UChicago paleontologist Paul Sereno’s fossil lab moves to Washington Park

New facility includes space for fossil preparation, community programs, and specimens collected from worldwide expeditions

Soon, residents of Chicago’s South Side won’t have to travel to the Field Museum to see a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton—there will be one in their own backyard.

Paleontologist Paul Sereno’s Fossil Lab at the University of Chicago is moving to the center of the Washington Park neighborhood on South Wabash Avenue, just off Garfield Boulevard. The 6,000-square-foot facility opened May 2, transforming a 1921 wood-beam warehouse into a fossil wonderland.

“It’s a dream lab for paleontologists and archaeologists,” said Sereno, who is a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at UChicago. “It will be one of the largest labs of its kind in the world, one designed for high throughput of massive dinosaur skeletons.”

In addition to housing Sereno’s fossil specimens, the new lab is designed to welcome the neighborhood as well. Featuring a colorful dinosaur mural on the front of the building, the glass walls of the Prep Lab and the mobile work desks and projector screen of the central Learning Room aren’t just for scientists and research. Sereno will invite community groups, teachers, and students to tour the facility and use its spacious rooms for meetings, service training, in-school visits, and after-school programs.

“This is a game-changer for any kid in the neighborhood that dreamed of getting within arm’s reach of dinosaur bones,” said Sereno, who is readying the new lab to receive tons of new dinosaurs he and his team collected in the Sahara Desert on an excursion in the fall of 2022.

Washington Park Resident Advocacy Council President Cecilia Butler says neighborhood residents are excited to get up close with fossils in the new lab. “It’s wonderful to be part of the work and see and feel things like we see on science shows on TV,” Butler said. “Paul is giving us an opportunity to be hands on and everyone in the community is extremely excited.”

The Prep Lab in the new facility is what Sereno calls his “bone makerspace,” featuring an array of tools and microscopes for cleaning, stabilizing, and protecting fossils. Fossil technicians with decades of experience will guide college students, volunteers, and high school interns in their work on unique fossils collected by Sereno’s team around the world. It’s all hands-on work with bones, fossil and recent, to recompose skulls and skeletons.

The lab’s Learning Room is a large multi-purpose resource room for researchers, college students, and teens in after-school programs. Its large projector screen, movable workstations, and 3D printers facilitate interactive learning. It can also host community meetings or even film screenings. As a dramatic touch, skeletons of living birds, mammals, and alligators hang from the ceilings—created as final projects in one of Sereno’s college classes.

The facility will ramp up what Sereno can achieve in research output, he says. It’s arranged on one floor with a wide freight entrance, meaning staff can move large specimens with ample workspace. “Everything will be more efficient in the new space,” Sereno said. He has a backlog of fossils stored in field jackets in another warehouse, a haul he estimates at more than 50 tons.

Rev. Jesse Knox III, Senior Minister at the Church of the Good Shepherd and Executive Director of the Good Shepherd Community Services Organization in Washington Park, said the timing for the lab is a perfect complement to other new developments on the South Side.

“Bringing amenities to the whole area is crucial to have a vibrant community,” he said. “It signals the beginning that other good things are coming to the neighborhood. Introducing young kids to get excited about science in a hands-on, positive environment has been needed for a long time. Excitement is an understatement.”

Contributing to the neighborhood scene is equally exciting to Sereno and his team.

“For teens, the possibilities are endless. We’ll have a Jurassic Park show, surrounded by gigantic bones, and talk dinosaur science,” Sereno said. “I’m thrilled to operate a science lab in a neighborhood. It’s just off the main drag and soon a recognized landmark when the dinosaurs arrive.”

Adapted from an article posted by the Biological Sciences Division.