August 12, 2011

Volunteer Spotlight: Paleobotany

This month’s Volunteer Spotlight blog features Jeff Benca, a UW undergraduate student and volunteer in the Burke Museum’s Paleobotany division.

Jessica: How did you begin volunteering at the Burke?
Jeff: I started volunteering at the Burke back in high school for the arachnid collection with Rod Crawford.  While spiders, insects, and reptiles were a major interest for me, I had thought that plants were rather boring until I started raising carnivorous plants.   After I started working at the UW Botany Greenhouse before graduating from high school, I got particularly interested in early land plants and started building up a teaching and research collection of the most ancient group of vascular plants alive today: clubmosses.  It was after I had started this collection that I met Dr. Caroline Strömberg, Burke Curator of Paleobotany. Through her I met another volunteer, Maureen Carlisle, who found plant fossils from a new fossil locality which included clubmosses and she was looking for someone that might be interested in describing these fossils.  I happily got on board with describing clubmosses from this new fossil flora, which is what I do now at the Burke.
The work I do essentially allows me to be a perpetual kid – I get to work with ridiculously cool plants at the UW Botany Greenhouse, dig for fossils in near and far-off places while working with awesome fossil collections at the Burke.  On top of this I actually get to grow plants that are extremely similar to the 390 million year-old fossils I study.

Jessica: What are you researching at the museum?
Jeff: I am studying clubmoss fossils found in northern Washington that existed 390 million years ago in the Devonian Period; for context: the bolide impact that played a role in wiping out the dinosaurs occurred approximately 65 million years ago.  In the Early and Middle stages of the Devonian, the landscape was pretty bare; there were lots of open wetlands dominated by small spore-bearing herbs but no trees.  Giant sea scorpions and armored fishes patrolled the world’s vast tropical oceans and the poles had little to no icecaps.  It was a pretty alien sounding environment, which is also why I find it so interesting.

Jessica: What do you like most about volunteering at the Burke?
Jeff: I get access to all these crazy fossils that are so nicely organized and taken care of as well as a fantastic team of curators and paleobiologists.  I want to encourage other students interested in paleobotanical or paleontological research in general to get involved at the Burke because they can give undergraduate research students incredible access to the collections.  The faculty and collections managers at the Burke are welcoming to students with research project ideas that are mentored by Burke or university faculty, or to students that are interested in volunteering through helping organize and catalogue the fossil collections or help prep fossils.
Jessica: I heard you’ve won some awards and recognition recently – can you tell me about that?
Jeff: Dr. Strömberg and I are currently writing a paper on a potentially new species of clubmoss as well as a second paper on a global analysis comparing morphology in Leclercqia across six continents.  Recently, I received the Isabel C. Cookson Paleobotanical Award for the best paper presented by a student in paleobotany and palynology at the Botanical Society of America conference this summer for presenting on these two projects.  Usually this award is given to a graduate student, so I was surprised to receive it as an undergraduate.  I feel fortunate as this award can possibly help generate additional recognition for the Burke Museum and its Paleobotany Collection as a great resource for researchers.  I also recently received a National Geographic Young Explorer grant to study changes in clubmoss and fern leaf structure in response to climate change in Hawaii this September for a few weeks and will be joined by another regular at the Burke Museum, Adam Huttenlocker, a graduate student of vertebrate paleontology curator Dr. Christian Sidor for this work.
Thank you, Jeff, for the great work you do for the Burke and congratulations!
Posted By: Jessica Newkirk, Volunteer Coordinator