Jun 2, 2010 7:44 PM by MSU News Service
BOZEMAN - As a toddler, Paul Ullmann listened to his parents read bedtime stories about dinosaurs, and at the age of three, he declared he would be a paleontologist. As an undergraduate student at Montana State University, Ullmann started to fulfill his lifelong dream, working at field camps with world-renowned paleontologists such as Jack Horner and David Varricchio and earning a degree in earth sciences.
Now, the skills and research interests Ullmann developed at MSU have led to a fellowship from the National Science Foundation that totals more than $120,000. Ullmann, 24, will use the three-year Graduate Research Fellowship to fund his research and doctoral studies in paleontology at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
"This award really opens the door for me," Ullmann said. He said the fellowship will cover a variety of expenses, including tuition, field work and travel for research.
Ullmann graduated with a bachelor's degree in earth sciences from MSU in December 2008. He said his experiences at MSU enabled him to earn the prestigious NSF fellowship.
"I chose MSU for the strength of its paleontology program, and I definitely got a great education there," said Ullmann, who grew up in Florida. "From what I can tell from other places I've been and from recommendations I've heard from others, it's one of the premier programs in paleontology. I can personally vouch for that."
Ullmann points to a variety of opportunities, such as cleaning and preparing fossils in labs and the university's geology-oriented paleontology curriculum, as important to his education. But, what was most rewarding to Ullmann were the many opportunities he had to conduct field research.
"For those of us that love field work and paleontology, you have to have field experience," Ullmann said. "And (MSU) gives you much better, more diverse and more in-depth training in the field than most other universities."
Ullmann's field experiences were diverse, taking him from southeastern Idaho to study dinosaur nesting sites to southwestern Montana to study burrowing dinosaurs.
On one expedition in 2006, he helped several others, including several MSU professors, uncover the most complete and largest dinosaur ever found in Nevada. At the time, virtually no signs of dinosaurs had been found there, Ullmann said.
"After a couple of days of hiking around and searching, we stopped to measure a geologic section as an exercise," Ullmann said. "Dr. Varricchio and a graduate student were sitting at the top of the hill above us, and my partner and I were below them doing our work. I happened to look down, and there was a piece of bone at my feet, while at the exact same moment, Dr. Varricchio and the graduate student were saying, ‘Man, we just can't find anything here, there are no bones anywhere.' Lo and behold, that's right when I looked down a saw a bone at my feet!'"
For Ullmann, it was a thrill of discovery that confirmed his desire to be a paleontologist.
"Over the next few days, we found the bones of a duck-billed dinosaur there," he said. "It was my own little claim to fame."
Ullmann followed the experience in Nevada with other experiences in the field, including two summers spent as a paid field crew chief for Horner and the Museum of the Rockies.
In 2009, he led a crew of two to three volunteers at the Hell Creek formation, a site northeast of Jordan in eastern Montana that has yielded important dinosaur fossil finds. The year before that, he was a crew leader in Malta.
"That was my personal dream, to head out into the badlands, just you and a small crew of friends," Ullmann said. "I got to pass on everything I had learned about field techniques, and my interest in paleontology, to the volunteers, who were mostly undergrads."
Ullmann's MSU professors describe him as a serious, committed student.
"Paul was a quiet but very hard-working student," Varricchio said. "He would often go long stretches of the semester without saying much in class. But if he did speak up it was always with something relevant. In one course he had been quiet for a long time, and the first time he spoke up was to correct an error I had made in my lecture."
Ullmann's dedication to the profession was immediately evident, said Frankie Jackson, another MSU professor who met Ullmann the summer before his first year at MSU. She noted that Ullmann is also "amazingly good at finding fossil bones in the field."
At Drexel University, Ullmann plans to research molecular taphonomy, or the study of decaying organisms and how they become fossilized.
"It's a new and emerging field in paleontology and has been identified as one that really needs to grow," Ullmann said. "It's explaining how soft tissues and bio-molecules are preserved in fossils."
Ullmann is currently designing his course of study. He said he plans to look for correlations between geologic variables and the molecular preservation state of fossils.
"I'll study what kind of environment the dinosaur was fossilized in," Ullmann said. "For instance, was it a river or pond or shoreline? I'll also perform a number of geochemistry tests to characterize the large-scale physical environment and the small-scale groundwater and geochemical environment of bones to see if there's a correlation between certain conditions and how well the bones are preserved molecularly and soft tissue-wise."
Ullmann said he's happy that he has been able to follow his childhood dream.
"I was one of those kids who found dinosaurs fascinating," he said. "But I was one of those who never gave up on that outlook, and it has paid off."
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