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August 8, 2014

Virginia Museum of Natural History Curator of Paleontology Dr. Alton "Butch" Dooley, Jr. has accepted the position of executive director at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Dooley, who also serves as adjunct assistant professor of geology at Virginia Tech and a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, will remain at VMNH through August 31.

DooleyDr. Dooley began his relationship with the Virginia Museum of Natural History 25 years ago as an intern from 1989 through 1992. He was later hired as a lab manager from 1999 through 2005. In April 2005, Dooley was promoted to the position of assistant curator of paleontology and received the title of curator of paleontology in February 2014.

Dooley’s impact on the museum’s scientific research program has been significant. He is credited with raising over one quarter of a million dollars for various research projects, has 18 published peer reviewed scientific papers, and is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Miocene Epoch (23 million years to 5 million years ago).

"Dr. Dooley's contributions to VMNH, and science in general, cannot be overstated," said Dr. Mark Crabtree, Treasurer of the Virginia Museum of Natural History's Board of Trustees. "From discovering and naming new species to leading excavations of some of the world's most important fossil sites, he has brought national and international exposure to the museum's scientific research programs, shedding light on the world-class research being conducted by the museum on a daily basis."

During his time at VMNH, Dooley led a multitude of field excavations from Virginia to Wyoming to Peru and spent the majority of his field work at the Carmel Church Quarry in Caroline County, Virginia, largely considered the richest fossil deposit in the United States east of the Mississippi River. It was here that Dooley and his researchers discovered the fossils of “Caroline”, a previously unknown species of whale that Dooley named Eobalaenoptera harrisoni.

“It was the first new species I ever named; the first whale I excavated,” said Dooley. “My proudest moment at the museum was when RCI (an exhibit fabrication company located in Toronto, Ontario) showed up to the museum with a cast of the fossils and I helped hoist it to the ceiling.”

The cast of the 14 million-year-old, 30 foot-long, baleen whale currently hangs from the ceiling of the museum’s Hall of Ancient Life and remains one of the most recognized displays inside the museum’s exhibit galleries. The original fossils remain in the museum’s state-of-the-art collections storage facilities.

Dooley is quick to remark that it’s not just his Carmel Church findings, but the entire museum’s paleontology collections, which range from fossil plants and insects to Triceretops, that will be difficult to leave behind.

“I had a hand in building a lot of this collection,” said Dooley. “We discovered the Eobalaenoptera before I met my wife. This collection will be hard to leave behind, but it will be left in great shape and ready for the next person to take over.”

Dooley also notes that while he will be working across the country, he will still have ties to VMNH and the collections he helped build.

“There are a lot of unfinished projects, as well as scientific papers and collaborations that I hope will lead to a continued strong relationship with VMNH for years to come,” Dooley said.

The museum’s director of research and collections also hopes to maintain an ongoing relationship between the museum and Dr. Dooley.

Although we are very sad to see him go and we will miss him greatly, this is a fantastic opportunity for Dr. Dooley,” said Dr. Jim Beard, director of research and collections at VMNH.

“The chance to head up his own museum is an offer that he just couldn’t refuse. I think this is testament to the high quality of the VMNH staff in general and the curatorial staff in particular. We wish Butch and Brett (Dr. Dooley’s wife) all the best and look forward to many return visits to Martinsville. They will always be welcomed here.”

Dooley believes his years of research in the lab, conducting field work, and his wide range of administrative responsibilities will allow him to provide valuable leadership as executive director of the Western Science Center.

“There are a lot of exciting possibilities in regards to integrating collections, education, research and outreach,” said Dooley. “It’s important to me to make sure people realize why they should care about science.”

Dooley earned a Ph.D. in Geology from Louisiana State University in 1998 and B.A. in Geology from Carelton College in 1991. He has previously served as an adjunct assistant professor of geology at Radford University, an instructor of Geology at Ferrum College and Virginia Western Community College, an instructor in the department of Geology and Geophysics at Louisiana State University, a lab assistant in the department of geology at Carleton College, as well as planetarium operator at the Science Museum of Western Virginia. Dooley has also been published in a variety of scientific publications and journals.

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