Dr. Kristyn Voegele, an assistant professor of geology at Rowan University, resides in a temporary office space in engineers’ Rowan Hall. A promotional handout for the geology department is just above a file box on the door of the office with the words “FIELD NOTEBOOKS” scrawled across it in all caps.
Soon, the geology department will have a permanent home in Discovery Hall, which is slated to be finished for the fall semester. However, for now, Voegele’s cubicle is the first doorway on the left of the narrow hallway; a bowl of bones sits outside of it.
It comes as no surprise that a paleontologist would decorate her tiny cubicle with dinosaur-related paraphernalia. On one the walls hangs a printed sketch of a dino skeleton. In front of the computer a student is working at lies a multi-piece statue of the dinosaur-esque Nessie, which Voegele got in Scotland while visiting her sister in grad school.
Voegele herself wore a COVID-19-necessitated mask with a dinosaur skeleton print. The big metal filing cabinet behind her desk has a magnet featuring the name of Rowan’s dig site, Edelman Fossil Park. A small cut-out picture of a dinosaur is posted up under said magnet. It seems to be a Velociraptor.
A Velociraptor is the kind of dinosaur Voegele would be, said Dr. Paul Ullmann, an assistant professor of geology at Rowan and a colleague of Voegele’s since they met at the Museum of the Rockies while she was an undergrad.
“She’s got that sort of fierce drive [of a carnivore], maybe it doesn’t come off right away, it’s there…” Ullmann said, amused with his comparison. “Akin to a Velociraptor in the sense of you have a strong, driven personality that will work well on a team — as far as the pack hunting idea of Velociraptors and whatnot — to collectively accomplish a sizeable goal; taking down larger prey, for example. And her creativity is like an analogy of the agility of an animal like that, I suppose.”
Voegele, a North Dakota native, can only ever remember wanting to be a paleontologist. Now 32, she has accomplished just that: she majored in biology and minored in geology as an undergraduate at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, completed her PhD program in paleontology at Drexel University and spent two years in a postdoctoral position at Rowan, after which she became an assistant professor of geology, a position she has now held for three years.
And though she’s always had laser focus on paleontology, there was a moment her aspirations wavered.
“I do remember in high school starting to think ‘Well, is that a real job? Do people actually do that?’ And maybe it wasn’t real, there wasn’t a career in this,” she said. “We had to do readings as part of class, so in biology class we had a bunch of Discover magazines, and my biology teacher put this Discover magazine on my desk and said ‘You’re going to read this one today.’ It had a dinosaur on the cover, so I really didn’t care… it was about this new discovery that started the field of molecular paleontology, and I thought ‘This is so cool,’ looking at the biology of these dinosaurs and that we have preserved tissue from 66 million years ago… then I was like ‘Nope, I’m going to do this. Absolutely this is what I’m going to do.’”
That article featured the work of Dr. Mary Schweitzer, whom Voegele had the opportunity to intern for in her lab.
“That experience was like ‘Yes… I want to do paleo,’” Voegele said. She then got to experience fieldwork as an undergraduate, which further solidified her interest in becoming a paleontologist.
“I guess what sold me [on paleontology] more than any individual was the experience that individuals gave me,” she said.
Today, she’s very much set in her path, hoping to achieve tenure at Rowan, as well as see more cohesion and permanence for the six-year-old School of Earth and Environment. Voegele has spent the past several years at Rowan creating new courses, and she’s looking forward to not only a single building to call home for the school, but also an established list of courses to teach.
Voegele never saw herself as an educator, but realized early on it was a common career path for paleontologists, so she pursued it. She now relishes the connections she makes with students in the classroom, which lead to learning on both ends.
Sitting in the temporary office space, Voegele advised geology student Kayla Bagley while she worked to model the unique jaw movement of Euoplocephalus, a cretaceous age herbivore with an armored body. The conversation found its way to different subjects — such as Voegele’s pet bearded dragon Horatio — and landed on the topic of an ingestible dye used for fluoroscopies, which essentially produce real-time moving x-rays. Between clicks of her mouse, Bagley mentioned this dye can’t be used for people with shellfish allergies, as it is made with shellfish.
“See, this is what I mean, you learn stuff from your students,” Voegele said of this new knowledge.
Learning isn’t restricted to academic settings. Voegele pointed out her women’s ice hockey club, the Philadelphia Freeze, which at one point had a team that considered itself “the most overeducated hockey team.” It consisted of Voegele during her grad years, another Drexel graduate student, a lawyer, two teachers, a veterinary student, two lab technicians and a physical therapist. One time, the team was talking about fossils.
“One of them asks me what kind of fossils you find at the [Edelman] fossil park, and then one of them asks ‘Can you find fossil poop?’ I’m like ‘Yeah’… it’s a marine environmental fossil park, so we can find fossilized shark poop called coprolite, and when they’re from a shark, the coprolites are spiral-shaped. And the vet student, she goes ‘Wait, why are they spiral?’ and the answer’s because sharks have a spiral-shaped colon. She’s like ‘So. Do. Pigs!’ So, you just learn random stuff from having random conversations that start from fossils and end with pigs.”
Voegele joined the Freeze when she started her doctoral program at Drexel. While there are still players on the team that played when she started, many of the women are students in graduate and medical school.
“There’s this transient element, which is sad, but good too, because they get jobs and then move away. But then you don’t get to see your friends every week at hockey, either,” she said.
As far as her game goes, Ullmann said Voegele has been great at assisting in scoring goals, a testament to her dedication to creating the best outcome for the collective, no matter her role in it.
“She puts a lot of effort in making positive outcomes for the fossil park, for her students, for her peers here [at Rowan], for her teammates on the ice, for her crew in the field trying to dig up a dinosaur or whatever it is,” Ullmann said.
Voegele’s ice hockey career took off long before college; she’s been playing nearly as long as she’s wanted to be a paleontologist.
“When I was little, I didn’t understand that work… went all year round. School only happened for eight months, six months, whatever it is. So, I had this idea that’s how work was, and so you’d have to do something with the rest of your time,” she said, then whispered, “Doesn’t work that way, not at all.” A laugh.
“In the summers, we would go to all these hockey camps… we were in school during the school year and these summer hockey camps in the summers, and I knew that you had to dig up dinosaurs in the summer, so… my goal was to dig up dinosaurs in the summer and play hockey in the winter,” she said.
While Voegele now knows that work is a full-time gig, she said that during college, she went on digs in the summer and played DIII ice hockey, which is as close as she could get to that childhood dream. Even now, she gets to play hockey with her teammates and go on digs.
“I didn’t realize until after I graduated from college that most people don’t get to live their dreams. You have a dream, and you work for it, but it doesn’t ever turn out how you envisioned it,” she said. “And yes, it wasn’t how I envisioned it, but it was so close… I realize now how special that was to get to live your dream, especially so young… there’s something about that that I wish more people could experience, ‘cause it’s almost like this fantasy came true.”
For comments/questions about this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @TheWhitOnline.