Paleontology Student, Dinosaurs, Gary Vecchiarelli @PrehistoricPub: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME: Gary Vecchiarelli

CURRENT TITLE: Paleontology Student

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  My current research involves Triassic beasts from New Mexico.  I have been working under my mentor and good friend, Dr. Axel Hungerbuehler, with the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum for the past five years.  Along with digging for prehistoric beasts out west, I’m also studying geographic information system (GIS) software back home.  GIS, like 3D printing, is a relatively new application that could be applied to paleontology.

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  I have been doing field work on the academic level for many years.

EDUCATION: I recently went back to school to get certified to teach while working towards finishing my Master’s in geology.  My educational background consists of geology and paleontology.



Paleontology student, Gary Vecchiarelli digging for dinosaur fossils in New Mexico.

What’s your job like?

My job in the summer months usually consists of working in the field and then continuing to work with our finds back at the museum.  Field work can be exciting, but the real excitement begins when you start prepping and researching your find.  What did we uncover?  What can we learn from our finds?  Is something we found a whole new discovery?  These are just a few examples of what constantly is rolling in our heads.  I work with a small museum which I believe is amazing.  Small museums pack a big punch, and it is great to work one-on-one with people and to educate the public about science.

What’s a typical day like?

My days in the field start off like many others.  I get up at the crack of dawn and for good reason. Getting an early start in the field means cooler weather for digging.  Temperatures out in the badlands can reach into the 100s!  Water and staying cool are essential.  Having an extensive background in geology is a vital key in the field.  Knowing the landscape and what time period you’re in makes tracking down a potential spot to dig a bit easier than aimlessly digging around.  Once we find a potential spot, we begin to carefully remove layers of rock until making a discovery!

Immediately after making a discovery, it is important to alert whomever is in charge of the field site.  In this case, my professor, mentor, and good friend, Dr. Axel Hungerbuehler.  At this point, precise measurements and documentations are made.  It is important to have proper recordings of what is found in the field.  This information is vital for later analysis of your find.  Orientation, level of elevation, and where precisely a fossil was found are just a few examples of documenting a find.  From this point on, getting the find out in one piece is the goal.  I diligently begin working the rock around the find, being careful to not displace the matrix in which my fossil was surrounded by.  Working off the over layers of rock is a good idea but loosening up the surrounding rock is also.  The Triassic stone in my area fit together more or less like a puzzle. By removing a corner piece of rock about a foot away from a find makes it easier to remove rock closer to it.  Little by little, you need to think 10 steps ahead while trenching around a fossil.  Moving one piece may upset another and so on.

Dental tools, small brushes, and very fine tipped tools are used in removing the surrounding rock.  On my belly, being very patient, I continue to trench around my amazing find.  For the first time in millions of years, a bone from an extinct animal will see the light of day again.  Protecting fossils with a plaster jacket is sometimes needed.  This will ensure the bone’s safety until getting it back to the lab.  Once at the museum, we can take further actions to preserve a find.

What’s fun?

The fun part about working in paleontology is the possibility of discovering something new!  I was born and raised in New Jersey.  I always wondered what prehistoric beasts roamed my backyard millions of years ago.  My passion for paleontology and fossils as a kid fueled me for college.  I enjoy educating the public about science, and I love that I am following my dreams.  Paleontology and geology are not easy fields.  A lot of people just think you volunteer and dig, but if you are serious about your passion, the study goes beyond that.  The fun part is learning about what you don’t know and making your dreams a reality.

What’s challenging?

Studying geology and paleontology is very challenging.  It is a discipline that involves a lot of dedication and time.  Being a fan of a subject is one thing, but making the choice to study what you love professionally is sometimes a daunting task. Juggling full-time work, family, and time is one of my biggest challenges.

What’s your advice to students?

My advice to students would be to stay passionate about what you love, be it paleontology or any other science.  Stay the course.  Don’t let others discourage you and run your own race.  Believe me, it took a lot of trial and error to learn that bit of advice.  It’s difficult to run when you are constantly looking behind yourself — meaning, stay focused and don’t worry about where you are in the race.  The getting there should be fun, not a race.  I would also advise surrounding yourself with good people.  Negative people are not worth your time.  The time you focus on them will prevent you from focusing on what matters.  Science is not a private club.  It is meant to inspire, educate, and welcome new visitors.

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