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Giving History of Fossils Public Appeal

Source: Science and Technology Daily | 2023-01-12 10:48:12 | Author: ZHANG Xiao and LONG Yun

Professor Thomas A. Stidham. (PHOTO: the International Talent Magazine)

By ZHANG Xiao and LONG Yun

"For a paleontologist, every day is traveling through time and being an explorer who can discover a new species, or uncover a page of history that no one knew even existed," said Thomas A. Stidham, a world-renowned expert in the fossil recording and evolution of birds. Currently, the American paleontologist serves as a professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Chinese Academy of Science.

Paleontology, a way to know history

Despite that seemingly broad approach to science, Stidham mainly focuses his studies on the evolution of birds by examining their fossils from China and around the world.

According to him, the first dinosaur book he received from his father at the age of three sparked his interest in dinosaurs. "The funny thing is that I met the scientist author of that book many years later while attending my first professional paleontology meeting," he said.

Paleontology now plays an increasingly important part in communicating the history of this planet to the public, said Stidham.

He noted that every discovery of new fossils can either add something to that history, or change everything about what people have known.

At the same time, dinosaurs and fossils are introductions to science for many children. According to Stidham, fossils and paleontology light the imagination of many people around the world.

A land of research opportunities

About 12 years ago, his friend and colleague Zhou Zhonghe, also the former IVPP director, suggested him to take a one-year visiting position at the IVPP.

The original one-year position ended up being 11 years now. "[That is] partly because I met my Chinese wife during my first year, radically changing my direction in life," he said, adding that he quickly grew to enjoy his Beijing -based research and work with his Chinese colleagues.

In his opinion, many things in his life shifted after he came to China.

As a scientist, Stidham has grown and developed his research at IVPP, a top institute for vertebrate paleontology in the world. "I have been able to focus on and develop my research in ways I would not have been able to elsewhere," he said, applauding China's conducive atmosphere for research.

In addition to research work, he has dedicated much of his career to mentoring the next generation of scientists, especially by helping students in writing their research findings in English.

In terms of the paleontological research progress in China, he said that many significant changes had taken place in China related to the study of paleontology in the last 20 to 30 years.

With its fantastic fossil site discoveries, well-trained scientists, and international cooperation, China is leading the study of many areas of vertebrate evolution, with ongoing groundbreaking discoveries and publications, and its paleontologists are well-integrated into global research circles, said Stidham.

Telling fantastic science stories

Nowadays, society sees a growing emphasis on science outreach activities, which generate excitement and interest in science among students and the public.

Stidham is one of the practitioners promoting engagement with science and related careers in Beijing. He plays an active role in developing, organizing, and leading many "dinosaur expert" tours for students and families, comprising of public talks and a family overnight dinosaur program in the museum.

These activities gain great popularity among potential future scientists. Stidham cares about the long-term impact his educational programs have on the students. He takes great satisfaction in hearing from parents that their children continue to be enthusiastic about scientific discoveries and interests after taking part in his programs.

"I am using the best resources in Beijing to light the imagination and interest in science among the next generation of scientists," he said.

This devoted scientist believes that active research scientists play an irreplaceable part in popularizing science. Scientists have a unique opportunity to inspire and instruct the public to pursue science dreams by sharing not only their expertise in the field, but also their genuine enthusiasm for science.


This story is in cooperation with the International Talent Magazine published by the Foreign Talent Research Center of MOST.

Editor: 毕炜梓

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