In paleontology, Peter Dodson is a king begetting kings

World-renowned paleontologist Peter Dodson names his greatest accomplishment: being a mentor.

Peter Dodson in the 1960s standing with arms folded against a rock outcropping.
Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park loomed large for Peter Dodson, shown there as a student in the late 1960s. He completed research there for his master’s degree and has returned repeatedly for additional fieldwork during his career. (Image: Courtesy of Peter Dodson)

Many people go through a dinosaur phase, which may end around age 5. But Peter Dodson, a paleontologist in the School of Veterinary Medicine and School of Arts & Sciences, in his eighth decade, remains enthralled by the long-extinct creatures. And he has spent his career nurturing the interests and scholarly pursuits of others who share his passion.

This past spring, his final two advisees, Aja Carter and Erynn Johnson, successfully defended their doctoral dissertations. And though Dodson won’t be taking on any more doctoral students, he isn’t ready to stop being an educator and a scholar. “I have a bad habit and that’s the fact that I love teaching, I love people, I love the stimulation of my academic life,” he says.

Dodson’s “bad habit” has been to the good of the students he’s advised in formal and informal capacities. But his modesty and the quickness with which he’s apt to promote his students’ accomplishments does not obscure the name he’s made for himself as a leading expert in illuminating the age of the dinosaurs.

“He’s renowned; he’s beloved,” says Matt Lamanna, a paleontologist at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, who earned his doctoral degree working with Dodson in 2004. “To this day he’s widely regarded as a world-leading expert on horned dinosaurs, and he’s well known for many other things as well. And for the many people who know him, I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t like him. He is professionally what he is as a person; he’s open and warm and jovial.”

Fossil hunter

During his childhood in South Bend, Indiana, Dodson doesn’t recall dinosaurs being “a deep cultural phenomenon,” he says. In fact during a family trip to Chicago’s Field Museum, it wasn’t the dinosaurs but the Egyptian mummies that made a lasting impression. 

Three people on the dirt ground excavating in the dirt.
In 2015 on a field excursion to China’s Gansu Province, Dodson (right) observes as students Tanner Frank and Adam Laing work carefully to extract a small dinosaur’s femur and vertebrae from the earth. (Image: Steven Jasinski)

As a boy, Dodson and his older brother Steve spent long days outside roaming their town on bikes and began collecting fossils. The film “Fantasia,” with its animated depictions of dinosaurs, also captured his interest. By age 13, Dodson decided he wanted to be a paleontologist, and his biology professor father was giving him college-level paleontology books to study.

Later as an undergraduate at the University of Ottawa, a supportive professor fostered Dodson’s interests, even inviting the curator of dinosaurs at the National Museum of Canada to teach a course and helping Dodson find summer work at the museum the summer before his senior year. 

Dodson got the idea for his master’s degree project from that curator, Dale Russell, going on to work in “one of the richest spots for dinosaurs on the face of the earth,” Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park

“My wife and I had just gotten married, and we went out to Alberta and spent the first three months of our married life living in a tent in the park” to do the field work, says Dodson.

The resulting publication was the first on dinosaurs to explore the concept of taphonomy, or the process by which organisms become fossilized. “Taphonomy comes from the Greek meaning ‘law of burial,’” Dodson says. “It’s the phenomenon where some skeletons are preserved complete as they were in life and some skeletons are partially complete and some skeletons are just scattered bones. It’s trying to study the process of decomposition, the biases of the geological processes, and how organisms become introduced into the fossil record.”

Cross-campus presence

His doctoral studies at Yale University involved a museum-based effort to tease out the family tree of a collection of Protoceratops fossils spanning a range of sizes and forms. He was wrapping up that work, which involved studies of alligators, lizards, and duck-billed dinosaurs, in 1973 when he interviewed for a job at Penn. “The plan for that year was that I would have a Ph.D., a job, and a child,” he says. “Of those three only one happened, and his name is Christopher.”

The position he had interviewed for instead went to Hermann Pfefferkorn, now a professor emeritus, who had years of postdoctoral experience. “The great irony is that I found myself at Penn a year later, and Hermann of course has been a great friend,” Dodson says.

In 1974 Dodson was hired not in the geology department, now the Department of Earth and Environmental Science (EES), where he had interviewed previously. Instead, he was recruited by Robert Marshak, then dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, who had attended Dodson’s seminar that year.  

Dodson embraced the unexpected placement in the Vet School and the fact that his office neighbors were neuroscientists rather than geologists, though he advised students in EES. “Bloom where you are planted,” he reasoned. 

Which he did, traveling the world doing field studies in Alberta, Montana, China, and elsewhere, discovering new dinosaurs and further characterizing older ones. In 1990, he co-edited the first major professional treatment of dinosaurs with former student David Weishampel, “The Dinosauria,” now in its second edition. Then in 1996 he compiled what he and others had learned about one of his favorite dinosaur groups, writing the definitive account “The Horned Dinosaurs: A Natural History.” 

Seven people sitting in an excavation cave site looking towards the camera.
Over the last two decades, Dodson and his students and colleagues have expanded their field sites to include some in China, including Gansu Province’s Changma Basin. (Image: Hailu You)

At Penn Vet, Dodson has taught anatomy courses to veterinary students, racking up teaching awards and lending a unique approach that perhaps only someone who so closely re-imagines the anatomy of extinct creatures can muster. 

“Some may consider anatomy a ‘closed’ field,” says Pfefferkorn, “but for people who work on fossils where discovery is still ongoing, they’re still excited about it; they’re still discovering new things. The best teachers are those who do research themselves at the highest level. I think students in the Vet School have profited from the fact that Peter is teaching them.”

In addition to anatomy courses, Dodson has taught courses across the University, in evolution, paleontology, even religious studies and philosophy, as he has frequently reflected on his own religious commitment in light of his career as a scientist.

“These are the three great priorities of my life: family, faith, and fossils,” he wrote in a 2016 article for Penn’s Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society. 

Legacy through mentorship

His mentees see these values reflected in the way he treats his students. “His religion is what guides how he treats and interacts with his students and fellow scientists,” says Johnson, who is currently a research associate at the Paleontological Research Institution. “He really cares about his students as people and how they’re feeling. Sometimes that can get lost in mentorship.”

Aja Carter and Peter Dodson standing in a room full of dinosaur skeletons and books, Carter is touching the vertebrae of a skeleton.
Along with Erynn Johnson, Aja Carter was one of Dodson’s final two doctoral students, defending her dissertation this past spring. Dodson’s advisees cite the independence he granted them as scholars as a vital part of his mentorship (Image: Eric Sucar)

His advisees agree that part of his effectiveness lies not only in his caring disposition but also in the trust he places in his students. He has encouraged his doctoral students to pursue projects far afield of his own, often taking directions in their work that he couldn’t have dreamed up himself, such as Carter’s use of 3D printing technology to make robots that mimic how ancient creatures may have moved. “My students push me and expand me,” he says. “This is a wonderful thing.”

It’s no surprise then, that his students have gone on to be stars in the field in their own right, moving on to faculty positions and curatorial posts around the world. 

“My students have been so central to my life for the last 40 years,” he says. “It reminds me a bit of the line from ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none,’” a claim his students would likely emphatically characterize as indefensibly modest.

He believed in his graduate students. He nurtured a boldness in me; he let me dream without encumbrance. Matt Lamanna, a paleontologist who earned his doctoral degree working with Dodson

Lamanna is one such star in the field. Their relationship goes back before the two ever met. In 1986, as a dinosaur-loving 11-year-old, Lamanna pinned a newspaper clipping about Dodson naming the horned dinosaur Avaceratops to his school’s bulletin board. “I definitely saw Peter on television when I was a kid as well, on a big dinosaur series that WHYY did,” Lamanna says. “I think even from that early age, watching him on TV, I thought he seemed like a really good guy.”

Dodson served on Lamanna’s senior thesis committee, and the following year Lamanna wound up at Penn for his doctorate. “Peter always treated me like a colleague, from the moment I walked in the door,” he says. “He believed in his graduate students. He nurtured a boldness in me; he let me dream without encumbrance.” 

A team of archeaologists drag the bones of a dinosaur from an excavation site.
In 2000, a field trip to Egypt conceived of by Dodson’s students, including Matt Lamanna (in bandana), led the discovery of one of the largest known dinosaurs, Paralititan stromeri. Dodson (at the rear in black hat) was among the crew to help move the giant’s fossil humerus. (Image: Courtesy of Matt Lamanna)

One such dream led Dodson, Lamanna, and fellow graduate students Josh Smith and Allison Tumarkin to Egypt on a quest to find dinosaurs that had been lost to science after a World War II bombing run destroyed Munich’s natural history museum where their fossils had been kept.

“It was a wild idea,” Lamanna says, “But Peter supported it every step of the way.” The trip also led to the discovery of a new species, Paralititan stromeri, one of the largest dinosaurs of all time.

The thrill of finding something new remains a draw for Dodson, one that, despite the scientific and technological progress of the last half-century, continues to define the field and those captivated by it.

“’Jurassic Park’ notwithstanding, the old-fashioned way of finding fossils is still the best way: You walk the ground,” he says. “I can look starry-eyed young kids in the eye and say that if you want to be a paleontologist there will be plenty of new dinosaurs to be described because I know that to be true.”

Asked to name his favorite dinosaur discovery, Dodson demurs. “Each one of my dinosaurs is dear to me in a different way. But in a way the best one of all is Auroraceratops, named after my wife, Dawn; that’s very important to me,” he says. The couple has been together for more than 50 years.

In years to come, while stepping back from advising doctoral students, Dodson will continue teaching and has “projects in the fire,” including committing his expertise to writing to continue enhancing the field and those hoping to be part of it.

“I think I’ve had an unreasonably good ride,” Dodson says. “My career has been immensely satisfying.”

Homepage photo: Dodson is well known among paleontologists as an expert in horned dinosaurs. In 2004 he and colleagues named a small, bipedal dinosaur found in China’s Gobi Desert Auroraceratops rugosus, from the Latin “dawn’s horned face,” to honor his wife, Dawn Dodson. (Image: Robert Walters)