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Upon first glance, the fourth floor of Wilson Hall on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus is no different from the rest of the biology department building: fluorescent lighting, white tile floors, ancient wooden desks in professors’ offices.

But then Patricia Gensel leads me to a door at the end of the hallway. She buzzes with excitement as she slides the key into the lock. After a particularly satisfying “click,” the door opens — and her world unfolds. Floor-to-ceiling drawers filled with specimens. Rolling carts covered in rocks. And on a table in the center, a giant slab that most people can’t get their arms around.

“I don’t go in for small,” Gensel says with a laugh. “At one point I had about 4,000 specimens, but I donated a lot to museums in the U.S. and Canada. Now, I’d guess I have closer to 2,000.”

She directs my attention back to the giant rock. Upon closer inspection, an outline of what looks like some type of fern is embedded in its top.

“This is foliage. An early seed plant, most likely,” she says.

Gensel is a paleobotanist. She studies plants from the Devonian and Lower Carboniferous periods, which date back 327-400 million years — pre-dating dinosaurs. This timeframe marks the beginning of plants that lived on land, produced seeds, grew root systems, and developed wood, ultimately forming into trees.


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