Case study

Curator, fossil fish — Emma Bernard

Emma is a curator of fossil fish at the Natural History Museum. Find out how her passion for dinosaurs and fossils as a child led her to a career in palaeontology

How did you get your job as a curator?

In my final year, I did a project at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, and that was my first insight into working as a museum curator. From there, I went on to do a Masters in palaeobiology.

I got the opportunity to volunteer at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and the collections there and this helped me decide which career path to take within palaeontology. Museum work gives me a varied palaeontological experience, with an emphasis on hands-on specimen work, while also allowing me to contribute to academic study.

How relevant is your degree?

My degree is very relevant to my current role. There are a number of ways that you can get into this sector and geology is one of them. The course I chose had a lot of palaeontology in it and as well as learning how to identify different fossils, I also learned how to conduct research and communicate this to different audiences.

I then went on to complete two Masters degrees, one in palaeobiology and the other in museum studies, and these are also entirely relevant.

What are your main work activities at the museum?

My role at the Natural History Museum involves looking after the specimens and making them accessible. One of my key areas of research is on fossilised sharks looking at how they evolved, why some of them became extinct, why some survived and how they were able to do that. I also handle fossil preparation and identify and classify specimens. Working for a national museum means I also get the opportunity to work in international field work and travel.

I deal with hundreds of enquiries every year and that can range from assisting a researcher with their work, such as taking images and measurements, to someone finding a fossil along a beach and needing help identifying it.

A lot of my job is involved with outreach work, for example, working on exhibitions, giving talks and going into schools to do work. I get asked to do quite a lot of podcasts and even short little snippets on TikTok. Sometimes I do interviews with media organisations such as the BBC.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

I initially started as a general natural sciences curator working at a regional museum, before getting my current job at the Natural History Museum.

Here I have worked across different collections, which has increased my general palaeontological knowledge and given me the opportunity to learn from world leading scientists using the collections.

I have become more of a specialist working with fossil fish and become a known figure within the community.

In the future, I'd like to work towards becoming the head of collections, overseeing all of the collections and developing policy for them.

What do you enjoy most about your palaeontology job?

Getting access to the fossils and specimens is really exciting and I feel very privileged to be the custodian of these specimens. We've got specimens from Charles Darwin's work, and we've got some of the first examples of life on the planet. I also love doing outreach because I enjoy speaking to people and showing them the fossils.

What would you say is the most challenging part?

I think it's the fact there is so much we could do in the job but there is a lack of resources in general within the museum sector. There are so many things that you would like to do but it's just trying to balance what's achievable.

What tips would you give people wanting to become a palaeontologist?

Try to get some volunteer experience in a museum or even get involved with some field work with your local geological society. It's often a great way to network with people too.

There aren't a huge number of jobs available, and the pay isn't the best, but if you're in it for the right reason - because of the love of the science, then it's a rewarding career.

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