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Building the puzzle with Katie Gilbert

For as long as she can remember, University of New England Marine Sciences alumna Katie Gilbert ’15 has loved building puzzles. The process of starting with so many disparate pieces and turning them into something whole and meaningful has always entranced her. 

As a four-year-old, she spent hours piecing together a giant floor puzzle of Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She built it over and over again. Before long, she had graduated to more complex designs, tackling intricate jigsaws of the New York City skyline and Paris landscape. Eventually, her hobby dovetailed with another burgeoning passion of hers as she began building vivid depictions of tropical beaches and underwater scenes.

I think it’s wonderful that I can help expand future students’ knowledge and skills by giving them something physical to look at rather than just a picture in a book.

You see, the western Massachusetts native’s other most cherished childhood recollections involve family trips to the beaches of Cape Cod and southern Maine, where she would wade through tide pools exploring the creatures they held. 

“I loved going into the water to find crabs and hermit crabs,” Gilbert explains. “Around the fifth or sixth grade, I remember thinking I would like to steer that way as a career. I’ve always had this love of and curiosity for the ocean.”

Gilbert decided to attend UNE after falling in love with its beautiful coastal setting during a campus tour. She immersed herself in work at the Marine Science Center, becoming a research assistant in Associate Professor Kathryn Ono’s marine mammal lab. That position led Gilbert to her most ambitious puzzle yet.

After Ono showed her a box of unmarked, unorganized grey seal bones that had once belonged to an adult male, Gilbert decided to devote her senior year to reassembling the skeleton.

First, she bleached the bones to remove the remnants of skin and tissue. Next, she labeled each bone with the animal’s ID number. Then, she began putting together the puzzle. Identifying each bone and placing it in its proper position on a lab table took nearly a month.

“The layout of the skeleton really was like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Gilbert explains. “Every bone has its exact place, but a lot of bones are very similar to others, like the ribs and vertebrae. Determining which pieces go where is a very fine process.”

Eventually, this stage of the project led Gilbert to a startling and unwelcome revelation: one the puzzle pieces — the left patella — was missing.

Undeterred, Gilbert and Ono sought out UNE Simulation and Technology Specialist Michael Vickery, whose expertise includes facility in using UNE’s 3-D printer. Vickery photographed the seal’s right patella, created a digitized mirror image, and then printed it. In less than a week, Gilbert had a plastic left patella, which she painted to match the rest of the bones.

With all of the pieces in place, Gilbert began articulating and reconstructing the skeleton.

“I had to drill through each bone and put a wire through it,” Gilbert recalls. “It was a very slow and tedious process because I didn’t want to break any of them. They’re very fragile. The smallest are the little finger and knuckle bones within the flippers. Then, you have huge vertebrae… but even those aren’t easy to drill through because you need to build up using [progressively] larger drill bits so you don’t crack them.”

Grey Seal SkeletonCompleted with the help of fellow Marine Sciences students Thomas McManus ’15, Matthew Sheehan ’15, and Brenton Murphy ’18 in the spring, the skeleton now hangs beside the skeleton of an Atlantic white-sided dolphin at the Marine Science Center. The pair will allow future UNE students to compare the differences and similarities of two marine mammal species — cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and pinnipeds (seals, walruses and sea lions) — so they can better understand their adaptations and features.

“I think it’s wonderful that I can help expand future students’ knowledge and skills by giving them something physical to look at rather than just a picture in a book,” Gilbert says.

Having graduated in May, Gilbert plans to take a gap year before pursuing a graduate degree in marine sciences. She doesn’t know whether she will ultimately spend her life working in a research lab, in the field, or at an aquarium. Wherever she lands, there can be little doubt that as life's opportunities arise, Katie Gilbert will get to work on another masterpiece.