Looking to the Future, from the Jurassic

by Thea Boodhoo, GeoCorps America Participant

In the cool shade of ferns and horsetails, at the edge of a sparkling river, a young animal lowers its head to drink. Its tail wags, and tiny spikes on the tip rustle a nearby frond. Startled, the animal looks up, water still dripping from its beak. It sees its parents nearby and knows everything is fine.

It doesn’t see the Allosaurus.

Carnegie Quarry, the famous wall of bones at Dinosaur National Monument. Our project this summer is to help create a website that brings the details of this unique natural history resource to the larger public and researchers around the world.

Carnegie Quarry, the famous wall of bones at Dinosaur National Monument. Our project this summer is to help create a website that brings the details of this unique natural history resource to the larger public and researchers around the world.

“Looks like they really took some liberties with that mural,” I said to Dan Chure, Park Paleontologist at Dinosaur National Monument, the first time I walked by the baby Stegosaurus skeleton at the Exhibit Hall. On the wall behind the corgi-sized assembly of bones is a depiction of the young animal hanging from the jaws of an Allosaurus, entrails dripping on the ferns below.

“Yeah that’s the whole blood and guts thing,” Chure explained. He later clarified that the scene was included to give a full, accurate depiction of Jurassic life and Allosaurus behavior, with as few liberties taken as possible. “Everyone likes to look at the Allosaurus skull in the exhibit and its pointy teeth but [they] rarely think of all the pain and death it took to get an Allosaurus with a skull that large.”

It’s not like I wasn’t surrounded by corpses anyway; the Exhibit Hall was built for the explicit purpose of preserving one of the most spectacular mass death assemblages known to paleontology. The wall opposite the mural is a bone-packed cliff of cool, yellow-gray sandstone, towering two stories above us. Etched out from the rock, in a painstaking process that took decades, are femura as big as I am, ribs that would never fit in any broiler, Stegosaurus plates that are more like serving platters, vertebral columns like small bridges, and up high on the right side of the wall, peeking out from the sandstone in full relief, is a Camarasaurus skull. It feels almost like it’s watching us–strange mammals of the unimaginable future–as we scurry below.

This is Carnegie Quarry, often referred to simply as the wall of bones. It’s why I’m here.

If you knew a bit about my background, you might scratch your head. How does a web content strategist with an advertising degree end up working with paleontologists on a fossil quarry? Besides the fact that I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was kid (who didn’t?) there aren’t many clues from my past that point to dinosaurs.

Dan Chure’s vision for the quarry is bigger than the two-story cliff face that draws thousands of visitors every year. He imagines a digital presence for the quarry–an experience that allows people all over the world to explore the quarry face and access information about its fossils that paleontologists have gained over its 100 years (this fall!) of excavation and public display. Chure’s vision is a large-scale, public, digital paleontology project, and that’s what drew me to it.

I mentioned my degree is in advertising. In 2007, when I started my first internship at an ad agency, it was more like Mad Men than most people would expect. I was even the only woman in the creative department for awhile. Things changed fast, though, and soon I was working exclusively on web projects at digital agencies where our creations were meant to be used and able to be analyzed, instead of just slapped on a TV screen and lucky to be remembered. I loved the challenge of digital media, the gratification of seeing people actually use what I built, and being able to change it if something wasn’t working or we had a better idea. Organizing complex systems of web content and breaking down information to make it useable became my specialty. I was good at making things make sense.

As I also mentioned, however, I wanted to be a paleontologist first. That passion for natural science, prehistory and the alien worlds of Earth’s past never left me. I read about the latest discoveries on my coffee breaks and downloaded Stegosaurus reconstructions for my desktop backgrounds. When I found myself getting addicted to math while researching Khan Academy’s online learning interface, I decided to take a statistics class. Maybe science isn’t out of my reach, I began to think. Soon I was dreaming of a transition into science communication. I decided to start doing the work I enjoyed for the subject I enjoyed, instead of whatever car or credit card brand I happened to be assigned to.

My own feet next to the footprint of a Triassic theropod, left in the Nugget Sandstone when it was merely sand over 200 million years ago. This track and many other paleontological surprises have been found within he bounds of Dinosaur National Monument since the founding of the park 100 years ago this fall.

My own feet next to the footprint of a Triassic theropod, left in the Nugget Sandstone when it was merely sand over 200 million years ago. This track and many other paleontological surprises have been found within he bounds of Dinosaur National Monument since the founding of the park 100 years ago this fall.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t that simple. Being a science fan didn’t give me a useful understanding of real science any more than reading Asimov made me a science fiction writer. I needed to understand academia and peer review in order to work with scientists, not to mention half the words I saw the first time I actually downloaded a scientific paper after paying a $30 fee to the journal it was published in. Science was not like any ad client I’d ever had, and there were no account planners to write a creative brief for me.

So school it was. I decided to aim for paleontology, because I knew my eight-year-old self would always resent me if I didn’t. I quickly found out that no one offered a bachelor’s degree in paleontology, so I applied to geology programs and ended up in the Geoscience department at Drexel University.

That’s how I found the Geological Society of America. At last year’s annual meeting in Vancouver, I presented a paleontology website I developed with Drexel’s Ken Lacovara. At the conference, I was told about the GeoCorps America program, and wondered if I qualified for any of the positions. As it happened, there was one that looked perfect: Dan Chure’s digital quarry mapping project at Dinosaur National Monument, offered in conjunction with the National Park Service’s Geoscientists-In-the-Parks (GIP) program. (I am now technically a GeoCorps participant, a GIP, and a National Park Service Volunteer.)

I remembered the wall of bones from a family road trip in 1997, and when I saw it again on my fourth day here, opposite the tragic stegosaurus mural, it was even larger and more spectacular than my fading, dream-like impression from childhood. This time, I got to climb on it. As Dan Chure told me, fewer people have set foot on the narrow ledges of that cliff than have played in the NFL.

Dinosaur National Monument is home to some of the most spectacular and confusing geology on the planet. The Mitten Park Fault is visible in this panorama, towering above the Green River, as seen from Harper's Corner. The other geology interns and I explore the park's many trails every chance we get.

Dinosaur National Monument is home to some of the most spectacular and confusing geology on the planet. The Mitten Park Fault is visible in this panorama, towering above the Green River, as seen from Harper’s Corner.  I explore the park’s many trails every chance I get.

One of the things I’ve noticed about paleontologists is that they never seem bored with their jobs, and Dan Chure is no exception. At least once a week, usually two or three times, he gathers his four geology volunteers (Marie Jimenez, who is in the NPS-GSA Mosaics in Science program, Elliott Smith, Trinity Stirling and myself) and eagerly asks if we’re up for an adventure. We’ve hiked trails, explored canyons, helped the park botanist pull invasive weeds from the banks of the Yampa River, excavated sandstone blocks full of skeletons, examined dinosaur footprints with visiting paleontologists, and even once made a trek across the street to the maintenance building, where an old painting of a Stegosaurus with hilariously misinterpreted anatomy resides. It has human ears.

The work we were actually brought here for has been indoors, largely inside the windowless archives library, and it doesn’t make for an exciting field work story. But it is important, and it’s had its own challenges and victories.

One of the first things Chure showed us was the room of archives that need to be digitized. A couple of flatbed scanners were provided to make it happen. I’d been playing around with mobile apps that made document scanning with my phone easy and fast. Elliott found one called CamScanner that assembled multi-page pdfs, and when I asked if we could get lights to make sure the pages could be read easily with an iPad camera, Chure produced a pair of studio softlights seemingly like magic. Suddenly we had technology and a workflow that sped up the archiving process exponentially.

Most of the project work is done in the Resource Management building on computers. The file open here is an Adobe Illustrator document created by last year's GeoCorps participants. It has proved vital to the work we're trying to complete this summer.

Most of the project work is done in the Resource Management building on computers. The file open here is an Adobe Illustrator document created by last year’s GeoCorps participants. It has proved vital to the work we’re trying to complete this summer.

This week I started tackling a proof of concept for the digital quarry map. Last year’s GIP/GeoCorps participants made a huge Adobe Illustrator file with outlines of almost all the bones in the quarry, and I was able to export a small portion of the map as a scalable vector graphic, which is perfect for use in websites. As of writing, I have a Diplodocus leg live on a test website with bones that light up in different colors when you roll a mouse pointer over them. The tibia is red, the metatarsals cyan, etc. If you click, a modal window pops up. There’s not much information in the window yet, but there will be, including links to the relevant documents we’ve already scanned. It’s a modest demo, but it’s proof that everything Dan Chure has dreamed of is possible, and that we may even be able to finish a nice chunk of it this summer–even with my time here almost halfway over.

An in-progress prototype of the interactive Digital Quarry we're working on. My goal is to have a working demo completed by the end of my GeoCorps internship.

An in-progress prototype of the interactive Digital Quarry we’re working on. My goal is to have a working demo completed by the end of my GeoCorps internship.

Realizing it was week five felt a bit like realizing I was 31 on my last birthday, the day before this project started. There’s more to do than ever, and less time than I imagined to get it done in. It’s not surprising that people assume, when I tell them how I got here after working in advertising first, that I wasted my twenties, or made some mistake, or have a lot of regrets. They’re wrong. Geoscience isn’t something I chose to replace my career in communication; it’s something I chose to expand it. I still love the challenges that attracted me to writing and digital media in the first place, and now I see countless ways to apply those skills to natural science, my first passion, even if I never finish a geology degree.

I’m not the only outsider with something to contribute. This winter, I attended a community college field course on the natural history of a Bay Area wildlife refuge. A class of roughly twenty walked through wetland paths filled with today’s colorful, diverse dinosaurs: migratory waterfowl, sandpipers, Bonaparte’s gulls and Lincoln’s sparrows. I made conversation with one of the women in attendance. She was working in advertising, but had always loved science, and now she was trying to find a way to contribute to the field she couldn’t stop reading about. I felt a chill.

As I listened to the stories of the other students, I realized they were all working professionals, all passionate about natural history, all looking for some way to apply their existing talent and hard-earned experience to something that actually seemed like it mattered. Many of them had run up against the same walls I had, namely the financial barriers of returning to school after working full time and the paywalls of academic journals that prevented them from expanding their knowledge beyond the increasingly questionable science journalism filling their social media feeds.

Every one of them has something to offer natural history. They’re writers, designers, programmers, photographers and people who are observant and learn quickly, who for whatever reason think nature is awesome. They don’t need “blood and guts” to grab their attention, or museum explanations in small words on weekends: those tactics already worked on them when they were kids. Now they need access to the scientists and institutions who would benefit most from their skills.

The GIP/GeoCorps America program has been my access point, more so in many ways than my overpriced attempt at a second degree. I found this opportunity by accident, while juggling work, school and family, after doubling my existing debt with private student loans so that I could legitimize myself in the eyes of scientists.

Being part of the National Park Service is awesome. I can't express how proud I am to be serving this organization.

Being part of the National Park Service is awesome. I can’t express how proud I am to be serving this organization.

As much as I’ve benefitted from it as a science outsider, the GIP/GeoCorps program was strictly designed for geoscientists–not communications professionals. Part of me still feels like I found some loophole, like I don’t belong here, like someone else deserves it more than me. Like I’m not a real scientist. These feelings would have stopped people less stubborn than I am–and the loss would not necessarily be theirs.

The feeling of being excluded from scientific fields is nearly universal in our modern culture, and it makes average citizens resentful and afraid of scientific advancement and research. “Why are our tax dollars going to that,” they say. “Genetic engineering is evil.” “Drones are only for war.” “Climate change is propaganda.” “Evolution is a lie.” It’s the fields of science themselves that hurt most from this way of thinking, as voters follow their fears and research funding becomes ever more elusive.

Yet people like me, and the community college students I walked through the wetlands with, don’t merely tolerate science. We love science. We seek out ways to simply be near it, by taking classes, joining community labs or giving our free time to citizen science projects. When we run up against the paywalls of academic journals, we feel confused and, honestly, a little hurt. “I thought science wanted help,” we think. Yet here it is excluding us, after trying so hard to recruit us when we were children.

What Dan Chure and my fellow GIP/GeoCorps participants are doing for the wall of bones–taking it from a cliff face accessible by only a privileged few, and putting it into a format that anyone can explore and learn from–programs like GIP/GeoCorps can help accomplish for all of science. It was my label as a geoscience student that opened this door for me, but it’s been my experience as a digital media and communications professional that’s served the project and the park for the past six weeks.

The blog where I’m keeping track of my summer is called The Futurist Naturalist. The name has a lot of meaning for me. I got sick of hearing only denial or doom in the popular discourse on the environment, so I came up with an ethos of my own, which I’ve been able to refine here at Dinosaur. I try to write about forward-looking ecology efforts, digital public outreach, how technology can help the environment, and local achievements that go unheard in popular media, but whose aggregate is saving this planet, one watershed, riverbank or forest at a time.

I opened this article with a vision of the distant past. Now I’ll close with a possible future. I’ve been watching it unfold between the headlines, and I’ve come to know it up close through my work in the GIP/GeoCorps program. Sharing it has become the goal of my career.

Envision this future not as a Camarasaurus studying the denizens of some far-off existence it will never know, but as one of the mammals–bold, clever tool-users–whose role is to create it.

In the cool shade of ferns and horsetails, at the edge of a sparkling river, a young animal lowers its head to drink. It is the dinosaur Haliaeetus leucocephalus. It looks up at its parents soaring above, their deep brown wings spread wide, white heads following yellow beaks forward.

Like its ancient relative the Stegosaurus, it once faced extinction. Today it spreads its own broad wings and takes flight, carefree, looking at the world below as it rises.

It’s a green world, speckled with clean cities, whose inhabitants celebrate science because it’s theirs, accessible and welcoming, as it was always meant to be.


The National Park Service Geoscientists-in-the-Parks Program, created in 1996 is run in partnership with the GeoCorps America Program of the Geological Society of America (GSA).  GSA partners with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the National Park Service (NPS).

4 responses to “Looking to the Future, from the Jurassic

  1. I’m a non-traditional student too. I’ll officially start my geoscience education in the fall after two grueling years of full time work and community college courses to take the math and science courses I avoided during my first bachelors degree in history.

    I stumbled on your blog several weeks ago, and you immediately captured my attention. And almost as immediately the impostor syndrome set in. “Oh god, she’s doing exactly what I want to be doing, and she has years working in a legit career to back it up – her website is beautiful, her photos are perfect. All I have are years of retail customer service, I’m so far behind that I’m never going to catch up.” And so on, I think you know how it goes. I guess what I’m saying is, thank you for doing what you’re doing, and thank you for including that little paragraph about your fears too. I’ll keep reading and letting you inspire me on 🙂

  2. The Wall of Bones is a spectacular display of prehistoric evidence. You are indeed fortunate to have a project there. I look forward to updates!

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