By Steve Koppes
Photo by Dan Dry

Sara has the energy and talent to wear many hats, including student technician, tour and event organizer, and general ambassador to the world.”
—Paul Sereno
Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy

Sara ElShafie found her research passion in a basement paleontology lab on campus, where she used tiny picks, brushes, and pneumatic etching tools to slowly tease out fossils locked in ancient rocks.

Preparing specimens became an addictive pastime for ElShafie, a fourth-year Biology major specializing in Ecology and Evolution. She discovered that her skill at the work improved at an unusually fast clip.

“It was really nice to come to the lab between classes, sit down for three hours and get completely lost in the matrix, the dirt, the fossils, and zone out,” ElShafie says. “It was very soothing, and it actually helped me to be calmer and not stressed about my courses.”

ElShafie has worked in the laboratory of Paul Sereno, Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy, for more than two years. During the last year she has presented research at conferences in England, Canada, and Chicago. This week she will give a talk in Pittsburgh at the 2010 annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology as sole author of her paper—a rare honor for an undergraduate.

“I am both excited and terrified,” she says.

From Volunteer to ‘Ambassador to the World’

Adding to the excitement is ElShafie’s Citation of Merit award from the Association for Women in Science. The award is a scholarship for undergraduate women who, like ElShafie, plan to pursue a career in teaching, research, or both.

Her journey to the Fossil Lab began during the spring quarter of 2008, when she was looking for a summer job after her first year in the College. She had heard that UChicago’s prominent dinosaur hunter sometimes hired undergraduates.

“I thought that would be cool, so I sent him an email and he said, ‘Yeah, come on in.’ He was incredibly receptive and welcoming,” ElShafie says.

As is customary for students in the Fossil Lab, she started as a volunteer and received training in fossil preparation. Impressed by the speed of her progress, Sereno hired her for the summer. She took over as the lab’s student coordinator the following autumn quarter.

ElShafie became increasingly interested in the lab, taking on more and more responsibility in its operations.

“Sara has the energy and talent to wear many hats, including student technician, tour and event organizer, and general ambassador to the world,” Sereno says. “Having a student with this energy and capacity enhances lab output and impact.”

ElShafie works in the lab eight hours a week, “but in reality I basically live here,” she says with a laugh. “I’m in the lab whenever I’m not in class.” When she’s not logging official hours on her time sheet, she’s studying or doing homework.

Rewarding Work with Non-Profits and Turtles

ElShafie also works for Project Exploration, the non-profit science education outreach organization Sereno co-founded in 1999 with Gabrielle Lyon, AB’94, AM’94. One weekend last April, ElShafie worked at ReptileFest, an educational reptile and amphibian show, on behalf of Project Exploration. Another weekend she helped staff a downtown Chicago showing of “When Crocs Ate Dinosaurs,” a National Geographic film that features several of Sereno’s fossil discoveries. ElShafie also has assisted with several of Project Exploration’s summer youth programs as an instructor and mentor.

At UChicago, ElShafie has been conducting research with Sereno. Her project is focused on “a new species of a very obscure, weird group of turtles,” which until now had consisted of only one species that was discovered in Brazil, she says. “This new addition was found in the Ténéré Desert of Niger under a dinosaur that Dr. Sereno discovered.”

The 110-million-year-old turtle specimen was beautifully preserved in pristine condition. The shell of the turtle is unusually thin and flat. ElShafie presented her preliminary findings on the specimen at the September annual 2009 meeting of SVP at the University of Bristol in England. The following month she was a co-presenter with Sereno at the Gaffney Turtle Symposium at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. The symposium was held in honor of Eugene Gaffney, curator of turtle paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

“I finally got to meet Gene Gaffney, whose papers I’d been reading for my research,” ElShafie says. “That was really cool because he is Paul’s former adviser and now I was going as Paul’s student. So by the end he told me just to call him ‘Grandpa Gaffney.’”

Originally published on October 11, 2010.