When Katja Knoll ’15 M.S. made the decision to switch careers from filmmaking to paleontology, she knew it wouldn’t be easy. With the mentorship of Brooklyn College Earth And Environmental Sciences Professor John Chamberlain, she made the move, and today she is part of a team that is spearheading new discoveries that challenge our ideas about the lives of prehistoric animals.

It’s a long way from the Brooklyn College campus to the lakes of the Catskills Mountains, but Katja Knoll traveled great distances to reach New York City. And she’s gone a long way since spending hours knee-deep in those waters doing research. Knoll is now the manager for the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Paleontology lab in Kanab, Utah. Her journey began after she left Germany for the United States, where she pursued a career in filmmaking at Hunter College in Manhattan. She later made a crucial pivot at Brooklyn College under the mentorship of Professor Chamberlain, deputy chair of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department. And in a few short years in Utah, she has participated in groundbreaking discoveries that challenge our notions about ancient life on earth.

“Changing my career and taking a chance despite all the hardships this would, and did, entail was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life,” says Knoll of her unusual career trajectory.
Knoll, who was born and raised in Berlin, initially pursued a career in documentary filmmaking. Still, her recreational reading had grounded her for pursuits in science. “Richard Fortey and Stephen Jay Gould inspired my initial interest in paleontology,” she says.

“Both wrote popular books about life and evolution, and their interconnectivity with the ever-changing earth. I think these scientists address life’s big questions, but it is clear that we still really know so little. I was still living in Germany, and to improve my English language skills, I read the original version of Wonderful Life by Gould; it holds a particularly special spot in my heart.“

Her involvement in the film industry further nurtured her interests in paleontology. She was an intern at a production company that made documentaries for NOVA ScienceNow when she decided that rather than document scientific discovery, she’d like to make some of her own. Knoll was acquainted with the CUNY academic environment as she had just finished her first semester in the Hunter College Integrated Media Arts graduate program. Luckily for her, one of the few paleontologists in the New York City area, John Chamberlain, was well-positioned to help her on her quest.

“Katja walked into my office at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan about ten years ago and said that she wanted to get a Ph.D. in paleontology,” says Chamberlain, who was then the deputy executive officer of the PH.D. program in Earth and Environmental Sciences at CUNY. “She indicated she had a B.A. in film studies and no real college-level background in paleo, or science in general.” Yet he sensed that this was no lark on her part.

“She had an enthusiasm one rarely sees in students, and she had an excellent science and math preparation from her high-school work in Germany, so as a first step, I took her on as a master of science student.” It was a pivotal decision. “It quickly became clear that she was exceptional—one of the best students I have seen in 40 plus years of teaching.”

It was Knoll’s thesis project that provided a different sort of immersion in the Catskills. Chamberlain explains, “she did an outstanding M.S. thesis on Pyganodon cataracta, a local, modern freshwater clam, and how its behavior can be used to interpret the behavior of its ancestor, Archanodon catskillensis. The oldest known freshwater bivalve, Archanodon catskillensis, is known primarily from fossil traces found in the 390-million-year-old Devonian rocks of the Catskill Mountains.” Knoll’s research was arduous. She spent months in cold water up to her elbows collecting clams and then using time-lapse photography in a controlled laboratory setting to evaluate their burrowing capacity in different types of sediment.

Knoll explains the motive of this exhaustive endeavor. “Professor Chamberlain introduced me to some interesting structures in regional rock units that date to the latter part of the Devonian Period. The Devonian is an important chapter in earth’s history and marks the colonization of land by vertebrate animals and large complex vascular plants.”

Her thesis was published, but before Knoll could continue to post-graduate work, her path took another turn. In the summer of 2014, she won an internship at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, one of the most fertile sites for paleontological research. Knoll says, “it has become one of the most important resources regarding terrestrial vertebrates during the latter part of the age of the dinosaurs. Every year, paleo workers researching in this area uncover animals that are entirely new to science. Our understanding of the paleo ecosystem during the Cretaceous Period [a 79 million-year era that begins with the end of the Jurassic era 145 million years ago] in the southern part of what is now North America is constantly evolving with every discovery,” she adds. A few months after her internship, she was hired on a full-time basis.

Her supervisor, Monument Paleontologist Alan Titus, found a tyrannosaur mass mortality site during the summer of Knoll’s internship in 2014. It is so far one of three such sites located in North America and the only one known in the southern part of the continent. Titus, Knoll, and the team have devoted substantial time and energy excavating this large-scale bone bed, and have found multiple tyrannosaurs of different growth stages, including a yearling, a juvenile, a subadult, and an adult. Says Knoll, “there is a host of geological clues that indicate that they all died in the same event, which suggests that they lived in a social group.” These findings also hint at a sophisticated level of adult care and supervision of juveniles among tyrannosaurs, and substantially counter the longstanding and prevalent notion that Tyrannosaurus rex and its ancestors were predatory loners. Mainly, they were family-oriented.

In many ways, Knoll’s current work is a long way both from her filmmaking days of a decade ago, and her work in the Catskills. She credits Professor Chamberlain with the guidance that took her life in a completely different direction, not just to get her into the field of paleontology but to progress as far as she has.

“He frequently had to remind me to stay focused on answering only one or two big questions,” she says. “If it weren’t for him, I’d probably still be collecting clams and conducting experiments.”