USC Dornsife Ph.D. student brings paleontology to football and video games
USC Dornsife Ph.D. student Kiersten Formoso studies fossils at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and runs a science-themed Twitch channel where she riffs on the biology of fantasy creatures. (Image: Courtesy of Formorphology/Twitch.)

USC Dornsife Ph.D. student brings paleontology to football and video games

When Kiersten Formoso isn’t studying how animals evolve, she’s talking evolution on Twitch and covering football with a paleontology twist. [6 min read]
ByMargaret Crable

Some 50 million years ago, the ancestor of whales and dolphins walked on land. Four-legged, wolf-sized and sporting a long, robust tail, Pakicetus roamed what is now modern Pakistan, hunting fish and small mammals. The question of how, and why, this land-dwelling creature that evolved from sea-faring species eventually returned to the water, where it evolved into our modern marine mammals, is being tackled in a new way by one Ph.D. student at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Kiersten Formoso, a vertebrate paleobiology and functional morphology Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth Sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is hoping to make progress on this mystery. She’s studying fossils and bones in museums around the world to try to piece together the evolutionary process that enables animals to evolve from one medium to thrive in another, like how Pakicetus went from land to sea.

When she’s not rummaging through the dusty drawers full of fossils at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA), where she’s graduate student-in-residence, she’s blending her love for paleontology with her other interests. An avid football fan, she’s written several rankings of the college’s Big Ten Conference using dinosaur themes for the SB Nation sports blogging network.

She also runs a science-themed Twitch channel where she riffs on the biology of fantasy creatures in Monster Hunter or takes viewers on a fossil-hunting side quest in Red Dead Redemption II. This can make for unconventional gameplay. In Red Dead, on her way to the fossil bed, she circles back with curiosity for a closer look at an aggressive alligator — and has to restart the game after it nabs her.

Digging dinosaurs

Anyone who knew Formoso as a child would not be surprised by her curiosity about the alligator. She was a passionate dinosaur fan from a young age, inspired by the films Land Before Time and Dinosaur. Her mother encouraged the interest by buying her dinosaur books and toys.

“Luckily, she never thought it was weird that her little girl was obsessed with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are a gender-neutral subject, but not everyone thinks that,” says Formoso.

The rolling green landscapes of rural New Jersey, where she grew up, and encounters with black bear and deer also fueled her interest in what life on Earth was like before humans.

In high school, she poured herself into science classes, reading ahead in lessons and voluntarily taking both honors physics and Advanced Placement biology in her senior year. She was accepted to every college she applied to for her undergraduate degree, but even with generous scholarships, she couldn’t afford to attend college out of state, as she wanted. The local state university, Rutgers, was her last choice, but she became more enthused after discovering they offered a major with “evolution” in the title — a perfect alignment with her passions.

Rutgers also offered a chance to perform in a marching band, something her high school lacked. After a season playing the piccolo with the band, and marching in a bowl game in Miami, she’d caught the football bug.

“When you’re in the stands and you have to play during certain moments, you really get into the spirit,” Formoso says. “I understood why people were obsessed with this sport.”

She began chatting on forums hosted by SB Nation, and her sassy talk caught the eye of the editors. They asked her to write for the site, and Formoso’s paleontology-themed power rankings soon became a hit.

Chance meetings

Woman with curly hair, wearing glasses and a Jurassic Park tshirt, stands in front of a table full of fossils.
When the pandemic allows, Kiersten Formoso plans to study fossils in museums around Europe. (Photo: Courtesy of Kiersten Formoso.)

In her sophomore year at Rutgers, Formoso discovered that paleontologist was an actual job option, after a day spent with Ted Daeschler, the associate curator of vertebrate zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

“I’ll never forget; I took the train from New Brunswick all the way to Philadelphia by myself to meet this stranger, a paleontologist. He explained to me what the job entailed, and what you need to do, which meant going to graduate school,” says Formoso.

So, after graduating in 2016 with her degree in ecology, evolution and natural resources from Rutgers, she immediately enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for a thesis-based master’s degree in geosciences.

Her years of intense study began to catch up with her, however. Money had been very tight as an undergraduate. She’d packed as many courses into the regular semesters as possible, since summer classes cost extra, which meant brutal course loads for four straight years.

“I was more tired than I let on. It was adrenaline just getting me through my school,” says Formoso.

Burnt out, she dropped the program and vowed to stay away from science altogether. Then, fate intervened at a final presentation of her research work at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s 77th Annual Meeting in Calgary, Canada.

The society’s president, David Polly, spoke wither her, recounts Formoso. “He managed to find two hours to set aside to convince me to stay in the field. He said, ‘It’d be a loss to the field if you left.’”

With this encouragement, Formoso took a year off to recuperate and reapplied to graduate schools.

She also applied for, and received, a competitive National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship. With funding secured, graduate school wouldn’t have to be a repeat of her cash-strapped undergraduate experience.

Trojans and T. Rex

Both UCLA and USC courted Formoso, but USC won her over in the end with its proximity to NHMLA’s world-class fossil collection and the USC Paleosciences Research Consortium, which includes researchers from across the university and museum. Her decision was also swayed by Michael Habib, a research associate at NHMLA. Habib regularly sent Formoso encouraging messages about USC through Twitter, where Formoso has an active presence and shares her paleontology memes.

Finding a fellow football fan in her advisor, David Bottjer, professor of Earth sciences and environmental studies and a season ticket holder to USC football games, has helped Formoso feel at home at Troy.

“We always have our weekly meetings where we talk science, we talk about my progress and then we almost always talk about college football,” says Formoso. “It’s really nice to have an advisor that I’m so compatible with and that I can be open with about my hobbies.”

She’s been fortunate to attend several games thanks to Bottjer.

Although NHMLA is full of treasures, Formoso looks forward to expanding the scope of her research once the world reopens after COVID-19. She has a grant lined up to visit five museums in Europe, and by the time she earns her Ph.D. hopes to tackle 16 museums in total, as she pieces together the evolutionary process from four-legs to fins.

Bottjer anticipates great work from Formoso.

“Kiersten is an exceptional student,” says Bottjer. “She’s one of the most creative graduate students that we have had here in paleontology, and that shows in her research, which addresses large and significant evolutionary questions.”

Her scientific creativity has expanded recently to a new gig consulting on a major creative project. She can’t share details yet, but one can probably guess it’ll involve lots of dinosaurs.