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?

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Dr. Bonnan is moving East

I wanted to wait until I could make this announcement official.  Now that everything is in place, I can.  Starting this fall semester 2012, I will be a new Associate Professor in the Biology Program at the Richard Stockton College in New Jersey.  I am honored to be stepping into the position previously held by Dr. Roger Wood, a noted turtle paleontologist, and I am thrilled about the new opportunities this position will give me both in teaching and research.  Of course, as a paleontologist it is exciting to be on the East Coast and close to so many major institutions and museums.  I have already received a very warm welcome from the Stockton community, and I am looking forward to working with my new colleagues at Stockton.

This decision, however, means I will be departing my current position as Associate Professor at Western Illinois University in the Department of Biological Sciences.  WIU gave me an opportunity to begin my career fresh out of graduate school in a tenure-track position, and to build both my teaching and research experience.  I will miss many colleagues and friends at WIU, and I have fond memories of overseeing and advising numerous undergraduate and graduate students in scientific research.

To all my former undergraduate and graduate students, you should know that you have helped me become a better teacher, and a professor always learns more from his students than he imparts to them.

In the near future, I will be updating The Evolving Paleontologist to include information about my courses, office hours, and other ways for students at Stockton to reach and interact with me.  I will also continue to post commentary on all-things evolutionary (but especially dinosaur-y … is that a word?) and in my own lab.

I again feel honored and fortunate to have a career that allows me to continue walking alongside sauropod dinosaurs while exploring the bigger picture of vertebrate functional morphology and evolutionary anatomy.