At the beginning of the month there were a rash of blogs posting about Women’s History Month. IA decided to honor the month as it ends as a “bookend” and a last reminder this month of women’s accomplishments.
The woman I’d like to focus on is a scientist named Mary Schweitzer.
Schweitzer is an Associate Professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. She earned her B.A. degree in 1977, married, had children and eventually completed her PhD in 1995 (a “roundabout” career path, according to the author of the Smithsonian piece quoted below).
One of her research/teaching areas of interest is in the area of molecular paleontology, which focuses on the “preservation and detection of original molecular fragment in well preserved fossil specimens.”
What is her claim to fame? In 2005 she made headlines by reporting in Science her discovery of soft tissue…in the bones of a 68-million-year old T. Rex. Here’s the abstract:
Science 3 June 2005:
Vol. 308. no. 5727, pp. 1456 – 1460
Gender-Specific Reproductive Tissue in Ratites and Tyrannosaurus rex
Mary H. Schweitzer,1,2,3* Jennifer L. Wittmeyer,1 John R. Horner3 Unambiguous indicators of gender in dinosaurs are usually lost during fossilization, along with other aspects of soft tissue anatomy. We report the presence of endosteally derived bone tissues lining the interior marrow cavities of portions of Tyrannosaurus rex (Museum of the Rockies specimen number 1125) hindlimb elements, and we hypothesize that these tissues are homologous to specialized avian tissues known as medullary bone. Because medullary bone is unique to female birds, its discovery in extinct dinosaurs solidifies the link between dinosaurs and birds, suggests similar reproductive strategies, and provides an objective means of gender differentiation in dinosaurs.
(By the way, that mention of medullary bone is important because it enabled Schweitzer to identify the specimen, originally thought to be male, as actually being a pregnant female T. Rex…)
In 2006, the Smithsonian Magazine described Schweitzer’s discovery this way (my bolding):
Probing a 68-million-year-old T. rex, Mary Schweitzer stumbled upon astonishing signs of life that may radically change our view of the beasts that once ruled the earth
- By Helen Fields
- Smithsonian magazine, May 2006
Neatly dressed in blue Capri pants and a sleeveless top, long hair flowing over her bare shoulders, Mary Schweitzer sits at a microscope in a dim lab, her face lit only by a glowing computer screen showing a network of thin, branching vessels. That’s right, blood vessels. From a dinosaur. “Ho-ho-ho, I am excite-e-e-e-d,” she chuckles. “I am, like, really excited.”
It was big news indeed last year when Schweitzer announced she had discovered blood vessels and structures that looked like whole cells inside that T. rex bone—the first observation of its kind. The finding amazed colleagues, who had never imagined that even a trace of still-soft dinosaur tissue could survive. After all, as any textbook will tell you, when an animal dies, soft tissues such as blood vessels, muscle and skin decay and disappear over time, while hard tissues like bone may gradually acquire minerals from the environment and become fossils. Schweitzer, one of the first scientists to use the tools of modern cell biology to study dinosaurs, has upended the conventional wisdom by showing that some rock-hard fossils tens of millions of years old may have remnants of soft tissues hidden away in their interiors. “The reason it hasn’t been discovered before is no right-thinking paleontologist would do what Mary did with her specimens. We don’t go to all this effort to dig this stuff out of the ground to then destroy it in acid,” says dinosaur paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr., of the University of Maryland. “It’s great science.” The observations could shed new light on how dinosaurs evolved and how their muscles and blood vessels worked. And the new findings might help settle a long-running debate about whether dinosaurs were warmblooded, coldblooded—or both.
It didn’t take long for creationists to take aim at Schweitzer. Ironically, Schweitzer is an evangelical Christian. From the Smithsonian article:
Meanwhile, Schweitzer’s research has been hijacked by “young earth” creationists, who insist that dinosaur soft tissue couldn’t possibly survive millions of years. They claim her discoveries support their belief, based on their interpretation of Genesis, that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Of course, it’s not unusual for a paleontologist to differ with creationists. But when creationists misrepresent Schweitzer’s data, she takes it personally: she describes herself as “a complete and total Christian.” On a shelf in her office is a plaque bearing an Old Testament verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future
In a 2007 interview for PBS in conjunction a NOVA segment about her discovery, Schweitzer answered viewer questions and had this to say:
Q: Many creationists claim that the Earth is much younger than the evolutionists claim. Is there any possibility that your discoveries should make experts on both sides of the argument reevaluate the methods of established dating used in the field?
Carl Baker, Billings, Montana
A: Actually, my work doesn’t say anything at all about the age of the Earth. As a scientist I can only speak to the data that exist. Having reviewed a great deal of data from many different disciplines, I see no reason at all to doubt the general scientific consensus that the Earth is about five or six billion years old. We deal with testable hypotheses in science, and many of the arguments made for a young Earth are not testable, nor is there any valid data to support a young Earth that stands up to peer review or scientific scrutiny. However, the fields of geology, nuclear physics, astronomy, paleontology, genetics, and evolutionary biology all speak to an ancient Earth. Our discoveries may make people reevaluate the longevity of molecules and the presumed pathways of molecular degradation, but they do not really deal at all with the age of the Earth.
So, let’s celebrate Dr. Mary Schweitzer and her work and her ability to separate her faith from her science. And let’s also celebrate her willingness to breaking out of what the “conventional wisdom” mold to do what “no right-thinking paleontogist” would do.
Dr. Mary Schweitzer–an inspiration for us all!
More on Mary Schweitzer and the religious controversy that swirled around her in this long 2006 piece by Barry Yeoman.
An example of the types of attacks on Schweitzer’s work (Check out the left sidebar categories) … http://stupiddinosaurlies.org/
Filed under: Current Politics | Tagged: "young earth" creationists, avian tissues, Barry Yeoman, birds, bone tissue in fossil bones, creationists, dinosaur fossils, Dr. Mary Schweitzer, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, evangelical Christitans, gender differentiation in dinosaurs, Helen Fields, medullary bone, modern cell biology, molecular palentology, North Carolina State University's Department of Marine, NOVA, PBS, Science, Smithsonian Magazine, soft tissue in fossil dinosaur bones, Stupiddinosaurlies.org, T. Rex, Thomas Holtz Jr of the University of Maryland, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Women's History Month | 13 Comments »