- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

Steven J. Jabo really digs his job. Mr. Jabo is a “vertebrate paleontology preparator” for the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. He retrieves dinosaur fossils from across the world and prepares them for research or exhibition at the Smithsonian.

He usually spends his summers digging for fossils in places such as Hell’s Creek, Mont., and Kazakhstan, a small country south of Russia and northeast of the Caspian Sea. The rest of the year is spent in a lab at the museum.

“I like working with my hands. You couldn’t ask for a better work environment,” he said.

Mr. Jabo grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania and graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a degree in biogeology. He didn’t have a passion for dinosaurs growing up, but he did love the outdoors.

In 1988, Mr. Jabo landed a job in the collections department at the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. He longed for a job in the museum’s fossil lab, so he began volunteering there in his spare time.

He left briefly for a job in Philadelphia, where he investigated hazardous waste accidents. He returned to the museum in 1991 when a job opened up in the fossil lab.

Mr. Jabo, an Arlington resident, most enjoys digging up bones, although he said he misses his wife when he is out of town. When he travels to foreign countries such as Kazakhstan, he is usually gone for two months at a time. For digs in places such as Montana, Texas or Wyoming, he is usually away for just a few weeks.

On a recent Wednesday, Mr. Jabo arrived at the lab about 8 a.m. wearing his usual uniform: a T-shirt, jeans and sandals. His left earlobe sported a small diamond stud and a tiny hoop.

He placed goggles over his glasses and sat before a fossil of a tapiroid, a precursor to a tapir, a rhinoceroslike animal with a heavy body, short legs and a long upper lip. Modern tapirs are found in South America and can weigh as much as 500 pounds, but prehistoric tapiroids were the size of German shepherds, he says.

Mr. Jabo estimates the tapiroid fossil is 43 million years old. It looks like a plaster cast encasing the skeleton of a small dog.

Mr. Jabo used a tool called an air scribe to drill away at the rock and clay to free the bones. As it moved across the hard surface, it sent tiny particles flying through the air. He stopped every few minutes to dust the dirt away with an oversized paintbrush.

It was quiet work. The air scribe produced a low whizzing noise, but it was masked by the classical music that played on a radio near Mr. Jabo’s work area.

“You get into a Zenlike trance when you do this,” he says.

The lab is a dusty amalgamation of art and science. Containers labeled “epoxy parfilm” and “epoxy 126g” sit on shelves next to acrylic paint and Vasoline. Some of the materials are kept in their original containers; others sit in coffee cans, old plastic foam cups and a tub once used to store salad dressing. The walls are mostly bare, save for the occasional dinosaur poster.

Mr. Jabo has been working on the tapiroid off and on since 1997. He and his crew discovered the fossil during a dig in Kazakhstan, where they had gone to uncover the bones of a prehistoric rhinoceros that got stuck in mud and died millions of years earlier.

It isn’t unusual for fossils like this to get shifted to the back burner, Mr. Jabo said. “They’re pretty happy I’m finally getting back into it,” he said.

Mr. Jabo spends his entire work day chipping away at the tapiroid fossil. He has removed the tapiroid’s skull and its teeth. It will take a few more months of steady work to remove the rest of its bones.

He looks forward to the day when the tapiroid is freed from the prehistoric earth that has encased it for centuries. Then it can go on display and he can move on to his next project.

“The main thing about this job is you need a lot of patience,” he says.

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