From Bones to Chemicals

Chloe Gillum, Writer, Reporter

Each day for up to five weeks at a time, James Sammons would wake up in the early hours of the morning to dig for dinosaur bones in the Alaskan Tundra. Sammons attended Washington and Lee University for undergraduate school. In addition, he graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks for graduate school as a geology major.

As a child, he was always science-minded. Fossils and dinosaurs, specifically, were two of his many interests. He initially looked at a list of classes a biology major would take but decided to take the geology route instead because it appealed more to him. From that point forward, he ended up digging up dinosaurs for a living.

“The dinosaur digs that I did were in Northern Alaska on the Colville River which flows from the Brooks Range Mountains northwards towards the Arctic Ocean,” said Sammons. “My specific site was about 40-50 miles from the Arctic Coast.”

The location of his site was above the Arctic Circle “which is where you get 24 hours of straight sunlight for 32 days.” To arrive at the site, Sammons had to fly in a tiny plane that fit two people and the necessary equipment for the job. The plane would land on the side of a river and he would unload his things and set up tents.

“I’d wake up around 7 AM and eat breakfast around a campfire,” said Sammons. “Then boat across the river which flowed really fast because of all the melting snow. We’d have to hike up muddy bluffs on the side of the river because my bone bed was near the top.”

He dug for five hours, break for lunch, and then continue digging for another five hours. Any bones that he dug up that day would be loaded into backpacks and he’d begin his careful journey back down the muddy slope to his camp.

“Sometimes you’d have to go up and down the slope four to five times if there were multiple loads of bones to take back to the boat,” said Sammons. “It was exhausting.”

Although Sammons worked long and grueling hours, he met cool people through the experience. Native people that lived near the river would subsistence hunt for food.

“We would see boats of teenagers and people in their twenties coming down the river,” said Sammons. “They’d stop for coffee because there’s this tradition where if you see a camp you can stop and get a cup of coffee and go on your way.”

In exchange for coffee, the native people would often give him meat from the animal they had hunted that day. It was great “because you’d meet cool people doing their thing.” Veering away from paleontology, Sammons began to substitute teach for math and science classes.

“The teachers were surprised because I would do the math that they left,” said Sammons. “Since I could do it and was happy to do it, I ended up basically being a math and science teacher five days a week.”

One day he was talking to one of the math teachers at the school about how much fun he was having. He was burnt out with what he was doing at the university and decided to become a teacher. This year Sammons begins his 16th year teaching and has taught chemistry for 13 of them.

Ayan Chagani, sophomore, is a student in Sammons’ Chemistry 1 Advanced class and believes that Sammons has helped him realize how much he enjoys chemistry.

“I feel that Mr. Sammons is one of the coolest teachers I’ve had in my life,” Chagani said. “The activities he plans are exciting and his jokes always make us laugh.”

Chemistry 1 Advanced student, Victoria Holt, sophomore, said that she liked science before, but Sammons has made her like it more.

“I think he’s an amazing teacher and is very helpful when someone in class gets confused,” said Holt.

Sammons enjoys joking around and having fun with students. They are what he likes most about teaching.

“I come to school every day because students are fun. It’s fun to get to know and meet all different kinds of people,” said Sammons.


Contributor: Ryliegh Martin