Convocation

Matt Lamanna '97

Matt Lamanna '97
Convocation Address
August 26, 2019

Good evening, everyone. It’s one of the greatest honors of my life to be standing here. Thanks so much to everyone in the HWS community for inviting me back to campus, and especially to Dr. Jacobsen for asking me to speak.

Right off the bat, I want to tell you that this is a very unusual kind of speech for me. If you’d asked me to stand in front of a PowerPoint for an hour spewing random facts about dinosaur anatomy and evolution, that’d be no problem - that’s my thing, I do it all the time. But this is pretty different. I hope you’ll bear with me as I try to figure it out.

I’m lucky that the theme of this year’s convocation is ‘exploration.’ My career as a paleontologist has involved lots of that: exploring different parts of the world for fossils (discovering many new dinosaur species along the way), exploring subtle details of shape in fossilized bones, exploring the biodiversity and evolutionary relationships of dinosaurs and what that might mean for what the world looked like in the distant past, exploring the ancient ecosystems of which dinosaurs were a part, and how those ecosystems responded to environmental change. In short, trying to learn as much as possible about these amazing animals that inhabited our planet so long ago. All of that’s easy for me to talk about. But it’s also a great theme for starting a new academic year, so you’ll have to forgive me for trying to make a few points along those lines too.

If you’ll indulge me a little bit, let’s step all the way back to when I was a small child. When it came to figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, I honestly didn’t need to do much exploring at all. I’m just one of those kids who always loved dinosaurs - probably the biggest difference between me and most others is that I never really grew out of it. I was too young to remember, but my parents tell me that I already knew that I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was just four years old. And thankfully, my family helped me to explore those interests right from the beginning. My father-who I’m proud to say is in the audience this evening-hi Dad!-has a favorite story about that. When I was a little kid-growing up just down the road in Waterloo, New York-I had a sandbox that I played in. I guess that, in so doing, I must’ve scattered sand everywhere, because Dad would refill the box from time to time. One day, shortly after he’d done so, I ran outside, toy dinosaurs in hand, to play in the sand. But I was kind of a lazy, messy kid, so I left my dinos in the sand when I was done. That night it rained, and the next time I went to my sandbox, I discovered to my horror that all of my dinos were now encased in stone! (A mini-extinction event.) Turns out there’d been a little mixup and Dad had bought masonry sand, which turns to concrete when it gets wet. According to him-I don’t remember, I was a kid-I spent hours with a hammer trying to extract my poor dinos from the stone. Thanks, Dad, for sending me on my very first dinosaur dig. (He joked that he was gonna try to embarrass me during this ceremony. Little did he know he was walking into a trap.)

So yeah, that kinda sums up my childhood, at least in terms of career goals. I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist and that was that. But it typically takes a helluva lot more than just a strong interest in something to turn it into a career. That was certainly true in my case. That was where Hobart and William Smith Colleges came in.

I visited campus when I was still deciding on schools, and to be totally honest I was, at first, hesitant to come here - it was too close to home, or so I thought. But it didn’t take long for the Colleges to win me over. During my visit, I met three professors-Don Woodrow and Brooks McKinney in Geoscience and Jim Ryan in Biology-and it very quickly became clear that they’d be the kinds of mentors I needed. I guess that’d be my first piece of unsolicited advice to the HWS Class of 2023: explore what the academic community here has to offer. Here you’ll find faculty and staff who’ll be much more than willing to help you reach your goals, especially if you can prove to them that you’re as committed as they are. In my experience-and I went to a very different kind of school for my graduate degrees, so I like to think I say this with some authority-the types of professors that you’ll find here at the Colleges are a rare breed: the kind that care at least as much about teaching and mentorship as they do their research.

Don, Jim, and Brooks were crucial for my academic development. When I was just a first-year, Don introduced me to one of my childhood idols, University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Peter Dodson, who was visiting campus to do a guest lecture. Don arranged a face-to-face meeting between Peter and I - we hit it off, and four years later, I became Peter’s grad student. Don also put me in touch with University of New Orleans paleontologist Kraig Derstler, who was leading expeditions to dig up 66-million-year-old dinosaurs in eastern Wyoming. I contacted Kraig, and just after I finished my first year at HWS, I was off to Wyoming to volunteer on his team. I must’ve done a reasonably good job, because the next year I was officially made a research assistant on the team - and I found part of a T. rex! Later, toward the end of my time at HWS, my interests really started to take shape. At the end of my junior year, in 1996, an article was published in National Geographic magazine - an article that, in large part, would shape the trajectory of my career, even to this day. Called “Africa’s Dinosaur Castaways,” it detailed the then-recent discovery of two strange new meat-eating dinosaur species in Morocco. In so doing, it explained how little we paleontologists actually know about dinosaurs from Africa and other Southern Hemisphere continents - the modern legacy of the ancient southern supercontinent called Gondwana. But the supe­r-cool thing is this: the little we do know about southern dinosaurs-Gondwanan dinosaurs-shows that, though every bit as spectacular and awesome as their better-known counterparts from North America and Asia, they were also very different from these Northern Hemisphere species. For example, at the same time T. rex was terrorizing western North America, in places like South America and Madagascar, its same ecological niche-apex predator-was being filled by weirdo meat-eating dinosaurs called abelisaurids. (The strangest abelisaurid was probably Carnotaurus, from 70 million-year-old rocks in Patagonia, Argentina. Imagine a superficially T. rex-like meat-eater with a smashed-in, bulldog-like face, arms that made T. rex’s look huge, and two giant horns on its head. That’s Carnotaurus. My 11-year-old niece Julia has a toy Carnotaurus, and you have no idea how much that warms my heart.)

(And I promised I wasn’t gonna lecture you about dinosaurs. So much for that.)

Anyhow, in my senior year, and driven by my passion for Southern Hemisphere dinosaurs, I embarked on a senior thesis project on dinosaur biogeography-the distribution of dinosaurs in time and space-under Don and Peter’s guidance. A few months later, I moved to Philadelphia to become Peter’s grad student at Penn. And it was at Penn that I really got to start exploring in the literal sense. Peter is a very hands-off adviser who trusts his students and lets them pursue their own specific research interests. So, in my second year of grad school-and thanks to Peter’s support and the kindness of my Argentine collaborator Rubén Martínez and his team-I was off to Patagonia to explore for dinosaurs - the first of many successful trips that I’d ultimately take to that beautiful part of the world. A year later, my fellow grad students and I launched an expedition to the Sahara Desert of Egypt, to a place called the Bahariya Oasis. There-thanks to a combination of knowledge, preparedness, perseverance, and incredibly good luck-we found fossils of a new dinosaur species that we eventually named Paralititan stromeri in the journal Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. At roughly 90 feet long and more than 40 tons in weight, Paralititan is one of the most massive dinosaurs ever discovered. Just the upper arm bone alone is almost as tall as me. (Admittedly, I’m not that tall, but still...) A few years later, in 2004, I defended my doctoral dissertation and took a job as the dinosaur curator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, overseeing one of the world’s largest and most important dinosaur fossil collections. Since then, my work has taken me to every continent, looking for fossils. In 2016, I led an expedition to Antarctica-the third time I’d gone fossil hunting on that frozen landmass-and just last year, I went diving in search of dinosaurs in the shallow sea off the Croatian coast.

So yeah, I always knew what I wanted to do with my life, and thankfully, I got to do it. I’m grateful for that, and I try to never take it for granted. But I also realize that not everybody knows what they want to do right away, and that’s again where HWS comes in. This is a place to explore your interests and really, who you are and who you’d like to be. Maybe take a class in a subject you never thought much about before, or do a semester abroad, or think of some other way to step outside your comfort zone.

At this point, I should emphasize something else about exploration, in paleontology, in college, and in life - it’s not gonna be rainbows and unicorns all the time. There are going to be challenges, sometimes really serious challenges, along the way. Things aren’t always going to work out the way you want. But you’ve got to try to bounce back and power through. That expedition to Egypt 19 long years ago cost a ton of money. We grad students had a film crew trailing us, following our every move. They’d spent loads of their own money to get there. For the first few weeks, people were getting food poisoning, sandstorms were shutting us down every couple days, and worst of all, we weren’t really finding anything. (Oh, and back home, my girlfriend had decided to dump me.) But we stuck with it, and eventually our luck changed. One day toward the end of January in 2000, we were searching for dinosaurs in the Bahariya Oasis near a mountain called Gebel el Fagga. I was collecting fossils at a site I’d discovered a day or two prior when my walkie-talked crackled. It was one of my fellow students, who was digging at a site about a half-mile away. He said something to the effect of “you need to get over here right now.” When I’d left him that morning, he and another buddy of ours were digging up what we thought were two parallel bones, maybe ribs, of what we thought was a probably a small dinosaur. But what I saw when I got to those guys blew my mind. What were thought were ribs were actually two sides of the same bone, that gigantic humerus, or upper arm bone, of what we’d eventually name Paralititan stromeri. I knew right then and there that we’d discovered one of the largest land animals that had ever existed. It’s cliched, but in paleontology and in life, sometimes things really are darkest right before the dawn.

There’s something else about exploration that I need to call attention to, something you may have already noticed from hearing me tell these stories. Not a single scientific discovery that I’ve ever been a part of was made by me alone. Every expedition that I’ve ever had the privilege to be on has relied on the knowledge, skill, determination, and frankly good humor of a whole team of participants, from non-paleontologists to students to established professors and curators, from fellow Americans to Egyptians to Argentines, Australians, Croatians, or Chinese. (Big surprise, it takes a village to dig up a dinosaur.)

But seriously, one thing that also has to be called out about paleontology is that, like many other forms of exploration, its history is inextricably linked with colonialism. In its early days, and continuing well into the 20th century, it was standard practice for primarily American and Western European researchers to travel to other countries, extract fossil resources, and bring them back home for study, display, and public enjoyment. In the past thirty years or so, there’s been something of a reckoning - we as a field are grappling with the legacies of this history, and trying to do better. Because exploration shouldn’t happen at the expense of other human beings - yes, it’s wonderful and important when it broadens our own horizons, but it should lift others up as well.

What does all of this mean for all of you? In my mind, it means that having a great team around you-in the form of family, faculty, and fellow students-can make all the difference for successful explorations during your time here at HWS. Friends are particularly important. College is a time when you’ll make some of the best friends of your entire life, people who may, in some ways, eventually come to know you better than you know yourself. These are the kinds of people who can help you get back on the right path if and when your explorations ever lead you astray.

Now I’ve come back to HWS after many years, and in many ways, things have come full circle for me. In the late summer of 1993-it’s crazy, but 26 years ago-I was a wide-eyed and very ‘green’ small-town first-year trying to figure out what the hell college was all about. Now I come back to you as an older and slightly more ‘seasoned’ paleontologist. Though in many ways I’m still trying to figure things out, I’m proud to say that I’ve been able to, in a very small way, give back to students what Don Woodrow, Jim Ryan, Brooks McKinney, and many other HWS faculty gave to me all those years ago. Maybe the proudest achievement of my life happened just last year, in 2018, when a bunch of collaborators and I named another new Egyptian dinosaur, Mansourasaurus shahinae. Mansourasaurus is pretty cool in its own right: it’s the most completely preserved dinosaur from the final 30 million years of the Age of Dinosaurs on the African continent. But the most awesome thing about it is that it was discovered by a team of Egyptians, mostly students, that includes some of the very first female paleontologists in all of the Middle East. I had the honor of participating in the study of Mansourasaurus and sharing my uber-nerd knowledge of dinosaurs with these students, much as Don, Jim, and Brooks had done with me.

So yeah, in keeping with the idea of ‘full circle,’ I’d better wrap this up. I’ll leave you with this: get out there and explore. Explore Hobart and William Smith Colleges, explore the city of Geneva, explore beautiful Seneca Lake and the broader Finger Lakes region. Explore your academic interests, your values, your talents, your strengths, and your weaknesses. Most importantly, explore who you are, and who you’d like to become. Who can say just where those explorations will take you?

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.