Past Features

October 11, 2005 (Vol. 2, No. 3)

Faculty Win Recognition in National Competition for Work in Evolution

Members of the award-winning team include Professors Eric Delson (left) and Katherine St. John, along with Dr. Will Harcourt-Smith (right), pictured here teaching at Lehman in a new program that shows undergraduates the connections between mathematics and biology. Dr. Harcourt-Smith, a member of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, is now on the faculty of the Department of Evolution and Ecology at SUNY, Stony Brook.
Members of the award-winning team include Professors Eric Delson (left) and Katherine St. John, along with Dr. Will Harcourt-Smith (right), pictured here teaching at Lehman in a new program that shows undergraduates the connections between mathematics and biology. Dr. Harcourt-Smith, a member of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, is now on the faculty of the Department of Evolution and Ecology at SUNY, Stony Brook.
A national team of scientists, including faculty from Lehman College, is finding a way to advance the study of evolution without waiting for just the right fossils to be discovered. A preliminary phase of their work, captured in a video (Windows Media Video), has won an Honorable Mention in the third annual Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation. Results of the challenge were published in the September 23, 2005 issue of Science Magazine.

The team–which is focusing on the way Old World monkeys have evolved over millions of years–is building a virtual database that adds to the relatively few well-preserved ancient skulls of this particular group. As demonstrated in the video, the team is reconstructing the shape of the cranium as it appeared in five intermediate ancestors along an evolutionary tree. The tree was based on DNA data from Old World monkeys living today in Africa and Asia. The reconstruction was developed by "morphing" laser scans of modern skulls using a statistical model of evolutionary change.

Dr. Eric Delson, chair of Lehman's Anthropology Department, says that the next step in the research is to test the virtual fossils against known fossils, and fossil fragments, of the same group. He believes that "if an accurate evolutionary tree can be developed, this approach is equally applicable to parts of other species, such as dinosaur legs or snail shells."

The collaborative, three-year project, funded by a $1.1 million federal grant, draws on the expertise not just of paleontologists but also of faculty in biostatistics and computer science, including Dr. Katherine St. John of Lehman's Math and Computer Science Department. The researchers represent eight institutions, many of which participate in the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology: the American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York Graduate Center, Lehman College, New York University, Stony Brook University, the University of California at Davis and the University of Oregon.

Previous modeling, Dr. Delson explains, has usually been based on reconstructing how anatomical characteristics have evolved and then using that analysis to determine a possible evolutionary path. But fossils, he notes, can be partially distorted by damage that occurred either close to the time of death or by pressure in the ground afterwards. This new research, by comparison, uses the tools of computer visualization to help create a hypothetical evolutionary framework.

"No previous work," he says, "has produced 3D visualizations of ancestral skeletal form, much less in a statistically rigorous manner that also incorporates the most recent DNA results."