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Meet The Egyptian Paleontologist Behind the Mansourasaurus Discovery

[Exclusive] We sit with Sanaa' El Sayed as she talks paleontology, family restrictions and female empowerment.

In January, news of a remarkable discovery of the remains of an ancient Titanasour in Dakhla Oasis took Egypt and the world by storm. The skeleton of the long-necked herbivore, unearthed by a Mansoura University paleontology team, offers invaluable insight into largely obscure era of the world's history- some roughly 80 million years ago. The news made headlines around the world and the new species was dubbed the Mansourasaurus in recognition of the paleontology team behind the stunting discovery.Two and a half hours is how long it took us to get to Mansoura. There, in the Faculty of Science, we sat with Sanaa El Sayed, an Egyptian paleontologist and Vice President to the faculty's Vertebrate Paleontology Center, the first of its kind in Egypt. El Sayed was a leading member of the paleontology team that unearthed the Mansourasaurus. "The discovery is significant in so many ways. First of all, no one really knew how the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous looked like or behaved," explained El Sayed. "We were able to see the resemblance between the Mansourasaurus and other dinosaurs species which inhabited Europe, which proved that Africa and Europe were connected by land."

Upon her graduation in 2008, vertebrate paleontology was nonexistent in Egypt. Hesham Sallam, Egypt's first Phd holder in the field began recruiting and building up a team in 2010. Despite her family's reservations, El Sayed immediately hopped on board.  
"My family almost prohibited me from going on extended expeditions as they usually entail spending long days away from home," said El Sayed. "But when they realised how passionate I actually am about paleontology and that this is a message bigger than me, they started becoming a lot more supportive."

For five years, El Sayed and her team tirelessly scanned Egypt's Western desert for signs of ancient life. Their camping and excavation activities, more often than not, drew suspicion and skepticism from local tribes. They often found themselves having to prove that artifacts smuggling is not their profession.

"One time, a group of locals went into the site and messed around with some of the fossils we had collected, causing immense damage to them. This made us lose a discovery which could have been just as astonishing as the Mansourasaurus."Despite the massive achievement, paleontology remains a largely neglected scientific field in Egypt. "We are just getting started and we lack the resources to keep developing and moving forward," said El Sayed.

"For instance, we don't even have a 4X4 to drive into the desert; we'd just go with a regular car and if we get trapped in the sand, we'll just try to manage and unstuck it ourselves. That's what we lack, however when it comes to expertise and knowledge, we are currently building Egypt's first specialised vertebrate paleontology team, and I couldn't be prouder to be part of it," she concluded.

Originally published on El Fasla.

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