Montana State University

Studenlivin' @ msu: Paleontologist-to-be delves into the nitty gritty of dinosaur bones

May 15, 2007 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service

Eric Morschhauser. MSU photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Eric Morschhauser has devoted dozens of hours of his free time to cleaning a single fossil.

As a volunteer for the Museum of the Rockies' fossil bank, the MSU senior spent about 100 hours over the course of several years painstakingly scraping rock off a fossil.

The fossil, a rib from a sauropod, came from northern Wyoming and was about two and a half feet long, he said.

Using dental tools and small drills, he worked on the project between 2003, when he started volunteering during his freshman year of college, and 2005, when the fossil bank closed for renovations.

"It's amazingly time-consuming," Morschhauser said.

Some students might balk at such tedious work, but Morschhauser, who is majoring in earth sciences, said he looked at it as an opportunity to put into practice what he's learned in his studies.

"You're handling what you want to work with, which doesn't always happen for undergrads," Morschhauser said.

Gluing several pieces of the rib together was a fun challenge, too, like working on a puzzle, Morschhauser said. About four inches of the bone was missing.

In addition to cleaning the ancient sauropod's rib, Morschhauser would field questions as he worked from museum visitors. That part of the gig was especially rewarding.

"You learn so much more when you're explaining things to other people," he said. "You have to find a way to bring (museum visitors) another step or two in the right direction. You have to be a step ahead of them."

Morschhauser's interest in dinosaurs dates back to his childhood.

"I can't remember when I first became interested in dinosaurs, but the date I tell people is age 3," he said. "I've always been interested in dinosaurs, bugs, trees, streams, nature. The interest has just never really gone away."

Morschhauser, who is from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., chose to enroll at Montana State after visiting Bozeman and talking with some faculty members.

"I was really impressed with the faculty and the fact that MSU takes so much time to help their undergraduates," he said. "They treat their graduate students right out here, but they also help undergraduates succeed."

While Morschhauser watched classmates switch majors and enroll in general studies courses, he felt lucky to know at a young age that he wanted to be a paleontologist.

"That isn't normal, is it? Ever since I've been in college, what I've learned I've really enjoyed," he said.

Morschhauser has excelled in his studies.

He came to MSU on a Presidential Scholarship and has maintained a 3.99 grade point average. Morschhauser was also selected to do research in China during spring break of his junior year, where he studied fossils of extinct birds that lived during the time of the dinosaurs.

In 2006, he won a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, which rewards excellence in science and math and pays up to $7,500 a year for two years of undergraduate education.

He has been accepted into the doctoral program in earth sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, a program he will begin after picking up a second bachelor's degree in ecology and evolution next year at MSU.

Eventually, he'd like to work as a university professor.

"It's an exciting environment," he said. "There is always something interesting going on intellectually."

In the meantime, he'll spend the summer taking a summer geology field course in southwest Montana, working for the Museum on a field crew based near Havre and visiting his family in New York's Hudson Valley.

As for the carefully cleaned sauropod's rib, it is tucked away in the Museum of the Rockies' collections. But that doesn't mean Morschhauser's work for the Museum is done.

"As long as I'm here I'll volunteer," he said.

Q & A with Eric Morschhauser

What is your favorite book?
"Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo and "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The characters are amazingly believable. They wrestle with things you think real people would wrestle with. They're amazingly well-done.

What is your favorite food?
Pizza done right -- that's New York-style pizza, with pepperoni and mushrooms.

What is the best movie you've seen recently?
"Treasure of the Sierra Madre." It was well done, though it's kind of sad to watch Humphrey Bogart go crazy.

What is your favorite movie?
I have 10. "Jurassic Park," the first three "Star Wars" movies (episodes IV-VI), the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the "Indiana Jones" movies. Those are movies I could all watch and again and again and again and have.

What is your favorite summertime activity?

Anne Pettinger, (406) 994-4902 or