Meet the trick-dancing engineer making fossils shine

Reagan Long ’18 is not your typical paleontologist.

And yet, Long, a country-western trick-dancing engineering major from Friendswood, Texas, spent the better part of a year working in SMU’s Shuler Museum of Paleontology, carefully removing the rock surrounding million-year-old fossils dug up in Angola in 2005. The fossils were discovered by the international scientific team Projecto PaleoAngola, co-led by Louis Jacobs, SMU professor emeritus of earth sciences, and including SMU researchers Michael Polcyn and Diana Vineyard.

Somewhere inside Reagan, an 8-year-old was screaming with joy.

“I definitely had little picture books growing up with titles like How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? and If Dinosaurs Came to Town,” Reagan recalls. “I also had plastic dinosaur toys – several bins of those – that I really liked.”

Beyond those early childhood toys, trips to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and a few frightful viewings of Jurassic Park, Reagan had never had the opportunity to explore her love of dinosaurs in a hands-on manner.

Fast forward to 2017.

While volunteering with summer camps at the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education in SMU’s Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering, Reagan could hardly believe her luck when she learned the upcoming camp would include activities in the Shuler Museum — an archive and laboratory brimming with fossils for research and teaching in the basement of SMU’s Heroy Hall.

“I called dibs on the dino camp right away,” Reagan explains. “I basically supervised the kids for a week as they did stuff in the lab, but it got me talking with Dr. Jacobs. I told him I had been obsessed with dinosaurs when I was a kid and he asked, ‘Would you like to work for us next semester?’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir!’”

A partnership was born.

In the year that followed, she helped pick away the rock matrix from dozens of fossils and contributed to two specimens that will go on display as part of Sea Monsters Unearthed, a Smithsonian exhibit in partnership with SMU.

The entire opportunity was a dream come true, says Reagan, who received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from SMU in May 2018.

“It was so strange to know I was actually holding something that was living and breathing millions of years ago,” Reagan says. “I hope anyone who experiences this exhibit doesn’t just leave it at the museum. A kid walking through this exhibit could end up making the next breakthrough because of their interest in things we’re doing now.”

Eight-year-old Reagan would think it’s pretty darn neat.