This year’s Convocation ceremony welcomed world-renowned paleontologist Matthew Lamanna ’97 to the Colleges.
A Hobart College Class of 1997 graduate, Lamanna issued the Convocation address as its keynote speaker on Monday, Aug. 26.
Throughout his career, he has uncovered fossils on all seven continents—a rarity in his profession—and is the associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
At the beginning of his speech, Lamanna remembered his utter fascination and love for dinosaurs as a child.
He recalled playing inside a sandbox with prehistoric toys when he was younger until one day when his father by accidently purchased a cement mixture that filled-up the box. Once the cement got wet, the toys were encased inside a solid mass.
“Thanks, dad, for sending me on my first dinosaur dig,” Lamanna jokingly said.
Unlike most other children, his passion for paleontology never dissipated and only grew stronger, especially when he started his undergraduate career at the Colleges.
Lamanna joined the Geoscience and Biology departments, earning the backing and respect of their faculty.
While a Ph. D. candidate, Lamanna embarked on an expedition to Egypt in 2000, where he and his peers unearthed a new dinosaur species that was named Paralititan stromeri and later known as the “tidal giant,” a sauropod, or long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur.
In the first few weeks, his crew suffered an onslaught of sandstorms and food poisoning without much reward until they uncovered the new dinosaur.
Weighing in at 40 tons and 90 feet in length, the “tidal giant” was a monumental discovery in the paleontology profession.
Since then, Lamanna shared that he has led explorations across to globe to Antarctica, China, Argentina and Croatia.
Although Lamanna and company unearthed a new dinosaur as a contribution to the paleontological record, even as a doctoral student, he was still humble in his remarks at Convocation.
He cited this accomplishment as something he never completed on his own but through the help of others, especially those at the Colleges who provided him with a liberal arts education that ultimately prepared him for making history.
“It takes a village to dig up a dinosaur,” Lamanna said.
He continually stressed an emphasis upon being a part of a global community and critically reflecting upon the complicated past associated with colonization and the unethical practices of Western nations claiming dig-sites from local communities.
“Exploration should not be at the expense of others,” Lamanna said during his speech.
Lamanna closed his address by acknowledging all of the Argentinians, Egyptians, Croatians and Chinese who aided him at each of his paleontological sites across the world.
A month removed from Convocation, the Herald connected with Lamanna to reminisce about his speech.
In regards to the subject of colonialism, Lamanna later elaborated, “Paleontology has a long history of ‘white dude goes to foreign country or colony, digs up fossil trophies, brings them home to keep, and studies or publishes them on his own.’”
“In other words, American and European paleontologists traditionally haven’t invested very much in the nations in which they’ve worked, nor the people in them. Nowadays more and more Western paleontologists are trying to use our positions of relative privilege to foster the development of paleontological laboratories, museums, research programs, and scientists in the still-economically-developing countries in which we work. We have a very long way to go, but there have been significant successes,” he further mentioned.
A moment of success for Lamanna lies with fellow collaborator Hesham Sallam of Mansoura University, who educates Egypt’s future of female vertebrate paleontologists.
Trained by a colleague of Lamanna at Oxford University, Sallam has since established “an excellent paleontological program at his home institution.”
“These students—many of whom are women—represent the next generation of vertebrate paleontology in Egypt, and probably the first homegrown, really sustainable paleontological research program in that country. I’m proud to be even tangentially associated with them and I try to do whatever I can to help them out,” Lamanna stated.
Next month in Australia, Lamanna, Sallam and some of his students will present a poster at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology on their research conducted in Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis that was sponsored by the National Geographic Society.
When asked to open up about his chance to speak to the Colleges at Convocation, he concluded, “It was great, a true honor. I’ll forever be grateful to Dr. Jacobsen for asking me to speak. It was also awesome to get to know many current HWS students, faculty, and staff, most of whom I’d never met before. I came away thinking that HWS is in very good hands and that its future is looking brighter than ever.”