Professor Lars Schmitz explores prehistoric era to understand life today

Professor Lars Schmitz.

Photo by Anibal Ortiz

A lot of kids go through a dinosaur phase. But Lars Schmitz never outgrew a youthful interest in paleontology, which sparked his imagination at age 8. Instead, the study of our prehistoric past inspired him to explore the evolution of life — specifically how the environment influences evolution.

One of the seven stellar scientists and educators to join the Kravis Department of Integrated Sciences (KDIS) faculty at Claremont McKenna College in May, Professor Schmitz sees paleontology as a biological science, “a way to understand how life responds to climate change over large geological time spans.”

Among his current research projects, Schmitz is seeking to understand how animals adapted from sea to land, and vice versa. “How is it possible? How did animals adapt to underwater swimming? It’s essentially like flying through the ocean, versus being on the sea floor. How did these animals solve problems that arose from changes in their environment?”

As an example, Schmitz explained that by “looking at several groups of marine organisms, we discovered how their eyes and fins are shaped to allow them to see and swim efficiently in open water. An interesting pattern we are exploring is that expansions to life in the open ocean might have been easier when these oceans were very warm. Some organisms may benefit from a warmer ocean, whereas others suffer a great deal.”

Schmitz is an ideal and enthusiastic fit for the innovative KDIS program, which is organized around three grand challenges: Health (Genomics, Systems Biology, and Health), the brain (Brain, Learning, and Decision Sciences), and our planet (Climate, Energy, and the Environment).

While Schmitz acknowledges that “there are a lot of connections between all three” challenges, he sees his work and teaching as expanding the department’s focus on Planet. “I can offer a deep-time perspective on environmental change and how it impacts life,” he said. “It’s not just the short-term consequences, but there’s a long-term perspective that is interesting because we have been dealing with very warm phases in the history of life several times before, and there were marked changes to the biodiversity. I mean, it was profound.”

He recalls when he realized that “a deep time perspective” was worth pursuing. As a child, he was inspired to become a paleontologist after borrowing a book about prehistoric life from his older brother (a book he admits, he was reluctant to return). 

Growing up in Halle (Westfalen), Germany, Schmitz expanded his interest from reading books to exploring the region’s limestone quarries, where he hunted for fossils and shells. This pursuit continued at the University of Bonn, where he earned the German equivalent of a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Geology and Paleontology. From there he headed to UC Davis, where he earned his Ph.D. and worked as a post-doctoral scholar. 

Schmitz eventually settled in Claremont at the W.M. Keck Science Center, where he taught 5C students and led them through their own research. He noted that “student research is very important because it gives them something they can actively work on, immerse themselves in, and learn that they can discover something. I think that is the most valuable experience,” he said.

As Schmitz and his new KDIS faculty colleagues build the foundation for the interdisciplinary department at CMC, Schmitz relishes the opportunity. “We are starting from scratch, a completely empty drawing board,” he said. “We can develop something without constraints, where everything is fair game. We can be creative and essentially work backward from the problems we’re trying to solve. What do we need? How can we get there? And then build a curriculum with the end goal that students can make their own immediate, meaningful solutions.”

Anne Bergman

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