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The extinction of paleontology at the U of C

By Sean Willett, September 4, 2014 —

When I tell people that I’m studying to become a paleontologist, the first response is usually: “Oh, just like Ross! From Friends!”

After confirming that I am indeed just like Ross from Friends, the follow-up is usually a comment about how lucky I am to be going to the University of Calgary.

“There must be a great paleontology department at the U of C,” people say. “What with Dinosaur Provincial Park being so close by. This must be one of the best places in the world to study paleontology!”

This is where I often have to bite my tongue. Because the U of C doesn’t have a great paleontology department. We don’t even have a bad paleontology department. Despite being located next door to important fossil-bearing formations, the U of C doesn’t have a paleontology department at all.

There are paleontologists at the U of C. A few committed individuals do their research here and most of them supervise a handful of master’s and PhD students. But only a couple of these paleontologists teach classes, almost all of which are 500- or 600-level courses split between the departments of geology and zoology.

This means that students interested in paleontology aren’t able to complete a Bachelor’s of Science in the subject. They have to cobble together a degree that allows them to take advanced classes from multiple departments. Even students studying paleontology here will admit it’s not the best place for it.

So why does everyone seem to think otherwise?

A part of this misconception comes from the press. Even the smallest amounts of paleontological research get massive amounts of publicity, especially when dinosaurs are involved. New fossil finds and dinosaur-related research connected to the university pop up in the news every few months.

Then there’s the obvious. Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO heritage site located about 200 kilometres east of Calgary, is one of the most important sources of dinosaur fossils in the world. Even more fossil-bearing sites are located in the nearby town of Drumheller, along with the internationally renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. The Rocky Mountains serve as a nearby source of ancient marine fossils, though these finds aren’t quite as exciting as the prospect of digging up dinosaur skulls.

So why doesn’t the U of C take advantage of these resources? One reason appears to be the University of Alberta. Unlike the U of C, the U of A has a thriving paleontology department, complete with a BSc program, field trips and a state-of-the-art fossil preparation lab.

The U of C and the U of A try not to compete in specialized subjects in order to split the student population of Alberta between the two schools. There are a few obvious ways around this, such as having the U of C do research in specialized kinds of paleontology or just not giving a damn about competing with a school over two hundred kilometres away. Both schools have respected education and medical programs, and no one’s complaining about overlap between the two schools.

The bigger problem is that the U of C doesn’t consider paleontology a priority — to the extent that there are only two courses in the field available to undergraduate students in the 2014/15 year. We’re letting an entire field of science fall to the wayside. This is a huge disservice to students, faculty and the scientific community, especially when looking at a field that is as important and accessible to Calgarians as paleontology.

Despite this continued neglect, you don’t see administration rushing to downplay the importance of paleontology at the U of C. As a student trying to become a paleontologist, it’s almost insulting to see middle-management tout new dinosaur research on the front page of UToday, or to see the fossils hung on the walls of the Biological Sciences building. Our sports teams are even named the Dinos, for Christ’s sake.

The U of C continues to benefit off of the publicity coming from a grossly neglected field. We need to stop pretending we’re invested in something we don’t give the time of day to and start living up to our supposed reputation. And if we can’t do that, then we should at least cut the facade. Maybe we should start by changing our team name to something more fitting — too bad the Oilers is already taken.

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