UNM Set to Become Epicenter of Fossil Collecting with Opening of Natural History Science Center: UNM Newsroom

One of UNM’s many historic buildings has been given new life – and it will serve as an educational resource for future scientists in our community. Located at the southern end of the main campus, the Natural History Science Center (NHSC) is a collaborative space dedicated to introducing and researching our Earth’s rich history.

The building itself was designed by John Gaw Meem, who served as UNM’s official architect during the university’s early years and is one of the most prominent architects in the Southwest. Built in 1946 to house the College of Pharmacy, the building has withstood many changes, including a period of vacancy and a demolition project.

A mammoth leg bone ready to be examined under a microscope.

It was the historical value of the building that saved it from this fate and plans began to form to renovate it. There were many potential uses for this space, and proposals were solicited from the many departments on campus that could benefit from it.

It was then the Acting Dean of Research at the College of Arts and Sciences, Laura Crossey, who saw the potential to breathe new life into this piece of UNM history by simultaneously safeguarding another piece of valuable history on campus. At the time, the unique regional paleontology collection housed in Northrop Hall was in danger of deteriorating due to unstable climatic conditions.

This collection of fossils is of great importance to the Southwest, as there are over 40 type specimens. Many of them are not found outside of UNM – not even in the Smithsonian. The preservation of these specimens was of the utmost importance and a new air-conditioned space was desperately needed.

A midnight call from Crossey to assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, Cori Myers, and the plan was in motion. In a race against the proposal deadline, they, with the help of Museum of Southwestern Biology Director Chris Witt and Honors College Associate Professor Jason Moore, began drafting their plan for the building.

Their vision resonated with the Board of Regents and the NHSC was created. Dedicated to interdisciplinary specimen-based research, this new addition to the campus will serve as a research and teaching resource for New Mexico and beyond.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have such a fantastic facility on campus that will secure the legacy of paleontological research at UNM for years to come,” Moore said. “It’s easy to downplay the value of specimen-based teaching and research in a digital age, but there’s no substitute for working with real specimens. You have access to everything you might discover on a specimen in one place (allowing for the chance of scientific discovery) and the possibility of collecting more data in the future in a way that is currently unknown.Also, I have yet to find the replica fossil that can arouse the same curiosity and excitement in a student as a real 70 million year old tyrannosaur tooth.

Improvements to the building were accompanied by the addition of much-needed air conditioning and security systems. These systems will not only preserve the extensive collection housed in the building, but will also support the eventual goal of this space: to become designated as a federal repository for all types of fossil specimens. Designation as a federal repository would allow fossils collected under license in conjunction with Indigenous and other public lands to be preserved in the NHSC in perpetuity for the American people.

Skull

A skull on display at the Natural History Science Center.

From its inception, the NHSC was designed with interdisciplinary education and outreach in mind. This vision resulted in half of the space being designed to engage students from multiple disciplines as well as the community in the value of research specimens as unique repositories of knowledge about the history and continuation of life on our planet. .

With a prep lab, photography and analysis space, and a large collections room, students and researchers will have a place to prep, study, and care for fossils right here on campus. A monitor outside the prep lab will even allow visitors to see up close what the researchers see on their microscopes.

The building is also designed to promote a broader learning experience for students. The center of this experience is the bright collaborative teaching space where students have already been able to engage in specimen-based teaching through courses such as “Bringing Fossils to Life”, as well as a dedicated course to the science behind natural disasters.

This is called “high-impact teaching,” which is well supported by other undergraduate teaching programs at UNM, such as the Expanded Curriculum-Based Research Experiences (ECURE ) and the Student Experience Project (SEP). UNM students won’t be the only ones to benefit from this experience, as both Moore and Myers look forward to using this space to host community events both in-person and virtually. Some current ideas include a “bring your own fossils day,” “Darwin’s birthday,” educational talks, movies, and more.

Although classes and research have already begun at the LHNC, there is still a long way to go before they are fully moved in. The rails and collapsible cabinets in the collections storage area have yet to be installed, and the majority of the collection still lives in Northrop’s basement. The large classroom intended for teaching and outreach expects specimen cabinets to properly house collections used for “high impact teaching”. This room also has a convenient empty wall, which will hopefully house a ‘biodiversity wall’ in the future. And of course, a collections manager will one day be needed to oversee the care of paleontological specimens and the building itself.

The NHSC is set to become a true focal point for the University and future scientists around the world.

“Geoscience departments across the country are closing their paleontological research and donating their specimens,” Myers said. “UNM actively opposes this trend and not only supports, but expands resources for paleontological research. This is quite special and will certainly contribute to UNM becoming a national center for paleontology in the future.

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