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About the Society Awards Past Award Winners 2017 Awardees 2017 (Albert E. Wood Award) - Spencer M. Hellert

Spencer Hellert is originally from Dubuque, Iowa, where she developed a love of fossils while collecting them from the creek beds on the farm where she grew up. As do many scientists, she spent much of her time outdoors and decided from an early age that she wanted to be a paleontologist. She double-majored in Geology and Biology at Augustana College. There she worked with Drs. Bill Hammer and Nathan Smith on Antarctic dinosaurs during a two-year internship for the Transantarctic Vertebrate Paleontology Project, which then evolved into her senior research project.

After developing a fascination with evolutionary-developmental biology, she then completed her master’s degree at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with Drs. Jon Marcot and Karen Sears. Her thesis was on trait integration in the limbs of theropod dinosaurs and birds, as well as trait integration during the development of modern birds. She is now a Ph.D. candidate in the Geology Department at Indiana University with Dr. David Polly. She is working with paleontologists and evolutionary developmental biologists in both the Geology and Biology Departments to study the developmental, genetic, and bio-mechanical factors underlying trait integration and modularity, and how trait integration influences the effect selection has on anatomical form. She hopes her research will deepen our collective understanding of how trait integration shapes phenotypic evolution by studying the evolution of integration and modularity across important transitions in locomotion and across species and sexes implicated in sexual dimorphism.

Her thesis involves analyzing trait modularity associated with the tail, hind limb, and forelimb locomotor “modules” in the transition to flight from theropod dinosaurs to birds. A second chapter studies the underlying factors behind the modular structure of traits in the limbs of flying and flightless birds. Finally, genetic manipulation can greatly help to fully understand the factors that underlie trait modularity and evolutionary constraint. Since genetic manipulation is either impractical or impossible on dinosaurs and birds, her third chapter involves an experimental system which provides an opportunity to study modularity and evolution with greater control on causal factors. This experimental system is the use of horned beetles.

Spencer loves teaching children and young adults (kindergarteners to undergrads) about the wonders of evolution, biology, and the geologic record. She has taught after-school geology programs to grade-schoolers, has gotten hundreds of children, parents, and teachers to make a face when they realize they’re holding coprolites, and has guided many undergraduates through the confusion of lizard vs. bird-hipped dinosaurs. She is passionate about her research and the discoveries it enables, and is equally passionate about instilling a love of science and a sense of awe for the wonders of nature now and throughout evolutionary history.