University of Texas at Austin

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Getting Started-Liza Shapiro

Liza Shapiro

Liza Shapiro

Scientists arrive at their careers in different ways. Some follow a childhood interest, others are inspired by a teacher or discover a passion in a class they took on a lark and others find they have a talent in a field they hadn’t considered.
Further Findings will highlight the paths that some researchers at The University of Texas at Austin took to the laboratory, the library, the field—wherever they do their work.

First up is Liza Shapiro, a professor of physical anthropology. She has studied why and how people started walking upright—one of the characteristics that defines Homo sapiens. Her work has involved working with a variety of primates including baboons and lemurs.

“I originally came at it from just loving animals,” she said, “and I didn’t know what kind of career you could have. When I was in high school, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll be a veterinarian.’

“And I went to college and in my first semester I took a course in physical anthropology and I thought, ‘My God, this is what I want to do.’ I immediately started majoring in it. I really liked anatomy and I really liked animals, so it really came together and it’s a thrill for me to be able to work with animals.”

During her time in graduate school, there was a controversy about how Lucy, the world’s oldest fossil of a human ancestor, got around. Did she walk upright all the time or sometimes climb in trees? That generated another spark for Shapiro.

“When I was an undergrad (at the State University of New York-Albany),” she said, “I took a human osteology (the scientific study of bones) course.

“Somebody at SUNY-Stony Brook came and gave a talk and it blew me away. This is how you take anatomy and make it interesting. The whole detail of that skeleton and how you can reconstruct behavior from it. I was trained in graduate school that it was important not to just look at the problems, but to combine that with actual solutions.”

Shapiro went to SUNY-Stony Brook for graduate school, where her dissertation was entitled “Functional Morphology of the Primate Spine with Special Reference to Orthograde Posture and Bipedal Locomotion.”

In her current research project, Shapiro is trying to figure out why primates who walk on all fours do it differently than most other animals who walk on all fours.

Her research subjects are mouse lemurs, sugar gliders and gray short-tailed opossums from Brazil. The sugar gliders were named Brigitte, Susan, Jack and Bill—after her former professors at SUNY-Stony Brook.

See a video of Shapiro talking about primate bipedalism on a Public Broadcasting Corp. program about evolution at

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» Getting Started-Liza Shapiro



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