California Academy of Sciences Executive Director Scott Sampson on Dinosaurs, Conservation, and More

SCOTT SAMPSON, PH.D., had the job nearly every one of us has dreamed of at one point — as paleontologist, he took part in dinosaur digs around the world, unearthing giant extinct creatures and naming some of them too. But feeling a greater purpose, Sampson left this profession and pursued a career in promoting science and advising museums instead. He was vice president of Research and Collections at Denver Museum of Nature and Science, then president at the not-for-profit center Science World British Columbia, and hosted TV’s Dinosaur Train and the four-part Discovery Channel series Dinosaur Planet. He’s also authored numerous books, including Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life and How to Raise a Wild Child. Sampson joined the California Academy of Sciences as executive director last September and lives part-time in West Marin.

Why did you take the job at Cal Academy?

I am here because I want to make a difference and I cannot think of a better place to make a difference in the way that I would like to make it than this institution. The Cal Academy has been around since 1853, three years after California became a state. It has a world-class collection of natural history objects, including by far the biggest collection of California nature anywhere in the world. It has a world-class planetarium, aquarium and natural history museum. And all of this is under this living roof with more than a million plants on it. So that unto itself is unique and is a marvelous platform. But then you add in the fact that it’s in the Bay Area, which arguably has more intellectual, technological and financial resources than anywhere else in the world. If you were looking for a place that could be the stone that gets thrown in the pond and sends ripples across the country and beyond, for me, you’d struggle to find a place better than this one.

What are some of your biggest environmental concerns?

We are in the middle of an ecological crisis. Nobody needs to be told that these days; we’re all told that in spades, and that we’ve got a limited time to figure out what we’re going to do and how humanity is going to change course. My personal view is that the crisis we face is as much a crisis of consciousness as anything else. It’s a flaw in how we see the world. We see ourselves as outside and above nature, and we think of our role as dominating nature when what we really need to do is think of ourselves as deeply embedded within nature.

What can people do to help conserve nature?

We have passed the age of mere preservation or conservation. The notion of conservation was always about trying to conserve something the way it was. Well, you can’t do that if the planet is warming up and it’s not going to stop any time soon. How do we prepare the earth to adapt and evolve in a world of climate change?

So how can people help make a change?

One of the areas we’re already a leader on is citizen science, this idea that we can get the average person involved in recording information naturally. Free apps like iNaturalist are part of Cal Academy and National Geographic, but we want to see citizen science scaled up. We want people all over the world to see themselves as citizen scientists and engage in recording what things they find in the places they live, but also monitor change, because in a world of global warming, things aren’t the same. That will require people in general monitoring what’s going on, whether it’s (with) birds or forests or insects or butterflies. And then as things change: are the plants budding earlier than usual? Are the migrating birds coming up or coming back earlier? Are there certain species that are disappearing because of warming in ways that we would never have predicted?

Tell me about Dinosaur Train.

I’ve been hosting Dinosaur Train and acting as the lead science adviser for over 10 years. I got a call from the Jim Henson Company 12 years ago and I never thought it would erupt into the thing that it did and become super popular. It still airs in over 100 countries and has become this great vehicle for engaging young kids with nature. When it started, I had no idea if a television show could encourage kids to turn off the TV and go outside. I made a deal with PBS and the Jim Henson Company to have a tagline at the end of every show, which is, “Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries.” Now, more than a decade later, I’m happy to report that it was a great success, so much so that PBS and other producers have created more content, more series that are all about getting kids outside.

What sparked your interest in paleontology?

I was the typical 4-year-old, right? I loved dinosaurs. Paleontology is one of the first words I learned how to spell. There was a brief period in my life where I could reliably spell paleontologist and not my own last name. The only difference between me and other kids is that I never grew up and just kept that passion all the way through. I thought about doing other things along the way, but ultimately it led me to a position at the University of Utah where I was a tenured professor and cross appointed with the Natural History Museum. I had that dream job for a dinosaur paleontologist — with amazing fossils just a few hours away in southern Utah.

California Academy Of Sciences
Photo by Tim Griffith

What’s the most exciting dig you’ve been on?

The most exciting thing I’ve ever found was the skull of a big carnivorous dinosaur on the island of Madagascar. The teeth of this animal have been known (about) for the better part of a century, but nobody had ever seen the actual skeleton. I was lucky enough to be the person to find it and to lead the major scientific description of it. I’ve been involved in naming about 15 different dinosaurs, and that kind of original science is so wonderful. It’s one of the things that I always tell kids, that too often in school we present science like we know it all, but we hardly know anything about the natural world. We’re still figuring it out and if any kid wants to go into science, no matter what the science, there are still groundbreaking discoveries to be made.

Like how dinosaurs had feathers.

Yes, many had feathers. When I was growing up, no one ever thought that a dinosaur could be the size of a raven and with feathers, climbing trees and eating insects. But that’s what we know now, that some dinosaurs did.

Isn’t it true that dinosaurs were warm-blooded too?

Oh, that is a great question. I and a number of other scientists have argued that the majority of dinosaurs were likely neither warm-blooded nor cold-blooded, but something in the middle. An interesting exception might be those small feathered raptor dinosaurs that may have been fully warm-blooded, but otherwise there’s a bunch of evidence to suggest that one of the reasons dinosaurs were able to get so big again and again and again is that they were neither warm-blooded nor cold-blooded.

That’s a really interesting fact.

Well, another really cool thing that kind of blows people’s minds — not so much for kids because they’re growing up with it now — is that people always think about dinosaurs as the ultimate example of failure because they’re no longer around. Even though they lived on the planet for well over 150 million years and we’ve been here for 300,000, we still look at them as failures. Well, it turns out even the extinction is a myth, because the bulk or maybe all of the big dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago when an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula. Then one lineage or multiple small lineages of these little raptor dinosaurs survived, and we call them birds. Every single bird alive today is a dinosaur, not just a relative — it’s an actual living dinosaur. There’s more than 10,000 species of birds alive today, compared with about 6,000 species of mammals, so you could actually make the argument that we still live in the age of dinosaurs that are just a lot smaller.

The Yucatan Peninsula is where the asteroid struck?

Yes. The crater is still there, mostly underwater.

Can you talk about some of the research currently taking place at Cal Academy?

Many natural history museums can be likened to dead zoos. You walk in and you’re looking at stuff that once lived. Here we have lots of living animals and plants. We have this amazing aquarium and a researcher, Rebecca Albright, Ph.D., who’s doing foundational research on how to help coral reproduce. What we are trying to figure out is how, if a reef goes away, we can actually spawn new coral babies so that we can grow new reefs. We also have an ant specialist, Brian Fisher, Ph.D., who’s working in Madagascar. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, there’s a lot of protein deficiency in its people. So Brian said, “Well, what can I do? What if we could find a better protein source than having people go into the forests and kill lemurs? What if it was insects?” That’s something that he knows about. Turns out 70 percent of the people in Madagascar already eat insects. He came up with a way of farming these crickets and creating cricket dust that you could then put in almost any food — he eats it over yogurt on a daily basis — I’ve tried it, and it’s excellent. Now we’re looking at ways that we might be able to create cricket dust factories all over Madagascar to help create jobs and help the Malagasy people learn about the precious forest they have.

How many species have Academy scientists discovered?

Seventy-one new species in 2019 — they’re pretty remarkable. In the past decade our researchers have described 1,375 new species.

How many people are employed here?

About 600 employees, including more than 100 scientists working out of the Academy. There are also hundreds of volunteers, graduate students, postdocs and emeritus faculty. So, it’s a busy, complex place.

Is there anything else you’d like to emphasize?

We are nature. I am nature — that’s a powerful statement to make. If you see yourself that way, then saving nature doesn’t become some external thing that you do. It’s part of caring for the place where I live and the people I live with. Every breath of air, every bite of food, every sip of water one way or another comes from nature. If we’re not taking care of that, then we’re not taking care of people either. Folks need to make that connection. Right now, there’s a great deal of talk about climate change — appropriately so — but there’s very little talk about the loss of life on earth. You can make a pretty strong argument that life is as critical as or more a crisis than climate.

Kasia Pawlowska

Kasia Pawlowska loves words. A native of Poland, Kasia moved to the States when she was seven. The San Francisco State University creative writing graduate went on to write for publications like the San Francisco Bay Guardian and KQED Arts among others prior to joining the Marin Magazine staff. Topics Kasia has covered include travel, trends, mushroom hunting, an award-winning series on social media addiction and loads of other random things. When she’s not busy blogging or researching and writing articles, she’s either at home writing postcards and reading or going to shows. Recently, Kasia has been trying to branch out and diversify, ie: use different emojis. Her quest for the perfect chip is never-ending.