Preparing Dinosaurs: The Work Behind the Scenes
Photo courtesy of UVA Engineering

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Caitlin Wylie’s Preparing Dinosaurs Book Launch

Who counts as a scientist? In an effort to answer that daunting question, Caitlin Wylie focuses on one group of professionals that often goes unrecognized: fossil preparators. The result is her newly released book Preparing Dinosaurs: The Work Behind the Scenes, which takes her to 14 museums across the country, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Having worked in a dinosaur lab as an undergraduate student, Wylie already had an appreciation for fossil preparators, but she wanted to dig deeper. These preparators contribute to how scientists—and the general public—view and interact with fossils. In fact, some compared themselves to Michelangelo, helping shape the “statue” hidden in the rock. Despite this, Wylie says many scientists are not interested in the decisions preparators make, allowing their work to exist solely behind the scenes. To better understand the field then, she observed and interviewed more than 60 preparators, noting everything from the lack of paid opportunities for interested individuals to the variety of paths preparators took to end up in their current roles. Some started as artists, carpenters, or jewelers. Others turned to fossil preparation after careers in the government. She also explores the “creativity, problem-solving, and craft” that bring dinosaur skeletons to life. As an associate professor of science, technology, and society at the University of Virginia, Wylie largely wrote Preparing Dinosaurs for her peers in academia. However, its central purpose should resonate with a wider audience. That is because it proposes a new model for science, one that recognizes the contributions of folks like fossil preparators, undergraduate researchers, and individuals participating in vaccine trials. If this model catches hold, Wylie believes it could create a greater sense of trust in science. For an inside look at the hands that brought your neighborhood T. rex to life, tune in Wylie’s virtual book launch thanks to our very natural history museum. The event starts at 5 p.m. on Nov. 15, via the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s website. Free. You can also download Preparing Dinosaurs for free via MIT Press.