Dr. Randall Miller

Randall Miller studied geology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Waterloo and received his Ph.D. in Environmental Earth Science in 1984. His research for his graduate studies was about climate change during the last ice age. His thesis applied geochemical techniques to the study of fossils. Before finishing a Ph.D. he spent a term as a visitor at the California Institute of Technology in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.

In 1986, after two years of contract research for the Geological Survey of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Nature, Dr. Miller moved to Saint John to become the Curator of Geology and Palaeontology at the New Brunswick Museum. The museum traces its history to one of the oldest geological collections in the country, with mineral and fossil specimens that were collected as far back as the 1820's. Randall Miller's job includes organizing and developing the museum's collection and educating the public about the geosciences through exhibitions, lectures, field trips and media stories. Although his research still examines ice age climate and climate change, his job at the New Brunswick Museum encompasses all of New Brunswick's fossil history going back almost one billion years. Randall has published more than 50 scientific papers on a variety of topics with a focus on fossils or fossil sites that receive little attention. His research has included studies of the world's oldest most complete shark fossil, giant sea scorpions, tiny spider-like trigonotarbids, walrus fossils, ancient lobe-finned fish, fossil footprints and the history of geological discoveries in New Brunswick. In January 2004 his work on fossil sharks was described in Discover magazine and featured on the CBC Radio show 'Quirks and Quarks'. He has also written a children's book, Fossil Hunter - Will and the Giant Trilobite, to accompany an exhibit of the same name, and contributed to a best-selling book about the geology of the Maritimes called The Last Billion Years.

Dr. Miller is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geology at the University of New Brunswick and a Professional Geoscientist with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of New Brunswick.

Q: What is the title of your job and what do you do?

A: Research Curator of Geology and Palaeontology

Q: Who do you work for, and where are you based?

A: New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, New Brunswick

Q: What kind of hours/shifts do you work? What is your typical work routine?

A: The work is mostly a 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday job, at least during the winter. Although it is a 36.25 hours/week job, the job description often requires more than that, until a job is completed. The museum has a public side to it which means public lectures, exhibit openings, public tours, fundraising dinners and a variety of activities that happen on weekends and evenings. During the spring to fall when the field work season is part of the work, days are longer, depending on what the project may be and who else is in the fieldwork party.

Q: Where do you work?

A: I have an office in the New Brunswick Museum collection and research facility, which is the original museum building constructed in the 1930s. Down the hall from my office I work in the museum's geology and palaeontology collection area and lab. The museum has an exhibition facility in a convention centre, library, museum complex which opened in the uptown area of Saint John in 1996. I also work there at times when I am involved in exhibition work, public program, and administrative work.

I also conduct field work everywhere in New Brunswick.

I sometimes do field work in other parts of Canada, the United States or Europe. I also visit museums in other countries to examine specimen collections and I travel to international conferences.

Q: What equipment/machinery do you use?

A: It is pretty low tech in-house. I use various microscopes and cameras to examine and photograph fossils, minerals and rocks. My lab is equipped with two rock saws for trimming and sectioning specimens. I use a PC computer system for collection database work, GIS work, and some image analysis. I use a MAC system for image analysis and some specialized software applications. Specimens are sometimes examined using equipment at other laboratories. I have used mass spectrometers for stable isotope analysis, prepared samples for radiocarbon dating, and visited several CT scan labs to analyze fossils.

Q: What education or training is required for your job?

A: A graduate degree in geology is expected but not required at our museum. Most museum curators in the sciences have a Ph.D. and in larger museums are expected to conduct scientific research. I am the only geologist in our museum so I deal with rocks, minerals and fossils in our collection, but I am trained as a palaeontologist. To be recognized professionally/legally as a geologist in New Brunswick you do need to be a 'Professional Geoscientist' (P.Geo.).

Q: What kind of personal traits do you recommend for this profession?

A: Patience. Museum collections develop over long periods of time. Ours started in 1842. It takes patience to develop and organize a research collection. Projects I work on often take a decade or more from the initial fossil find to a published paper. Organization. Looking after tens of thousands of objects, knowing where everything is stored and finding ways to organize specimens, is ultimately what the job of a curator is about. If you like to organize and keep order, it really helps.

Q: What is the salary range of your job?

A: At our museum about $45,000 to $65,000 a year. This is a provincial government position.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: Variety. I like the inside work, but I really like being outside doing fieldwork. Research is interesting. I like the puzzles to be solved in science and it is very interesting to collaborate with other scientists. I do a lot of public lectures and field trips which can be fun. I also do a lot of media interviews. Conducting radio and television interviews is interesting and provides a different perspective on the work. Best of all is finding really good fossils and second best is being part of an institution with a long history. It feels good to be part of something bigger.

Q: What are the advantages?

A: It is great to be able to do field work and be outside working as a geologist. I have had great opportunities to work with people who visit the province and the museum for their scientific research. The people I work with are generally well traveled and interesting. They often stay at our house when they come to the museum for research visits. I have friends all over the world. I have had a chance to work with experts on a variety of fossil projects, on topics I know almost nothing about. It is a great way to learn.

Q: What are the advancement opportunities for this career?

A: There is almost none as a museum curator. In my case I am the geology department, so there is nowhere to go in the current job, except out of geology into a more senior administrative job. That is certainly possible and there are certainly advancement opportunities that way. There are other career opportunities that arise in other museums, government science labs or in university academic positions. Most museums are small however and there is not much room for advancement within the geological discipline.

Q: How physically demanding is your job?

A: It varies during the year. Sometimes the job is mostly office work, however working with collections can be physically demanding. I am often moving trays of specimens or large slabs of rock. Field work can be very demanding. Most of the fossil sites require hiking-in, even in a small province like New Brunswick. Samples are normally backpacked out of the field. Sometime just looking for fossils might mean walking several kilometres over rocky shorelines. I use a boat or kayak quite often to prospect for fossils. Even spending long days in a quarry using a rock hammer to extract rock samples can be very hard work. Dealing with weather, good and bad, in the field is part of the job.

Q: Why did you choose this career?

A: I was planning to be a biologist. Paleobiology seemed more interesting. I like working with fossils, I like the scientific puzzles. The work often takes you in directions you did not expect to go. Working on climate change or with cutting edge techniques. People are often surprised to hear that a lot of research in this area is done in a museum, rather than a university. In truth these institutions are often closely linked. I also find the history of the science interesting and it is really important in this field of study. It is really fun to hold a fossil of an extinct fish from 400 million years ago, but it is equally cool to know that Darwin or Huxley or Lyell held the same specimen.

Q: What is your most memorable moment/event/place related to your experience as an Earth scientist?

A: In truth there are lots, which is why I like the job. A couple of years ago I stepped out of my kayak onto a small beach near my home. I was looking for fossils I never really expected to find. This was not the first time I had looked at these rocks. I kept looking at these rocks anyway, even though the chance of finding a fossil was small, not looking was a sure way to never find a fossil. There in front of me was a fish fossil that was not supposed to be there. It was memorable because I had been in this work long enough, and met enough people who worked on fish, that I pretty much knew what is was right away. It was just the right place, the right time, and knowing that being prepared to find and recognize the fossil paid off.

Q: What is your advice to newcomers?

A: In this kind of job, do it because you can't imagine doing anything else.

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