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The Journey of the Shells

To many, science may seem to be a strictly objective discipline, black-and-white and void of emotion. Sure, it takes passion, but science is seldom regarded as possessing sentimentality. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Through its ability to reveal passions and spark inspiration, science has proven its ability to resonate on a most intimate level, as illustrated by Vicki Jackson and 150 drawers of seashells.

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It all began on Sunday, July 28, 2013, when Jackson visited the Sam Noble Museum, carrying with her some 2,700 carefully boxed seashells. The collection was not hers, but her late father’s. Although Jackson’s generous donation of the collection to the museum’s recent invertebrates department is in and of itself a marvelous tale, it is the story behind the shells that makes this gift extraordinary.

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Jackson believes that her father, Perry Yates Jackson Jr., began collecting shells after attending the Naval Academy many years ago. Since then, his compilation has expanded to include shells from both familiar and exotic locals: Hawaii, Florida, Virginia, California, Texas, Haiti, New Guinea, The West Indies and Seychelles, among others. The global nature of the collection stems largely from Perry Jackson Jr.’s service with the United States Navy.

 “The Navy allowed him to go all over the place, and wherever they docked, if he had the time, he would shell hunt. It was almost a form of meditation,” Jackson explained.

 Perry Jackson Jr. was not only an avid collector, but also a dedicated organizer. Until his passing in 1998, he maintained a meticulous catalogue of each and every item he recovered. According to Katrina Menard, curator of the Sam Noble Museum’s recent invertebrates collection, this degree of care is almost as rare as the shells themselves.

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Unfortunately, without her father’s expertise, Jackson and her family lacked the knowledge and resources needed to maintain the collection. According to Jackson, no one has cared for the shells since 1998, and ultimately, this played a pivotal role in her decision to donate the nearly 3,000 pieces to the museum.

“I’ve met staff from Sam Noble Museum at annual meetings of the American Society of Mammalogists, and a student of mine completed an internship there last summer in the mammology department.  Everything I’ve heard has indicated that they would take excellent care of this collection,” Jackson said.

Needless to say, the collection is very dear to Jackson as it symbolizes her father’s passion for wildlife. This love of the natural world influenced her immensely as a young girl, and guided her to a career in animal biology, as she is currently an associate professor of biology at the University of Central Missouri. In the same way that her father’s shells once influenced her, Jackson hopes her father’s legacy will inspire other budding scientists.

“Future generations build on the work of earlier generations, and by taking care of her father’s collection in perpetuity, it will mean many future scientists can learn and be inspired by it as well,” said Menard.

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According to Menard, Jackson’s mission aligns precisely with the museum’s aspiration to encourage potential scientists through programs like Paleo Expedition and Oklahoma Science AdventureThrough these programs, the museum hopes to utilize the legacies of accomplished scientists, like Jackson Jr., to show up-and-coming researchers that science is not just about objective facts and numbers: it’s about passion.