Montana State University

Chance encounter brings Cuban student to MSU to study paleontology

April 27, 2016 -- By Evelyn Boswell for the MSU News Service

Lazaro Vinola is a Cuban student at Montana State University. Vinola's lifelong interest in paleontology brought him to MSU, where he works on fossil specimens in the paleontology labs at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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BOZEMAN — A neighborly visit in a small fishing village led to Montana State University hosting its first Cuban student on campus this semester, a young paleontologist.    

Used to fossil specimens he could hold in his hand, Lazaro Vinola is now cleaning and stabilizing a 66.3-million-year-old dinosaur bone in the Museum of the Rockies' Paleo Lab. A yard-long plaster jacket holds the brain case of a triceratops named "Big Ollie." It was excavated in 2013 from the Hell Creek Formation of eastern Montana.                                       

Vinola, 21, is also taking 17 credits at MSU, taking three paleontology courses that are only offered every other year.

"Sometimes I think that I'm dreaming," Vinola said as he reflected on the surprising opportunity that stemmed from conversations between his father and a visiting Montanan about five years ago.

Writer and radio host Brian Kahn of Helena was in Havana around 2010 when he decided that he needed a break from the city. Kahn hosts the award-winning public radio program "Home Ground Radio" and was doing radio shows in Cuba. He is a former director of the Montana Nature Conservancy and a former board member of MSU's Burton K. Wheeler Center.

So Kahn asked a friend if he knew of a quiet village, and the friend suggested Caleton, a fishing village about 90 miles from Havana. Kahn soon rented a room there and was sitting in the yard when one of the neighbors walked over.

The man was a fishing guide, his wife owned a business and they had two children. Learning more about their 16-year-old son, Kahn asked if he could meet him. Not only did the teenager have a winning personality, but he had collected and identified thousands of fossils and scored second in a national biology test.

"Cuba has a very strong educational system, so that's quite an achievement," Kahn said.

It didn't take long, Kahn said, before he realized that he wanted to bring two exceptional people together -- young Vinola and internationally renowned paleontologist Jack Horner. Horner is curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies and a Montana University System Regents Professor of Paleontology.

Because of that encounter, Vinola made his first trip to Montana in 2014. He joined Horner's field crews at the Beatrice Taylor Field Station, also known as Egg Mountain, by Choteau and then at the O'Hair sauropod quarry near Livingston.

"He took to it like a duck to water," said MSU paleontologist Cary Woodruff, one of the crew chiefs who oversaw Vinola. "He was a joy to have around camp. He was very well-versed in a lot of the methodologies and procedures. It didn't matter what task I gave him. It was executed perfectly."

In January this year, Vinola came to MSU as a full-time, non-degree student under a J-1 Visa. Saying he experienced no interference from the Cuban government, Kahn said he and others paid for Vinola's airline ticket to Montana, his books and his housing in MSU's Langford Hall. MSU provided a tuition scholarship for the semester. The Metcalf Foundation and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation are also providing important support for Vinola’s visit.

Sally O'Neill, immigration specialist in MSU's Office of International Programs, handled the paperwork, noting that visas and airline tickets aren't always easy to obtain for international students.

"Immigration work has to be done just right," she said. "It was really gratifying to be able to push that through to get it to work. So many things could have gone wrong, but everything lined up."

Kahn was the real force behind Vinola's visit, she added. Without him, Vinola wouldn't be at MSU. Kahn returns the compliments, praising O'Neill, MSU President Waded Cruzado, Horner and many others for their roles in bringing Vinola to MSU and making him feel welcome.

As for Vinola, he said, "It has been a really good experience for me. I have learned a lot in the classroom and the museum."

This spring -- shortly before President Obama and the Rolling Stones made their historic visits to Cuba -- Vinola elaborated on some of his achievements before coming to MSU.

The chance to work on dinosaur bones is new to him, but he has always been interested in fossils, Vinola said. In fact, he has collected, processed and categorized some 8,000 fossils since he was 6 years old. All stored in the family home, the specimens represent a wide range of animals that lived during the Miocene Epoch and Quaternary Period. Among them are ancient sloths, iguanas, eagles, crocodiles and turtles.

Vinola learned how to identify and prepare his fossils by consulting with experts at the Museum of Natural History in Cuba, also by reading scientific papers and books. Even though fossils from Montana and Cuba are different, he said the preparation techniques are the same. And the lessons he learns at MSU will apply at the University of Havana, where he is a third-year student who has already published a book chapter about his findings.

Vinola is taking GEO 310, 411 and 111 at MSU. Associate Professor of Paleontology David Varricchio said the first two courses are surveys of invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology. They cover the major groups that contribute to the fossil record and the overall history of the groups through geologic time. Both have labs to familiarize students with the anatomy and the important functional aspects of the major groups of invertebrates and vertebrates. GEO 111 is an introduction to dinosaurs, covering the history of discovery, the major groups and their ecology and evolution.

"I'm learning a lot,” said Vinola, who plans to return to Cuba for a career in paleontology.

Contact: Lazaro Vinola,