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Fossil tracks mark student's passage into New World of discovery

Whitten stands by the fossil track site, the pale patch of rock next to her feet.

Nobody knew better than Christopher Columbus that knowledge and experience, guided by luck and the right conditions, are key to making a discovery – even an accidental one. On October 12, 1492, he found what he thought was a shore of the Indies, but was actually an island in the Bahamas that he christened San Salvador.

During the winter break of 2013, Emory senior Meredith Whitten was on San Salvador for a study abroad trip, part of an environmental sciences class called “Modern and Ancient Tropical Environments.” Whitten had already visited the island when she took the course as a sophomore, and she was returning as a teaching assistant.

“It’s a great course because you get to go back into the past by looking at the rocks,” Whitten says. “It’s cool to see how the Earth has changed and also stayed the same.”

“She brought a lot of knowledge and experience to the group,” adds Anthony Martin, the professor who developed and teaches the course. Martin is a paleontologist who specializes in trace fossils: Tracks, burrows and other signs of ancient life.

“We go around the entire island in a big, open-bed truck,” Martin says of the field portion of the class. “We stop at known fossil sites, and at interesting modern environments to imagine what they might have looked like in prehistoric times. I call it ‘The Magical Mystery Tour.’”

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