One of UNM’s many historical buildings has been given new life again – and it will serve as an educational resource to future scientists throughout our community. Situated at the southern edge of main campus, the Natural History Science Center (NHSC) is a collaborative space dedicated to introducing and researching the rich history of our Earth.

The building itself was designed by John Gaw Meem who served as the official architect for UNM during the university’s early years and lives on as one of the Southwest’s most prominent architects. Built in 1946 to house the College of Pharmacy, the building has withstood many changes, including a period of vacancy and a proposed demolition.

A mammoth leg bone
A mammoth leg bone ready for examination under the microscope.

It was the historic value of the building which saved it from this fate and plans began forming to renovate it. There were many potential uses for this space, and proposals were invited from the many campus departments who could benefit from it.

It was then Interim Dean of Research at the College of Arts & Sciences, Laura Crossey, who saw the potential to breathe new life into this piece of UNM history by simultaneously saving another prized piece of history on campus. At the time, the unique regional paleontology collection housed in Northrop Hall was in danger of deterioration due to unstable climate conditions.

This fossil collection is of great significance to the Southwest, as there are over 40 type specimens. Many of these are not found outside of UNM – not even in the Smithsonian. Preserving these specimens was of the utmost importance and a new, climate-controlled space was desperately needed. 

One midnight call from Crossey to Assistant Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Cori Myers, and the plan was in motion. In a race against the proposal deadline, they, with the help of the Director of the Museum of Southwestern Biology, Chris Witt, and Associate Professor of the Honors College, Jason Moore, began drafting their plan for the building.

Their vision resonated with the Board of Regents, and the NHSC was established. Dedicated to interdisciplinary specimen-based research, this new addition to the campus will serve as a research and educational resource for New Mexico and beyond.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have such a fantastic facility on campus that will secure the legacy of paleontological research at UNM for years to come," said Moore. "It is easy to discount the value of specimen-based teaching and research in a digital age, but there is no substitute for working with real specimens. You have access to everything you could possibly find out about a specimen in one place (allowing for the serendipity of scientific discovery) and the opportunity to gather more data in the future in ways that are currently unknown. Plus, I have yet to find the fossil replica that can spark the same curiosity and excitement in a student that a genuine 70 million-year-old tyrannosaur tooth can.”

With the building improvements came the addition of much-needed climate control and security systems. These systems will not only preserve the vast collection housed within the building but will also support the eventual goal for this space: to become designated as a Federal repository for all types of fossil specimens. Designation as a Federal repository would enable fossils collected under permit in collaboration with Native and other public lands to be preserved in the NHSC in perpetuity for the American people.

A skull on display at the Natural History Science Center.

From its inception, the NHSC was designed with interdisciplinary education and outreach in mind. This vision has resulted in one half of the space designed to engage students from multiple disciplines as well as the community in the value of research specimens as unique repositories of knowledge about the history and continuation of life on our planet.

With a prep lab, photography and analytical space, and a large collections room, students and researchers will have a place to prepare, study, and maintain fossils right here on campus. A monitor outside of the prep lab will even give visitors an up-close look at what researchers are viewing on their microscopes.

The building is also designed to promote a broader learning experience for students. The center of this experience lies in the bright collaborative teaching space where students have already been able to engage in specimen-based teaching through courses such as “Bringing Fossils to Life,” as well as a course dedicated to the science behind natural disasters. 

This is known as, “high impact teaching,” which is well-supported under other UNM undergraduate education programs, such as Expanded Curriculum-based Research Experiences (ECURE) and the Student Experience Project (SEP). UNM students will not be the only ones to benefit from this experience, as Moore and Myers both look forward to utilizing this space to host community events both in-person and virtually. Some current ideas include a “Bring Your Fossil Day,” “Darwin’s Birthday,” educational lectures, movies, and more.

While classes and research have already begun in the NHSC, there is still much to be done before they are fully moved in. The rails and collapsible cabinets of the collections storage area are yet to be installed, and the majority of the collection still lives in the basement of Northrop. The large classroom meant for teaching and outreach awaits specimen cabinets to properly house the collections used for “high-impact teaching”. This room also has a conveniently blank wall, which will hopefully be home to a “Wall of Biodiversity” in the future. And of course, a collections manager will one day be needed to oversee the care of the paleontological specimens and the building itself. 

The NHSC stands to become a true focal point for the University and future scientists everywhere. 

“Geoscience departments all over the country are shuttering their paleontological research and giving away their specimens," said Myers. "UNM is actively bucking this trend and not only supporting, but expanding resources for paleontological research. That is pretty special and will definitely contribute to UNM becoming a national center for paleontology in the future.”