No bones about it: it’s been a long and winding road that led Dr. Caitlin Colleary to The Land. A Los Angeles native, the 36-year-old paleontologist arrived in Cleveland last year by way of South Dakota, England, Panama, and Washington, D.C. Though Colleary hadn’t spent much time in the Midwest before moving here, she was immediately intrigued when she saw a job opportunity pop up at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
“Paleontologists want to go where the fossils are,” says Colleary, who moved to Cleveland in early 2020. “There are amazing fossils and shale here in Cleveland, so that was one of the main draws for me.”
As the museum's assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology, Colleary typically spends her days researching molecular preservation of fossils from the Devonian period (a mere 358 million years ago), for which Cleveland is a hotspot. Colleary is also helping to curate the contents of the new Planetary Processes wing that will be part of the museum’s $150 million expansion. “The museum is going through a huge transformation project right now, and we’re in the second stage of developing the exhibits,” says Colleary.
Though Colleary is deeply passionate about her work, her path wasn’t always set to become a paleontologist. Colleary initially studied anthropology at University of California-Los Angeles, but it was after taking a post-graduate internship at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and going on a dig in Utah that she “fell in love with paleontology.”
Colleary went on to obtain a master’s degree in paleobiology from the University of Bristol (from which she returned with a “weird half-Valley Girl, half-British accent), followed by a doctorate in geosciences from Virginia Tech. She also spent a summer working on an active dig site at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, as well as four months fossil hunting in the Panama Canal.
“I always say that I wasn’t really interested in science until I started actually doing science,” says Colleary, who served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute before coming to Cleveland.
When not doing her thing at the museum, Colleary can often be found fossil hunting at the Cleveland Metroparks Big Creek or Rocky River reservations, or seeking the city’s best Mexican food (which she says she found at Los Arcos, home of “the best michelada I’ve ever had”). She resides in South Euclid with her dog and boyfriend, who still works part-time in Virginia.
“Because of COVID, I haven’t gotten to see as much of Cleveland as I would like, but I absolutely love it here,” says Colleary. “The museum is at a really cool stage where there is a lot of new stuff happening, along with many young curators and women curators. I’m looking forward to five, 10 years down the road.”