My childhood dream job: digging up the secrets of the earth

April 27, 2024 — by Bryan Zhao
Photo by Liang Zhao
A younger me stares at a paleontologist working at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
When I was younger, I always dreamed of digging up dinosaur bones and assembling my own dinosaur exhibit in a museum.

I remember when I was much younger than I am now, sitting with other kids on the vibrant fabric carpet of Appleseed Montessori Preschool and my teacher asking the class, “What do each of you want to be when you grow up?”

As we began to go around the circle to share our answers, I twiddled my thumbs nervously, wondering if I would be ridiculed for what I was about to say. Each classmate who spoke before me described their dreams of becoming exciting, relatable jobs like astronauts or firefighters. 

When it was my turn, I quietly said, “I want to be a paleontologist.” Seeing that my teacher and classmates were confused by this advanced vocabulary term, I explained that paleontology was the study of fossils.

Although paleontology was a word my classmates weren’t familiar with yet, I was fascinated by it. Throughout my childhood, I enjoyed reading about dinosaurs. Whenever I went to the Cupertino Library near my house, I spent several hours lounging in the kids’ section, reading about the colossal beings that roamed the earth millions of years ago. The countless National Geographic and encyclopedia-type books I read often had realistic size comparisons of a dinosaur and a human, and it was crazy to imagine a dinosaur’s sheer size. I imagined myself digging in a field, uncovering an enormous skeleton multiple times larger than my own body.

Aside from reading about dinosaurs, I also enjoyed watching a television show called “Dinosaur Train,” where a group of colorful, animated dinosaurs travel in a train and explain different species of dinosaurs as well as interesting facts about them. Due to the child-friendly nature of the show — which was full of fun music with a mix of factual information —  I developed a deeper understanding of these creatures. 

When my family and I would go down to Los Angeles during the summer for my mom’s work, I would visit museums with dinosaur exhibits. I always convinced them to accompany me to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the La Brea Tar Pits, where numerous fossils were discovered. There, I discovered my dream career.

At these two museums, paleontologists worked behind glass panels in the exhibit, using machinery to uncover fossils from large slabs of earth. In absolute awe, I watched as the workers slowly chipped away at the rock, uncovering bone after bone of magnificent dinosaurs. While my younger brother enjoyed all the exhibits equally, I preferred to spend all my time at the dinosaur exhibits, where towering skeletons of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and menacing replicas of sabertooth tigers met my eyes at every turn. 

In middle school, I slowly realized that paleontology wasn’t exactly how I had glamorized it to be. Unlike the way that documentaries portray paleontologists stumbling upon enormous fossil plots frequently, the job market for this field is minuscule. Besides, most work is conducted outside in remote locations, which is physically demanding. These factors opened my eyes to the realities of the job, I decided I would prefer to work in simpler, less risky conditions.

Now as a high school student, I no longer dream of being a paleontologist. However, you can still catch me occasionally enjoying an occasional dinosaur documentary!

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