The Bearded Lady Project

When I was an undergraduate I did a brief internship at the Field Museum in Chicago. While being shown through the research collections, I noticed a young woman hunched over a lab table preparing a skeleton while listening to music on her walkman (remember those?). That job looked unbelievably appealing to me.

And now that is a big part of what I get paid to do. Museum work is fantastic. I love being alone for hours on end with just my thoughts and a bunch of fossils, day after day. It is a wonderful mental space to be in. I am trying to remember how many months of my life I’ve spent working alone in museums in eastern Africa. At least a year, all added up, probably more.

Museum research also has its really lonely moments though. The hardest part for me is dinner when I stay in a hotel (we never stay in fancy hotels, so adjust your mental image to something a little less fancy than an old Motel 6). Going into the dining room with lots of wait staff, especially when the room is otherwise empty of guests, ordering, waiting an hour for the food to arrive, eating not great food, the same thing, over and over, night after night. By yourself. Dinner can be mentally exhausting when you are working for several weeks on your own in a museum.

Because of the intensity of solo museum research, I either find myself actively trying to stay focused and in that mental space, avoiding other people to a certain degree (i.e., acting like a socially awkward academic). Or, I sometimes end up in a really intense, heart-to-heart conversation with another researcher who is similarly there doing the same basic thing that I am.

This is how I first really connected with Ellen Currano, in the museum in Addis Ababa when we were both there doing lab work. We talked shared, commiserated, and then parted ways.

I think it was around that same time that Ellen Currano shared with a good friend of hers (who is not an academic) some professional insecurity.  Her friend, Lexi Marsh the filmaker, was shocked to hear this as she’d always seen Ellen as the epitome of strong and  confident, flying off to Ethiopia to find fossils in the field. Ellen made some passing joke about, well, maybe if she had a beard things would be different.

And thus, The Bearded Lady Project was born.

As part of this, maybe two years ago the documentary and photography team came through Berkeley to photograph female paleontologists. While I happily agreed to participate, I never could quite get my head around why there should be anything symbolic about putting on a beard.

I totally get the issue though, and deeply.

My male colleagues are definitely seen as *real* field scientists, and women, well, lay people and professional acquaintances alike both look at me with a smidge of disbelief and disappointment when they learn that I do fieldwork in eastern Africa. I don’t look like Indiana Jones and, I think, that squelches the romanticism of the science. It is like they fear that the fieldwork isn’t as hard if a woman can do it. So they reason it away. The places where I work must be the easy places to get to, so it isn’t really fieldwork and doesn’t count. Whatever the reason, I have been in quite a lot of situations where even my male professional colleagues can’t see me as a field paleontologist.

(For example, I was at a dinner with a quite famous paleontologist from another university fairly recently. At the table sat four paleontologists (three men and me), three of whom do a significant amount of field work (two men and me). The guest made some comment about the three of them being real paleontologists. It would be easy to say that I was just being overly sensitive, but honestly, this kind of thing happens at least a few times a month. It can get to you if you let it, this being invisible thing.)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found the mental space in which the internal rewards are enough. It stings when I am professionally ignored and dismissed, but I am increasingly able to let it roll off. I do the fieldwork because it is challenging, exciting, unpredictable, and makes me feel so very alive.

There is nothing more soul soothing than sitting at the top of an outcrop at the end of a hard day, sweaty and dirty, surrounded in the soft evening breeze as the sun eases off its intensity. The wind in your face, cool against your sweaty, matted hair now free from your hat. Gulping warm water from the vehicle, thirsty from the long hike back.

You successfully recovered beautiful fossils that were completely unknown to science just that morning. There is a deep sense of pride to working with a team that you were essential in building, paying for the project with funds that you wrote the grant proposals to get, driving the field vehicle yourself, sometimes to outcrops that you yourself noticed in the satellite imagery and lead everyone to. There is something so meaningful when you can connect on a very human level with people from very different cultures to get a job done, to find new fossils of animals that lived millions of years ago. And then, to get everyone back to the vehicles safely, back to camp in one piece, and home from the field season healthy. The relief, the pride, the sense of accomplishment are very real.

I will die. My research interpretations will become outdated. But those fossils, they will be around for a very long time. Each fossil recovered by a field project I co-directed is a long-term contribution to the science that will long outlive all of us. Even if no one else thinks my fieldwork is *real*, those fossils are why I am proud of all of my efforts.

And those fleeting moments at the top of the outcrop, the dust, the challenge, the thrill of discovery, the connection to the people working in the field with me, that’s why I always yearn to go back.

The real genius of The Bearded Lady Project, to me at least, is that it brought out this sisterhood within my profession that I’d never really appreciated before. I am often the only woman in the field, or one of just two, maybe three. Always a very significant minority. In those situations I have learned to play down my gender, attempt to be as androgynous as possible. I am definitely not one of the guys, and I quickly learned the different set of rules by which I need to play. Now that I think about it, I guess that in many ways it is a little lonely in the field too, even though there are a lot of people around the dinner table.

For me, the deeper meaning of The Bearded Lady Project is that it was fun. I let my hair down and laughed and wore my pink reading glasses because I could. For a brief moment, the femininity of being a paleontologist was something to celebrate rather than hide. Dusty boots and all.

Ellen, Lexi, Kelsey — thank you so much. I look forward to co-hosting with Cindy Looy TBLP here in Berkeley in 2019!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *