Thousands of children all around the world grow up fascinated by dinosaurs and the seemingly endless possibilities of what they were like.
Seeing fossils in museums can invoke a unique fascination and many children even dream of finding the dinosaur fossils for themselves.
Students at Emporia State have the opportunity to connect with that fascination by studying paleontology as a minor or even working in the labs to prepare fossils and work with the bones in order to help identify the dinosaur they came from.
“That’s part of the fun of paleontology, is the mystery and figuring things out,” said Matthew Mers, graduate student of physical sciences.
ESU has two physical science museums, Johnston Geology Museum and Richard H. Schmidt Museum of Natural History, which house a wide variety of fossils, taxidermy animals, and more.
These museums are open to any visitors and parents can even bring their children to look at them, according to Brent Thomas, Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“You never know what’s going to get an eight-year old kid excited,” Thomas said. “That could be that trigger in their life that makes them fascinated, stimulates an interest, that then grows and then many years later they end up here as a student.”
While the museums house a variety of specimens, there are more fossils that the university owns that are not housed in the museums, but are instead left in collections or rented out to other places, according to Mers.
ESU even has multiple full triceratops skulls that have been broken up and put in other collections or sent elsewhere.
“We don’t have room in the (Johnston Geology) museum,” Mers said. “We
don’t have funding to make armatures, which are basically what’s going to hold that skull together on display. We don’t have money for that, so a lot of this (fossils currently being prepared) will just be placed in storage.”
The Johnston Geology Museum has an operating expense budget of $688 this fiscal year, according to Richard Sleezer, chair of the physical sciences department.
ESU is able to house their fossils and loan out what they can’t store because they have the status of a federal repository.
In order to keep this status, the university has to have a PhD paleontologist on staff, according to Michael Morales, associate professor of physical sciences.
Right now, Morales is the only person on staff who fits this criteria and he is planning to retire in the near future.
“I plan to retire relatively soon (and) given our budgetary situation at the university as a whole right now, I’m a little afraid my position may not be filled either at all or may take a long time to fill and that the program would either fallow or be lost,” Morales said.
The budget for the physical science department, which paleontology and everything associated with it falls under, has been experiencing cuts over the last few years, making it difficult to grow the programs and maintain what they have.
Even when the budget isn’t physically getting smaller, maintaining a budget is essentially a cut, due to inflation and needing to pay for other expenses like paper, transportation, utilities and more.
“For money, we don’t need a million dollars, we don’t need anything close to that,” Morales said. “But, you know, every year a few thousand dollars extra so we could buy equipment and also maintain the equipment that we get would be very helpful.”
While budgetary issues are a concern, the program has been successful the past few years in collecting, preparing and maintaining fossils under the direction of Morales.
“He’s done some pretty incredible things with that program,” Sleezer said. “Especially in the last two or three years, considering the constraints we’ve been under for budget and for COVID and everything.”
The physical science department at ESU is only one example of budgetary concerns at the university and many other programs have had to deal with cuts and hardships due to monetary concerns and COVID-19.
While the university has been going through unprecedented times over the past year and there are concerns with various budgets, students and staff are still working to successfully make it through.
“The faculty and the staff, and the students, at this university have managed to overcome those challenges in ways that have really impressed me,” Thomas said. “And I think they deserve, our faculty, staff, and students, deserve a lot of credit and a lot of thank yous for everything that they’ve managed to accomplish during this very challenging time.”