Meet Jingmai O’Connor, the Punk Rock Paleontologist

She's 'damn good' at what she does, and she's mentoring other young scientists, too

This fall, Jingmai O’Connor will fly to Australia for a conference with 1,400 other vertebrate paleontologists. Then she’ll DJ the after party.

O’Connor is one of the best paleontologists in the world right now, set to receive a Schuchert award, a recognition of talent under age 40, this year from the Paleontological Society.

But she’s not interested in fitting whatever mold you — or others in her field — think a paleontologist should look or act like.

She’s outspoken and strong-willed. She swears. She loves to dance.

Photo of Jingmai O'Connor. pbs rewireCredit: Twin Cities PBS/ When Whales Walked
Jingmai O’Connor

Her arms are covered in tattoos. She has a Plesiosaur skeleton (think: Loch Ness Monster) tattooed on her leg, and a lip piercing.

No Tevas. No bucket hat.

“I don’t dress like a paleontologist, I don’t look like a paleontologist,” she said. “But I love paleontology and I’m a damn good paleontologist.”

Her specialty is Mesozoic birds, which lived between 150 and 65 million years ago, around the same time as large dinosaurs.

Since she graduated with her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 2009, she’s been in Beijing, China, working at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

That’s because, in terms of places to study Mesozoic birds, China is the best.

A fossil gold mine

Bird fossils are extremely rare, in part because their bones are so much more delicate than other animals. That means it takes special environmental conditions to preserve them.

In Liaoning, a region about a day’s drive from Beijing, those conditions were right 131 million years ago. The land, currently covered by farm field, had active volcanoes, lakes and forests at that time.

So when birds died and fell into the lake, they’d sink to the bottom and be covered by volcanic ash — a recipe for preservation.

Those perfect conditions make the area a gold mine for bird fossils. About half of all discovered bird fossils come from that region.

Photo of Jingmai O'Connor posing with an ancient bird fossil. pbs rewireCredit: Twin Cities PBS/ When Whales Walked
Jingmai O’Connor poses with an ancient bird fossil.

After the first feathered dinosaur fossil was found there in 1997, it changed our understanding of science.

“Most people thought birds were dinosaurs, but there were some people who didn’t believe it,” O’Connor said. “You find a dinosaur that has feathers, and it was like the nail in the coffin.”

O’Connor talks about the region and the fossils found there in “When Whales Walked,” a PBS documentary about evolution, premiering June 19.

‘One discovery could change everything’

She chalks her success up to right place, right time. But it’s also hard work.

Most days, she’s awake by 5:45 a.m., working at her computer by 6:30.

She’ll ride her bike over to the institute, about 7 miles.

Then, she’s either talking with students, using her microscope to look at collections, or examining fossils via CT scan.

When she bikes home at the end of the day, she works for another three to four hours, writing papers and reviewing and submitting manuscripts.

Photo of Jingmai O'Connor working on a paleontology dig. pbs rewireCredit: Zheng Wenjie
Jingmai O’Connor spends her summers splitting time between field work, shown here, and conferences.

The summers are different. They’re full to the brim of conferences and field work.

Last week, she was in Spain, giving a keynote speech at the International Meeting of Early-stage Researchers in Paleontology. Straight from there, she’ll leave for Romania to start field work.

Then to Los Angeles, Beijing, South Africa and Australia.

Her job gives her the opportunity to see the world.

“As a scientist you don’t get paid a lot of money. I would never be able to afford to fly to Cape Town by myself,” she said. “China really supports science, so there’s a lot of grant money. So I can really go anywhere I want.”

Last fall, she was among the researchers who identified the first fossilized lungs ever found on an early bird.

In January, she led a research team that unveiled a perfectly preserved 99-million-year-old bird foot.

“There’s something so thrilling about answering a question that nobody’s ever studied before,” she said.

“There’s still so many crazy cool things that are constantly being discovered. One discovery could change everything we think.”

Thankless career

O’Connor has always loved animals. Growing up in Pasadena, California, she briefly wanted to be a veterinarian.

But she was never especially studious.

“My godmother’s sister was my algebra teacher and she said, ‘Jingmai, she did exactly what she had to do to get a B and not more,’” O’Connor said. “I just wanted to read my Manga and draw pictures.”

When O’Connor was 8 years old, her mom went back to school to get a Ph.D. in geology.

Her mom’s reconnaissance trips, days spent in the desert, became their family vacations.

O’Connor decided then that she was going to be a geologist like her mom. But an undergraduate geology class at Occidental College with paleontologist Don Prothero changed her mind.

“He was like, ‘You know, it’s a very thankless career, and it’s so competitive, and you don’t want to do this, at least take the paleontology courses first.’”

But two weeks in, she was sold.

“I don’t care about money,” she recalls herself thinking then. “I just want to do what I’m passionate about.”

Prothero became a mentor for her, sending her and her classmates to the Natural History Museum of New York, and helping her figure out what graduate programs to apply to.

His earlier words weren’t wrong, either.

Paleontology is thankless. It is extremely competitive. And very few make it in the field.

‘I’ve learned to love myself’

O’Connor’s first few years were tough.

As a student, she remembers crying at her first Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting.

“I have social anxiety, I also used to be quite insecure. But I don’t give into these things,” she said. “I’ve learned to love myself, embrace myself.”

There’s a lot of students, and a small number of paleontologists at the top. They can be critical of each other. It’s easy to get bullied out of the field.

O’Connor says many early-career female paleontologists have had bad experiences. But she likes to take them under her wing and show them there’s a more positive way to succeed. You don’t have to get trapped in the negativity of criticizing your peers. You don’t have to be quick to judge.

And sure, sometimes in your research, you’ll hit a wall. It’s usually all mental. You’ll climb it.

Bucking the way things are means she’s not always universally liked.

“Within the community you either love me, or you’re like, ‘F*ck her,’” she said. “I don’t really blend in, if that makes sense.”

In order to succeed as a paleontologist, she says, you have to devote your entire life to the work.

That doesn’t leave time for a lot of hobbies.

But if you can pour your entire heart and soul into it — if you can do the work because you can enjoy it — it’s just as amazing as you think it is.

“You shouldn’t be a scientist if you’re an egotist,” she said. “You’re doing it for the good of mankind, you’re doing it for the sake of new knowledge.”

“When Whales Walked” premieres June 19 on PBS. Check your station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times or stream online at PBS.org.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen is an editor for Rewire. With past stints in public radio and at a rural daily newspaper, she’s passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.