SVP Dawson Award Interview: Megan Whitney

Following the annual meeting, we're highlighting the student and early career award winners from the society. Today we talk with Megan Whitney (University of Washington; Twitter feed here), recipient of the Dawson Award for her project, “The Evolution of Mammalian Dentition: Insights from Fossil Synapsid Histology.”


Briefly, what is your academic background up to this point? How did you get interested in paleontology?

I was a biology major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was interested in anatomy because of amazing class I took in high school, but wasn’t sure what kind of career I wanted or could have in anatomy. I started working for my evolution professor, Kristi Curry Rogers, to see what research in anatomy was like, and although I had no intention of becoming a paleontologist like her, I was hooked! The year after I graduated, I worked for Kristi’s histology lab and started working with Christian Sidor at the University of Washington in 2014, where I am now a fourth year Ph.D. candidate.

What about the evolution of mammalian dentitions interests you?
At the broadest level, I’m interested in how traits change in deep time and what that can tell us about the selective pressures at play. The fossil synapsid lineage serves as an exceptional study system for these questions, because they underwent a step-wise acquisition of mammal-like traits. What I find especially interesting about dentitions is that they don’t always follow this step-wise trend that we see in the rest of synapsid anatomy. This suggests that there’s something else besides mammal relatedness that is associated with the evolution of what we consider mammal-like dental traits.

How are you using histology to study tooth evolution? What can it show that other techniques can't?
I am using histology to study character states that are otherwise difficult to study by looking at the anatomy of the fossils. For instance, the tissues used to anchor a tooth into the socket vary, and it is impossible to truly known what kind of tissues a fossil animal used without taking a look inside at the microstructure of that attachment point. Although the external morphology can tell us a lot about these animals, the details inside bones and teeth capture a lot of critical information that isn’t always available by looking at the anatomy.

How will this award help you accomplish your research?
This award will fund the major data collection component of my project, which includes making thin sections and micro-CT scans. It’s not flashy, but supplies and time on a scanner are expensive and impossible to utilize without awards like this one!

Thank you, Megan, and good luck on your research!
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