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2011 Romer Prize Recipient

Frank Varriale

 

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What better place to fall in love with natural history than a childhood spent in the deciduous forests of Saratoga County, New York, and surrounding Adirondack Park. Like many in the field, my fascination with vertebrate paleontology began in early childhood, my parents nurturing a love for dinosaurs by reading to me from a myriad of books on the subject and taking me to visit the titans in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs at the Yale Peabody Museum.

My primary and secondary education was gained in the Ballston Spa (NY) school system, where I was privileged to have instructors in both the arts and sciences who further nurtured my passion for science. At this time I discovered my first fossils of brachiopods and crinoids in an outcrop of the Trenton Group, coincidentally across the street from my old elementary school in Rock City Falls, NY. During junior high I also produced a science fair project based on David Weishampel’s model for vocalization in the hadrosaur Parasaurolophus. Taking 4th place in the competition, it was these events that solidified vertebrate paleontology as a professional goal.  

After high school, I enrolled in the biology program at the State University of New York at Oswego. There I was fortunate to meet behavioral ecologist Peter G. Weber and mammalogist J. Alden Lackey, who both encouraged my professional goals through numerous extracurricular discussions. Through their support I excelled, receiving my BSc in Zoology and the department’s Zoology Student Award in 1997.

Following Oswego, I enrolled in the MSc in Paleontology offered by the Geology Department at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. It was there that I gained an outstanding education in sedimentary geology. Taking a sidetrack from vertebrate paleontology, I examined the ammonite biostratigraphy of the Cenomanian to Santonian rocks on the San Cristobal Ranch near Galisteo, NM. This thesis research, conducted under the excellent advisement of structural geologist Alvis L. Lisenbee, assisted the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources in producing more accurate geologic maps of the area.

Despite working on ammonites, my research interests have always remained with the paleobiology of dinosaurs. Acceptance to the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at Johns Hopkins University in 2002 furthered the pursuit of these objectives under the mentorship of David B. Weishampel. While there I began exploratory work on ceratopsian dental microwear with the guidance of Mark F. Teaford. It was this pilot work that formed the foundation for my doctoral research, driving the realization that broad clade level sampling of dental microwear in ceratopsians could be a powerful tool for answering questions concerning the evolution of jaw action in theses dinosaurs.

Receiving the Romer Prize for my dissertation research is an especially heartwarming experience, and I am deeply honored for the recognition. Throughout my academic career I have struggled with dyslexia and dyscalculia. To be awarded the Romer Prize is a vindication, and should serve as inspiration for those who are born with a “learning disability”, that such labels are erroneous and that sheer determination to achieve a dream can overcome human variation in brain organization. Finally, I must also thank the Jurassic Foundation, the Geological Society of America, Sigma Xi, and the Paleontological Society for their generous support.  

Photo courtesy of Frank Varriale.