Matthew Carrano, Curator of Dinosauria at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History poses for a portrait near a cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Matt Carrano was in second grade when he noticed his friend reading a book that looked interesting. It was about dinosaurs, and Carrano was so curious that he started reading over his friends’ shoulder.

“I was hooked,” Carrano said recently, standing in the basement of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, where he was surrounded by big tables of fossils waiting to be chipped out of the rocks, where they have been embedded for millions of years. “[Dinosaurs] are so fun. They’re so amazing, and they’re totally real.”

Today Carrano is a paleontologist, a scientist who studies ancient life, and he’s in charge of the dinosaur exhibit at the museum.

Pieces of a bigger puzzle

The dinosaur exhibit doesn’t change much from year to year. That might make you wonder: What does Carrano do all day?

A big part of his job is research and studying whatever he wants to, and then writing about what he finds.

Currano got hooked on dinosaurs early in life. (Family Photo)

“Your own curiosity drives what you do,” he said. “And you have the freedom to . . . try to find something new about dinosaurs and make it known.”

Every summer, Carrano, who is 41, travels to Wyoming or Montana to search for fossils. That sounds pretty cool, huh? But it’s hard work, too. Carrano spends hours on his hands and knees digging through the dirt. He brings whatever he finds back to the museum, labels it and puts it away with other fossils that are filed in thousands of large museum drawers. One recent summer, he found baby dinosaur bones that were about 150 million years old! Carrano will save them. Even if he never uses them, they might be important for another scientist’s work.

“The little thing is never the key,” Carrano said. “It is [working on] the little stuff until you answer the big thing.”

Research is like a big puzzle. Each scientist may not be able to see the big picture in the puzzle, but he or she can add pieces to it. The more pieces that are added, the more clear the picture becomes. That’s why the museum keeps fossils. Who knows when a scientist will come in search of the final piece of a puzzle and find it in a drawer at the museum?

Ask the right question

One of the puzzles that Carrano is curious about has to do with a dinosaur called Coelophysis. (It sounds like see-low-FIE-siss.) Hundreds of their skeletons have been found piled on top of one another in the African country of Zimbabwe. Carrano wonders why they died this way. Were they social animals? Had they stopped to eat? Why did they all die so suddenly?

“For us,” Carrano said, “it may be a clue to the behavior of the dinosaur.”

Last summer, Carrano traveled to Zimbabwe, stood at the foot of a cliff and chiseled at the rock where the Coelophysis lay, trying to figure out how the animals were arranged. Maybe, Carrano said, that would be a piece of the puzzle.

Carrano’s long-term goal is to figure out how many species of dinosaurs existed. There are so many more than the T. rex, which Carrano said is too popular. Scientists have named about 1,500 species, but Carrano thinks that there are 10,000 to 12,000 dinosaur species that lived over the course of 160 million years!

“The real trick in science is figuring out how to ask the right question the right way,” he said. “Science is not about technique and methods. It’s all about asking the right question.”

How do you do what Carrano does?

If you want to be a paleontologist, you need to like science, being outdoors, reading thick books and getting your hands dirty.

You also have to have a good eye, not only so you can find fossils, but also so you can envision what an animal looked like by looking at a fossil. (Carrano said a lot of paleontologists like to draw.) You have to go to school, and a lot of it! After four years of college, Carrano went to six more years of school.

And you must love dinosaurs.

Only about 50 people in the United States do what Carrano does. “It’s because we love it that we do it,” he said in his quiet office, where a dinosaur mobile hangs over his desk.

What began as an obsession as a kid is now his life’s work. Maybe the same will be said about you in 20 years.

— Moira E. McLaughlin