Sam Heads joined the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), a division of the Prairie Research Institute (PRI), as a postdoctoral research associate in August 2009, and went on to become curator and director of the PRI Center for Paleontology.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
Very young. Five or maybe six. I was out walking with my dad when I found something very curious; a rock, about the size of my hand, with a sea shell embedded in it. The sea shell looked a lot like the ones I would find on the beach, except this one was completely encased within the rock.
My dad told me it was a fossil and explained that it was the remains of an ancient animal preserved in the rock for millions of years. I’ve been hooked ever since.
What made you decide to pursue a career in entomology and paleontology?
I always knew that I wanted to be a paleontologist and since arthropods—and insects in particular—are my favorite organisms, working on insect fossils was a no-brainer really. As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study some truly beautiful and exceptionally preserved fossil insects from the Cretaceous of Brazil and very quickly developed a burning passion for insect paleontology.
Why is it important to study fossil insects?
In order to understand biodiversity, we must have an understanding of the evolution of life; and any understanding of the evolution of life must include an understanding of the fossil record.
Insects are one of the most diverse groups of organisms in the history of life so we stand to learn a lot about biodiversity by understanding their evolutionary history. The great antiquity of insects is attested by a rich fossil record that extends back in time some 400 million years; a record that sheds light on the evolutionary history of one of the most successful groups of organisms on Earth; and a record that we have only just started to explore.
The study of the insect fossil record promises to shed light not only on the evolutionary history of the insects themselves, but also on major events in the history of life such as terrestrialization, the evolution of powered flight, and the dynamics of mass extinction events.
Why do so few people study fossil insects?
This is a good question and not one that I have an answer to I’m afraid. Interestingly, there has been a huge surge in interest in fossil insects over the last 20–25 years and the number of fossil insect workers has grown considerably.
As curator of the PRI Center for Paleontology, which collections do you currently curate? Roughly how many specimens does that equate to?
I currently curate three separate collections: (1) the Illinois Natural History Survey Paleontology Collection (which includes the Milton Sanderson Dominican Amber Collection); (2) the Illinois State Geological Survey Paleontology Collection; and (3) the University of Illinois Department of Geology Paleontology Collection. Together, these three collections contain over 2 million fossils.
Why are collections and curation of those collections important?
Natural history collections are important for a number of reasons. Perhaps first and foremost, they are archives of both physical specimens and their associated data. Every specimen is a data point that provides valuable information about that species in time and space. They provide important historical data about past distributions and many specimens of modern organisms are valuable sources of DNA for molecular studies. Collections are also valuable sources of basic biodiversity information and frequently lead to the discovery of species new to science.
The care and curation of these collections is extremely important because it safeguards the long-term existence of the collections and provides access to researchers and to the public.
What do you enjoy about being a curator?
I enjoy working with collections in general. Obviously, I enjoy working with the fossil insect collection, but I also really enjoy working with the other fossils too. Being a curator means that I get to work with specimens that are outside my direct area of specialism which is always rewarding. I also really enjoy being able to help other researchers with their work by providing access to specimens and data in my care.
What work are you most proud of?
The rediscovery and rescue of the Milton Sanderson Dominican amber collection is something I’m very proud of. That collection is so significant both scientifically and historically and I’m proud to have been able to help save and conserve it.
What is the best part of your job at INHS?
The fact that I get to do something that I really love for a living. I also really enjoy working with such a diverse group of scientists.
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