Meet Sam Ocon, Master's student in invertebrate paleontology

"Hi y'all, I'm Samantha "Sam" Ocon, an invertebrate paleontology Masters Student at West Virginia University.

I've always wanted to be a paleontologist; that has been my life goal for as long as I can remember. Although some of the obsession I can attribute to Jurassic Park, the largest contributor was growing up in a nature-loving family of non-scientists.

Some of my earliest memories are hiking with my dad, a Nicaraguan immigrant, as he taught me identify the local fauna of my home state, Florida. He is also an avid amateur ichthyologist, so I spent my childhood surrounded by beautiful fish tanks, learning about every creature within.

On my maternal side, my grandfather, who was raised in a rural farming community in Mississippi, is a self-taught horticulturist and botanist. He taught me to love the plants that surround us and was my designated adventuring buddy. For example, I can remember making him follow me around the backyard as I destroyed his plants digging for pieces of the fossiliferous limestone that Florida is built on.

These formative experiences, alongside my family's continued encouragement, led me to pursue my dreams.

At the age of 14, I joined the Florida Museum of Natural History as a junior volunteer. I had never really considered science communication as something I would be interested in; however, this position completely changed my mind. In fact, I can remember the exact moment it happened: I was volunteering in the SUE exhibit when a young girl approached me and asked me a million questions about Tyrannosaurus. Realizing that I was excited to answer and listen, she went into meticulous detail about a bird she had dissected at home and how SUE's bones looked like the bird's bones, glowing with excitement as she described how interesting she found all of it. She told me she hadn't met a female paleontologist before.

This moment lit a fire in me. I had always been aware that the paleontologists on TV and movies didn't look like (queer, female, latina) me, but I had never considered that I could *be* the paleontologist that looked like me.

I finished up my high school degree and pursued a degree in Geology, quickly beginning my research in vertebrate, then invertebrate paleontology. Along the way, I also joined the FOSSIL Project, an initiative seeking to unite paleontologists across the spectrum of knowledge, from budding amateurs to tenured professors. Considering that I was raised by those with an informal science education, this was a match made in heaven. Joining FOSSIL allowed me to flex my digital science communication skills by managing paleontology social media accounts and help curate a natural history collection completely fueled by community scientists. I learned so much from people that shared the same passion that I had for fossils. Eventually, I finished my bachelor's degree. Leaving the Florida Museum, FOSSIL, and my old department behind was tough, but I'm excited for this next chapter as a graduate student. I can't wait to see what the future holds!"

- Sam Ocon (she/her)

Instagram: @opabinia_regalis

Twitter: @coolacanth