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Cassandra Turcotte on Tour of Lab at which she works at the museum

The skulls don’t scare College junior Cassandra Turcotte. If anything worries her, it’s the bugs.

Along with College sophomore Paul Mitchell, Turcotte works as an assistant to the keeper of the Skeletal Collections at the Penn Museum — two among 43 work-study students currently employed by the Penn Museum, according to the Student Employment Office.

The two work primarily in the skeletal laboratories in the Museum’s labyrinthine basement. The primary office is packed floor to ceiling with assorted human and primate remains — several shelves of human skulls, two upright skeletons, flesh samples soaking in formaldehyde and an array of bones sorted into plastic trays.

Typical duties around the skeletal labs include cataloging and classifying bones, taking CT scans of skeletal material and updating the Museum’s online database for use by researchers all over the world.

Having worked in the labs for a year and a half now, Turcotte is used to her skeletal surroundings.

When she was unpacking previously unopened boxes of human remains last summer, though, the accompanying bugs were less than welcome.

“It certainly involves a higher tolerance for the macabre than your average person might have,” Mitchell said.

But for Mitchell and Turcotte, working with thousands of human and primate skeletons has been “much more than just a job,” as Mitchell put it.

For College freshman Nicole Grabowski, working as an inventory assistant at the Penn Museum has been “loads of fun.”

“You never know what you’re going to walk into every day,” she said.

As part of her work, Grabowski is allowed to handle some of the Museum’s most unique possessions.

Last semester, Grabowski helped move the Museum’s collection of American Indian shrunken heads, which she described as “like raisins, only in head form and with beads and hair still on them.”

“I definitely feel like I’m walking out of this job with a curse,” Grabowski said. “At least one or two.”

Grabowski describes her position as “a bunch of hodge-podge jobs,” which range from computer cataloging to examining the condition of pieces coming back from loans.

Both Mitchell and Turcotte were drawn to their current positions after taking classes with anthropology professor Janet Monge, the keeper of the Skeletal Collection.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with biology,” said Turcotte, a geological anthropology major. “This seemed like a great way to work with people. You don’t see the impact on living humans right away, but it’s there.”

Mitchell, who plans to major in biological anthropology, said the fact that others are intrigued by his work is part of what makes his job rewarding.

“I’m always going to remember all the days that I would pass through the Museum with a cart full of skulls, gathering the glances of passers-by who are a little weirded out as to what I could be doing,” Mitchell said.

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