Analyzing the Prehistoric

Undergrad embraces research with faculty

by Linda Hass, Published October 17, 2012

Eastern Michigan University senior Kara Marsac, 20, has never visited Jurassic Park, but this summer the geology major did the next best thing-she held, measured and photographed remnants of life that thrived along a Canadian seabed 530 million years ago.

In August, Marsac and her mentor, Dr. Steve LoDuca, EMU professor of paleontology, sedimentology and stratigraphy, traveled to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., where they spent three days analyzing prehistoric specimens from the Burgess Shale deposit, an intriguing slice of life made famous for its preservation of hard- and soft-bodied animals--antennas and all. The Smithsonian houses over 65,000 specimens from this fossil bonanza, located in the Canadian Rockies.

Unlike Jurassic Park, Marsac didn't get to mingle with live animals, but who wants a real tyrannosaurus rex stomping around anyway? She did, however, get to hold an intriguing array of fossils in much safer circumstances, including trilobites-prehistoric sea creatures that looked like giant pill bugs.

"Most of the specimens I held were stored in locked vaults. It was like walking through a door into the distant past," Marsac says. Her main mission was to analyze specimens previously described as fossilized algae to determine if some of them were actually primitive animals, based on telltale growth lines visible through a multi-million dollar microscope.

"Holding rocks bearing prehistoric life forms that existed 300 million years before dinosaurs took their first breath was an awesome experience," Marsac says. "There's a big difference between seeing something through display glass and holding it in your hands-especially for an undergraduate!"

LoDuca concurred. "It's unusual for an undergraduate to be directly engaged in research with a professor. Fortunately, EMU is different in this respect; here, student-faculty interaction is actively encouraged and supported," says LoDuca, who spent months obtaining permission for the duo to study the Burgess Shale fossils. "For an undergraduate to work with a professor on Smithsonian collections-let alone Burgess Shale material-is pretty much off the charts," he adds.

The Smithsonian research trip provided evidence for an Undergraduate Symposium project that Marsac presented and LoDuca directed this spring. Their findings confirmed that the fossil specie she studied from the Burgess Shale was indeed a plant, but they also discovered that similar fossils identified as plants from another shale deposit in Utah were in fact primitive animals. She and LoDuca will follow up on their discovery in the coming months, including presenting their results at the upcoming annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in North Carolina.

"The implications of this kind of research are far reaching, especially with the Rover analyzing rocks for signs of life on Mars," says Marsac, an EMU Presidential Scholar and president of EMU's Geo-Club, a popular student organization for geology majors.

"Kara's passion for research sets her apart from the average undergraduate student," says LoDuca, adding that Marsac received a URSP grant and a Michigan Space Consortium Grant for 2012.

Marsac, who will graduate this April with a bachelor's degree in geology (professional concentration), plans to pursue graduate studies in geophysics. "Eastern prepared me well for graduate school," she says. "I've done research one-on-one with a professor every year I've been here; that's not something many graduate school applicants can say. I'm grateful to have such wonderful mentors helping me through my undergraduate studies."

Geoff Larcom


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