Fossil site hosts orientation for potential volunteers

Tony Casey • Apr 6, 2014 at 6:51 AM

A batch of nearly 70 volunteers might soon know what it’s like to aid in a major scientific discovery.

The East Tennessee State University and General Shale Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site hosted a preliminary orientation for potential volunteers Saturday, and members of the staff were tickled to see so many interested in joining in on the work.

“I love seeing this many people,” site preparator Shawn Haugrud announced to the group. “We’re much more likely to find a new species with more people.”

He and operations manager April Nye gave presentations to the applicants, showing what work at the fossil site would entail, including everything from dress code to how to train to do wet screening and everything in between.

Volunteers, Nye said, carry a lot of weight at the site. Not only do they get to take part and aid in important scientific research, they become ambassadors for the site to the community, hopefully drawing in new audiences in the natural sciences.

Nye shared the mission statement of the fossil site, which set the goal to “discover, preserve and interpret the fossil record of the region.” None of the work they accomplish could have been done without the help of volunteers, Nye said, and she knows, because that’s how she started, just after the major fossil discovery by the Tennessee Department of Transportation that ultimately led to the museum’s opening.

“Our volunteers touch every aspect of the museum,” Nye said. “I started as a volunteer many years ago.”

From volunteer she moved onto her current position, which requires her to have oversight on nearly every part of the museum, something in which she takes great pride. When she asked those in attendance “who wants to dig in the field?” there was an overload of hands that shot into the air. Not squashing their dreams by any means, Nye explained that while volunteers are in great abundance behind the museum, clearing, discovering and working in the dirt, those positions take extra care and training.

For those who want to help, but, perhaps don’t want to dig in the clay, Nye said there are other equally important positions like working the front desk, giving tours, doing community outreach and working in the gift shop.

In the gift shop is where some of the perks of the volunteer job come in, with each given a discount at the shop, as well as having free access to the museum and traveling exhibits when they’re on site, a complimentary newsletter, exclusive invitations to fossil site fundraisers and functions and picnics and potluck dinners with Nye, Haugrud and the rest of the staff.

The unique fossil site in Gray, Haugrud said, does things differently than many people have seen on movies like “Jurassic Park.” They take extra precautions to not miss an opportunity to advance their discoveries by throwing nothing away, even the dirt wrapped around some of the many skeletons and fossils found on site. Some of the discoveries made have included around 60 different animals, including fossils for the three-toed horse, rhinoceros, ground sloth, saber-toothed cat and shovel-tusk elephant, to name only a few.

Limestone’s Stephen Shupe sees the chance to volunteer at the museum as a perfect opportunity for him to get his foot in the door in the line of working he’s been dreaming of since he was a young boy.

“I’ve been passionate about rocks and fossils since I was a kid,” Shupe said, and sees himself as a shoo-in. He hopes to do every bit of the needed work, from field work to providing information to large groups of people. Shupe and the others in attendance now need to fill out their applications, hope to land an interview and begin training to work at the museum.

Shayleigh Maden, a student at University High School on ETSU’s campus, had only been working in the lab for a few weeks, but was meticulously cleaning away some of the debris collected on a pile of bones under a bright light Saturday, coincidentally under a headband that had skulls on it.

Though she’s only in high school, Maden said this volunteer work might be the beginning of something she’d like to pursue in college.

Maden said when she oriented, there were only seven people with her and was surprised to see such a big group of potential volunteers. David Moscato, education program assistant at the fossil site, said he and the others “geeked out” over all the interested volunteers, and was proud to show off the various jobs that needed to be done at the museum.

When one potential volunteer happily asked about a spread-out pile of fossils in the lab, likening the process of putting them all together to a puzzle, Moscato expressed the same excitement with his answer.

“It’s like a puzzle, with no picture on the box and someone has stolen a bunch of the pieces.”

Volunteers have the opportunity to work Tuesday through Saturday, with a 9 a.m.-noon shift, as well as a 1-5 p.m. shift.

For more information about the Gray fossil site, find its Facebook page or go to www.etsu.edu/naturalhistorymuseum.

Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist

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