Chapman students work with a dinosaur fossil in the lab.
Chapman students Amalie Seyffert '23 and Ben Rotenberg '23 call their Dino Lab experience "life-changing."

In Chapman’s Dino Lab, Students Dig Beyond Childhood Dreams of Jurassic Adventures Legendary paleontologist Jack Horner leads an immersive journey that brings an intriguing dinosaur fossil discovery from Montana to campus.

At some point all kids go through a dinosaur phase. Ben Rotenberg ’23 pretty much started his at birth.

Family photos show him sleeping in a crib packed with dinosaur toys; in other snapshots, he’s wearing a dinosaur onesie or has his face halfway buried in a dinosaur birthday cake.

Alas, Rotenberg’s longings for a life full of prehistoric adventures didn’t survive his childhood.

Or did they?

“You get to a certain age and the idea of studying and actually working with dinosaurs seems so unattainable,” said Rotenberg, a senior at Chapman University. “But now, here I am working with this fossil discovery, and I’m having this incredible life-changing experience that I want to continue when this project is finished. I want this to be my life.”

Student Ben Rotenberg with dinosaur fossil.
Ben Rotenberg ’23 is a screen acting major, but his Dino Lab experience now has him thinking of a career working with fossils.

Far surpassing “Jurassic Park” dreams, Rotenberg and fellow students Amalie Seyffert ’23 and Molly Steavpack ’24 are fulfilling some Late Cretaceous aspirations. In a first-floor lab at Hashinger Science Center, they’re bringing to light the fossilized remains of a Gryposaurus, a 40-foot-long genus of duckbill that roamed the then-swampy Badlands of Montana 78 million years ago.

None of the students started their Chapman Experience expecting to dig into paleontology – Rotenberg is studying screen acting and Seyffert documentary filmmaking, while Steavpack is majoring in English literature. But they’ve all found that Chapman is a great place to explore new fields, develop new communities and take up new challenges.

“It’s like doubling down on science learning for someone like me, who’s never felt drawn to the more typical forms of science education,” said Seyffert, an Honors Program student who’s working on a documentary about the project. “To have this hands-on experience with paleontology and the science discipline every day is immensely fulfilling.”

Legendary Paleontologist Leads Field Work in Montana

The work started last summer, when the three were among a larger student contingent that traveled to Montana to join in field research led by Professor Jack Horner. Since 2016, the legendary paleontologist has been a presidential fellow at Chapman, where he teaches an Honors course that takes students inside his breakthrough thinking.

Jack Horner
“This is an unusual specimen – the most puzzling I’ve seen,” Horner said. “It’s just weird that the tail is missing.”

Horner shook up scientific theory when he became the first scientist to prove that dinosaurs cared for their young. Later, he took on the role of paleontology consultant for the “Jurassic Park” film franchise.

During several weeks of fossil prospecting last June, the team revisited a discovery that Chapman student Sarah Wallace ’22 had made the previous summer. That’s when Seyffert and fellow film student Flo Singer ’22 began work on their documentary, which is still in progress.

Ultimately, after lots of strategizing and teamwork, the Gryposaurus fossil was freed from a hillside and wrapped in a 4,000-pound jacket of plaster for transportation to Orange County so excavation can continue.

Thanks to a generous donor and the tutelage of Horner, Rotenberg, Seyffert and Steavpack have been applying their new skills throughout the fall and winter in a lab set up just for the project. Working around their class schedules, they’re peeling away layers to reveal more and more of the Gryposaurus skeleton each day, as they also share the experience with students and visitors via social media, blog posts and other means.

Excavation Work Invites Conversations and Sparks Questions

When they’re working, they swing the lab’s double doors wide open and post a sign of welcome to invite visitors inside so the students can share their journey.

Ben Rotenberg '23 and Molly Steavpack '24 with the jacketed dinosaur fossil find.
Rotenberg and Molly Steavpack ’24 greet the jacketed dinosaur fossil specimen as it arrives from Montana at its first stop in Orange County — The Cooper Center, the county’s primary warehouse and lab for paleontological and archaeological remains.

The specimen has told them a lot already, including about the environment the Gryposaurus called home. But the participants and their mentor are left with more questions than answers, which fuels their interest to learn more.

“This is an unusual specimen – the most puzzling I’ve seen,” Horner said. “We have the whole pelvis, short one bone. And that one bone is the opposite of the pubis, that big flat bone,” he added, pointing to the fossil in front of him. “Usually when you find this part articulated, you find the whole skeleton together. It’s just weird that the tail is missing.”

Finding more pieces to the puzzle is why Horner and the students will return to the field in June. They plan to widen the search and include more participants in a project that Horner says will turn into a research paper, with Chapman students among the co-authors.

Rotenberg isn’t the only one for whom this is a life-changing experience.

“Being involved in this project has reinforced my appreciation for science as a whole, and for what we can accomplish as a community,” Steavpack said. “We’re working to better our knowledge while also honoring something that doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s special to me. There’s no way to communicate with these animals that lived for hundreds of millions of years, but there is a way to connect with and preserve them. We’re doing what we can while we are here.”

Project Has Potential to Inspire Future Generations

Though the fossil excavation is a here-and-now experience, the impact of the find will endure.

Once all that’s in the plaster jacket is uncovered – probably by the end of the spring semester – the bones will go back on the road. Their ultimate destination is the Burke Museum of Natural history and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Sarah Wallace '22
“It’s insanely cool to stand where that dinosaur stood, to walk where it walked,” says Sarah Wallace ’22, who first discovered the Gryposaurus fossil in Montana two summers ago. Wallace had a dream she would make a major discovery the night before the find, so the team has termed the specimen “Dream Bone.”

But before the fossils depart, the hope is that they can be scanned and turned into 3D-printed replicas at Chapman’s Fowler School of Engineering. That way the fossil find can continue to captivate and educate Chapman students for generations to come.

“One of the things I try to get across in my classes is that there are great rewards in putting down your phone and taking a good look at the natural world,” Horner said. “You can always go to Instagram and look at a picture of a dinosaur bone, but to see one in person is mind-boggling, right?”

Sure, but the fascination wanes after more than six decades in the field, yes?

“I’m as excited to find a dinosaur fossil now as I was as a little kid,” Horner said. “I mean, look at this – don’t you think this is a pretty cool thing?”

Rotenberg didn’t need to answer. He just smiled as he used a dental pick and a paint brush to meticulously remove Montana soil from 78 million years of history.

Ben Rotenberg with fossil.
This summer, Rotenberg and the other students will resume the search for more of the skeleton.

As he considers his own next steps, possibly including study toward a career in museum collection management or fossil preparation, Rotenberg is enjoying every moment of his chance to live out a lifelong dream.

“In my entire life, I never thought I would have an opportunity like this,” he says. “The fascination that began when I was a baby is now opening new avenues. That’s incredibly exciting.”

Gryposaurus illustration
An illustration posted in the Dino Lab shows which parts of the Gryposaurus skeleton the team has found (in red) and which parts are left to be discovered.
Amalie Seyffort '23
“It’s like doubling down on science learning,” Amalie Seyffert ’23 says of fossil finding and lab work.
Flipping fossil jacket.
It was no small task getting the 4,000-pound find jacketed and then dragged up a 250-foot hill so it could be prepped for its 1,200-mile trip from Montana to Orange County.
field team members pose witht the jacketed specimen in Montana.
Team members pose with the jacketed specimen in Montana.

Dennis Arp

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