be smart | September 2013
Barnes' passion is the study of real monsters
by Melanie Sioux Kuntz
Becky Barnes has known exactly what she wanted to be since she was six years old. A light switch came on in her head when she saw a Dinamation, robotic dinosaurs, exhibit at the Hjemkomst Center in her hometown of Moorhead, Minn.
"I knew then I wanted to study real monsters," Barnes said. From then on, she asked for dinosaur books for every Christmas and birthday. She spent hours in her bedroom, uncovering fossil fish from stone, using a dental pick and a microscope.
Barnes was on her way to becoming a paleontologist.
Sitting in her new office in the basement of the North Dakota Heritage Center's expansion, Barnes reminisces about becoming a female scientist in a field heavily dominated by men: "When I was 16 years old, Concordia College in Moorhead offered a Communiversity class called 'Digging Dinosaurs.'" It was an opportunity to work with Dr. Ron Nellermoe, a biologist and paleontologist at Concordia. "He was not thrilled; he did not want a 16-year-old girl going on digs with him. But we went to South Dakota, and by the end of the dig, he figured I'd held my own. By 1999, the second year, he couldn't get rid of me." she said.
The budding scientist became a biology major at Concordia, where she also studied geology, Latin and "random art and classical mythology for sanity." Barnes also continued to work with Nellermoe in the Concordia geology lab, where she moved from a volunteer to become a paid bone technician. She worked with the Edmontosaurus fossils in Concordia's collection, which has come in handy. Dakota, the famous duck-billed dinosaur at the Heritage Center, is an Edmontosaurus, and
Barnes works on it as part of her current position.
Realizing she needed a master's degree to continue in paleontology, she started in the graduate program at NDSU. Explaining that most paleontologists take some biology classes but are geologists, Barnes said she was more interested in bones and muscles, so earned her M.S. in biology rather than geology and continued her work with the Concordia fossil collection. She also got her teaching degree but knew she really wanted to work for the North Dakota Geological Survey in the field of paleontology, where jobs are scarce.
A position opened in the paleontology department at the Geological Survey office in Bismarck for fossil preparation, and Barnes was selected. "My heart is in digging in the dirt, fossil prep and putting the bones back together," she said. "I am exactly where I want to be -- I have no interest in any other position. "I know how lucky I am." As fossil preparator and paleontology lab manager for the Geological Survey, Barnes does everything from field work (digging and prospecting), to lab work (cleaning and repairing fossils, making impressions or casts of fossils), to painting and drawing images that show what the fossils may have looked like.
"The best part of my job is the variety," Barnes said. "There is no typical day. One day I work on cleaning dinosaur skin, the next day I help design exhibits, the next I make casts of a skeleton or any combination of those. I am never bored." With the expansion of the Heritage Center, where she works, came the opportunity to come up with ideas for an entire gallery dedicated to geology in North Dakota, including her beloved dinosaurs.
"I love being able to bring to my job my random hobbies," Barnes said. "Things that you'd never think would help actually do. I love jigsaw puzzles, woodworking, sculpting, painting and taxidermy. I love using my art background to put monsters back together." While one of her favorite things is being in the field on a dig, this year she's not doing much when it's hot -- she and her husband of two years are expecting a baby, due in September. Usually she's in the field for a month or two, but with the baby and work on the new geology gallery in the Heritage Center expansion, this summer is different. She has more office work, more art and exhibit work, more lab work and planning for the baby, but Barnes is exactly where she wants to be.
Bonnie Johnson is the assistant editor at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.