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Mitigation, Curation, and Preparation

Mitigation Paleontology and Independent Research (2011-Present)   

I am the Lead Paleontologist and Assistant Project Manager at SWCA Environmental Consultants in Pasadena, California. I am often in the field making sure fossils found on project sites are properly excavated, recorded and collected. My office work includes authoring project technical reports, research, and fossil preparation. I also manage our paleontology preparation lab project fossil collections and inventory.

I spend my personal time pursuing research projects with colleagues around the country. You can read more about them here.

Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT (2000-2011)    

Prior to joining SWCA, I worked with the Museum of the Rockies for 11 years as a volunteer, Crew Chief, histology collections assistant, and preparator. (See Field Work for details)As a histology assistant I organized and updated the histology slide collections of the Gabrielle Laboratory for Cellular and Molecular Paleontology with Ellen-Therese Lamme. While there I systematically worked through the entire collections list to track down out of place or missing slides, updating spreadsheets and creating new labels for slides as I went along. The collection had everything from Allosaurus to elk bone, so every drawer was a bit of an adventure.

Research Assistant- Montana State University (2006-2011)    

During my undergraduate program, I curated the Vertebrate Paleontology Teaching Collection for Dr. David Varricchio, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University. I added new specimens into the collections, both fossil and modern. The department had a growing osetology collection, and I often ended up preparing 'fresh' specimens for curation (enzyme cleaning, labeling, reconstruction). I prepared fossil material and taught volunteers or other students proper preparation and cataloging techniques.

Laboratory Assistant- University of South Dakota (2004-2005)

I assisted Dr. Timothy Heaton in his research efforts by sorting and cataloging fossils found in "On You Knees Cave", Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. Primarily, I entered specimens from the SE Alaska Paleontology Project into a data matrix and picked micro-screened sediments for fossil remains of small mammals and fish.

Conferences and Memberships

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meetings: 2006 - Present
- Host Committee Member, 2011

Earth Sciences Colloquium at Montana State University: 2007 - 2011
- Student award for best presentation, 2008
- Committee Member 2009-2011

Dead Lizard Society, Montana State University, 2006-2011

MSU Marine Taphonomy Paper Club, 2010

MSU Department of Earth Sciences Journal Club, 2009

Society for the Advancement of Science and Skepticism at MSU, 2007-2008
-Vice President

University of South Dakota Geology Club, 2004-2005
- Club President

Grants and Awards

Undergraduate Scholars Program at Montana State University: 2007-2008 Academic year
-Research grant for Ethiopian dinosaur project

Earth Sciences Colloquium, Montana State University: 2008
-Student Choice Award: "Best Presentation"

Paleontology In Hollywood?

I live in Los Angeles, California. From the roof of my home you can see the famous HOLLYWOOD sign, the Griffith Observatory, downtown LA's signature skyline and even the Pacific Ocean (on a clear day). Los Angeles is a behemoth metropolis of pavement and rebar stretching as far as the eye can see. Most people associate LA with Hollywood, the Sunset Strip, Beverly Hills, and Botox, so where does paleontology fit into the glitz and glamour of a place like this? 

    I don't work for a museum. I don't work for a university or a school, or a research foundation. I don't work with the entertainment industry, either.  I work in the crucially important but seldom-publicized field of Mitigation Paleontology.

Mitigation Paleontology 

Most people have an image of what a paleontologist does for work- they're either out in the dusty badlands of Montana brushing rock off of dinosaur skeletons, or in the echoing bowels of a natural history museum measuring trilobites and counting ammonite whorls. What the heck is "Mitigation Paleontology"? 

    In California (and other states) there are LORS (Laws, Ordinances, Regulations, and Standards) in place to protect natural resources. Resources like water, soil, wildlife, native vegetation, archaeological sites and fossils are protected under several tiers of the law (Federal, State, Local). What this means is that any time the ground is going to be disturbed for the sake of infrastructure development, a company can't just start sticking their backhoes into the dirt. There are steps taken to ensure that any existing resource, whether it is habitat for nesting birds, flake scatters, or bone beds, will not be affected in negative way by the construction of a road, building, solar field, etc. In other words, the project needs to be mitigated.

The Best of Both Worlds

Generally, paleontologists are seen as fitting into one of two categories: academic or amateur. Academic paleontologists are the traditional researchers who you see on the news or in National Geographic giving snippets about a new find. Amateur paleontologists are more like hobbyists who have a deep knowledge of certain things but may not have a science degree. The reality is much more complicated than that of course, as a multitude of careers exist in paleontology. One of these fields is resource protection.

    As a mitigation paleontologist, I strive to protect fossils from destruction that could be caused by construction projects. Because infrastructure needs foundations there is always some kind of digging going on in a construction zone, whether it be drilling for I-beam pilings, basement excavations, pipeline or electrical trenches, road grading, and any other number of ground-disturbing activities that go on as a result of this work.

    Life as a mitigation paleontologist is part academic, part legal, and part business. My research is directed by an external directive-infrastructure development-as opposed to a self-guided topic of interest. I conduct research of scientific literature in order to understand the geological and paleontological background for a project area and to get an idea of what sorts of fossils to keep my eyes open for while on site.  For example, a housing project excavating Miocene marine siltstone is going to produce much different fossils than one in Pleistocene terrestrial stream sands. The predictive nature of science allows us to reference past discoveries to infer what will be encountered in the future, and it makes my job a lot easier.

    I also do a lot of writing, but it isn't quite strict academic writing. Paleontologists who write research articles are writing for an audience who have a similar educational background. My writing is technical but it must be understandable by a much broader, untrained audience largely composed of government and legal officials, corporate clients, construction firms, and the general public. When I write up a report about a construction project, I make it as technical as it needs to be to convey the basic scientific concepts associated with the work I did without getting too bogged down in jargon (that is harder than you'd think!). There isn't a hypothesis being tested, and I don't include every last bit of field data. Not everyone understands what fluvial systems or turbidites are, much less basin subsidence or any number of binomial italics you throw their way. I also have to include discussions of the laws and regulations that required paleontological mitigation of a construction site, and how I helped the construction company follow them. That's not something normally seen in an academic publication. The key is to present the information the way a translator hears one language and speaks another. 

    In the City of Angels

The greater Los Angeles area sees a lot of development. Things are always being built somewhere, though it isn't always obvious where these projects are taking place. From transmission lines to cell towers, pipelines to sewers, power substations to solar fields, and residential communities to parking structures, there's always need for a qualified paleontologist somewhere. And that's how I work as a paleontologist in Los Angeles. It was a big adjustment from my days as a Montana dinosaur digger, but it has been immensely rewarding. Here are just a few of the cool things I have found:

    • 4 million year old (ma) Great White teeth in downtown LA (WHAT?!).
    • 70+ ma fossilized magnolia and fern tree wood in the Colorado Desert.
    • 15 ma Sabalites palm fronds and Anadara clams on the UC Irvine campus.
    • 15+ ma Megalodon teeth and whale bones in the hills above Bakersfield.
    • 40,000 year old clams and snails in the middle of Mojave Desert.
    • 2 ma marine scallops and snails in the Santa Susana Mountains.
    • 3+ ma fish fossils just off Interstate 5 near Santa Clarita.
    • 10,000+ year old camel fossils and redwood pinecones from West LA.

    The Los Angeles area is FULL of unique and amazing fossils and geology, and mitigation paleontologists like myself help to protect these irreplaceable natural resources. When we find fossils on a construction site, we collect them after recording all the necessary scientific data about their position in the rocks and their condition and location before taking them to a lab and cleaning them. Once the fossils are prepared, they are transferred to a museum or other accredited repository for permanent storage and study. Specimens found from construction mitigation sometimes end up being published in papers. Sometimes they are displayed in museums. They always end up telling us a unique story about the past, so every fossil matters!