Paleontology in Pieces

When Rebecca (Schmeisser) McKean ’04 (Geology) discovered a plesiosaur fossil in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, she knew that it was unlike anything else so far found in the Tropic Shale. She talks about the moment of discovery in 2012, the process of excavating it in company with her students, and the years of diligent work to follow as she reconstructs her 92.5 million-year-old find.

Riley Hacker ’17, who worked alongside McKean over two years, was able to enjoy an experience of his own, of a scope rare in undergraduate life. He was able to prospect a Utah site for discovery, find a fossil fish, excavate it, identify it as a 92.5 million-year-old Xiphactinus audax, and present on his findings at a national Geological Society of America conference.

Path to paleontology
After a year of internships in paleontology and geology, Hacker is now in his first year at DePaul University studying cretaceous fish under renowned expert Kenshu Shimada.

Hacker is not the only one of McKean’s students to have discovered a passion for paleontology in her classroom. They number among others Alison Shackelton ’14 and Sara Schreder-Gomes ’19. Shackelton was on hand to help excavate McKean’s plesiosaur in 2013, and she also developed research projects on cretaceous fish from the Tropic Shale and pterosaurs while at St. Norbert. She recently finished her master’s program on fossil mammals at Temple University and is starting her second year in a Ph.D. program at Northern Illinois University studying fossil hippos.

Schreder-Gomes vividly remembers the moment she developed a desire to study paleontology. It was SNC Day in 2015, and her mom and grandmother drove six hours to visit her for the first time. She regaled them with tales about her fascinating geology class with McKean while walking through the Gehl-Mulva Science Center. When they came upon the professor diligently working in her lab, she stopped to explain what she was doing – sparking Gomes’ curiosity in learning more about the history of life on Earth.

Oct. 31, 2018