Home National museum UIS students return from research experiences at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, South Africa

UIS students return from research experiences at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, South Africa


POCATELLO, Idaho (KIFI) – Two paleontology students are back on campus at Idaho State University after their world-class research experiences.

Recently, Maya Elliott, a senior Nampa biology student, returned from a summer internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. While in Washington DC, Elliott grew specimens of the ginkgo plant at varying levels of carbon dioxide. The plant’s ancestry dates back about 300 million years, and Elliott compared today’s specimens to fossilized plants from years past. By using ginkgo fossils, scientists can better understand how the climate has changed throughout Earth’s history.

“I consider myself lucky to have been able to learn from some of the best researchers in the country and to take tours of the incredible collections at NMNH,” said Elliott. “My favorite part was working on the project and learning how to present my research to the scientific community.”

Meanwhile, Xavier Jenkins, a PhD student in biology from Buckeye, Arizona, spent four weeks in South Africa analyzing fossils or reptiles that lived more than 250 million years ago in the Permian. As part of her doctoral studies, Jenkins worked at the Idaho Virtualization Lab at the Idaho Museum of Natural History, studying the evolution of early reptiles using digital scans of specimens. With support from the 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 paleobiology at the Institute for Evolutionary Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, for a search for the first long-necked dinosaurs.

“Experiences like this are fantastic and ones I spent my childhood dreaming about,” Jenkins said. “You hear about all the fossil finds 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 Peecook’s guidance, Elliott and Jenkins are working with fossil specimens and state-of-the-art Nano-CT imaging technology to understand the evolution of early reptiles.

“At the Idaho Museum of Natural History, we pride ourselves on providing ISU students with hands-on research experiences with real fossils,” Peecook said. “These kinds of opportunities are golden for young scholars, so I was thrilled when Maya and Xavier had the chance to expand their knowledge, skills, and professional networks in Washington DC and South Africa. All two are among many Bengals presenting their research at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Toronto this fall.

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

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