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Off the Clock: Emma R. Schachner, Ph.D.

By Matt Skoufalos

From an early age, Emma Schachner’s curiosity about animals presented itself in distinct ways.

At five, she asked her pediatrician for a human cadaver, and was rewarded instead with a box of nitrile gloves. At nine, her mother came home to discover Schachner boiling a crow to perform some amateur taxidermy. (It was not uncommon, she said, for her parents to chastise their daughter after she’d brought home roadkill to study.)

But it wasn’t until she was dissecting animals in a veterinary anatomy program at the University of Pennsylvania that Schachner realized her true calling was not just a love of animals, but of their anatomy.

After having completed an undergraduate degree in political science just in time to realize she was preparing for the wrong career, Schachner, who loves art as much as she does animals, was invited by Swarthmore College developmental biology professor Scott Gilbert to assist one of his students with a project on ancient turtles. From there, she said, it was a “sideways” entry into the world of paleontology.

“I think everybody grows up liking dinosaurs, and some of us just don’t stop liking dinosaurs, and we continue on to graduate school to study dinosaurs,” Schachner said. “It was kind of an accident. My graduate supervisor, Peter Dodson, pointed out the ribs in a dinosaur skeleton, and said, ‘Look at those ribs; they look like bird ribs.’ I went from being obsessed with dinosaurs to being obsessed with their relationship to birds, their living descendants.”

Schachner continued on to England, where she earned a master’s degree in paleontology; to the University of Pennsylvania, where she completed her Ph.D. in the field, and then post-doctoral years studying alligator physiology, dog orthopedics in veterinary school and finally radiology. Today, Schachner is an associate research professor in the department of cell biology and anatomy as well as a teacher of dental anatomy, with a secondary appointment in the Department of radiology at LSU Health-New Orleans.

“I have a love of illustration, and [imaging offers] the best of both worlds,” she said. “Radiology is just beautiful; it’s combining art and science together to make a 3D model; you get to see inside an animal without destroying it.”

Schachner is as offhanded about her polymath pursuits as she is committed to them. Describing herself as “a dumpster-diving scientist,” she’s nonetheless always shown up for an opportunity to further her education. She jumped at the chance to learn how paleontologist Larry Witmer uses computed-tomography-based modeling to create digital anatomical models of dinosaur anatomy from fossil evidence and modern animals, even though it meant crashing on a friend’s couch in Ohio to do it.

“I always am trying to get people to rein in their speculation about dinosaurs,” Schachner said. “One of the things I’m interested in doing is validating the things that we do know, and I want them to be validated functionally. There’s very few things you can say with just a skeleton, and we’re working on making very hard linkages; we want to prove that the soft-tissue biology is connected to that skeletal element, and how it evolved to be that way, before making claims about extinct animals.”

“If you talk to doctors, you’ll realize we’re just barely clinging to the edge of a cliff of our understanding,” Schachner said. “We’re still learning new things about people. We know next to nothing and it’s so amazing. Now I need to know all the things. I can’t stop.”

That curiosity has impelled Schachner throughout various examinations of anatomy, but none has held her fascination so much as the study of the lungs of various animals, from birds and reptiles to humans to theoretical models of dinosaurs. Diversity of pulmonary structures is one of her chief interests, and it commands a significant focus of her research lab.

“I find that most people in my field are especially interested in heads and limbs – teeth, eyes, brain, claws; that’s mostly what people want to know about – how all animals are running around,” Schachner said. “Lungs are overlooked because the primary function of the lung is gas exchange which is well established.” 

“They’re one of the most structurally diverse organs,” she said. “In a bunch of animals, they’ve got secondary jobs – locomotion, vocalization. In crocs, they’re used to control pitch and roll in water; tortoises and lizards use them to shove their body up into crevices. They do all these kinds of things that are dramatically understudied. They’re so diverse that they can be used as a phylogenetic trait in some species; to evaluate who is related to whom.”

In her teaching and research roles, Schachner marries her insight as a scientist to her sensibilities as an artist; her interest in “the visual communication of science” is crucial to connecting a broad audience with the material she’s presented. Whether in her 3D reconstruction of alligator or bird lungs, or hand-drawn illustrations of paleontological models, Schachner takes great pains to communicate her findings in ways that educate through engagement. It’s a particularly useful mechanism when making evolutionary arguments for cross-species organ development.

“One of the most important things when I teach anatomy is teaching students about variation and evolution,” Schachner said. “When I talk about the spine, I always talk about how the discs in between the vertebrae originally evolved to be under tension instead of compression. I describe how the serratus anterior, which straps your shoulder to your body, shifts the arm position in a biped relative to how it would be in a quadruped, and how the function changes. It puts the limb in a different perspective.”

“Being bipedal has a lot of dramatic benefits, but it also has some huge drawbacks,” she said. “Understanding how animals fall into all this is completely helpful, but also explains a lot of problems that we have. If you take an isolated view of humans and think, ‘This is how it is, it’s perfect, done,’ and you’re not willing to think outside that evolutionary box, you might miss things as a clinician – especially a patient with a chronic ailment tied to their anatomy. I try to train my students this way to help them think differently as future clinicians.”

Schachner’s creativity comes into play in the logo for her lab, a chimeric archesaur she’s named Xenophon, after the Greek military leader, philosopher and historian of the third century BCE. Her Xenophon is depicted in the form of a winged alligator shown against the Orion nebula. To Schachner, he represents her interests in creative thinking, ancient studies and the advancement of the sciences.

“He’s representing my lab’s primary collection of animals that we studied,” she said. “The wings are for birds, the alligator is for the croc side, and the Orion nebula is also a rainbow, so it’s welcoming to everyone. It’s all those things together.”

When she’s not in the lab or the field, furthering her research, Schachner spends her time with her pit bull terriers, Mila and Augustus, whose massive Instagram following (@thevelvetburritos) eclipses that of her scientific work. A competitive shooter with the United States Practical Shooting Association, she is also a USCCA certified instructor, the better to educate diverse groups of people in practical firearm safety.

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