Fashioning the Future With: Ashley Hall
Are you a fan of fossils? A devotee of dinosaurs? A nut for natural history? Particularly partial to prehistory? Then, pouncing pistachios, you're in the right place, because we have awesome paleontologist Ashley Hall on the blog today! You guessed it — this post is gonna be a dinomite read!
Ashley is a naturalist, #SciComm expert, educator extraordinaire, and museum maven. She's the marketing coordinator at the very cool Nature Center at Shaker Lakes and has previously worked at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and more. Ashley's published numerous academic papers, been on some very cool digs (which we got to ask her about!), and curated specimens for high profile places like the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California. It's fair to say that Ashley is cooler than an Ice Age!
Ashley shares her passion for and knowledge of all things fun and fossilized on social media. We love her commitment to #SciComm, her unwavering curiosity, and for showing the world that #ThisIsWhatAScientistLooksLike. We were thrilled to ask Ashley all about her amazing career — including what her philosophy as a science communicator is, who inspires her, what we can learn from mass extinctions, and even what her favorite dinosaur is. Meet Ashley Hall!
When did you know you were a scientist?
From a VERY young age! I was always exploring my backyard!
What first drew you to natural history?
The best possible introduction to the natural world was exploring my own backyard — a freshwater pond full of turtles, fish, and aquatic birds. I grew up birdwatching, feeding ducks, and catching turtles. My parents took me to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago on holidays, and that was the first natural history museum I’d ever been to. I loved it so much that I remember my Mom saying, “You don’t have to work in a “regular office” when you grow up, you could work at a Museum!” That pretty much sealed the deal for me.
What do you love most about fossils?
Fossils are pieces of hidden, extinct worlds. They are snapshots into ancient ecosystems, and now with advanced technologies such as paleohistology and isotope analysis, we can learn more than ever about ancient organisms.
What is your favorite species of dinosaur?
My favorite dinosaur has always been Parasaurolophus walkeri!
Do you have a fave dinosaur or fossil fun fact you can share with us?
Oh, yes. Cleveland has the world’s oldest and best-preserved fossil sharks IN THE WORLD. If you love sharks and shark evolution, come to Cleveland, Ohio. The fossil sharks preserved here are 360 million years old, preserve muscle fibres and stomach contents, skin, and even coprolites (poop)!
Do you have any favorite moments from any on-site work like digs, etc?
The wildest excavation I’ve ever been on was in the Two Medicine Formation in Montana. We were digging up tiny pieces of eggshell from a Troodon formosus site on Egg Mountain in 60mph winds! We had to shut the site down for the day because the wind was so bad! Fieldwork is not as glamorous as it seems, but it’s a fun adventure!
What’s your absolute favorite thing about museums?
Natural history museums are libraries of the Earth. Natural history museums are distinct from all other museums in that they encompass 4.6 billion years of life from the very earliest multicellular organisms, to dinosaurs, human culture, and are actively still collecting data from living, or extant, organisms. Museums have answers to questions we haven’t even thought to ask, yet, and that’s what keeps me enamored by them.
What do you think is most important for us to learn now about how our Earth and its species came to be what they are today?
Honestly? We need to focus on how species adapt and evolve through mass extinctions. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction (K/Pg) is a hugely impressive extinction for the fact that we can see, touch, and study fossil organisms that survived one of the hardest, harshest extinctions on Earth when non-avian dinosaurs couldn’t. We can look at birds, crocodiles, amphibians, insects, and other invertebrates to see how they adapted to change. Studying fossils allows us to determine and predict how species alive today will survive through the mass extinction that we are currently in. Paleontology helps inform current biology and conservationists on how we can help prevent more extinctions, if possible.
Can you talk a little bit about your work with Celestron?
My husband and I are ambassadors for Celestron microscopes! We use their equipment in the lab and field in order to show people how versatile and user-friendly microscopes can be.
Do you have a personal philosophy as a science communicator?
Make it fun and STAY CURIOUS! If you see something AMAZING, share it! In the words of Steve Irwin, “I believe that education is all about being excited about something. Seeing passion and enthusiasm helps push an educational message.”
What do you enjoy most about being part of Paleontology Education?
Science isn’t done until it’s communicated, and communicating your science, especially with fossil organisms that have been dead for millions of years, can be difficult. We created the Paleontology Education Facebook page to share resources, information, and to connect with other educators in our field. People are immediately drawn to fossils, but it’s how you interpret them to the general public is the fun and challenging part.
For young people interested in natural history or paleontology where is a good place for them to start?
READ. Read everything — books, magazines, websites — everything. Visit natural history museums and if you have one nearby, see if you can volunteer or talk to a paleontologist. If you don’t have a museum near you, see if you can volunteer for a university with a geology department. Join a local rock or fossil club. Persistence pays off — and staying engaged and interested in whatever way you can, helps. There are several ways to get involved with this field, but they all involve knowing your stuff, so start there!
What are some hobbies that you enjoy in your free time?
ROCK CLIMBING! I am obsessed. Lucky for me, it’ll help me see fossils in rocks that I wouldn’t have been able to access before, so it works with my interests!
Who (modern day or historical) inspires you?
Modern day? Dr. Anna “Kay” Behrensmeyer, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the National Museum of Natural History. She’s a friend and an incredible role model to so many. Historical? Mary Anning, of course! Mary Anning had a love for finding fossils at a young age and made some of the most incredible discoveries of all time.
What do you think Hollywood gets most wrong about paleontology, natural history, or dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs from different time periods are often portrayed as living together. Fun fact: Tyrannosaurus rex lived closer in time to us than it did to Stegosaurus! Dinosaurs lived for 186 million years in three distinct time periods compared to how little humans have been around - only 200,000 or so years.
Do you have any favorite fictional STEM/paleontology/dinosaur characters in books/movies/tv/other art forms?
Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park, of course!
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
Tech device? Oooh. I like Dr. Strange’s Eye of Agamotto, which contains the Time Stone that can see past events.
To learn more about Ashley Hall — and to keep up with her awesome adventures in fossils, dinos, museums, and #SciComm — follow her on Instagram and Twitter — and be sure to join the Paleontology Education Facebook group!