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 master’s 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.
That’s 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 it’s 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, it’s 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
A childhood ambition
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
children’s 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 hadn’t been hooked before, she
“Once I saw those big skeletons, that just fueled my interest even more,” she said.