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Idaho State Students Return from Research Experiences at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, South Africa

October 19, 2022

Xavier Jenkins and a group of people

A pair of paleontology students are back on the Idaho State University campus after their world-class research experiences.

Recently, Maya Elliott, a senior biology honors student from Nampa, returned from a summer internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. While in Washington D.C., Elliott was growing specimens of the ginkgo plant in varying carbon dioxide levels. The plant’s ancestry can be traced back roughly 300 million years, and Elliott was comparing the specimens from today to fossilized plants from years past. Using the ginkgo fossils, scientists can better understand how the climate changed throughout the earth’s history. 

“I consider myself fortunate to have been able to learn from some of the best researchers in the country and go on tours in the NMNH's amazing collections,” said Elliott. “My favorite part was getting to work on the project and learn how to present my research to the scientific community."

Maya Elliott

Meanwhile, Xavier Jenkins, a doctoral student studying biology from Buckeye, Arizona, spent four weeks in South Africa analyzing the fossils or reptiles that lived more than 250 million years ago in the Permian Period. As part of his doctoral studies, Jenkins has been working in the Idaho Museum of Natural History's Idaho Virtualization Laboratory, studying the evolution of early reptiles using digital scans of the specimens. With support from ISU, he traveled to South African museums to see the fossils in person. While in South Africa, he also joined Jonah Choiniere, professor of comparative palaeobiology at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute, on a dig for the earliest long-necked dinosaurs.  

“Experiences like this are fantastic and ones that I spent my childhood dreaming of,” Jenkins said. “You hear about all of the fossil discoveries in South Africa, but seeing it in person was truly breathtaking.”

Elliott and Jenkins are mentored by Brandon Peecook, assistant professor of biological sciences at ISU and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. Under the direction of Peecook, Elliott and Jenkins are working with fossil specimens and cutting-edge Nano-CT imaging technology to understand the evolution of early reptiles. 

"At the Idaho Museum of Natural History, we pride ourselves on giving ISU students hands-on research experiences with real fossils,” said Peecook. “Those kinds of opportunities are golden for young researchers, so I was thrilled when Maya and Xavier had the chance to expand their knowledge, skill sets, and professional networks in Washington D.C. and South Africa. Both are among the several Bengals presenting their research at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Toronto this fall."

For more information on the ISU Department of Biological Sciences and Idaho Museum of Natural History, visit isu.edu/biology and isu.edu/imnh.

Prospective students can schedule a campus tour at isu.edu/visit


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