I can still remember the first time I walked into the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology Vertebrate Fossil Preparation Laboratory. I was 14 years old and it was during the last summer before my freshmen year in high school. I had been in love with paleontology ever since my father first took me to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History when I was 18 months old and my passion hadn’t wavered a day from that point on. Walking around the Fossil Prep Lab left me as starry-eyed as a kid in a candy store. Everywhere I looked were ancient rocks containing unknown stories, bones of bygone beasts and complex scientific tools. Interrupting my reverie, the Chief Preparator Dr. Bill Sanders stood up from his work bench and introduced himself. After showing me the basics of the lab, he gave me my first project: a vertebra of a bizarre, shovel-nosed, spiky, armored, plant-eating, crocodile-like animal from the Triassic period called Desmatosuchus. It was my responsibility to remove the 220 million year old sediments from the fragile fossil with a tool called an air scribe, (basically a pencil-sized jackhammer) without damaging the underlying bone. After weeks of slow, careful and sometimes tedious work, I had a pristine fossil to show for it and I was immediately hooked.
It’s been over a decade now that I’ve worked with Bill Sanders and the Fossil Prep Lab and it’s truly become a home away from home. Whenever classes at the U of M got stressful, I had arguments with friends or I just needed to feel productive, the Prep Lab and the people in it were always there. And productive I was. I learned countless techniques to free fossils from their stone tombs, recreate them with molds and casts and cradle them for years of storage and research to come. I’ve been able to work on everything from walking whales, to strange hoofed carnivorous mammals and of course the charismatic dinosaurs. Because of all I’ve learned and done at the UMMP Fossil Prep Lab, I’m able to start the next chapter of my life. On October 1 2018, I’ll be starting to work in my own lab as one of three preparators at the famous American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I can honestly say that there’s no way I would have been able to have this incredible opportunity without the guidance, instruction and support of the staff and students of the UMMP. I’d like to extend my heartfelt debt of gratitude to Bill Sanders who, over all these years, has become something of a second father to me.
While I am melancholy about leaving a place that’s done so much for me, I’m equally enthusiastic to be spreading my skills and passions cultivated at the University of Michigan to another institution. Maybe in the future I can return the favor and send one of my mentees back to Michigan.