After nearly two decades of research all over the world, Ithaca College lecturer Robert M. Ross came across a rare opportunity right in someone else’s backyard.
In 2000, Ross and his colleagues at the Paleontological Research Institute at the Museum of the Earth received a phone call from landowners who had found mastodon bones on their property.
The bones were found by Robert Moffet of North Java, N.Y., a town east of Buffalo. PRI quickly coordinated a reconnaissance trip and excavation. Ross helped collect and document paleontological and geographical information from the site.
PRI scientists found an exceptionally well-preserved mastodon skeleton estimated at 13,500 years old, which Ross said is relatively young for a fossil.
The excavation attracted the notice of Discovery Channel producers and was featured on an episode of the show “Mastodon in Your Backyard: The Ultimate Guide,” which aired in 2001. Ross recently showed the episode in his History of Life on Earth class, and it brought back memories for at least one student.
“When I was a kid I was always interested in dinosaurs, and [watching the show] was like exploring what I was interested in as a child,” said senior John Miller, one of Ross’ students.
As a paleontologist with 25 years of experience and the associate director for outreach at the PRI, Ross is one of the nation’s leaders in formal earth science education, said Dr. Warren Allmon, director of the PRI.
Ross received a bachelor’s degree in Geological Sciences from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a Ph.D. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences from Harvard University. He went on to a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kiel in Germany, then spent four years as an assistant professor in the science department at Shizuoka University in Japan. Ross moved to Ithaca in 1997 to join the PRI staff and work on its educational outreach program.
Most of Ross’ research centers on microscopic fossils from the tropical pacific. Specifically, he focuses on the evolution and biogeography of microscopic crustaceans related to modern-day crabs and lobsters.
“Microscopic fossils are available in large numbers, which makes them particularly useful,” he said.
Though Ross said his career has been fascinating and rewarding, his passion lies in his work within the community.
At the college, he teaches students how to make connections across different areas of natural history and helps them make sense of the world and their community.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable,” Miller said. “It’s obvious he enjoys what he does.”
One of Ross’ goals as a lecturer is to instill in his students the desire to get involved by taking advantage of opportunities at the Museum of the Earth.
“There are real-life applications of the skills students are developing which would benefit the community while creating a meaningful real-world experience [for students],” he said.
Allmon said Ross’ dedication to education is also clear through his work as the associate director of outreach at PRI.
“He’s totally committed to what he does,” he said. “He’s been here for 10 or 11 years, and we’ve been the co-visionaries of a lot of what has happened.”
Recently, Ross’ dedication has brought on the broadening of PRI’s Outreach program. He and his colleagues at PRI have helped create a series of “Teacher-Friendly Guides” that help teachers bring earth sciences into the classroom.
Ross said he strives to help people understand how the Earth works so they can make responsible decisions about how to use its resources.
He also oversees projects to involve teachers and students in paleontological research. He is working with Cayuga Nature Center to create summer camps with earth science programs and with Cornell’s Department of Education to introduce concepts of evolution and geologic time to teachers and students through the collection of authentic fossil data.
Ross said as a child, he spent hours searching for fossils and that passion has never left him.
“There’s something exciting about that sense of discovery,” he said.