Nov. 13, 2014
Digging through dyslexia: Famed paleontologist Jack Horner details his career and learning disability
School of Education guest lecturer discusses career success despite learning disability
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“Life will find a way.”
And so will an eager mind seeking answers.
Fans of the 1993 hit film “Jurassic Park” might recognize the above quote from its use as a central theme throughout the science fiction adventure and its two sequels. It can also be used to describe the driving force behind much of Jack Horner’s career as a paleontologist who just happens to also be diagnosed with dyslexia.
Throughout his life, Horner has found more answers in bones than in books.
The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education is celebrating its 50th anniversary and recently invited Horner to campus for the fifth annual Ruth Harris Lecture in Dyslexia Studies to speak about his career and the impact dyslexia has had on it.
“I would say that the advantage my learning disability gives me over virtually all other students is that I can do things differently. I can challenge the status quo,” he said at a small luncheon prior to his evening presentation to the public. “And what I mean by that is, instead of accepting what teachers say, I would challenge everything I was told, whether it was true or not.”
Horner, a technical adviser on all three “Jurassic Park” films, plus the upcoming “Jurassic World,” slated for release in June 2015, served as inspiration for the character of Dr. Alan Grant in the series. He is one of the best-known paleontologists in the United States. His research in Montana led to the discovery of the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere, the first dinosaur embryos, and settled questions of whether some dinosaurs were sociable, built nests and cared for their young. He’s had the privilege of naming several new species of dinosaurs and has had two named after him: Achelousaurus horneri and Anasazisaurus horneri.
He is also one of 12 highly successful individuals who profiled in “Leaders, Visionaries and Dreamers: Extraordinary People with Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities,” a book co-authored by Paul Gerber, Ph.D., the School of Education Ruth Harris Professor of Dyslexia Studies.
“He just couldn’t read well enough in the K–12 years,” Gerber said. “There was a teacher that suggested to his parents, ‘Maybe you should think of Jack going into body and fender car repair. That might be what his niche is as he moves along into adulthood.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wow! Did they get it wrong!’”
It is true that throughout grade school, Horner struggled to pass a single class. He entered college with a 1.2 GPA and proceeded to flunk out seven times. Because of his challenges with reading and sitting for timed exams, he never finished his bachelor’s degree.
Despite these setbacks, Horner was never idle with his time. He discovered his first dinosaur bone at the age of 8. When he was 12, he established a fossil exhibit at his local library. He won several regional science fairs throughout high school and took home the grand prize his senior year for his exhibit on dinosaur fossils, comparing the dinosaurs of Montana with those of Alberta.
However, his major career achievements didn’t begin until his 30s. After noting that none of the major dinosaur exhibits around the world featured young, small dinosaurs, he became obsessed with discovering what happened to the babies. With so many dinosaur eggs discovered, why were there no embryos? And what happened to the young after they hatched?
If he’d been able to read the textbooks of the 1970s, he would’ve been led to believe that, much like modern day reptiles, dinosaur babies were left to fend for themselves after hatching. In fact, he discovered, the very opposite was true.
“From 1890 to 1980 no one had ever looked inside of a dinosaur egg. That to me was one of the most peculiar preconceived ideas I had ever run into. Why on earth would a person not crack an egg open?
“So, in 1979 I found the first intact dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere. I don’t know if you’ve noticed in this photo, but right here,” he said as he pointed at a chisel on a slide, “I have a hammer, and that’s all that it takes to look inside an egg.”
The first egg he cracked open had the tiny fossilized bones of the first dinosaur embryo ever discovered in the world. With thousands of eggs stored in museums across the globe, dozens of scientists lost the opportunity to mark this discovery as their own, simply because they lacked the audacity to think of them as anything other than precious stones.
So, he cracked eggs, sawed through Tyrannosaurus rex femurs and drilled into the skulls of Triceratops, all in a quest to unlock the secrets hidden within the bones. By digging deeper, he discovered Triceratops horns are mostly hollow and therefore could not be used for defense the way that had been believed for decades. Horner also started to piece together the life expectancies of these animals by examining how the bones grew from within.
“Preconceived ideas stifle science.” Horner said. “And where do preconceived ideas come from? I think it comes from too much reading."
He remarked at one point that the day he was diagnosed with dyslexia was the worst day of his life.
It took time for him to recognize and embrace the fact that his learning disability had forced him throughout his life to tackle problems from a different perspective and though he may have never fit into a standardized concept of education, he nonetheless thirsted for knowledge.
“His style’s very different,” Gerber said. “If you don’t teach one size fits all, then you allow individuals to find their own way in learning and their own way of thinking. That’s where some people who have a gift buried inside a learning disability are able to allow that to blossom, like Jack’s story.”
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