Lisa Buckley

Lisa Buckley, Curator & Collections Manager
Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre
Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia

Life Inside the Lab

What is your research topic? I am a vertebrate paleontologist, but there are a lot of specializations in paleontology. I specifically study the fossilized tracks and traces (ichnology) of Cretaceous (145-66 million year old) vertebrates (dinosaurs, birds, pterosaurs, crocodiles, etc.) The focus of our institution’s research is the tracks and traces from the Early Cretaceous (145-99 million years old) rocks of British Columbia. My research focus within that is on the tracks and traces of Early Cretaceous birds. Based on the fossil footprint record there was an impressive diversity of shore and wading birds back in the Cretaceous! I also use the footprints and traces of modern birds to answer questions I have about fossil bird footprints, such as “What features on a shorebird’s foot consistently show up in footprints?” and “Can I tell the footprints of two similar species of shorebird apart?”

What was your best day of science? Most recently, my best day in science was receiving my PhD. I was working full-time at the PRPRC while I completed my doctoral thesis. I’m sure I felt what many students feel: how am I ever going to get all of this done? I was fortunate in that part of the research I do at the PRPRC was also applicable to my thesis. I also feel quite fortunate that I have the experience of simultaneously being a student and a principal investigator. That being said, I am glad to finally be finished!

My best science days are those that I spend doing field work. I love being outside: I’m comfortable in the remote wilderness. Field work is physically and mentally hard work, but I also find it the most rewarding part of my career: none of the cool discoveries and observations we’ve made about fossil footprints would have been possible without our field work or the field work of people before us.

What was your worst day in science? This is a difficult question for me to answer. I don’t have a single worst day, but a worst situation. Our institution does not have stable funding. We are attempting to archive, conserve, protect, and promote British Columbia’s fossil heritage on a year-to-year budget. It’s difficult to have long-term plans for archives and fieldwork – the two most important and high-profile aspects of our work – when you don’t know if your institution will exist next year. Needless to say, I am darn good at stretching an archives and fieldwork budget!

img_20161214_183534Dr. Lisa Buckley is a Curator & Collections Manager at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre, located in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. Follow along with her science at @Lisavipes. Her profile picture was drawn by the talented Ethan Kocak (@Blackmudpuppy).

What did you study at university? My doctoral thesis addressed the connections between the features used to identify body fossils and those used to identify trace fossils in birds. During my undergraduate I double majored in Geology and Zoology, and my graduate degrees are in Biological Sciences. There are so many academic paths to paleontology: geology, biology, zoology, anatomy, geography, math and statistics…there is no one ideal path. Based on my research interests I am very glad that my schooling focus was biology, zoology, and anatomy. I also volunteered or worked in fossil preparation labs and museums during my time as an undergrad, and that gave me a basic introduction to field work and fossil care techniques.

What are some of the highlights of your career so far? One of the most exciting projects that I’m involved with is the Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Site (we did a YouTube video promoting our work at the site). It’s a huge dinosaur footprint surface, close to 3500m2 , from the Early Cretaceous (115 million years old) Gething Formation. This rock layer was first documented to contain dinosaur footprints in the 1930s, and was the first time that dinosaurs were documented in British Columbia. It was also the first time that a footprint fauna was described for the Cretaceous Period. Unfortunately, those sites from the 1930s were flooded between two hydroelectric dams, and we never thought that we would have a chance to see large exposures of footprints from this rock layer again…until the Six Peaks site was discovered in 2008. It feels like getting a scientific second chance to update and expand on the original work of the 1930s. Read more about it here!

Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Siteimg_20160808_222446

One of the exciting research projects that I’m involved in is documenting the traces left behind by different types of animal behavior, including foraging, dust bathing, territory displays, courtship displays, mating, and nesting. This was the direct result of a paper that I coauthored on documenting a new type of trace fossil that we attributed to a courtship display by large Early Cretaceous theropods. The traces were eerily similar to those left by several species of birds that make ground scrapes as part of their courtship display to woo their future mates. The next step is to see how many different forms these ground scrapes take, and to document in detail how they are different from scrapes and digs left by other behaviors. I did a Quirks and Quarks radio interview about these behaviors too!

What does your average day look like? My non-field season days look like an average 9-5 work day. The first thing I do in the morning (after I put the kettle on for a pot of Earl Grey tea), is to water mist my dermestid (flesh-eating) beetle colonies. I have three experimental colonies of Larder Beetles (Dermestes lardarius) that I am using to clean modern skeletons. Our research centre has a wildlife salvage permit, and we are building an archive of small wildlife specimens from the region. So far most of our salvage specimens are roadkill and window strike kills. After I give the beetles their morning drink, I spend the next couple of hours answering email, making and returning phone calls, working on funding proposals, and other administrative duties.

Dr. Buckley prospecting for Early Cretaceous dinosaur footprintsimg_20170113_135147

After my administrative tasks are completed for that day I get to vary what I do. On Mondays and Fridays I do collections management work, which is cataloging fossil specimens and making sure all of their paper records are up-to-date. Our volunteer fossil prospecting team is always great at discovering and collecting new specimens, so they keep me pretty busy! On Tuesdays through Thursdays I work on collecting data and writing papers on the specimens in our fossil collections. There are currently three Early Cretaceous bird footprint specimens that I’m documenting and researching, and I’ll be very excited to get those papers submitted!

What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job?Studying fossil and modern bird footprints is still fairly low-tech. One of the pieces of low-tech equipment that I use in studying modern bird footprints is a floating stage. I secure a rope to a flat piece of insulating foam and coat it with the local sand, silt, or mud that the shorebirds of that area would naturally walk on. Then I tie the rope to a nearby tree and let the stage float in the water body. The stage turns out to be useful when water levels in our local streams and marshes are high and there is no exposed ground for shorebirds to leave footprints on.My partner and colleague Dr. Richard McCrea is fantastic with photogrammetry, which is making 3D digital replicas of objects using digital photos and computer software. This is the high-tech end of our research: any of the specimens that we document are digitized. This also makes sharing our research and specimens with other ichnologists easier!

Life Outside of Lab

Where did you grow up? I grew up in a rural part of southern British Columbia, Canada. Within walking distance to the BC-Washington border. I got to spend a lot of time outside growing up, which I think is the reason why I’m so comfortable doing remote wilderness field work.

What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? I always wanted to be a paleontologist. This is the direct result of my great aunt Molly. I was very close to my grandmother and great aunt. She always wanted to go to university and study natural history, but never had the opportunity because of the Depression and coming from a low-income family. She read natural history books voraciously, and one of my earlier memories is me sitting on her lap and her showing me the pictures from one of her books. I remember thinking “I want to do that. I want to see these animals.”

img_20170113_134545What do you do to relax outside of lab? I’m a big believer in down time: it’s crucial to maintaining focus for our research and running the research centre. One cannot maintain the “you must always be working” mentality. I am part of a karate dojo, and training twice a week is great change of pace. I have much better focus and concentration because of training. It also keeps me in physical condition for field work. I also enjoy reading for fun, movies, and I occasionally break out my sketchpad and try to scrape the rust off of my drawing skills.

Maia, the queen.

What is your family life, and how did it develop along with your career? I have a lovely senior cat Maia (who also has a Twitter handle @MaiaFieldCat). She is a 14 year old Maine Coon, and has the most wicked glare I have ever seen on a cat. Maia has been with me since I graduated undergrad in December 2002. Maia “su-purr-vised” my two graduate degrees. When I was in the writing stage of my doctorate thesis she would lead me up to my home office after dinner so she could sit on my lap while I wrote. Maia came into the field with us this summer when we were documenting the Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Site: she lived with us in our camping trailer for 75 days straight, and would go outside for walks around camp on her harness (which she is still not a fan of, but she put up with it for outside time.)img_20170113_140500

Do you have any fun hobbies? I enjoy gardening and cooking. My partner and I make homemade cheese and mead. We also do archery.

An apple mead that Lisa made from her parents’ apples. 

Big Picture

What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? The main motivation for finishing my PhD was to provide the work that we do in British Columbia a level of legitimacy that a PhD offers: a PhD is a professional credential. This is important with respect to managing heritage archives, doing research on government land, and advising on policy and impact assessments.

What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Don’t believe the haters. Seriously. You are going to be exposed to all sorts of outdated excuses of why you can’t or shouldn’t be a scientist or pursue your scientific interests. I’ve heard many of them, and you’ll likely hear them your entire life and through your scientific career (but it is getting better). What will really hurt is if these outdated comments come from people who are close to you, like friends, family, and people you look up to. It will feel harder to feel supported in your interests if you have to go outside of your immediate circle, but it’s possible. Girls nowadays have greater access to scientists who represent them through social media, and can organize social groups of like-minded fellow science lovers and find mentors and examples of who you want to be as a future scientist. We support you.

img_20170113_135735Lisa hanging from ropes to document an Early Cretaceous dinosaur track site.

Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? It has been demonstrated again and again (and again, and again) that great ideas and great innovators are not the product of just one demographic. The more people we have in STEM, the more inclusive we make STEM, the greater the number of great ideas and discoveries. Science and society are done a great disservice if half of the population is discouraged from STEM because of preconceived biases and outdated ideas.

Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? The person who made me want to be a scientist was my great-aunt Molly. Her love of natural history, and her sharing that love with me, inspired me to pursue paleontology.

Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? I’ve had a lifelong interest in animals and how they live in their habitats, so I have always found biology and geology fascinating. My schooling trained me to write scientifically about fossil and modern animals which is directly related to the research component of my job, but training for Curator and Collections Manager was obtained through volunteering at museums (for collections manager skills) and a lot of on-the-job experience (for Curator).

What was your biggest struggle during your degree? Working full-time both enabled me to fund my studies, but it was also a challenge to balance my Curator Life with my Student Life. I spent a lot of time after hours working on my thesis.

What was the biggest hurdle you had moving to out of academia? While I do a great deal of academic work in my current position, I am not in a traditional academic setting of a university. I work at an independent research centre funded by a non-profit organization. The work we do is the same as that of a museum with strong research and collections programs. One of the biggest challenges I heard when I was making the transition from a traditional student roll to one of a Curator who was also working on her degree was skepticism from professors and colleagues. I heard many times that I was “throwing my career away” by choosing to start this project. Yes, it was (and is) a challenging path, but I have a successful and expanding academic career as a result of my choice.


What is your favorite book? The One and Future King
What is your favorite desk snack? Dark chocolate covered almonds and tea.
What is your favorite cartoon? Loony Tunes
What would you listen to while writing? I have TV series or movies playing while I write.
What was your favorite subject in high school? Biology
What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? A statue of a theropod skeleton made out of metal and an old bike chain.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? Curated Chaos for my personal life, Organization Nut for my collections manager work.
What color socks are you wearing? Bright pink wool socks!
Any other fun fact about you… I started a weekly Twitter game called #NameThatTrack, where I post a picture of a modern track or trackway and ask people to identify it or the behavior the trackway exhibits. People are having a lot of fun with it!

Maia practicing her signature stare. Follow her at @MaiaFieldCatimg_20170113_123503

Contact Lisa on Twitter @Lisavipes

Lisa’s Blog/Website: