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Ep. 26 with Dr. Emily Bamforth, Paleontologist with the Royal Sask. Museum

By July 10, 2019July 26th, 2023No Comments

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Episode 27 with Jo-Anne Dusel from PATHS & YWCA Woman of Distinction

Episode 26 with Dr. Emily Bamforth from Royal Saskatchewan Museum & YWCA Woman of Distinction

Episode 25 with Nigora Yulyakshieva from City of Regina & YWCA Woman of Distinction

Episode 24 with Pam Klein from Phoenix Group & Miriam Johnson from Saskatchewan Roughriders

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Dr. Emily Bamforth joins us today on the Secret Life of Entrepreneurs in our series, Women in Leadership, to talk about her secrets of success and how she has enjoyed the “thrill of the dig” since early childhood.

The winner of the 2019 Award for Science with the YWCA of Regina, Emily has long had a passion for science and encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers.

Emily is a paleontologist with the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, where she works primarily out of the T.Rex Discovery Centre in Eastend. During research for her masters degree, Bamforth discovered and named three new fossil species. While completing fieldwork in Grasslands National Park for her PhD, she collected and catalogued more than 14,000 fossils.


Barb McGrath 0:00
Welcome to The Secret Life of entrepreneurs. A 91.3 FM CJ tr Regina community radio. You’re listening to your host, Barb McGrath, local business owner, marketing guru and founder of the get found on Google program. This week, I’m talking to a leader in the business community who’s making a very exceptional difference, not only in their workplace, but around Saskatchewan and in their industry. Today I’m talking with Dr. Emily Bamforth from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. And she’s a guest with us during our women in leadership series. Stay tuned to learn her secret, what makes her tick? What makes her get out of bed so early in the morning, and her role as a leader in our business community. So let’s get started. Let’s welcome Emily.

Emily Bamforth 0:53
Good morning. Good morning.

Barb McGrath 0:54
Good morning. And how are you this morning?

Emily Bamforth 0:57
Doing good.

Barb McGrath 0:58
Good. That is fantastic. So Emily, start us off. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at the museum.

Emily Bamforth 1:07
So I’m a paleontologist, so I study ancient life, which is what we study, we study ancient life using fossils. And so I have a lot of different things I do in my job. This time of year, in the summer, we’re out in the field collecting the fossils, as well as all the information that goes with the fossils. So the kind of rocks they come from, and the kind of animals and plants that are associated with them. We bring all of that back here to the to the Discovery Center in East End. And throughout the winter, we prepare those fossils, we catalog them into our collections. And that’s when we do the research do we write the scientific papers, we go to conferences, we host visiting researchers. And we also do a lot of public outreach here as well to introduce Saskatchewan fossil heritage to the locals, but to the whole province as well. So it’s a very exciting job.

Barb McGrath 1:59
Oh, it would be. So Emily, as a lay person helped me understand the significance of the research and the discoveries that you’re making.

Emily Bamforth 2:08
So the most important thing about paleontology is it’s basically biology. So understanding the natural world, but in the geological past. And so understanding our world today is of course really important for for everything we do for agriculture, for understanding climate change, for community planning, for city planning, everything we do, we have to understand the natural world. And part of that understanding comes from knowing where we’ve come from. So understanding the plants and animals that have come before us, and how they have changed through periods of climate change, and really big turnovers in Earth’s history. And it really gives us an understanding of how ecosystems function. So it’s a really, really critical part of understanding the natural world is understanding where we’ve come from.

Barb McGrath 3:02
Yeah, okay, that makes a lot of sense to me. So some of the discoveries that you make you’re making you’re finding everything from bones to fossils, help us just understand the difference between what starts where so is a fossil bone is a fossil, a plant, where did a fossil come from, versus, you know, some of the bones and things that you’re finding.

Emily Bamforth 3:23
So the definition of a fossil is anything that is left behind by a living thing. So that can be the obvious things like dinosaur bones and teeth. It can also be things like snail shells, plant impressions, fossilized wood, or coalified wood. Even things like dinosaur footprints, or fossil poop, what we call copper light, is also a fossil, so and also Little things like burrows that were left by worms 60 million years ago, called the trace fossils. But they’re, they’re still fossils. So anything that’s left behind by a living thing is a fossil. And paleontologists study, all of it. Even like chemical signatures left by life, are a type of fossil or a biological footprint. So lots of interesting research going on in terms of the origin of life, like where life came from, when it started, all of that’s done using chemicals that are left by living things.

Barb McGrath 4:25
So chemicals that would be representative of DNA.

Emily Bamforth 4:30
Yes, so basically the the products of metabolism so you know, things like bacteria will metabolize the food just like like organisms like we do. And there’s a signature of that in the rock record.

And so we can we can actually look for that, which is neat.

Barb McGrath 4:47
So just based on what you’re saying, in other words, if we don’t always pick up after our dog a million years from error, it might be somebody fossil.

Emily Bamforth 4:55
Yeah, exactly. It could create a dog coprolites.

Barb McGrath 5:00
Kids would love to hear that. Hopefully they’re not listening today. So be like, Mom, we shouldn’t pick it up.

Emily Bamforth 5:04
We want to contribute to research.

Barb McGrath 5:07
Know, Peter Catarina, we do not need to contribute to research. We did he did contribute to using our backyard.

Emily Bamforth 5:17
It’s a balance.

Barb McGrath 5:18
Yes, exactly. Exactly. One little dog. It’s amazing. All right. So and let’s talk a little bit about the work that you do down in East End. You of course, were a recipient of an award through the YWCA, this year a woman of distinction. And you were in the area, was it a, was it scientific Sorry, I’m drawing a blank off the top of my head. I looked at it early this morning, but it’s still early. So tell us a little bit about that work and how that ties back to the to the research that you’re doing down in East End.

Emily Bamforth 5:49
So the research I started doing in Saskatchewan, I actually did was my PhD research. And I was looking at biodiversity patterns in the fossil record, leading up to the dinosaur mass extinction. So here in Saskatchewan, we have what’s called the Cretaceous paleogene boundary, or the KT boundary, it’s also called a really critically important geologic feature everywhere in the world. And it marks the end Cretaceous or the dinosaur mass extinction. So what I was doing was collecting fossils to try and understand how biodiversity was changing, leading up to that extinction. But I was also using fossil plants to understand how climate was changing at the same thing, or the same time. And then to try and understand if those two things were linked. If biodiversity was changing, why was it changing? Was it related to something that may have influenced the mass extinction. So it was very exciting research, largely based on what we call micro vertebrate fossils, so little tiny things like fish scales and salamander vertebra, little bits of dinosaur teeth. So a lot of crawling around in my hands and knees picking up these tiny fossils. And for the whole project for that project, I collected over just about 7500 fossils, like 7500 and catalogued them all. So that was a that was the five year project. And the results are very interesting. The results from the plants were also unexpectedly interesting. We were able to document fossil forest fire, and the recovery from that fossil fire in the Cretaceous forest community.

Barb McGrath 7:36
So tell us about that. Like how do you document something that happened long, long ago.

Emily Bamforth 7:41
So in this particular fossil plant site, there were chunks of what we initially thought were coal. But if you look at them under a microscope, they were actually fossil charcoal. So this was the result of a Cretaceous forest fire. And so we noticed that the plants at this site were a little bit different than the plants that the other sites were finding. And when we looked in the modern, modern plant communities, we realized that the one site had what are called early successional species, so species that come back right after a forest fire, whereas the other sites were more mature for us. So we were able to document a recovery from a falsify from a forest fire in the fossil record. And and that was a first so that was pretty exciting.

Barb McGrath 8:30
Yeah, no kidding. Like, that’s huge. So you talk about being able to document the recovery, though, do you just simply mean the reforestation, like the regrowth or when you see recovery, what do you mean?

Emily Bamforth 8:41
So basically, the the succession of plants that would follow a disturbance like a fire. So for example, in the modern world, if you have a forest fire, that goes through an area, say, say in the mountains, you first get things like fire weed, that purple flower coming through first, and then you start getting low growing shrubs, and then the deciduous trees come back. And eventually, you get the big conifers growing back in. So that that’s what’s called ecological succession. And so that’s, we were seeing a snapshot of that in the fossil record.

Barb McGrath 9:16
That’s very cool. When you say you had to catalog all 7500 items, does that mean identifying which species it was, you know what the fossil originally was? That’s what cataloging looks like?

Emily Bamforth 9:28
Yeah. So it’s identified all of the little pieces. And then they all get a number as well. So it’s kind of like, like, you know, when you go to a library, and all of the books have got a number, and that’s how the librarians know where to find them. It’s the same thing with the fossils that we have in our collection, they all have a number so that they’re easy to find if we need to find them again.

Barb McGrath 9:51
Ernie stored a lot of fossils to store to these basement.

Emily Bamforth 9:56
So all of the fossils that I collected those 7500 are currently at the T rex Discovery Center. And here we have about probably close to 100,000 fossils here in the T rex center. And yes, a lot of fossils.

Barb McGrath 10:16
Yes, that puts it in perspective, I had no idea.

Emily Bamforth 10:20
And everything from like a little tiny fish scale to a T rex skeleton, so all kinds of sizes. And then we have a collection that’s about twice as big as the Royal Sask. Museum and Regina was the past year. So how we date fossils? Yeah, we’re lucky here in Saskatchewan in that most of our dinosaurs are from the, what’s called the latest Cretaceous period. So that’s right before the mass extinction, and that that extinction boundary, the Cretaceous paleogene boundary has been very well stated, using isotopic data. So basically, you can use the degradation of isotopes to be able to tell how much time has elapsed, okay, since they were deposited. So the cape, the Cretaceous paleogene boundary has been very well dated. And so we know that most of the fossils we find from that group of rocks, we know the age is kind of associated with that. Elsewhere, we use what’s called biostratigraphy. So based on what animals are in the rocks, we get a sense of how old they are. And we also can look for certain types of fossils. So there’s a kind of pollen that is only found in sort of about half million year in one half million year intervals. So we know that we find that we to hold that that particular rock is key.

Barb McGrath 11:47
So why is Easton such a hotbed for all of these discoveries.

Emily Bamforth 11:52
So the southwest corner Saskatchewan is the provinces fossil hotspot. And that’s largely just due to the the kinds of rocks that are exposed here. So paleontologists, we do like to dig, but we don’t like to dig really, really deep. And so we look for where rocks are exposed, or fossil bearing rocks. And usually what we’ll do is we’ll we’ll find a piece of fossils sticking out. And if it’s still going into the hill, then we’ll take it out. So the southwest corner here just has the most exposure. It’s basically the place that is easiest to dig for the kind of fossils that we’re interested in.

Barb McGrath 12:37
So does that mean that there was more dinosaur and whatnot in that area at some point in time, or was it probably spread to the province, but as you say, it’s just that it’s been exposed, based on that location.

Emily Bamforth 12:52
It’s probably there were probably dinosaurs everywhere. There were probably dinosaurs all across Canada. But when the glaciers came through, they basically scraped all of the rocks that had the dinosaur fossils on them, scrape them completely off of the eastern part of the country. Except for there’s a few places in the Maritimes you find dinosaur fossils, but most are out west here. And that’s largely due to the fact that the rocks here are exposed, like the glaciers scraped to the rocks down to that level. And also, we have these big Valley systems that were created by the glacial melt water. So the freshman Valley like we have here, that’s a great place to find exposure

Barb McGrath 13:34
To these dams for two years now, are people still able to summon dope everywhere? Are there certain parts of the area that are closed off.

Emily Bamforth 13:47
So a lot of the work we do in the second area is on private land. And so we have to get the landowners permission to go out there. And so because it’s on private land, it’s not generally accessible to the public and coming out of respect for the landowners. We do have a few sites that are on public lands. And we there’s there’s one site here that we actually take people to it’s one of our fossil mammal bone beds. But really anywhere around this area, there’s anywhere there’s a road cat or so the valley side, people can poke around and generally find things. And again, that’s public land, so

Barb McGrath 14:28
So just somebody walking around might actually find something of value,

Emily Bamforth 14:33
I guess. Yeah. Yep. And also, like diefenbaker, or along the shores of Saskatchewan River is a place where a lot of people find fossils. We often get phone calls from people who have found fossil shells and Ammonites like the squid like animals, along like diefenbaker. So that’s another good place to look.

Barb McGrath 14:56
Alright, let’s go back and talk a little bit about the YWCA.

Emily Bamforth 15:03
Back to a little bit, there’s a bit of a lag between the phone and the. Okay.

Barb McGrath 15:10
And you have the headphones plugged in, right? Yeah. Okay. Okay, so we’ll keep going, hopefully the static is not too bad. I’m watching the monitors here and it doesn’t appear to be too bad. So we’ll just kind of keep an eye on it. Let’s go back to the YWCA women of distinction award. So tell me about that award. Did you know you had been nominated? And and what’s the significance of something like that to you?

Emily Bamforth 15:36
I didn’t know that I had been nominated by the Friends of the world sketch museum.

But I absolutely did not expect to win. Like it was it was a huge surprise to actually be a recipient.

And, you know, after afterwards, I said that to people, and they’re like, what, really like he weren’t you were the obvious one. Oh, it was, I was truly honored. It’s really nice to be to be recognized. For the work that you do that you don’t necessarily think people appreciate? Or not quite what I mean, you don’t necessarily think people appreciate it in the way they do. And so it’s very empowering. And again, it’s very humbling to have that kind of recognition.

Barb McGrath 16:22
Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. And I think one of the things that I really, really enjoyed or appreciate it, I’m not finding quick the right word, either. But the work you do isn’t a direct link. It’s not like, okay, Emily, discover something. And now, boom, we have a new food source. Right? There’s a very indirect link. And I think that what I really appreciated about seeing that you were the award winner was, was that indirect link, and, and that recognition that the work you are doing is so important to everything else that’s happening, and contributing in a positive way to so many different aspects in our life, and research and food, and, you know, all of the different things that it will contribute to in time. So, so that’s what made it very interesting to me, most definitely. And congratulations. I don’t think I actually said that yet. So congratulations to you. We’ve talked a few times. But this is sort of the first official time, right. So that’s awesome. So like, what do you think that might lead to? will it lead anywhere? Is it really just recognition at this point in time, and, and something that you can build on in the future?

Emily Bamforth 17:41
I think, like one of the things that I have always been passionate about is women in science, trying to encourage women in to go into the STEM disciplines, and to challenge a lot of those stereotypes about why women don’t go into science and technology and math. So I have mentored a lot of, of young women. And that has been really, really important to me. I think paleontology as a science was originally a male based science, it was it was a Mad Science. Yes, yes. Although, that said there were some very influential women in the field early on, but they really had to fight and struggle to get recognition. And but even though now, I think there’s there’s about an even split in paleontology students, so you know, 50 70% women, but we still suffer from what’s called the leaky pipe phenomena, which is where if you get into the professional realm, there are still far more men. And part of that is generational, but part of it is still just women not going into paleontological professions.

Barb McGrath 18:56
That’s a new phrase, I haven’t heard that before.

Emily Bamforth 18:58
Oh, so it’s basically a it’s a phenomenon that is common to a lot of STEM disciplines where a lot of women go into study it and even get degrees in it. But when it comes time to actually get a professional job or a career, vocation, half those women disappear and go into other professions.

Barb McGrath 19:18
Interesting. And, and so is that simply based on now hiring practices, so the men are, are being hired for the job where women aren’t as much and so they need to find a job and they end up somewhere else.

Emily Bamforth 19:32
I think it’s partly that. I think it’s also the difficulty of having a family and a field based science. So in my job here, we’re in the field for four months of the year. And that means kind of weeks away from home. And I know I have a cat and a dog and it’s hard enough to try and you know, coordinate with the cat and the dog when I’m going to be away so I imagined having a family would be much, much more difficult. So I think it’s getting a little bit better. But it’s still something that is very much something that I’m interested in helping to, to get more women into paleontology as profession.

Barb McGrath 20:14
Yes. Well, when you and I had our sort of introductory conversation, of course, I talked about my daughter, who she always asks, who’s going to be the next guest on my show. And so I was telling her a little bit about you, and the award you won, and the work you do. And she just, she’s, she’s one of those kids who has to really stew and to on everything. So she stood on it for a while, and then she was like, I don’t get it. You mean? Like, she can make money doing this. And she’s kind of at that age where now she’s trying to differentiate between, okay, this can make money and this doesn’t make money, right? So she’s starting to look at all these factors. And she’s quite confusion. Really mom, like, she can make money at that. Like, yes, she can. She has a PhD, and she works for the museum, and

Emily Bamforth 21:01
Yada, yada, yada.

Barb McGrath 21:03
Okay, well, wait a second. She says she’s got to process all of this. So first, it was the financial aspect. And then I think your second question was trying to process like, what you actually do what a day looks like. Right? And I thought, well, that’s a good question, because I’m sure your days are very different. But can you talk about what a typical day might look like?

Emily Bamforth 21:25
Sure. So like, this time of the year, when we’re doing our fieldwork. fieldwork is largely batch is digging in the dirt. So a lot of the work we do is in kind of isolated places. As you can imagine, sometimes very rustic has in like there isn’t even an outhouse. But a lot of times like the work we do in grass or national parks, we do a lot of work down there. We are still tend camping, but you know, there’s things like Like, there’s water that comes out of a tap that you can drink so much.

Yeah. And so that kind of field work. We’re actually living in tents and going out every day and digging and bringing things back. I really love that kind of being being out in nature, I’m very much an outdoor person. So that kind of speaks to my, my desire to be out digging.

So if we’re doing that, we basically we head on to the fields, we’re usually carrying shovels, pickaxes, all of our field tools, lots of water, almost all of our sites are very hot and dry. So we have to make sure that we have enough food and water for the day. Sometimes we go out looking for things to dig up, for lack of a better word, that process we call prospecting. So it’s basically just walking the hills looking for fossils that are either in the ground or plant fossils you have to dig for. So basically just digging test pits and things like that.

And if we find something, what the process is basically you remove the rock that is over top of the fossa layer is what we call overburden. And that’s a lot of physical, taxing and digging. One of this our sites in excess winding that we were digging up last year, we removed about six metric tons of rock. So basically moving a hill not to get to this base layer fossils, and that’s when the fine detailed stuff works with the brushes and the you know, the scalpels and the knives. But when people I think when people think of doing dinosaurs, that’s kind of what they think about, you know, like the Jurassic Park, like clustered around a dinosaur skeleton, like just brushing the kitty litter off the surface. It’s not really like that. It’s it’s maybe that’s about maybe 5% of actually digging on fossils, the rest is getting to the fossa layer. And then the process of getting the fossils out is also quite a process.

Barb McGrath 24:00
Yeah, I think it’s a very intricate process.

Emily Bamforth 24:03
Yes, and it’s we wrapped them in plaster and burlap is what we call the field jacket. So you have to put the right amount of plaster burlap on you have to wait for it to dry properly. You have to make sure that when you flip the jacket over to get the fossil out that you’re not going to break anything underneath it.

Barb McGrath 24:19
Oh, I suppose Yeah. Cuz you never know what’s underneath it too.

Emily Bamforth 24:23
Yeah. And if you have a bone bed like the Scottie the T rex bone bed, there’s layers of bones like a phone on top of bone. So you have to make sure you know exactly where where the separation point is going to be between the rock and the bone. So and then once you get them out of the ground, you have to carry them back to usually a vehicle or to your field camp and that can be many kilometers and these things are heavy because they’re made out of rocks and so you a lot of like carrying heavy things. Sometimes we like rig up things where we can carry them like you know tarp rolled up and then we Put the we like roller shovels up and carry them on our shoulders. Or sometimes we’ll bring up something where we can drag it that happens to very occasionally, mostly in Alberta but only once in sketch one big me at a helicopter in the Scottie the T rex they had a derailment crane that came in and lift up lifted up the blocks and put them on a truck. Yeah. So it’s it’s quite a process you have to be very innovative in a lot of times because no two fossil sites are the same. No two rocks are the same. And of course, whether it rains you have to be prepared for that.

Barb McGrath 25:42
That’s That’s a lot of things to prepare for on that bald Saskatchewan prairie as you say it’s dry. It’s dusty. you’re hauling your water your food, and oh no, we’re gonna start hauling dinosaur bones. Oh, look, we got the femur today.

Emily Bamforth 25:56
Yeah, exactly. The kind of the part I love is the the variety of it like and just the thrill. Well, first of the thrill of discovery of finding something like that never gets old for me. Like it’s always it’s just like it was when I was like five or six years old. Oh, my goodness, there’s something here. Yeah. And then knowing that as you’re uncovering it, you’re the first person that has ever seen that fossils, the first human that’s ever laid eyes on it. And you know, there’s always a thrill that, you know, it could be a new species, it could be something they’ve never found in the province before. Like last year, I found or helped well found and helped to excavate a dinosaur skull. And it was the first complete skull I’d ever found. And I was just like practically doing cartwheels in the field, because it was so exciting for me.

Barb McGrath 26:50
Oh, that’s so cool. Wow. Emily, we only have about, oh, gosh, only about one minute left. To ask you a really quick question. You told your parents what you wanted to do. I know you and I joked about this earlier. How did you break this to them? Hey, Mom, Dad, I’m gonna go play in the dirt for the rest of my life.

Emily Bamforth 27:08
Tell me about that conversation. Oh, well, I think it based on my parents fault. That geologist better like God’s even better. Yeah. Well, they. So I knew very early on that I was very interested in this, this this field, I think I decided to be paleontologists and I was four. And it was my parents who took me to this exhibition exhibition of Chinese dinosaurs. And I was just talking, and my parents very much indulge that they bought me, you know, dinosaur books and well and my grandparents to dinosaur toys. And, you know, when we moved to Alberta, we went down to Drumheller to dinosaur Provincial Park. They enrolled me in a science camp for kids that had to do with dinosaurs. So they really, really fostered that kind of that passion. And, and they believed in that passion. And when I said that, you know, I want to do this for a living. They were like, absolutely, that’s, that’s exactly what you should do for a living because it’s what you love. And so, you know, I think that that kind of support has been tremendous, like to have my parents support and my whole family support for what I do is just made all the difference. Wow, that is fantastic. Well,

Barb McGrath 28:26
I need to wrap up our show today. We have 30 seconds. To wrap it up. Emily, I’m going to get you to stay on the phone while I wrap up and then even once I go off air, just stay on the phone with me if you would. So we are at a time. Thank you for joining us on The Secret Life of entrepreneurs on 91.3 FM CJ Tr Regina Community Radio. I will be back on July 24 with our next guest. And in the meantime, if you’d like to reach out, you can email me at barb@google or you can jump on to our Facebook page. I’m your host Barb McGrath, local business owner and Google girl. Remember, you worked hard for your success. Don’t keep it a secret. Bye for now.


Barb McGrath’s been cracking the online code for nearly 20 years. She helps local businesses get to the top of Google with digital marketing training, web design, SEO, online reputation and advertising. Most importantly, she’s earned the trust of Google.Barb runs the only Google-approved agency designed to show you how to turn the online “stuff” into in-store buyers.If you depend on in-person customers, you need Barb’s step-by-step, online marketing plan to generate a steady stream of onsite buyers and make it rain money. She is the host of the Secret Life of Entrepreneurs, a local radio show and iTunes and Google Podcast.