Interning at a Paleontology Lab

Haley here –

A Busycon coactatum, or Turnip Whelk, specimen.

I recently started interning with Dr. Sarah Sheffield (one of Time Scavenger’s collaborators and USF professor) at the University of South Florida (USF)! As a high school senior, this has been an extremely influential experience to me. With Dr. Sheffield, I have been learning how to catalog fossils, and I have been slowly (but surely!) entering the USF collections to an online database (MyFossil). Along with learning how to photograph and catalog fossils, I have been able to learn about graduate and undergraduate research, sit in on a college level course, learn about fossil identification and photography (1), and meet some amazing people.

I was able to have this internship experience through a class called Executive Internship that is offered to seniors at the high school I attend. This class spends the first nine weeks teaching career skills like writing a resume and cover letter, interview etiquette, and effective communication. Throughout the first nine weeks, we are encouraged to research various career paths that interest us and speak with people working in those careers. By the end of the nine weeks, we are expected to have secured an internship. The school partners with various businesses (such as the Florida Aquarium) in order to ensure that students have options. Some students use these connections, while others choose to intern with businesses they have been to before or reach out to family and friends for suggestions. Others -like myself- email everyone they can think of to see what they would think about having a high school intern. I was fortunate enough that one of the people I reached out to suggested that I speak with Dr. Sheffield, and I was even more fortunate that Dr. Sheffield found a project that she wanted to start and was willing to allow me to help. After everyone has secured an internship and we have completed the first nine weeks of class, all of the interns are given permission to sign out of school instead of attending Executive Internship class. In exchange for essentially leaving a class before school ends, all of the interns are required to record an average of five hours per week in our internship and complete a weekly log. Other than the hour requirement and log, internship schedules and tasks vary for each student.

I can not say when I first became interested in paleontology and geology, but this internship experience has only helped my interest grow. When trying to explain why I wanted to study those fields, my mom helpfully explained that I had “always been a rock girl” which sums it up pretty well. From family trips to North Carolina when I was in elementary school, I became fascinated by the variety of gems and minerals you could find. As I took more science classes, I learned about crystal structures and how various formations occur. In a public speaking class, I was able to pick any topic I wanted and ended up falling into a rabbit hole of the history and changes of paleo-illustration. I think part of what draws me to these fields is how seamlessly they integrate with so many other fields. From chemistry and biology, to history or art, there are so many aspects of paleontology and geology that can combine with other fields. In any case, there is always something new to learn and something to dig deeper into that can reveal so much. This is only highlighted by my experience sitting in on Dr. Sheffield’s class. The class addresses the evolution of life on Earth, but reaches implications of what we truly define as Homo sapiens, the history of paleontology in the United States, biomechanics (how organisms move), and much more.

Bryozoan encrusting on a Busycon carica (Knobbed Whelk) specimen.

When I started my internship, I was unsure what to expect. I am a high schooler, and I was going to be working with a college professor to begin a new project. I was excited to learn, but I can say that I definitely did not expect to come home and tell my parents that I wished there were more Anadara (2) specimens because they were the most fun to photograph. I learned the conventional lighting angles to use for fossil photography, how to measure various shells, and the information needed to catalog fossils. Properly labeled fossils soon became a valued commodity after some specimens only had labels like “bivalve”, “east coast”, or “recent” specimens. To catalog the specimens, I have been using the MyFossil database. It is an extraordinary website that allows museums and researchers to share their specimens so that they are available world-wide. It is amazing to know that I can catalog a specimen and see it appear online next to a trilobite specimen from China and a shark tooth from California. MyFossil has an important feature that allows specimens with detailed information (classification, dimensions, geochronology, and locality) to be marked research grade. This allows MyFossil to function as both a free online museum and as a valuable tool to researchers.

Learning how to catalog fossils entails learning about fossils just from exposure. I have learned about the variety of features of shells and how they function for each species. In order to revise some entries to make them research grade, I have used a website called Macrostrat. By looking up geochronology based on lithostratigraphy or formation, I have begun to recognize the common  rock units of various sites in Florida. I have been able to learn more about fossil features by asking how to denote various characteristics like boring. A notable specimen of snail had a bryozoan encrusting (3). By cataloging fossils and asking about them as I do, I have learned much more than what I expected to learn from the cataloging labels.

This internship has been a great learning experience. I was admittedly unsure of what I wanted to do in college, other than the fact that I wanted to do something with geology and fossils. Interning has allowed me to learn, discuss projects with others, and see the sheer variety of research within the USF School of Geosciences. This, paired with everyone’s enthusiasm for their research, has helped me see the kind of environment that I want to be a part of. It has been an opportunity that has allowed me to gain a better understanding of the college experience, and it has allowed me to have hands-on research experience in the field that I love. I look forward to expanding what I have learned even more through the rest of my internship!

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