Jasonville student 'digs' her geology education

October 11 2006

After working at a dinosaur dig site and a paleontology laboratory, Indiana State University student Cassie Gray is one step closer to knowing what career she wants to pursue after graduation.

Gray, a junior geology major from Jasonville, was involved in a 10-week program though Research Experience for Undergraduates, a national program that supports research participation from undergraduate students, and Hope College in Michigan.

The program took Gray to Wyoming for five weeks to participate in a dinosaur dig, then to a laboratory in Michigan for five weeks to study the findings.

"The reason I wanted to do this program is because I'm not sure what I want to do after graduation," Gray said. "I wanted to see if vertebrate paleontology would be the kind of thing that I would enjoy doing."

She did enjoy working in Wyoming.

"I was living right outside the mountains, camping for five weeks," she said. "We had a scenic view at our site every day."

But, perhaps, vertebrate paleontology is not the career for her.

The 100-degree weather, the hot Wyoming sun, and the tedious work of digging for dinosaur bones was a little discouraging, Gray said.

"I'm not very patient (and) there were a few days that we didn't find any bones so it just became very frustrating. However, finding something incredible like dinosaur teeth made all of the challenging times worthwhile," she said.

The laboratory experience also had its ups and downs.

Gray's project was to screen-wash for ostracodes, laterally compressed bivalve crustaceans, similar to a tiny shrimp inside of a clamshell.

Cassie Gray, a junior geology major, collected samples from a quarry wall at a dinosaur dig in Wyoming. After rock and sediments were liberated from the wall, samples were carried to a nearby stream where they were sieved, and subsequently examined in the laboratory for fossil bones, teeth, and small creatures. These samples provided clues about the environment dinosaurs lived in.
"I collected all my samples from the field, and then when we went back to the lab, I was pretty much looking under a microscope the whole time, looking for mammal bones, especially mammal teeth," she said.

Unfortunately, no identifiable bones were found, though Gray discovered many bone fragments.

This program did more for Gray than narrow her career options. Though digging for dinosaurs was something she decided she probably does not want to do as a career, it launched her into many more possibilities for her future in geology.

"I think it's important in geology to have research experience," Gray said. "It's something that puts my resume a notch above other students who haven't had that kind of experience."

Tony Rathburn, an assistant professor of geology in the ISU's Department of Geography, Geology, and Anthropology, said he hopes students understand the importance of experiences like Gray's.

"Students don't often realize that it is the academic experiences outside of the classroom that matters the most to employers and graduate schools," he said.

Though students should strive for a high grade point average, employers typically find a student with practical experience in his or her discipline very desirable, Rathburn said.

"Experiential learning opportunities tend to snowball. Once you do well in one research activity, you have a better resume for the next opportunity that becomes available," he said.

Snowball is exactly what Gray's experiences have done. Along with her paleontology-based trip, Gray, along with the other students in the summer program, will be presenting the findings from the dinosaur dig at the national Geological Society of America conference Oct. 22-25 in Philadelphia.

The students from the summer program will present together at the national conference. Gray will have her own time to shine at the regional conference for the Geological Society of America, where she will present her project individually. She will also present her research for a project at ISU.

She is the co-author of ongoing research looking at the Venice Lagoon, studying a single-celled organism, called "foraminifera" that lives in seafloor sediments. These creatures are important in micropaleontology, and are used extensively to interpret environmental changes of the past and present.

Gray and the other student working on this research, Ellen Brouillette, presented their findings in the North Central Section meeting of the Geological Society of America meeting in Akron, Ohio, last spring.

The experience of presenting at conferences is one more thing that puts her resume a notch above those of other students.

"Giving a presentation at a national conference will provide Cassie with experience synthesizing and presenting her results to a broad array of scientists," Rathburn said. "These experiences serve to improve students' confidence and expose them to questions and input from an assortment of researchers."

Contact: Tony Rathburn, assistant professor of geology, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2269, gerathbu@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Megan Anderson, Indiana State University media relations,(812) 237-3773, manderson13@indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Junior geology major Cassie Gray of Jasonville participated in a 10-week national program that involved working at a dinosaur dig and a paleontology laboratory. Gray will join other students who were involved in the dinosaur dig in presenting their findings at a national conference.

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