NDSU Magazine logo - Spring 2009

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Vol. 9, No. 2


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Built For The Job


Lab work can be dull and duller unless you find something

In the summer of 2006, Richard Thomasson was trying a new system of sleeping for 12 hours and staying awake for 30. He's the kind of guy with a wide-ranging curiosity, so this was his experiment with fighting the circadian cycle just to see what would happen

He was a geology student at the time, and had a summer job sifting through sediment in a geology lab. That summer, his pattern was to sleep until noon and then head into work all night, often with only an audio book of "The Lord of the Rings" and a soda for company. On July 4, a sunny day, he remembers his bike broke down on the way to the lab. He one-leg peddled the rest of the way and began his work - scanning through Petri dishes of sediment collected from a shallow lakebed in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, a region often compared to Mars. The broken bike was a tough way to start the day, but his day was about to get a lot more interesting.

Fourteen million years ago in Antarctica, a 330-by-200-foot lake - small by any standards - was trapped behind hills of debris left behind by glaciers. The climate was just above freezing, still warm enough to support mosses and tiny life forms like diatoms and ostracods. Nearby active volcanoes spewed ash. Over a geologically short period of 300,000 years, the climate dramatically cooled, killing all life in the area. Ash covered the lake.

In 2005, Allan Ashworth, a distinguished professor of geology at North Dakota State University and a veteran of Antarctic research, together with Adam Lewis, now an assistant professor of geosciences at NDSU, excavated the lake deposits. The sediment smelled of sulfur and decay. The scientists sampled, bagged and boxed the ancient peat and mud. They shipped hundreds of pounds back to the university.

This is the sediment Thomasson was poring through. While the rest of the country celebrated Independence Day with cookouts and fireworks, Thomasson worked in the windowless basement laboratory, his six-foot-plus frame perched next to a microscope. One spoonful at a time, he placed sediment in Petri dishes and scanned through every last part to pick out bits of ancient moss, insect parts, wood splinters and anything else that might be worth studying. It was painstaking work. Back and forth, back and forth, each dish passed under the microscope. Thomasson made sure to observe every last bit before moving on to the next spoonful.

He had already been working at the lab for a year, sifting, observing, spoonful by spoonful. Soak the sediment in water, sieve it, spoon it into Petri dishes. One 50-pound box took several weeks to look through, nothing to show for it. Yet.

After three hours of work, using forceps and a paint brush with only a few hairs, Thomasson broke apart a clump of sediment and out popped a reddish-brown ostracod. He'd been finding lots of ostracods, this one was different. He used the paintbrush to manipulate the tiny organism to get a better look. The bean-shaped shell halves lay open, and between them he could see a pattern of uniform bumps. Whatever it was, it wasn't normal. But he'd been fooled before. A worm turned out to be a piece of the canvas sample bag, another discovery turned out to be just an ordinary grain of sand. Not this time. This time Thomasson was certain. He jumped up and ran around the room a bit. He went back to look again. Went down the hallway for a drink of water. Went back to look again. It was still there.

This 14-million-year-old fossil is one of four such specimens known in the world. The ostracod helps to support the hypothesis that Antarctica was once a much warmer continent. Summer temperatures that allowed the lake to exist were 30 degrees Celsius warmer than summer temperatures in the region today. Major climate change occurred over a few hundred thousand years. Antarctica plunged into a deep freeze. This is big news, in the science world. The discovery was written about in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a British scientific journal and was later picked up by DicoveryChannel.com, CNN.com, BBC.com, NationalGeographic.com, Science Daily, Economic Times, India Times and China Daily.

Most of the articles about the discovery mentioned Thomasson, and most of those got his name wrong, a fact he finds more amusing than irritating. A few articles cover the dull nature of the job. But none delved into Thomasson's life, a spoonful at a time, to find out what it is about his particular nature that makes this discovery even more special.

Drifting from job to job since high school, never at the same one for more than two years and often lasting only a few months, Thomasson seems like one of the least likely people to be able to sit and peer through a microscope for hours on end. The tedium of looking through sediment had led many others to look elsewhere for work. Already at the lab for a year when he made his discovery, Thomasson was always optimistic - almost beyond rationality - that he would find something spectacular.

Thomasson's path to this particular July 4th weaves through many jobs and many places. The day after he graduated high school in Cavalier, N.D., he rode to Seattle to work as a floor covering installer. When he found himself stuck in a small union controversy, he moved back to North Dakota with his three pet geese in the back seat of his 1985 Chevy Blazer. Thomasson has worked as a janitor, projectionist, heavy equipment operator, cook, welder's helper, hot tar roofer, portable toilet mechanic, truck driver, tattoo artist and ethanol plant worker. He got interested in geology while skydiving in Minot, N.D., wondering, as he plummeted toward the earth, what caused the land formations he was watching. He's lived all over eastern North Dakota and northern Minnesota, mostly staying near Cavalier in a country house 12 miles out of town. In 2003, this house burned down and he lost everything except two house cats and a pigeon he had rescued from the ethanol plant. (He's also taken care of skunks, raccoons, magpies, deer, turkeys, a golden eagle and coyotes. One skunk he raised while living in Baudette, Minn., accompanied him to local bars to eat pretzels and nuts.)

After the house burned down, he bought a building that used to be a Baptist church to set up a tattoo shop and living quarters. He doesn't have any tattoos himself; that would be permanent and call attention to himself.

Throughout all the jobs and moving, the one constant in his life was creating art. He filled 4-by-4-foot canvasses every day during the winters, all of which he lost in the fire. All the moving and job switches finally led him to a psychologist in Grand Forks, N.D., who diagnosed Thomasson with a genius level IQ and attention deficit disorder - a neurological syndrome whose common symptoms include distractibility, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

The confirmation of a condition he long suspected was like a light turning on in his life and led him to return to college. In a seeming contradiction of terms, it was the attention deficit disorder that set him up to make the discovery in Ashworth's lab.

The last person in the world you expect to sit at a microscope for hours on end looking at sediment is someone as restless as Thomasson.

The impulsivity of attention deficit disorder and his ability to soak up knowledge kept Thomasson from sticking to one thing for long. He learned trades from the inside out, but after three months or two years he'd get bored and move on to the next job.

After the diagnosis, he learned to control another aspect of attention deficit disorder, hyperfocus, the ability to focus intently on things that interest him to the point that the world around him fades into the background. People with hyperfocus can stick to one task long after others lose interest and move on. Not many people can handle the demanding concentration required to look through a microscope for hours and pick out anything that may be of interest. Because of his ability to focus, Thomasson could.

Recall wading barefoot in a still lake. Your feet sink in the sand, which puffs up in clouds. The sand settles slowly, yet some grains still jump around. Those are ostracods - millimeter-sized crustaceans that look like shrimp in clamshells.

Ostracods have been around for millions of years. They hitch rides on birds and find their way everywhere from lakes to birdbaths. The shrimp-like parts of the ostracods are lost to decay and time. The shells are all that survive over the millennia. After about three hours of work, at 6 p.m., Thomasson came across an ostracod with an open shell, and between the shells, he could see the preserved soft tissue.

When Ashworth took a look at the thing on July 5, he was skeptical. The bumps were more likely just debris that had washed between the valves. But he sent the specimen off to the University of Leicester, England, to be examined by ostracod expert, Mark Williams. Under an electron microscope, Williams could clearly see the details of the soft anatomy. When ostracods die, their soft interiors should not survive. They are scavenged by other creatures or recycled by bacteria. Preservation like this - of the head region with mandibles, feeding and sensory appendages, walking legs and tail - is extremely rare.

Through a process like petrification, the organic tissues were replaced by an iron oxide. The exact process is still unknown and sure to be the subject of further study. Thomasson's ostracod is the fourth such find in the world, and the first from the whole of Antarctica.

Thomasson worked in the lab for another year, but such spectacular finds are rare, and his interests moved on to art. He dropped geology down to a minor.

He now works on printmaking and pottery, applying the same gift of focus to media that requires time and patience. He may spend 150 hours on a single piece. His print works are largely abstract patterns, yet they contain hints of a geology background. Horizontal lines, like strata, hover in the background of one piece. Thomasson treats the ceramics studio like a geology lab, experimenting with different amounts of alumina, feldspar, borax, talc, silicon carbide, in order to perfect his glazes. His "Three Typical Everyday Normal Teapots" resemble large-spiked sea urchins.

His art is getting recognition. His prints have been in local art shows and on a billboard in downtown Fargo. The ceramics club he began sells work regularly. He gave a presentation to the Lake Agassiz Rock Club on the connections between pottery and geology.

He continues to make his way though life, only now he does so with a deeper awareness of how to apply his unique gifts.

-Joel Hagen

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.