As Class 9 Biology got underway, world-renowned scientist Dr. Neil Shubin smiled from his spot on the digital checkerboard. “I know it may be odd to do this on Zoom,” said Iris Hood, a member of the Upper School Science Department, “but can you give Dr. Shubin a round of applause? Remember to unmute yourselves first.”
The 33 students – Dr. Hood and Tara Sanfilippo’s combined sections – enthusiastically welcomed Dr. Shubin, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, buzzing with anticipation. Class 9’s current study of genetics was about to expand in electrifying ways!
“We really love science, and we’re thrilled to have you join us today,” exclaimed Dr. Hood, who was first introduced to Dr. Shubin’s work when she was a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. “You’ve really influenced me. It’s like meeting a celebrity.”
To kick things off, Dr. Hood gave an overview of Dr. Shubin’s remarkable career, including his discovery in 2006 of a 375-million-year-old fossil, Tiktaalik roseae, which marked the critical transition between fish and land animals. She also noted that he is the author of two popular books: the best-selling “Your Inner Fish” (2008), which was made into an Emmy Award-winning PBS series, and “The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body” (2013).
“Let’s get started opening up this interactive and engaging discussion in real time,” said Dr. Hood, instructing the class to send the speaker questions through the “chat” module. Then, with a click, Dr. Shubin was “spotlighted,” his head and shoulders set against a virtual background, a beautiful photograph from one of his Arctic excursions.
Although Dr. Shubin could easily fill an entire class period detailing his achievements, he actively involves the students, allowing their questions to steer the conversation. Scanning the submitted queries, he selected the first one, announcing the student’s name before reading her question aloud: “What inspired you to pursue a career in paleontology?”
“When I was in tenth grade, one of my teachers offered an internship to participate in an archeological dig in Philadelphia,” he recalled. Although this expedition focused on artifacts from the Colonial times – not especially interesting to the teenage Dr. Shubin – he told the students that he found the process of digging and discovery exhilarating.
Dr. Shubin went on to take classes in archeology at Columbia University, earning a degree in biology, and then volunteered at the American Museum of Natural History, where he was invited to join expeditions on early mammals. “From then on, I was hooked!” (He also holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in organismal and evolutionary biology from Harvard University.)
Sharing his screen, the speaker showed a slideshow that offered a glimpse into his groundbreaking research on the “reptile to mammal transition,” including images from a dizzying roster of expeditions that transported him to the far-reaches of Canada, Africa, Asia, Greenland and the continental United States.
Dr. Shubin held up a high-resolution replica of the celebrated Tiktaalik roseae fossil that he unearthed in the Canadian Arctic, explaining that this discovery was significant because the fossil represented the earliest appearance of a fish with features of a tetrapod, including arms and legs. “It was an important transition from life in water to life on land,” he said.
Then the scientist returned to the impressive questions, trying his best to answer as many as he could. “Was there a specific moment in your career when you felt the most passion for your job?” one student asked. “I feel it most mornings,” Dr. Shubin remarked without hesitation, adding, “I love being on expeditions. They are puzzles to solve. That’s what’s really exciting to me.”
“Have you ever been scared or in a dangerous situation when you were trying to find fossils?” wondered a second student, prompting Dr. Shubin to recount the time he was stuck in a tiny tent in Antarctica for 13 days while a storm raged outside and describing his frightening encounters with polar bears who roamed through the camps searching for food. “They eat people,” he added.
“What advice would you give to someone who wanted to pursue a career in paleontology?” asked another. “Find ways to volunteer in the field,” Dr. Shubin urged, suggesting the students reach out to teachers or professors about potential research opportunities. “You have the world at your fingertips.”
Dr. Shubin also spoke of emotional and physical resilience during expeditions, the “deeply collaborative” nature of his work, and the devastating impact of climate change, which are starkly illustrated in a collection of his aerial photographs that span 15 years.
Without question, Dr. Shubin’s illuminating presentation greatly enhanced Class 9’s study of genetics and evolution, while giving Dr. Hood and Ms. Sanfilippo’s students the opportunity to spend a virtual morning with this distinguished and accessible scientist.
“I had a fabulous time interacting with your class,” said Dr. Shubin as he prepared to sign off. “Stay healthy everybody!”