The Sea in the Statehouse

Fossils can be found in rocks throughout Ohio, but have you ever thought to look in the walls of buildings? Mark Peter, a paleontologist for the Ohio Geological Survey, encourages people to do just that.

Geological Outreach

Mark has been interested in fossils, especially those of crinoids and trilobites, since his youth. He attended his first paleontology lecture at a Dry Dredgers meeting at the age of 11. Mark is currently working on his Ph.D. in geology at the Ohio State University. His research focuses on the evolutionary history of flexible crinoids, a group of animals related to modern sea lilies and sea stars.

As a part of the publications and outreach group with the Geologic Survey, Mark collaborates on content development for public exhibits and other resources for the public. Among these is Statehouse Fossils: A Guide to Fossils at the State Capitol. The booklet guides visitors around the Capitol building to find the remains of an ancient marine fauna. It features photographs of fossils in the building and illustrations by Mark’s co-worker, graphic artist Madison Perry, of fossils from the collections of Ohio State University’s Orton Geological Museum as well as reconstructions of the animals in life.

Artwork from Statehouse Fossils by graphic artist Madison Perry

Creating Statehouse Fossils

Statehouse Fossils grew from a partnership between the Orton Geological Museum, the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board (CSRAB), and the Ohio Geological Survey. The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Mark said, might be the most fossiliferous building in the world; it is a large building built from the densely fossiliferous Columbus Limestone. He described the Statehouse as one of the best places to view the fossils in the Columbus Limestone. In natural exposures, the fossils are often highly weathered, and most of the exposures are not on public lands. The Statehouse, on the other hand, is open to the public, and is more accessible than quarries or natural exposures, with cross sections of fossils visible in the walls, columns, and steps. The Columbus Limestone contains remarkably well-preserved fossil animals that inhabited a shallow sea during the Devonian Period, approximately 400 million years ago.

For about 25 years, Dale Gnidovec, curator of the Orton Museum, along with staff from CSRAB and the Survey, have been leading biannual fossil tours of the statehouse. In recent years, these have been offered on National Fossil Day in October and a weekend around Earth Day in April. In addition to interest in these tours, visitors to the Capitol would sometimes ask about fossils that they observed in the walls during normal tours. Although tour guides would answer their questions, there was a need for a more formal, practical resource for curious visitors. Over the next two years, Mark and his colleagues explored all the public areas of the Capitol, searching for the best examples of each animal that they wanted to highlight. They spent considerable time identifying, photographing, and illustrating each one. When a draft of the guide was ready, it was tested by a geologist, other adults, including a regular tour guide, and a high school intern. These tests resulted in changes to the format and organization of the booklet, and customized maps to improve the ease of use. Finally, Statehouse Fossils was born.

Fossil Hunting in the Statehouse

One of the best parts of the Statehouse Fossils booklet are the detailed illustrations. The illustrations are meant to help bring the animals to life for people, make the details more noticeable, and give the fossils context. They provide a window into Ohio’s past and introduce groups of animals that might be unfamiliar to many. The booklet serves as a resource for both fossil identification and as a self-guided tour. People enjoy the challenge of finding fossils in the walls. At the end, it provides people with resources for recording their own discoveries and encourages them to look beyond the guided tour and beyond the building.

An illustration of a gastropod by graphic artists Madison Perry from Statehouse Fossils, representing one of the fossils as it would have looked in life.

Future Projects and Goals

Mark hopes that the illustrations and information created for Statehouse Fossils will be used for interpretative signage at parks and other localities where the Columbus Limestone is exposed. The booklet opens the door for the Statehouse to serve as an outdoor classroom and possibly be incorporated into curriculums for teaching paleoecology and evolution. Mark hopes to continue working on projects that highlight Ohio’s Lagerstätten (abundant accumulations of fossils, or fossil deposits with exceptional preservation), such as the Cincinnatian Series in southwest Ohio and the Silica Formation of northwest Ohio. He would eventually like to recreate another Survey publication, Ohio Fossils, now out of print, using illustrations like those drawn for Statehouse Fossils.

Statehouse Fossils is now available in print from the Survey or online as a free downloadable pdf.

Geology Students Spearheading Outreach Program

In response to recent conversations about increasing diversity in the sciences, graduate students in the University of Cincinnati Department of Geology have begun spearheading efforts to learn about and discuss diversity as well as work to make science more readily available to a wider audience, especially underserved communities. As a part of these efforts, graduate students and faculty have been working to increase the department’s engagement with the local community to bring scientific research directly to students through partnerships with local schools.  

Each graduate student and faculty member has designed activities and presentations about their work that are meant to engage K-12 students. Descriptions and contact information related to these activities and presentations were put together into an Earth Science Outreach Program website. For each opportunity, a graduate student or faculty member has committed to visiting classrooms to lead the activity, bringing interesting materials and their own unique experiences. Presentations are free and can be adapted to suit the needs of specific curricula, teachers, and classes. 

The group is excited to start working with teachers and is ready to adapt to virtual or in person settings as current COVID-19 conditions change. 

Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Arnie Miller

Arnold Miller
Dr. Arnie Miller

This week, we highlight the work of Dr. Arnie Miller. Dr. Miller is an Advisory Board member of the UC Center for Public Engagement with Science, as well as Professor Emeritus, former Head of the UC Geology Department, and former Senior Associate Dean of the UC College of Arts and Sciences.  

Dr. Miller is an evolutionary paleontologist and paleoecologist. His research has focused on mass extinctions and their impacts on global biodiversity, environmental gradients, and anthropogenic effects on modern coastal communities. Dr. Miller differs from a lot of paleontologists in that his passion did not stem from a childhood interest in dinosaurs or other fossils. He grew up in New York City, and with the exception of the American Museum of Natural History, there are not a lot of fossils to be found there. Dr. Miller found became interested in geology while living among geology majors in college. He took a course in geology to learn more about what his peers were talking about, ultimately leading to him pursuing majors in geology and biology. During his studies, he was inspired by a professor who introduced him to using fossils as data to study biodiversity and mass extinctions, which is when he first became passionate about paleontology.  

In 2007, Dr. Miller was elected as a Fellow of the Paleontological Society for, among other work, being instrumental in the Paleobiology Database (PBDB). This website is a compilation of  fossil data, where they were found, the publication that described them, and where they can be found now. It is used by paleontologists with an interest in “big data”- the use of multiple collections to piece together an understanding of broad trends in space and time. However, this database is open source, and is also used by instructors to give their students experience processing data.  

Since then, Dr. Miller has served as the President of the Paleontological Society; he is currently finishing his term as Past President. In this position, he has strived to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion. He has encouraged the scientific community to acknowledge our previous shortcomings in these areas. He is co-chair of the Society’s ethics committee, dedicated to ensuring that Society is inviting, safe, and inclusive for all participants in its activities. He and his colleagues are working to improve opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds to enter all fields of science. The Society has been developing financial opportunities for underrepresented minorities, and Society representatives now regularly attend  meetings focused on minority inclusion in science, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). They also work to increase education and outreach that specifically targets underrepresented audiences.   

Dr. Miller also addressed outreach and community involvement in science in his role as Head of the Geology Department and as A&S Senior Associate Dean. When the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) closed for renovations a few years ago, he was a part of a group that worked to bring some of the exhibits to the University of Cincinnati campus. Along with this, they scheduled programs such as a panel on global climate change that drew in community members in Cincinnati. CMC exhibits were also set up at the airport, and the teams behind this and the University exhibits held a townhall at a conference for museum professionals about their experiences setting these up. These exhibits being in different environments effectively brought the museum to people who might not normally visit, resulting in more engagement than may normally be possible.  

Dr. Miller also has had the opportunity to engage in debates about evolution and creation. He thinks that engaging people of all backgrounds and belief systems is important without being perceived as condescending. As part of the 2009 North American Paleontology Convention hosted at UC, Miller, who was chair of the organizing committee, took 75 paleontologists to visit the Creation Museum to give them a firsthand look at what and how ideas were being communicated there. Members of the group found the visit to be eye-opening, with respect to how professionally ideas were presented from a strictly technical standpoint, even though those ideas diverged from accepted science. Responding to dissent is important, but scientists do not always communicate well, and doing so well with humility and respect is crucial. Every year while teaching an introductory-level course on the history and evolution of life , he spent a week on the creationism-versus-evolution question, including inviting a representative from the Creation Museum to speak to the class at the end of the semester ; this was followed by extensive, in-class discussion . While Dr. Miller does not think that direct debates with creationists are helpful or productive, he does encourage scientists be aware of  and understand the bases of other views. Through the study and discussion of creationism, he hoped that students would come to understand what information was being taken out of context. He also encouraged them to listen, rather than making wholesale judgements about what others think; everyone’s beliefs and ideas have multiple dimensions and need to be taken seriously. 

As an emeritus professor, Dr. Miller is continuing to work with the Paleontological Society and University. Besides his work on the Center’s Advisory Board, he is also helping to develop a Digital Futures Consultant program for new and young faculty at the University of Cincinnati. He’s also becoming more politically involved; in the most recent election, he served as a poll watcher and on a “Protect the Vote” hotline for people who had questions about how to vote.  

Dr. Miller’s message is one of encouragement. He wants people to keep their minds open to other people and opportunities around them, especially those outside of the classroom. Had it not been for the experiences he had in college, especially those that focused on working with data  , he likely would have taken a different path. In recruiting diverse participants to paleontology and geology, he advocates speaking  about the diverse opportunities there are for people who want to work in these areas.  “Field work and adventures in the out of doors can be off-putting, at least initially, to people who grow up in  urban settings, for example, and yet we do other things that aren’t field work, such as working on computers and in geochemistry labs.” Paleontology and geology are not just for those who enjoy field work and dinosaurs; these fields, and science in general, are diverse and have something for everyone.