Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences
Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences

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OSU-CHS News > 2016

May 19, 2016

STATE Magazine: Discoveries in the dirt

The Anatomy and Vertebrate Paleontology Track at OSU Center for Health Sciences applies medical knowledge to solve mysteries of the past.

Anne Weil, right, helps a student in the Sam Noble Museum’s ExplorOlogy program at the Homestead site.Anne Weil, right, helps a student in the Sam Noble Museum’s ExplorOlogy program at the Homestead site.

When Ian Browne was hooded by Kent Smith, Ph.D., at the 2015 Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences commencement ceremony, he became the first graduate of a new biomedical sciences track in anatomy and vertebrate paleontology at the Tulsa-based academic health center.

“It’s a rigorous program that really gives you a good background and solid foundation in anatomy and vertebrate paleontology,” says Browne, who is now working as a postdoctoral fellow at OSU-CHS in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. “The small size of the campus enables you to really develop good relationships with the faculty and to learn a lot from them.”

OSU’s medical school has joined a growing national trend of hiring paleontologists to teach anatomy courses to medical students. The symbiotic relationship enables these faculty members to pursue research opportunities in the competitive field of paleontology while training the next generation of Oklahoma physicians.

“The strength of our program, in part, stems from our training in anatomy, which provides a niche in academia for paleontologists,” says Smith, associate dean for the Office for the Advancement of American Indians in Medicine and Science and professor of anatomy.

While the number of jobs at museums, universities and in field research is growing, the competition for these positions and for funding remains competitive. Medical school positions are offering new job opportunities for vertebrate paleontologists that also afford them time to complete research.

“This field attracts many charismatic personalities and brilliant student scholars,” says Anne Weil, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy. “As a result, the competition for positions and funding sources is extremely fierce, but working in vertebrate paleontology is really a lot of fun.”

The anatomy and vertebrate paleontology curriculum places an emphasis on biomedical sciences. It was originally developed by Smith and Weil, but has been undergoing changes to reflect the research expertise of new faculty members Holly Ballard, Ph.D., and Paul Gignac, Ph.D.

“We put together a relevant set of courses for students who want to go into vertebrate paleontology, but with this additional biomedical component,” says Weil. “Our graduates are qualified to teach anatomy in medical schools, which is an important tool for paleontologists who use comparative anatomy in their research.”

Smith joined the anatomy faculty at OSU-CHS in 2003 after being recruited by then-department chair Kirby Jarolim, Ph.D. In the new position, Smith was able to embrace his two great passions: teaching and paleontology.

“As I began working in this program, I realized that an anatomy and vertebrate paleontology track is something that could be successful as part of the Center for Health Sciences,” says Smith. “The administration really embraced that concept and enabled the growth of this track through the hiring of Dr. Weil.”

In 2005, Smith recruited Weil to join the anatomy faculty at OSU-CHS with the promise of working together to develop the new biomedical sciences track in vertebrate paleontology. Weil, an internationally recognized expert on early mammals, embraced the vision for the program and moved to Oklahoma to begin the work.

“I had never considered Oklahoma as a possible home before meeting with Dr. Smith,” says Weil. “Since I came to OSU-CHS, I believe we have been extraordinarily successful in building a program with a solid foundation that will flourish in the future.”

The track within the biomedical sciences graduate program began accepting students doing both master’s and doctoral work. Browne was the first student to enroll in the program after finishing a master’s program in geology from the University of California at Riverside and working at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

“My intent was to always go back to school for a doctorate. I had Ph.D. project in mind working in the geologic formation I had worked on for my thesis project,” says Browne. “I sent out a general inquiry to a vertebrate paleontology listserv. Dr. Weil saw it and put me in touch with Dr. Smith who had wanted to work in that same geologic formation for a long time. It was really through the faculty recruitment efforts that I was first made aware of the program at OSU.”

After Jarolim retired in 2012, Smith and Weil recruited two new faculty members to join the department: Ballard, an expert in osteohistology (the study of the microscopic structure of bones), and Gignac, an evolutionary biomechanist with expertise in the bite force of early reptiles.

“The addition of these new internationally recognized faculty really raised the profile of the school. They are shooting stars in the field,” says Weil. “They are helping us further develop our program and gain national funding for research from the National Science Foundation.”

Since joining the faculty at OSU-CHS, Gignac has received three NSF grants for several projects, including an effort to get more American Indian students involved with a national science organization. Ballard, who studied with renowned paleontologist Jack Horner (the inspiration for Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park) has published the largest dinosaur growth study on the life of the Maiasaura peeblesorum, also known as the “good mother lizard.” Her work has also been featured in a National Geographic documentary.

Research and outreach are key components of the Anatomy and Vertebrate Paleontology track at OSU-CHS. The track offers several outreach programs for students, including Native Explorers, a summer scientific and cultural expedition for American Indian college students funded primarily by the Chickasaw and Cherokee Nations. Other science, technology, engineering and math initiatives for Native youth are being funded through a USDA-NYCP grant to Smith.

“As a land-grant university, it is part of our mission to spread knowledge,” says Weil, who also serves as the senior scientist directing activities at the Homestead Site in western Oklahoma. “Many of our programs are providing places for people to come and learn about pre-historic life.”

The Homestead Site is owned by Reggie Whitten, who co-founded the Native Explorers Foundation with Smith, and supports other initiatives at OSU-CHS.

Under the coordination of Lindsey Yann, Ph.D., OSU-CHS hosts an active Vertebrate Paleontology Program where children and adults assist faculty, staff and graduate students with paleontological research. Volunteer activities include recovering bones and teeth from small animals (lizards, gophers, fish and mice) from screen-washed sand and gravel and molding and casting small teeth for imaging by a scanning electron microscope.

During the next five years, the anatomy and paleontology faculty hope to continue growing the vertebrate paleontology track. The faculty are working to secure funding for graduate student stipends to help recruit students and are developing new coursework to further enhance the graduate program.

“I’m very excited about the future of the program and for the faculty in our program,” Smith says. “Paleontology is a scientific discipline that most people are fascinated with. It’s extremely exciting to discover a fossil, take it back to the lab, study it and realize that nobody has ever seen this animal before. Adventure and discovery are what make this program so exciting for many people.”

To learn more about the Vertebrate Paleontology Volunteer Program at OSU-CHS and to sign up, visit the program website.

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