DEGREE: B.S. in biology; M.S. and Ph.D. in organismal biology and anatomy, The University of Chicago
JOB TITLE: Professor of biology and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington
FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: I had a tight-knit group of friends at Trinity, mostly centered around the bands living in the music dorm (Boardwalk). We used to practice in the basement and held a party there one time. The cellar had only one exit, hardly any lighting, and all the amps were plugged into a single outlet–but it was a great party.
REPORTER: What drew you to study paleontology?
SIDOR: Even though I experienced the dinosaur phase that most five-year-olds go through, I didn’t make up my mind to pursue paleo until quite late. In fact, when I applied to graduate programs during my senior year at Trinity, I was undecided on whether I wanted to go into zoology or vertebrate paleontology (which I considered zoology on dead stuff). My experience interviewing at The University of Chicago made up my mind, and I haven’t looked back.
REPORTER: What are the main responsibilities of your position at the Burke Museum?
SIDOR: Most people don’t realize this, but being a curator at a natural history museum is primarily a research position. I’m also involved in building the fossil collections for the museum and assist with exhibits and other public programs when my expertise is needed, but most of my time is spent writing papers, applying for grants, and advising graduate students.
REPORTER: What has been most interesting about your research into the origin of mammals?
SIDOR: Since about 2007, my work has been focused on understanding the large-scale evolutionary effects of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction. My group has worked in some pretty out-of-the-way places like Antarctica, Tanzania, and Zambia, but doing this work has vastly improved our understanding of the geographic effects of the mass extinction. For example, last year we published a paper in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) where we argued that the extinction disrupted the more-or-less uniform fauna that characterized southern Pangea and led to a more provincial structure, with different groups of animals becoming successful in different places. One of these groups was the lineage that eventually led to dinosaurs, which hadn’t been known from the Middle Triassic (~242 Ma) until our work.
REPORTER: What is the most noteworthy specimen you’ve come across in your work? What made it so interesting?
SIDOR: Not much work has been done in places like Antarctica or Zambia, so there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. Almost every time we do fieldwork, we discover either a new species or a species that wasn’t previously recorded in that area. For example, I have fossils representing about 10 new species in my lab at the University of Washington. My favorite one is a tiny little mammal precursor with rodent-like incisors from the Middle Triassic. Nothing like it has been seen before.
REPORTER: What is the biggest challenge with working in the field of paleontology?
SIDOR: Natural history museums are facing a crisis of long-term declining attendance and a struggle to adapt themselves to an increasingly tech-driven world. In addition, many smaller museums are closing or deaccessioning specimens, which leads to orphan collections being concentrated at fewer and fewer larger museums. I have no doubt that dinosaurs or other significant objects of natural or cultural history will captivate future audiences, but many institutions charged to preserve them are struggling to find a business model that resonates with the public.
REPORTER: Which course or professor at Trinity influenced you the most? Why?
SIDOR: This one is easy–Dan Blackburn. He was my adviser in the Biology Department, and I did research in his lab for two years. With Dan’s help, I presented our research at my first professional biology meeting, and we eventually coauthored two papers. This kind of experience and mentoring was critical to my decision to go to graduate school and pursue an academic career.