College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA
Interview conducted March, 2008
Dr. Rowan Lockwood is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geology at the College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA. She holds Bachelor's degrees in both Biology and Organismal Biology from Yale, where she graduated cum laude, and was a Marshall Scholar at the University of Bristol, UK, where she received her Master's degree. She earned her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Chicago. Dr. Lockwood is the founder and former director of Science and Math Achiever Teams (SMArT), a mentoring program that motivates inner-city children in math and science by pairing them with university science majors to design and carry out a one-semester research project. She is Program Coordinator (2007 to present) for the Paleontological Society and is currently (2007–2008) a Sabbatical Fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, CA.
Q: Dr. Lockwood, given the many problems modern society faces, is paleontology really relevant? Is the study of fossils all that important?
Rowan Lockwood with a giant clam on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
A: Yes, the study of fossils is highly relevant in today's world, for a few different reasons. First, the fossil record provides us with an unparalleled window into the past. It lets us see how biodiversity has responded to climate change and extinction through time, which helps us to predict how life will respond to human-driven climate change and extinction in the future. Second, fossils provide us with hands-on, concrete evidence of evolution. At a time when the teaching of evolution is controversial, the fossil record provides us with (literally) millions of years and thousands of examples of evolutionary transitions. Finally, fossils are fun and fascinating! The vast majority of kids are interested in fossils, especially dinosaurs, so paleontology is a great way to snag public interest in, and to promote understanding of, science.
Q: How did you become interested in science and, in particular, in paleontology?
A: I was fascinated by fossils when I was young, but had lost interest in them by the time I reached middle school. By high school, I had begun to truly loathe science. During my sophomore year, my physics teacher tracked me into the "slow" class and when I protested, he told me "you're a girl and you're not going into science, so why should you care?" Not a particularly motivating experience.
When I discovered that I needed to participate in a science project before graduating from high school, I tried to choose a topic that was as close to my favorite subject, history, as possible. I was perusing articles in Discover magazine for possible topics and ran across an article by Dr. David Unwin on pterosaur (e.g., pterodactyl) locomotion. In this article, he discussed the evidence that pterosaurs were quadrupedal (e.g., walked on four legs) and that their locomotion on land was limited. This seemed non-intuitive to me, given that these animals had survived for millions of years in the presence of some seriously toothy predators, and I started researching it further. I stumbled across several research papers by Dr. Kevin Padian, an expert on pterosaurs at the University of California at Berkeley. I called him, he encouraged me to follow up on my interest, and I ended up pursuing an independent research project on take-off in pterosaurs with Kevin and Dr. Virginia Naples at Northern Illinois University. The project snowballed and I was given the opportunity to present a talk at a Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference and to pursue an internship at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. This project was so much more exciting than the science I was learning from textbooks and in the classroom. It was much more hands-on and creative. I honestly believe that if other kids had the opportunity to try hands-on research science at a younger age, we wouldn't have a problem recruiting scientists in this country.
Rowan Lockwood (left) and Natasha Hunter (W&M 2006) sorting shell samples from the Chesapeake Bay under the microscope.
Q: I couldn't agree with you more. And, since we're talking about the excitement of science, what is the most exciting thing that has happened to you as a paleontologist?
A: As a junior in college, I had the opportunity to study at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya. On one particularly hot, dry day, I begged my way onto a prospecting crew with a handful of "hominid hunters." We spent the day wandering the baked, scorched landscape around Lake Turkana, literally tripping over hundreds of three-million-year-old fossils of antelope, pigs, and zebra. One of the members of the field crew insisted that we weren't leaving until we found a hominid (e.g., ancient human) fossil. Towards the end of the day, we still hadn't found any primate fossils, let alone any hominid material. Just then, something small and glossy caught my eye, and when I reached down to pick it up, I realized it was a fossil primate tooth! Certainly not a ground-breaking discovery, but for me, standing out in the middle of nowhere in Africa, the cradle of mankind, it was unforgettable. I still can't believe I get paid to do this!
Q: What is your daily life like as a paleontologist and college professor?
A: I love my job. It gives me the opportunity to combine teaching, research, outreach, writing, and fieldwork. Most semesters, I teach one large introductory geology course plus one smaller course on paleontology, dinosaurs, or extinction. Most of my day is spent preparing for class, lecturing, meeting with students, grading, mentoring research assistants, and (occasionally) doing my own research. I spend a lot of weekends in the field, either leading field trips or working with research students. The Coastal Plain of Virginia is jam-packed with fossil localities, mostly nine to three million years old, that are chock-full of shells, whale bone, and shark teeth, so fieldwork is very convenient!
I also have lots of opportunity to interact with the public — identifying fossils for locals, giving advice on where to dig for fossils, leading field trips for school groups, and giving public talks on the K/T mass extinction (i.e., the event that included the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs).
Erin Fenlon (W&M 2007) and Rowan Lockwood (right) examining shells of
venericard clams. Lockwood is exploring how the evolution of these clams
was affected by global warming and cooling during the early Cenozoic.
Q: You mention the K/T boundary. Is this the topic on which you are doing your research?
A: In part. The overall goal of my research is to understand how extinction and environmental change influence the evolution and ecology of fossil organisms, particularly marine clams. I am currently working on an NSF-funded project to explore how intervals of global warming and cooling affected the evolution of venericard clams after the K/T mass extinction, with collaborators from Syracuse University and the Paleontological Research Institute. Another ongoing project focuses on the link between rarity and extinction in the fossil record, determining what aspects of rarity predict whether a species will go extinct — abundance, geographic range, and/or ecological breadth. I am also in the process of finishing up a project on the preservation and historical ecology of subfossil mollusks (i.e., shellfish less than 10,000 years old) from the Chesapeake Bay, in collaboration with researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Chesapeake Bay Program. I'm interested in determining whether the past history of the Bay can provide us with a baseline for ecological restoration. Finally, I recently finished a project looking at the effects of the K/T mass extinction on evolutionary trends and burrowing ecology in veneroid clams, which took me all around the world exploring museum collections.
Q: s there a particular project you would just love to do?
A: Well, if I had unlimited time and money, I would love to launch a full-scale project drilling and mapping buried oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay. The shells preserved in these buried reefs provide thousands of years of information on oyster populations and responses to climate and sea level change. Unfortunately, drilling these reefs is very expensive, and, from a technological standpoint, extremely difficult.
Q: What draws you to study mass extinctions?
A: My students tease me that I'm obsessed with death and destruction, but I'm hoping that by studying how biodiversity responds to extinction and climate change in the fossil record, we can begin to predict the effects of the modern biodiversity and climate crises. I want to understand how life bounces back from such catastrophic declines in diversity and the easiest way to do this is to study the 3.7 billion years of extinction preserved in the fossil record.
Q: What has convinced you that we are experiencing a global warming crisis today?
A: Some of my students are global warming skeptics. When I lecture on global climate change, I often share a personal story. My father, a Reagan conservative, used to tease me about global warming. One evening, he happened to catch a NOVA program on the effects of global warming on bird migration. My parents are avid bird watchers, and my father realized he could actually see the evidence for climate change as he watched different species of birds coming and going in his own backyard. He was so flabbergasted that he called me at midnight to tell me that he was finally convinced. I tell my students that they can actually see some of the effects of global warming in their own daily lives.
My own take on global climate change is that Earth is going to be fine in 10–20 million years. We geologists tend to think on ridiculously long timescales. But what about in the shorter term? What about us? Societies and cultures are historically very adaptable, but we have become more and more set in our ways, depending on very specific agricultural methods, crops, pest control, disease prevention, and so forth. We are only now starting to realize how warming will affect our daily lives, from the food we eat, to the weather we experience, to our health.
Rowan Lockwood (center) and W&M students checking out Devonian fossils weathering out of a big boulder at Bullpasture Mountain in Virginia. The boulder was chock-full of brachiopods, bryozoans, and crinoids.
Q: You certainly lead a busy life. How do you balance it all?
A: Most professors don't work just weekdays or 9 to 5. We work much longer hours and that work doesn't end when the school year ends! We spend our summers working frantically on our research and mentoring lots of research students. You have to love what you do and you have to fit work around other important aspects of life, such as family. I had a baby just two months after officially receiving tenure. Now that was a busy time! This year, I was awarded a sabbatical fellowship from the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), which is a National Science Foundation funded think-tank for ecology. This fellowship has given me the opportunity to focus 100% on my research and work closely with research collaborators for the year.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Is there anything else you would like people to know about you or about paleontology?
A: If you are interested in paleontology, go for it! Take advantage of opportunities to pursue research at local museums and universities. Get out in the field and collect fossils. Major in either geology or biology, and take as many quantitative courses as you can. Also be sure to have a back-up plan, just in case paleontology doesn't work out. There are lots of potential careers out there for paleontologists, but you have to be willing to put in lots of time and energy!
One last note about how the public understands science and the media portrays it. We live in a very "black and white" world of media coverage and people often assume that scientific research is clear-cut. Science really doesn't work that way; the results are rarely "100% certain." When you read or see something in the media that you don't understand, go to the science itself. Read the scientific article yourself. Become informed before you jump to conclusions and use science to help you make up your own mind!