Meet Paleontologist Victoria Markstrom

Paleontologist Victoria Markstrom

Although I have a science background, I am not an expert on prehistoric life.  But Victoria Markstrom, chief paleontologist at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre is.  When writing ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep, Victoria was my knowledgeable consultant. She toured me through the museum several times, patiently answered my many questions, took me to an excavation site along the Manitoba Escarpment, and then as the manuscript headed towards completion, Victoria gave it a thorough fact-check to ensure accuracy.

Two university students with Victoria Markstrom (R), at a dig site along the escarpment

After spending a hot July afternoon at a nearby dig site, I interviewed Victoria. What kind of person becomes a paleontologist, I wondered. Of all the career choices out there, why select this one?

For Victoria, the path to paleontology started with a single experience when she was 15 or 16.  “I was walking through the science section of a bookstore. I wasn’t looking for anything specific, just browsing the beginner’s books, not the real textbooks. I picked up one – a book with lots of pictures that profiled different scientists and scientific discoveries.”

Intrigued, Victoria bought the book. “I don’t really know why.”

A section of the Manitoba Escarpment

She found herself drawn to one section that featured “really cool science”. It was a chapter about paleontological discoveries. That chapter set Victoria’s career wheels in motion. “I really wanted to be the one doing that,” she said.

Victoria volunteered at digs to gain practical experience and took university courses to get her credentials. Today, she’s living the dream, supervising the largest collection of marine reptiles in Canada.

Even a tooth like this can provide clues to the past

In summer and fall, Victoria manages CFDC’s dig program. With only a few months of suitable weather, she’s out in the field most days, directing teams of university students at various excavation sites around the Morden area. The work here is mostly large scale where tools like shovels and trowels are commonplace.

When winter sets in, Victoria spends most days in CFDC’s lab, trading large scale equipment for finer ones like picks, brushes and microscopes. Lab work is Victoria’s first love. The pace is slower, the work more intricate, and while tentative discoveries are often made at dig sites, the laboratory is where real puzzles are solved.

Opening the jacket is a bit like opening a box of assorted chocolates. Sometimes there are surprises inside surprises.

As we tour the lab, Victoria points to a large junk of plaster on one of the shelves. It’s a jacketed specimen – a fossil encased and protected in plaster wraps. An index card lies beside it. The card is marked with numbers and letters that denote the date and location of its discovery among other details.

“This one’s from 1974,” Victoria says. “It’s been waiting a while to be opened.”  She smiles and moves on, then stops and turns around. I detect a glint in her eyes as if she’s revealing a guilty pleasure. “It’s a little like opening a Christmas present. You never know quite what’s inside.”


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