Interview: Jack Horner

Jack Horner, 2013.1Today's inspiring individual is John R. “Jack” Horner, an esteemed paleontologist who was once a senior technical advisor (and part character inspiration) for the Jurassic Park films. Jack's story of struggle and triumph is especially powerful, as he moved from undergrad drop-out to the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship. Jack was born and raised in Shelby, Montana and attended the University of Montana for seven years majoring in geology and zoology. Although never completing a formal degree, the University of Montana awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Science in 1986. Jack and his students excavate and study dinosaurs, particularly their growth and behavior. Jack has published more than 180 professional papers, 9 popular books, and more than 100 popular articles. Jack is Regent’s Professor of Paleontology in the Department of Earth Sciences, and Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. He is also a Senior Adjunct Scientist at the Smithsonian Institution. Jack lectures on dinosaurs, evolution and dyslexia. He lives in Bozeman. Camp Spring Creek: In addition to your accomplishments in paleontology, you’re also an author. Which aspects of writing come naturally to you and which do you find you have to make accommodations for? Many writers are often told to “write the kind of book you’d love to read yourself.” Several of your books are for children. What were reading and writing like for you as a young child?

Jack Horner: Reading is the hardest thing I do in my life, so with regard to reading, nothing comes easy and I have to make accommodations for every part of it. Writing is also difficult, but I learned two things early in my life that have helped a great deal. One was learning how to type. My mother was a typist and spent much time teaching me how to type, and I also spent a great deal of time learning how to make letters so that I could write well enough that I could read what I wrote, even though I read one letter at a time. As a child and young person, K – 12, I didn’t read much of anything, but I loved to look at the pictures in books and did my best to read the captions. I didn’t write much either, but always liked the idea of writing.

CSC: It’s long been accepted that one thing people with dyslexia naturally excel at is thinking outside of the box. In your field in particular, you have to manage so many eons of historical information, manage teams of people on a dig, organize your thoughts for academic research, as well as constantly push for the “next big thing.” Are there ways in which you’ve noticed your own abilities to “think outside the box” in your line of work? Please tell us about one or two by way of example.

JH: I have no idea what or where this box is or what it's like to be in it! Managing eons of data, together with numerous teams of people on digs, in labs, or any place else, and thinking and writing about new ideas that come from many different sources is what I do best. It only requires spatial thinking.

CSC: Speaking of thinking outside the box, what’s this we read about a genetically created dinosaur chicken? (We had to ask…)

JH: It’s a long story, but basically I have a team of geneticists working on retro-engineering a bird back to a dinosaur, or at least some of their characteristics by modifying genes that have been dormant for many generations.

CSC: You spent seven years studying as an undergrad and did not earn your bachelor’s degree. Years later, all of that was moot, but there must have been moments when you considered giving up or feared the worst. What would you share with a student in a similar position right now? What could you tell that eager, smart learner to help him or her stick with it?

JH: Giving up never entered my mind, but there was always the chance that my dreams would have to be modified, and for some period of time they were. My profession is also my hobby so there is no way it can be taken from me or that I could not do it. For a few years I worked for my father in his gravel business, and on the weekends or my time off, I worked on my hobby. I was always striving to get a job in paleontology, but I always knew the chances were slim. But, what was the worst that could happen? Work as I was, and do my hobby on my own time? Not so bad! When you have nothing to lose, even the smallest of accomplishment is success!