[Above: (From left) Katherine Anderson, Meg O’Connor, and Julie Rousseau wrap aluminum foil around tracks for safe transport back to the museum. Pat Druckenmiller is assigning field numbers and recording field notes about the fossils. Photo by Roger Topp]
Katherine Anderson is a PhD student in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at UAF specializing in vertebrate paleontology. She plans to pursue a career as a professor of vertebrate paleontology, teaching at a university and conducting research.
1) How did you get involved with this field work?
The Yukon River trip during the summer of 2013 was already in discussion when I first arrived at UAF. My advisor, Earth Science Curator Pat Druckenmiller, asked me to be a part of the Yukon River field work. I was excited to be involved.
2) What were you expecting from this trip? How surprised were you by the success?
I flew into Ruby with the other students, and that was an adventure in itself. I had never flown in such a small aircraft. While I was expecting to be “off the grid” for the duration of my time in the field, Alaska fieldwork is unlike any other type of fieldwork I have done. In terms of the number of tracks we were going to find, I didn’t have a solid idea, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the amount of success we had—The sheer number of fossil tracks we found blew me away.
3) Can you describe finding fossils along the Yukon River? Was there a particular find you were proud of?
In 2012, museum staffers Kevin May and Steve Bouta scouted the area and found a number of amazing tracks; however, they didn’t have the permits to collect at that point. We had their GPS coordinates and were particularly interested in relocating a large, complete theropod track, but the coordinates weren’t very precise.
Meghan Shay and I took on the task of trying to relocate the large block on a stretch of beach. We compared probably close to 15 boulders to a picture, but none had the track we were looking for. At this point, we were close to giving up and moving on, but Meghan picked out a boulder that was half buried in sediment and had sloughed off the upper bank that she wanted to turn over. I started to take off the dirt and debris when I felt a very distinct toe-shape—it was the track we had been looking for. It had likely fallen down the slope. We were very lucky to have been able to relocate such an amazing fossil. It even preserves a claw mark on one of the toes.
4) What is it like working with a museum crew, where the science and data are just a part of the project?
I pursued field-based science in part because it has this component of stepping outside of the everyday experience of sitting at a desk or in a lab. It requires pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, but the end result is being able to make observations in the natural environment, and it gives you a much broader understanding of the data collected when you return to your desk. For me, that is one of the most powerful parts of science. And for someone who enjoys the outdoors, it doesn’t get much better than field-based science.