Becoming a Bearded Lady for Paleontology

My name is Ellen Currano. I’m the daughter of a math professor and a U Chicago alum. I hold a doctoral degree in geosciences and have been a professor for the last five years. All evidence to the contrary, I never have, and never will, consider myself an ivory tower academic, but I do take my career seriously. I’ve made big sacrifices to get where I am, and I am just beginning my dream job as a professor of paleontology at the University of Wyoming. My professional reputation matters to me, and being taken seriously in my chosen field is certainly not made any easier by my appearance. On a good day, I can pass for a graduate student. On a bad day, I get ID-ed at the bar.

Draper White filming Ellen’s every move. © Kelsey Vance

As a child, I had two primary life goals: to be a paleontologist at the University of Wyoming and to be different from my big sister. (Independent streaks apparently develop at an early age.) Outside the classroom, Judy pursued interests in music, theater, and art, so I focused on sports. To cut straight to the point, “The Bearded Lady Project” is WAY outside of my comfort zone. Grant proposals, scientific lectures, job interviews, rattlesnakes, half-marathons, American football. No problem. Have a film crew document my every move in the Wyoming desert, get photographed in a beard and mustache, sit for interviews, and convince my colleagues that they should also do this. Eek! I’d rather get into a tug of war with a large male baboon! (Yes, I have done that; it was terrifying; he won handily.)

But I’m tired of being able to count on one hand how many other women are in the room at various professional gatherings, of not seeing female scientists featured in the media, of being the only woman on a field crew, of fellow geoscientists telling me how much they appreciate their students interacting with a “successful female scientist like you.”

Lexi and Kelsey are dear friends, and I have seen firsthand their creativity, passion, toughness, and all-around ability to kick butt. So I threw caution to the wind, trusted in my friends, and let myself believe that what we are doing has the potential to be amazing. As a consequence, I wrote one of the most terrifying emails of my life: telling some scientific collaborators, most of whom I had never met in person, that a film crew would join us in the field and asking if they’d be willing to wear a beard to support women in science. They thought it sounded pretty cool, and Penny Higgins immediately volunteered to wear a beard. Phew! That task completed, I had one month to “relax.”

Virga over Hanna Basin. © Kelsey Vance

My nerves were ragged again on the first day of fieldwork. Would the scientists and film crew mesh? Would I be a good enough scientific spokesperson for “The Bearded Lady Project?” How should I act when the cameras were rolling? At first, the giant cameras seemed like they were everywhere and made me so self-conscious. But field clothes are field clothes, black dust flies everywhere when digging through shales in windy Wyoming, and there are no mirrors in the field. Plus, my new field site is pretty darned cool, so I forgot the cameras, became totally immersed in the science, and became the person I always am in the field. Well, not quite. For me, the Hanna Basin was just another set of badlands, and thanks to years of geological training, I often ignore the modern scenery to focus on what it looked like millions of years ago, when the rocks were being formed. For the film crew, who had never been to the Wyoming desert, the badlands were a beautiful, rugged, photogenic place, full of color and creative energy. Seeing it through their eyes, I experienced it again for the first time and remembered just how special this part of my job is.

Late in the afternoon of Day 2, it was time to get bearded. Just another crazy costume party, I told myself, and reminisced about some of my favorites. We headed to my vehicle to get out of the wind, I perched in the back seat, and as calmly as possible, I entrusted my face to Lexi and Kelsey, while doing my best to forget that Draper was filming us. Hold the beard up for a fitting, spirit gum on the face, hold beard in place to dry. While there are no mirrors in the field, there are iPhones. First the beard went on – so, that’s what I would look like as an Amish man. Must not laugh; beard might move. Then the mustache – thank goodness, no longer Amish! Now, off to be photographed.

Ellen sporting her mustache. © Lexi Marsh

We wandered past potty hill (exactly what you think it is) to a spot with both the right rock type for plant fossils and appropriate orientation with respect to the sun for photography. I settled into my designated pose and became so engrossed watching Kelsey work that my self-consciousness and discomfort wearing facial hair evaporated. I felt like I had been transported back a hundred years in time. Accordion-esque camera on three-legged tripod, sheets of film loaded into holders (some labeled Ansel!!!), Kelsey and camera back hidden under a black shirt. The only thing missing was a puff of smoke upon image capture. I wouldn’t get to see the prints for weeks, but just knowing that they would be black and white added to my sense of time travel.

Once shooting wrapped up, I got to show off my bearded self to the rest of the scientific crew, who were eating dinner. Laughter ensued. First the beard came off (relatively painlessly, except near the ears), giving me a chance to clown around mustached for a while (see trailer). If I were a man, I would totally grow that mustache. I really wish I’d asked to keep it –perfect for a Ron Burgundy or other 70’s era costume.

The other four women had their portraits done the evening before Lexi, Kelsey, and Draper left. We knew going in that Penny had volunteered, but it felt so good to hear Marieke, Kristi, and Jenna suddenly announce that they’d also be willing to be photographed, especially since Kristi had said on the first day that she was super camera shy. While my portrait had been a solitary affair, that night, the whole group avidly watched and acted as peanut gallery. Well, everyone except Penny’s two male students, who, for some reason, ended up minding the stew I had thrown together for us to eat after we finished. The camaraderie and energy surpassed my wildest expectations. I let myself breathe a giant sigh of relief and rekindled the dream that this crazy idea might be a game-changer. For me. For Kelsey and Lexi. And maybe, just maybe, for some little girls who dream of becoming a paleontologist when they grow up.