In Summary

This article originally featured in Swinburne’s Venture magazine

When Patricia Vickers-Rich was four, her uncle built her an elaborate cubby house.

The expectation was that young Pat would add a family of house-proud dolls.

Instead, she adorned its shelves with bottles of dead insects.

Professor Rich grew up in near poverty on a California farm. “We didn’t know from one year to the next whether we would have enough money to get through,” she says.

But this virtual self-sufficiency made her close to the land. Her childhood memories are of fishing for salmon, hunting deer for food and watching the world around her.

“I was interested in rocks and soils, and raising and observing animals, how they reacted to certain things.”

Professor Rich, now 72 and a professor of paleobiology at Swinburne University, still gets excited talking about dirt and the secrets it yields. Her areas of expertise are ancient avifauna (bird fossils), polar dinosaurs, some of the Earth’s first animals and how they have been affected by climate change.

She has written more than 20 books and 200 research papers, organised global exhibitions and travelled the globe to dig for fossils.

Driving this prodigious activity is a burning curiosity to understand life on Earth, and to communicate that science to young people and the public.

Professor Rich founded and directs PrimeSci!, a science hub aimed at primary and secondary school students. It moved to Swinburne’s Wantirna campus earlier this year. 

She also mentors young researchers such as Swinburne’s Dr Stephen Poropat, who is focussing on “big” dinosaurs, mainly the Australian Cretaceous sauropods.

Professor Rich has funded much of her own research and is donating dinosaur casts worth $1 million to a new Queensland museum.

Now she is seeking $800,000 in funding to dig for dinosaur bones in Koonwarra in South Gippsland.

“In that region there are sediments representing an ancient cold-water lake more than 120 million years old,” Professor Vickers-Rich says.

“We know those sediments are absolutely full of ancient fish, and insects, all kinds of stuff, but we’re really wanting to dig more there in search of the tiny mammals and maybe even some feathered dinosaurs.”

“We would like to source funding to excavate the remains of this ancient lake and expose it so that a regional museum can be built over it.”

If the Koonwarra dig goes ahead, it would be the first of its kind in Australia, combining the expertise of 25 international scientists for four months. The buried Gippsland lake is similar to one in Jehol, China, which attracts thousands of tourists each year.

It’s an amazing feeling, Professor Rich says of finding the fossilised remains of an ancient creature, “because you know you’re the first human to see them”.

“From this data, the real point is to understand how things have changed over the millions, billions of years and the causes for that change.

“That has true relevance to our work on fossils – crafting the future well, based on what we know about the past.”