Talking with… Cameron Muskelly

Interview by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Harry T. Jones

The interviews continue with Cam Muskelly, a self-trained palaeontologist from across the pond. Find out how Cretaceous giants inspired him; the outreach work he’s been doing since he was a child; how it felt to be the youngest ever winner of a prestigious award; and what his new video series will explore.

Cam at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia.

Hi Cam, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you start by letting us know a little about yourself?

“First off, thank you for having me be a part of this interview. I am 22 years old and I am a Georgia native. I am quite curious about how our planet has changed through time. I use the rocks and fossils around me as my personal time machine. I often call myself a “Deep Time Traveller”. My hobbies include singing, dancing, doing voice impressions, and being outside in nature exploring the world around me. I also live on the Autism Spectrum. Though it is quite challenging, it is the result of my fascination with  geology and really old dead things.”

When did you decide you wanted to be a Historical Geologist and Palaeontologist?

“I’ve always had an interest in Dinosaurs growing up. I was the child who often gets typically labelled as the ‘dinosaur-obsessed’ child in the family and school. Many of us go through what is called a ‘Dinosaur Phase’. Some lose that interest and move on to other things. I never lost that curiosity. I would often spend hours in my school and public libraries reading books on dinosaurs and other forms of prehistoric life. I wanted to learn as much as I could. When I was 7 years old, my father took  me to the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia and saw huge cast skeletons of the dinosaurs Giganotosaurus and Argentinosaurus. These animals were huge and I was dumbfounded. I knew I had to become a paleontologist.
That is just one part of the story. Though I wanted to be a paleontologist, I had never found a fossil before, let alone seen one in the wild. In the second grade, there was a fourth grade teacher who had her own personal fossil collection in her classroom. She gave me a tour of her collection. Her collection consisted of fossils of plants, shells, trilobites, and even a polished piece of dinosaur coprolite. After the tour, she gave me my own fossil to keep. I began reading more and connected fossils and rocks together and developed a passion for geology. It all made sense after that. I was all in and wanted to become a geologist and paleontologist.”

It’s amazing that you’re mostly self-trained in palaeontology. Was this because of a lack of palaeontological/geological classes in your hometown?

“This is mainly because of financial difficulties and issues in my personal life. I know I will end up at a university eventually pursuing geology, but at the moment I have tried to find other routes into the field of paleontology. There is indeed a lack of paleontology in my hometown. Some universities have even cut geology out of their programs completely! I do hope to change that and make geology and specifically paleontology more accessible and popular in my home state.”

Archimedes bryozoans in limestone from the Lower Bangor Limestone Formation, Alabama.

Hopefully that will indeed end up being the case. Continuing, what was it like teaching yourself? Were there challenges or was it easy? Did you have people to go to for help?

“I have been teaching myself about geology and paleontology ever since I could read at higher levels. I would spend countless hours in public libraries during my adolescent years reading numerous books on geology and paleontology. I began teaching myself how to identify rocks, minerals, and later fossils, from what I read from books and online resources. It is not easy. Information changes over time and some things I’ve read have become outdated. When I first began reading academic papers it was hard to follow all the scientific jargon. I would (and still do) write out terms in a notebook to remember. I later learned how to annotate books for school assignments and that helped with the papers I was reading. My school teachers would help sometimes. As I began to make more connections in the field, various scientists were more than happy to help me. At the moment I am in the process of writing my own scientific paper.”

That sounds very exciting, we’ll be on the look out for it in future. Along with research like this, you’ve been contributing to Time Scavengers for over two years. How did you meet the rest of the team and get involved with this?

“I became involved with being a contributor to Time Scavengers back in 2018. Dr. Jen Bauer and Dr. Adriane Lam thought that I would make a great addition to the site, and encouraged me to write for the blog. I have since published at least seven articles on paleontology, science communication, and outreach. I met Dr. Jen Bauer and other contributors to the site at the Southeastern section of GSA in 2019, and I hope to meet others in the future.”

Speaking of SciComm, you’ve started a new series over on your YouTube channel, all about fossils and prehistory. Can you give us any sneak previews or video topics that people can expect from the channel in the near future? 

“I started Paleo 101 back in 2014 and ever since then it has been growing. My new series is called ‘Where and When in the world is Cam?‘. This will be me going out to different locations and talking about the geology and paleontology of where I am. I plan on talking more about local geology and fossils around the southeastern US.”

Cam teaching school children about dinosaurs.

You’ve given many talks and held table events at the Fernbank Science Center, along with presenting a poster at the southeastern GSA meeting all about social media and geoscience. Through experiences like these, how do you think your skills have developed?

“I’ve always wanted to talk to people about fossils and things I found interesting. I began to do this around the age of 12. I watched a YouTube video of a geology professor giving a lesson on how to identify rocks and minerals. My mother bought me a camcorder and I would stack books on a stool and get in front of the camcorder and talk about geology. I look back at it now and cringe haha. However, I knew it would eventually help me in the future and it did! My communication skills have definitely improved over time but I am always learning how I can make science engaging. I think it has indeed changed me as a person. It has made me realize how inaccessible a lot of this information can be to the general public. I have made it my duty to change that.”

Following up, do you have any particular favourite topics that you like to present?

“I would like to discuss more on the Late Cretaceous vertebrate assemblages (mainly dinosaurs) of the eastern United States. There is much more to be found and described here. I would also like to present on the earliest events and faunas from Earth’s history, such as Precambrian fossils and rocks, fossils from the Cambrian Period, and the Ordovician Biodiversification Event. Furthermore, I would like to present on Georgia’s fossil record. We have so many great fossils here, and a lot about it isn’t really known that well from the general public.”

As you’ve said in the past, the actual ability to touch a fossil is massively important to you in regard to teaching, and I agree. How do you think museums and collections around the world could adopt this approach without risk to their collections?

“Public Outreach is something that is really important. There are not a lot of scientists out there that do such activities, maybe because of the lack of time and/or experience. I think museums are doing a better job with this, though there still needs to be improvement. Maybe some collections can have a 3D created fossil beside the original. Some also have samples solely for teaching and outreach, and I think that is great.”

It must have been a huge honour to win the 2020 Katherine Palmer award, especially since you were not only the youngest winner, but also the first African American and autistic person to achieve it. How did this feel and what did you do to celebrate this massive accomplishment?

“I am still in shock honestly. I didn’t really see it coming nor did I think I would be honoured with it. I think this is a huge achievement for me. When I first got the news that I was receiving this award I had plans on attending the Mid-America Paleontology Society meeting to receive the award in person. Unfortunately, due to Covid the meeting was cancelled. I still did receive the award in the mail and it was the best and safe way. I have much more work to do and I thank the Paleontological Research Institute for honouring me with this award. I hope it inspires so many others out there. Let your passion guide you and things will fall into place.”

Cam with the Katherine Palmer Award.

That’s some great advice for anyone out there, palaeontologist or not. So, do you have any other helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists?

“I am still on the path of becoming a professional paleontologist, so I am trying to figure things out in the process. I would say try to find local museums where you can volunteer. Seek out any opportunities that come your way. Learn as much as you can and do not be afraid to ask questions. Attend lectures, field trips, and conferences, if you can. If you have the passion and the drive, go for it. Let nothing get in your way and never EVER give up. Paleontology is a very hard and competitive science to get into. Even if you don’t decide to make it as a career, it is still a great hobby to have and learn from.”

So finally, our closing question. What’s a weird palaeo fact you think people should know?

“The Precambrian makes up at least 70% of earth’s history! I find that fact to be so fascinating. This is often referred to as the “boring billions” but I find it so mysterious and interesting. At one point, Earth did not have any oxygen, and we see that in the rock record as well as the presence of oxygen. Some may think complex life has always been here, but that isn’t the case at all. It took a lot of time to even get communities of successful multicellular life up and running in the last three billion years.”

Of course, I’d like to finish with another massive thanks to Cam for talking with us this week. For more information about Cam, to find out how to contact him, or to see his SciComm, click the following links to check out his Twitter and LinkedIn. Likewise, be sure to subscribe to his channel, Paleo 101, and read his articles over at Time Scavengers.