TNEP Profile: Dr. Scott Sampson, Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Dinosaur Train

Dr. Scott as seen in an episode of Dinosaur Train. Screen grab of the show produced by the Jim Henson Company.

Dr. Scott Sampson is an accomplished paleontologist and the Vice President of Research & Collections and Chief Curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. If you’re not an insider in the museum community or the field of paleontology, like me, then you probably know him as, “Dr. Scott the Paleontologist” from the TV show Dinosaur Train. He is the science advisor and appears on the PBS Kids show to guide an episode’s discussion on dinosaurs.

I was first introduced to Dr. Sampson by his appearances on Dinosaur Train while watching with my son. After learning that he works in Denver and reading his blog, this paleontologist from TV became more interesting. I was curious to learn more about him and his career. He generously invited me to his office at the museum and everything I assumed about him was confirmed. He was enjoyable to talk with, has had an interesting career and has good stories to tell.

In our lengthy interview, we talked about his role as a science communicator, his work at the museum, his new book, and of course, Dinosaur Train. Enjoy the interview.

TNEP: What led you toward being a science ambassador or science communicator.

SS: It has actually pushed me away from research. I still do research, but I’m now a part-time paleontologist and a full-time administrator and science communicator.

When I was 19, I started working in a planetarium and learned how to deliver shows. I was the guy who would run the projector and 300 kids would come in and I would talk to them about space. I got pretty good at doing it because I had to do it 3 times a day. That’s where I honed my skills as a public speaker.

Then I think it’s part being a dinosaur paleontologist. If I worked on fish nobody would care. Of course, when I say that in an audience with fish biologists, they get upset at me. But because I work on dinosaurs, you get opportunities. I would do interviews. I would do appearances on television documentaries. After doing a bunch of these, Discovery Channel called me up and asked if I’d like to host a 4-part series called Dinosaur Planet. So these things start to spin-off in to each other and before I knew it I was a science communicator. It kind of just snuck up on me. It was something I did on the side while I wasn’t traveling around the planet and living in a tent in Zimbabwe.

I’ve always been a big believer about getting the word out about science. We’re interested at this institution in developing a suite of scientists that can communicate with the general public. In this institution, there’s 14 PhD scientists. They all do their own research, but we don’t teach at universities, most of us, so the equivalent here is science communication. As the chief scientist of the museum, one of my jobs is to help get these scientists better, more comfortable, and more out there doing more science communication. We see that as a role at museums of natural history. It’s not enough just having a bunch of scientists drilling away writing papers. They have to be talking to the world about it.

TNEP: Being at a big city natural history museum versus being at a university, I can see how it changes both your role and your focus.

SS: I’ve done both. I was a tenured professor at the University of Utah and I walked away from it. Most people in my field thought I was crazy to walk away from a tenured job to no other job. For me personally I didn’t feel like I could spend the majority of my time graduating students who were going be studying the planet 70 or 100 million years ago when we have this crisis ongoing today. And we have about a generation, according to the best scientists, to shift course and move into a more sustainable direction. So I felt like I had to do my part to work in that arena and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

TNEP: What is your goal or vision for the museum?

SS: I lay the vision out at the end of the book, How To Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. At the end of the book I make an argument that is, if you go to every major city in this country you will find dozens, in some cases well over a hundred organizations, that are connecting kids with nature. And they’re doing it successfully at a rate of dozens, hundreds, and in cases even thousands of kids annually, and yet if you look at any city in this country you will see that we are disconnected from that natural world more than we ever have been before. Clearly whatever we’re doing isn’t moving the needle at the civic level.

These organizations are doing amazing things, but only affecting small numbers of people. So how might we impact large numbers of people? There’s a collaboration I’m involved with here in Denver. We’re saying, it isn’t going to come from single institutions, no matter who they are. It is only going to come from collaborations; probably collaborations from government, from corporate world, and civic. We’re now talking with multiple organizations to connect an urban population with nature. This institution is really heading in that direction and I’m excited about that.

We typically think of museums as 4-wall destinations and cabinets of curiosity; places you come to look at cool stuff. What if these museums were different? What if we were, instead of 4-wall destinations, we were a set of services that we offered to the communities? What if we worked with underserved communities, many of who never come here and we go to them. And we now service needs in their community that they identify. Looking at ways we can engage people all over Denver, but particularly diverse, underserved communities that aren’t getting the attention.

Denver viewed from the Museum of Nature and Science atrium.

Denver viewed from the Museum of Nature and Science atrium.

TNEP: Whenever I come to the museum, I always think of the atrium room that looks west over the park, the city and to the mountains. It’s such a dynamic view.

SS: We typically think of cities as the places where nature isn’t. It’s where the wild things aren’t. The argument now, it’s often called biophilic cities or wild cities, but it’s global now. There’s a trend toward embracing nature within cities. It turns out to be easy to do. All you have to do is plant native plants. You attract native insects, which attract native birds, which then attract mammals, and then you’ve increased your biodiversity.

What we’re talking about now is, “What if we did a biological survey, driven by citizens, what lives here?” And then we have a conversation about it. What do we want this place to be in a generation? What if we turned the city into a major migratory stop for birds and butterflies and other things?

TNEP: I like the idea of the museum presence outside the 4-walls.

SS: Another element that I push a lot is telling the story of everything through local place. By that I mean the 14 billion year old story of the universe that is still unfolding. There’s been a push that arguably the greatest contribution of science period is this unified story of everything. That is space, geology, biology, chemistry, physics, anthropology all put together. And we know this is a single unfolding narrative that is going to go into the future. But we don’t see ourselves as part of it.

We live at this unusual time that the vast majority of people in the first world, the developed world, do not follow any major religion. So if you follow a major religion you have an origin story that roots you, probably, to where you come from. But many of us now lack a story at all, even though there’s this amazing scientific saga that tells us where we come from, what it all means, and where we’re going. The great thing about this story is that it’s not an origin story unto itself. It’s the ingredients to a story that you can fold into any major religion. You can still hold on to your beliefs and grab onto what we now regard as scientific truth about where we come from and where we’re going. Bill Gates and others are arguing that this story should be at the heart of science education in high schools.

So we’re thinking, how can we tell that story, but do it through the state of Colorado? Every place has all the ingredients of the story. You could use that tree outside to tell the story of the origin of photosynthesis on the planet. What if we understood the depth of that story and understood that we are actors in the story? And the decisions we make every day will actually change the outcome of that story going forward. It engages you with where you live in a very different way.

TNEP: Regarding your book, you’ve been posting on your Twitter and Facebook pages some of the tips in the book. Did you have all the tips in your book before you wrote it or did some of them come to you as you wrote it?

SS: I started with some ideas in mind and in the writing of the book my thinking changed quite dramatically and I learned a lot. Writing the book was an adventure for me and allowed me to think about how people connect with nature in very different ways. I ended writing most of those tips while the book was being produced.

TNEP: Do you have a favorite tip or one that stood out to you?

SS: If I have to have a favorite one, it’s probably the one about being a hummingbird parent. The goal of the book is to make it easy for parents and teachers and any caregiver to go outside and start connecting kids with nature. We have the obstacles that are created in our heads – we’re too busy, our kids are too busy, it’s not safe out there, nature is somewhere way far away.

We talk about helicopter parents. Rather than being a helicopter parent, be a hummingbird parent where you go in there, you zoom in when you need to and then you zoom right back out and stay at the periphery. With toddlers you need to be super close by. You need to increase that distance as kids get older. So by the time they’re adolescence they’re basically able to be on their own. They’ve had that sense of freedom. They know what that’s like. That chord has been stretching through time. You want a kid who feels confident and independent. What’s happening now is even through adolescence we’re keeping kids on indoor house arrest.

TNEP: You clearly have a passion for both paleontology and as a science communicator. Was there a moment when you realized that this was enjoyable work?

SS: For me, it started really young. My father, who died when I was kid, he was a social psychologist, so I was imbued in that university environment. At the age of 5 I drew a picture of a dinosaur and I said, “This picture was made by Dr. Sompson.” So I misspelled my last name. But I knew at the age of 5 that I could become of doctor of paleontology. So that is what I inspired to even then.

TNEP: This blog was created to tell the stories of environmental professions to people who don’t have an understanding of the field. What is your interaction like with non-science people? Has it evolved or changed with your role at the museum?

SS: In some respect, most of the visitors that come here are not science people. They are people who might think it’s cool to see a dinosaur fossil, but I wouldn’t say that qualifies them as being fascinated with science. The museum then is less about education and more about inspiration. About giving people a catalyst so they go, “Whoa. I want to find out more about that.”

The reality is that we get people once, twice; three or four times a year if we’re lucky, come and visit. So we’re not going to be teaching them courses in the standard sense of education. But if we can get them inspired now, that’s a true gift. That’s how I see my role now. Before I used to be focused on the educational aspect. And now I see wonder as the key element of currency here.

All kids have a sense of wonder; every single child. Anyone whose spent time around a toddler can look at them and go, “Whoa. They find wonder in everything.” But we beat it out of them in middle childhood, so by the time they get to 10, 11, 12, the go uh, science…blah, nature…blah, I don’t really care. To me the challenge is how do we nurture and catalyze that sense of wonder so it becomes life long? If we do that, we help people maintain that lifelong curiosity about the world. To me, that’s success.

They’re going to want to be informed about things that are relevant to their lives. So they can make decisions about who they vote in and what they eat and what they drive and where they live based on things they now understand because that sense of wonder helps drive their understanding.

TNEP: I see the wonder in my young son every day; especially his wonder for dinosaurs. And Dinosaur Train has a lot to do with that. I enjoy how the dinosaurs are portrayed on the show.

SS: When they first approached me; I got this phone call from an executive at the Henson Company asking, “Would you like to get involved with this show we’re doing for kids on PBS? It’s about dinosaurs.”

I said, “It’s sounds great. What’s it called?”

They said, “It’s going to be called Dinosaur Train.”

I said, “Well, you can’t call it that.”

She said, “Well, why not.”

I said, “Well I’m a paleontologist and I’m always trying to convince people that humans and dinosaurs didn’t live at the same time.”

And she said, “Don’t worry. We’re only going to put dinosaurs on the train.”

I thought, that’s just brilliant!

It’s been a lot of fun and I could not imagine that it would take off the way it has. It’s in over 100 countries now. I get emails from India and Argentina and Vietnam.

Just to have kids aspiring to be paleontologists. Maybe none of them will. But the fact that they aspire to be a scientist is what is really important and there are not enough shows on TV that encourage kids to pursue that.

TNEP: I get a kick out of corythosaurus. The King.

SS: Cryolophosaurus.

TNEP: Oh! I got it wrong!

SS: The King is actually my favorite character. We love writing him in.

TNEP: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk. I enjoyed this.

You can read more about Dr. Sampson on his website. You can visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, pre-order his new book, or check out the fun, educational PBS Kids show, Dinosaur Train.

If you’ve never seen Dinosaur Train or don’t know The King Cryolophosaurus I’ll leave you with the below clip. Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries!