[Above: Meg O’Connor, and Julie Rousseau prepare a theropod track for transport at a site along the Yukon River. Photo by Kevin May]
Meg O’Connor is a senior at Williams College, a small liberal arts school in Williamstown, Massachusetts where she is studying geosciences and philosophy. She spent the summer volunteering in the museum’s earth sciences department. She was on the Yukon River expedition that netted a new discovery in Alaska of thousands of dinosaur tracks.
How did you get involved with this field work? I love traveling and new experiences, so when I was looking for something to do the summer after my junior year, I decided it would be great to work at a museum in a new place for a few months. When I saw that Earth Science Curator Pat Druckenmiller works with arctic dinosaurs, I was hooked! I told Pat that I was interested in volunteering in the lab but also gaining some field experience, and he gave me the opportunity to do both.
What were you expecting from this trip? How surprised were you by the success? Since I had never had the opportunity to work in the field before and I am not from Alaska, I’m not sure I had any fleshed-out sense of what to expect in terms of discoveries on the trip. Personally, I was expecting an adventure and a learning experience, and I knew that the main goal of the trip was to scope out a new area, but I didn’t have my heart set on seeing much. So it was incredibly exciting to find beaches teeming with tracks.
Can you describe finding fossils along the Yukon River? Was it difficult to spot a good specimen? As we walked along each beach, we would flip over rocks that looked like they could contain tracks. There were certain things that clued us in, such as the rock-type, texture, and layering in the rock. Some of the prints were very clearly tracks; you could see the toes and shape of the foot. Others really just looked like “blobs,” and it was harder to tell if the rock even contained a print. I was excited to learn how to differentiate prints from non-prints, but I was proud of the specimens that I found that were “museum quality” and could be brought back and possibly displayed in the future.
What is it like working with a museum crew, where the science and data are just a part of the project? I had an amazing experience working with the team this summer. I was thrilled to have an experience to learn from experts in this field, but also to become close with others in the lab and on the trip. The field work was a lot of fun and in addition to the work we did, we laughed a lot and really got to know each other. It’s a really incredible feeling to know that you are contributing to something both timeless and important to our understanding of earth’s history.
Are you interested in a career in earth sciences? Earth sciences is one of my major areas of interest as I start my career search. I had a great experience working at the museum this summer. I would enjoy doing similar work in the future.