Closing Out Women’s History Month With Dr. Mary Schweitzer, Ground-Breaking Molecular Paleontologist, and a Special T. Rex

~~By InsightAnalytical-GRL

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.

Mary Schweitzer

Dr. 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
DOI: 10.1126/science.1112158

Reports
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):

Dinosaur Shocker

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.”

SNIP

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/

Get in the Mood…It’s SPRING!!

~~By American Lassie

SPRING – THE VERNAL EQUINOX
At 7:44 AM EDT today–Friday, March 20th–the sun will be directly over the Earth’s equator, ushering in the Spring season.

After so many long and wearisome months commiserating with family, friends, and other bloggers about this past election cycle and the state of the economy, etc., –just the state of the world in general– today I decided to ditch it all for a few hours, at least, and sit out on the balcony and watch a couple of birds building a nest on a ledge.  Since there were two of them at it, I would imagine they might be house sparrows.  I didn’t try to get close enough to determine markings, but it didn’t matter.  What mattered was the fact that there were other species in our world who don’t know, or don’t care, who is president, who is in his cabinet, how many times he’s on television, or what type fashions his wife wears, or any of the other items the MSM decides to notice on any particular day.  They are only concerned with the renewal of life and a home in which to live it. (Thank goodness they don’t have to worry about a mortgage.) And Providence will more than likely provide their food. (There is a lady in this building who collects stale bread and cake and the like from the other residents (me included) to feed the birds.

But back to the birds building their nest.  They tirelessly fly back and forth to the surrounding ground and back to the ledge with a twig or bit of grass or some such thing, preparing the nest for a new life.

I see small buds on some of the bushes and ornamental trees that will soon be leaves and flowers, and I marvel at the rejuvenation going on about me.  Even the (ugh) insects are beginning to appear.  They too, have a part to play in the scheme of things.

(Picture below courtesy of GRL — an ocotillo budding in southern NM, where Spring seems to come a little earlier…)

Budding Ocotillo

Budding Ocotillo

There is a semi-wooded area behind this building and every day several deer can be seen milling about, sometimes leaping, but usually just ambling around.  I’ve seen as many as five at one time and think to myself, “how carefree they seem, enjoying a daily stroll unaware of the turmoil that is going on around them just a few yards away.”  Back in their wooded area it is like another world.  It’s amazing how little oases like this are still possible with all the building encroachment going on in the area.  I understand that the area behind this building is part of a good- sized estate and the owner is a conservationist, which explains why the wild life is inside the fence.  From one of my windows I can watch them and on the days I’m not lucky enough to catch sight of them I feel I’ve missed one of the best parts of my day.

There are several species of trees back there.  Both evergreen and deciduous, so there is some green all year long.  I’ve misplaced my binoculars, so for the time being I have to be content to watch from a distance, but I’ll replace them so as not to miss the birds back there.

It warms the soul to watch Mother Nature renew the world with the miraculous restoration of plant and animal life.  The pictures GRL has posted the last couple of weeks started me ruminating on this idea, and one thing led to another –Did you ever have a song go around and around in your head and just couldn’t let it go?  The idea of Spring and the renewal of life began this song in my head.  It has a special significance for me.  It’s Cat Steven’s “Morning Has Broken” – music by Cat Stevens with lyrics by Eleanor Farjean.

MORNING HAS BROKEN

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the word.
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Spring in completeness where His feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day.
MUSIC AND VIDEO at the link below
www.allspirit.co.uk/morning.html

***

Vernal Equinox – (Spring Equinox) – “On March 20th, at precisely 7:44 AM EDT, the Sun will cross directly over the Earth’s equator. This moment is known as the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere.  Equinox means “Equal Night” Because the sun is positioned above the Equator, day and night are about equal in length all over the world during the equinox.

Just about every culture known has some way of their own recognizing the Vernal Equinox – Spring.

In Christianity, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. (This year the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox fell on March 10th.)
It is no coincidence that the early Egyptians built the great Sphinx so that it points directly toward the rising sun on the day of the Vernal Equinox. (The Egyptian Pyramids are the only survivals of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.)

The first day of Spring also marks the beginning of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
The Mayans’ celebration uses their ancient knowledge of the Sunbeam “El Castillo, the name of their great pyramid of the Equinox and as the sun sets on its western face, light and dark compliment each other creating a very special pattern of a diamond backed snake descending the pyramid.  This solar magic has always been known as “The Return of the Sun Serpent””
URL www.infoplease.com/spot/riteofspring1.html

Other names for the Spring Equinox are also “Abban Eilir, Eostar, Eostre, Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Festival of Trees, Lady Day, Now Ruz, No Ruz, Ostara, Ostra, Rites of Spring.

To Celtic Druids it is the time when day and night are equal in length .  “In Ireland the best known ancient Irish equinox temple is Knowth—– A second and older one found is Cairn T.  Both Knowth and Cairn T. allow a sunbeam on the morning of the Equinox to enter a passageway to light upon the sacred geometry on a back stone inside the temple.”

Ancient Judaism saw Passover dinner as spring fertility festival.

American Indians honored the Spring Equinox in landscape-sized temples.
“For the Greeks, the God-man of the Spring Equinox was Dionysus — associated with flowering plants and fruitful vines.”

Mesapotamia, Sumeria, Babylonia, Elam (5000 years ago) celebrated the start of their new year at the time of the Spring Equinox.  Zorastrianism was the religion of Ancient Persia until the advent of Islam 1400 years ago.  “NoRuz”, their new day or new year, was calculated on the Spring Equinox
www.druidschool.com/site/1030100/page/765341 -Celtic Druid Spring Equinox

National Agriculture day is also on March 20th. – www.agday.org