Focus

Lovely Bones

How undergraduate research at SMSU brought together a young scientist, a 35-million-year-old fossil, and a dog...

Jake Beckstrom, Dr. Tom Dilley, and Miles

Jake Beckstrom is one of the most determined people you’ll ever meet.
Beckstrom, who graduated after the fall semester 2011 with a degree in Environmental Science, plans on attending law school in the fall, pursuing a degree in Environmental Law.

He’s always been an outdoorsman. In fact, when he was 14, he stayed outside in his back yard for an entire summer. “I had a tent, and didn’t go inside of my house, or any other. I guess I did it just to see if I could.”

His mother and father, Elaine and Kurt Beckstrom from Watertown, Minn., are his biggest supporters. He was involved in a diving accident on Aug. 11, 2005, an accident that left him a quadriplegic. And while that sobering life change may have slowed down others, it only steeled his determination.

Beckstrom still enjoys hunting and fishing, with some modifications. For hunting, he uses a McKenzie Mount. “Jeff McKenzie is an engineer and a family friend. He took a look at my chair and said, ‘Oh yeah, we can get you out there hunting again.” The mount connects to the front of the chair, to the footrest, and a central post comes up between his knees. On top of that is an arm that connects to the posts, which accommodates a shotgun, rifle or crossbow. The chair he uses for hunting is an Action TrackChair™ that was developed by Marshall businessman, Tim Swenson.
He also fishes, with help from a splint affixed to his wrist.

His service dog, Miles, is always at his side, and though Miles wears a vest telling people not to pet him, it’s awfully hard to resist. “Everybody knows Miles,” said Beckstrom. “It didn’t matter if it was faculty or students, they’d all say, ‘You’re the kid with the dog.’”

His last project before graduating was cleaning up an oreodont fossil that was donated to SMSU. “It’s sort of a cross between a sheep and a pig, about the size of a medium dog,” said Beckstrom.
The fossil was donated by Davey Jones from Marshall. It came from a ranch in Wyoming. “Davey has been going to Wyoming for 30 years looking for fossils. He’s a big collector,” said Dr. Thomas Dilley, Environmental Science professor who helped Beckstrom with his project.

“Hours and hours and hours,” is how Beckstrom describes the cleaning process.
The fossil “has its skull, legs, toes, tail and hip, all of the important elements,” said Dilley.
The oreodont fossil was covered in sediment that had to be painstakingly removed. Beckstrom would come into the lab, and patiently go through the process.

The project was the theme for his Undergraduate Research Conference oral presentation last November, and was his Environmental Science capstone project.

Besides cleaning up the 35 million-year-old fossil, Beckstrom also researched the animal, so he could better understand where it lived, who its enemies were and what it ate, among other things. “It lived along tree-lined streams,” said Beckstrom. “When flooding happened, a lot of them died. That’s one of the reasons it’s one of the more common die-offs in the Badlands area.”

The SMSU oreodont has approximately 46 of the 145 bones, “about 30 percent, and we have one of every important part of the animal” said Beckstrom. It will be displayed in the University’s Natural History Museum.
“Sometimes when I’d work on it, I’d just make a pile of dust, you don’t see immediate change. It was tedious, but it was also cool to see bones being exposed finally.”

He would use a grout cleaner, a bathroom tile cleaner, toothbrushes, steel brushes, dental picks, electric brushes and a Dremel tool. “It seemed like it took forever,” he said. “I really wanted it displayed in the museum.”
The fossil was brought to SMSU in burlap and plaster of Paris. “That was to encase it, to protect it,” said Beckstrom. “Davey (Jones) only saw a little bit of the fossil, the rest was all covered with sediment.
“It was interesting to me to learn about the process. I’ve always wanted to do it. I’m glad I did it. But I don’t think I want to do it again,” he said, thinking about the roughly 100 hours he put into the cleaning project. “There’s still about 50 hours remaining,” he said.

“He learned on the go,” said Dilley. “It was a valuable project he was doing. It was an opportunity for him to work on a project that really gave him literally hands-on experience.”
And while the project allowed Beckstrom to research the oreodont, it wasn’t the only research he has undertaken in the last year.

Last summer, Beckstrom was an intern at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
“The project I was researching was finding areas around the country that had been polluted, like a dump site for a company, that also had high rates of cancer in the local population. At times it was frustrating, because there was a correlation at times, but you can’t prove it’s cause and effect.”

Beckstrom did a lot of superfund site research. “It was weird. Sometimes there’d be clusters (of cancer) but no history of pollution, but then you’d find areas of a lot of polluting, but no cancer.”

Another project he worked on was the history of disabilities in America. “It covered a broad aspect of disabilities, like birth defects caused by pollution, and cancer related to that. I ended up working on a history of service dogs, also.”
It will be years before the project is on display in the Smithsonian. “It takes a long time. There was one exhibit planned, the data was there, but it went to my boss to get checked out and my boss wasn’t feeling it. Four years of research and development, and the project had to start over.”

The whole experience of working in one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., still leaves Beckstrom somewhat in awe. “It was great to be among the actual curators,” said Beckstrom. “Our apartment was a few blocks down from the Smithsonian. I enjoyed how close everything was.”

Accompanying him was his roommate last year, Ben Pedersen, who served as his personal care attendant (PCA). “Without him, and my parents, it would not have been possible,” he said.
Beckstrom has a personality that draws people. He was Homecoming king at SMSU two years ago, perhaps his biggest college highlight. “It was a culmination of all the love I feel from the people at SMSU.”

He said he’ll miss that personal attention he received from faculty and staff. “There were many projects that I’d say, ‘I can’t do this,’ and the professor would say, ‘All right, let’s figure out a different way.’ It’s like a family at SMSU.”
So now it’s on to the Vermont School of Law in Royalton, Vt., ranked the No. 1 environmental law school in the country. “Vermont has only 600 students, so it will be an atmosphere like SMSU, and I like that,” he said.

“(SMSU Public Administration Professor) Doug Simon talked to me about getting into environmental law. I started thinking about that, and I looked at schools that had programs. I am really looking forward to this new chapter in my life. I’m really appreciative of the education I got at SMSU. It has allowed me to follow my dreams.”

Beckstrom, on the surface, appears pretty laid back, but looks can be deceiving. “The accident changed me mentally. Before, I’d take things as they come. After the accident, I have been more driven, which has surprised me.”
He’ll tackle his next challenge with Miles at his side, and the support of the many friends he made while a student at SMSU.

Last Modified: 3/30/17 4:47 PM