When most kids draw pictures of dinosaurs, they can expect a temporary place of honor on the family refrigerator, but Myria Perez’s early paleontology artwork helped her get a volunteer position at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at the age of twelve.
“My mom took me to their special event called Dino Days. I brought my drawings, showed the curators, and I asked about volunteering,” she recounts.
Perez’s initiative made quite an impression. It earned her the title of “Junior Volunteer” and support from the Curator of Paleontology Robert Bakker, Ph.D. In her role, Perez spent every minute she could at the museum until she went to college.
“I think asking and getting the opportunity to volunteer really, really helped me. It also solidified my passion,” Perez says.
A few years later, while she was exploring potential colleges to attend, she gave a museum tour to her would-be mentor: vertebrate paleontologist and Southern Methodist University Professor Louis Jacobs, Ph.D. Starting as a first-year student, Perez worked in Jacobs’ lab while pursuing degrees in geology and anthropology. Some of her lab work was on fossils Jacobs had uncovered in Angola. Those specimens would later become part of a Smithsonian Institution exhibition on Cretaceous marine reptiles titled, “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola's Ancient Seas.”
Reflecting on her academic career, Perez says there’s almost a metaphysical aspect to her chosen field of science.
“I have a theory why paleontology is super popular, especially among kids. You have this kind of mystery, you have this unknown, you have this mystical aspect to it. We don't know everything about [dinosaurs]. They were actually real, and you have this combination of past and unknown, with tangible and real. It's kind of mind blowing.”
Since August 2021, Perez has been a contract fossil preparator in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Deep Time FossiLab in Washington, D.C. She is part fossil preparator and part educator. Museum visitors watch her on the job as she uncovers and protects fossils that are millions of years old.
“You need to be very careful,” Perez explains. “Each specimen has its own personality, and you have to figure out what tools and techniques work for it. If you get really familiar with how vertebrae look, or how a rib curves, that will help you distinguish rock from fossil. When I get on a new project, I have to learn a little bit again and just kind of go slow so my eye will adjust to it.”
Depending on the rock chemistry and the groundwater that they are buried in, fossils can be white, brown, or purplish blue. Other clues can be determined from lab notes from the scientists at the field site. For Perez, field work can sometimes prove to be a bit dicey.
“Basically all of my field work has been in Texas. So you have rattlesnakes and centipedes and all kinds of spiders and stuff to look out for, which is hard to do because you're very excited and you're very focused,” she describes.
Besides being a fossil preparator, Perez is one of 125 AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors, selected to inspire young women to enter STEM fields. Women are underrepresented in most scientific fields, and in her own experience, sexism and gender stereotypes can start early.
“I did have some bullies here and there. I think kindergarten or first grade, this boy was commenting on how [dinosaurs] are for boys and it just made me want to bring my dinosaur stuff in more,” she remembers.
Part of her effective outreach is knowing how to connect with girls through constantly changing social media and entertainment sites. Perez has reached huge audiences with her broadcast appearance on “Mission Unstoppable,” a slickly produced CBS show that features women in challenging STEM careers.
“I do get emails from a lot of parents and girls who've commented about seeing ‘Mission Unstoppable’ and hope to pursue a career as a paleontologist.”
She’s also been featured in engaging videos for GoldieBlox, a company that creates toys, games and camps to engage girls in STEM, on how she prepares fossils and protects them with strong protective coverings called jackets.
According to Perez, girls often put too much pressure on themselves, which leads to some of them abandoning STEM aspirations in middle school and again in college. Her advice? She stresses that paleontology, like most sciences, has many different aspects to it, from geology, to art, to chemistry and biology. And the collaborative nature of science can be a welcomed safety net.
“You don’t have to do everything yourself,” she reiterates to young girls interested in STEM. “Work together with people, bounce ideas off them. That can be exciting. You're going to get stuff wrong. It's part of the scientific process. You will make mistakes, but that's what you learn from it, you create new hypotheses, and you find a new way to tackle things.”