A team of researchers lead by Paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs and Sedimentologist Neil Tabor, both of SMU, returned to northwestern Ethiopia in late December 2007 to collect additional plant fossils and gain a more thorough understanding of their geological context. The team also included Dan Danehy, an SMU Master’s Degree student in the Department of Earth Sciences; Harvey Herr, an undergraduate in the Department of Earth Sciences; John Kappelman with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Ellen Currano, a Ph.D. student from Penn State University; and Alemu Yenehun, a graduate of Mekelle University, Ethiopia.

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Ellen Currano: It’s not just about the fossils

It’s not just about the fossils. That’s why I’m here, obviously, and the leaves are beautiful. Not like anything I’ve collected before in either Wyoming or Argentina. Wyoming is in the temperate zone — thin leaves with teeth that are shed every winter. 28 million years ago, there was a tropical forest here: the leaves are thick and tough, and there’s very little insect feeding on them. I’m interested in looking at some more sites, to see whether the one I’m in is unique or whether the forest canopy was just really well-protected from insects. Either way, there will be an interesting story that comes out of this.

Then there’s the field experience. Getting to be outdoors all the time, hiking, digging holes, and hitting rocks with a hammer (although my Ethiopian field helpers are sometimes overenthusiastic and think I should not be doing manual labor, so I have to fight them to actually let me dig and hammer). I had a crazy month before leaving for Ethiopia and barely spent any time outside, plus it will be cold and snowy (well, I can at least hope there will be snow…) when I return to DC, so I am really relishing my time outdoors in the sun. Unfortunately, the only suntan I’ll have is the back of my hands, neck, and face because the sun is so intense that white people like me really need to keep covered all the time. And, believe it or not, in the hot and blazing sun, it’s way cooler to be in long sleeves and pants than it is to wear shorts and a tank. On the subject of fashion, another thing I really like about being in the field is not having to think about what to wear in the morning. I’ve got my one good pair of field pants, a light-weight long-sleeved shirt, and a couple t-shirts to choose from. My biggest decision is really what pair of socks to wear. Facing my closet when I return home will be a little intimidating, although luckily I work at a museum with dusty fossils and so I never have to dress up.

Last, there’s the cultural experience. Life in Ethiopia is completely different than in America, obviously. If I lived in the countryside, I would have been married for ten years already, and probably have at least 5 kids. Now that’s a scary thought! Although if I was born here and knew nothing else, it would be equally weird to think about my American lifestyle. It’s a funny thing, the luck of where you’re born. How much that determines who you are and what you can do with your life. I’m reminded of just how lucky I am.

I’m trying to learn some Amharic, but it’s difficult for me to pick up — the sounds are so different than English, and I’ll say a word, but then it evaporates right out of my head. The Ethiopian students with us are trying to teach me, and we also talk a lot about our different cultures: holidays, family, weddings, religion, food, sports (I wonder what happened in the NFL playoffs today), music, dancing. Yesterday, one of our field assistants gave me a slingshot, which has become my new hobby. I think I can still throw farther than I can shoot, but my accuracy is improving dramatically. I think my 15+ years of organized sports are finally paying off in a big way. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to practice much in DC. It is tempting to take it out on the mall, though I’d probably be arrested within minutes. So if you hear about a girl arrested for slinging rocks on the mall, then you’ll know I gave in to the temptation. And now maybe I will practice a little more while there’s still some light.

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    One Response to Ellen Currano: It’s not just about the fossils

    1. Wow great post, very entertaining. The parts I relate to the most are about the outdoors. I couldn’t agree with you more. Any chance I get to go hiking, camping, boating, or just being on the open road I gladly take it. Wyoming has great campgrounds. The last time I was there with my family we were able to find a perfect campground near a lake. It was a while back so I don’t remember the exact location. We went rving across the country that summer and I’ve been posting my travel adventure on any We went rv blog I can find. So here is to the great outdoors! Forget the malls!

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