The Performer: Philip Currie, paleontologist

On motivation, morale, and how to work with your spouse and stay happily married.


Photo: Jason Franson

The headlines read like something out of Jurassic Park: last month, a team of researchers discovered chunks of tree resin that contained 80-million-year-old feathers, offering valuable new insight into the evolutionary links between dinosaurs and birds. For Philip J. Currie, it was just the latest success in a lifetime of discovery. A former curator of what’s now the Royal Alberta Museum, Currie also helped found the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta.; in fact, the latter museum was launched in part because Currie was digging up more dinosaur bones than the Royal Alberta could store. Currently a professor at the University of Alberta and research chair in dinosaur paleobiology, he spoke with Canadian Business online editor Josephine Lim.

Born: 13/03/49
Age at which he found his first fossil, a seashell: 7
Longest expedition: 3 months (“In the Gobi Desert”)
Year in which he first named a newly discovered dinosaur species: 1979 (Amblydactylus kortmeyeri)
Number of new species he’s helped name: 30
Number of new species named after him: 5

How did you get into paleontology?
It started when I was six. I opened a box of Rice Krispies, and there was a plastic dinosaur inside. I spent the next five years doing whatever I could with dinosaurs. But when I was 11, I read a book called All About Dinosaurs, which was by Roy Chapman Andrews [the American explorer and naturalist thought to have inspired the creation of Indiana Jones], and it was a pretty influential book in many ways. The thing is that it wasn’t just about dinosaurs, per se—it was about being a paleontologist. He made it sound so exciting that the day I read the book was the day I decided to be a dinosaur paleontologist.

What about that book inspired you?
To a large extent, I’ve styled myself after Andrews. Not in the sense of being Indiana Jones in the middle of the desert or anything like that, but in the sense that what he believed in was public education and multi-disciplinary programs where you’re working with many different groups of scientists, doing expeditions to exotic places, and so on. And I think he was very perceptive.

Your work takes you to some unsettled parts of the world. What’s the scariest situation you’ve been in?
Once, when we’d applied to go into this particular area in China up near the Mongolian border, the army had said no, because it was a demilitarized zone. I don’t know whether they considered it unsafe or what, but we’d reapplied to the central government and they’d said yes. The only problem was that they didn’t bother telling the army.
So the army walked in [to our dig site], and basically put us under house arrest while they were sorting out the permits and trying to figure out what went on. Suddenly, they took us by the arm and marched us out, and essentially took us to the centre of that particular town, in the middle of the desert, and stood us in front of a wall. You can imagine the things we were thinking. But then the general stood beside us and had his picture taken with us, and everything was fine. For a moment there, it was pretty scary because we had no idea what was going on.

On an expedition, you can spend long hours searching without finding anything. How do you keep yourself motivated?
When we worked up in the Arctic for the first time, we spent three weeks working 10- to 12-hour days with lots of walking, tough conditions and mosquitoes like you wouldn’t believe. At the end of it all, we had one piece of bone about the size of a thimble, and we thought it might be a dinosaur, but we weren’t sure. It turned out it wasn’t even a dinosaur, so a lot of work and a lot of effort was put into that. That’s not unusual when you try new sites. Very often, they aren’t as productive as you’d like them to be. But once you do find something, you get so charged that it makes it all worthwhile.

So how do you keep up the morale of your team when you’re in a situation like that, not having success?
We have various ways to keep people’s minds occupied when they’re not finding anything. For example, what we can do in some cases is get people to work on papers. We give lectures in the evening sometimes. We discuss papers that we’re working on. So at the end of it all we don’t feel like we’re coming out of this having accomplished nothing.
Generally speaking, when we run programs, they tend to be multi-part programs where, for example, we’ll go into an area which we know has lots of bones. We’ll have a good chance of success there, and then we’ll spend part of the time exploring another area where we haven’t got the research but think that the resources might be there. And so at end of it all, even if the second place turns out to be unsuccessful, you’ve still got the first part where you did succeed.

Is it delicate managing a research team?
It’s always a little bit of give and take. Normally, we make it pretty clear who’s in charge, and there’s a good reason for it. If I’m working in China, my Chinese colleague would be in charge officially, so any final decisions remain with him. You have to be able to communicate.

What does success mean to you?
To me, success means that when you get there, you can predict where you’re going to go next. And that can certainly take on many forms. For me, the funny thing is that in a way I succeeded in what I wanted to do when I got my job in Alberta. Almost everything since then has been gravy, with the different international projects, with the creation of the Royal Tyrrell and so on.
But you do set yourself all these little goals in between, and being able to attain those is what keeps me happy. They may be as simple as getting a scientific paper published, or finishing the preparation of a fossil, or going in the field and being able to say that you were lucky and you found something there. And in the bigger picture, well, to me it’s also a matter of being able to make other people happy.

Your wife is a paleobotanist, and you two often work together. How do you manage to do that and still have a happy marriage?
It works very well for us because of course my job is one that requires a lot of travelling, and luckily my wife likes travelling too. It’s a good match because she works on fossil plants and I work on fossil animals, and that means we can go to the same area but still have some independence in terms of what we’re looking for and what we’re working on.
She’s very flexible, so a lot of times she’ll end up helping with the dinosaur stuff instead of working on plants. And she’s a whiz with organization and administration—which I don’t particularly like doing. So that works out very well too.