The dinosaur-obsessed boy from Belfast who actually grew up to be a palaeontologist

Every kid wants be a palaeontologist and we shouldn’t be surprised, says Gavin Bradley

Gavin Bradley is a palaeontologist and award-winning writer from Belfast, currently living in Edmonton, Canada, on Treaty 6 territory. His debut poetry collection, Separation Anxiety, is available for pre-order now from your local independent bookstore or online

Whether it’s inspired by Jurassic Park, The Land Before Time, or documentaries like the seminal BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, it seems like every kid passes through a phase of wanting to be a palaeontologist, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

Learning about dinosaurs when you’re a child is like being let in on a wonderful secret; a whole world of monsters that actually existed. Monsters that you’re allowed to believe in. I was one of those kids. Dinosaur magazines, movies, trading cards, games – even duvet covers. The only difference for me is I never grew out of it.

The feeling of uncovering a fossil that nothing has laid eyes on for 72 million years is incredible

The prospects of a dinosaur-obsessed kid from Belfast in the late 1990s actually growing up to become a palaeontologist weren’t great. Only two dinosaur fossils have ever been found throughout the whole of Ireland. The main problem is that during the time period we find dinosaur fossils from Ireland was underwater, drowned by globally rising sea levels


As I write this, there is a greater dinosaur fossil assemblage on my desk at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada) than has ever been collected in all of Ireland. This doesn’t mean that a career in palaeontology is impossible for the Irish (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this), but it does mean that we have to be willing to travel.

My “way-in” came through a BSc in archaeology at Queen’s University Belfast. My reasoning was simple. First, both subjects required you to dig holes, and second, both humans and dinosaurs have bones.

After studying archaeology I received a Canadian Memorial Foundation Scholarship, which sent me on my way to Edmonton in 2012 to study under Dr Philip Currie. You’ve probably heard of “Phil”, even if you haven’t realised it. He worked on some of the first feathered dinosaurs, found the world’s first complete baby-horned dinosaur, and was one of three scientists used as a model for Sam Neil’s character in Jurassic Park, Dr Alan Grant.

The learning curve was much steeper than my “bones and digging” logic had prepared me for. During my first week of fieldwork in the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park in Southern Alberta, Canada, I excitedly brought what I thought was a dinosaur kneecap (or patella) to Phil for inspection. To my bemusement, he just chuckled and shook his head. What I know now, of course, is that dinosaurs don’t actually have kneecaps, and I had just presented my new supervisor with a not even particularly interesting rock.

By the end of grad school I had published research on tyrannosaur dinosaurs, presented at international conferences and amassed many stories from my fieldwork of nearly falling into sinkholes, being stuck on hillsides during thunderstorms, or almost stepping on rattlesnakes. Ultimately, though, what I fell in love with during my time in the Currie lab was teaching. The feeling of uncovering a fossil that nothing has laid eyes on for 72 million years is incredible, but for me, it’s not as good as the feeling of putting that fossil into a student’s hands.

Today, I teach the introductory dinosaur palaeontology classes for the university, and run the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as Dino 101, which has been taken by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide (including my mum back in Ireland). Thinking back to that rock in Dinosaur Provincial Park, it’s the perfect role for me. I’m nothing if not enthusiastic!

For the moment at least, I try to keep a spade in one hand and a pen in the other

The Irish are better known for their poetry than their palaeontology, though both fields aren’t as different as they might appear at first. Each requires patience, imagination and an acceptance of the fact you’re probably never going to be a millionaire.

When I moved to Canada, writing became a way to express myself without worrying about assimilation or people understanding my accent (which was thicker than I realised). My first poem was published in a magazine of student writing, Glass Buffalo, and as I kept at it, I’ve had work in The Irish Times, Best New British and Irish Poets, and more recently, won the Edmonton Poetry Festival Prize for Poetry.

Now, my first book of poetry, Separation Anxiety, is coming out with the University of Alberta Press. It follows the deterioration of a long-term relationship, and talks a lot about the loneliness of immigration and the anxiety of separation from home. The idea was to explore the emotional toll of different kinds of separation and loss, but to do so without losing a sense of hope that things can get better. I think it’s a book that a lot of people can relate to, particularly our community of the Irish Diaspora.

In his poem Digging, Seamus Heaney talked of swapping the spade for the pen, about walking away from the Irish rural farming life of his ancestors, for one of poetry. With both poetry and palaeontology still very much part of my life, I haven’t quite followed in his footsteps, but for the moment at least, I try to keep a spade in one hand and a pen in the other.

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