|Fossil hunter living childhood dream|
|Fossil hunter living childhood dream|
|Written by Edwin Scherzer/For the Messenger|
|Friday, 15 March 2013 14:20|
Photos provided by Josh Mathews
MILTON — Josh Mathews grew up dreaming of dinosaurs, literally. While most boys his age were thinking about becoming the next Brett Favre or Michael Jordan, Mathews, who grew up in Milton, was emulating Jack Horner (think Indiana Jones).
His three brothers were all about outdoor activities, while Mathews had a keen interest in all things science. He loved going to the Field Museum in Chicago, but said he had to keep his Jurassic Park image to himself.
“When you’re in high school, you don’t talk like you like dinosaurs; because you’ll be pinned as the nerd,” he said.
At the right place
After graduating from Milton High School in 1997, Mathews headed to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he majored in biology and picked up a geology minor. He also took a course in paleontology. Leaving Whitewater, Mathews went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., to pursue a master’s degree.
That’s when he started volunteering at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford. Burpee Director Scott Williams said he remembers his first meeting with Mathews.
“Josh was very enthusiastic and wanted to prepare fossils or do anything down in the lab,” Williams said.
Mathews didn’t stay in the lab for long. He headed out west with Williams on several field research trips. On one trip to Utah, Mathews played a role in a paleontological home run so to speak, as part of a team that discovered three juvenile triceratops (the dinosaur with three horns) specimens together.
Mathews dug right in, mapping the locations of bones, taking soil samples and more.
The fieldwork may not have gotten Mathews a role in a Hollywood blockbuster, however, it did set the stage for his next greatest adventure.
To the end of the world
Seven years after crossing his college graduation stage, Mathews was invited to be part of a team on a real-world stage he always had dreamed of — Antarctica. Mathews took a position at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., working for Bill Hammer (a paleontology all-star, if you will). Mathews outlined his team’s findings of brand-new dinosaur species, and what is was like to survive the elements, at a recent lecture at the Burpee museum.
Working in Antarctica is more than just braving the cold, Mathews said.
“Going to the sites, you realize you may be stuck there for a while,” he said.
All scientists heading to Antarctica are required to enroll in “Happy Camper School,” where they learn to cook, build shelter and learn lifesaving survival skills.
Everyone is issued survival gear and has to work when the weather is warmest in the southern hemisphere, December to about mid-January.
After heading to a frozen continent, living back in the Midwest would seem balmy, wouldn’t it?
“It was so cold down there, but it doesn’t seem like that,” Mathews said. “It’s still cold here.”
Despite the elements, it may have been the human one that affected him the most during his six weeks on Beardmore glacier, surrounded by the picturesque, sometimes unforgiving, transantarctic mountain range. Mathews missed the holidays back home for the first time.
“There was definitely a sense of loneliness, and I think everyone felt that,” he said.
Mathews’ Antarctica family celebrated with a great spread on Christmas Eve, and never being totally isolated, he was able to contact mom and dad via satellite phone.
Mathews now calls Augustana College home and is the chief fossil preparator for the paleontology department at the college. He still is an associate with Burpee museum, for which his former boss is thankful.
“He (Mathews) still comes out on digs and brings students from Augustana so he can pass on his knowledge to them,” Williams said.
Williams said he believes Mathews can make a name for himself in the paleontology world over the next couple of years. And while Mathews said the recognition is nice, he pointed out that there’s no million-dollar contract or huge signing bonus waiting around the next brontosaurus bone.
“When you’re in paleontology, it’s not about the money,” he said. “Just ask my brothers who are all electricians and plumbers.”
Not to be outdone, Mathews claimed one bragging right, “I’m still the cool uncle,” he added with a smile.
So just how does an up-and-coming paleontologist from Wisconsin make a name for themselves? According to Mathews, it’s about being in the right place at the right time.
“That’s a matter of finding species waiting to be discovered,” he said.
And where would a future hall of fame fossil hunter like to go next?
“I still want to work in Mongolia, in the worst way,” Mathews said.
From Milton to Mongolia — now there’s a dinosaur-sized dream. But if anyone can make it happen, Mathews can.