3 Questions: Lawrence Witmer
The Ohio University professor discusses how studying the biological structures of modern animals helps him interpret the evolution of dinosaurs.
Lawrence Witmer loves his job. After all, when he isn’t studying the frozen carcass of an 8-foot-long crocodile, he gets to hang out with dinosaur fossils. As Ohio University’s professor of anatomy and Chang Ying-Chien professor of paleontology at the college’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, Witmer’s research has provided breakthroughs in the evolutionary history of dinosaurs.
“I call dinosaurs a gateway drug,” he quips. “Kids and adults are really interested in them, and they provide us with a vehicle to talk about science.”
Working with the OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital in Athens, Witmer studies the structure of animals to interpret the evolutionary history of dinosaurs through the use of CT scans and 3D-visualization software. Witmer, whose work was featured in the October 2020 issue of National Geographic, talks with us about his love of dinosaurs, the use of medical and engineering research techniques and the true importance of dinosaur studies.
How did you first become interested in dinosaurs?
I was a little dinosaur kid from upstate New York. At 6 years old, I wanted to have the job that I have now. I first learned about dinosaurs from books, and I had parents who took me to the museums. Dinosaurs piqued my interest in the natural world. Not everybody can live out their childhood dream. Now, I try to open those doors for others.
Due to an increase in new fossil finds, researchers have more opportunities to study how dinosaurs lived and evolved. How has technology aided your research?
We get lots of fossils and carcasses here. We were one of the first labs to use CT scans. ... When we started, we were just trying to look inside but when you run something through [a scanner] it maps every part of the object and digitizes it. Once it’s in the computer, we can map stresses and strains and simulate air flows using an engineering application.
From cartoons to movies to museums, dinosaurs have always been a part of our culture. Why do dinosaurs really matter?
I once sat next to a biomedical engineer at a conference and he looked at me and said, “I love you guys, you’re like the poets of science. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but we’re so glad that you do it.” Well, there are lots of questions that we have about the evolution of life on our planet, and dinosaurs present the kinds of life we don’t have around today. Dinosaurs can teach us lessons about how biological structures work.
National Geographic subscribers can read about Witmer’s work at nationalgeographic.com.