Pursuing a Passion
Posted July 24, 2012
According to rising senior Erin Patrick ’13, she never really outgrew her youthful love of dinosaurs. Her passion for that subject is a big reason why she spent part of her summer vacation attending “Stones and Bones: A Practicum in Paleontology” at the University of Chicago from June 16-July 13.
The program allowed Erin and other students to learn about many different facets of paleontology and see first-hand the inner workings of a museum and how various collections are used for scientific research. Erin and her colleagues also had the opportunity to work in the field, including digging and finding fossils, and learn about the preparation process.
“We were digging up fossil fishes, which are the main focus of study for Dr. Lance Grande (Curator of the Geology Department of the Field Museum),” said Erin, who also completed a paleobiology course through Center for Talented Youth (John Hopkins University) in 2010. “His work encompasses studying fossil fishes in comparison to living ones and he also studies the fishes in relation to their ancient environment. This means that our finds actually help real scientists make real discoveries.”
During the program, Erin worked in the Field Museum and the Fossil Butte National Monument near Kemmerer, Wyoming.
“We learned some basics of paleontology during the first week of the program, much of which I had already learned through GA,” Erin said. “We learned about the roles of different members of a museum and the heads of the different collections told us all about their areas of study.
“The Butte was once part of the Green River Formation, which consisted of three lakes about 52 million years ago,” Erin said. “We were digging in what used to be Fossil Lake, which was the shortest lived, but deepest of the three lakes.
“While we were out in the field, we learned how to break the rock (limestone, which is sedimentary) apart based on the layers it already exists in,” Erin continued. “We used shims, which are long metal rectangles beveled on one end, to make cracks in the sides of very large slabs of rock. Once the crack was formed on the exposed edges of the slab, we used shovels to try and peel the layers apart in large sheets. This didn't always work, but large sheets are preferable because there is less chance of breaking a large or well-preserved find. On one of our final days in the field, every student chose one fish out of a collected group to prepare when we returned to the Field Museum. Back in the preparation lab, we learned how to uncover our fish using a microscope and pin vise, making sure to remove rock and not damage the fossil.”
Erin says she plans to study Geology in college and will look to study paleontology in graduate school if her “interests don’t shift much.”
“I really enjoy paleontology and have ever since I learned what a dinosaur was,” said Erin, who noted that ‘Jurassic Park’ is one of her favorite movies. “I don't have one particular reason, but I'm mostly interested in dinosaur paleontology at this point. Just the fact that something so large and alien looking could have roamed the earth in so many different varieties fascinates me. I want to dig them up and then understand how they lived during their time on the planet.”
At GA, Erin said she has studied certain topics related to paleontology in Middle School and Upper School Science classes.
“Paleontology combines parts of Biology, Chemistry and Physics so sometimes we're learning about paleontology, but most don't even realize it,” she said.