Lawrence M. Witmer, PhD
Professor of Anatomy
Chang Ying-Chien Professor of Paleontology
OU Presidential Research Scholar 2004-2009

Dept. of Biomedical Sciences
Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine
Life Science Building, Rm 123
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio 45701 USA

Email: witmerL@ohio.edu

 

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Biographical Narrative
 
Preface.—The purpose of this narrative is to describe my path to academia.  Its intent is ostensibly to provide background for prospective students and my professional friends and colleagues, and to acknowledge those people and events that have influenced my professional development.  But beyond that, as my scientific mission has been to “flesh out” animals of the past, so do I here seek to flesh out my own past.  Ultimately, it’s been fun to reflect on my own evolutionary history for once and to assemble these thoughts.
The early years.—I was born into a loving home in Rochester, New York, in the late 1950’s, where, as the youngest of four children and only boy, I probably was indulged more than was healthy (perhaps as amply attested by the indulgence of this narrative).  Nevertheless, I had a happy and healthy middle-class suburban upbringing.  Like many scientists of all stripes (and folks in general), my first exposure to science was through the world of dinosaurs.  Unlike many scientists, my passion for dinosaurs and their kin never waned.  A very important early influence was the traveling exhibit of life-size dinosaur reconstructions put on by the Sinclair Oil Company (originally part of the World’s Fair).  Likewise, the books of Edwin H. Colbert—Men and Dinosaurs, The Age of Reptiles, etc.—were books I read over and over again.  I recently found my original copy of Roy Chapman Andrews’ All About Dinosaurs, the classic account of the Central Asiatic Expeditions; not only was it well-thumbed but (I shouldn’t admit it) had highlighting and marginal notes.  Throughout my childhood, I studied other areas of science (how could a child not have been captivated by the drama of the Gemini and Apollo missions?) and even branched out into comparative literature, but the evolutionary history of life on Earth was a consistent draw. 

1964: Ruthie, Theresa, Larry, & Deanna Witmer (72978 bytes)
1966: Sinclair Oil dinosaur exhibit (42592 bytes)

1975: Rush-Henrietta Comets QB.jpg (29446 bytes) Of course, as adolescence advanced, my interests strayed to sports, cars, and girls—although I have to admit that I did better in the first two than the third (I lettered in football, basketball, track, and tennis, and my 1969 burgundy Firebird convertible will never be matched).  Nevertheless, I managed to maintain sufficient academic focus to graduate from James E. Sperry High School as salutatorian in 1977.  I need to acknowledge the importance of my high school Earth Sciences teacher—one of those unsung but pivotal individuals one encounters in public school: Don Shultz cultivated my interests in paleontology and introduced me to the joys of amateur fossil collecting.  Mr. Shultz would routinely pull a fossil from his pocket and offer that “If I could identify it, I could have it,” where after I would run to technical sources and discover the name of the beast. 
Higher education.—In the fall of 1977 I entered Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  I started out as a Biology/Geology double major, but soon realized that these majors were in different colleges, each of which had formidable requirements.  Always (and still) a biologist at heart, I settled on biology.  Nevertheless, I still took all the “soft rock” courses in the geology department, and John Cisne (Cornell’s invertebrate paleontologist) was a big influence, as was paleobotanist Karl Niklas.  Without question, the most important course I took at Cornell, was Mammalogy, and not because of the course content, but because it was there that I met Patty Morris, the love of my life.  “Hey, how ‘bout those bats?” Not the smoothest pick-up line, but those were my first words to Patty outside of class, in reference to the live bats exhibited in that morning’s class.  It must have worked because we’re still together!  My Cornell years involved other pursuits, including Frisbee, the Grateful Dead, and a series of bands in which I was lead guitar and vocalist.  One of these bands was a blues band that took the name of a Bill Stout book, All New Dinosaurs, that happened to be sitting on my coffee table after a rehearsal; the name seemed apt since we were putting a new spin on old blues tunes that most folks thought were long extinct.  Patty and I were married in 1982 just after graduation, and we remained the next year in Ithaca, just hanging out and having fun.

1986: Patty, Larry, & Crossroads (77851 bytes)
1980: band poster (93208 bytes)

1987: KU Division of Vertebrate Paleontology (89470 bytes)In 1983 I started a masters degree program at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, under the direction of Larry Martin.  KU was in something of a graduate school “golden age” at the time, and I hesitate to list for fear of omission the many now renowned people I associated with there in both VP, Herpetology, and elsewhere.  It was an exciting time, and much of my present philosophy and work ethic I owe to the examples posed by those other KU grad students.  I also owe a huge debt to Larry Martin, who got me interested in so many things.  He always encouraged me to look at modern animals along side extinct groups, and this has emerged as my major research paradigm, these nascent ideas later evolving into the extant phylogenetic bracket approach.  And of course it was Larry who introduced me to the previously under-appreciated anatomical system of cephalic pneumaticity, which became my major research focus for a decade and a half.  Although Larry and I are often now pitted as opponents in the fierce debate on avian origins, he has been one of the most important positive influences in my career.  While at KU, I learned a trade (at least that’s how I viewed it then), namely that of teaching human gross anatomy.  I was a teaching assistant for six semesters during my four years at KU.  Despite the wonderful training in comparative biology I was getting at Kansas, I was convinced that it was human anatomy that was going to get me a job.  Thus, when it came time for shopping for a PhD program, I was quite mercenary (and not a little cynical) in seeking only “big-name East Coast schools” where I could enhance my human anatomy teaching credentials.  In retrospect, it worked out well, but as an explicit plan it all seems quite distasteful now.
In 1987, we left Kansas for Baltimore and the doctoral program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  I left with those “credentials” I had sought, but I got so much more along the way.  Hopkins Med School was a world away from the KU Museum.  It is very much a medical environment and located in an often dangerous urban setting.  At the time, the Functional Anatomy and Evolution program was very young and the course offerings consisted primarily of the first-year medical curriculum.  Although this seemed inappropriate to me at first, I quickly saw that this background in medical physiology, histology, molecular biology, and biochemistry greatly enhanced my marketable training, and started me down the road to medical education that I continue today.  But beyond that, it clearly made me a better evolutionary biologist.  It was at Hopkins that I made the seemingly paradoxical observation that many of the most sophisticated and rigorous paleontologists had medical gross anatomy training and were located at med schools, not museums.  Although I was clearly plotting my job-hunting strategy, I gained new perspectives and approaches at Hopkins.  Most influential was my PhD advisor and mentor Dave Weishampel, who, in addition to an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs, is interested in the conceptual basis of his science.  For example, Dave introduced me to the conceptual framework offered by the German school of Constructional Morphology.  He also showed me that dinosaur functional morphology could be scientific, quantitative, and cutting-edge.  In fact, in general I came away from Hopkins with both training in and a stronger appreciation for biomechanics, morphometrics, and quantitative biology.  I was also able to participate in Dave’s field program in the St. Mary River Formation of Montana—two wonderful seasons in the Late Cretaceous.  I would have liked to spend additional seasons, but then, as now, my scientific questions have not been faunistic or requiring paleontological fieldwork.  My trips to Louisiana to work on alligators are more reflective of the kind of field experiences I can justify now.  In general, my five years at Hopkins were a time to crank on publications and my dissertation (I had a fellowship and hence minimal teaching responsibilities), and to plan my future professional course.

1991: Johns Hopkins Functional Anatomy & Evolution (60873 bytes)
1988: Montana field crew (76926 bytes)
 

1995: NYCOM anatomists (68655 bytes)The professional years.—Having spent nine years in graduate school, the thought of additional years of postdoctoral training was not too enticing.  Thus, I directed my efforts at getting a job—an academic, preferably tenure-track, assistant professorship.  Job hunting while finishing one’s doctoral dissertation is not optimal for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that most search committees want to see that that PhD is truly done and in hand.  Consequently, my initial applications were unsuccessful.  As they say, if you can’t be good, be lucky—and I got lucky.  The New York College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYCOM) on Long Island had lost a faculty member at a late date and needed an anatomist.  Fortunately, a colleague from Hopkins, Nikos Solounias, was a new faculty member at NYCOM, and alerted me to the position.  I had the “credentials, ” I had the teaching experience, and I had the inside track (thanks to Nikos), and I got the job.  One little detail: I had to actually finish my dissertation on time.  The transition (mid-August, 1992) was a blur: we moved to Long Island on a Saturday, returned to Baltimore on Sunday, I defended my dissertation on Wednesday, revised it on Thursday, turned it in on Friday, made the final move to Long Island on Sunday, and started work at NYCOM at 9AM Monday morning—oh, and Patty was five-months pregnant!
I spent three very important years at NYCOM—important in that they very much changed my sense of my career.  Although I always regarded my NYCOM position as short-term, I nonetheless embraced the job and became involved and interested in medical education.  At NYCOM I discovered the business of academia.  Being a professor, I found, is much more than research and teaching.  I quickly learned the requisite skills of departmental politics, memo-writing, wrangling about space, staffing, purchasing, and all sorts of other tasks that I never envisioned doing in my ivory tower of Academe.  At NYCOM, I more-or-less grew up, professionally speaking.  Still, there was ample research time, and I was able to crank on various projects for months at a time.  NYCOM is very well positioned geographically, being less than an hour from New York City (and the American  Museum of Natural History where I was made a Research Associate) and is more or less equidistant from Boston and Washington, DC; thus, most of the best natural history collections in North America were within a four-hour radius.  But the real joy of NYCOM was my colleagues, in particular my old friend Nikos and, later, Scott Sampson and Des Maxwell, with all of whom I still work closely.  Scott and Des have both since left NYCOM.  In particular, Scott and I developed a research partnership that will continue to bear fruit well into the foreseeable future.  More importantly perhaps, Scott has become one of my closest friends and most trusted colleagues.
For Patty and me, our Long Island years are especially treasured in that it was on “The Island” that our son Sam was born in 1993.  We loved the beaches, the parks, and the libraries, and we will always have fond memories of taking Sam to those places.  But we never truly felt at home on Long Island, and the cost of living was simply too high for a family living on a college professor’s wages.  Thus, I interviewed for other academic positions every year I was at NYCOM.
2000: OU Functional Morphology Group (109403 bytes)In 1995, I accepted an offer from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM) to join the faculty and become a player in a ground-breaking new curricular track, the PCC (a Patient-Centered Continuum).  The PCC, just a year old when I arrived, is a problem-based learning curriculum revolving around real clinical cases.  My role has been to coordinate the anatomical experiences for the PCC students.  OU-HCOM is one of the most innovative and ambitious places I’ve heard of, let alone worked in.  Consequently, it’s a truly exciting environment, and I’m surrounded by competent and committed people.  Since 1997, I’ve expanded my educational mission out past medical school to the residency years, and I coordinate basic science education for the General Surgery and Pediatric residency programs for the consortium of osteopathic hospitals in the state of Ohio.  This strong emphasis in medical education would seem to contrast sharply with a research program in the evolutionary biology of dinosaurs and other vertebrates…and it does—big time.  My hospital-based medical colleagues have no inkling of my paleontological research unless they happen to see something about me in the newspaper.  Likewise, my scientific colleagues are usually aghast when they hear of the extent of my involvement in medical education.  It somehow works for me.  I’m certainly never bored.
Apart from the challenges and rewards of medical education, I’m part of a thriving program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with a large group of motivated young faculty that are bringing acclaim to themselves, the EEB program, and Ohio University.  In particular, our evolutionary functional morphology group has really gelled in recent years.  The core of this group consists of Audrone Biknevicius (an old friend from Hopkins when we were grad students together), Steve Reilly, Pat O'Connor, Susan Williams, Nancy Stevens, and our collective students.  We have developed a productive synergy borne of frequent and friendly interaction and collaboration.  Graduate students have become a major part of my academic life, and my lab is rarely a quiet place.  The various research projects in the lab have expanded into many fascinating areas involving many different people.  Many days I feel more like a project administrator than a scientist, trying to keep all the varied facets of the larger project supplied, funded, and moving forward.

1999: Mike Papp, Larry, Jayc Sedlmayr (90053 bytes)
1997: Larry & Scott in India (79176 bytes)

1999: With Triceratops at Yale (72165 bytes)Postscript.—When I was six years old I wanted to be a professional paleontologist.  Of course, when I was seven I wanted to be a snowman, but, other than that brief detour, my course has been fairly unwavering.  (Okay, there was that musician thing in college, but that was about as likely as the snowman career.)  I always had a passion for science and found a way to make a living of it.  Some days I think, “What a scam!  They actually pay me to do this stuff!”  Other days, mired in the banality of answering emails and shuffling papers, I look wistfully out to the lab where my students are gleefully lost in the joy of scientific discovery.  I realize that, in a sense, the occasional tedium of academia is the “cost of doing business” for those exciting moments of inspiration and insight.  But, moreover, the other parts of the job carry their own rewards.  In particular, teaching future physicians has emerged as one of the most satisfying parts of my job.  And even the administration and committee work impart a sense of service and of being a part of a larger mission.  Along the road to this professional career, many people have helped me, inspired me, supported me, and set me straight.  Many of them are acknowledged here.  Of these, my parents—Mel and Barbara Witmer—and my wife Patty have been my staunch supporters as well the role models for my professional (and personal) conduct.  To them, and to my son Sam, I dedicate my future career.

1999: Marble, Larry, Patty, Sam, Mel, & Barbara Witmer (67199 bytes)June 1999: Sam & Patty  (47892 bytes)

  Ohio University
Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine
Irvine Hall, Athens, Ohio 45701
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Last updated: 09/28/2014