Emergence of Animals First-Year Seminar

Emergence of Animals First-Year Seminar

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See, it’s one of these guys. Remember we were
talking about those that have the complex inner pore structure, the inner wall? You’ve
caught it, right there … My name is Mark McMenamin. I teach here at
Mount Holyoke in the Department of Geography and Geology. And the class is entitled Emergence
of Animals, Geology 115, first-year seminar. I think it’s a great course for first-years
because it gets them working right away with the data, with looking at the actual specimens
themselves and applying geological techniques such as thin sectioning and using the transmitted
polarized microscopes and the cathodal luminoscope. It’s a chance for them to immediately start
working with the material. On the course description on the website,
it said that we’d be working with fossils, but I had no idea we’d be working with fossils
every single class. We went down to the fossil lab and we took a rock that was from, like,
500 million years ago, and we just chopped it up and looked at it. Or, one day he poured acid on a fossil and
it dissolved oxygen that hadn’t been in the air for, like, almost 600 million years. And
so we just got to do all these really cool things with these ancient rocks. Professor McMenamin: We have a unique fossil
collection for an institution of our size. It’s an amazing fossil collection, actually. It’s really nice having a piece of history
just sitting right there for our use. With the beginning of the class I gave them
an introductory geology course, essentially, in condensed format. Then we began to talk
about the modes of preservation, how fossils are preserved in the sediments, because this
is especially critical for understanding these early animals and animal-like fossils. Their
preservation is strange, and so we have to have some familiarity with ordinary types
of fossil preservation before we can look at the oddball cases. They actually spent several periods looking
at Mount Holyoke’s collection of ediacaran fossils and pouring over them, and together
as a class we tried to learn what these first strange fossils were telling us, and particularly
what they were telling us about the origins of animals. I had no idea that there were so many concepts
in science that they tell you in high school are iron-clad, and you can’t argue with this.
But you really can. You can question everything. And here we did. Because of the type of paleontology that I
do, which is the paleontology of problematica—strange fossils, unexplained things, mysterious things
in paleontology—it’s very beneficial to be working with a group of people who do not
have preconceptions about the material. I love working with Mount Holyoke first-year
students because they are coming in with very fresh minds, and they’re able to see things
that others would miss. At the same time they get the experiences that you have to have
to have a well-rounded geological education. But I really think there’s no replacement
for this kind of liberal arts approach to being able to see things in the sciences,
particularly in paleontology, because that is how we’re going to make progress in the
field, with this open mind. I just didn’t think I’d ever get really excited
about rocks. But it was just surprising how much history has to go with it, and I love
history. But that … how it played into all of my interests, and it’s something that I
really found to be exciting and fun.

1 thought on “Emergence of Animals First-Year Seminar”

  1. I was lucky to get hold of a Discovery Oct' 95 issue which has an article on Hypersea as proposed by Mark and Dianna McMenamin. It was fantastic to see him in person. Kolkata, India.

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