By Mary Alice Hartsock
Fossil Prep Lab Manager Jason Poole wants to set the record straight. The fossil record, that is. While unearthing and repairing fossils, he answers countless questions and clarifies misconceptions about animals that roamed the earth millions of years ago.
“Many people watch movies and TV shows about dinosaurs, and they come away without realizing the content can be sensationalized,” Poole says. “We can fill in the blanks by helping people understand what is really known, how it’s known, and what the limitations of science are right now. Someday our visitors may push those limitations in their own research.”
Answering questions from observers is Poole’s favorite part of his work. Confident the Academy has “done its job” when the museum experience continues at home, he invites curious visitors to email him with inquiries.
Poole has been an Academy educator for over 20 years, but he has been interested in paleontology all his life. As a child growing up in Philadelphia, he collected trilobite and fern fossils, and as a young teenager, he made comic book art featuring dinosaurs.
Poole’s undergraduate training in classical art prepared him to work as a fossil preparator. He acquired the ability to work with chemicals and putties, which he now uses to repair fossils. Visualization techniques he picked up in school help him mentally assemble shattered fossils and disjointed skeletons. After he began working at the Academy, he complemented his art education with graduate-level courses on dinosaur taxonomy, osteology, and historical geology.
Poole got his start at the Academy by volunteering in the temporary Jurassic Park exhibit, soon returning to the institution to learn cutting-edge techniques of fossil preparation. He later educated visitors about everything from water quality to baby animals while serving as a teacher naturalist. Now that he’s in charge of the Fossil Prep Lab, he oversees Dinosaur Hall, trains volunteers to repair fossils, teaches adult classes, performs on stage, and more.
“I often work with Academy scientists who spend most of their time behind the scenes,” Poole says. “It’s amazing to see how they explain their work to visitors during special programs. I have a lot of respect for folks who, with such passion, are able to inspire visitors to learn more and get involved. It makes my job way too fun.”
Outstanding in his Field
Poole’s job also includes exciting fieldwork. Poole was a member of research teams that made significant discoveries, including Paralititan, a new type of giant titanosaurian sauropod dinosaur, and Dreadnoughtus, a 65-ton super-massive titanosaur. Those fossils were later prepared in the Fossil Prep Lab.
Poole did the mapping for the Dreadnoughtus expedition to Patagonia, Argentina, and went into the field with the team led by Academy Paleontology Fellow and former Drexel professor Dr. Kenneth Lacovara. He made sure the fossils were collected properly so that they would arrive in good condition in the Fossil Prep Lab.
Poole is currently involved with the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project, where in 2014, New Jersey State Museum paleontologists and participants in the annual Paleontology Field School discovered at least three partial dinosaur skeletons. The team returned in 2015 to excavate the skeletons and bring them to the lab for preparation, study, education, and exhibition.
Poole has a passion for sharing the discoveries from the field with the public.
“My philosophy is, ‘Why bother doing the science if you can’t get it out there and get people interested?’” Poole says. “When visitors’ first lab experience is seeing world-class research in action, they learn that the behind-the-scenes research is even more important.
“When I get frustrated with a complicated fossil piece, I go out and talk to the public about paleontology, and I come back to the fossil with a new perspective,” Poole says. “I have the coolest job in the world.”
Art in the Museum
Poole’s field research experience and his love of sharing science with the public come together in his art. And right now, his art is featured in a big way in the Academy’s Art of Science Gallery. Drawn to Dinosaurs delves into the science and art of visualizing a living animal based on fragmentary fossils. This intimate exhibit illustrates what scientists can deduce from the fossil record when creating a reconstruction of a skeleton or model and what they must look to artists to interpret. Alongside a full cast of the plant-eating dinosaur Hadrosaurus foulkii, discovered in 1858 in Haddonfield, N.J., is Poole’s life-size chalk drawing of the dinosaur as it may have looked when it was alive. The Academy created a full cast of this duck-billed dinosaur and put it on display in 1868, becoming the first place in the world where the public could go to see a dinosaur. After you see the exhibit, you can stop by the Fossil Prep Lab in Dinosaur Hall to ask Poole about his work.
Poole just published his second book, the coloring book A Dynasty of Dinosaurs. The book is filled with over 100 pages of Poole’s illustrations, plus facts about the dinosaurs and their world written by Jason P. Schein of the New Jersey State Museum. Each page is suitable for framing. It makes a great gift for kids and adults alike and is for sale in the Academy Shop!
This post was significantly adapted from a profile published in March 2012 in the Special Bicentennial issue of Academy Frontiers.
Check out Poole’s blog here: http://dino-scribbles.blogspot.com/.