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Shaena Montanari: From Digging up Bones to Digging up Stories

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An “amazing” ten-week stint at National Geographic in Washington, DC, settled the question for Shaena Montanari—a  young paleontologist who had already published extensively and held a number of postdoctoral posts. She said she’s now “100 percent sure” she’s going to pursue a career as a full-time science communicator.

As a 2017 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow, Montanari wrote 41 stories on a variety of topics at National Geographic. It wasn’t her first foray into science writing. However, while she’d written about science for Forbes for more than two years and pens scripts for episodes of the PBS Digital Studios science series It’s Okay To Be Smart, the National Geographic experience was definitive.

"I had the best summer, very productive and so educational," she said. “I learned how to get a message across quickly and efficiently, and I’ve become a much better writer, which will be helpful in anything I do. I just adored it. Being a scientist, I always felt good about what I did, but for the first time at National Geographic, I felt like, wow, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, telling people about science in a fun way. This is where I’m going to do the best work for me, and for others."

In a  pivot, and just weeks after finishing her Mass Media Fellowship, sponsored by the American Geophysical Union, Montanari began a year-long AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. There, she’ll add policy heft to her writing experience, talking with legislators and their staffs on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, telling them “why it’s important to fund science,” she said. “There is so much innovation that comes out of basic science.”

An only child, Montanari grew up in a comfortable home in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The family vacationed on Cape Cod every year, and it was there that her ambition to become a scientist gelled. She loved seashells and other things that caught her attention on the beach, and she thought for a long time she’d be a marine biologist. However, once in college, she discovered she disliked virtually everything about the actual pursuit of marine biology — boats, swimming, scuba diving. “I hate getting water up my nose,” she said.

Reexamining what had drawn her to science as a little girl on the Massachusetts shoreline, she realized it was the animals and the traces they left, and their environment — sand, rocks, shells, bones, even the dirt. She changed her focus, majoring in geological sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, she found small classes and the hands-on experiences she was craving.

Montanari loved the work she did for her senior paper—with UNC paleoecologist and AAAS member Donna Surge—which used sclerochronology, a technique for studying growth bands on the skeletal remains of ancient marine animals to learn not just how old they were, but also what the environment was like when they lived.

Montanari pursued a PhD in comparative biology as one of four students in the first class of the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the massive American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. “I grew up near there, and I loved visiting as a kid.”

Being in the first class at the new school gave her a number of “really specially opportunities to tell people about science” that she might not otherwise have had, such as leading tours for visiting luminaries and teaching after-school classes to high school students.

“I loved telling people about our research,” she said.

Montanari’s dissertation analyzed dinosaur teeth and eggs, primarily from Mongolia, for clues as to what the world was like when the animals were alive. Since then, she has been a postdoctoral researcher at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the AMNH; a lecturer at Columbia University in New York City as a Columbia Science Fellow; and a Newton International Fellow for two years at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

“I’ll always be a paleontologist, but having a lab isn’t my goal anymore,” she said. While Montanari can already feel her scientific focus broadening as she moves away from research—most of the stories she wrote for National Geographic had nothing to do with paleontology—dinosaurs still have a special place in her heart. In 2015, she developed a program called Dinosaur Doctors, a “paleontology outreach” program for children confined to hospitals.

“Not everybody gets to go to museums,” she said. “Sometimes, you have to take the exhibits to them.” She’d like to develop programs to reach rural children with hands-on science materials as well.

As a scientist steeped in the earth’s ancient history, Montanari believes part of her job is to make sure the public has accurate scientific information about the world’s origins, which may conflict with some religious approaches to natural history that assert the world is only a few thousand years old.

“All you can say is, ‘This is what the data show,’’’ she said. “I don’t think there should be a political leaning in the teaching. The best thing you can do is to make sure people have the tools to evaluate what they see and hear.”

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Delia O'Hara