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J. Lynett Gillette

Paleontologist

Lynett Gillette recently finished a big project with the San Diego Natural History Museum in San Diego. She was able to use much of her knowledge of paleontology and geology to help the museum build a new multi-million dollar permanent exhibition, Fossil Mysteries. She worked with a planning team to develop ideas for ways to explain a few of the great puzzles paleontologists tackle, such as, What Happened to the Megafauna in North America about 13,000 Years Ago? The staff at the museum wanted to find the best ways to interest the public in the local geology and fossils of Southern California. There were dinosaurs to sculpt, mastodon cats to produce, murals to paint, real fossils to prepare, dioramas to build, and a lot of words to write for text panels. Some days she advised sculptors and muralists on what a dinosaur’s skin might look like, or how many tentacles an ammonite might have. Other days she had to calculate how big a fossil Megalodon might be, from the evidence of a single tooth of the great shark. With other educators she developed an on-line Teacher’s Guide for the exhibition, she wrote descriptions of the fossil animals for the museum’s web site (www.sdnhm.org/exhibits/mystery/index.html), she wrote exhibit text, and wrote articles about the exhibit (www.sdnhm.org/research/readings/fn_0507.html). She worked with other geologists and a team of animators to develop a program about the advances and retreats of glaciers world-wide during the last million years of earth history.

Before coming to California, Gillette was Curator of Paleontology in a small natural history museum in northern New Mexico where she spent many years studying, teaching and writing about rocks and fossils. Her books Dinosaur Ghosts: The Mystery of Coelophysis and Seismosaurus: The World’s Longest Dinosaur describe some of those years working in the high desert with fossil-rich rocks. She wasn't attracted to dinosaurs as a child. In fact, she doesn't remember ever thinking about dinosaurs or fossils or geology as a young person. But she was interested in biology and astronomy and liked reading science fiction. In college she completed a double major in anthropology and journalism and went on to two years of graduate study in anthropology. When her daughter was little Lynett began working as a research technician in the Department of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution. Museum work was very exciting for her. She particularly enjoyed creating a computerized system for recording evidence of disease in Paleo-Indian skeletons.

Lynett's husband was a paleontology graduate student when they married. She began working with him in field explorations. Once they lived in an old cotton plantation dedicated to research in natural history and spent their days diving into the rivers of northern Florida for Pleistocene fossils from the sandy river beds. Later she began taking geology field trips with his geology students and helping with exploring expeditions for fossils in Argentina and Australia. She was hooked! When she was 33 years old she went back to school and received a BS degree in geology from Boise State University in Idaho. For a while she worked as an exploration geologist in eastern Oregon and western Idaho and then as a geologist for independent oil companies in Dallas. She and her husband came to New Mexico to help create a new museum of natural history in Albuquerque. Lynett worked in the fossil preparation lab and began casting and restoring fossils at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Lynett feels fortunate to have been able to do work that allowed her to pull together so many skills she used in past jobs. She advises you to keep growing and learning all of your life and to follow your interests even if they lead you into new fields. Lynett's daughter is a biologist now teaching in New Zealand. Her specialty is animal behavior and herpetology. "Jennifer always went in the field with us, sometimes with her father and his students and sometimes with me when I was an exploration geologist or just a rock hound", said Lynett. "I guess she's turned on to science, but maybe she has had her fill of deserts and fossils! But now I have two young grandsons. They already seem to like museums and rocks and animals. We’ll have fun!