Science is cool. That’s the message at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, where during special events children swarm around tables full of fossils, rocks, toy dinosaurs, and other stuff supplied by the museum to get kids jazzed about science.
Vital to the moment are the volunteers staffing the tables full of objects igniting youthful imaginations. And if the volunteers are not outside, they are inside the museum to help kids with hands-on exhibits.
Children can also crowd around life-sized replicas of animals not likely to appear at the zoo, including, on the second floor, the famous Hadrosaur, which was the first complete dinosaur fossil discovered in 1858.
Those paying their respects to Hadrosaur are quite close to the museum’s new Innovation Lab and Learning Center, a fishbowl-like room with large windows
Inside is Wayne Callahan. He is doing the painstaking work of piecing together a jaw bone from a 66-million-year-old crocodile. “New Jersey is a very interesting state for paleontology,” he says with understatement. The New Jersey State Museum (NJSM) constantly recruits and trains volunteers to do everything from leading tours to putting fossils together.
David Parris — the long-time curator of natural history at the NJSM — is the dean of the volunteer corps here.
Parris is also a local legend and a living testimony to any organization’s need to maintain and cultivate expertise, as illustrated in a New Jersey story that found its way around the world and was published in the Academy of Natural Sciences proceedings as “Two Halves Make a Holotype: Two Hundred Years Between Discoveries.”
According to a National Geographic Magazine, New Jersey avocational paleontologist Gregory Harpel stumbled across a large and strange bone fragment while searching for fossils in a Monmouth County brook in 2012. When Harpel took the bone to the NJSM, Parris “immediately recognized the fossil as something very special. The bone had the anatomical hallmarks of the lower part of an enormous turtle’s upper arm bone — the humerus — and, moreover, it was similar to a unique fossil picked up 163 years earlier.”
The similar bone fragment that Parris had seen decades before was in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and belonged to the 75-million-year-old extinct turtle Atlantochelys mortoni. The article quotes Parris as saying, “When I first saw the fossil, it reminded me of Atlantochelys primarily because of the very large size and narrow shaft.” He then quipped to his colleagues that perhaps Harpel had found the long-lost match for the Agassiz’s original specimen. The real joke was that the fossil wasn’t just another Atlantochelys bone but a piece of the very same one that Parris recognized.
The National Geographic article concludes with the prescient note, the “discovery underscores the vital relationship between museums and amateur experts in recovering and preserving our planet’s prehistoric history.”
Parris — moving from exhibit floors into a warren of offices where rock dust fairly hangs in the air and Indiana Jones movie posters are here and there — is back from recently presenting a paper at Dakoterra, a prestigious conclave of fossil collectors that meets in the shadow of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The title of the paper is “Vertebrate Paleontology and Stratigraphy of the Late Cretaceous Holmdel Park Site, Monmouth County, New Jersey.” It turns out that the banks of the Navesink River have become prime real estate for fossil hunting, mostly shark’s teeth, according to the Dakoterra paper.
Callahan was listed as an author of that paper, along with Parris, and Parris’s museum associates Robert K. Denton and Robert O’Neill. “The two Bobs discovered that site and are multiply-published authors on the subject. They’re technically volunteers because we’ve never paid them,” says Parris with the relaxed, homespun manner of every rock hound one could ever have the pleasure to meet.
Parris has worked at the State Museum since 1971 and oversees the volunteers in the science area and the Innovation Lab — or a paleontology preparation laboratory to treat and prepare recent fossil finds for study and preservation.
The lab is part of the recent renovations to the museum building that opened in the 1960s. “We had it less set up formally in the old natural history hall. We thought why not set up something so people can see what is going on? It’s become one of the most popular features in the natural history hall. It’s become a very fortuitous facility, and we’re making it bigger and better,” Parris says.
Parris is 70 years old and makes it a point to say that he was born two months before the invasion of Normandy. He attended the University of Kansas before receiving a graduate degree from Princeton University. Prior to joining the NJSM, he worked as a park ranger at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, and at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
“I’m a McPherson, Kansas, native,” Parris says, “the son of two teachers. My father, Dr. Wayne L. Parris, (now deceased), was a professor (of anthropology and archaeology) at Wichita State University. My mother is retired from the Wichita Public Schools. She turns 97 this month, but still is a very active home gardener in Verona, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, where my younger sister, a retired Muskingum College dean, lives.”
Parris and his wife, Susan, a computer programmer for the New Jersey Department of Human Services, met when Parris came to Princeton. They have lived in West Windsor since 1973 and have two sons in the Princeton area: Tim, an artist who also works at Jacobus Pharmaceutical, and Dan, who works at Braun Research. An older son died in 2006.
The curator — who was invited to join the museum upon finishing Princeton studies — says that his wife’s family arrived in the Penns Neck section of West Windsor “more than two centuries ago” and made their living as blacksmiths and farmers. The Parris home is located on land originally settled by Susan’s family.
“Susan’s maternal ancestors were the Engelke and Williamson families, names that you can see on memorials at the Princeton Baptist Church of Penns Neck, which I consider to symbolize the essence of the village. Our family plot is there,” says Parris. “As we say in my family, you never really leave Penns Neck. When you die, you just move down the street — with the aid of the Mather-Hodge funeral home — to the Penns Neck Baptist church graveyard.”
Asked about his interaction with both religion and science, Parris — a Quaker who attends the Trenton meeting house yet participates in Baptist services with his wife — says that his own faith contributed to his desire to become a scientist and inspired him to learn about life itself. He says he “equates life itself with the deity, believing that to learn about life is a truly holy duty.” He adds that it is important that individuals share insights that have been gained by others during their quest for understanding.
In addition to his work at the museum Parris is a counselor for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from the D.C. area to upstate New York seeking to qualify for merit badges in archaeology, astronomy, bird study, coin collecting, geology, Indian lore, mammal study, and reptiles and amphibians. He also coaches West Windsor-Plainsboro High School students who enter Science Olympiad competitions.
Then there is the diverse group of volunteers under his watch at the museum. “Some are local people who have an interest,” Parris says of the volunteers. Among those listed as authors of the Dakoterra paper, Callahan is a former engineer with training in geology, O’Neill is a truck driver in Hamilton Township, and Denton is from Virginia, where he worked as a professional geologist. “Some are college students looking to get some experience. Some are retirees interested in their field of work. In the 40-plus years I’ve been here we’ve had a gradual decrease in the number of volunteers. Unfortunately, (the museum’s) staff has decreased. We need to invest a lot of time to train them,” he says.
Regarding training, Parris says, “It depends on exactly what they’re going to do. With fossil preparation we try to give them a fairly easy task. We will give them gradually more difficult tasks. With docents, most people come to us with fairly high qualifications. If they come with high qualifications we give a lot of thought to what projects to assign them to. It just depends on their interests and the tasks we have available. We try to accommodate as many as we can, especially if they’re high school and college students who are looking for an internship. We’re not looking for any one type of person, but we have a considerable number of jobs that they can do.”
One of the State Museum’s newest volunteers is Brittney Oleniacz, a Phillipsburg, New Jersey, native who recently received her bachelor’s degree in geology and environmental biology from Edinboro University, in remote northwestern Pennsylvania near Lake Erie.
Oleniacz is peering through a stereoscope into a box, separating threadlike bones of a corn snake from dirt granules. “She’s gaining experience, as you can see,” Parris says. “She’s benefiting the collection. Osteology is the most well-used collection we have.” As Merriam-Webster tells us, “osteology” is the part of anatomical studies that looks at bones. Parris says that biology and paleontology are connected in that fossils are biological remains in the geological record.
With the demand for NJSM volunteers continuing, those interested can check in first at the museum’s website, then click on “volunteers and interns” to get more information. There are four collecting bureaus and the bureau of education: archaeology and ethnology, cultural history, fine art, and natural history (which includes the planetarium).
In most cases, Parris says, applicants for the volunteer program submit their information, then curators of specific bureaus are notified and, depending on the qualifications and interests, “we see what we are able to do.”
There is a tradition of college students volunteering at the NJSM. Parris says the longest such relationship is with Douglass College at Rutgers University.
“During any given year during academic breaks we get Douglass women,” Parris says, connecting the dots of museum and personal history: Susan Parris’ mother, Louise Williamson Engelke Connolly — who died last year at 97 — attended Douglass College and is one of the young women depicted in a photographic enlargement of a painting class from the 1930s, now displayed on the historic exhibition wall at Douglass. “She may have carried the genetic heritage of the arts in our family.”
As the saying goes, “the past is prelude.”
New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, Tuesday through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Suggested admission $5. 609-292-6464 or www.nj.gov/state/museum
For volunteer information, go to www.nj.gov/state/museum/dos_museum_volunteer.html