Evolution researcher to appear for University Speakers Series, Darwin Day

March 15, 2013

A paleontologist who studies how large-scale changes get started in evolution will be the next speaker in the Indiana State University Speakers Series.

Kevin Padian from the University of California, Berkeley, will present "Darwin, Dover and Intelligent Design" at 7 p.m. March 28 in the University Hall Auditorium. A reception will follow in the University Hall Atrium.

The topic of Padian's presentation stems from a 2004 legal case in which he testified on behalf of parents who filed a challenge in federal court over a local school district policy in Pennsylvania that required the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes as an alternative to evolution. In the case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, the court found the policy to be unconstitutional and cited Padian's testimony in its ruling.

Padian is professor of integrative biology, curator of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and president of the National Center for Science Education.

To address questions such as "how did flight evolve?" and "how did dinosaurs walk?" he and his students examine fossil evidence and make functional analogies between extinct species and modern vertebrates. He stresses that he and his student researchers are careful to frame their work within the context of the evolutionary relationships among the groups under study.

"Usually we think of diverse groups of organisms as being tied to new, exciting adaptations. The evolution of those adaptations usually happens quickly, and from then on, there's a lot of fine tuning within the new, successful group," he said. "The neat thing is to go back to the beginning, to look at the close relatives of this new group, and see how the adaptation assembled piece by piece. We can combine functional analysis with our understanding of evolutionary relationships to generate some strong testable hypotheses about how existing structures and functions are modified for new roles."

Padian has used this approach to study how birds first started to fly and he has been working out the sequence of evolutionary events leading up to powered flight in dinosaurs and birds.

He also works on the transition from the Triassic to the Jurassic Period and the changes in land-dwelling vertebrates associated with this time period. He has collaborated in a number of functional studies looking at the footprints left by different kinds of reptiles, research that has implications on how fossil footprints are interpreted, especially with respect to reconstructing dinosaur foot shape. He believes that fossil footprints can provide important information about evolutionary changes that occurred during "The Age of Dinosaurs."

Other areas of Padian's research include pterosaurs, which have a close evolutionary relationship with dinosaurs and were the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight, and microscopic structure of fossil bone, which he said provides a wealth of information with which to reconstruct aspects of dinosaur biology. Padian and his collaborators have drawn conclusions about dinosaur age, growth, and metabolism by comparing bone tissue types in fossil specimens.

Following his University Speakers Series presentation, Padian will serve as the Darwin Day keynote speaker on March 29 at noon in the Indiana State Science Building, room 299 as part of the Indiana State biology department's "From Molecules to Ecosystems Seminar Series." His talk is titled "How Did Dinosaurs Grow and How Do we Know?"

Rusty Gonser, coordinator of the biology department's seminar series, said "it is great that so many people in the Wabash Valley have taken an interest in science and have supported the Darwin Keynote Speaker series."

Gonser, associate professor of biology, said having speakers such as Padian visit ISU and discuss the Dover case and what it was like to be the only expert witness testifying "is a great opportunity for those that have interests in education, science, and the legal system."

Padian's University Speakers Series presentation and his Darwin Day seminar are free and open to the public.

Originally a public school science teacher, Padian decided to attend graduate school to broaden his knowledge of science. It was while in graduate school that he "found that combining research with teaching was a great way to bring what you actually do as a scientist to the public," he said.

A faculty member and researcher at Berkeley since 1980, Padian holds a Ph.D. in biology from Yale University.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Speakers-Series-2012/i-qhjH87F/0/L/kpadian-L.jpg - Kevin Padian

Contact: Rusty Gonser, associate professor, Department of Biology, Indiana State University, 812-237-2395 or rusty.gonser@indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu