You are what you eat — a journey toward graduate school in paleontology

Dana Reuter ’15 digging fossils in the desert.

Dana Reuter ’15

Graduate student, University of Oregon

Academic focus: geology major, biology minor

Internship: Research intern, Keck Geology Consortium; REU intern, Chicago Field Museum

Advanced degree: pursuing a Ph.D. in paleontology, University of Oregon

When I was at Mount Holyoke, I chose to study geology and biology because I was interested in understanding how life and the earth were interacting with one another. Now I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Oregon, where I study vertebrate paleontology.

Despite popular belief, I do not study dinosaurs but rather ancient and modern mammals. My research on mammalian paleoecology focuses on paleo food web building, carnivore tooth morphology and the evolution of omnivory. Basically, what this means is I am very interested in what mammals eat and how that has changed through time with climate and vegetation changes.

I did not find my path easily and have tried on many scientific hats over the years. Luckily, my experience at Mount Holyoke gave me the chance to explore different fields of study and career options. Through my many science classes, I learned how to ask questions about our natural world and how to find the answers. I also took a lot of philosophy classes that helped me understand how modes of thinking have changed through time. Geology and earth sciences eventually won my heart with the outdoor aspect of the science. I also found my love for teaching geology when I was a teaching assistant for some of the intro lab sections. During the summers and between my studies, I was fortunate enough to get internships that helped narrow my interests.

Through Lynk funding, I went to Svalbard, Norway, with Professor of Geology Alan Werner and later did some field collecting in Canada with professors Michelle Markley and Steven Dunn. Both opportunities taught me valuable lessons about geological fieldwork, something I highly value now as a graduate student.

My passion for paleontology was sparked during the summer after my third year at Mount Holyoke when I had a research position at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. There, I learned more about paleontological research and museum work. Answering scientific questions takes a lot of work and time, but I learned to enjoy working toward a long-term goal. The best part was that I got to work in the museum collections and handle specimens from all over the world. After that internship, I decided I should attend graduate school in paleontology. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the fossils waiting for their stories to be told.

Now as a graduate student, I teach classes, advise undergraduate students and conduct my own research. In the summer I usually teach field camp and do fieldwork out in the high desert of eastern Oregon.

Last summer I had a Geoscientists in the Parks guest scientist position at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument here in Oregon, where I did fieldwork and worked on my dissertation work studying ancient mammal communities.

Being a paleontologist is incredibly fun and rewarding. It allows me to travel, work on collaborative projects and of course learn about ancient life. My hope for the future is to have a job where I can teach classes, still do research and connect the broader community to our earth’s history. Who knows, maybe I will even end up teaching at a school like Mount Holyoke someday.