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Unlocking the history of life on Earth

Growing up as a loyal fan of “Jurassic Park” in a family of nature lovers, West Virginia University student Sam Ocon always knew she wanted to be a paleontologist.

Sam Ocon

“I come from a family that always encouraged me to learn about natural history and pursue my passions. I learned to love critters both living and extinct as well as the plants that surround us. When I was around two years old, I decided I was going to be a paleontologist,” Ocon said. “My family responded by taking me to natural history museums, buying me dinosaur books and taking me on hikes, which fueled my passion for geology and paleontology.” 

Some of Ocon’s earliest memories are learning to identify the local fauna around her hometown of Gainesville, Florida, with her dad and digging for fossils in the limestone among her grandfather’s plants.

“Paleontology has always served as a guiding light to me, as I have never found myself wanting to do anything else. There is something so amazing about unlocking the history of life on this planet,” Ocon said. “I have always loved being outdoors, and fossil hunting just gives me an excuse to be outside. Plus, finding a fossil means that you’re the first being to lay eyes on this organism for millions of years!”

Ocon experienced life as a paleontologist firsthand while volunteering at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the age of 14.

“A young girl approached me when I was volunteering at the tyrannosaurus exhibit, and she asked me a million questions about it. Realizing that I was excited to answer and listen, she went into meticulous detail about a bird she had dissected at home and how the dinosaur’s bones looked like the bird's bones. She told me she hadn't met a female paleontologist before,” Ocon said. “This moment lit a fire in me. I had always been aware that the paleontologists on TV and in the movies didn't look like queer, female, Latina me, but I had never considered that I could become the paleontologist who looked like me.”

Sam Ocon

Today, Ocon is fulfilling her dream of studying invertebrate paleontology in the WVU Department of Geology and Geography.

“My research focuses on calculating the evolutionary rate of different types of horseshoe crabs, both fossil and extant. Horseshoe crabs have a reputation as ‘living fossils.’ Modern paleontologists don’t really like that term, as it implies that little to no evolution occurred between modern horseshoe crabs and their ancestors, which is not true. In fact, evolution is always happening, albeit sometimes very slowly,” she said. “Organisms that get called ‘living fossils’ are often believed to have a very low rate of evolution, which would explain the very little amount of change you see between them and their fossil relatives. My research focuses on whether that belief is true or not.” 

As a first-year master’s student, Ocon’s research on the evolution of horseshoe crabs was selected for presentation at the Future Leaders of Paleontology session of the Geological Society of America’s 2020 annual meeting, held virtually Oct. 26-28.

“This was my first presentation as a graduate student, so I was excited to make my debut as a newly minted researcher!” Ocon said. “Conferences are a great time to catch up virtually with all of my friends and colleagues who also study geoscience. This gave me the opportunity to improve myself as a researcher and network with other researchers.”

WVU geologist James Lamsdell is Ocon’s adviser and research mentor.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have a student of Sam's caliber in our graduate program, and I was overjoyed at her decision to begin her graduate studies as part of my research group,” Lamsdell said. “Students like Sam represent the future of paleontology, and it is outstanding for her to receive this recognition so early into her scientific career.”

Sam Ocon at museum

After graduation, Ocon aspires to become a professor of paleobiology.   

“Even though I have only been at WVU for a few months, I have already grown so much as a researcher. I have gained valuable teaching skills as a teaching assistant and have begun working on a project that requires me to learn several new analytical skills,” she said. “Adapting to teaching and researching during the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me how to prepare for tough situations.”