Joseph Collette: Bridging the gap between academia and scientific discovery

MINOT, N.D. – In geology, where the Earth's secrets lie patiently beneath the surface, few individuals possess the unique ability to seamlessly traverse the worlds of academia and scientific research.

Meet Joseph Collette, a distinguished Minot State University geology professor whose passion for teaching and unwavering curiosity have propelled him into the field of groundbreaking scientific discoveries since 2014. 

With an unwavering commitment to both his students and the pursuit of knowledge, Collette embodies the epitome of a scientist-educator, constantly bridging the gap between theory and practice in the captivating field of geology. 

Collette's fascination with science, particularly geology, can be traced back to his childhood. Growing up in Massachusetts, in a time without cell phones, he found solace in exploring the natural world around him, constantly asking questions about rocks, animals, and dinosaurs. These childhood curiosities ultimately shaped his career choices, leading him to become a paleontologist and geologist. 

"As a kid, I wanted to know why snakes didn't have legs, why the sorts of rocks I found around my house in Massachusetts were different from the sorts I saw in field guidebooks, and why there were dinosaur tracks all around the area that I lived, and why there weren't any dinosaurs anymore," he said. "These kinds of questions led me to want to be one of three things as a kid: a paleontologist, a geologist, and an astronaut. Paleontologists are geologists — so I made two of those happen, now if I can just find a way to make that last one happen." 

At Minot State, Collette teaches a diverse range of classes, each with its own challenges. As a field-based scientist, he emphasizes the importance of taking students outdoors, connecting theoretical knowledge with practical experiences. Though essential for instilling confidence in students to apply their classroom learnings to real-world situations, field trips are logistically challenging. 

"Getting my students outdoors often and to places where the geology is more above ground than below is always something that is challenging," he said. "Trying to schedule those around events that are happening months away, knowing that in all likelihood there will be someone unhappy about the dates chosen for a three- or four-day field trip, is tough." 

Collette's contributions to scientific research are equally impressive. One of his most notable accomplishments is the discovery and naming of Mosineia macnaughtoni, the oldest-known animal to have walked on land.

"Many folks who study evolution will tell you that insects (springtails), scorpions, or myriapods (centipedes) were among the first organisms to walk on land — but that is incorrect," he said. "The first animal known to walk on land (as of now) was a euthycarcinoid — an animal similar to a centipede in some ways, named Mosineia macnaughtoni." 

This groundbreaking finding highlights his passion for paleontology and his ability to make significant contributions to the field. However, Collette emphasizes that he finds immense satisfaction in working with his undergraduate research students. Together, they explore exciting projects, and he takes immense pride in witnessing their growth and success. 

Currently, Collette is engaged in two remarkable research projects. The first project involves using light detection and ranging (LiDAR) scans to locate unmarked graves near Fort Totten at the Spirit Lake Reservation. Partnering with Native American geology and archaeology students, the team seeks to shed light on the dark history of a Native American boarding school and pay respect to the children who lost their lives during their time there. 

"This is tough stuff to talk about, but it really needs to be talked about bluntly so that it can be confronted," he said. "These kids were often forcibly removed from their families, and many died in these boarding schools and were often buried in unmarked graves. Together with a Native American geology student and an archeology student, we will use UAV-based LiDAR to find as many unmarked graves as possible." 

The second project, funded by INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence), focuses on monitoring water quality at Lake Darling. The team aims to assess the lake's health and its impact on the ecosystem and local communities over several years. 

Collette imparts invaluable fieldwork experience to his students through these projects while addressing critical environmental and historical issues. 

He also underscores the dedication and passion of the Division of Science faculty at Minot State. They invest countless hours in their students' education, both inside and outside the classroom, going above and beyond their teaching responsibilities. Driven by a genuine love for their work, these faculty members strive to ensure their students' success and inspire them to reach their full potential to ensure they are ready for the next step. 

"Our geosciences and chemistry students all leave Minot State with the ability to walk into an MS (Master of Science) or Ph.D. (doctoral) program anywhere in the world and engage immediately with a research project," he said. "This is one of the things that make our students so attractive and successful both in terms of their careers and in graduate school after they leave us. I am proud of the MS-level research projects MSU students complete in the Division of Science!" 

Beyond his professional life, Collette finds joy in his personal interests. He and his wife share their home with three rescue dogs and a herd of horses, each with their own captivating stories. Additionally, he spends his leisure time restoring his beloved Mini Cooper, a car with exceptional sentimental value. 

Collette's dedication to teaching and research at Minot State University reflects his commitment to advancing scientific knowledge and nurturing the next generation of scientists.

About Minot State University
Minot State University is a public university dedicated to excellence in education, scholarship, and community engagement achieved through rigorous academic experiences, active learning environments, commitment to public service, and a vibrant campus life.

Published: 07/25/23   

» More MSU News