When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist and go on digs to find dinosaurs. For my first expedition, I took my mother’s pie plates and dug a giant hole in my backyard. I was about 7 or 8. I was convinced that our hump-shaped rock outcropping that popped about 4 feet or so out of the ground was the headstone for a dinosaur. On my expedition, I proudly found the skeleton of a mouse, but sadly there was no dinosaur. (The pie plates didn’t survive either.) Nevertheless, I was determined to become a scientist, and entered the University of Pennsylvania’s engineering school after wining prizes such as the Rensselaer Medal when I was in high school. My idea was to invent tools and technology that would make my expeditions more efficient.
Sadly, my perfect scenario of becoming a paleontologist and dinosaur hunter didn’t come to pass. (Or at least it hasn’t yet.) I didn’t do well at Penn my first semester. I went to see my physics professor to get some extra help. After a grand total of 2 minutes, he told me I had no mind for science and math generally, and especially not for physics or calculus. Sadly, I believed him. I left his office hours dejected and in tears. I walked back to my dorm with all of my dreams lying in a wake behind me, shattered to pieces. No one had ever told me I couldn’t learn something, and this ugly exchange was a devastating cut to me when I already felt extraordinarily out-of-place at Penn for many other reasons. I changed my school within the University and my major the next day.
(This story does have a happy ending: I took both calculus and physics at a local college years later just to prove to myself that the professor was wrong about me. I got a perfect score on every test. Even though he may be a genius physicist, he was entirely wrong about my mental capacity for physics and calculus.)
Though I now have a wonderful career as a writer, author, and business leader for a technology company, I have never lost my first love for science. I still regularly read scientific journals, publications, and books. One that I have I been looking forward to for months, Why Dinosaurs Matter by Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, has finally been released and it’s even more spectacular than I had hoped it would be. Laced with dry, laugh-out-loud humor and poetic prose that weaves together our history with that of the dinosaurs, this book was the indulgent dive into the world of dinosaurs that I wanted and needed. It took me back to that day in the backyard with the pie plates and the dirt and my determination to discover something magical and mysterious. It ignited in me my child-like wonder about dinosaurs and science. I’ll admit that I hugged the book when it was done. It’s a delicious tale of survival, triumph, adaptation, struggle, and eventual loss that draws me into expertly crafted novels. Except this is real. This is science, however fantastical it may seem.
The book was so good that it prompted me to Google Dr. Lacovara and see what he’s up to these days. I know him mostly from his landmark discovery of Dreadnoughtus in the early 2000s. He’s now the Dean of Rowan University’s School of Earth & Environment and Director of the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park in New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. Believe it or not, New Jersey is the place to be in the U.S. when it comes to finding dinosaur remains. I’ve been so close to the dinosaurs my entire life. They’ve been right here beneath my feet.
The older I get, the more I realize just how full-circle life is. Rowan University’s Fossil Park will become a one-of-a-kind center for STEM education, and it will include a museum, laboratories, and learning spaces thanks to Dr. Lacovara and his dedicated team. They have a volunteer program as well as community dig days. Perhaps I’ll be able to realize a piece of that dream of digging around in the dirt after all, this time armed with tools a bit more sturdy than pie plates.