It was her first day at the Academy, and 13-year-old Aja Carter was dressed to impress.
Having loved dinosaurs since early childhood, she had decided the Academy was the perfect place to volunteer. But first she had to brave what she thought would be a challenging interview.
“I had read up on my dinosaurs, worried about what questions the Academy was going to ask me,” Carter remembers. “I was in a button-up shirt, and I walked around Dinosaur Hall saying, ‘Yes, that’s a Tyrannosaurus rex’ and being very know-it-all-ish,” she laughs.
Seven years later, when we talked in 2013, Carter rolled her eyes at that memory, recalling how shaky her dinosaur knowledge actually was. She started out “hiding” in the Academy’s fossil dig, where maps and signage helped her guide visitors. At the urging of Dinosaur Hall Manager and Fossil Prep Lab Coordinator Jason Poole, she agreed to answer visitors’ questions by memory in Dinosaur Hall.
Then she joined the Fossil Prep Lab, where she began to overcome her fear of making a mistake.
“With Jason, it was always, ‘We can fix that, and try this next time.’ It gave me the confidence to ask questions.”
Carter found her niche in the Fossil Prep Lab, answering young visitors’ questions with increasing eagerness.
“I can’t explain the joy when you explain something and the light goes on, and their eyes go wide, and they understand the immensity of the world,” she says.
Those faces pressed against the glass have had a profound effect on Carter, yet she has influenced them even more.
Parents have thanked her for being a role model for their daughters. One family said that, after seeing Carter in the lab, their daughter enrolled in a science academy.
If you meet Carter today, you will find no trace of the nervous teenager she once was. Paleontological terms slide off her tongue eloquently. A former Drexel biology major with a concentration in paleontology, Carter conducted research on a Cretaceous crocodile from New Jersey with her advisor, Dr. Ken Lacovara. She helped other students conduct research, access museum collections, and ask for help from experts.
As a member of Drexel’s Students Tackling Advanced Research (STARS) program, Carter prepared a vertebra of a super-massive 66-million-year-old dinosaur (uncovered in Argentina by Lacovara’s crew) in the Academy’s lab. Her work was even studied at Drexel.
“Seeing that I did my job well enough that people can learn from it is still so touching to me,” she says.
As she made plans for graduate school, Carter continued to prepare fossils in the Academy’s Fossil Prep Lab, participate in Paleopalooza (the Academy’s annual festival celebrating all things fossil), and even dress up as the Academy’s T-rex mascot, Eddie. It doesn’t really matter what she’s doing, she says, as long as it has something to do with dinosaurs.
“This is home,” Carter says of the Academy. “Sometimes just sitting beneath the T. rex is awesome. Awe-inspiring, in the purest sense of the word.”
Drexel grad Carter is now a PhD student in paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies how our ancestors moved 340 million years ago, when they crawled from the muck and onto land.
On Saturday, December 16, you can meet Carter in the museum during our very first Scientist Saturday! She will give hands-on demonstrations of her exciting research, and you can ask all the questions you want from 1 to 4 p.m.
Carter loves to talk about how our ancestors evolved the abilities to crawl over obstacles in their environment, such as fallen trees and logs. Her research focuses on the effects of vertebral shape on obstacle crossing capabilities through a host of techniques, from classic vertebral measurements to cutting-edge biorobotic models.
Scientist Saturdays welcomes guests of all ages to interact with our scientists, who are happy to converse with you about their current research. Come back for new guests each month. Free with general admission. No registration required.
A shorter version of this article was included in the Academy’s winter 2013 issue of our member magazine, Academy Frontiers. It was updated for this blog post.
By Mary Alice Hartsock