Job Shadow

Last Wednesday we had a guest at the Paleontology Research Laboratory. Taylor, a high-school sophomore, asked if she could tag along with me for a day in the life of a paleontologist. Not being the field season, I warned her that it may not be as glamorous as it could be; she still insisted. Taylor lives on a ranch and encounters fossils from the Cretaceous Pierre Shale quite regularly.  Thus began a wonderful day with a very bright and inquisitive young student. Taylor recounts some of her experience.  Additions, in [brackets] are mine…

“My name is Taylor Vavra, and I am a sophomore at Newell [SD] High School. On Wednesday, April 15th, I job shadowed Darrin Pagnac. It was VERY interesting to say the least. I showed up on campus not knowing exactly what was in store for me, but I had an idea I’d be spending my day with very, very, very old specimens (and no, I’m not talking about Dr. Pagnac!). After looking at some [Baculites] fossils I had brought, we started the day by going to work in collections, with a work study student, Rachel Jones (see post, Private Property).

While in the lab, we re-organized the collection of specimens, according to age and where the specimens were located, as well as what the specimens were [taxonomically]. Rachel, Darrin and I looked at two different spreadsheets that told us where specimens were [currently] found, and where they should be moved. We moved specimens for about 2 hours. The time flew by. We would look in different drawers and, while doing so, I would ask what something was, how old it was, where it came from and other things like that. By the time we had finished for the morning, I was able to recognize a few different specimens, like the mosasaur.

After [Dinosaurs] class (and lunch of course), we headed back down to the collections lab. There, we helped Matt Harrell, another work study student. He was putting different kinds of [specimen] information in the new computer system from the old system, which was very similar to an old library call card system. While Matt did his own thing, Darrin instructed me to take numerous pictures of a bone called a ‘type’ [at different focal lengths] (a type is the first of its kind to ever be documented); then we went to his office and used a software program that would compile the photos into one clear picture with every part in focus. It took 2 tries (Dr. Pagnac had done this maybe a half a dozen times prior) to get good pictures, but nonetheless, I had gotten enough to make a clear picture. He will use this picture in his research paper, which is a helpful contribution to his work, as well as help other paleontologists decide if what they found is the same [taxon] as this specimen. We also took inventory on what we had in different cabinets, in the older section, where most of the dinosaurs were found.

Vertebra, from the type of Dakotadon lakotensis, that Taylor was better able to photograph that the professional.
Ventral view of caudal vertebra, from the type of Dakotadon lakotensis, that Taylor was better able to photograph than the professionals.

All day, when Darrin introduced me to a number of people, he would tell them that he was “trying to make his day more exciting, as he doesn’t have very interesting things that he does.” On the contrary, I thought this day was purely awesome. I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I would hold a bone of an animal that once roamed the Earth 85-130 million years ago. I was holding a piece of history in my own hands. I was able to have free roam of the collection, look at and touch as many fossils as I wanted, and of course ask limitless questions. Given the chance, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes to spend another day with a paleontologist, and if you have even the slightest interest, don’t be afraid to go ask questions. I’m sure Dr. Pagnac would be more than happy to answer them!”

Taylor is far too kind. Thanks for the enthusiasm and the excellent post this week!

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