The real movie monsters: Stephen Brusatte, Walking With Dinosaurs resident palaeontologist
14 April 2014
Stephen Brusatte from Chicago, USA, came to study in the UK in 2006. We find out how his palaeontology work sent him to the silver screen...
What happens when you cross a scientist with a blockbuster movie?
The answer could be Stephen Brusatte.
Steve arrived in the UK as a Master's student in 2006 and now works as a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh. But his alter ego is ‘resident palaeontologist’ on the Hollywood film Walking With Dinosaurs, produced by the BBC and Evergreen Films with 20th Century Fox.
The film was critically acclaimed for its special effects when it was released in December last year.
Much of the science behind those special effects – from the way the dinosaurs walked to their colours and the fact that they had feathers – was down to Steve.
‘The creative directors in the BBC are just whizzes at camera work, but they also value what we give them as scientists,’ Steve says.
‘It’s not about selling more movie tickets or Blu-ray copies – they know people value the science side, and they take it very seriously. I love working with them.’
‘Science? It’s just boring…’
Living and working in the UK was far from Steve’s original plan, let alone working with UK film producers on a feature-length film. In fact, he didn’t even start out as a dinosaur fan.
‘As a kid, science classes were my least favourite,’ he admits. ‘I thought it was just boring, which is horrible because science is the least boring thing ever – it’s about experiments and finding things out and it’s so exciting.’
It wasn’t until Steve was 15 and helping his little brother with a dinosaur project that he found his passion for palaeontology.
He went on to do a palaeobiology degree at the University of Chicago.
‘Kind of like a fairy tale…’
‘The UK hadn’t even crossed my mind,’ Steve says, admitting that it was the international scholarship office that ‘persuaded’ him to apply for a Marshall Scholarship, available for up to 40 US graduate students every year who want to study in Britain.
‘I thought that kind of thing was for super high-achieving arts and humanities types who had top marks and ran campaigns for charities in their holidays, and played third cello in the New York Philharmonic,’ he says. ‘Definitely not for people who did the pure science route.’
But he applied anyway – ‘for the application experience; I was sure I’d get rejected’ – and in 2006, aged 22, he found himself coming to the UK to start an MSc in palaeobiology at the University of Bristol.
‘I just think of those few June weeks back then as kind of like a fairy tale,’ says Steve. ‘My favourite baseball team won the championships, it was hot, it was summer, and then I was coming to the UK.’
USA, UK, USA, UK…
Steve ended up doing a second MSc at Bristol. He returned to the USA to do his PhD, but when a job came up at Edinburgh University, he applied and was soon back in the UK.
‘I was always keeping my eyes open for opportunities here,’ he says. ‘The fossil collections and study opportunities are great, and it’s so fantastic to be able to travel around Europe easily.
‘Edinburgh was really keen to hire young faculty. I didn’t even have my PhD, so I thought I’d be rejected. But again, I got the job.’
The best part of the job
A friend from Bristol who worked for the BBC asked Steve to fact-check the Walking With Dinosaurs website as a favour, and he happily accepted.
Before long he was helping out with a video game, then a children’s encyclopaedia to accompany the film.
His role grew from there.
‘Film consultancy isn’t a normal part of a palaeontologist’s job,’ Steve stresses.
‘But normally, whatever I’m doing, I try to talk to the public as much as I can to get people interested in science and palaeontology.
‘One of my favourite parts of working at the university is teaching students. Digging in the desert and going on excavations is great, but one-to-one lecturing and student advisory are crucial parts of my role.’
Students from around the world
As an international researcher, Steve says he feels in good company in the UK.
‘A huge number of our students are from abroad,’ he says. ‘I’ve got an Italian student coming next year to do a PhD with me, and I have a post-doc coming in from China to our new lab for a 2+2 project.
‘When I travel abroad, I get so many students saying they’re really deeply interested and enthusiastic about UK study. That’s not something I can say of all countries as study destinations.
‘Students want to come from all over.'
Passion and inspiration
Steve’s advice for any budding scientist – 'palaeo' or otherwise – is to keep following new developments.
‘It’s not an easy path,’ he admits. ‘You’ll need to go to university for a good 10 years to make it.
‘But if you’re passionate, give it your all. Read, watch TV and follow the latest discoveries online, because new species are being found all the time, and you can see it all as it happens – it’s so exciting.
Even more importantly, broaden your knowledge and polish whatever skills you enjoy polishing.
‘Don’t just focus on dinosaur bones, even if you do love them,’ he says. ‘Take science, maths, and other classes too. It’s really important that you can write and communicate, and if you’re a good artist, build up that skill – it will make you stand out.’
And what about Steve’s own UK prospects?
‘I love it in here and it’s been great so far,' he says. 'Hopefully I will be in Edinburgh for a long time yet.’
Walking with Dinosaurs The Movie is out on Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD & Digital HD on 14 April from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.