Paleontologist Paul Sereno found inner artist at early age
By Janelle Walker For Sun-Times Media August 9, 2013 11:30AM
ELGIN — A young Paul Sereno, in Naperville primary school, might have been a teacher’s worst nightmare.
According to Sereno — University of Chicago paleontologist, National Geographic “explorer-in-residence” and co-founder of Project Exploration — he was transferred to different teachers and classrooms three times each in first and second grades.
If he’d been in school now, Sereno said, he’d probably be diagnosed with ADHD and given Ritalin.
“I was bounced around and I didn’t learn all that much,” said Sereno during a talk Wednesday night at the Gail Borden Public Library.
This was the second time Sereno has spoken in Elgin this summer as part of the library’s ongoing SuperCroc exhibit, set to close Aug. 18.
He thinks, looking back, that it was the “square walls,” of school and the regimen of school that he didn’t function well in.
However, once he was in classes with teachers who saw his potential and found his passions, from then on out he became a student of life, Sereno said.
That is part of the lesson he wanted educators in the audience to recognize, Sereno said.
“I didn’t have that promise early on, there was no sign that I could be successful,” in life, he said, adding the right response from a teacher could change that for a child.
“Every kid needs a day in the sunshine. They need to feel like they are worth something, even if they have a bad track record,” Sereno said.
For him, one of those teachers came in the fifth grade, and cast him as “Tom Sawyer” in the class play.
“We were the slow reading class, and we kicked the butt of the advanced reading class,” Sereno said.
That is one of the reasons Project Exploration asks for docents, presenting to groups of students touring the SuperCroc and its other exhibits.
“People are talking about what they know about. It feels like they are on stage.” That, he said, can be a powerful experience for a child.
It isn’t just teachers that shape a child, Sereno said. Parents also have to encourage their children to learn and figure out what they want to be.
“I had very interesting parents … who told us to go out and do something interesting with your life. Don’t go out just to make money or horse around, but do something interesting,” he said.
That is why his dad bought Sereno a butterfly collecting kit one Christmas. Not only did he and his five siblings collect butterflies, they also mated them. It wouldn’t be unusual for their mother to find a cocoon in a jar in the freezer, he said.
“After school time is where I learned my love for science,” Sereno said. That “science” also consisted of building a two-cycle go-cart with brakes and gears with his father.
That go-cart also led to “my first experience with a police car,” Sereno said.
It was high school before Sereno realized that his passion was in art — spurred by a drawing that he made in class. He was well into that art career and studying at Northern Illinois University before a trip to the American Museum of Natural History — where he discovered dinosaurs.
He’d already shown an affinity for bones and ancient art, Sereno said. When drawing a male figure for art class, he incorporated the skeleton with the muscle. He began “cave drawing” human figures on textured canvasses.
One of the mistakes made by educators is thinking that the arts and science don’t go together, Sereno said. They have to go together when he is working on a dig — being able to visualize a dinosaur bone buried in the rock before he even begins digging, he said.
“This was a discipline that invites you to imaging the things that you can’t see,” Sereno said.
The adventure that comes with paleontology — the expeditions around the world — were “absolutely irresistible, in addition to the science,” he said.
According to his website, Sereno has been noted for finding the bones of dozens of new and unknown dinosaurs — from SuperCroc to Jobaria, the dino that highlighted the Gail Borden Library’s African dino exhibit in 2005.
He teased the audience Wednesday with hints of several more recent discoveries yet to be published.
Those in the audience said it was inspirational to be reminded that art and science have a place at the same table. Elizabeth Haney works at Elgin’s Acme Design, which uses modern technology to create everything from comedy/horror icon Svengoolie’s new casket to a 10-foot heart set for a Kansas City museum.
“Dr. Sereno’s talk was an inspiring reminder that being open to a life that does not take a linear path can lead to amazing places and experiences,” said Haney. “When you look at his career and accomplishments, it a powerful testimony to the value of the visual arts in public education, and the important partnership between art and science.”