Winton dinosaur expert Dr Stephen Poropat hopes to promote understanding of Australian dinosaurs

Dr Stephen Poropat with five back vertebrae from the new species of dinosaur, Savannasarus elliottorum. Photo: Judy Elliott
Dr Stephen Poropat with five back vertebrae from the new species of dinosaur, Savannasarus elliottorum. Photo: Judy Elliott

Not so long ago, he was underemployed, but dinosaur expert Dr Stephen Poropat knew how to solve the problem.

"I went to Sweden for three years, just so I could be employed as a palaeontologist," the 33-year-old says.

Now Dr Poropat doubles as a Swinburne University of Technology postdoctoral fellow and researcher at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Natural History Museum, in Winton, Queensland.

In October last year, he announced the discovery of a new kind of dinosaur: a Cretaceous creature named Savannasaurus elliottorum. Savannasaurus had stumpy legs, which it needed to hold its solid frame and wide girth. Its hips alone were 1.5 metres wide.

Paid between $75,000 and $100,000 a year, Dr Poropat feels fortunate because, among five palaeontology doctorate students, just one may be hired – likely through going overseas as he was between 2011 and 2014, at the aptly ancient Swedish institution, Uppsala University.

Dr Poropat ascribes his rise to hard work, connections and luck.

"It is honestly the people you know and being in the right place at the right time ... it's a perfect storm of things because you know that the simple fact is that in palaeontology there are always going to be more people interested and wanting positions than there are positions available," he says, also stating that because his field is historical rather than experimental, money is tight.

It's a big task discovering a new species of dinosaur. Photo: David Elliott

It's a big task discovering a new species of dinosaur. Photo: David Elliott

Day-to-day, a key skill is the ability to recognise areas that host rocks likely to generate fossils.

"So, in essence it's pretty simple," Dr Poropat says. "If you can read geological maps that have been done before or you can find fossils that tell you the age of a rock, you might be able to work out OK, this rock is Cretaceous. Therefore, it's likely to preserve fossils from the age of dinosaurs."

Plus, he says, the rock needs to be sedimentary – made from material that sinks to the bottom of a liquid. Finding the right rocks is key and a grasp of skeletal anatomy counts, too.

"And, essentially, if you have one or two bones from any given type of dinosaur, you can more often than not work out a general ballpark – where it sits on a dinosaur family tree," he says, citing stegosaurs and sauropods.

He was raised in Box Hill, Melbourne, by his social worker father and optometrist mother.

His childhood ambition was to be a palaeontologist and artist or a train driver.

Palaeontology won with some help from family friends who gave him a book on dinosaurs. His parents, grandparents and other family members nurtured his interest. "And, for whatever reason, my passion for palaeontology has never diminished."

During high school, he did work experience at Monash Science Centre and met palaeontologist Lesley Kool and geoscientist Patricia Vickers-Rich.

"Both have been huge influences on me."

Next, he enrolled at Monash University and did a bachelor's degree in arts and science and attended Dinosaur Dreaming digs co-ordinated by Kool.

He completed his honours year at Monash in 2007, and finished his doctorate at Monash in 2011 then worked at Uppsala University from 2011 to 2014, and lived in Brisbane for two years before moving to Melbourne.

When it comes to handling stress, Dr Poropat reckons he does pretty well.

"I just try to line all my ducks up at the start of a day and try and knock as many of them off as I can."

If stress still arises when he is writing grant proposals or papers, for relaxation he plays music. "Honestly, it tends to be rock music," he says, adding that sometimes he listens to the classical kind – any that speaks to him.

But rock is his thing. "Ever since Chris Cornell died I've been listening to a lot of Soundgarden – reliving my youth, I guess," he says, adding that he tunes into the music station, triple J.

"That sort of stuff." He is driven by an urge to promote understanding of Australian dinosaurs. Already, knowledge has progressed in leaps and bounds, he says.

"And I guess I just want to show people that the best dinosaurs in the world might not necessarily be the ones that are overseas. They might be under our own feet in this country.

"And the only way we're ever going to establish that is if we keep digging, keep searching, keep going through specimens that have already been collected – maybe find new things out about them and, yeah, just keep trying to find more. So, yeah, understanding the past – that's the key, and giving it to the public in the present."

This story first appeared on Brisbane Times.