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Mariana Di Giacomo works in a fossil preparation lab, removing the rock or loose
sediment known as matrix from the tooth of a Toxodon, a prehistoric
Di Giacomo was digging in the mud of a drying stream bed pursuing a
passion that began as a childhood fascination with dinosaurs that she
never outgrew when she had a revelation about the fossils she was
It was 2011, and Di Giacomo was a masters degree student in
paleontology, part of a group that was among the first to search for
fossils at that particular site in her native Uruguay. The area was a
treasure trove of bones of ancient animals, bones that had been in the
stream for countless decades until a drought made them accessible to
The bones had been so wet for so long that [after they were
uncovered] they began to get moldy or to dry out and crack, Di Giacomo
said. I became very curious about how to take care of these bones.
Thats when my interests focused on conservation and preservation of
Di Giacomo, now a doctoral student in preservation studies at the
University of Delaware, is participating in her second Smithsonian
Institution Conservation Fellowship at the National Museum of Natural
History in Washington, D.C.
In addition to other projects at the museum, she is conducting
research for her dissertation on the best ways to care for fossils in
order to preserve them for future scientific study. The fellowship will
continue to December, when she will begin writing the dissertation.
The field of conservation began in the arts, because you want that
Da Vinci to last, and you can see right away that its fragile, she
said. It took a long time for the natural sciences to realize the same
thing, that once you remove a bone from its surroundings, its going to
In the early days of paleontology, fossils were often damaged in
shipment or became cracked or discolored from exposure to the elements.
But, Di Giacomo said, museums priorities were to study and exhibit such
items rather than to preserve them as meticulously as possible for the
future. A broken fossilized bone, for example, would have been glued
back together and put on display, without any thought about which type
of adhesive would have the smallest impact on the specimen.
Di Giacomo sees that mindset changing as scientists who study fossils
and technical experts who prepare them become more aware of the need
Her own dedication to the study of fossils began at age 7, when she saw the movie Jurassic Park
and its associated merchandise such as dinosaur-themed toys and
childrens magazines. Like many of her friends in Uruguay at the time,
Di Giacomo decided that she would become a paleontologist when she grew
up. Unlike her friends, she never changed her mind.
On a visit to the U.S., her parents took her to see dinosaur exhibits
at natural history museums, and if she hadnt been hooked before, she
Once I saw those big skeletons, that just fueled my interest even more, she said.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Mariana Di Giacomo studies the condition of
microscope slides at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural
History, where she is completing her second Smithsonian Institution Conservation Fellowship..
Di Giacomo earned bachelors and masters degrees in paleontology,
with a focus on biology, in Uruguay and then trained in fossil
preparation and became the manager of a collection. But she continued
her interest in learning more about preservation of fossils and began
searching for a doctoral program.
She was unable to find any that specifically centered on fossils, but
she found encouragement at UD from Joyce Hill Stoner, who is the
Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture and director of the Preservation Studies Doctoral Program. Stoner told her that the program could accommodate her interest in natural history.
In 2014, Di Giacomo was accepted into the Ph.D. program and, she
said, I was so excited because I knew that now I could really study
what I wanted to focus on.
She completed her first Smithsonian fellowship from January through
August 2016 and has now returned for a second stint at the natural
history museum. One of her projects involves surveying slides of
specimens from all departments in the museum shes examined 300,000 so
far, ranging from plants to reptiles to identify which types of
mounting materials that were used to preserve the specimens are stable
and which are deteriorating.
She spends most of the rest of her time at the Smithsonian conducting research on fossil preservation.
No one has ever analyzed the conservation consequences of [different
types of] fossil preparation, Di Giacomo said. The idea of my
research is to use scientific analysis to conserve fossils without
Scientific advances have made that goal more important than ever, she said.
Fifty years ago, you never could have imagined that you could get
DNA from a bone, but now you can, so we have to think ahead, she said.
We have to try to determine: Are our treatments safe? And will they be
safe in the future?
Di Giacomo said she most wants to contribute to the field that has
intrigued her since childhood, when she first imagined the study of
fossils as a kind of puzzle that could bring the past to life.
I want to help natural history museums preserve and study what they
have, so that children in the future can come and see them and fall in
love with science, too, she said.
Article by Ann Manser; photos courtesy of Mariana Di Giacomo