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From volunteer to co-author: One U student’s dinosaur journey

Recent U graduate Savhannah Carpenter is the a co-author on a paper about the world’s newest horned dinosaur.

Savhannah Carpenter’s route to being the only student listed on the research team credited with finding the world’s newest horned dinosaur didn’t follow a straight line.

As a young adult, Carpenter wasn’t sure if college was for her, but she did want to reconnect with her childhood love of paleontology. She started doing volunteer fieldwork with the Natural History Museum of Utah and her passion led Carrie Levitt-Bussian, the paleontology collections manager, to suggest she intern at the museum. 

There was just one catch. Carpenter would need to be a student at the University of Utah. 

“I took the shot and applied for the U and luckily I got in,” said Carpenter. 

Once at the U, Carpenter immediately started taking dinosaur classes and met paleontologist and faculty member, Mark Loewen. Impressed by her communication skills, Loewen asked her to be a teaching assistant for his course. 

“Sometimes I would just turn the class over to her and let her answer questions,” Lowen said. “It is amazing to watch her think on her feet.”

As part of her undergraduate studies, Carpenter also worked on ceratopsian research with Loewen. Through the Department of Geology and Geophysics, she was even able to get course credit for this work. Recently the 2024 U grad joined him and other researchers as a co-author on a paper identifying a new type of dinosaur, Lokiceratops rangiformis.

Savhannah Carpenter poses with an artistic interpretation of Lokiceratops rangiformis, the world’s newest horned dinosaur.

“I was really excited to share Lokiceratops with the world because no one has seen him in 78 million years and it’s nice to welcome him back,” she said. 

Growing up, Carpenter had been very interested in geology and paleontology. However, she lost interest as a pre-teen, a trend she notes is common among girls. Math was challenging for her and she didn’t like chemistry—two things that made her feel like she wasn’t a science person. Rediscovering geology helped her realize how wrong she had been. 

“Sometimes being a science person looks like playing in the dirt or rock climbing and making observations,” Carpenter said. “It’s not always doing chemistry in a lab. Fieldwork really helped bring me back to my roots and realize we are all science people. It just looks different for everybody.”

Undergraduate research played a key role in helping Carpenter connect with her coursework. 

“I love science, but I am not always the best classroom learner, especially if it’s not hands-on or interactive,” she said. 

Fieldwork helped her understand the “why” behind the geological concepts she needed to learn in class. And the U’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, UROP, made it easier for her to access fieldwork opportunities, like visiting museums to study ceratopsian fossils and build a family tree for the animals. 

“I could have done all that just as a labor of love, but as a college student, you have a lot of bills to pay and tuition to pay and things like that,” Carpenter said. “If I had been worried about money, I would have needed to put much more of my time towards a job and would have had less time for research.”

According to Levitt-Bussian, Carpenter has great attention to detail—essential for discerning fossils from rock. 

“Being out in the field with Savhannah is fun and fascinating,” Levitt-Bussian said. “She is very good at differentiating between rocks and fossils. She is also good at teaching others what type of fossil she has found and what characteristics help her determine what animal it is from.”

Sharing science with others makes Carpenter feel more connected to her community. In addition to the science communication opportunities she had while at the U, working at Clark Planetarium as a classroom educator also helped her develop this passion. 

“I want to continue doing research and fieldwork, but the main thing I want to do with my life is share science and bridge the gap between academia and the general public,” she said 

Savhannah Carpenters running the fossil touch table at the Natural History Museum of Utah’s annual Dino Fest.

According to Loewen, having people who can communicate science like Carpenter is essential.

“I have lots of colleagues in the field who are amazing researchers and I respect their work,” he said. “But they can’t get people excited about it. The future of scientific research, and the funding of scientific research, really hinges on whether we can get other people excited about what we are doing.”

Now that she has graduated, Carpenter is looking for a position where she can continue doing education outreach. Her dream is to run a science summer camp where kids can learn about the numerous ways they can connect with science. 

“When I talk to young students I tell them to keep an open mind about what science looks like,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be in a lab. It can be out in the field. I want them to know that the things they like—art, coding, video games, gardening, etc.—can all be paired with science in a way that makes a big difference.”