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English + Geology = Science Success

Ask UC geology major Mackenzie English, “What did you do on your summer break?” and he might say, “What break?” We might add, “What didn’t he do?”

Date: 9/25/2007
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Provided by Mackenzie English
Mothers Day Site
Sometimes dinosaur digs require a lot of lying around, as long as you're still digging.

Mackenzie English has accomplished a lot in his brief time on earth — on earth, under earth, digging earth. This summer, and the summer before, he traveled to Montana with adjunct faculty member Glenn Storrs. Storrs is the Withrow Farny Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) and each year takes a group of volunteers to collect dinosaur fossils. Mac, besides being a second-year geology major at UC, is also a CMC volunteer, so he was asked if he would like to join the team. Sara Oser, another UC geology undergrad and CMC volunteer, also went.

"Mac is passionate about paleontology, which makes him a great fit for Cincinnati," says Storrs, assistant vice president for Natural History & Science at the Cincinnati Museum Center. "The collaborative environment between UC, the Museum Center and the local amateur community is unequalled, providing unique educational and research opportunities for students with Mac's maturity and dedication. We're glad to have his help."

At the museum, Mac preps and restores dinosaur bones, mostly Diplodocus (long neck, long tail, lots of ribs). He is very interested in vertebrate paleontology, so he jumps at every chance to get his hands on fossilized skeletons. He would love to someday work with Velociraptor mongolia, which is about the size of a small dog, he says. So much for the ’raptors in “Jurassic Park.”

Mackenzie with brush in foreground.
Dinosaur digs require attention to fine detail.

“Those were more likely Utahraptor,” says Mac. “They grew up to about six meters in length, as opposed to the East Asian velociraptor’s mere two meters or less.”

As a result of the team’s efforts in Montana, Mac says, they brought home a “ginormous” block of Diplodocus bone, matrix (the surrounding mudstone), and plaster jacket, weighing about 3,500 pounds and measuring about nine feet long, four feet wide and four feet tall. Through a recent anonymous donation, the Cincinnati Museum Center was able to purchase a trailer large enough for the block. Good thing, as it would surely exceed the size allowed for carry-on luggage on any airplane.

Hard rock and big tools.
Sometimes hard rock requires big tools, too.

Besides said block, the crew also collected some water-bearing fossils (such as clams) and allosaurus (a carnivorous Jurassic dinosaur) teeth.

“The timing worked out well because the CMC has a full allosaurus skeleton about to be put on display,” Mac says.

For the near future, Mac plans to continue volunteering at the Cincinnati Museum Center, depending on how much his coursework will allow. He originally volunteered as a result of working on a high-school science fair project, and then as part of his Cincinnatus scholarship requirement. As a Cincinnatus scholar, he is required to perform 30 hours of community service each academic year. He put in about five times that last year.

After he receives his bachelor’s degree, he plans to pursue graduate school, possibly out west. As much as he likes the University of Cincinnati and especially its geology department, UC doesn’t do dinosaurs (although its invertebrate paleontology program is ranked 7th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report). There just aren’t many dinosaur-related opportunities in SW Ohio.

“The only dinosaurs now in Ohio are found in museums. The closest thing we have to a dinosaur in Ohio is a mound of dirt with a little bit of Triassic material,” says Mac. “Surface bedrock here in Ohio represents mostly Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Mississippian, Pennsylvanian and a little bit of the Permian.” (Which means that our rocks are too old to contain the big guys.)

“Any rocks with dinosaur fossils were eroded away long ago,” he adds wistfully.

In the not-too-far-distant future (still in the Holocene epoch), Mac hopes to find his career in museum work and possibly teaching.

Besides his current work at the Museum Center and his geology studies, Mac also participates on the steering committee of the UC Science and Engineering Expo (SEE). He enjoyed judging some of last year’s projects. The fourth SEE is coming up on March 15, 2008, and will present the work of about 500 Mac-wannabes. Mac understands where they’re coming from. He was a “science rat” himself.

At Tippecanoe High School, just north of Dayton, Mac was a chemistry lab aide and helped start a school science club. He also participated in school science fairs his junior and senior years.

“I went to District (at Central State) and State (at OSU) both years,” Mac says. “My junior year I received an ‘Excellent’ and my senior year I received a ‘Superior.’” His project for junior year was "A Case Study of Techniques for the Excavation, Restoration, and Preservation of Late Jurassic Large Vertebrate Fossils."  For his senior year it was "An Evaluation of Spray Foam Insulation When Used to Stabilize Paleontological Specimens for Recovery."

The ginormous block.
The ginormous block, guarded by the owner of the front end loader, Sara Oser (UC), Glenn Storrs (UC/CMC), Sam Parry (OSU) and Mac.

In the latter project, he compared spray foam insulation to the commonly used plaster of Paris for jacketing specimens in the field. He found the foam to be strong enough for field use in certain cases, and significantly lighter in weight, adding only a fraction of the weight to a jacketed specimen compared to the increased weight added by the plaster. For his project he won an award from the ASM Materials Education Foundation.

And now Mac says he’s had the opportunity to see his project in real life in several paleontological applications.

“Preparators at the Geier Center [part of the Cincinnati Museum Center] have been using spray foam to hold bones in place while the glue’s drying and as a type of cradle for the specimens while they’re in storage.”

The past two summers in Montana were beneficial to Mac in many ways. For one, he learned a lot about how things work on a dig, he says.

“I learned a lot about anatomy from the bones, too,” he adds. “So I could identify that type of bone the next time I saw it.”

Mac speaks glowingly of the geology faculty, especially Storrs, Craig Dietsch, Arnie Miller, Warren Huff and Carl Brett.

“He’s Carl!” Mac says. “I love to find things to show him just to hear him go, ‘OOH!’”

Mac brought some bentonite  back from Montana to give to Huff (what else would you give Warren Huff, one of the world’s leading authorities?).

“Mac is a pleasure to have around,” says Huff. “He has a broad range of interests in geology and he loves to learn by doing as well as by reading.”

A large box of rocks made its way to Mac’s own room, too, not the only one to do so over the years, according to his parents. This summer, before going to Montana, Mac also went to India on a field course that Lewis Owen and Dietsch offered on the Himalaya.

“Mac was a real trooper on our India trip,” says Dietsch, “it was obvious that he knew what he was doing regarding the physical demands of being at high altitude and he showed himself to be an experienced camper. I know Mac is keen on paleontology, but his interest in geology goes much further: he spent half a day with a small group of us at about 15,500 feet tromping around on a small ophiolite (a piece of the Earth’s oceanic crust and underlying upper mantle), rocks far removed from anything fossiliferous, and collected some mineral samples to analyze back in the department.”

“Right on, Mac,” Dietsch adds, “a hard-rocker at heart!”

Mac tells a class about his trip to India.
Mac tells a class about his trip to India.

 “While we were in India, we were able to pick up raw garnet,” Mac says. “They were just lying around on the ground. I got a sandwich bag full!” Did we remember to mention that garnet is the birthstone for folks born in January?

“One reason I came down to Cincinnati for college was that the Geology Department offered so many exciting and adventurous field trips,” he points out. So far he has visited New England, Montana, India and multiple sites in the local tri-state area. He couldn’t make the department’s freshman trip to Utah this summer for some reason.

The Morrison gang.
The Morrison gang? [Oser, Mac, Don Esker (UC), Parry, Mason in chair (CMC)] These people are having way too much fun.

“Too busy,” he says, with a smile. “Maybe next summer.”

Mac smiles again when asked why he went into geology.

“According to my mom, ever since I could walk I was always picking up rocks and bringing them into the house.” What about according to Mackenzie?

“I love rocks,” he says simply.