Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 6/22-6/28

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

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Film Screening – Queen Of The Sun: What Are The Bees Telling Us?
Tuesday, June 23
6:30 p.m.
This film takes us on a pilgrimage around the world, revealing ten thousand years of beekeeping and highlighting how our historic and symbiotic relationship with honey bees has been compromised due to modern mechanized industrial practices. Queen of the Sun unveils the fascinating world of the honey bee colony and examines the current global bee crisis through the eyes of beekeepers, scientists and farmers, discussing both the problems facing these all-important pollinators and suggesting possible ways to bring them back into a balance with nature. Join Dr. Nancy Greig, Director of our Cockrell Butterfly Center, for this one-night-only screening. Come early to learn about beekeeping activities and meet the HMNS beekeepers.

World Trekkers – China
Friday, June 26
6:30 p.m.
You don’t need a plane ticket to trek the globe; just come to HMNS! Our World Trekkers is a series of cultural festivals for the whole family, featuring crafts, native cuisine and entertainment inspired by each featured country. Passports will be available to track each attendee’s travels, which will be stamped each visit to verify their cultural comprehension.

Take Two: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Friday, June 26
7:00 p.m.
A young woman in ancient China longs for an adventurous life rather than an arranged marriage. Academy Award® Best Foreign Film English Version . 

Back to Seymour, Back in time: Part One

Far up in north Texas, past Ft. Worth and Wichita Falls, past the point where the flora turns from trees to shrubs, past a town with a funny name, Megargel, pop. 203, past a massive wind farm with tall white blades lording over thousands of acres of land, and then another, and another, lies the humble community of Seymour. Nestled in the Red River Valley near the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, the little city contains a high school (Go Panthers!), a couple of small hotels, a handful of fast food restaurants and steakhouses, several churches, and a tiny collection of historic prairie-style homes tucked behind Main Street. It’s the kind of town you live in not for the amenities, but for the rich soil and the open sky that stretches to the horizon, and the friendly rural folk, farmers and ranchers, who with their own hands have built it up from nothing.

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Wind turbines stand over fields of wheat on one of several wind farms outside Wichita Falls. Kelly Russo

On a weekend, you can enjoy a movie under the stars, take the family to the park, or hop in your SUV and explore the landscape. Nights open above like a planetarium, studded with a billion stars that would delight any gazer, and if you’re up for some night adventure, it’s a great time to search the dirt roads for nocturnal wildlife. But for all this, a trip to Seymour is incomplete without a visit to the pride of the city: the Whiteside Museum of Natural History.

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Seymour storefronts and cobblestone streets are a testament to this city’s history. Jason Schaefer

A recent addition to the rural landscape and a welcome diversion from daily life on the ranch in burning heat, the museum has blossomed into a local treasure in a single year. Under the direction of geologist and paleontologist Chris Flis, the once-dusty abandoned building that used to house a car dealership now contains excellent specimens of Permian-era fossils discovered less than 10 miles away in the Craddock bone bed, including the iconic Dimetrodon.

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Murals on the Whiteside Museum of Natural History provide a fascinating departure from the rural look of historical storefronts. Kelly Russo

With the help of paleo curators Dave Temple and Dr. Robert Bakker, The Houston Museum of Natural Science has obtained its Permian fossils from this site for the past 11 years. Flis began building the Whiteside collection from the Craddock and other local dig sites, and in the past year, to use Temple’s words, “He’s been busy.”

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A model Tyrannosaurus rex head at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History displays the contemporary conception of the dinosaur’s appearance. T. rex had pinfeathers on its head and jaw. We joked he looked a little like John Travolta. Kelly Russo

Racks of specimens jacketed in element-proof plaster-and-burlap casts line the back wall of the Whiteside, and in the fossil prep lab, the skeletons of Edaphosaurus, Diplocaulus, and Eryops line a long table as Flis categorizes the fragments to piece together whole prehistoric animals. These bones, about 280 million years old, represent a time in the fossil record when amphibians first exited the water and dragged themselves across land, eventually developing into early reptiles. And the Craddock bone bed is one of the richest cross-sections of this time period in the world.

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At the Whiteside Museum of Natural History, an open jacket of an Eryops skull, a Permian-era amphibian, displays the methods paleontologists use to prepare fossils. Jason Schaefer

Kelly and I visited Seymour, the Craddock and Whiteside the weekend of June 6 to gather information about our site and assist in the celebration of the Whiteside’s first anniversary. While the trip didn’t require any miles-long hike-ins through the backcountry, nor a tent and a sleeping bag since we “camped” in the Sagamar Hotel for four nights, the trip was nothing short of an adventure. We met the locals, played in the dirt, prospected for new fossils, and helped our paleontologists work on our active Dimetrodon digs. The work was sweltering and filthy, but the excitement of discovery, of putting hands on bone that hadn’t seen sunlight in hundreds of millions of years, holding history in the palm of your hand, was enough to keep us out in the heat, fueled by the magic of wonder.

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The spinal column and fin spines of an Edaphosaurus, a Permian-era land herbivore, line a long table in the fossil prep lab at the Whiteside Museum of Natural History. Kelly Russo

The first day, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. To beat the heat, Temple prefers to rise early to eat breakfast around 6:45 a.m. at the local Maverick diner, where Seymour’s agriculturalists congregate for any combination of bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes, and biscuits. Kelly doesn’t drink coffee, but I required about a half-gallon just to get the day started. I’m a late riser.

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Kelly (right), and educator and HMNS volunteer Shana Steinhardt, photograph a Texas horned lizard on the Craddock ranch near Seymour. Jason Schaefer

After the rich meal, plenty of calories to burn, our group caravaned off to the Craddock, a 4,400-acre ranch down a lonely county road. A dirt truck path carved through the mesquite and cedar brush was our only access to the dig site. Normally, we were told, the land is dry and brown, more a desert than a semi-arid valley, but following heavy rainfall two weeks prior from the same storm system that flooded Houston in May, the land was the greenest it had been in a decade. The rain caused an explosion of life, giving us five sightings of the Texas horned lizard, our state reptile, now listed as a threatened species due to its rapid decline in recent years.

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This Texas horned lizard, listed as threatened by the State of Texas, was one of five sightings that we had during the course of our trip. Jason Schaefer

But what’s good for the land ain’t so hot for digging fossils. On the way out to the site, Temple worried the mud would be too sticky for our company vehicles to push through, and even if we did, that the soil at the site might be too wet. Paleontologists depend on dry conditions to fleck away sedimentary rock with delicate tools. Wet ground means a difficult dig and sometimes the loss of specimens.

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Paleontologists and volunteers from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Seymour locals gather at our dig site in the Craddock Bone Bed. Kelly Russo

Conditions weren’t as bad as we thought, however. The site was about as good as it could get in spite of the rain. We cleaned up some litter, tarpaulin fragments and other jacketing materials that had aged in the weather, and set to work removing a pile of scree that had fallen in the rains and partially covered our biggest jacket. You can dig with anything you can prod the ground with, breaking up the clay into dust like a toothpick cleaning teeth, but Temple prefers a bayonet with a modified pommel to stab the soil and unlock it with a quarter turn. Others used screwdrivers, dental picks, or awls. Dr. Bakker hadn’t yet joined us; he would come a day later.

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A regular sight on the Craddock, Donald Gayle Coltharpe, lease-holder for the Craddock ranch, carries his dog Sissy perched on his shoulder. Kelly Russo

We dug slowly, handful by handful, making sure no bone fragments were lost in the soil we collected in buckets and discarded over the side of a nearby ravine. That first day, with the help of volunteers Dr. Mitch Fruitstone and Shana Steinhardt, Kelly and I learned about the process of extracting bone from the dirt. Using whatever digging tool you choose, you enter the soil at a shallow angle, digging into the side of a hill rather than down until your pick hits solid rock. It’s easier than you’d think to notice the difference. Though the sediment has hardened with time, it crumbles away easily. Bone fragments and rock will not break apart unless struck with an implement, hence the ginger digging. The idea is to remove the dirt from the rock, not the rock from the dirt. Each significant sample that is discovered must have its depth in the soil and location relative to other fossils recorded to place it in the geological record.

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The plaster jacket we hoped to flip over the weekend and transport back to the museum was buried under a layer of sediment after heavy spring rains. Jason Schaefer

The goal of the day was to “flip the jacket,” that is, carve the dirt out from under a fossil-rich lump of sediment until it stands on a pedestal, then turn it upside-down to plaster the underside. When the specimen is completely jacketed, it’s ready for transportation. Contrary to what the movies may suggest, paleontologists do the painstaking final prep work for fossils not in the field, but in a controlled environment, a laboratory with fine, electric-powered implements.

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Using a replica bayonet as a digging tool, HMNS Paleontologist Dave Temple teaches me how to uncover the plaster jacket without harming it. Kelly Russo

The plaster field jacket is made of layers like papier mache. Diggers begin with a separation layer, usually aluminum foil, so the plaster doesn’t stick to the specimens, and then dip fragments of material like burlap or cotton into plaster of Paris that hardens in minutes. Once the specimen is completely covered and dry, it is marked for cataloging so paleontologists know what it contains and its upright orientation when they return to it days, weeks, months, or sometimes years later.

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A jacketed Dimetrodon rib specimen from a neighboring dig site illustrates both the layering and soil removal techniques paleontologists use to preserve the integrity of fossilized bones. Kelly Russo

By one in the afternoon, we broke for lunch and to tour a nearby longhorn ranch. We had dug no more than a foot into the soil around the jacket, and Temple was nearly bitten by a four-inch centipede, a common sight for this part of Texas, but it was a good start to the weekend, with much more adventure to come.

Author’s note: This is the first part in a series detailing the HMNS excursion to the Craddock Bone Bed.

Sahil Patel: Legacy Camper

Once in a while, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Xplorations program gives children so much enthusiasm about science that they never really leave the museum. Sahil Patel discovered the museum as a child with the Xplorations program, and moved on to become an Ecoteen as he grew older. Now, he is an HMNS Outreach Presenter and a writer for the BEYONDbones blog.

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Patel teaches a children’s class about the density of various items for the Science Start Outreach Program. Interested in the Houston Museum of Natural Science since age 6, Patel hopes to share his excitement with other kids, cultivating their education through HMNS.

HMNS: When did you start attending summer camp here? And why?

SP: I started attending camp when I was six years old. I didn’t start going to school until Kindergarten, but I would go to work with my mom every day. Every day at lunch time, we would go to either the zoo or the museum, depending on weather, and I was hooked. The real reason I came to camp is probably so my mom could get me out of her office, but I kept coming back because I just never had a bad time. There wasn’t a single class I didn’t enjoy.

HMNS: What was your favorite class? What made it your favorite? Any stories from that class?

SP: Every summer, I had to take the Space Commander class; I must have taken it at least four times. My favorite part was the Expedition Center mission to Mars or the Moon on Friday afternoon. I loved it so much that I had a birthday party mission one year! Every time, I tried to be on a different team inside and was mostly successful. My favorite of those had to be the CIMCOM team, which got to talk to mission control. Years later, when I was a Moran Ecoteen, I got to be a part of mission control for a summer camp mission and loved every second of that, too!

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As an Ecoteen in 2010, Patel interned with Paleontology Curator David Temple.

HMNS: What is your favorite memory from summer camp?

SP: I enjoyed the camps that used to take field trips; one of my favorites was called Thrills and Chills, and the physics-based camp ended with a trip to Astroworld on Friday! Sadly, neither Thrills and Chills nor Astroworld still exist. I also enjoyed the Senior Coastal Ecology class that would take daytrips to Galveston to study wildlife and various aspects of the gulf coast, but this camp was discontinued in the late 2000’s. But I’d say my favorite memory was from when I took Crime Scene Investigators one year. Friday afternoon of Crime Scene Investigators involves a crime scene that the Xplorations staff and Moran Ecoteens set up, and our class went about examining evidence and following clues to try and figure out who committed the crime. Low and behold, it was our TA, who took off out the door and down the hall before he was captured and brought back to the classroom to explain himself.

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HMNS: If you could go back to Xplorations Summer Camp for one week this summer, what class would you take and why?

SP: I’ve taken quite a few of the camps that are still offered today, but one that I didn’t get to that I always wanted to take was Wizard Science Academy. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released on my tenth birthday, and I was obsessed from the opening chorus. The Potter-themed summer camps weren’t created until I was too old to go to camp, and I always felt like I missed out on something amazing. That was confirmed for me when my brother took Wizard Science Academy four years ago and came home with a wand, a broomstick, and a Triwizard Tournament championship.

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As an Ecoteen, Patel was present for the blooming of Lois the Corpse Flower in 2010.

HMNS: What made you decide to come back and work at HMNS?

SP: I guess you could say that I never left. Since I started summer camp at age 6, the only summer I did not work at the museum was when I was 14, because I thought I was ineligible for the Moran Ecoteen Program at that age. HMNS has always held a special place in my heart, from the moment I saw the massive T. rex in the old Glassell Hall. The museum has always made me question what I know, motivated me to learn further, and inspired me to pursue a career in science. Over the years, I fell in love with this place as I learned more and more about it. I got to a point where a summer without HMNS was a summer wasted. I wanted to show others why I was so passionate about this place and what made HMNS so special to me. Coming to work here was a no-brainer.

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With HMNS Outreach, Patel teaches children TEKS-based science skills with the Chevron Earth Science on Wheels: Dinosaur Discovery program.

HMNS: How did the Xplorations Summer Camp influence your life?

SP: Xplorations Summer Camp has had nothing but a positive impact on my life and thousands of others. The museum set me up for success by instilling in me a love of learning at a young age; Xplorations made science fun! With a summer’s worth of learning at camp, I was ready to go when school started up again in August, and I had all kinds of new, useful knowledge to impress my classmates. But most importantly, the summers I spent at Xplorations opened a door for me to a true passion: teaching. Xplorations led me to a career at HMNS. I wouldn’t be here today without it.

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Even hard at work at his desk in the outreach office, scheduling educational programs, Patel has a good time. He can’t imagine working anywhere else.

 

Kaylee Gund: Being Natural

Youth Education Sales dynamo Kaylee Gund has taken a wild, winding path to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and she couldn’t be happier that she’s here.

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Kaylee Gund smiles as her favorite dinosaur, Lane the Triceratops, lurks behind her in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. While Gund was visiting South Dakota on a family trip, she was able to take a side trip to visit the Black Hills Institute while Lane was being prepped for display at HMNS.

Gund’s passion for science runs deep. Right after she began interning with HMNS in 2010, she made an extra trip to the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota and saw the Triceratops Lane while it was getting prepped for display in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. For Halloween this past year, she dressed up as a carbon nanotube. In December 2014, she even went on a dig looking for shark teeth in Midlothian, TX.

As a kid, Gund’s family moved around a lot because her dad “just liked moving.” She was born in Michigan and lived abroad in countries like Brazil and the Netherlands before coming to Houston when she was 13.

“I remember coming [to the Museum] with my family when I first moved here, but I never imagined that I would work here. My favorite part of the Museum was the [Welch Hall of] Chemistry,” Gund said. “I loved the giant periodic table with samples of all the different elements in there.”

Gund’s first stint at HMNS began in 2010 when she applied for a summer internship sponsored by ExxonMobil. Her job as summer camp resource manager was “a perfect match.”

“Before I started at the Museum, I worked for a company that was moving all of their files to electronic versions. We had all of this paper, and it was my job to shred the old files. At the end, I had about 10 huge transparent bags full of shredded paper. It looked like snow!” Gund said. “So of course I built a snowman out of the bags. I took a Sharpie and drew a snowman face on one of the bags, but nobody got it. They were just too grown up!”

Xplorations summer camp proved to be a much better fit. As a summer camp resource manager, part of Gund’s job was to do the shopping for summer camp. It was refreshing to work in an environment that was a lot more fun, she said, and there was hardly ever a dull moment.

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Kaylee poses with the entrance to the HMNS Hall of Ancient Egypt, one of her favorite collections in the Museum.

After a few more summers working with Xplorations, Gund reached a major decision in 2013: she applied to the Peace Corps and moved to Africa.

Gund was placed in Guinea to teach chemistry in the country’s national language, French. Considering she graduated from the University of Dallas with a degree in chemistry and concentration studies in French, this, too, seemed like a good match. On July 4, 2013, Gund began what should have been a 27-month stay in Guinea.

Gund had her own hut in the village of Niandankoro that was “about three meters in diameter, complete with thatched roof and ceiling made of empty rice sacks,” she said. Electricity and running water were luxuries that she learned to live without. As Gund put it, “[those were] things that you almost didn’t think about after a while because you just didn’t need [them].”

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Gund’s hut in the village of Niandankoro.

Gund fondly recalls her classes at the village’s school, where she taught chemistry for students in seventh through tenth grade. Her students affectionately called her “Madame Chimie,” or Ms. Chemistry.

While typical lessons in the school called for rote learning, with students copying down notes from a blackboard, Gund was able to lead her classes with several experiments to aid learning and retention, and these experiments were some of her favorite memories.

For one class, she was able to import litmus paper to test pH, and her students tested everything from water and juice to saliva. On another day, she built an electrolyzer out of a jam jar, some batteries and wire. To review organic chemistry for tenth-grade board exams, Gund made salt dough and bought toothpicks to fashion molecule kits for each student, finishing with one giant alkane model that spanned the whole classroom.

Gund’s tenth grade students make organic molecules using salt dough she made and toothpicks. This was an extra review session as her students prepared to take their end of year examinations.

 

After a year in Niandankoro, Gund left the village in early July 2014 to train new Peace Corps recruits before returning to the United States to visit family before starting her second year of service. She never made it back.

The ebola outbreak in western Africa forced the Peace Corps to halt its operations in Guinea 14 months into Gund’s 27-month tour.

“We got evacuated, not so much because of the risk of us getting ebola, but it was that all of the medical centers and all of the hospitals were so busy and preoccupied with ebola that if one of us broke a leg, there wouldn’t have been the necessary staff available to take care of that,” Gund said. “[The Peace Corps] determined that it wasn’t a good idea for us to remain there.”

She never got to say a proper goodbye.

While Gund waited to hear if she would be able to go back, she contacted Nicole Temple, HMNS’ Vice President of Youth Education, for some work and spent some time teaching lab classes. When it became clear that Gund was not going to be able to return to Guinea, she applied for a job as a Youth Education Sales Assistant and began work mid-September 2014.

“I really like having the opportunity to share with others about HMNS,” Gund said. “I think everything here is interesting. I love being able to tell people about our exhibits and what we offer.”

Gund poses in front of a model of a giant squid next to the Strake Hall of Malacology.

Gund poses in front of a model of a giant squid next to the Strake Hall of Malacology.

For the next eight months, Gund assisted teachers with booking field trips to the Museum. She thought of it as a puzzle, matching interests with what the museum has to offer.

“My favorite part about it was having teachers basically give me free reign. They would say, ‘Oh, I’m an AP chemistry teacher’ or ‘a pre-K teacher,’ and then I would work something out that would fit their age range and their interests. We have such a variety to offer, so it was cool to be able to pair things, like [the Farish Hall of] Texas Wildlife with Tiny Giants,” Gund said.

Less than a year later, Gund received a promotion and now is the Youth Education Sales Curriculum Coordinator and Data Analyst. For all of the museum’s permanent exhibit halls and special exhibits, Gund writes curriculum correlated with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills objectives for teachers to use in class before and after a field trip to the Museum. She relishes the creative parts of her job, using her teaching experiences to come up with innovative ways to reinforce material.

“I’m really glad that [this job] happened. To this day, I walk into the museum every morning and find something new to be amazed at,” Gund said. “I don’t think I have a favorite part, really. I like all of it.”