Alumna channels love of paleontology into children's book series
Dana Korneisel has volunteered with the Peace Corps, been a biological researcher, and worked at a nonprofit — though paleontology, the study of the history of life through fossils, has been her calling from a young age.
“I was 4 years old, and up until that point in my life, I was a big fan of ‘The Lion King,’ so my life ambition until then was to marry Elton John,” who wrote songs for the animated film, Korneisel said laughing. “But I found out you could be a paleontologist and immediately switched my ambitions and never looked back.”
Korneisel earned a master’s degree from the Department of Geosciences from Virginia Tech in 2019, where she studied under Professor Shuhai Xiao and Associate Professor Sterling Nesbitt. During her two years in Blacksburg, she worked in the Department of Geosciences’ paleobiology lab and conducted research on the structures of a Cretaceous Period dinosaur that was published in December 2021.
Although Korneisel now is pursuing her doctorate at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and has transitioned her research from dinosaurs to tetrapods, the earliest vertebrates to move on land, she has found a new way to share her dinosaur knowledge.
“Book One: Meet Dana,” released in February, is the first book in her children’s series titled “Dana Digs Dinosaurs.” The series explores Korneisel’s childhood fascination with fossils and how she got her start in paleontology.
The inspiration for the series came in 2019 from a young girl Korneisel met while teaching an acrobatics class. The girl loved the popular Canadian children’s television show “Dino Dana.”
“She was like, ‘Your name’s Dana, and you’re a paleontologist?’ and just lost it — running around the room, falling down, lost it,” Korneisel said. “I’ve never seen such a thing before or since.”
Korneisel described the interaction to a friend whose mother, Cathie Gebhart, is a children’s book publisher. Gebhart reached out to Korneisel early in 2021 with the opportunity to create the book series, which Korneisel readily accepted.
“There are a lot of children’s dinosaur books, so I wanted to write something that included something that I find cool about paleontology that I don’t think of as general knowledge,” Korneisel said.
She wanted to avoid talk of individual animals that existed and highlight an often overlooked well of information — the variety of fossils.
“I wanted to put things in there about the diversity of fossils that exist,” she said. “They’re not just bone and shells. They can also be trace fossils that show behavior of animals, like footprints or feeding traces, or that they can be from soft tissues, like fossilized feathers and beaks and claws.”
To best explain this, Korneisel touched on research done by her Virginia Tech labmate Caitlin Colleary, who earned a doctorate in vertebrate paleontology in 2018 and who conducted research on pigment in fossil feathers.
“I mentioned that we can get ideas of what colors there were from fossils, based on her work,” she said. “It’s targeted at any kid who is eating up all of the paleo books that they can find in their library and hopefully is adding something to that suite of information, in that it has a little bit of pretty modern paleo info in there with the pigment and stuff like that.”
In addition to paleontological information, Korneisel sprinkled fun facts about herself throughout the pages.
“There’s this one drawing of two rhizodont fish,” Korneisel said. “It’s my favorite drawing in the whole book.”
The fossilized rhizodont fish are one of many illustrations done by Carmen Cerra.
“It has this really lovely sketch and watercolor kind of style,” Korneisel said. “I had this aversion with glamorized cartoon because when I found out they were going to draw some cartoon version of me, I was a bit uncomfortable with that idea. Carmen drew these sketches that are completely unglamorous and I love it. It was perfect for me. It’s like this great little potato person. I love her.”
In addition to writing this new book and pursuing her doctorate at Carleton University, Korneisel stays busy with classroom visits around the U.S. via Zoom, where she talks to elementary school students about the book and what it’s like to be a paleontologist.
“Doing little outreach projects to share what we do with grade-schoolers is a big thing,” Korneisel said. “That's definitely a thing that everybody at Virginia Tech does in person — if there are people around in town who want to visit with a paleontologist and hear about it.”
The 30-page book is recommended for children in preschool through fourth grade.
Written by Savannah Webb ’23, an intern for Virginia Tech University Relations