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News Student Blog: Preserving Natural History Collections

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​Left: UD Preservation Studies Program alumna Mariana Di Giacomo examining microscope slides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Right: Mariana photographing fossil samples before treatment for her dissertation. (Images: Mariana Di Giacomo)

When I was a little girl, I fell in love with dinosaurs. I have my grandmother to blame, as she was the one who bought the magazines that sparked my interest. My parents played an important role too, encouraging me to pursue that passion for fossils and taking me to natural history museums whenever we went on vacation. Many kids tend to outgrow the “dinosaur phase,” I did not. I kept on wanting to become a paleontologist, wanting to interact with fossils and learn the stories they had to tell. And so I did.

I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Universidad de la República, in Montevideo, Uruguay, where I am from. My studies were focused on learning about the paleoecology of the giant mammals that lived on our planet over ten thousand years ago, although that changed after a fossil dig at which I worked in 2011. This dig was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was challenging, it was rewarding, it was massive. The fossils are in what is called a bonebed, and this bonebed lies under a stream. The dig can only happen in the summer, when the water level is lower, and the stream can be dammed. The site is muddy and the fossils waterlogged, which sometimes means the fossils crack and break after they come out. I became interested in researching what I could do to improve the care of these remains, and started to think if this could be a research topic for my PhD.

Left: Mariana using an ultrasonic cutter. Right: An air scribe is a pneumatic tool that aids in the removal of sediments. (Images: Irene Finkelde and Mariana Di Giacomo)

Choosing the Preservation Studies Program (PSP) was easy, in fact, I think the program chose me. Thinking like a paleontologist, I had had a lot of trouble trying to find a paleontology program that would focus on the preservation of fossils, and was starting to feel like my topic was not something I could pursue. One afternoon, when I had almost given up, I decided to change the way I was approaching my PhD quest and the Preservation Studies Program was the first program I researched. I was hooked. Reading the bios of the students I saw that it was a truly interdisciplinary program that covered the most diverse topics, from lacquerware, to paintings, to objects of trauma. My topic was different from the rest in that it focused on natural history and not art or material culture, but it was just like the rest in that it cared about the preservation of heritage. I decided to ask Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, the director of PSP, whether my topic was within the scope of the program. Joyce replied right away saying it was, and this changed my life more than I could have imagined.

Starting my PhD involved more than coursework and a new school, it also involved moving to a new country and speaking a different language. This might seem daunting, but when the classes are more than I had expected, the professors and administrative staff are supporting, and the classmates are so helpful, the positive outweighs everything else. My first year also involved an independent study at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, with Conservator Catharine Hawks. After passing my exams in December of 2015, I began several fellowships with Cathy at NMNH that lasted a total of three years. This allowed me not only to learn from a great mentor, but also carry out the research for my PhD. I defended my proposal in June 2016, and the research into the conservation of fossils began.

​Left: Mariana using a GC-1 laser for her research; training provided by the National Collections Program at the Smithsonian Institution. Right: Mariana using an air scribe to prepare fossils for her dissertation research at the Fossil Preparation Lab, NMNH. (Images: Alyx LeBlanc and Mariana Di Giacomo)

This topic evolved as I kept reading and learning from my peers. Working with small dinosaur bones and using analytical techniques was new for me, but also exciting. My findings were heard by the community and welcomed. I never intended to answer all the questions I had, but to answer some, and to keep asking more. Hearing my peers ask themselves some of those questions was the most rewarding feeling of all. I hope I can keep on inspiring others to ask these questions and to get to good answers as a community.

My time as “a PSP” involved so many different experiences. From working with lasers and documenting damage on microscope slides, to presenting my work in several conferences, to teaching undergraduate students, I cannot make myself choose which one was my favorite or most rewarding. I was fortunate to obtain funding for travel, research, and even writing. My committees for my exams and proposal/dissertation were supportive and greatly improved my work. I never imagined that going through a PhD program would mean changing as a person, growing as a teacher, and becoming the professional I am today. I know some of these may seem obvious, but that is not the reason why one enters a PhD program; one enters to research something of interest, something one is passionate about. Along the way, growth happens, and in retrospect, I would not change a thing.

​Mariana and her husband Manuel at UD's May 2019 doctoral hooding ceremony. (Image: Isabel Morales)

After graduation, I continue to volunteer in several organizations, such as the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, the Association of Materials and Methods in Paleontology, Sustainability in Conservation, and the Committee for Conservation of ICOM. I am currently back in Uruguay, volunteering at the Arroyo del Vizcaíno collection, while I await exciting news about a new job. I am happy to be back where I started with so much knowledge to share, feeling I have come full circle. My experiences as a PSP shaped who I am today and how I can assist the natural history community worldwide. I hope to continue this work, as advocacy is one of the most important things I learned from my PhD journey. The Preservation Studies Program has seen me grow and evolve, and I am forever grateful to all my mentors, family, and friends, who pushed me and supported me all the way.

— Mariana Di Giacomo, PSP Class of 2019

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​Recent doctoral graduate Mariana Di Giacomo reflects on her lifelong love of fossils, her time as part of UD's Preservation Studies Program, and her journey towards an interdisciplinary career that combines preservation and paleontology.

​Recent doctoral graduate Mariana Di Giacomo reflects on her lifelong love of fossils, her time as part of UD's Preservation Studies Program, and her journey towards an interdisciplinary career that combines preservation and paleontology.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489