Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology

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The Paleontological Research Institution is an IF/THEN Gender Equity Grant recipient. Twenty-six ASTC-member museums received funding to launch projects aimed at increasing the representation of women and gender minorities in STEM across their museums’ content. This grant program is supported by the IF/THEN Initiative, a national effort sponsored by Lyda Hill Philanthropies to inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers while creating a culture shift in how the world perceives women in STEM.

The upcoming Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology exhibit at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, New York, will tell the stories of pioneering women whose discoveries forever changed our understanding of ancient life. Among the women who will be featured in the exhibit are:

  • Annie Alexander, the founder of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California
  • Carlotta Maury, who led an expedition of men to the Dominican Republic to collect fossils during a revolution
  • Winifred Goldring, the first woman in the United States to be appointed a State Paleontologist
  • Esther Applin, whose studies of microscopic fossils revolutionized the search for oil
  • Katherine Palmer, the first woman to earn American paleontology’s highest honor: the Paleontological Society Medal
  • Tilly Edinger, the founder of the field of paleoneurology who fled Nazi persecution because she was Jewish

The adventures, research accomplishments, and personal stories of these and other past—as well as many current—women paleontologists will be shared in this exhibit, which will have both physical and online components. The overarching goal of the exhibit is to show visitors that paleontology is a science for all people, regardless of not only their gender, but also their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and economic background.

Our mission at PRI is to pursue and integrate education with research, as well as to interpret the history and systems of the Earth and the life it supports to increase knowledge, educate society, and encourage wise stewardship of our planet. Women paleontologists, including Carlotta Maury and Katherine Palmer, have played an important part in PRI’s history.

Two of the women who will be featured in both the physical and online Daring to Dig exhibits. Left: Dr. Carlotta J. Maury (1874-1938), who was a PhD student of PRI’s founder Gilbert Harris, donated substantial collections of fossils from the Dominican Republic to PRI. Right: Dr. Katherine Van Winkle Palmer (1895-1982) was PRI’s second director.

The 2,000 sq. ft. physical component of the Daring to Dig exhibit will open at PRI’s Museum of the Earth in early 2021 and will feature historical objects associated with individual women, as well as examples of the types of fossils that they studied.

The online Daring to Dig exhibit, which is being developed with support from an IF/THEN® Gender Equity Grant from ASTC, will “open” in Fall 2020. It will incorporate most of the content from the physical exhibit and expand upon it in several important ways. Each of the women featured in the physical exhibit, as well as several others, will receive her own page in the online exhibit, allowing for the incorporation of additional written and visual content that will not fit in the space-limited physical exhibit. The online exhibit will also feature IF/THEN® Ambassadors who are paleontologists using images from the IF/THEN® Collection.

Besides facilitating construction of the website itself, the ASTC grant will allow us to complete a long-standing video project and to embark on a new one. First, these funds enable us to finalize editing and production of dozens of video interviews with women paleontologists conducted over the past few years at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. This raw footage is being transformed into short videos that will be posted to PRI’s YouTube channel and incorporated into the online exhibit. The interviews tell the stories of many women (across a wide spectrum of professional stages, from students to late career researchers) and the challenges they have experienced and overcome during their careers.

Second, the IF/THEN® Grant from ASTC funds will support the development of fun and accessible short videos for children that relate to the historical women highlighted in the physical and online exhibit. Some of these videos are biographical and focus on topics like identity, while others encourage children to develop their own collections or to think about how paleontologists should dress and equip themselves for fieldwork (as a way to challenge the widespread stereotype that all paleontologists should look like Indiana Jones). These videos are being created by Alana McGillis, who illustrated our 2017 children’s book, Daring to Dig: Adventures of Women in American Paleontology, authored by Beth Stricker. As part of this project, McGillis is also creating additional artwork that will be incorporated throughout both the physical and online components of the exhibit.

Pages from the Daring to Dig children’s book featuring paleontologist Winifred Goldring (1888-1971).


This post was contributed by Jonathan R. Hendricks, Director of Science Communication at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York.

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