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Faculty Spotlight: Robin Whatley

Dec. 17, 2013
By Hannah Lorenz

Teaching science at a school like Columbia College Chicago might seem like a lost cause—a lot of people hold the notion that art and science just don’t mix.

But professor Robin Whatley thinks differently. As a professor of vertebrate paleontology and the popular course “Dinosaurs!,” she wants her students to take away a love and knowledge of science that can be used in all kinds of arts practices.

“Students at Columbia are communicators,” Whatley says, “so the best case scenario is that you know something about science so that you can either dispel misconceptions or put educational information out there that makes science interesting.”

Whatley graduated with a fine art degree from the Kansas City Art Institute, where she says no science or math classes were required. She got a job at the Field Museum shortly after graduating, first building exhibits, then actually designing them.

At a company softball game (scientific staff versus artistic staff), Whatley asked one of the curators about going into the field.

“I said, ‘Do you ever take people who don’t have any experience looking for fossils?’” Whatley says. Luckily, he did, and she accompanied him to look for fossils in Wyoming. She was still designing exhibits at the time.

“I was so interested in knowing what we were finding in the field, the bones—I didn’t know anything about it—that I decided to go back to school,” she says.

She got a doctorate in paleontology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, but says she had to make up for all the science and math classes she’d missed. She continued looking for fossils during grad school, trekking through southern Madagascar for about a month at a time. She says it’s hard to describe the experience.

“Before we ever went… I asked my adviser, ‘What is it like?’ and he said, ‘I can’t tell you what it’s like. You’re just going to have to go,’ and that’s true,” Whatley says.

She says they would have to plan the trip a year in advance. They would start in the capital city, Antananarivo, waiting for official permission to go into the field. Then, after two days of driving to their destination, they would stay for almost a month digging up fossilized remains.

“Once we left the capital city, we were completely on our own,” Whatley says. Cell phones were nonexistent at the time, and the local market was so far away that beforehand, they’d have to stock up on massive quantities of potatoes, onions, garlic and bread—which Whatley says would most likely be moldy and full of ants halfway through the trip. Normal hygiene rules didn’t apply, either. She says they were lucky if there was a river nearby to wash in.

Now, Whatley’s area of focus is the Petrified Forest in Arizona, which she first visited in 2009 with Kay Behrensmeyer from the Smithsonian. On the first trip, they found fossils in a part of the forest where they had never been found before. Whatley still travels to the Petrified Forest, occasionally taking Columbia students, but she says it can be difficult to secure funding.

In addition to field work, Whatley writes articles for both scientific and popular publications, including a recent one for the National Park Service describing her findings in the Petrified Forest. And after taking a class with professor and comics artist Ivan Brunetti a few years ago, she started working on a graphic novel about early mammals, which she says is nowhere near finished yet. But her goal is to infuse scientific accuracy into the arts, and she says Columbia is a great place for that.

“This job at Columbia is really the perfect marriage of art and science,” Whatley says. “If my students leave my class more curious than when they came in, then I’ve succeeded.”