Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
Christie Godek looms over a broad, L-shaped desk in a black leather chair, staring down a binocular microscope with forceps in hand. Carefully, she picks through a thin layer of soil and rock – watching, waiting. At last, she unearths something of interest, what appears to be the bone or tooth from our shared prehistoric past. Slowly, she drops the fragment into a miniature, cork-sealed vial, scribbles on a small paper chart and returns to the tray before her.
Godek sifts through sandy soil
Such is the work of a “micropicker”, a volunteer in the vertebrae paleontology department who tirelessly sifts through gallons of soil to find shards of prehistoric remains. The work is slow and repetitive, but rewarding. In 30 to 60 minutes, Godek can process one coffee scooper filled with soil, typically unearthing a couple dozen fragments in that time. With no formal training in paleontology, she knows only what fossil preperator Kyle Davies has taught her – and that’s all she needs.
Five-gallon buckets waiting to be picked
Five years ago, Godek moved to Norman, Okla. after retiring from her job as a dental hygienist. She decided to get involved with the museum after receiving a volunteerism flier from her daughter, who works for the University of Oklahoma’s continued education department. Right away, she was hooked.
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt every time I come in,” Godek said.
A lot goes into micropicking. First, professionals sanitize the incoming soil to eliminate pests, which can damage the facilities and collections. Then volunteers must sift through the soil to salvage the specimens, which are often smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Finally, undergraduate students mount the specimens to the head of a pin, which they drive into the cork that seals the vial. At last, the specimen is stored in collections for future use in research.
A mounted specimen rests on top of a pin
As you might guess, many volunteers do not appreciate the tedious sifting required of micropicking, but it is vital to understanding prehistoric ecosystems. Godek believes her previous skills as a hygienist make her an ideal picker, as she is accustomed to working in microenvironments that demand a detail-oriented mindset.
“For me, it’s fun,” said Godek. “Dental hygiene requires a lot of patience and repetitive work, but it’s always different. Every tray is different, too.”
One of many micropicking cabinets
Currently, there are just two micropickers at the museum, with two more in training. The first round of spring docent training will begin this weekend on Feb. 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. So, if you are interested in gaining hands-on experience like Godek, check out our volunteerism page for information about upcoming opportunities or drop by on Saturday! Also, be sure and sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates on this year’s volunteer of the year award and banquet.
It takes many helping hands from generous volunteers to run the Sam Noble Museum, and this week, April 22-26, is national Volunteer Appreciation Week. During this time, the museum honors volunteers for their invaluable contributions. This year, Mary LeBlanc has been selected to receive the 2013 Tom Siegenthaler Volunteer of the Year Award. Mary has been a volunteer at the museum for 18 years and is the longest-serving active volunteer in the Vertebrate Paleontology Department.
In 1994, Mary saw a newspaper article describing a fossil preparation class at the museum. Having a degree in History and minors in Anthropology and Art History, Mary knew this was an opportunity she did not want to pass up. “I signed up since it met at night, and I could do it while still working full-time at the University.”
Mary enjoyed her time at the Sam Noble so much she would work at the University of Oklahoma in the day and volunteer for the museum in the evening. Since she volunteered before the museum moved into its present facility, Mary actually had a hand in preparing some of the displays in the Hall of Ancient Life. “It’s very exciting to be able to walk around the Hall of Ancient Life and see the various specimens we worked on. When I take relatives to the museum, I can show them the different specimens I helped create.”
After retiring from OU last year, Mary started volunteering full-time. She has been an asset with administrative and computer projects in several offices, tirelessly worked almost every special event, and takes advantage of a wide variety of professional development opportunities.
When asked about why Mary was chosen for this prestigious award, Volunteer Coordinator Terry Allen complimented Mary on her work ethic. “She’s eager to help in any way that will further the mission of the museum, and because of that, she’s a perfect example of a top-notch Sam Noble Museum volunteer.”
The Tom Siegenthaler Volunteer of the Year Award will be presented to Mary on Thursday evening, April 25, during the Museum’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.