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If you like Tim White's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald Johanson,
Richard Leakey,
Meave Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes,
Kent Weeks and
Edward O. Wilson

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Middle Awash
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Integrative Biology

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Tim D. White
Tim D. White
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Tim D. White Interview

Pioneering Paleoanthropologist

May 4, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

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  Tim D. White

Here we are in 2001, the beginning of the 21st century. Can you give us some sense of the state of your field? Where are we now in paleoanthropology and the study of human origins?

Tim White: Right now we have come out of a decade of research going on in Ethiopia. This research has resulted in discoveries, I think, that were unanticipated ten years ago. We've extended, now, the time over which we know our ancestors -- our direct ancestors -- all the way back to 6 million years ago. We've done so with a series of discoveries, including a skeleton -- a lot of these are unpublished yet -- but we have a skeleton at 4.4 million years ago. That's a million-point-two years older than the Lucy skeleton. And you start to calculate the number of generations that that takes us back into the very deep human past. That's just tremendous.

Tim D. White Interview Photo

So if anything, we're now sort of backlogged, with so many discoveries that have occurred, and at the same time it's a wonderful backlog to have, because you can understand things about the biology of these ancestors that were just inaccessible (a) without the fossils, and (b) without our knowledge from biology which is now being applied.

We can understand, by studies in developmental biology laboratories, about how hands grow to the shape that they've taken today. And when you look, for instance, at the hand of a human, we have these relatively short fingers and relatively long thumb. If you look at the hand of a chimpanzee, the fingers are much longer, the thumb is very much shorter. This is just because of development. The chimpanzee developmental biology is different from ours. And a lot of this goes back really right into biochemistry and right into genetics. So we live in very exciting times in biology, and the potential to apply these advances in biological knowledge to an interpretation of the fossil record, where we have an actual hand from 4.4 million years ago of a single individual. It's just mind-blowing. We're going to learn a tremendous amount about what that ancient world was like, due to these discoveries in Ethiopia, and discoveries in science in general.

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Tim D. White Interview Photo
Tim D. White Interview Photo

Let's go back to the beginning of your career. You went from UC Riverside to graduate school at the University of Michigan, but that wasn't your first choice was it?

Tim White: I really wanted to go from the University of California at Riverside to UC Berkeley. Berkeley of course is the larger institution in the system, many more students, much more prestigious place, and in those days, more importantly for me, the folks there were working in Kenya and in Tanzania. So there were active field work projects. I always knew that I wanted to do field work in East Africa. Ever since those National Geographics came out, I'd wanted to do that. So I was dead set on getting in there. In my undergraduate years, I had learned that, whereas maybe a lot of the folks I was in college with were a lot smarter then I was, that if I worked really hard and spent those nights in the library, that I could also get A's in the classes, and I started to do that my last two years. So I had quite a good GPA, good record. I thought, "I'll get into Berkeley." Wrong! Did not get into the University of California at Berkeley.

Wasn't that devastating?

Tim White: Yeah, it really was. I questioned seriously whether I wanted to do anything else, because there were no other programs in the United States that had field work in Africa in those days.

I had, on the advice of one of my professors -- now a good friend and close colleague of mine -- filled out an application to the University of Michigan. I filled it out in pencil, handwritten, sent it to Ann Arbor as sort of a... I think it was more of the professor's backup than mine, because it really, for me, wasn't any backup to Berkeley. As it turns out, if I'd gone to Berkeley, I most likely would not have gotten the faculty position at Berkeley that I hold now, and have held since graduate school. I went to Berkeley right out of graduate school. So now I'm in a position at Berkeley where I accept graduate students and I look at it, I'm sure, in a very different way.

Have you shared with any of your graduate students that you didn't get into Berkeley yourself?

Tim White: Oh, everybody knows. It became kind of a joke in the department that I was in, that I couldn't get in as a graduate student, but I came in as a professor.

You say that you could not have had your present position because Berkeley tends not to hire its own graduate students?

Tim White: That's right.

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This page last revised on Nov 02, 2010 19:14 EDT
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