The newest feature at Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History opens new views of science for its visitors — literally.
The large windows of the Oceans of Kansas Fossil Prep Lab not only allow museum visitors to watch the work on fossils, but they slide open so visitors can talk with the scientists and students working there.
The museum and university joined with the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce for a ribbon-cutting and tours of the facility Monday afternoon.
“The advanced paleo lab is more than just an expanded prep lab or an interactive exhibit. It is a gateway to fascination, inquisition and science,” FHSU president Tisa Mason said.
More than three times the size of the museum’s original lab, it is equipped with dust removal and ventilation systems that make the work of preparing fossils from the field for research and display safer and healthier, said Laura Wilson, curator of paleontology.
The larger lab, located on the museum’s second floor, will also allow for workshops for area students and the public in learning fossil preparation, museum director Reese Barrick said.
Wilson spearheaded the fundraising for the lab, which included obtaining an $81,000 matching grant from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation of Logan. Along with the old lab space, now used as a “clean” research lab, the labs are now known as the Dane G. Hansen Paleontology Research Center.
Also contributing to the funds for the fossil prep lab were paleontologists Mike and Pam Everhart of Derby. Mike Everhart began his association with Sternberg Museum when he started collecting western Kansas fossils in the 1960s. He has been an adjunct curator for the museum since 1998 and in 2005 published the book “Oceans of Kansas,” now in its second edition.
The Everharts, Barrick said, are third on the list of most specimens contributed to Sternberg’s overall collections, and second only to the museum’s namesake, George Sternberg, for the number of fossils in the museum from the western interior seaway.
“We’ve needed this for years,” Mike Everhart said of the new lab.
“As Pam says, I’ve done a lot of preparation in the kitchen sink. I’m working with lots of chalk fossils, so that’s relatively easy. But still it’s great to have a state-of-the art facility like this. I’m looking forward to coming here and working in it myself,” he said.
“We’ve just been doing this for so many years, and it was a chance to have an impact on the paleontology that Fort Hays is doing,” Pam Everhart said. “To me, that’s very important. It’s important for the kids, important for the future.”
Kaiden O’Dell, an FHSU freshman from Salina, is one of five students volunteering in the lab this year. He said the lab has given him even more opportunities to work with fossils than he expected.
“We’ve been learning some of the basics,” he said, such as microscope preparation and learning to properly field jacket specimens in the field.
O’Dell said he began visiting Sternberg before he could even read the information with the exhibits, and the staff played a big role over the years in firing his passion for paleontology. He hopes to someday do the same.
“I definitely want to research, but I think the bigger thing for me is going to be more of the public outreach, talking to little kids, like I was, in inspiring them and saying ‘Keep this, this is real. You should try and keep that desire in your heart,’” he said.
He said he’s applying for opportunities for field research this summer, but his greatest chance might be closer than he thought.
“If we get to go back in the field this summer, Kaiden’s going to be the first kid I get a hold of and take him and show him what real paleontology is about,” Pam Everhart said.