserved there. After my Masters, I did an internship at the Smithsonian Center for Tropical Paleoecology in Panama City, Panama, where I got to dig up fossils along the Panama Canal.

Dr. Colleary holding a Panama horse jaw. Photo provided by Dr. Colleary.

MTF:  In your opinion, what are the most important attributes or characteristics that a vertebrate paleontologist must have to be successful? 

Dr. Colleary: I think there are some basic characteristics that scientists should have: curiosity and excitement. If you always have those two things, you can really make it through a lot of the hard parts of pursuing a career as a scientist and it will make sure that overall, you’re a lot happier. Most other things you can learn. You don’t have to be a genius to be a scientist. But there definitely is a resillience that is pretty essential. There are days that are very hard. Failure and rejection are so common. I think it’s also important to get comfortable asking questions, being questioned and not necessarily going along with things because that’s how it’s always been done.

MTF:  Do you feel that your studies and experiences in college are helpful to you in your career?  How or why?  What were most beneficial to you?  

Dr. Colleary: I feel like all of my combined life experiences have been really helpful in my career. I’m glad that I didn’t go straight through from high school to college to graduate school because I learned and experienced a lot. I think one of the most beneficial things about college and graduate school has been the people I met. I have had a lot of amazing mentors who taught me so much and I have extraordinary colleagues and friends who are supportive and always excited to do projects together.

MTF:  Were there any other subjects outside of traditional STEM subjects, like art or history, that have been helpful to you in your career now and how?

Dr. Colleary: I think the fact that I grew up reading and writing a lot has been insanely helpful in my career as a scientist. Scientists are always writing something, whether it’s an article about science that you’re doing or a grant to fund your work, being a good writer is so useful. I think being interested in other subjects can help you be a better scientist. As a paleontologist, I wish I could draw. There are so many extinct animals that we have bones of, but we don’t have pictures for and I’d really like to see what they looked like.

MTF:  What has been the most rewarding part of your STEM career?

Dr. Colleary: I have a lot of days where I stop and think about how cool my job is. I have had the opportunity to travel all over the world, met some amazing people, and I learn something new every day.

MTF:  What has been the most challenging part of your STEM career?

Dr. Colleary: There are definitely things I’ve had to sacrifice. I haven’t lived in the same place as my family for a really long time and I don’t get to see them as often as I would like to. I have moved 10 times in the last 8 years. I am in a lot of debt, including student loans. My PhD was funded, but graduate students get paid very little. Taking opportunities is very expensive, so I am still paying off a lot of credit cards. Being a scientist is also hard work! There are a lot of days, when an experiment fails or a grant gets rejected, that are difficult to get through. But I’ve also found that celebrating everything, even the most insignificant seeming little things, makes it easier to get through those difficult days. And having good scientist friends who understand how you’re feeling and like to complain with you is also essential!

MTF:  Do you have fun, exciting or even embarrassing memories or story from your STEM career that you would be willing to share?

Dr. Colleary: In terms of embarrassing memories, I am a first-generation scientist and the first person in my family to get a PhD, so there were a lot of things that I didn’t have a clue about in school. I can also be very awkward, so I am sure I have more embarrassing stories than I even realize!

MTF:  What would your advice be to parents and / or educators to help children build confidence and interest in the STEM fields?  

Dr. Colleary: I think the first thing is to recognize that science is everywhere and for everyone. Doing science is fun and being a scientist doesn’t mean you must be good at math or the smartest person in the room. . Science also isn’t the opposite of creative. Being a creative person makes you a better scientist. If you are intrigued by the world around you and you want to learn more about it, then you already are a scientist! My best advice is to encourage curiosity and creative thinking.  Don’t be strict about definitions about who and what science is.

MTF: If you could give advice to your younger self, based on your career journey so far, what would it be?

Dr. Colleary: I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was younger and I feel like it took me a while to figure it out. But I don’t think I would have really changed that.  I think my advice would be to keep going and it will all become clear. And don’t be afraid to start over. Also, always hold on to those feelings of awe that inspired you to get into science in the first place.

MTF:  What advice do you have for children that are interested in becoming a vertebrate paleontologist?  

Dr. Colleary: If you’re interested in becoming a paleontologist, I would recommend that you go to your local natural history museum and start volunteering there when you’re old enough. Museums are always looking for volunteers to work in their collections or go out to do fieldwork with them. When you go to college, it’s beneficial to study either geology or biology (or both!). And don’t be afraid to email/approach professors or curators if you think their research is interesting and you want to get involved. Chances are, they will be thrilled!

Dr. Colleary with Dunk at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo provided by Dr. Colleary.

MTF:  Is there anything else that you would like to add or share?

Dr. Colleary: It’s really easy to end up working all the time, so it’s so important to have hobbies and other things that you like doing and that you give yourself permission to take breaks. I love a good novel, painting, hanging out with my dog, decorating my house, gardening and doing yoga. Taking the time to do things other than work is really essential to keep you from burning out. Also, remember to always advocate for yourself. You should surround yourself with the people who, when you are wondering if you’re good enough, will always remind you that you are.

Dr. Colleary is a wonderful example of a scientist who continued to follow her curiosity and passions to study what she loves!  I couldn’t agree more with her that science is “curiosity” and “creative thinking”. And that you do not have to be the “smartest person” in the room to be a scientist.  

Her advice to always advocate for and surround yourself with an incredible support system, is so important in the world that we live in today.  It is easy to conform to status quo or methods that were always used in the past.  It takes bravery and courage to suggest and pursue a different path!  That path might lead to truly incredible opportunities and discoveries!

I am so thankful to Dr. Colleary for sharing her STEM story in my STEM Career Interview Series!  I am also so thankful to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for supporting my passion to share unique STEM careers and stories on my blog, particularly of those professionals that are located right here in Cleveland!  If you are inspired by Dr. Colleary, you can find her on Instagram @hypothecait and on Twitter @hypothecait!   

In case you didn’t know, CMNH researches and houses several globally unique collections in its Vertebrate Paleontology area.  According the CMNH’s website, “The Devonian collection, in particular, is significant because of the globally rare preservation conditions of the Cleveland Shale.  This local natural resource has yielded abundant fossil specimens unseen in most locations of the world.”  

Be sure to follow CMNH on Instagram @gocmnh, on Facebook @goCMNH, on Twitter @goCMNH and on their YouTube channel for more fun and unique scientific discoveries, educational opportunities and events!

-Kristen

1 thought on “STEM Career Interview Series: Dr. Caitlin Colleary, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s