15 Jun The Road to Plaster Mastery
Hi everyone! I’ve been quiet on this platform because it’s been a very busy first couple of weeks for me at DINO. I’m going to try to get a post written on my adventures last weekend in Moab, but what you’re reading here will cover my second week of work. The progress we made in this time has been vital in laying the foundation for two central goals of the internship: fossil conservation and public outreach.
On Monday and Tuesday, I and my fellow interns, Kellyn and Julia, were schooled on the process of making support cradles, which paleontologists use to prevent bones from taking on damage via excess movement and friction while they are manipulated and stored in museum collections. Don DeBlieux, the Assistant State Paleontologist of Utah, was generous enough to come out to DINO from the Salt Lake area in order to bestow his knowledge upon us. I joined Don last summer for field work near Moab, and not only did he quickly become one of my favorite people, but I also learned first-hand that he is the Plaster Master. He has an immense amount of experience working in fossil preparation, for which mixing plaster is an essential skill. Thus, it was a double treat for me to be able to hang out with and learn from him yet again.
The steps of making a support cradle are relatively simple, though one must remain deliberate throughout the process. In brief, we set our bone down in a sandbox in order to serve as our template. Then, we progressively lay our cradle materials (foam or felt for cushion, fiberglass for reinforcement) on top of the bone to determine the size, shape, and contour of the cradle. Once this is done, we mix our plaster, soak the fiberglass in it, and begin conforming the shape of the cradle, eventually smoothing it out and allowing the plaster to set. When it is finished and flipped, the cradle should sit flat and hold the bone snugly while allowing the bone to be easily removed for future research. I didn’t get photos of every step, but you can see the general trajectory of the process in what I’ve included with this post. Don oversaw the construction of two or three cradles and gave us plenty of great advice on how to be more efficient and precise.
This training was essential to our work as interns at DINO because, on Thursdays and Fridays, we are building cradles in view of the public in a program we’ve named “Dino Demo”. We very well could have decided to hole up in the monument’s isolated storage spaces to operate, but by establishing a work station at the Quarry Visitor Center, we can teach visitors from across the country and even the globe how and why paleontologists protect our national heritage. Our first run was this week, and we had around 300 people stop by to see our work on their way to and from the Quarry Exhibit Hall. It was wonderful getting to share the history of the park, as well as the science of the specimens we worked on–it just so happened that Kellyn and I were making cradles for the hand and foot bones of Abydosaurus, a large Cretaceous-age sauropod related to the Jurassic-age Brachiosaurus.
The cradles that we made during our demonstrations still need work, but I’m excited to hone my techniques and continue teaching as many people as I can this summer!
See y’all next time,