Tim’s life script takes a giant plot twist
For a dinosaur-obsessed boy who always wanted to be a doctor, life has certainly delivered – but not in quite the way he expected.
UQ PhD candidate Tim Richards has nearly finished his Doctor of Philosophy and he’s played the role of doctor several times on stage, but his current ‘practice’ involves repairing bones found in dirt rather than the human body.
Yes, this ‘dramatic dinosaur doctor’ is performing a role that many would cherish, chasing our paleo past from the vantage of the present.
“I’ve always had a great curiosity about why the world is like it is today,” Richards said.
“And with my research I’ve been able to discover some interesting facts that have shaped the planet. I really enjoy learning.”
But his path to this point has been decidedly non-traditional.
“When I didn’t get the marks to do medicine, I accepted a place in a science/psychology degree at the University of Newcastle because my late mother had been a psychiatric nurse and I thought I’d have a connection with her,” he said.
“Quite by chance, I enrolled in a drama subject instead of physics.
“I had been in the choir at school and had always loved acting the clown, so I thought it would be fun.”
He was right; however, the fun snowballed and acting took over his life. He began performing in numerous stage productions in both amateur productions and with the two professional companies in Newcastle at the time, Freewheels and the Hunter Valley Theatre Company. Needless to say, his studies suffered and eventually he withdrew from the degree.
Richards soon realised that if he wished to make a career of acting, he had to move to Sydney or Melbourne. So, when his girlfriend (now wife) Terri was accepted into the technical production course at NIDA, he decided to apply there too – and got in on first audition.
“NIDA was great, but very intense,” Richards said.
“We had the freedom to practise our art and spent 14 hours a day doing what we loved, being part of a very tight-knit cohort – living and breathing in each other’s pockets – putting on shows and learning from each other.
“Because Terri was in production and I was in acting, we knew nearly everyone at NIDA, making friends for life and so many industry contacts.
Straight after graduating from NIDA with a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Richards began working as an actor and acting tutor and, thanks to his ‘never give up’ attitude, had no need to resort to casual waiting jobs like so many of his peers. He felt he was on a ‘pretty good wicket’ here in Australia and the several months of ‘couch-surfing’ in Hollywood during pilot season never appealed to him.
“You can get noticed here,” he said.
Which he did – for the next 15 years – scoring stints in television soaps, advertisements, three or four stage shows a year and the occasional voiceover. Perhaps his most memorable jobs were performing on stage with Cate Blanchett AC and Joel Edgerton in A Streetcar Named Desire and appearing as Pumbaa in the two-year Sydney season of The Lion King.
“[The Lion King] was an incredible job,” Richards said.
“It brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw the full production and was well worth the 12-month audition process with its 10 call-backs from the American producers to get it.
“I got to sing and dance – all while wearing a 15-kilogram warthog puppet outfit – eight times a week, with 50 other unbelievable performers and had a ball. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is huge!’ and just loved it.
“Working on stage is the best; getting immediate feedback from the audience is very gratifying and does wonders for your confidence, whereas with film and TV you are more reliant on your instincts and feedback from the director.”
Although acting had not lost its appeal – apart from the “endless parade of castings” – the yearning for a more immediate ‘scholarly’ connection with an audience propelled Richards to move on to the next stage of his life.
He decided to become a scientist.
“This was not a decision I made lightly or quickly,” Richards said.
“I’d been thinking about it for many years before realising that I would love to become a science communicator, making documentaries and telling stories about what’s remarkable on Earth. The world has a fascinating history that I’m keen to share.
“When I looked at my bookcase at home, I noticed that half was made up of scripts and art history, and the other half was about dinosaurs. I’d loved dinosaurs as a kid and never lost that love – so palaeobiology (plus genetics) was an obvious choice of specialty.
He decided to complete an undergraduate science degree online while continuing working in Sydney and was lucky enough to find a suitable course at the University of New England. However, when he did Honours, he had to study on-campus at Armidale, which was quite a wrench for the family.
“It was hard for my wife to find employment in the arts in Armidale after being a production manager at Sydney Theatre Company and we knew we’d have to relocate to a larger city for my doctorate. Nevertheless, I’m glad of the opportunities from that year, where I worked on ‘strange plant-like animals’ from the Ediacaran Period 540 million years ago, under Professor John Paterson in the School of Earth Sciences.”
Richards also serendipitously managed to find the subject for his PhD thesis after presenting at the Paleo Down Under conference in South Australia.
“I met Dr Patrick Smith from Kronosaurus Korner, who alerted me to some pterosaur bones that had been found in nearby Richmond, and so I asked Dr Steve Salisbury, head of the UQ Dinosaur Lab, if he would supervise me in their analysis.
“He said yes, and four years later, here I am.”
‘Here’ is analysing and naming a new species of pterosaur, the Thapunngaka shawi, the largest discovered to date and one of only four flying reptiles ever found in Australia.
“This pterosaur – the first back-boned animal to take a stab at powered flight – would have been a fearsome beast, with its spear-like mouth and wingspan around seven metres, when it soared over Queensland’s inland Eromanga Sea during the dinosaur era,” Richards said.
Image: Tim Richards
“Having thin-walled and relatively hollow bones, it’s quite amazing these fossils exist at all, and I feel privileged to have added to the body of knowledge with my research.”
So where to now?
“I’d love to combine my love of acting with my love of dinosaurs and help spread the word about how and why life on Earth has changed over time, and how we can best protect it for the future. In the short-term, I’m looking for postdoctoral opportunities in Australia so that I can keep learning.
“I really enjoy life, despite the sacrifices I’ve had to make as a mature-age student in order to do what I’m doing. I’m having a ball!”