InterviewsScience

TEEN SKEPCHICK INTERVIEWS: DR MERRILL VAN DER WALT

This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists, skeptics, and feminists about life, the universe, and everything.

Dr Merrill Van Der Walt is a palaeontologist at the Origins Centre at WITS University in Johannesburg, South Africa. She studied many fields including evolution and genetics as well as a PhD in Palaeontology so it should be no surprise that we decided to approach her for an interview. In the course of the time spent with her we learnt who inspired her and the ultimate (if naked) truth about why she became a palaeontologist.

After the official interview she kindly took the time to walk me through the museum and tell me a bit about what they have on display. She was as passionate about the artwork as she was about the fossils, skulls and stone tools. If you are ever in South Africa you would do well to pop around to the museum and explore its maze like hallways, intimate chambers and many stairwells.

Were you interested in science and evolution as a child?

Yes very much. My Dad was always very interested in science, he was a pilot but he was also an aeronautical engineer. His philosophy was always to introduce us to anything that was of interest and of wonder. I remember when I was 7 he attempted to explain to me the theory of relativity, thinking that a child is capable of understanding anything. We also had discussions at home about evolution so I have always been very interested in the subject.

Did you have any particular mentor or teachers that inspired you?

Yes, very much so. There was of course my father who was one to never stop being curious and enthusiastic and never for one second to sit and think you know anything because the more you learn the more you realise how absolutely little you know and never to stop learning ever.

  • Professor Swanepoel with whom I studied.
  • Dr Geoff Blundell who runs this museum has a very interesting mind. He is very good at arguing points in the light of understanding structures. He for instance studies the San people and how they operate in a Marxist structure which is a very interesting way of thinking.
  • Professor David Block who is the astrophysicist here. He works on black holes and is also very inspiring.

How did your interest in studying science first spark and how did it progress from there?

What happened was that when I was in Matric interestingly enough, I had to make a decision and I was kind of split. I wanted to do fine arts or science, because art is also a scientific thing actually. There’s a great beauty in it, it is exquisite. I decided to go into science instead because it became more practical in terms of future job prospects. So first you start with an undergraduate degree which is a general science degree and from there you get a feel for what you like. I liked statistics and biology a lot so I did double honors.  I then did my masters with him and at the same time looked into the philosophy of science, how science progresses. If you look at the philosophy of science you would realise that what you think is not correct. You will think that you can come in, pose a question, set up an experiment and come closer to the truth and that’s actually not how it works. What happens too often is that there is a truth that people believes in an they then do experiments to support that truth and if there is an experiment that is done that does not support that truth it is swept under the carpet.  So many things get swept under the carpet until the carpet is so full that there is a revolution and then there is a new paradigm. After this the whole process starts again. It’s very interesting.  You can look up guys like Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and guy called Lakatos. You start reading their work and you realise they were sceptical of the scientific method. So anyway I did my masters in evolutionary theory and I looked at how natural selection isn’t the cause for new species as is always believed. There must be another mechanism. I then did a PhD here at WITS in fossils of around 250 Million years old looking specifically at extinction events. There was a massive extinction event about 250 Million years ago that wiped out about 95% of life on earth and it’s interesting that after an extinction event you get rapid evolution taking place. We then mapped all the fossils that there are in South Africa – there’s about 40 000 and we created an artificial map in an attempt to re-create the landscape as it was 250 Million years ago. So we made a kind of cyber museum. The trip that you would now take from Johannesburg to Cape Town was an inland lake which slowly started to dry up into the Triassic when you got dinosaurs. This is a very interesting time in the earth’s history that not many people know about and that’s the research that I do and that I am still doing at the moment. I have also become very interested in early life when we see the first signs of multicellular animals 600 Million years ago. There are very few sites on earth where we see this rock. There was also the Cambrian explosion (an explosion of life) where there were certain basic forms that emerged from there so the form we have today is not anything new, it goes back to the Cambrian because of course life started in the oceans. So we see basic forms and nothing has really changed since the Cambrian, we’ve just modified. It is a very fascinating time and I’m busy working on that at the moment as well.

When and why did you decide to go into palaeontology?

O gosh! The unromantic reason is that I used to be a teacher earning no money. I was offered to do a PhD and the funding was more than my salary when I taught. That’s why I did it. (Laughs) Sorry but that’s the truth. Luckily I found it extremely interesting. I was actually a geneticist and I couldn’t get work in genetics so it was for no other reason. I prostituted myself for money. (Lots of laughing ensues) Sorry!

The Berkley Interview last year was very focussed on religion and that made me wonder, do you consider yourself a sceptic?

Very much so, I am a sceptic but with a huge amount of respect and tolerance. A lot of people in science have fallen flat and they don’t get their message across because of their refusal to be respectful of other people’s views. If you are going to approach people with a belief in a higher being you can be need to be respectful of that and in no way antagonise or be derogatory, arrogant or claim that you have the truth. All you should say is; are you prepared in some way to take what I am telling you and find a way to integrate it in your religious framework. In that way you have brought about some level of growth hopefully, you’ve widened someone’s worldview; you’ve made them learn something more. I am very sceptical and I would actually go on to say that for myself I have no personal belief but I can at the same time admire someone that has a faith and a belief if it is has brought comfort and if it’s given them strength then that’s the gold of it. I am in no way derogatory of any religion. I think it has a place.

Why is understanding and accepting evolution important?

I think it’s vital because if you look at the evidence for evolution, if you look at genetic evidence, fossil evidence, geologic evidence and also if you look at experiments where you see change happening, you have to admit that there is so much evidence that to look at the fossil record or at the embryological evidence where you look at the development of an embryo from its start right through to its birth form. You cannot take all of that and simply say this is rubbish. It will leave you a poorer person. Look at how incredible it is, look at what the earth is telling us, look at the story it’s left behind. Even though only less than 2% of life on earth ever fossilises it tells us of what came before, the wonders that came before. It also speaks of how complex life is and that it forever strives for change. It has to continue its survival. It makes life much richer, complicated, wonderful and interesting than simply saying a rib and a bit of mud and you had man. That’s not an interesting story the story of creation. The facts of evolution make life very interesting and I think it is extremely important that people know about evolution because you get a sense of how old the world is, a sense of how life progresses, of how insignificant you actually are because you’ve been around for less that the blink of an eye.

You have expertise in genetics as well. How does genetics and palaeontology intersect particularly in studying evolution?

Brilliantly! OK so what happened was, prior to the dawn of the genetic age the only evidence we had that life forms have changed was the evidence from fossils. So you would find a dinosaur and realise, hang on, this animal doesn’t live today so obviously things have changed.  In the 1800’s for instance there was a man call Von Baer, an embryologist studying chick embryos. He asked himself, why is it that I’m looking at a chick embryo and I look at a human embryo and a frog embryo that they start off the same? At some point they all have gills, at another point they all look like amphibians? There are similarities in them. Does that not say that in the development of an embryo they are simply going through the phases that happened in the development of life? There is a very important phrase called “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” and all it means is Ontology is the development of an embryo, recapitulates means symbolises, phylogeny means the development of life on earth. So you are looking at a quick camera flash of the history of the dawn of time when we were single celled in the ocean right through to what we are now. So you first had fossils, then you had embryological evidence and then DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick and they realised, hang on a minute, why is it that is I run the genetic ladder of a chimp and the genetic ladder of a human being they are 98% identical? That is only a 2% variance. This cannot be a coincidence. Genetics is the ultimate evidence to support the fossils and embryology and proves that evolution certainly is a fact beyond a shadow of a doubt.

What drew you to genetics research?

Genetics is an extremely interesting field and what drew me to it was a particular professor. We learned in our undergrad that your DNA, the blueprint for your body looks like a twisted ladder.  You would think it is static and in fact it is not, it is very plastic and there are genes that move up and down all the time and things change and there are faults that happen. So with sexual reproduction  the reason why your brothers and sisters don’t all look like you is that if in the reproduction process  there is always thing that “go wrong” and there are mutations. I bought a book when I was about 19 called “Special Cases” about all these deformed skeletons and strange creatures born with tales. So I made an appointment to go to the Hunterian museum which is not open to the public because it would be disturbing to the general populace to see, though from a genetic and evolutionary point of view it is very beautiful. So what they look at are different embryos that weren’t viable – they did not live to be born – but it shows how through genetics, through a mutation, things can go wrong. But have they gone wrong? No they have not; all that happened is that DNA acts like switches, so the switch for our tail to develop is switched off. When we get to a certain point in our embryology as the spine is developing, the switch is switched off and we don’t form a tail. But the ability to form a tail (because of our ancestors) is still with us. So when the embryo is developing in a mother and she is exposed to radiation for instance the switch is not switched off and therefore you see embryos there with long tails, animal tails. Our ears for instance are modifications of gills so if something goes wrong during the development of your ears and the switch is not done correctly the embryo develops slits in their neck that look like gill slits. This is just proof of how interesting genetics is and the mere fact that you and I are sitting here healthy is actually a scientific miracle.

What are the most interesting research and discoveries in your opinion…

In genetics:

From my perspective it would be the human genome project where we are trying to map the genetic pathway. What each gene does, what it stands for and what its implications are. Even more interestingly for me out of the human genome project is 94% of our genes are classified as junk genes because they are inactive. For me there is no such thing as junk genes and nature will not carry something with it that is of no use. So what those “junk genes” are is simply the entire encyclopaedia of our evolutionary history. Of these switches I am speaking of that are switched off. If we unravel what all those junk genes are, I am telling you now it sounds like something out of science fiction but you could switch on the fin gene, the gill gene, it is fascinating.

What is also interesting is the understanding of the genetic origin of disease because that would alleviate suffering and you could have a marker for having a predisposition to a certain kind of cancer. Once you know these markers you can already help the embryo that’s developing. This is the next frontier of medicine. We could eradicate disease.

In palaeontology:

Hell very interesting…the Burgess shale which is like an entire snapshot of the Cambrian Explosion and you get the weirdest and the most incredible life forms. A lot of the life forms didn’t continue but it is the building blocks of the diversity we have today that lay down there.

There is a place in New Finland called Mistaken Point and that is even older than Cambrian rock. It is known as endeacarin rock which is about 600 Million years old and that is the first example we have of multi cellular creatures. They were minute and almost plant like but they weren’t plants.

Other interesting research is what’s coming out of the Cradle of Humankind. Before this we thought that the pathway to Homo sapiens was a few little branches and we are now seeing a lot of species popping up. I mean they’ve just discovered Australopithecus Sediba, what was Sediba? Long arms, ape like but long legs too, a very humanoid face but then a tiny brain. Was he a species that then died out? Did he lead the path way to eventually become Homo sapiens? Whatever is coming out of the cradle is extremely interesting.

But there are also fascinating things coming out of the Karoo, I worked a lot in the Karoo at one stage and that is where you see what is on the border between what is eventually going to become mammals, what is eventually going to become a dinosaur and you’re seeing these interesting life forms.

In evolution:

Not so much a discovery but if you are on the internet and you are sceptic and you read up on Charles Darwin it seems to me that there is going to be a revolution. There is a gathering of thought that this form of evolution does not explain everything. There is a place for it but it certainly doesn’t explain the big picture. If you are on the internet you see comments like” Darwin the plagiarist” and “Darwin the thief” which shows a gathering force of unhappiness especially with Neo Darwinists. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Niles Eldredge are still very much clinging on to the idea that Darwin was correct. The internet is a fantastic tool as it gives us an idea that change is around the corner. So watch this space. Natural Selection won’t be kicked out but natural selection will be put in its rightful place which is that natural selection brings about change only within a species. So you will get different dogs looking differently because of natural selection but they are still dogs. There is no way that natural selection can change a dog into another species. The change from a dinosaur into a bird was not as a result of natural selection. You get different forms of dinosaur because of natural selection but there was something, a mutation event that takes place outside of natural selection. You will see that when you are about 21, and it might even be earlier, you will be learning a completely new form of evolution.

Tell me about your typical day. How much time do you get to devote to the museum, educational programs and research?

Well it’s very varied. It all depends on whether we have school tours. For example we have 7 schools coming this week but they generally have a standard tour with a guide. Sometimes however they will ask me to do a talk so I might have a day doing that or I would spend some part of my day lecturing, some part doing research, some doing admin. We also do a lot of creative work, so we will design pamphlets and new concepts for extending the museum.  On the upcoming public holiday we have some Americans coming through including Al Gore so my day changes all the time. It is fantastic because it is never the same.

Do you have any advice for young women interested in a career in palaeontology?

This is the age of science and technology. I say as a woman it is almost a must, it does not have to be palaeontology, but certainly some field of science or technology is the way to go. Women think very crisply, very clearly and there is a huge contribution to be made by women scientists. If you look at the way things are going certainly genetics is the last frontier in medical sciences, nanotechnology, virology, energy, anything to do with the continued survival of the human race is where science will put its money. There are so many fields to go into. I would suggest to any girl to do a general science background B.Sc., do chemistry, biology, maths, and physics in your first three years and then see where your interest lies – follow your passion. Don’t go into something if you don’t have a passion for it because it won’t yield good results. The world needs scientists, women scientist. Women have been put down enough. It’s time!

Dr Merrill Van der Walt’s qualifications: B.Sc | B.Sc.hon (genetics, statistics, evolution)|M.Sc (Genetics) |Phd

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Xe'nedra

Xe'nedra

Xe'nedra is a pre-teen free thinker who can often be found with her nose in a book. She is an expert at rolling her eyes and making her parents sigh in exasperation. Skateboarding and golf is on her list of sporting activities and she would love to study Forensics or Medicine (which is better than being Gwen Stefani which was her aspiration at age 3). She also blogs as "The Sceptic Kid"

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