Undergrad digs dinosaur bones


Downs with Gobi Desert trophies

Photo by Daniel R. Burke


It’s not too often that you come across someone who wanted to be a paleontologist when he was 5 years old. In fact, most 5-year-olds probably couldn’t even spell paleontologist.

But Jason Downs (C’00) could. And 16 years after he announced his lofty career plans to his first-grade teacher, Downs is still impressing his instructors. So much so, in fact, that Downs’ mentor, Biology Professor Neil Shubin, invited him to join a Chinese-American fossil expedition to the Gobi Desert last summer.

The expedition, in which the Penn contingent participated for 20 days, was focused on the Early Cretaceous period, which was approximately 65 to 100 million years ago. Although Downs explained that the “goal of the trip was really to prospect new ground for material rather than excavate material,” the group did make some interesting finds, including the exciting discovery of a foot that may belong to a new group of theropod dinosaurs. The theropod is a member of the predatory group of dinosaurs, which includes species such as Tyrannosaurus rex and the velociraptor.

In addition to the theropod foot, Downs said the other finds are being studied. “The science is ongoing. We found a lot of material that hasn’t yet been described and so there may be some exciting discoveries here that we’re not even aware of yet.”

The expedition, made up of both American and Chinese college students and professors, was funded by the University and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. Downs credits Shubin as one of the major organizers of the project. “Essentially, it’s through Neil’s work that we are able to secure funds for this research.”

Downs, a Northeast Philadelphia native, was introduced to Shubin while still in high school, volunteering at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences under Curator of Paleontology Ted Daeschler, an experience which Downs credits with helping him realize that a future in paleontology was no longer just a childhood ambition but a real option. “If I was ready to dedicate myself, if I was willing to learn the science of paleontology, then I could actually make it happen for myself.”

Downs recounted his experience on the expedition in “Jazz Tones and Dirty Bones: Tales of Undergraduate Research,” an Oct. 22 Hamilton College House reception organized by house Faculty Master Shubin to urge more students to pursue undergraduate research. Downs wonders why more undergraduates don’t take advantage of all the research opportunities Penn has to offer. He’s the only undergraduate participating in research in Shubin’s laboratory. “I’ve seen a lot of willingness among the faculty here to work with undergraduate students, and I think that’s what undergraduates need to know.” Downs added, “If [undergraduates] want to do it, then the opportunity is there.”

When he’s not unearthing ancient predators or discovering new species, Downs splits his time between Shubin’s lab and the Academy, where he returned last summer after being accepted into an undergraduate research program.

Downs, who is majoring in both biology and geology, plans on attending graduate school next year. Beyond that Downs said he is unsure, “but I want to keep learning, whatever that takes.”

Originally published on January 20, 2000