My work as a paleontologist began under unusual circumstances. When I first arrived at Montana State University’s Department of Earth Sciences, I thought that I would be developing a field-portable laser scanning confocal microscope as a prototype for a device that could one day be sent to Mars to look for life. The initial plan was to benchmark the capabilities of the device using microfossils that had been described by Robert Horodyski from the nearby Belt Supergroup. However, getting new fossils would be a challenge- Bob had passed away some 10 years earlier and nobody had collected any new material from the deposits in the intervening years. If I was going to use those fossils, I’d need to find them myself, and build a new lab in the process to do so! It became apparent that for all of the effort required to build the lab and find the fossils, my project would be much more focused, effective and relevant if the search for new fossils became the objective of the project itself. The development of a novel HF fossil extraction technique in the years since Bob’s passing, the rarity of fossils of the age of the Belt Supergroup, and the unique age of these fossils (i.e., roughly coincident with the appearance of the earliest recognizable eukaryotes) made the search for new fossils a promising avenue for discovery and an effective way to build on Bob’s prior work.
Fieldwork is never better than when it’s done using a giant red van. Left: Greyson Formation outcrop near Checkerboard, Montana. Right: The classic locality where C.D. Walcott discovered Grypania spiralis at Deep Creek, Townsend, Montana.
With the support of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the American Philosophical Society, I had all the resources I needed to begin extracting fossils from all over western Montana.
Lab equipment obtained to search for microfossils. Upper left: nalgene beakers and concentrated HF acid. Upper right: stainless steel sieve. Bottom: binocular microscope with attached LED ring light and gliding stage.