Academic “evolution”

Recently, one of my former undergraduate honors students, Collin VanBuren, did something remarkable: he not only was accepted into Cambridge University, but was also the recipient of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship!  What is the Gates Cambridge Scholarship?  It is a prestigious award for outstanding applicants from countries outside the U.K. to pursue full-time postgraduate work in any subject available at the university. For Collin VanBuren, this is well-deserved indeed.

Collin, like many of my students, came to me as an eager undergrad with an interest in zoology, and in particular he was interested in marine mammals.  So, I put him to task studying the morphology of the cetacean radius bone (a bone in the forearm) because of my broader interests in forelimb posture among mammals and dinosaurs.  Collin, like many of my students, far exceeded my expectations: he not only collected a lot of data on cetaceans and other mammals, but he desperately wanted to pursue reptile and dinosaur radius morphology.  I warned him it would not be easy and that he was under a short time constraint.  Collin assured me it could be done, and over 400 bones later, he was correct!  He presented his undergraduate work at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (as an oral talk, no less — and it was his first ever SVP presentation!) and he and I are now revising what I expect will be a well-received paper … and very much due to his diligence!

During all of this research, Collin headed the Zoology Club at WIU, he participated on several digs in the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation of Utah with me, other eager students, and the Burpee Museum, and was one of many active members of our Functional Morphology and Evolutionary Anatomy (FMEA) Lab, co-directed by Dr. Jess White.  Collin then was accepted into Dr. David Evans’s M.S. program at the University of Toronto, where he has continued to excel, before this latest award.

Seeing my former WIU students succeed always makes me smile and remember the many fun dissections, interesting discussions, and sense of a cohort we often had.  I am singling out Collin now, of course, but I could and will write updates about my other students, including among many others: Ashley Morhardt, now a successful Ph.D. student in Dr. Larry Witmer’s lab; Hillary Parks, who successfully defended her M.S. at WIU and went on to be a key member of the Burpee Museum; Kristy Tuttle who did an M.S. at WIU on rodents and will now be working with Dr. Virginia Naples at Northern Illinois University on her Ph.D.; Simon Masters, one of my first M.S. students at WIU, who is currently one of the best dinosaur paleontology field hands out there; Katie Reiss who did an excellent undergraduate project on shark tail morphology and has gone on to earn her M.S. in shark toxicology; and many more I could and need to mention in the near future.

It is often remarked in academic circles that we have our own academic family as well as our biological one.  In other words, we are “descendants” of our advisors, who are descendants of theirs, and so on, and we can trace back our scientific roots, if you like.  For me, my academic “ancestor” is J. Michael Parrish, and I believe that his encouragement and support of me during my formative years as a scientist have now been passed to another generation. As a scientist or other academic, your students are your “children,” and I hope that, like a “parent,” these students succeed and stand on their own two feet.  I cannot take but a shred of credit for them, because they were all self-motivated, but I am glad to know them and especially glad to hear when they do well.

Again, many congratulations to Collin, and, as I begin to advise a new and eager crop of students here at Stockton, I hope they get to meet and be inspired by my former WIU students.  Would that be cross-pollination or interbreeding?