The bone collector: welcome Dr Mike Dickison to RealScientists

Hello, internet. Do you like things? What about stuff? We at RealScientists are particular fans of things, and stuff, particularly really, really old things like fossil bones. Museums of natural history, in which really, really old things are oft kept, are among our favouritest things and/or stuff in the world. It follows, then, that curators of museums of natural history are some of our favouritest people to hear from on the account. Cue our next curator, Dr Mike Dickison.


Mike Dickison was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, and after working as a science communicator at the National Museum of NZ (now Te Papa) he taught IT skills, desktop publishing, and eventually design and typography at Whitireia Polytechnic. He went back to graduate school at Victoria University of Wellington to work on fossil tuatara, and did his PhD at Duke University in North Carolina on the scaling of giant flightless bird bones. Returning to NZ, he worked as an information designer with other scientists, improving visual display of data, and at the University of Canterbury, assisting postgraduates with science writing, presentation, and academic skills. He also wrote a book on how to play the ukulele. Since November, Mike has been Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum, working on moving the moa collection into visible storage and on various online projects including 3D scanning of bones.

We asked him a series of questions because we are nosey like that.

1. You don’t have a strictly science background, what made you think of it as a second career choice?

I was a natural history buff ever since I was a little boy, with a supportive dad who built display cases for my shells and bones. I remember in my first job being impressed by a Curator of Birds who could pick up a random bone and tell you what species it was (a trick I still can’t do). When I was teaching at Polytech, I had a sudden vision of demonstrating Microsoft Word formatting tips for the rest of my life, and decided to go back to school and get my PhD so I could work on bird bones again.

2. What is it about moas that gets you?

As a child, I thought NZ didn’t have dinosaurs (since proved wrong), so some of my fascination with big extinct things was turned towards moa. A kid in NZ that’s interested in natural history is by default interested in birds (since we’ve almost no native mammals), and the coolest birds are giant, flightless, extinct, or all three.

3. Tell us more about the design and communication work – how do you interpret the work? How do you assess the material and translate it into visual displays? It will be interesting as a few of the coordinators of this account will be at the Australian Science Communicator’s Conference this week.

Work on data presentation with scientists is not about making cool-looking multicoloured visualisations on the computer; it’s mostly a matter of sitting down with pencil and paper to sketch out alternative approaches with them. A lot of scientists are not used to thinking visually, because they’ve only been rewarded for working with words and numbers their whole career. When I do design workshops a lot of it is just getting people used to sketching solutions before they turn on a computer, and much of the design is done in Illustrator rather than a stats package. I’ve blogged some examples at and am working on a book project, to be called Pictures Of Numbers, with a university press. Terrible terrible infographics are really fashionable at the moment, and I’m worried some of that bad design will start seeping into scientific visualisation.

4. OK, you HAVE to tell us about the ukelele book…

As a distraction from grad school in the US I taught myself to play ukulele, and when I got back to NZ was shocked to find there was no ukulele tutorial book for Kiwis—they were all Australian. I was complaining to an editor and he suggested I write one; so I did (Kiwi Ukulele, AUT Media, 2008). Although there are now better books on the market—and lots of great websites—I was proud of this one because I illustrated it myself, designed all the graphics, and even did the page layout. Until I left Christchurch I was playing ukulele in a small cover band called the Broken Bear Club.

5. Any other hobbies/interests etc?

I taught myself to knit a few years ago, and recently ran some workshops for other guys who wanted to learn to knit. That’ll be another book one of these days—Knitting for Blokes. I’ve been trying to learn to draw better—I can draw bones OK, but landscapes and people are trickier! And at some point this year I’d like to learn linocut printing, and weaving with harakeke—NZ flax.


‘Expert to sort out moa bone stash’ (Wanganui Chronicle, 1 Feb 2014)

As a special bonus this week, on top of Mike’s mentioned above, Upulie and Sarah from our team are on a wine-soaked junket dutifully and studiously attentive at the Australian Science Communicators’ Conference in Brisbane this week, so you may see the odd Admin tweet or retweet from them. If you’re interested, follow along on the #asc14 hashtag. If you’re in town, join Upulie, Sarah and some of our curators for a drink.

In the meantime, please join us in welcoming Mike to RealScientists!


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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