For the love of fish Bones

Dubbed ‘The Rose of Chi­nese Science,’ Mee­mann Chang, one of China’s lead­ing pa­le­on­tol­o­gists, tells Newschina about her life, ca­reer and undy­ing love for fish fos­sils

NewsChina - - PROFILE - By Fu Yao

Three days af­ter the award cer­e­mony in Paris, Mee­mann Chang was back in her of­fice at Bei­jing's In­sti­tute of Ver­te­brate Pa­le­on­tol­ogy and Pa­le­oan­thro­pol­ogy (IVPP). She de­clined al­most all in­ter­views and in­vi­ta­tions. It was as though noth­ing had hap­pened.

But on March 22, 2018, the 82-year-old pa­le­on­tol­o­gist and evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist was rec­og­nized at the L'ORÉAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards in Paris for her pi­o­neer­ing work on fos­sil records, which has led to in­sights on how aquatic ver­te­brates adapted to life on land.

Chang has spent years study­ing fish and an­i­mal fos­sils in the sed­i­men­tary basins of China's eastern coastal prov­inces. Her most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to science have been her stud­ies of the cra­nial anatomy of the ear­li­est sar­coptery­gians (a type of lobe-finned fish) from more than 400 mil­lion years ago in eastern Yun­nan Prov­ince.

In 2016, Chang won the Romer-simp­son Medal, ver­te­brate pa­le­on­tol­ogy's high­est honor. The ex­tinct sar­coptery­gian fish Mee­man­nia was named in her honor.

At the cer­e­mony, Chang de­liv­ered her ac­cep­tance speech in English, French, Swedish and Rus­sian. Her in­tel­li­gence, el­e­gance and hu­mor wowed Chi­nese in­ter­net users, who crowned her “the Real God­dess of China.”

But the pa­le­on­tol­o­gist is not yet used to her overnight pop­u­lar­ity among ne­ti­zens. “[Their zeal] sur­prised me greatly. I just did my work, and didn't do any­thing spe­cial, re­ally,” Chang said qui­etly.

Chang still in­vests most of her en­ergy into fish fos­sil stud­ies. “Re­tire­ment” is a for­eign con­cept. Ev­ery morn­ing she leaves home at 8:30am and ar­rives at the of­fice by 9am. Holidays are her fa­vorite

time of the year, for when everyone else goes on va­ca­tion, she can en­joy a quiet time at the of­fice tin­ker­ing among the an­cient bones, undis­turbed.

‘Marry First, Love Later’

“My jour­ney in ver­te­brate pa­le­on­tol­ogy re­search started 60 years ago,” Chang re­called in her ac­cep­tance speech.

“At that time, I couldn't choose my own ca­reer path. It was all planned [by the coun­try]. The ini­tial re­la­tion­ship be­tween me and pa­le­on­tol­ogy was very much like an ‘ar­ranged mar­riage'– as the say­ing goes, ‘marry first, love later,'” she joked, draw­ing laugh­ter from the au­di­ence.

Born in 1936, Chang grew up in an in­tel­lec­tual fam­ily in Nan­jing, Jiangsu Prov­ince. She de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in science at a young age, in­spired by her fa­ther, Zhang Zong­han, who was an out­stand­ing pro­fes­sor in neu­ro­phys­i­ol­ogy with a doc­toral de­gree from Chicago Uni­ver­sity. Her fa­ther's in­flu­ence saw Chang dream of be­ing a doc­tor.

This changed when Chang was aged 17 and de­cided to be­come a ge­ol­o­gist in or­der to “serve the coun­try” in the same way as many of her peers.

In the 1950s, right af­ter New China was founded, the na­tion was in ur­gent need of ge­o­log­i­cal tal­ent. But Chang's path changed once more in 1955 when she was in her first year of a ge­ol­ogy de­gree at the China Uni­ver­sity of Geo­sciences in Bei­jing, when she was posted to Moscow Uni­ver­sity to study pa­le­on­tol­ogy.

“At that time, I had no idea what pa­le­on­tol­ogy was about,” she said. Chang and dozens of her peers were sent to study dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines

of science – in­clud­ing botany and zo­ol­ogy – to meet the needs of China's sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ment.

At the sug­ges­tion of the lead­ing Chi­nese fish sci­en­tist Wu Jian­wen, Chang be­gan her life­long jour­ney in fish stud­ies.

The years in Moscow were a golden time for the young scholar. Chang and her peers col­lected pet­ri­fied fish fos­sils on the river­bank in sub­ur­ban Moscow; at night they boated on the Moscow River, cast­ing a net and draw­ing it in at 5 or 6 o'clock in the morn­ing. The crew com­pared the an­cient fos­sils they col­lected with mod­ern fish they caught to ex­plore their re­la­tion­ship.

“We kept some of the fish for re­search, but as for the rest of them, we made de­li­cious fish soup. Quite yummy ac­tu­ally,” the scholar re­called with a mis­chievous smile.

Chang re­turned to China, and be­gan work­ing at the IVPP in 1960. She be­gan to “love” the an­cient fos­sils dur­ing an early field project in Zhe­jiang Prov­ince.

“Those fos­sils looked so sim­i­lar to mod­ern fish, but still dif­fer­ent when ex­am­ined closely. What kind of mod­ern fish did those fos­sils share kin­ship with? No one knew. It was a mys­tery,” Chang said. She grew more fas­ci­nated by the mys­te­ri­ous world of an­cient fish and sought an­swers. “The in­ter­est grew bit by bit.”

Chang spent three months each year ac­com­pa­ny­ing ge­o­log­i­cal sur­vey teams to col­lect fos­sils in the field, a prac­tice she main­tained un­til the age of 80.

The only fe­male sci­en­tist in the team, Chang never got any spe­cial treat­ment dur­ing the out­door sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tions. She cut her hair short. She walked 20 kilo­me­ters a day, climbed hills and moun­tains with heavy equip­ment on her back, and slept on the ground in the wild. “Mosquitos, fleas, bugs and rats, those an­noy­ing things never gave us peace,” she re­called.

But now, those tough years are the el­derly sci­en­tist's most pre­cious mem­o­ries. “We were young, al­ways had fun to­gether and never felt tired no mat­ter how hard it seemed,” she told Newschina.

In 1965, Chang was trans­ferred to the Swedish Mu­seum of Na­tional His­tory in Stock­holm to study, but the train­ing was short­lived as the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion (1966-1976), which broke out a year later, saw her sum­moned back to China. It was not un­til 1980, at the age of 44, that Chang made it back to Swe­den to con­tinue her doc­toral stud­ies at Stock­holm Uni­ver­sity.

In 1983, Chang be­came the first fe­male head of the IVPP. As China's most cel­e­brated pa­le­on­tol­o­gist, she played an in­stru­men­tal role in re­viv­ing the coun­try's pa­le­on­to­log­i­cal re­search, nur­tured Chi­nese grad­u­ate stu­dents in pa­le­on­tol­ogy, and as­sumed a piv­otal role in fos­ter­ing in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions.

It was the decade in which China grad­u­ally woke from iso­la­tion and strove to cope with the dras­tic changes tak­ing place around the world. The surge of new the­o­ries, cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy and newly es­tab­lished in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary fields in Western bi­o­log­i­cal re­search left many Chi­nese schol­ars at a loss.

Along with other lead­ing Chi­nese pa­le­on­tol­o­gists like Zhou Mingzhen and Yu Xiaobo, Chang spent years trans­lat­ing new aca­demic pa­pers, books and ma­te­ri­als into Chi­nese, com­pil­ing them into two an­tholo­gies, lay­ing the foun­da­tion for the de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern Chi­nese pa­le­on­tol­ogy.

“Those trans­lated works had a far-reach­ing in­flu­ence at that time. Western the­o­ries, af­ter be­ing in­tro­duced to China, were im­me­di­ately put to use to guide sci­en­tific re­search. And the aca­demic gap caused by the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion was grad­u­ally filled by the sci­en­tists of our gen­er­a­tion,” Zhu Min, then a stu­dent who helped Chang with trans­la­tions and who is now a re­searcher at the IVPP, told Newschina.

Ground­break­ing Dis­cov­ery

In Chang's IVPP of­fice hangs a car­toon de­pict­ing the pa­le­on­tol­o­gist her­self strolling on a sunny beach, walk­ing hand in hand with a bizarre, one-me­ter fish. The cap­tion reads: “Young, let me take you to the 20th cen­tury!”

The paint­ing was a birth­day gift Chang re­ceived from a stu­dent seven years ago. The fish, iden­ti­fied as “Young” in the picture, rep­re­sents her most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to science – the study of Youn­golepis.

There is over­whelm­ing sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that hu­mans and other land-based ver­te­brates, or “tetrapods” (mam­mals, birds, reptiles and am­phib­ians) are de­scended from fish. Our prim­i­tive aquatic an­ces­tors ex­pe­ri­enced a com­pre­hen­sive trans­for­ma­tion of all body parts, in­clud­ing the res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem, to move from the ocean to land.

Hu­mans have four nos­trils – the two ex­te­rior ones, as well as two in­ter­nal ones known as “choanae.” They func­tion to­gether to en­able us to breathe through the nose into the lungs. For decades, the ques­tion of how hu­mans came to have such a struc­ture was a mys­tery.

It was the renowned 20th Cen­tury Swedish pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Erik Jarvik who the­o­rized that the porolepi­forms, a pre­his­toric lobe-finned fish which lived in the Devo­nian Pe­riod (416m BCE-358M BCE), had three sets of nos­trils: two ex­ter­nal that were ol­fac­tory in­stead of res­pi­ra­tory, and one in­ter­nal set for breath­ing on land. For years, this con­clu­sion had been a main­stream view in in­ter­na­tional pa­le­on­tol­ogy.

In 1980, Chang vis­ited the Swedish Mu­seum of Na­tional His­tory in Stock­holm and learned from Jarvik. She spent two years study­ing the fos­sil of Youn­golepis, a genus of the ear­li­est sar­coptery­gians from the Early Devo­nian about 407-416 mil­lion years ago. The fos­sil was un­earthed by Chang and her stu­dent Yu Xiaobo in Qu­jing city, in South­west China's Yun­nan Prov­ince.

Chang used the serial-sec­tion tech­nique she had learned from Jarvik to in­ves­ti­gate in ex­quis­ite de­tail the fine struc­ture of the 2.8-cen­time­ter cra­nium of the fos­sil. Over two years, she drew over 540 pic­tures and made thin wax plates. She cre­ated a three-di­men­sional scale model out of these wax plates, show­ing the in­ter­nal struc­tures clearly.

A eureka mo­ment oc­curred in the process of draw­ing and sec­tion­ing, as Chang dis­cov­ered that the Youn­golepis had no in­ter­nal nos­trils at all. Such a sur­pris­ing find­ing led her to re-ex­am­ine porolepi­forms, which she found had no in­ter­nal nos­tril ei­ther.

“At first I couldn't be­lieve my eyes. How come it was dif­fer­ent from what my teacher [Jarvik] said? Then I read books and rechecked it many times and was fi­nally sure: It was in­deed dif­fer­ent. The dis­cov-

ery was a big thrill,” Chang told Newschina.

Chang's dis­cov­ery over­turned the main­stream view and led to a decade-long de­bate on the char­ac­ter­is­tics of lobe-finned fish.

In the early 1990s, Chang and her stu­dent, Zhu Min, un­earthed the fos­sil of a small lobe-finned fish called Kenichthys, which dated from 395 mil­lion years ago in Qu­jing, Yun­nan Prov­ince. Kenichthys is im­por­tant to the study of the evo­lu­tion of tetrapods be­cause of its unique nos­trils: they show the evo­lu­tion of nasal pas­sages at their mid­way point, with two nos­trils in be­tween the front teeth.

The unique res­pi­ra­tory struc­ture of Kenichthys pro­vides vi­tal ev­i­dence for the the­ory that while the two nos­trils re­main on the ex­te­rior, the other set slowly moved through the teeth and pal­ette to be­come choanae.

Ded­i­cated Life

“Pro­fes­sor Chang's forth­right words and ac­tions do of­fend some peo­ple,” says Miao De­sui, one of Chang's long-term aca­demic part­ners who has co-au­thored more than 20 ar­ti­cles with her. “It is quite an un­der­state­ment to de­scribe her as a mild-tem­pered per­son.” Miao is the pa­le­on­tol­ogy col­lec­tions man­ager at the Uni­ver­sity of Kansas, and a re­search as­so­ci­ate at the IVPP.

In Miao's eyes, Chang, whether as a leader or a re­searcher, is a per­son of ruth­less di­rect­ness who “sticks strictly to the prin­ci­ples.” “She hates aca­demic mis­con­duct in the sci­en­tific re­search com­mu­nity to the bone and never hes­i­tates to lash out,” Miao said.

Chang has been even busier since 2016 when she re­ceived the Romer-simp­son Medal. Her life is in­creas­ingly crammed with meet­ings, pa­per re­views, let­ter writ­ing and see­ing old friends.

“Get­ting busy made me a bit anx­ious,” the sci­en­tist told Newschina. “I would be ex­tremely happy if I could have six or seven hours ev­ery day for re­search with­out be­ing dis­turbed,” she said.

Chang is cur­rently re­search­ing the throats of cyprinid fish that lived dur­ing the more re­cent di­nosaur age (known as the Me­so­zoic Era (252m BCE-66M BCE).

In the mid-1990s, Chang handed over the fruit­ful study of fish fos­sils in the Devo­nian Pe­riod to Zhu Min and other younger schol­ars and turned her fo­cus to Me­so­zoic fish stud­ies.

Un­like the Devo­nian, the Me­so­zoic Era is not a sig­nif­i­cant turn­ing point in the course of life evo­lu­tion, mean­ing Me­so­zoic fish fos­sils are usu­ally deemed to have less po­ten­tial to pro­duce im­me­di­ate and fruit­ful aca­demic re­search.

Chang has made ef­forts for two decades to re­search these “un­wanted hard bones,” hop­ing that one day sci­en­tists of younger gen­er­a­tions may dis­cover some­thing im­por­tant based on her long-term ac­cu­mu­la­tions. “I might not have the chance to see the re­sult in my re­main­ing days. But surely such work must be done,” she said.

Chang feels a sense of ur­gency and man­ages to in­vest as much time as pos­si­ble into re­search. She of­ten mo­ti­vates her­self with a quote, which she loves dearly, from the poem “Huanx­isha: A Visit to Qingquan Tem­ple” by the great North­ern Song poet Su Shi (1037-1101). “Who says life can­not be young again? / Even the river in front of the tem­ple is flow­ing west. / There is no need to sigh that time goes fast and man be­comes old quickly.”

“I feel there are still too many things out there wait­ing for me to dis­cover. I have no time to feel tired,” she said.

Zhu Min un­der­stands how her men­tor feels. “For sci­en­tists who re­search evo­lu­tion like us, the life of a hu­man be­ing is noth­ing but a short episode in the en­tire process of an­i­mal evo­lu­tion. Pa­le­on­tol­ogy, as a branch of the ba­sic sciences, might not have an im­me­di­ate in­flu­ence on hu­man so­ci­ety as ap­plied sciences do. But our work is to help peo­ple un­der­stand the his­tory of the Earth, and make a con­tri­bu­tion to com­plet­ing hu­man knowl­edge,” Zhu told Newschina.

Mee­man Chang in her of­fice

Mee­man Chang gives a speech at the L’ORÉAL-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards in Paris, March 22, 2018

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.