German/Moroccan paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, a postdoctoral scholar in vertebrate anatomy and paleontology at the University of Chicago, scours the deserts of North Africa for clues to life in the Cretaceous period, when the area was a large river system teeming with a profusion of diverse life. In addition to unearthing many huge dinosaur bones, he has discovered fossil footprints and a new species of flying reptile with an 18-foot wingspan that lived 95 million years ago. His upcoming paper describing the ecosystem of what is now Morocco’s Sahara Desert in the mid-Cretaceous period will be a milestone, providing the most detailed account of the diversity, paleoecology, and geologic context of fossil vertebrates from North Africa. His description is especially important, since northern Africa and the mid-Cretaceous period are underexplored and underrepresented in paleontology.
I Am Driven By | My passion for the history of life on our planet is what drives me. I have always loved learning about animals and far flung corners of the world, so a career in paleontology is a great way of pursuing these interests.
The Difference Between Good And Great | I think part of the difference has to do with the willingness to take “risks”. It is important to go outside of your comfort zone, and push the boundaries.Go to areas other people would rather not venture into. This is true in science, but also many other areas.
A Key Talent | Perseverance is very important. If you are really passionate about something, it is important to stick with it – regardless of how many obstacles and naysayers wait along the way. I think that, as my career progressed, I understood that setbacks are an important part of science and exploration. You learn from them, and they make you a better researcher.
Dealing With Doubt | In science, doubt is important – you always have to check and double-check your data and interpretations. At the same time, getting things wrong is an important part of science – it’s trial and error. Our ideas only reflect our current state of knowledge – as more data comes in, these ideas are refined and improved. So, in my field at least, doubt is not something that I find difficult to deal with – it’s part of the game. Fear of not reaching a goal is a different story – I was recently trying to locate one specific fossil hunter in the middle of the Sahara, and finding him was very important for the research I was doing. I came very close to giving up – it was like looking for a needle in a desert. This is the closest I got to giving up. Luckily, at that very moment, I spotted the man walking past me. The rest is history and resulted in the description of a new skeleton of a giant predatory dinosaur.
Performing At My Peak | It is important to work on projects you feel passionate about. If you are working on something you are not really excited and curious about, you will not be performing at your peak, no matter how hard you try.
Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | I have wide-ranging interests and try to stay up to date in different fields of research – this also helps my work in paleontology, which is a highly multidisciplinary discipline. My undergraduate training was largely in zoology, so I am always interested in reading research papers in that area. Outside of Science, I like to read online news pieces on current politics, visit museums and watch interesting, thought provoking documentaries and presentations online.
The Meaning Of Life | I think we give meaning to our lives. Searching for some overarching, “one size fits all”, universal type of meaning is probably not realistic. For some people the meaning of life is to solve some of the great mysteries of science. For others, it might be helping people in need. Others devote their life to protecting endangered animals around the world. And others yet might pursue a combination of different activities that are close to their hearts. Personally, I think that we are in a very fortunate position, with access to vast amounts of information on the history of our planet and our universe – I think it is important to take advantage of our relatively short time on this planet to learn and discover as much as we can about the world and universe we live in. I think that nurturing our curiosity and soaking up knowledge about our planet and its context, is a life well lived.
How to find, motivate and keep great people working with you | It is important to find trustworthy people you can count on in difficult situations. When you go to remote sites in the desert, it is important to assemble a team of resilient, motivated people with a passion for science and exploration.
I Am Inspired By | A number of scientists and explorers have inspired me – they include historical figures like Charles Darwin, Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach, and Alexander von Humboldt, as well as more recent explorers – Jane Goodall, Sir David Attenborough, Richard Leakey, and others.