Profs dig a freshman’s talk on dinosaurs

The heavy hitters in Penn’s earth and environmental science department — including the heaviest hitter of all, Professor and Chairman Bob Giegengack — turned out March 23 to hear a freshman talk about dinosaurs over a catered lunch.

But this was no ordinary freshman. This was Karen Poole (C’04), a University Scholar who has been doing paleontology since before she was in high school. Her studies as an earth and environmental science major at Penn continue her work, and it was that work that drew the geologists, her fellow University Scholars and some non-geology faculty to the Fireside Room in the ARCH this particular Friday.

Poole was the speaker at the regular weekly luncheon seminar for University Scholars, in which undergraduates who are engaged in research share their findings and talk about their work with each other. And the work Poole is engaged in has added to our knowledge of how dinosaurs lived and evolved.

Poole has been working for some time on a project sponsored by the Southwest Paleontological Society in her hometown of Phoenix. In 1997, the lead paleontologists on the project discovered the first of a new class of dinosaurs at a site near the Arizona-New Mexico border, which they dubbed Zuniceratops.

In her talk, Poole explained what distinguished Zuniceratops from its predecessors and followers, such as triceratops, using casts of Zuniceratops’ horn and teeth to illustrate her point.

But she also spent some time educating the audience about what paleontologists do and how they know where to look for dinosaur bones, as well as the challenges paleontologists face in making sense of what they find.

The presence of all those geologists in the audience was no accident, for as Poole explained, paleontologists are

geologists first. “You have to know the right rock” to dig for bones in, she said. “You can’t go out looking in pre-Cambrian granite and expect to find dinosaur fossils.”

Once the fossils are found, the real work begins. “One of the main difficulties of paleontology is that you never have a complete data set,” Poole said. “Everything is fragmentary. So you piece together the fragments and you have to figure out what’s going on.”

This figuring-out process involves a lot of conjecture, which Poole said makes paleontology a less-exact science than, say, physics. Giegengack begged to differ. “Don’t apologize for the fact that it’s conjecture,” he said. “Physics is also conjecture.” To which History Professor Michael Zuckerman added, “And history is worse.”


Originally published on April 5, 2001