I just got back from a whirlwind trip to the University of Iowa to do research in their paleontology repository. This collection is very interesting because it is a massive fossil collection that is actually housed in a geology department rather than a museum. That might seem weird to you, but it was a really nice environment to do research in. Their collections manager, Tiffany, has a small army of undergraduate students that are working with her to help maintain the collections, so the repository has a really nice homey feel to it. Museum work can be a little lonely at times (often you are the only person working in a small room surrounded by fossils), so having Tiffany and her undergrads pop in from time to time to chat was a nice break from research.
So, just what do paleontologists do when they go to a museum to do research? Well, the simple answer is: we look at fossils. For any project that we are working on, seeing as many individual fossils of the same species or even same group gives us a better idea of what is “normal” for that organism. Your research question(s) will determine what in particular you are looking for or paying attention to on each fossil. So for my group that I’m working on, paracrinoids, I’m paying a lot of attention to details around the mouth, differences in plate shape (the plates that make up the body of the animal), and if there is any organization to their plating. This involves a lot of close up work with a microscope to look at these features and careful note taking about what I’m seeing. The data that I collect at museums has to be detailed so that when I get back to my university I can recall specimens and use that data in my analyses. Sometimes if we are lucky, we get to take some specimens back to our universities to keep working on them, but more often we just have our notes and photos to go off of. So our time and work at the museums is invaluable!
Research weeks at museums are really long, but the time flies by! You are hyper-focused on your research and your fossils. Even when you are not at the museum working, you are in your hotel catching up on the work that you are missing at home. Between looking at the specimens, taking notes, taking pictures, and trying to find patterns in what you are looking at, the days just fly by. But, I always like to save a little time for myself to wander around the exhibits and look at other specimens in the collection because you are surrounded by wonderful fossils! But for as long and hard as a week researching at a museum can be, the trips are always fun and you come away having learned a lot!