Mysteries Surround Fossilized Remains

Reflect for a second on the word “old.” What is the oldest object that you have ever seen or held?

The definition of the word old has taken on a new meaning for Emily Napier, a former geology student and undergraduate researcher at the University of Tennessee who graduated in May 2011. As an undergraduate researcher, Napier was introduced to the field of paleoecology where she was given the opportunity to explore the histories of fossils.

The extinct life form that she began studying in 2010 is called an edrioasteroid, a creature that can be described simply as a primitive starfish. However, primitive would be a relative term here—these starfish are estimated to be nearly 280 million years old. What do you think it would feel like to hold one of these little 280-million-year-old guys in your hand? What if you held about 240 that were entombed in a rock slab no larger than the size of your palm? The study of two of these crowded rock slabs was the challenge that Napier faced during her senior year of college.

Napier began working with Dr. Colin Sumrall, Lecturer of Geology at the University of Tennessee, at the start of her senior year. Dr. Sumrall assisted Napier with any major roadblocks in her research, while René Shroat-Lewis, one of Dr. Sumrall’s Ph.D. students, acted as Napier’s lab mentor and worked with her on a daily basis. “I liked having both René and Colin be there for me,” Napier says. “René is very supportive, and Colin is the same way.”

Napier first got her feet wet in early August, when she was invited to join her two mentors for a trip to Cincinnati to analyze samples of edrioasteroids for Shroat-Lewis’ project. It was here that she began to understand the steps and methodologies necessary in conducting scientific research on edrioasteroids.

After returning from Cincinnati, Napier couldn’t wait to begin her very own project. Between juggling schoolwork and a part-time job, Napier still managed to work in the lab at least 15 hours a week. “Emily was really diligent about working,” says Shroat-Lewis. “She really was the scientist on the project. I was just her assistant.”

Emily Napier

Emily Napier analyzes the primitive starfish-like fossils, no larger than one-half the size of a pencil eraser.

Napier studied two rock slabs collected from Illinois that were approximately the size and shape of a deck of cards. However, the slabs contained hundreds of edrioasteroids, with each little star-shaped fossil no larger than one-half the size of a pencil eraser. Therefore, much of Napier’s time in the lab was spent looking through a microscope observing each of the 243 little starfish. She determined the size, orientation, the spacing between the fossils, and the quality or condition of each fossil. After collecting the data, Napier graphed and analyzed the results. “I felt like I was actually doing something beneficial instead of just reading a book and writing it down on a test,” she says.

Although Napier’s research appears to be clear-cut, it was anything but. About four months before her first scheduled research presentation at a geology conference in Wilmington, North Carolina, Napier began analyzing the results she had gathered regarding the distribution of the fossils across the tiny slabs. After researching edrioasteroids and their distribution patterns, Napier was horrified that her results did not match any of the literature that she had found. Beside herself with worry and self-doubt, she asked Dr. Sumrall and Shroat-Lewis about her abnormal results. Having just begun research that year, it was not out of the question that Napier might have made a mistake, which was exactly what she feared most.

Shroat-Lewis took the slabs home to double check Napier’s results. She preformed each of Napier’s calculations for the spatial analysis again, and her results matched Napier’s. Dr. Sumrall and Shroat-Lewis examined the rock slabs and came to the conclusion that Napier had done her job to perfection, and that oftentimes, anomalies appear in scientific studies. “I was borderline crying because I thought I messed everything up,” confesses Napier, “but I actually did something really good.” Napier was finally able to breath a sigh of relief. The sigh didn’t last for long, however, because even though she had dodged that bullet, the largest hurdle of all still lay ahead. She still had to prepare a poster and present her research to hundreds of the best geologists in the country.

From having zero research experience in August to the two presentations of her research project in March, Napier had far exceeded the expectations of her mentors. Napier presented her project both at the 2011 Geological Society of America (GSA) Southeastern Section Meeting and also at the Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement (EURēCA) at the University of Tennessee. Napier won prizes for both presentations. “No one was more surprised at how well she did than Emily,” says Dr. Sumrall. “I wasn’t surprised at all.”

Dr. Sumrall and Shroat-Lewis are incredibly proud of their protégé. Dr. Sumrall fully expects Napier to write and publish a paper on the research she conducted during her senior year. “Emily was truly an exceptional student,” says Shroat-Lewis. “I could not have asked for anyone better.”

–Jennifer Brouner

Reprinted with permission from the Office of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.