Using X-ray Computed Tomography to view exceptionally preserved soft tissues in Devonian fossils

Prescott Vayda


Undergraduate Research


For my project, I used an XCT scanner to scan fossils of the Devonian Silica Shale of northwestern Ohio to look for preserved soft tissues. The fossils from this unit are commonly associated with pyrite, which provided a good chance that some soft tissue could be preserved. From my scans, I found some amazing results including gut systems in trilobites and muscle sets in brachiopods.

This experience was transformational for me because it was my first real opportunity to finally do the work that I love. I have wanted to be a paleontologist since I was very young, but I had never really got to experience it. Through my research I came to realize that this is truly the career for me. At every new discovery, I found myself asking more new questions. My curiosity was an itch that could never be completely relieved.

My understandings of earth science also changed quite drastically. I learned so much about the preservation process and why fossils preserve with different quality. It was fascinating to go behind the scenes at the museum to see the collections and to pick out specimens for me to scan. The Orton Museum does so much great work cataloging and maintaining specimens so that students and faculty can have access to them for research.

I also learned about myself through this project. As the project went on, I found I got better and better at determining the next step in the research. I got much better at asking the right questions to continue the investigation. This was great for having brief and efficient meetings with my advisor. We could both discuss the topic and further develop my questions to the caliber of publishable research.

I am so glad to have worked on this project with my advisor, Dr. Loren Babcock. Beyond guiding me through the research, he provided me with excellent insight into the inner workings of a career in paleontology. During our meetings we would talk about the future of the field and prospective investigations in addition to the current research that I was working on. It was great to be able to see into how a professional scientist formulates and modifies questions into a testable hypothesis. He also guided me as I began to look at graduate schools, which was incredibly helpful.

Another fun aspect of this project was working over the summer. It was very different to be able to solely focus on research without worrying about classes. I liked it very much. There were other students also working on research over the summer (both undergrad and graduate), so it was exciting to hear about the other cool investigations going on.

The experience was important for me because it further solidified my goals to become a paleontologist. It was great to be able to experience this as a an undergrad because it showed me that this is in fact the type of work I would like to do in the future. As well, it gave me invaluable experience related to my field of study. I will be presenting my research at a professional conference in November, and I am looking forward to showing my work to other people in the field of paleontology. I will be able to include this experience as a key talking point on my resume to show future graduate school advisors or employers that I have worked on academic research. I learned many skills including multiple computer softwares for visualizing images in 2D and 3D. I also got some great advice from my advisor that will be pertinent to my search for the right graduate school and beyond. I hope to publish my findings in an academic journal, and it would be fantastic to have a paper published in my name as an undergraduate student.