Student gets inside view of geosciences as Badlands National Park intern

Emily Morrison
October 25, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This summer, Penn State student Maggie Kuzemchak ventured far outside of her comfort zone. So far, in fact, that she began the summer by moving to rural South Dakota.

“I packed all of my things and moved halfway across the country to live in a small town where I knew no one,” Maggie said.

Hailing from the Pittsburgh area, she fell in love with the landscape of Badlands National Park, located in southwest South Dakota, during a family road trip in 2012.

“It was so beautiful there,” Kuzemchak said. “Everywhere you looked, you were surrounded by colorful rocks and open prairie. There was so much freedom to hike and explore.”

Now a junior at Penn State, Kuzemchak is double-majoring in Earth science and chemistry and hopes to pursue a career in atmospheric chemistry. When looking for a summer internship, she searched for a program that would allow her to combine her desire to travel with her academic interests in Earth science. It was for these reasons that she decided to apply to the Geoscientists in the Parks program and why she ended up making such a considerable change in geographic location.

The Geoscientists in the Parks program provides undergraduate students and recent graduates with short-term, paid internships at a variety of different national parks across the country. They partner with other programs that aim to promote education and environmental conservation awareness like Conservation Legacy and Americorps. Kuzemchak applied for and accepted a position at South Dakota's Badlands National Park for the summer of 2017.

During the course of her internship, Kuzemchak lived in the small town of Interior, South Dakota, a rural area 75 miles southeast of Rapid City with a population of only 100 people. Her role at the park was twofold: she was both an intern for the Interpretations Division of the park and assisted in conducting research into the human dimensions of paleontology.

Within the Interpretations Division, Kuzemchak worked with other interns and park rangers to lead fossil talks and junior ranger programs. She acted as an informational resource for visitors, answering questions about a wide range of park-related topics like directions to certain trails, geological information, and hiking tips. Kuzemchak engaged with visitors around the park, giving her the opportunity to enjoy the scenic environment while helping to better the visitor experience.

She also participated in the ongoing research at the park. She helped survey park visitors about national park rules and laws in addition to the kinds of fossils located at the Badlands. The researchers aimed to reduce the number of cases of fossil theft. As part of this research, Kuzemchak aided local law enforcement officials in collecting, documenting and analyzing the fossil-theft cases reported by the park since the 1950’s.

The team is continuing to analyze its results, though the preliminary conclusions being drawn are that visitors who were interviewed later in the day understood more about park regulations and what kinds of fossils the park contained.

“At the beginning of the day, most park visitors thought there were dinosaur fossils at the Badlands,” Kuzemchak said. “In fact, there are none. Most of the fossils at the Badlands are mammal.”

Kuzmechak's research will help contribute to future projects and efforts by local authorities and park personnel to ensure that visitors get the most out of their experience while still preserving the park.

After her summer-long journey, Kuzemchak returned to Penn State. Though her academic interest is still in atmospheric science, she is considering applying to be a ranger at Badlands National Park in the summer of 2018.

“It really was an amazing experience,” Maggie said. “The Badlands National Park is like a second home to me now.”

  • Maggie Kuzemchak

    Maggie Kuzemchak holding a Junior Ranger Program

    IMAGE: Julie Chessia
  • Maggie Kuzemchak, Nathan Wooden Knife, Julie Chessia

    From left to right: Maggie Kuzemchak, Nathan Wooden Knife (seasonal ranger) and Julie Chessia (GIP)

    IMAGE: Maggie Kuzemchak
(1 of 2)

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 25, 2017