Next-generation paleobiologist

Lauren Sallan, SM’09, PhD’12, explains what paleontology can teach us about our world today

by Kate Dohner

Growing up in Chicago, Lauren Sallan was a self-described “dinosaur-obsessed kid” who regularly visited the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium. At age eight, she attended a talk by University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno, PhD.

Many kids go through a dinosaur phase. But Sallan, SM’09, PhD’12, would go on to pursue graduate studies in paleontology at the University. There, she found a deeply intellectual, supportive environment.

“The faculty not only provide you with a broad knowledge base; they encourage you to take ownership of your work and become a leading expert,” Sallan said. “I think that is why paleontology graduates from UChicago are working around the world.”

Today, as the Martin Meyerson Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Sallan pushes her students to identify gaps in knowledge and develop questions that will drive them for the rest of their careers.

“I think of myself as a facilitator in the same way that my advisor, Michael Coates, was for me,” Sallan said. “I try to ask the most cogent questions to help my students rise above the bar.”

In her lab, Sallan seeks to emulate the welcoming environment she found at UChicago and support a healthy work-life balance.

“I think that balance helps improve your work,” Sallan said. “In my experience, you need downtime—time spent with family, traveling, or doing hobbies—to come up with ideas and connections that may not have been apparent otherwise.”

Scientific research is meant to be a social endeavor, which requires constructive feedback and differing viewpoints.

According to Sallan, paleontology can teach us a lot about our world today.

“We often think of biodiversity as static,” Sallan said. “But species go extinct all the time, and it’s not always caused by humans. Species might end up in a habitat that’s not sustainable or get infected by a random virus.”

Sallan’s work can help us predict which species are most threatened, understand their significance, and learn how to best direct our efforts based on that information.

“We can ask questions, such as: Does this kind of animal evolve repeatedly? Will something like it come back if it is eliminated?” Sallan explained.

For example, she notes that “polar bears” probably evolved from other bears multiple times over various ice ages and are likely to appear again, even if current polar bears go extinct. By contrast, lungfishes, which have had low diversity for hundreds of millions of years and are only distantly related to other fishes, are unlikely to come back.

With her experience as a TED Senior Fellow, Sallan is a master of communicating her work to the general public. Her TED Talks on surviving mass extinction, paleontology, and fish form have received over three million views.

“Going through that high-pressure experience is amazing because it teaches you how to deliver your ideas in their most distilled form,” Sallan said.

Sallan’s advice for other scientists who seek to communicate their work in a more accessible way?

“Remember what drew you to the field in the first place, and then try out different approaches of explaining concepts to non-academics,” she said. “Until your audience understands the basics, they cannot understand the nuance.”

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