From marbles to mollusks

Fossils and flowers: While studying ammonite fossils in England, Whitney Lapic ’18 had occasion to give Queen Elizabeth II flowers in Sandringham.

By: Mikaela Murphy-Boyle

Whitney Lapic ’18 always knew paleontology was in her future. “Most kids love dinosaurs as five-year-olds,” she said. “I never grew out of it.”  

Rocks and stones too have long been part of Lapic’s trajectory — in the form of marbles. In 2009, at 13 years old, she was the 86th National Marbles Tournament champion, following the legacy of her mother, who was also a national champion.

From Shillington, Pennsylvania, Lapic originally applied to Mount Holyoke because of the College’s strong study abroad programs. (Her admissions essay topic? How the game of marbles shaped her life and enabled her to travel to competitions around the world.) Not prone to indecision, she had declared a geology major and a Five College Coastal and Marine Sciences Certificate by the end of the spring semester of her first year. She added a biological sciences minor after her sophomore year.

“I knew this was the place for me,” Lapic said. “I was very excited by what I could study here.”

Over four years at Mount Holyoke College, Lapic’s childhood dinosaur obsession developed into a concrete desire to pursue fossil research as a career. Through her classes at Mount Holyoke and the Five College Consortium, a College-funded summer-research internship, and research opportunities on campus and abroad, she has been able to immerse herself in paleontology.

Now she is finishing a senior thesis that she hopes to publish as a journal article and pursuing graduate programs in the field.

Mount Holyoke’s broad course selection helped Lapic develop and define a research focus — and find a mentor. Her interest in fossils was solidified her first year after taking Paleontology-Stratigraphy with Mark McMenamin, Professor of Geology.

“Whitney is a terrific researcher and a real pleasure to work with,” McMenamin said. “She combines a unique aesthetic appreciation for paleontology with technical and analytical skill. She’s taken advantage of everything the College has to offer and I’m confident she’ll continue making strides in the field.”

Another favorite class was with Stan Rachootin, the David and Lucy Stewart Professor of Biological Sciences. The class, Biology of Terrestrial Arthropods, took advantage of Mount Holyoke’s campus living laboratory by collecting arthropods from the campus lakes to analyze in the lab. Lapic was able to make connections between the living arthropods she collected and the College’s fossilized arthropods in the Geology department’s collections, which are hundreds of millions of years old.  

“I loved that paleontology enables you to understand an ancient organism’s life based on the environment they were preserved in,” Lapic said. “It’s like solving a game of Clue.”

Certain that paleontology was the field for her, Lapic was eager to research fossils around the world and compare them to Mount Holyoke’s collection. She decided to study abroad somewhere that offered paleontological fieldwork opportunities.

An important aspect of Mount Holyoke’s classroom-to-career emphasis is supporting and funding domestic and international internships and research opportunities. Lapic was able to use study-abroad resources available through the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives to spend a semester at the University of Kent at Canterbury, England. She studied the shell structure of ammonite fossils — ancient relatives of octopus and squid — on the southeastern coast of England.

That inspired Lapic to continue investigating the ancient mollusks. The following summer, she used the College’s Lynk funding program, this time through the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, to conduct research at Cornell University’s Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York.

“Having funding from the Miller Worley center was incredible,” Lapic said. “It made it possible for me to pursue research at one of the top paleontology collections in the world.”

The College’s resources came through yet again. Lapic said she was able to nab a summer spot at Cornell due to her specific experience in scanning electron microscopy, a technical skill she learned at Mount Holyoke.

“Most undergraduates don’t get to use scanning electron microscopes,” she noted. “The fact that I was able to learn this advanced technique at Mount Holyoke was the main reason I landed the internship.”

At Cornell, Lapic worked directly with a doctoral student, helping him wrap up his thesis work on oysters. “It was useful to see firsthand what the culmination of a Ph.D. process looks like,” she said. “I realized graduate-level research was something I could do — and wanted to do.”

She also worked on a project that involved studying the “microtraces” within the drill holes that were left in clamshells by ancient predatory snails. These snails had teeth-like structures on the ends of their tongues that they used to drill into their prey.

“If you can observe these microtraces under a high-powered microscope,” Lapic said, “you can link them to a specific kind of snail. This helps us understand ancient predator-prey interactions and compare them to modern snails.”

Lapic was so excited by this research that she has focused her senior thesis on gastropod microtraces.

“Whitney has shrewdly leveraged her knowledge and combined it with both her summer internship work at the Paleontological Research Institute and her technical finesse on the scanning electron microscope to generate a superb thesis project,” said McMenamin, her thesis advisor.

In yet another academic success for Lapic, that thesis may turn into a professional journal article. During their research, she and McMenamin happened upon a feature that previously had not been seen in either fossilized or contemporary snails: a mysterious pearly rim on the fossil boreholes that may have been secreted by a unique predatory snail.

“Thanks to her deep understanding of fossilized shell structures, Whitney is well-positioned to solve the mystery of these pearly rims,” McMenamin said. “Important paleoecological implications are associated with this anything but boring research!”  

Outside of her groundbreaking paleontology research, Lapic also works as the Eco-Rep coordinator within the Miller Worley center. The team of students helps the College meet its sustainability goals by promoting recycling, energy-saving and waste-reduction on campus.

“The Eco-Reps have given me a wonderful community at Mount Holyoke outside of the lab,” she said. “It’s so great to be part of a team of students from different academic disciplines, since so much of my lab work is individual and only in geology.”  

Perhaps improbably, Lapic also maintains her marbles hobby and practices regularly. These days, she travels with her family to teach groups of children the art of the game.

The connection between paleontology and marbles may not be so far-fetched. The game taught her discipline and concentration, Lapic said, noting that she practiced four hours a day when she was in competition. Today it helps ground her as she finishes her final semester at Mount Holyoke.

“I’m finishing my senior thesis and applying to master’s and doctoral programs,” she said. “Marbles are a way for me to remember to focus.”  

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