Paleontology Profiles: Sarah Boessenecker

L.A. Hikes: Wall Street Mill Trail at Joshua Tree National Park
Student Blog Post: Geological Society of America - Joey Hernandez

Paleontology Profiles: Sarah Boessenecker Really Digs Fossils

Hello, intrepid readers! This week I’d like to introduce a series of paleontology profiles, where I get the chance to sit down (um, in a comfy armchair, or virtually via the internet) with fellow paleontologists, all sorts of museum professionals, and collections folks. I want to hear about our daily inspirations, our passion for science, and our drive to educate in an experiential and hands-on sort of way.

I’m so super excited to welcome Sarah Boessenecker, the paleontology collections manager at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston, who was awesome enough to answer a few questions for us  here at Outbound Adventurer.

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Does that mean we got to geek out together about fossils? Heck yeah it did! I’m really looking forward to seeing Sarah’s work and the work of her guy, Bobby Boessenecker, as they continue their research in the world of vertebrate paleontology. They’re truly a paleontology family.

Here’s our interview – with author’s notes denoted as “A/N” – and with that, enjoy!

Hi Sarah, thanks for interviewing with us! Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your current job, and how did you become interested in paleontology?

Glad to be a part of this blog! I’m Sarah, and I grew up in Billings, Montana – dinosaur country! Growing up I loved the outdoors and playing in the dirt; I frequently went and dug in my mother’s garden with silverware, convinced I would one day find a dinosaur skeleton – while I was never fortunate enough back then to find an amazing discovery, I found plenty of regular old rocks, with which I promptly went into business selling in my front yard for $.25 a piece to my neighbors and pizza delivery men. I’m pretty sure they only humored me, as my house was on a gravel road, which is where the other half of my inventory came. I guess it’s hard to say no to a 7 year old…

(A/N: Not a bad way to start.)

As I got older, my interest in geology and the world around me grew, and I started reading more and watching all the programs I could find on the earth, its history, and especially…  dinosaurs! Every kid growing up in Montana knew who Jack Horner was, and I was no exception. I had tons of books, toys, models, everything you could possibly dream of that involved creatures from the past. I loved the little ‘fossil digs’ that gem and mineral shows had, and started my collection at a young age with the standards – shark teeth, petrified wood, fragments of dinosaur bones, coral… I kept all of them neatly organized and labeled in a box under my bed that I loved to bring out to show my family, time and time again.

I knew from a very young age that I wanted to grow up to be a paleontologist – I wanted to discover dinosaur bones and dig them up, and see things no one else had ever seen. While other kids would beg for roller skating birthday parties (it was the early 90s, give me a break) or water slide adventures, I always asked if we could do a road trip to see my favorite place – the Museum of the Rockies, in Bozeman, Montana. It was a 2 hour drive from my hometown, and I remember visiting the museum as often as my parents would agree to drive me – I loved the dinosaurs on display, all of the bones, and especially the volunteer preparatory lab where I could talk to people working on real fossils! (Later, I would actually be lucky enough to work in this same prep lab, interacting with the public and preparing fossils when I started college.)

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By the time I was in high school, geology elective courses became an option, and I loved them. Getting out into nature on field trips and learning what had happened in the past, just from looking at rocks – it was such a surreal thing to me and I ate it up. I knew from early high school I wanted to attend Montana State University, in Bozeman, Montana, where the famous Jack Horner taught, and home of the Museum of the Rockies. I continued exploring and learning about fossils that had been found near where I grew up, and added to my fossil collection with invertebrate fossils I found.

I went to college at Montana State University and majored in paleontology, and while I was a freshman I volunteered in the prep lab – I made enough of an impression that by my sophomore year I was hired to work in the prep lab in the basement, working to help in the histology lab, and eventually curating much of the osteological collection at MOR. I attended our journal club meetings, learning new things and reading papers, and meeting many friends also involved in paleontology.

In 2011, I moved to California with Robert Boessenecker (another paleontologist I met at MSU), where we were then married, and stayed for about a year while preparing for another move – this time to New Zealand for his PhD. We were down under for about 3.5 years, and returned to the states in May of 2015 – we again stayed in California with his family for about 3 months, before making our move to Charleston, South Carolina, where we currently live. He is an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, and I am working as the Collections Manager at the College of Charleston Mace Brown Museum of Natural History.

(A/N: Wow. Quite a series of big moves! That’s so exciting.)

Describe your most interesting day so far, working in museum collections.

Every day is an interesting day! Is that too much of a cop-out?

(A/N: Of course not! Museums collections are amazing! I’m so glad you enjoy it, too.)

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One of the more interesting days lately was our recent acquisition of a large collection of Miocene and Pliocene marine fossils from the Lee Creek Mine, out of Aurora, NC – our museum now has an enormous collection that was amassed by a tour guide through the mine over many years; she wanted her collection to be donated to science after her passing, knowing of its scientific significance.

Going through boxes upon boxes of material to accession and curate has been incredible – finding so many things – the mine was a real treasure trove of fossils.

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What are your thoughts on blogging about science, in general?
 

I love the idea of science blogging; one of the greatest things we can do as scientists is to educate the public, and reach out. Blogging is a great way to talk about interesting things, that people not in the sciences may not be aware of. Science is all about educating and sharing – it does no good if nobody knows about it! Science communication is one of the most important things we can do as researchers and educators – blogging is a great tool to help encourage and inspire others to explore the world around them, and start asking questions.

Tell our readers about your favorite organisms. What sorts of questions do you want to answer, as a scientist?

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My research interests are in mammals; specifically the antilocapridae, and other pleistocene artiodactlys. I’m interested in the evolution and diversity of the antilocaprids – only one species (American pronghorn) is extant today! I want to explore how they fit into their ecosystems, and what the driving factors behind their speciation and extinctions were. I also am interested in Finite Element Method (FEM) to understand functional morphology and how these animals lived and interacted with their worlds.

While I don’t study cetaceans (I leave that to my husband), working with the collections at our museum (which are very cetacean-based) I’ve started to think about questions that I would love to see answered – especially questions related to hearing in whales and dolphins, and the evolution of it, as well as the physiology they have that allow them to live in such extreme environments. I mean, whales are still artiodactyls, so they can’t be all bad, right?

(A/N: Whales and all of their hoofy relatives are pretty fantastic, in my book.)

Any hobbies beyond the realm of science? Share them with us!
 

I love things involving the outdoors – hiking and exploring nature are some of my favorite things to do. I’m loving the amount of fauna surrounding us in Charleston – there’s so many things to discover out there; we even have an American alligator that lives within a 5 minute walk from our apartment! I’m also very into running, and have completed 2 half marathons: one in Dunedin, New Zealand, and one here in Charleston. One day I would love to train for a full marathon – it sounds like a challenge I would love.

(A/N: Someday, if I ever get the chance to visit Charleston again, you should introduce me to your neighborhood alligator.)

I’m also an avid reader, and will read most any book you can give me – I can’t remember a day that has gone by where I wasn’t able to get at least an hour or so of reading done, if not more.

I also knit and crochet, and love most things involving art – I’m a busy and fidgety person, so it’s hard for me to just sit and watch TV or a movie – I have to keep my hands busy, so these two things really are great for that, and it’s always nice to wear (and show off) something you’ve made from what is essentially a ball of string!

I’m a big fan of traveling and seeing new places; roadtrips are amazingly fun and we make a point of stopping at every silly little roadside attraction possible. There’s amazing (and strange) things out there if you take the time to look!

What would you recommend to young people who are interested in paleontology, and want to get more hands-on experience while they’re in high school or younger?

Never stop asking questions! Science is fueled by the curious. We wouldn’t know any of the things we know about the world around us if we didn’t ask ‘why?’ Look at local museums, and ask about field programs – fieldwork is generally powered by volunteers, and simply wouldn’t be feasible without them. Many have volunteer sign-ups so you can actually get out with the crews and help out on digs – they’re incredible experiences and can teach you so much. Read books about local stratigraphy to learn about the rocks around you – find what fossils exist, and where. Join local fossil clubs if you have one – they often know the laws about collecting and can take you on trips to find fossils. Mostly, it’s get out and see things! You can learn from books, but nothing beats seeing things for yourself!

That’s a wrap for now, thanks again Sarah for taking the time to answer these questions and give us some insight into your career path! Something I care about a great deal is helping to inspire future generations of scientists and educators, so keep doing what you’re doing, and I’m sure our paths will cross soon!

If you’d like to contact Sarah, or to read more about her work, I’d recommend taking a look at her own professional blog through the Mace Brown museum. Check that out right here!
L.A. Hikes: Wall Street Mill Trail at Joshua Tree National Park
Student Blog Post: Geological Society of America - Joey Hernandez