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Cabinets and Cameras

July 11, 2017

Written by Mark Reyes, Paleontology Summer Intern

As an Environmental Science major at North Carolina Central University, what better way to start my future professional career than by getting a head start as an intern at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Over the course of two months, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some of the best paleontologists in the state. Every week, for three days, two other interns and I would move drawers and boxes of various fossil bones, shells, rocks, and even dinosaur poop from old cabinets and into new cabinets. Sometimes cabinets also had to be moved. Usually this process involved a lot of strenuous muscle activity similar to a day at the gym doing crossfit.

Image of three people moving specimens. Two women are standing on ladder (left and center), one man is sitting on top of the cabinets

Moving drawers and specimens often included going up on ladders to reach top cabinets that either needed to be filled or emptied. Chilea Dixon (left), Elizabeth Altier (middle), and Jacob Van Veldhuizen, Paleontology Collections Technician (top right).

My internship wasn’t just about reboxing, or moving never-ending drawers of unorganized fish vertebrae (enough for pescatarians to go vegan), we also had the opportunity of photographing fossils from collections and turning them into 3D models for the museum’s website at the Natural Research Center (NRC), just a bridge away from the “old’ part of the museum (NEC).

Photo of a drawer full of fossil fish vertebrae in boxes

Drawer after drawer of Tetradontidae Osteichthyes (fish) vertebrae had to be moved and/or re-boxed. Most of them were unorganized or had multiple specimen cards with their assigned fossil in a single box. These fossils had to be re-boxed individually which would take up an enormous amount of time.

One of the tasks assigned to us paleontology interns was to turn fossil photos into a virtual 3D models. Taking pictures involved making sure to get just the right amount of light and that the image is focused on the fossil. Sometimes this wasn’t easy, especially for small tooth specimens. Teeth are hard to capture because they are small and because they reflect a lot of light. Because of this we had to change the backdrop to a baby blue color and we had to cover the tooth with baby powder. This proved much more successful than using a black backdrop.  Taking photos of these fossils required what looks like a miniature makeshift photo studio placed in front of a camera where the fossil is turned multiple times to get all angles. After making sure each angle of the specimen has been captured, the next step was to transfer photos to the computer where the process of editing and 3D modeling takes place.

Image of a man with beard (right), using a computer to make a 3D model of a fossil plant.

Resident graduate student, Khai Button at the Paleontology Lab at the Natural Research Center (NRC) working on a 3D model of a plant fossil (Annularia) using PhotoScan Pro.

Using Photoscan Pro (the computer programs that creates the models) was not easy, but eventually through much trial and error (enough to drive my supervisor nuts!) most of the 3D models turned out well. The process involved masking and editing pictures from “chunks”, (different angles of the specimen) and applying markers to create a polished virtual version of the fossil. 2D images will then be downloaded onto the museum’s website. Pictures and information of specific fossils can be accessed here by using key information such as a specimen number and/or other information such as genus.

In June we had a new shipment of cabinets come in. We used pallet jacks to transfer full and half cabinets from one floor to another. In the weeks following, we moved several cabinets, drawers, and fossil specimens around while splitting other responsibilities such as photo taking and re-boxing each week.Somewhere along the way we ran out of small boxes, and it didn’t make sense to transfer a small, individual fossils into a large box that would take up too much space in a drawer. After these small boxes ran out, we had to eventually halt re-boxing. However, this did not prevent our supervisors from finding things to keep us occupied.

Image of two fossil clam shells in a white archival box with label

A specimen of Raeta plicatella in its archival box. Specimens such as this had to be transferred into customized boxes. By marking the boxes with a pH indicator box we can determine whether these boxes are acid-free. A purple mark indicates an archival box while a brown mark indicates a non-archival box.

As I am writing this blog, my fellow interns and me are now filling our time by attending staff meetings and museum-related tours. The museum hosted a series of lecture meetings throughout the summer. The primary focus of these weekly meetings was to find better ways to communicate science to the general public. Open to interns and the staff, such meetings included how to talk to the media and how to communicate science to elected officials and policy makers. The museum also hosted a geology tour around downtown Raleigh and a dinosaur tour over at the NRC.

Although museum-related activities were fun and oftentimes very insightful, our supervisors were not necessarily paying us (well, some of us) for this time outside of collections and the paleontology lab. So new tasks such as identifying specimens and cleaning shells of Byne’s disease have been added to our list of duties. Taking pictures however, is still one our main priorities.

Image of three people working in a lab, cleaning and labeling fossil clams.

Mark (right), Elizabeth (left) and Chilea (background) diligently dealing with Byne’s Disease

Reflecting back on this whole internship experience, I can’t help but be thankful for the opportunity that was given to me. It was quite nostalgic to be surrounded by fossil specimens of every kind and to be around paleontologists and specialists of other scientific backgrounds.

As an environmental science major at NCCU, and an aspiring ornithologist, I deeply appreciate the work of scientists, more so than before I started my internship. I learned through cabinets and cameras, that the scientists I’ve come across here at the museum were once annoying students and interns too.

Photo of a man holding a sign that says "Paleontology North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) standing next to a skull of a dinosaur

I am a senior at NCCU getting my degree in Environmental GeoScience. I plan to stretch my academic career to become an ornithologist someday. Thank you to the Natural Science Museum and the amazing crew at the Paleontology department. I still often wonder why you guys hired a short Filipino kid with little muscle strength to move heavy cabinets around. It was still worth it. 🙂

Mark Reyes’ Internship is funded through a National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research (NSF/CSBR) grant to the Paleontology Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

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