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From Rexburg to the Smithsonian Institute and back

In a second-hand cardboard box, within one of Forest Gahn’s drawers lies one of the oldest specimens of its kind. It looks similar to a starfish, but its arms divide further and it stems from a long stalk. It is a marine animal called a crinoid, found by Gahn within a day’s drive of BYU-Idaho.

Gahn, a BYU-I faculty member in the Geology Department, first gained interest in geology in high school. He enjoyed the way geology relates to many other types of sciences and was interested in the history of life.

“Once I took that class, I had a pretty good idea that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Gahn said.

Gahn attended Ricks College and received his bachelor’s degree at BYU. He then received his master’s degree in Cincinnati. After completing a doctorate degree at the University of Michigan, he taught for a year at BYU-Idaho. He planned to stay on as a teacher and applied for a full-time position but became interested in a research fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution focused on crinoid fossils.

When Gahn was offered the teaching position at BYU-Idaho, he didn’t know if he would be accepted for the fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution and ultimately turned down the teaching position.

“If I didn’t get that, I would have had nothing — no job. No future in some ways,” Gahn said. “It was a really tough thing to do with a lot of uncertainty.”

Still, Gahn knew he had to hold out for the Smithsonian fellowship.

“It was kind of a dream opportunity,” Gahn said. “If I had to turn it down, I would regret it for the rest of my life. If that door opened and I couldn’t walk through it because of a previous obligation, I would’ve regretted it for the rest of my life. I took a leap of faith and I won.”

Elder David A. Bednar, then president of BYU-Idaho, still decided to hire Gahn without pay, enabling him to work at BYU-I after completing the fellowship.

“It was really a situation of, wow, you can have your cake and eat it too,” Gahn said.

Gahn believes his research with the Smithsonian Institution prepared him to be a better teacher.

“It was a win for me: providing me with additional professional opportunities, a win for the Institution because they were interested in building experience among the faculty and a win for the students because I would come back with experiences to share and the ability to open doors,” Gahn said.

The Smithsonian Institution reinvigorated Gahn’s passion for research. He met energetic and expert researchers and saw the behind the scenes of what he considers to be one of the most important museums in the world.

“It really allowed me to apply my passion to questions I found very interesting and engaging,” Gahn said. “There was a tremendous amount of freedom.”

After three years he returned to BYU-I, despite the opportunity to stay at the Smithsonian Institution because he missed teaching.

“It was a very abrupt change,” Gahn said. “Research is a very solitary endeavor, and I like to share ideas and engage with others. I wanted a mix of research and teaching.”

Gahn has found ways to continue researching at BYU-Idaho. Some of the fossils he is most interested in can be found in the mountains near Rexburg.

“I can keep being a crinoid paleontologist in the backyard of BYU-Idaho,” Gahn said.

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