Jack Horner’s passion for fossil hunting evolved into a career as an internationally renowned palaeontologist. He is the Regents Professor of Paleontology in the Honors College at Montana State University (MSU) and the curator of palaeontology at the Museum of the Rockies. Horner, who has been given honorary doctorates from MSU and Pennsylvania State University, also received a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant”. Having authored around eight books and nearly 150 professional papers and articles, Horner has been employed as an adviser on many television shows as well as for the Jurassic Park films.

Although Horner has had a very prolific career, the road to where he is now has been a rocky one. As a boy, he often played by himself and didn’t desire to join any of his classmates. School for Horner was “difficult because everybody called me dumb, but I knew very early on that I could do things other students couldn’t do.” Horner describes the rest of his grade school experiences as “extremely difficult because my progress in reading, writing, and mathematics was excruciatingly slow.” But as much as Horner struggled with reading and writing, he excelled at building things and creating science projects. Horner’s mother was influential in encouraging him to be involved with his science projects as a way to boost his confidence. This support led to Horner winning multiple awards for his different projects throughout high school. During his senior year, he made a project comparing the fossils of Montana with some specimens found in Canada, which received top honors at the state fair and played a key part in his enrollment at The University of Montana.

After flunking out of college he was drafted by the Marines during the Vietnam War. Two years later, he returned to the University of Montana, and with the support of an academic advisor who, he says, “believed I wasn’t lazy or retarded, and he wrote letters of support for my quarterly returns to school” was able to continue his college education even though he continued to do poorly in his classes. Once he believed that he was just as good as any other doctorate geologist, he left the University of Montana and abandoned his quest for a degree.

Even with his history of academic failure, Horner held onto his dreams. “My goal in life was simple: I wanted to be a dinosaur palaeontologist and make some kind of contribution to the field of palaeontology that would help our understanding of dinosaurs as living creatures. To accomplish this, I knew I needed a job in a museum, but I also realized that with my college grades and no degree, I might never get such a job.” Making ends meet by driving an 18-wheeler, he applied to work at “every museum in the English-speaking world,” however, only three gave him an offer: the Los Angeles County Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and Princeton University’s Natural History Museum. After choosing to continue his work at Princeton, he slowly climbed the ladder and found himself doing the research he had always wanted to be doing, albeit without the PhD title.

During his time at Princeton, Horner saw a poster offering to evaluate the learning abilities of people who had trouble reading and memorizing. He took the required test and was diagnosed with dyslexia.

“To this day,” he says, “I struggle with the effects of dyslexia. It takes me a long time to read things, but I take the time that’s required because if I try to move too quickly, I have no clue what I’m reading.” Horner prefers to leave the writing to co-authors while he does solid science himself because he still is not confident in his writing abilities. “I know what I can do and what I can’t do, and for the things I can’t do, I try to find someone to help. I think that’s really important, and it’s something I stress to people like me.“

Horner left Princeton for Montana and the world of teaching and curating in 1982. He teaches two graduate classes in palaeontology and two undergraduate honors courses at Montana State University. One of his courses is a freshman literature class in which students read assigned texts and interpret them using their imagination and different mediums. “I have them dance, sing, play music, however, they choose to do it,” says Horner, who sees the goal as encouraging students to approach literature in different ways, rather than the linear word-based one that he so much struggles with. “In effect, teaching them to think like a dyslexic. Most spatial thinkers,” he says, “are extremely visual, highly imaginative, and work in three dimensions, none of which have anything to do with time, while linear thinkers generally operate in a two-dimensional world where time is of the utmost importance. From the perspective of the linear thinkers, we spatial thinkers seem to ‘think outside the box,’ and this accounts for our accomplishments. We, spatial thinkers, have known failure our entire lives and have grown up without expectations, not from our teachers, often not from our parents, and sometimes not even from ourselves. We don’t meet the expectations of linear thinkers and are free to take risks. We are the people who most often follow our dreams, who think differently, spatially, inquisitively.”

“Personally,” says Horner, “I think dyslexia and the consequences of dyslexia — learning to deal with failure — explain my own success. From my failures, I’ve learned where I need help, such as in reading and math. But I’ve also learned from my accomplishments what I’m better at than the linear thinkers.” While both have learning talents and challenges, he believes dyslexia is “an extraordinary characteristic and not something that should be fixed, or cured, or suppressed.”