(photo above and below by Dave Evans

Undergrads dig for dinos in Alberta's badlands

Rufina Kim is chiseling carefully, trying not to break a dinosaur fossil she just found. Understandably, she’s nervous. You don’t want to break a piece of history. Plus, she’s being filmed.

As her chisel cracks the piece of ground that lets her see what’s underneath, she exhales in relief. Her professor, David Evans, high-fives her and says “Way to go, not bad for your first one.” Kim tells the camera that they’ve found almost a full rib. “I’m pretty proud of my work,” she says with a big grin.

Kim, who has since graduated with majors in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) and neuroscience, spent a couple of weeks in southern Alberta’s Badlands in 2013 with Evans, his team of graduate students and researchers from the Cleveland Museum for Natural History. The experience was filmed for the first episode of the History Channel’s Dino Hunt Canada. Evans – of EEB and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) – gets to take two third-year students along for the ride every summer through the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Research Excursion Program, as well as students who have an NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Award (USRA).

The opportunity to dig up a fossil, be filmed doing it and then see the bone in a museum is an extraordinary learning experience for an undergraduate, participants say.

“In the field, all the graduate students and professors don’t have any meetings, they don’t have classes to teach,” says Evans. “You get quality time to talk science and learn what everyone is doing. Plus, you get to share the excitement of finding something. There’s nothing like fieldwork for bonding within a team. You share the toil, the tears and the triumph.”

Fourth-year biology and forest conservation student Shauna Edgar has stuck around Evans’ lab to volunteer ever since she participated in the program in 2013.

“This type of work really captures the imagination,” she says. “It’s very exciting and a whole different university experience.”

Fourth-year EEB student Elizabeth Benner started a separate research project with the Evans lab since she went to the Badlands last summer, but she never expected to be exposed to so many resources.

“I’m meeting all these different people who are influential in the field and being able to get these opportunities while I’m studying,” she says. “It’s been amazing to come here and be able to get a head start on immersing myself in paleontology.”

Evans and his teams of students will return to the Badlands quarries this summer to get back to work. The new dinosaur they’ve just uncovered is significant because it’s one of the oldest members of the horned dinosaur family that includes the famous Triceratops. The new species is notable for its highly ornamented skull – with curled horns around the margin of its neck shield, rather than the more familiar upward-facing horns. It adds new information on the early evolution and diversification of an iconic group of plant-eating dinosaurs.

“We’ll continue to go back as long as we can,” says Evans. “Our project is turning up interesting new specimens. We have yet another new species of horned dinosaur that we found and will be continue to dig up this coming summer. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue the undergrad research experience for many years to come.”

The Research Excursion Program is open to all third-year students within the faculty to participate in a professor’s experiential research. The NSERC USRA supports students who want to pursue graduate studies and a research career.

Jessica Lewis is a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.

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