Chatting with a Paleontologist

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Ray Vodden, visiting paleontologist.

In the past couple of weeks, some very exciting things have been taking place at the JMM! Ray Vodden is a paleontologist who is visiting us from the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Ray has been leading JMM staff in the casting of several JMM specimens as well as making repairs on our mastodon.  Below is a blog post written by staff member Cait Conley, who has been working with Ray during his visit.

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Reparing the mastodon is a team effort!

“Through the past couple of weeks, I have had the opportunity to spend time with Ray Vodden, a visiting paleontologist from the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Ray is here to help us measure our mounted mastodon for a collective database project, as well as complete restorations for the mastodon, giant sloth, and other artifacts. I have enjoyed talking with him about anatomy and measuring the mastodon in my Care and Use of Collections Class. A few of the museum collections staff have been helping him cast bones, skulls, and teeth from our collection for use at other museums. Ray is a delightful well of knowledge–enthusiastic and friendly to all who are curious enough to delve into the wood shop he is using as a work station. This Saturday April 14th, he will lead a public demonstration on casting, and those who attend will be able to take home an artifact of their own. It has been wonderful to have him around, and while he is not a permanent installation to our museum, his work is valuable to the preservation and display of our collections and exhibits. His openness to guests and students has added a kind of temporary ‘Ask A Paleontologist’ station that you won’t want to miss!”

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Measuring the mastodon!

We are very grateful to have Ray visiting us. We have had a lot of fun learning about casting as well as learning more about our mastodon! If you are interested in meeting Ray and learning about some of his projects, we are hosting an Ice Age and Fossil Casting Workshop on Saturday, April 14th from 9 am to 11 am. (This event is appropriate for ages 3 and up.)

Kids will have the opportunity to learn about the ice age and the field of paleontology. They will work with Ray to cast their own replica of a mastodon, sloth, giant beaver or other ice age animal tooth! This event does not require registration. However, there is a $10 fee per participant. For more information on this event, visit the event page on the Joseph Moore Museum’s Facebook!

Image uploaded from iOS

Ray’s fossil casting activity is fun for all ages!

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Animal Care at the JMM

If you’ve been to the museum before, chances are you have met our amazing cast of live animals. While lizards may not need to be walked every day like a dog, they actually need a lot of specialized care. And who takes care of them? The dedicated JMM Animal Care team. This group of students works hard every day to make sure our live animals receive the best and most attentive care possible. They are in charge of everything from daily feeding, cleaning the cages, tending to the animal’s health, and teaching others about these incredible creatures. Below is a blog post written by Ky Doyle, who is part of the Animal Care team at the JMM.


Frida, our hognose snake

“Hi, my name is Ky, and I do animal care at Joseph Moore Museum, specifically reptiles. My duties include preparing food, changing water, cleaning the tanks, and making sure the animals are happy and healthy. One of the reptiles is Judi Dench, the green iguana that is around 15 years old, and she acts just like a cat. She loves being petted, having all of the attention on her, and climbing things just to be high up. When I had green hair, she would climb on to the top of my head and try to eat my hair. This iguana loves to eat and is especially passionate about anything green, so she fits in very well at the kale-loving Earlham campus.


Ky and Judi, our green iguana

Another one of the animals I take care of is Hiccup the six-year-old bearded dragon. He is pretty lethargic and likes to prop himself up on rocks so all of the world can see his glory, but when there is food involved he runs like a cheetah, except because of his fat, it is more like a fast wiggle. When I put his daily salad in his tank, it is gone in about two minutes. Lately, we’ve been playing a game where I dangle a cricket in front of him and move it around, and he’ll chase after it which forces him to exercise.

Lastly, there is Sunfire, the older bearded dragon with Metabolic Bone Disease. He is much like a guard dog where he loves his caretaker but if anyone else gives him food he does not like it. Except this Beardie is also a huge softie because he loves to cuddle up on your shoulder, I’ve had many days where I stay late just because he fell asleep on me. Overall the reptiles at the museum are big sweethearts, and I wouldn’t trade my job for the world.”


Sunfire, the bearded dragon, spending quality time with Ky!


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JMM Ann Arbor Trip 2018!

On the morning of March 10th, seven JMM staff members woke up bright and early to drive to Ann Arbor for the annual University of Michigan Early Career Scientists Symposium! Joining Heather and her family on the trip were Cait Conley, Audrey Brunt, Karen Breece, Fiona Kelly, Jacob Noble, and Rachel Riggs.

A highlight from the trip, as described by Fiona Kelly (Host and Outreach team member), was a tour of the Ornithology Collection at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Their tour guide was collection manager Janet Hinshaw, an EC Alum. One of the favorite moments of the tour was when Janet showed the team their collection of now-extinct bird specimens. This included imperial woodpeckers, passenger pigeons, and Carolina parakeets. These specimens are important because they allow scientists to study these birds, even though there are none left in the wild. The team also saw type bird specimens which are the descriptive representative of their species. This means that other birds of that species are identified using that specimen.


EC Alum, Janet Hinshaw showing specimens to the team during the tour!

During the next portion of the tour, another collection manager, Greg Schneider, showed the team the UM Herpetology collection. Here, the team learned about research on amphibians currently taking place in South America and the importance of collaboration between institutions on collection expeditions.

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Collection Manager, Greg Schneider and the team in the Herpetology collection

On Saturday, the group spent the morning at the Early Career Scientists Symposium. This year’s topic was Ecology and Evolution of Color! Afterwards, the team visited the Hands-On Museum which is a science-focused Children’s Museum in Ann Arbor. Here is what Host, Fab Lab, and Animal Care team member, Cait Conley said about the visit to the museum:

“Before we left Ann Arbor, we stopped at the Hands-On Children’s Museum. There, we were happy to see sensory tote bags for families to take. Inside were some fuzzy fidget toys, noise-canceling headphones, and sunglasses. It was a wonderful way to provide a customizable experience to children and accommodate a variety of sensory needs. The museum itself was definitely very stimulating to all the senses; chaperoning the Lerner children was just as fun as exploring on my own as a college student. Going through and watching kids learn and play allowed me to look at the materials through a different lens. Some highlights include the tornado and water exhibits, which demonstrate the physics of gas and water, and the exercise challenges, where you can test your reflexes, balance, and more. There were so many things to do, with very accessible displays and signs, you could easily spend a couple meaningful hours exploring the museum with a kid or by yourself. It was a worthwhile stop for learning about the teaching methods other museums use.”

After the fun visit to the Hands-ON Museum, it was time for the team to journey back to EC. The team agrees that this year’s trip to Ann Arbor was enjoyable as well as engaging! They are looking forward to the event next year!

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Annual dinner at Zingermans!

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Ann Arbor Adventure Part III

Welcome to the final installment of the Joseph Moore Museum’s trip to the University of Michigan. If you didn’t catch the first two posts, scroll below!

Symposium 2017

March 11th saw us once again up bright and early to attend the 13th Annual University of Michigan Early Career Scientists Symposium (say that ten times fast!). This year’s topic was the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology of Phenotypic Plasticity. Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of an organism to change its phenotype in response to different environmental conditions. A phenotype is the physical expression of a genotype, which is an individual organism’s set of genes. Phenotypic plasticity can include behavioral, physiological, and morphological changes that occur over an individual organism’s lifespan in response to new environmental conditions.  

There is a lot of exciting research happening on how phenotypic plasticity evolves and how it affects ecological systems. While we heard a full day of fascinating talks, we’ll just highlight some of our favorites.

Symposium presentation 2017

Dr.  Holly Moeller’s gave a talk entitled Trade, Borrow, or Steal: How acquired metabolism confers phenotypic plasticity. She explored the way different organisms can actually change their metabolism (way of obtaining energy) by taking cellular machinery from other organisms or developing mutualistic metabolic relationships. Marine ciliates, a type of single-celled protozoa, from the genus Mesodinium steal chloroplasts from their prey. They then use these chloroplasts to produce their own energy.  Some even take nuclei to genetically transcribe more phototrophic machinery. Imagine if you could go outside and take some leaves form a tree and use that to gather sunlight for your dinner!

Dr. Ben Parker studied pea aphids, which have an incredible adaption to over-population. Pea aphids usually do not have wings, but if their environment becomes too crowded, they can produce offspring that do have wings. This allows the offspring to fly away to find a roomier home. Some aphids will also produce winged offspring in response to diseased plants, to allow dispersal to better resources. Dr. Parker also looked at the genetic variability in phenotypic plasticity in the aphid population. Some aphids will always produce winged offspring if the conditions are right, while others never do.



Pea aphids with two offspring (commons.wikipedia.com)

Finally, Dr. Daniel Schwab added some insightful perspectives to developmental plasticity. He explained that as organisms develop, they change in response to internal environmental conditions (such as nutrients and hormones) as well as external environmental factors.  However, organisms are not passive or separate from their environments, but actively change their worlds by building homes or making tunnels. These environments changes that they create can in turn affect their phenotype. For example, dung beetles from the genus Onthophagus have polyphenic horns, meaning the size of their horns change in response to different conditions and relationships with the environment. These include available nutrients, hormones, symbioses with other organisms, and the type of burrows the beetle digs. Thus, the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic factors is important to fully understand the horn plasticity in the beetles.

After the symposium, we enjoyed a reception back at the Natural History Museum, where we chatted with other scientists and checked out the exhibits. At last, we hit the road back to Earlham. Time for some sleep! And lots of homework…

Poster presentation

Poster for the 13th Annual University of Michigan Early Career Scientists Symposium–Artwork by John Megahan



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Ann Arbor Adventure! Part II of III

In the afternoon at the Natural History Museum, Adam Rountrey, the Vertebrate Collections Manager, showed us around the collections. In the the paleontology department, we met several U of M students busy carefully packing up ancient bones and fossils for the move over to the new Research Museums Complex. William Sanders taught us about making cradles, which are special containers tailor-made to transport and store a fossilized specimen. Making a cradle is a labor intensive process, especially when you are trying to protect a giant mastodon skull!

William Sanders in paleo

William Sanders standing next to a “cradle”

We then learned about the process of making casts and molds of fossils. First, if the fossil is still embedded in its matrix (rock and sediment), it must be removed and cleaned.  Then, the scientist must decide what type of material to use for the cast. For example, if the scientist wants to study microdamage on the fossil, they might choose silicon, which creates detailed molds but takes a long time to set. Thicker materials dry faster, but do not preserve the same detail. The museum also makes hollow casts, which are much lighter and easier to work with. Hollow casts give more flexibility on how the specimen is displayed. Think about it—as massive whale skeleton, like the one hanging in the Exhibit Museum—would be far to heavy to be safely suspended above your head if it were not hollow inside.


Casts like these allow guests to touch fossils

We also got a sneak peek into the museum’s incredible imaging lab. Here, they can scan and then 3-D print models of their specimens. While the 3D prints are perfect for displays, they cannot print to the same precision as casts and molds. However, Tom told us that the technology continues to improve.

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The museum’s nifty imaging equipment

After learning how fossils are cleaned, cast, and carried, we descended to the museum’s basement to meet some paleo specimens face-to-face. We saw mastodon skulls, pygmy hippos, and peccaries. Peccaries are hoofed mammals that look like fury pigs, and they lived in Michigan during the Pleistocene. The museum collections has several peccary skeletons that are so well preserved they look like they could be just a few years old. However, these peccaries actually died thousands of years ago, although we do not know exactly when because they have no yet been carbon dated.

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Anna in Peccary Paradise

We also explored the mollusk collection, which contains over 5 million specimens! Some of mollusk shells are so tiny, hundred fit in a single jar. One of our staff members remarked on the beautiful, chest-high wooden cabinets housing the collection. Thomas Duda, Associate Curator of Zoology, explained that they were specially created for the first collection manager who was a short woman who did not want to climb ladders. We also learned that freshwater clams, euniadids, often look completely different and have different names, depending on if they live in lakes or streams, even though they are closely related.

As our conclusion to our museum visit, we talked with Carla Sinopoli, Director of the Museum Studies Program at the University of Michigan. We told her about the Museum Studies program at the Earlham College, and she explained the certificate program offered by the University. The one-year program is completed at the same time as a student’s main graduate or PhD degree. The program requires four classes and an internship, which can be anywhere in the world!

And at long last, the moment we had all been waiting for…dinner at Zingerman’s! There, we tasted an array of cheeses, made from milk, goat, sheep, and water buffalo milk. After sampling and purchases, we chatted over delicious sandwiches before returning to the hotel and relaxing (in the hot tub!) for the symposium tomorrow. Don’t miss our next blog post on the fascinating conference!

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Some newly discovered species we saw at the museum…

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Ann Arbor Adventure! Part I of III

Sunny days and snowstorms, seniors madly studying for comps, red-foldered prospectives popping up in classes…it must be March at Earlham College! And with March, comes the Joseph Moore Museum’s annual field trip to Ann Arbor. This year’s trip to the University of Michigan’s Natural History Museum and Early Career Scientist Symposium included six museum enthusiasts—Heather Lerner, Anna Carlson, Lydia Evans, Caroline Wolfe-Merritt, Katherine Sorrows, and Arden Ambrose-Winters.

Upon arrival (well, after a quick coffee stop) Katherine met with the graduate program of the Earth Science Department. Katherine learned about the department’s 5 year PHD program. After two years of courses, students take a qualifying exam to continue with the program. This first part of the exam is written, while part two is an oral summary of the research a student has accomplished to date (even if the research wasn’t successful—whew!).


Research Museums Complex at the University of Michigan

Meanwhile, the rest of the museum crew explored the University’s brand new Research Museums Complex, located five miles south of the old exhibit museum and collections. We met with EC almun and collection manager Janet Hinshaw, who gave us a tour of the new facilities and the Ornithology (birds) collection. Too bad Janet doesn’t have wings, because the new cabinets are 12 feet tall!

Janet Hinshaw

Janet Hinshaw in the Ornithology Collection

In addition to birds and a few mammals, we also toured the wet collections with Greg Schneider, who is the Herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) Collections Manager. The wet collection contains about 5 million specimens, housed on dozens upon dozens of 15 foot high rolling shelves.

Arden in herp collection

Arden looking at the Herpetology Collections

Greg showed us Earl Werner’s collections from the University’s E.S. George Reserve, a nature reserve which includes 37 natural ponds. The comprehensive, annual collection of specimens from this site has led to a deeper understanding of larval amphibian communities. Another exciting collection we saw are caecilians, which are a type of amphibian that look like snakes. Imagine a snake that feels like a frog!

Specimens with Greg

After saying goodbye to Janet and Greg, we drove back to the Natural History Exhibit Museum to talk with John Klausmeyer, Exhibit Preparator, and Kyra Berman, Associate Director of Education. Anna was prepared with paper, pen and a list of questions about how to successfully redesign JMM’s paleontology exhibit (“a million and one” questions as Anna put it). John was full of helpful tips, from the importance of including touchable objects to how to prevent guests from walking away with said touchable objects!

Museumers with John and Kira

Touching petrified wood! (Left to Right: Arden, Anna, Lydia Katherine, Caroline, John, Kyra)

We also discussed with Kyra how museums can include advocacy in exhibits. Kyra explained this is an important function of museums, but one that must be considered carefully. In order for an exhibit to have lasting power, the exhibit must be relevant now and in the future. One project Kyra is working on is connecting scientists to the public and making science seem more approachable. She organizes opportunities for scientists to hold programs in the museum, as well as organizes informal events like science cafes.

Exhibit hall.pngWhile we would have talked all day with John and Kyra, a packed afternoon still lay ahead of us. Stay tuned for Part II of our Ann Arbor adventure, wherein we explore the paleontology collection, meet some mollusks, and taste fancy cheese!


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We have two free events this September!

Building with Biology


Learn about the emerging field of synthetic biology and its connections to society. Talk with real scientists and other interested people!

These events are part of a nationwide festival designed to introduce guests to synthetic biology content. They aim to promote informal, two-way conversations between the scientists and visitors about how synthetic biology is interconnected with our society. Free admission to the public!

Should We Bioengineer the Mosquito: A Public Discussion

Thursday September 22, 7-9pm

Center for Science and Technology at Earlham College, Room 300

Register here, space is limited to 60 participants: Registration Form

This is a special opportunity for scientists and the public to interact and learn from each other, and share ideas and opinions about how we want to see these new technologies developed and adopted.


Building with Biology Activity Day

Saturday September 24, 1-5pm

Joseph Moore Museum

Enjoy fun, hands-on activities facilitated by Earlham College science students. You can:

  • Design a “Super Organism” to solve a problem
  • Extract DNA from wheat germ
  • Discuss which future technologies you’d support


The Building with Biology project is funded by the National Science Foundation and led by the Museum of Science, Boston. Building with Biology kits are developed and distributed nationwide in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)BioBuilder Educational Foundation, the National Informal STEM Education Network, Science Museum of Minnesota, Sciencenter, and Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc). Events are taking place at over 150 museums and institutions throughout the country from June through September, 2016.

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Debriefing: Notable Quotes

Overheard in the lab:

“Science isn’t all serious.”

“Maybe there was a giant beaver war”–suggestion as to why giant beavers became extinct

“For people who enjoy beavers, this is a sad time.”

“Tiny baby beaver teeth”

“We may be able to use the force, but we can’t keep the lights on”–when the lights in the modern lab kept automatically going off even when we were using the centrifuge

“My fingers are indeed dirty. I will get new fingers.”–said when new gloves were needed

Tare Puns:

“That’s terrible,” “Only a terrorist would do that,” “You’re tearing up our hearts,” “I’m going to tear myself away,” and many more.

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Heather wearing a beaver


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qPCR, Strawberries, and Kids

Heather came in on Saturday to check on our DNA library that we had left on the heat block overnight. She discovered that the liquid at the bottom of the tubes was brown. It seemed like some of the liquid had evaporated. This was not good, so she vortexed them and hoped for the best.

We spent Tuesday morning washing our beads. The beads are magnetic and can attach to the DNA. Using magnetic beads is great for ancient DNA because they prevent tiny DNA fragments from escaping. Washing the beads was very visually pleasing because they were brown as opposed to clear. Moreover, we got to use the magnetic rack, which has magnets that pull the beads to one side of the tube. We would start by adding a wash buffer to the tube with the magnets and the solution would be brown. We would then place the tube on the magnetic rack and watch the solution gradually become transparent (video) with a small ball of beads huddling by the magnet.

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Emily showing of the magnetic rack. The black circles are the magnets.

In the afternoon we made a qPCR to see if our DNA library was successful. Unfortunately it was not. The samples started amplifying at around 25-28 cycles and looked no different than the qPCR blank. Last year the samples started amplifying at 20 cycles. It is possible something went wrong with the qPCR machine, but we guessed that the library didn’t work because of Saturday’s discovery of the brown liquid and evaporation. Luckily, a heated lid for the heat block would prevent evaporation and the formation of brown liquid. We are ordering one now.

On Wednesday afternoon we did a DNA demonstration with Miller Farm’s kids’ camp. We showed 7 kids ages 5-8 strawberry DNA and let them help us mash the strawberries. We added dish soap and Gatorade to break down the strawberry cells and then pineapple juice, which has enzymes that break down proteins. Finally we added cold alcohol to separate out the DNA. After letting the test tube sit, we could see a layer of white, goopy stuff that was the DNA.

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The white layer is strawberry DNA

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Using transfer pipettes for pineapple juice

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Extracting DNA from cheek cells

We then let the kids see their own DNA. After swishing Gatorade in their mouths for two minutes, they spit into test tubes. We added dish soap and cold alcohol and showed the kids how to use a transfer pipettes to add the pineapple juice. The kids loved using the transfer pipettes. While waiting for the DNA to separate out, we had the kids make DNA bracelets. They got to choose a DNA sequence from options such as human, butterfly, cobra, flesh-eating microbe, and cockroach DNA. They had to read the sequence and put colored beads corresponding to A,T,C, and G on one string and then figure out the corresponding base pairs to put on the other string. After they finished the bracelets their DNA had separated from the Gatorade and soap. We put the DNA in a little test tube and attached the test tube to a string to make a necklace. It was a nice change of pace to be outside with the kids, and the kids seemed to enjoy learning about DNA.

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DNA bracelets

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Emily helping with bracelets

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Shear Joy

On Tuesday the 24th, we tried to shear our modern beaver DNA into pieces about 150-200 base pairs long so that we could continue making our baits. Shearing DNA involves putting the sample into a machine called a sonicator that uses ultrasonic waves to break up the DNA. Think of an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner, but much more powerful. The sonication machine was brand new, so we didn’t know for sure how long to run it for or what intensity to use. Our first try was a conservative 3 minutes at 30% intensity, which worked nicely; the DNA got down to about 900 base pairs. After this, we ran into trouble. We sheared the DNA again to get it down to the size we wanted it, but it seemed like no matter how long or on what intensity we ran the sonicator, we couldn’t get the DNA below about 300 base pairs. We ran the sonicator five times on Tuesday, and after calling the company for troubleshooting on Wednesday morning, we ran it three more times. Finally we got the DNA down to about 200 base pairs. On Thursday, we used the sheared DNA to finish creating the baits. We used the Nanodrop machine to see how many baits were present, and the result was incredibly high. So high, in fact, that we were very suspicious about how true that was. We plan to run a more accurate test later to see how successful we actually were.

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The sonicator  makes an ear-splitting noise

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Up close and personal with the sonicator. We had to maintain the water level exactly at the level of the samples in the tubes. If it got to high, the samples would jump up the sides of the tube and escape shearing. 

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Shearing is a three-person job

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