Our Mission & History

The mission of the ETSU Center of Excellence and its Natural History Museum is:

  • To discover, preserve and interpret the fossil record of the region while fostering the appreciation and understanding of natural science through research, education and interactive experiences.

The mission will be achieved by:

  • Conducting research that enhances our understanding of life through time;
  • Presenting original research findings through national and international outlets (e.g. meetings and peer-reviewed publications);
  • Seeking and obtaining external funding to support such research;
  • Assisting in student (both undergraduate and graduate) research and education;
  • Assisting other ETSU Departments with educational and outreach programs (e.g. ETSU and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum & Visitors Center).

The vision of the Center and the Museum is:

  • To serve as the region's leading center for natural science discovery, interpretation and inspiration while educating the public about life through time.

History of the Center of Excellence and Natural History Museum

In late May of 2000 fossils were discovered by a Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) road construction project on the outskirts of Gray, Washington County, Tennessee. TDOT employees, researchers from UT-Knoxville, and the State Archaeologist recognized the potential significance of the site and sought to protect it. Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist and other state officials visited the site on August 7th, and on September 15th during a second visit, the governor announced that the road project would be relocated to save the fossil site for research and education. 

Through the leadership of Dr. Paul Stanton, President of East Tennessee State University (ETSU) at that time, the Gray Fossil Site (GFS) became an ETSU project. A new era in the understanding and development of the fossil site began when Dr. Steven Wallace was hired in 2001 to head up excavations and research. Excavations in 2002 by Dr. Wallace further demonstrated the importance of the site and media attention continued to grow. In September of 2002 Governor Sundquist announced an $8 million Federal Highway Administration grant to ETSU for the development of a museum and visitors center at the site. To accept the grant ETSU had to match it with $2 million, for a total of $10 million going towards scientific education and outreach in Tennessee.

Shortly after the funding announcement, ETSU received news that their request to develop a Center of Excellence in Paleontology had been approved by the Tennessee Board of Regents. Dr. Wallace was appointed its first Director and the Center was officially named the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology in December of 2002, in honor of the Governor's contributions. At this point the primary responsibilities of the Center, via the College of Arts and Sciences, included, among other things, museum development and planning, prospecting and excavation, research, university education, and public outreach.

Excavations and discoveries in 2003 and early 2004 continued to reveal the unique and diverse nature of the fossil deposit and in 2004 Drs. Wallace and Xiaoming Wang published an overview of the fauna, flora, age, geology, and paleoecology of the site in the internationally acclaimed journal Nature. In addition, two species new to science were introduced, a badger ( Arctomeles dimolodontus) and a red panda ( Pristinailurus bristoli); the latter named after Mr. Larry Bristol who found the first red panda tooth, and was heavily involved with GFS outreach. The publication in Nature brought international attention and interest to the site and a further realization of its paleontological significance.

By 2004 the paleontology contingent at ETSU had grown, and was continuing to attract students and researchers. Dr. Mick Whitelaw had joined the ETSU faculty in 2003 and began work on paleomagnetism and stratigraphy of the site and developed paleontology outreach programs for grade schools. Also, numerous volunteers and students were helping with excavations, lab processing, and signing up for paleo-related classes or field trips. In the fall of 2004 Dr. Blaine Schubert was hired as a postdoctoral fellow and was assigned to assist in museum and exhibit planning, help manage the numerous laboratory and field volunteers and staff, and oversee the organization of the growing fossil and comparative collections.

For most of 2005 and 2006 ETSU paleontology focused primarily on museum development operations, excavations, laboratory processing, and curation of fossils. A significant 'paleo-group' emerged on the ETSU campus. In the fall of 2006 the paleo-group grew considerably, with the hiring of Ms. Jeanne Zavada as Museum Director, Dr. Michael Zavada as the Chair of Biological Sciences, and Drs. Yusheng (Christopher) Liu (in the Biological Sciences unit) and Blaine Schubert (in the then Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geology) as new faculty members. It was during the 2006-2007 academic year that the Museum and Center began to define their separate roles and became distinct entities within the College of Arts and Sciences. In late August of 2007 the a 33,000 square foot Natural History Museum officially opened and the public was finally able to see what Center members had been working on for years. It was a huge and astounding success! 

At this point in time the Center began to focus mainly on research and grant writing, and in the fall of 2008 Dr. Wallace took a year of leave from his post as Director and began a year-long research sabbatical. Dr. Liu served as Interim Director, and during this time Center members submitted numerous research papers and grant proposals. Further, Dr. Liu began his NSF funded project on the analysis of plants recovered from the Gray Fossil Site.

The fall of 2008 also brought in another paleontologist, Dr. Jim Mead, as the Chair of the newly developed ETSU Department of Geosciences. Along with Dr. Mead came three graduate students, a collections manager for the comparative collection (Ms. Sandra Swift), over 13,000 skeletal specimens for research and teaching, and an extensive paleontology library. The addition of Dr. Mead made us one of the largest staffed academic paleontology programs in existence. In-line with this, we maintain ~12 graduate students studying various aspects of paleontology, making the ETSU graduate program in paleontology one of the largest known. Currently graduate students who wish to earn a degree in paleontology work through the Master of Science Paleontology concentration in the Geosciences Department or Biological Sciences.

In the fall of 2009, after sabbatical, Dr. Steven Wallace announced that he would not be resuming his post as Director of the Center and that he wished to focus on research, students, and GFS curation. Following this, Dr. Schubert was voted in as the recommended new Director by Center members, and his appointment was approved by the Tennessee Board of Regents in late October of 2009. With its original mission and goals accomplished, the Center developed a new mission and set of objectives. Over the next two years the Center boosted its membership, established an active foundation account for research and education, cultivated a stronger relationship with the Museum, developed a website, hosted the first Gray Fossil Site Symposium, recruited undergraduate and graduate students, obtained a large National Science Foundation grant for excavation and research (PIs: Wallace and Schubert), published research in peer reviewed journals, provided funds for student research, published a book on Gray Fossil Site Research, and served as a major source of media attention for ETSU.

In early 2012 the Museum was established as an entity within the Center of Excellence in Paleontology. Over the next year, the Center and its Museum will accomplish a number of "firsts." We will develop and begin to implement our first five-year strategic plan. We will begin the process of gaining American Association of Museums accreditation. We will complete our first Emergency Preparedness Plan to ensure the safety and security of our collections. We will create a strong, positive working relationship between the research aspects of the Center and its Museum. We will refine the purpose and improve the quality of our exhibit and education activities. We will develop and implement our first comprehensive funding plan. We will devise our first marketing plan and undertake a major re-branding effort. We will establish positive working relationships with offices and departments throughout the university and with organizations throughout the community.

Most importantly, over the next several months and throughout the next fiscal year, we will fundamentally change the way we do business. We will define clear performance metrics to be transparent and accountable to the university. We will focus our efforts on sustainability. We look forward to sharing our accomplishments.