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To some kids, dinosaurs ‘a drug’

Ottawa native and paleontologist to present dinosaur event

Steve Brusatte is happy to see young people who are addicted.

To science, that is.

The Ottawa native and paleontologist could see some children who exhibit that love of dinosaurs Saturday, Feb. 17, when he talks about his new children’s book and Tyrannosaurus rex dinos in general.

Brusatte will present a family-friendly dinosaur event from noon to 2 p.m. at Rock Paper Scissors, 712 La Salle St., Ottawa.

“Kids love dinosaurs so much and it's such a joy to see them engage with science,” he said in an email interview from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Dinosaurs are a gateway drug that gets kids into all different kinds of science. So many great doctors, engineers, physicists and other scientists first got enthused about science because of dinosaurs. And in this day and age where we face so many challenges that need science to solve, it's so important we keep enthusing the next generation.”

An associate professor in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, Brusatte is back in Ottawa preparing to speak at PaleoFest at Rockford’s Burpee Museum of Natural History, and visiting his newborn nephew (son of his brother, Mike) in Champaign.

Before Steve’s return, his father, Jim, asked the owners of Rock Paper Scissors — which sells children’s games and educational aids — if they wanted him to stop by, and the store’s owners were glad to comply.

"We're fortunate he's coming here. His parents still live in Ottawa and he's in town,” said Sue Vandervort, the store’s president and co-owner.

Brusatte will talk about “Pinocchio Rex and Other Tyrannosaurs,” a book he wrote with children’s author Melissa Stewart. The Level 2 book is suitable for kids ages 4 to 8 — generally up to third grade — and copies will be available at the store on Saturday.

“Pinocchio” refers to a T. rex whose bones recently were discovered in China. Brusatte gave the dinosaur its nickname after visiting the Asian nation and Junchang Lu, a noted Chinese professor.

“We figured out that it was a new species of tyrannosaur,” Brusatte said. “We wrote up a scientific paper and gave it a formal Latinized scientific name, ‘Qianzhousaurus sinensis.’ But that's a tongue twister, so I thought it needed a nickname, and ‘Pinocchio rex’ just popped into my head. Pinocchio because of the long snout (nose), and rex because it is such a close cousin of T. rex.”

Stewart invited Brusatte, the author of several books, to collaborate on a children’s volume about new T. rex relatives.

“We outlined the book together and then she wrote most of the text. I fact-checked it and contributed the sidebars. Melissa did most of the writing and I'm glad she did because she is an ace at writing these types of books. She has an innate sense for what children like to read.

“I’ve written some other kids' books on my own, and I always struggle a little bit with trying to put myself into the minds of the young people in my audience. Melissa is just fantastic. And a super nice person and really friendly collaborator to boot,” Brusatte said.

Mary E. Olson, co-owner and vice president of Rock Paper Scissors, said her own children were into dinosaurs when they were younger. She added many of today’s kids also are stoked about the ancient creatures.

“Among kids, it pretty much stays steady, because they’re so ginormous,” she said of dinosaurs.

Some local children and parents are aware of Brusatte’s roots and his reputation, Olson said, a reason why Rock Paper Scissors is excited to accommodate Ottawa’s native paleontologist, who as a once worked as a Times reporter and teen columnist.

“He’s very good with kids and we’re looking forward to having him,” Olson said.

Brusatte started attending PaleoFest many years ago, and first met Lu when the scientist was a speaker at the annual festival, which is Saturday, March 3, Sunday, March 4 (

“I went there religiously every year when I was in high school and college. And I've spoken there a handful of times once I became a professional paleontologist. But this year I'm doing the keynote. I'm so excited.

“It's the 20th anniversary of PaleoFest and they're having a big nostalgic party type of weekend, and they asked me to headline it. I was blown away when I got the invitation and just really felt chuffed (pleased), if I can use a British English term that I've come to love. It's one of the biggest honors in my career.”

Another big moment is coming soon. Brusatte penned the book “The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs,” a mass-market tome that will be out in April.

“I was really inspired as a teenager by the books of Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan and other science popularizers. I wanted to do something like that. ‘Rise and Fall’ is that book.

“It's a narrative, and a lot of this narrative can only be told now, because of the huge explosion of new dinosaur discoveries over the past decade. It's my generation's story. And I've written the narrative so that I work in lots of stories from my own field work and discoveries and studies, and introduce a lot of my amazing colleagues.”

While Brusatte is at home teaching college students, he’s looking forward to talking with the grade schoolers he’ll see on Saturday. He might get some tips from his wife, Anne, an elementary school teacher.

"She is very good at it, but I would never have the patience or the ability to keep 30 kids in order. But I do love going into schools and talking about dinosaurs, and doing events like these,” he said.

Brusatte might even meet some children who are as addicted to science as he is.

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