The Archaeobotany Lab: A Coming of Age Story

Part of a series about the best and worst internships we’ve ever had.

My high school’s motto was, “I set before thee an open door.” So, in the spirit of seizing opportunities, students were required to complete an internship project during our junior year.

The project took place in January, and we got a month off from school, to do whatever job we could find someone to let us do. Our parents still paid tuition for this month (roughly $20,000 divided by eight months—do the math. I won’t, because it makes me queasy), and we, of course, worked for free. Open doors don’t come cheap.

I decided to work at an archaeobotany lab at a local university museum (archaeobotany being the study of plants from ancient times). It was the first thing in a filing cabinet of suggested projects that caught my eye, and I like to make decisions about anything major as quickly as possible.

Three unreturned emails, and one cold call to a researcher later (“so what exactly are you asking to do, again?”), I was sitting in a dusty lab, situated down a long hallway that involved no fewer than three doors that required a key card to access, tripping over latin names of plants, asking why plants are preserved as bits of charcoal, and doesn’t charcoal just kind of crumble? I learned that when wood or seeds burn in a fire—the structural beams of a house, food spilled by a clumsy cook—they are reduced to their carbon components, which can stick around over the course of centuries, usually in the form of pieces a handful of millimeters wide. They’re a fossil created by a human-made accident, or an act of arson.

That month, I spent most of the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. workday (I had track practice at 3 p.m.) with my eyes glued to a bifocal microscope, examining plant remains. The whole world seems very big when you’re staring into the vacant cell walls of a pine tree—the same way that it seems very big when you’re staring up at the stars: There, under the microscope, is a tiny, undulating grid, with so much detail packed into so little a space. It’s transported from a place halfway around the world, and over decades. 

Not that this deflated my sense of importance. All of the juniors at my high school were playing a very elaborate game of grown-ups that winter. I met my friend Blair at the train station every morning to go downtown with the rest of the commuting world. I’d meet friends who were working at various other labs at the university at the Au Bon Pain next to the hospital for lunch, where we’d play games of who had to look up the most complicated word on Wikipedia that day. I relished the fact that I could blend in with the undergraduates walking around campus, and was occasionally mistaken for a shrimpy-looking grad student.

My whole of life beyond age 16—undergrad to full-on career-holding adult—was one big blur of future to me. I had boots (suede, from Delia’s, as was the style) that had a tiny heel that clicked in the hallways. I had my own key. I had a cup of sugar-laden coffee every morning—all the physical signifiers of adulthood, as far as I was concerned. Six years of coffee addiction later, I have learned this: Drinking way too much coffee doesn’t make you cute or important. It just gives you anxiety (and sometimes pit stains.)

I learned how to download episodes of This American Life on the relatively ancient Mac that sat in the lab. I listened to Starlee Kine singing about monumental, heart crushing break-ups as I pushed around tiny pieces of trees with a pair of tweezers, and worried about who the dude I liked made out with at the party last Saturday.

I suspect if the government were spying on my supervisor for misconduct that month, they would have found that my supervisor spent the requested amount of time being impeded by the need to teach me things so I could accomplish even the most basic task. This is how to split a sample. This is how to enter data. This is how tree rings are formed. See how the cell walls are closer together here—these grew in winter. I learned how to catalog the remains of forests, of houses, to identify each millimeter size piece and wrap it in a tiny piece of tinfoil, to sift out the bits of gumpf. This is probably just a piece of dung—dung was not always relegated to the waste pile, because we had an entire drawer for pieces of dung, which was conveniently located next to where my right elbow was usually situated.

While training me, a kid, who was somehow allowed to noodle around to with a Nikon bifocal microscope, my supervisor presented hints of her own grown up life: a jazzercise class, new flooring in a condo, a walk to work, a dying mother. I learned that the university wasn’t directing what she thought was enough money to archaeology research. In fact, that the whole museum, sitting at the corner of campus, was struggling to survive on ticket sales from things like traveling mummy exhibits, and gift shop tchotchkes. I learned that this was her dream job, and about some of the complications that came with having your dream job.

That summer, armed with some semblance of training, I went back to the lab to work for minimum wage. Two summers after that, my hourly rate increased by $2.50 each year. In the final summer, I was earning more than most of my friends who, even then, I suspected would all go on to make far, far more than me. I bought iced coffees from Dunkin Donuts, magazines, and takeout lunches, and generally relished it. I built up a small savings account that I would eventually blow on a second round of playing grownup a couple years later in New York. Then, even though I was well into college, the shoreline between me and being a “grownup” seemed equally far away as it had a few years before.

And, the money long spent, the career track decidedly not archaeobotany—what would be saved from those months? My charcoal skills are rusty, and would really be only fit in an emergency. My careful data collection is canonized in the form of maybe a footnote or two. I’m now used to cold-calling researchers. I’ve kept up a general tradition of hoarding sweaters and empty coffee cups at work. I hate my stupid coffee addiction. I made a photocopy of the first paycheck I received, and have it stored somewhere at my parent’s house. It’s a line on my resume, that’s all but inched-off by more recent gigs. And of course, though the plastic forks from lunches out, and the plastic inside those clicking heels, are somewhere in a landfill, dirty and unrecognizable, permanent only as part of a larger monument of trash—the memories of the things they accompanied only get shinier with time.

And if it all were to burn right now? In my apartment, there is a pair of oak bookshelves, salvaged from the sidewalk on garbage day. In the pile of rubble, among all the little pieces of oak, a future intern will find one lonely little material symbol (of being spoiled? of high learning?) from those months. It’s something that I forgot to give back when I left: a key.


Have an interesting internship story you’d like to submit to us? Send it on over.

Shannon Palus lives in Montreal. Photo: Soggydan



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