By Marcia Bosscher

The Unlikely Paleontologist: An Interview with Mary Schweitzer (Part 2)


I heard Mary Schweitzer describe her ground-breaking work at a BioLogos conference and was intrigued. A late arrival to academia, she unsettled long-accepted tenets of paleontology and became a target for criticism on several fronts. I wanted to learn more and am grateful to Mary for taking the time to talk.

Read about Mary Schweitzer’s circuitous entry into paleontology in The Unlikely Paleontologist: An Interview with Mary Schweitzer (Part 1).

{In her volunteer work looking at dinosaur bone fragments under the microscope, Schweitzer saw what looked to be fresh bone — seemingly impossible in the over 60-million-year-old specimen — and then what appeared to be red blood cells. Her mentor challenged her to prove they were not red blood cells, work that would lead her to her doctoral research.}

So that became your doctoral work?

I didn't want a doctorate. But Jack said, "Mary, this is too big for you to just do a masters. You have to go for a doctorate."

So I did the doctorate. After my PhD, I found myself divorced, 46, kids were in college and out of college, and I was on my own. And I was desperate to stay in Montana. I did not want to leave, not at all. But I only got one interview, and it was here [North Carolina State University]. One. And I cried all the way home on the plane. I was hysterically sobbing on the plane, on the way back from my interview, because I knew they were going to offer me the job. And I had to take it.

But I go home every summer — I still own a home in Montana. Moving to North Carolina was the hardest thing that God has ever asked me to do. Hardest thing I've ever done. I'm a fourth generation Montanan. I love the mountains. I love my friends. They got me through the really hard, really painful, really destructive stuff in my life. And here I am in Raleigh. But the university here has been really, really good to me. After thirteen years here, I have fantastic friends. I have a great church that I love. And I'm getting used to it. As long as I can still go home in the summer, you know. And...I wouldn’t trade a minute of it!

So, I got the job, I set up my lab, and I said to Jack, "I want to repeat some of my thesis studies on a second T. Rex," because the results were not well accepted. I mean, they were very controversial.

Right! Here you are, a woman. You're...

A middle-aged woman. Minimal track record. And traditionally a young earth creationist. So I said to Jack, "I want to repeat these studies."

[Schweitzer went on to repeat the studies with a “fresh” dinosaur — a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex that had been recently unearthed. She not only found the little round red structures in the vessel channels in the bone in this second dinosaur, but for the first time, saw what looked to be blood vessels and bone cells in bones millions of years old, continuing to astonish the scientific community, many of whom were, and are, skeptical. For a fascinating account of Schweitzer’s methods and findings, see the Smithsonian’s article, "Dinosaur Shocker" from May 2006.]

You shocked the scientific community.

I published two papers back to back in Science. And my life changed.

What happened?

I was really stressed by the attention and scrutiny. In fact, my boss took a look at me about six weeks after this paper came out and said, "You have got to get out of here." I could not keep up! Every time I got through responding to messages, my voicemail and email would fill up again, and I couldn't answer everyone. The university assigned someone to manage both phone and email. It was awful.

There was so much interest. There was so much criticism. But I had data. And if you read it carefully, I never called them blood vessels or red blood cells. I said, "vessel-like structures," "cell-like structures." We didn't do the chemistry at the time, so that's all I could say. After those two papers came out, then, with my technician, we worked really hard to follow up with the research, and that's what I'm still doing.

I learned so much through the process. I'm so grateful. I learned how to be a careful scientist. The last thing in the world that I wanted to do was to get media attention. I’m a recluse. But the American taxpayers pay for what I do, and I am beholden to them. So if I have to go talk to second graders or address a convention, I do that. They deserve it. They pay for it. It's very hard for me, and I never seek it out. But life changed dramatically with those two papers.

Are there other labs now that are replicating the work?

Well, yes, there are a few. And, I've managed to corrupt quite a few graduate students who now have their own labs, and they're doing similar work.

When Christian students come in as young earth creationists and are questioning your work, how do you help them understand what you know?

I try to help them understand that an ancient earth doesn't negate anything in the Bible. Not at all. God doesn't tell us how long he views a “day.” And the word "day" in the Bible means all kinds of different things. "A day is as a thousand years. A thousand years is but a day." God is not under any obligation to meet my expectations. I will not put God in a box.

And you are in a church where not everyone agrees with you.

My pastor doesn't agree with me. He's very much a young earth creationist. My small group leader has no problem with the old earth. He has a problem with evolution. The problem is that many scientists and others have said, "Evolution is random." It is not random, not even remotely random. It is highly constrained by many things: natural selection, non-random gene changes, isolation — some of this is addressed by Francis Collins in his book The Language of God. But, in general, I think we as scientists do a lousy job of communicating because we're afraid of communicating the limits of our science. We don't want to be lumped in with creationists if we admit that we don't know everything. And creationists and a lot of Christians are very, very fearful and suspicious of “godless” science. So there's this chasm that exists between the two camps that is not necessary at all. If God made this beautiful creation, doesn't it stand to reason that the God of logic would make it follow rules that he placed? And what is a miracle, except a suspension of those rules? How else would we recognize it if we didn't have rules to begin with? To me, it's all part and parcel of the same thing. I think the more I learn about biology and evolution, the bigger God gets.

And how fair would it be if God put us on a changing planet and didn't build into us the ability to change? If you remember the character of God, I don't think any of this is a problem. I just don't. It took me a while to get here. I mean, it was very hard for me.

But very rarely do students ask me about it. Some do. A student came in my office one day and said, "Can I talk to you about something? I was raised a Christian. I was raised to believe in the Bible. But all that I've learned in my science classes...I can't...I can't do that anymore. But I heard you're a Christian." And now she's getting her PhD! And she's still a person of faith.

How do your colleagues respond to your faith?

My colleagues are pretty much agnostics. It doesn't register whether God is real or not. They don't care. But most of my colleagues don't want to even talk to Christians. They have been so rudely attacked by them.

I’m so sorry.

And it’s not just my colleagues. You should see some of the emails that I get from Christians. I've been accused of misleading students, being blind to God, and other things. My response is, "If you really believe that God is capable of doing what he says he's doing, then why don't you let him do the arguing?" You know it’s not their job to change my heart. That belongs to the Spirit. It comes down to that, knowing what's your job and what's God's job. But I think the animosity does tremendous damage.

[Christians] are the only Jesus a lot of people are going to see. Why wouldn't you want to be a loving one? To draw people to him through love and relationship — as he did? I had to ask one guy to leave me alone. I would get these four-page messages on my email every day, and I never answered them, never responded. He just kept sending them. And finally I wrote back, "If you were the only Jesus I knew, I'd run. Fortunately, I know the real one. Please leave me alone." And he did. So it's hard.

You’ve taken it from all sides.

Oh, yes. A lot of scientists don't like me, either. [Laughs] But the older I get, the less it bugs me.

Do you encourage your students to stay in molecular paleo?

I struggle with this. Is it ethical for me to encourage someone to go into a field that's so unaccepted? Hard to fund? Might not get a job? You know, one of my students is on his third postdoc, and he and his wife are going to have a baby. He is excellent...but no faculty jobs!

People think they don’t need paleontology. And molecular paleo is new, and therefore controversial, and not very many departments are going to want to invest a whole lot into this weird discipline. At least if you can go out and dig up a dinosaur, people can see it.

But I think it's growing, and I think the reason is, it prepares students well. My students can get a job in chemistry, they can get a job in physics, they can get a job in geology, they can get a job teaching anatomy. They can get a job in biochemistry, they can do a pharmaceuticals job, because they have the skills. Paleontology is interdisciplinary by nature...molecular paleo, even more so. 

What they want to do, though, is what I do. And I try really hard to give them that opportunity because, you know, they're good.

Why should people study dinosaurs?

When I was first beginning grad school in paleo, someone said to me, "I think what you do is completely irrelevant." I was really hurt, but after a while, I had to admit they were right. And now I see that is probably the single best comment anyone's ever said to me, more important even than Jack’s comment about working to disprove a thesis. Most people who study dinosaurs do it because they think it's cool, and they don't really think about how to make it relevant to the gas station attendant who works on their car or the waitress who serves them coffee. But they are the ones who pay for it. And every time I write a grant, I'm asking the waitress to give me her extra funds. So I am always thinking, "Why should you give me your money? Well, here's one important reason why you should give me your money...because we're becoming scientifically illiterate as a culture, and that is not good."

More and more people are going into business, economics, and other areas, but they don't understand biology. They don't understand geology. They don't understand the natural world, which is fine, except we live in the natural world. And so dinosaurs are a gateway drug. If you can get students to be interested in dinosaurs and to question science about dinosaurs and to learn how to ask a good question and to think, to learn how to evaluate data because they love dinosaurs and can't think of anything else, they can go on to do any kind of science they want. That's a skill. And that's really, really important. The critical thinking skills required to study dinosaurs rightly, to evaluate data, to make inferences and broad applications will fit them for anything. When students have those skills, they're going to change the world.

I have a student who was failing his sophomore year. And he was a microbiology major. He came to me and he said, "I am not doing well in school. I think I'm going to drop out. But I really like your class. Can you use a microbiologist?" And I said, "Boy, do I have a project just for you." [Laughs] And he's getting his PhD now in one of the most prestigious labs in the country doing RNA chemistry. Doesn't have anything to do with dinosaurs. But he is amazing.

They were his gateway.

And other reasons paleontology is important: if you just think about evolution as a whole, how do organisms respond to a long-term, large-scale global change in climate? It must begin at the molecular level, or it will not pass to the next generation. And, it's really hard to study on the timescale of our lives. But dinosaurs, as a group, lived through multiple periods of global warming, global cooling, tectonics, rifting, oceans rising and falling. They saw more change globally than we ever will as a species.

All evolutionary change begins in the molecules, in the genes and proteins that they express. If we can get genes and proteins out of dinosaurs before and after some of these events, or during, we maybe can see what changes happened. I could think of a million reasons why paleontology should be studied. But it takes effort, and you have to think outside the box. But if we don't understand the past, how are we ever going to prepare for the future? And here, in the rocks, we've got an experiment that's already been running for four and a half billion years. The data's already there. So why not look at the data we have and figure out how to interpret it?

About the Interviewer

Marcia Bosscher is the former editor of The Well and now an associate with InterVarsity's Faculty Ministry. Having been married to a professor and sharing life with grad students and faculty in a campus church, she has a deep interest and care for those in the academy. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with a golden-retriever mix and a diverse array of lodgers and travelers.