12-year-old has a job she really digs

12-year-old has a job she really digs

CHAMPAIGN — It's not unusual to find 12-year-old Reagan Lee in a University of Illinois paleontology lab on a Saturday, looking at rocks through a microscope.

One day, her dad, Jon, had to prompt her to leave the lab after three hours of scanning for fossils embedded in chunks of amber from the Dominican Republic.

If not, "she would stay for hours," said Sam Heads, curator of the paleontology lab at the Illinois Natural History Survey on the UI campus. "She's an exceptional young lady. Very bright."

Volunteers frequent the lab, but they're adults. Until two years ago, when Reagan took a routine tour of the department's paleontology collections, seventh-graders were an uncommon sight.

After their first meeting, Heads and lab technician Jared Thomas asked Reagan if she'd like to volunteer.

"She has a real dedication not typical of her age," Heads said. "She has that drive to learn. She's great."

Reagan's parents — neither of whom are paleontologists — have actively sought out ways to satisfy their daughter's drive for knowledge since she was in kindergarten.

In addition to the usual hour she puts in a week at the UI lab, her parents discovered a program through the North Dakota Geological Survey that allows volunteers to help at fossil dig sites.

So, before her school year began at Judah Christian, Reagan and her dad traveled to an area just outside Bismarck, N.D., to join a dig site with paleontologists and other volunteers.

"They hand you a dental pick and a brush," Jon Lee said with a laugh. He admitted it was a bit "grueling," sweeping away layers and layers of dirt in the 90-degree heat and sun for several hours — and finding nothing.

But eventually, Reagan brushed away sediment and spotted a darker brown color that didn't match the dirt around it.

"I was so hyped," said Reagan, who'd found her first dinosaur bone, then another, and another, as they dug a six-inch trench around the first discovery and kept uncovering other pieces. "It was exhilarating. I just found that piece, and it's going to go on display somewhere someday."

It was a great moment for dad, too.

"I tell you what, my adrenaline shot through the roof," Jon said.

Not only did Reagan learn how to "dig" — which isn't really digging, she explained; no poking holes, just brushing — but she also learned how to cover a newly-discovered piece in plaster for removal from the ground. She got to work in the lab, too, learning to clean the pieces she'd found.

After several days on the site, their North Dakota adventure was extended when NBC's "Today" show sent word that it was coming to shoot a segment on the dig and wanted Reagan and her dad there.

The crew spent one day in the field with her and a second day in the lab.

Hardly 10 minutes into her field day with the "Today" show crew, Reagan said, she found the first bone of the day, which was chronicled on national television.

Another trip highlight: Reagan got to witness the discovery of the largest Tyrannosaurus tooth ever found in North Dakota.

"It still had the serrations," she said.

It's no surprise that Reagan knew from a young age what she wanted to do when she grows up.

In kindergarten, she came home from a career exploration assignment with a 3-by-5 card that said "paleontologist."

"Of course, it was almost spelled right," Reagan joked.

Her interest was always deeper than a child-like fascination with dinosaurs or dinosaur cartoons, her father explained.

"I do watch the occasional (episode of) 'Dinosaur Train,'" Reagan said with a grin.

"She has an inquisitive mind," Jon said, adding that she wanted to know the why behind everything.

"I want to know how they died, why they died, what they ate ..." Reagan said, rattling off a long list of questions. "There's so much information we can learn if we try."

At home, she has her own fossil collection and spent her own money on tools — an air brush and a micro-blaster — to practice cleaning them.

"I know how to make casts of them and I give them to my friends," she said.

She has paleontology flash cards and quizzes herself "at night when there's nothing to do." Her cellphone has "Jeopardy" and paleontology-related reading apps, not Twitter or Snapchat, she said.

Her long-term goal is earn a doctorate in paleontology, with minors in geology and business. The latter is her "fallback" plan.

"I've really thought this out," she said.

In the meantime, she wants to continue her fossil work.

Jon Lee said he and Reagan will return to North Dakota next summer and also join UI paleontologists at their dig in Montana.

And Reagan will continue volunteering in the UI lab, where she's chipping away at screening the 160 pounds of 20 million-year-old Dominican amber collected in the late 1950s by former entomologist Milton Sanderson. In the end, it will be the largest unbiased Dominican amber collection in the world, according to Heads and Thomas, who have a fan in Reagan's father.

"For them to embrace kids in this department," he said, "that's a wonderful oddity."

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