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Meet Your Neighbor: Gray Fossil Site preparator Haugrud has his dream job

Jennifer Sprouse • Jul 15, 2013 at 12:00 PM

While most kids dream up and explore career options and goals throughout their childhood, Shawn Haugrud had everything figured out by the time he was in the second grade.

A native Texan, Haugrud, one of the preparators ---— people who work to clean and build fossils for researchers and exhibits — at the East Tennessee State University & General Shale Natural History Museum Visitor Center and Gray Fossil Site, said it was in the Fort Worth area where he was first exposed to fossils.

“I’ve always wanted to do this as a career. I always wanted to do this and my parents were very supportive of that, so even when I was in the first and second grade, they were taking me to museums. They would buy me plenty of books that I would just absorb. We actually had some fossils in Texas. That area where we were living had a lot of ocean fossils,” Haugrud said.

“By the time I was in the second grade, I was already collecting fossils on my own and my parents would help me get them back to the house and then I would read about how to clean them or take care of them. I was already doing amateur prep work.”

He said his family moved around a lot before settling in the Winchester, Va., area.

“Once I turned 16 and I had my license, I started volunteering in the lab. Within the first year of working there, I had worked my way up to head volunteer so when the preparator was out, I would schedule other volunteers,” Haugrud said. “When (the preparator) would go out to the field seasons, which were out in Montana, they actually paid me a little bit to run the lab while he was gone. Then they started inviting me out on field season, so I would help run the crews out in Montana.”

He said his team worked in the Hell Creek Formation, which he said was adventurous as an 18- and 19-year-old. He recalled experiences such as riding in an ATV over a rotten wooden footbridge as planks were falling out, as well as being 110 miles from the nearest Walmart.

“You are out there for four months on your own. I enjoyed that aspect of my career at that point,” Haugrud said.

Haugrud said he took college courses in biology and geology after returning from field work, but said he began getting job offers to go out west.

“I took sort of a non-traditional route on things. I thought it would be good to get real-world experience,” Haugrud said as he ditched the books for invaluable hands-on experience.

He said he came to the Fossil Site in January 2005 after he was offered a three-year temporary position.

“This was in the time that they got the big TDOT grant that lasted for three years and so they hired in a bunch of people. I came in with that grant,” Haugrud said. “While working out here, I really, really enjoyed it and so when they offered me something as far as staying on, I jumped at it because I really love this area.”

He said during the grant he worked in the lab at Brown Hall at ETSU, but when he was hired on again, areas in the museum — including the prep lab — were still being built, so he conducted tours and worked the front desk for a while.

“That was interesting. Not exactly what I wanted to be doing, but it was nice to stay in the area knowing that the lab would open up eventually,” Haugrud said.

He said there are two other preparators at the site, who specialize in different areas, but said he mostly handles the public side of things.

“The other component of our job is we do all the scheduling for all the volunteers, interview these volunteers, manage that whole workforce,” Haugrud said.

He said he typically comes in at 8:30 a.m. for work, allowing a 30-minute window to check emails, switch out work station projects and organize the volunteer groups for the entire day. Haugrud said volunteers — who must be at least 15 years old to work in the prep lab — come in around 9 a.m. and he assigns them their task for the day.

He said volunteers are usually evaluated on their personalities and natural skills as to what projects they work on in the lab. Haugrud said some are assigned to either pick through gallon Ziplock bags where they sort plant and animal fossils and rocks, do general prep work where they clean and build specimen pieces broken only in a couple of places, and some tackling the plaster jackets brought in from the field.

“It’s a really interesting social environment and I love that aspect of the job. I really strive to make a sense of community in the lab,” Haugrud said. “I want (the volunteers) to feel like they belong to something bigger. We’re all here as part of a team.”

He said his favorite part of his job is simply “filling in the blanks of history.”

“This site is so special for what it is. There are other Miocene sites, but they’re way out west and they represent grasslands, so people find horses and that’s what you expect. This site is a forest environment and we’re getting new animals,” Haugrud said. “As a preparator you are the first person to really see what this animal looks like in history.”

Haugrud said right now he’s back in school mode at Northeast State Community College while also working at the Fossil Site. He said he’ll be transferring to ETSU in the next year where he said he may branch out of the world of paleontology to hone in on other skills that would help him better manage the lab.

As for venturing out of his career as a preparator, Haugrud said his search is over when it comes to jobs.

“I have my dream job. This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything else, I just want to do it better.”

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