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Occidental Paleontologist Wins Prestigious Award

June 20, 1991|LORI GRANGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his tousled brown hair, eager tone and T-shirts bearing emblems of rhinoceroses, Occidental College geology professor Donald Prothero seems more like a grad student than the seasoned paleontologist that he is.

There is more that makes Prothero, 37, different from many of his professional counterparts who study plant and animal fossils at high-profile, research-oriented institutions such as Caltech, Harvard and the University of Michigan. He teaches at a small university with no research facilities, has no graduate students to assist him and has only limited access to grants.

But now Prothero has been elevated to a place of honor among his peers. He has won the 1991 Schuchert Medal, one of paleontology's two highest honors. The Glendale native is believed to be the first Schuchert recipient from a small university and only the third vertebrate paleontologist to earn the honor.

The award has been given since 1973 by the Paleontological Society, a worldwide organization with about 2,000 members, to a scientist under 40 who has contributed a large body of knowledge over at least a 10-year period. It is named after Charles Schuchert, a paleontologist whose career spanned 30 years, said Donald Wolberg, the society's secretary.

The medal usually goes to invertebrate paleontologists from well-endowed, high-powered research schools or companies, Wolberg said.

"Don is a great example of what young people entering paleontology can accomplish even if they don't get leading jobs," said Wolberg, New Mexico's state paleontologist. "He's bright, young and energetic--he's 100% paleontologist."

Prothero won the honor for his work on mammalian evolution, particularly that of rhinos, elephants and horses, from 50 million to 5 million years ago, Wolberg said.

Among other achievements, he researched an extensive rhino fossil collection and established a new body of data from which other paleontologists now draw. And after extensively studying the Eocene-Oligocene age, which introduced glaciers and modern mammals, he organized information from other scholars into a comprehensive look at that period, Wolberg said.

"Compared to other Schuchert winners, I'm not as theoretical a paleontologist," Prothero said. "But I've established the basics. I've done a lot of groundwork and created a lot of data that theoretical paleontologists wave their arms about."

The Occidental instructor, a prolific writer and researcher, is considered by his colleagues to be an expert on North American rhinos, but also is well-versed in archeology, marine geology and stratigraphy, the study of rock layering.

Prothero recently sat in his office, surrounded by rhino and dinosaur figurines, cartoons and posters. A cardboard, three-dimensional rhino sat atop his computer, near a rhino-shaped cup that held marking pens. Plastic rhinos of various sizes dotted his book-lined shelves.

The instructor at one time was a "serious" trombonist, he said. He is chairman of Occidental's Faculty Club, which organizes social functions for faculty members, and he is getting married later this year. Otherwise, he said, he lives and breathes paleontology.

"I'm one of those kids who got hooked on dinosaurs at the age of 4 and never grew up," Prothero said. "In reality, my hobby is my research. This is my work and my fun."

The former Guggenheim Foundation and National Science Foundation fellow earned degrees in biology and geology before specializing in paleontology at Columbia University.

During graduate school, as an assistant at New York's American Museum of Natural History, Prothero was able to study and organize an extensive collection of rhino fossils, he said. The work established him as a rhino expert and bolstered his interest in the prehistoric mammal.

"I love to proselytize and say, 'Stop using the evolution of the horse to show how evolution occurred,' " Prothero said. "The evolution of rhinos is just as spectacular. There were rhinos 18 feet tall who grazed on top of trees. There were some the size of a Great Dane that ran faster than a horse. Ecologically, if there's something a mammal can do, a rhino has done it."

As a graduate student, Prothero studied fossils from the Eocene-Oligocene period of 40 million to 30 million years ago, which began the Glacial Age and the greatest climatic changes since the time of dinosaurs, about 65 million years ago, he said.

In 1989, four years after arriving at Occidental, he organized a conference on that period for more than 60 scientists from around the world. Now he and a colleague are working on a two-book compilation of information gathered at the event.

Prothero, who has published two books and more than 60 scientific papers since he began teaching nine years ago, is writing or editing three other books and also is an editor of the Journal of Paleontology, published by the Paleontological Society. He said he proofreads and typesets all of his work on his home computer to save time and ensure accuracy.

Prothero's energetic approach to his work at times has sparked resentment from some of his colleagues in paleontology, partly because of the competitive nature of scientific research, Wolberg said.

"Some people feel he's done too much too quickly. They're put off by his aggressiveness and eagerness," Wolberg said. "I love it. I think it's exactly what we need."

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