Dr. William Shear, Biologist

Life's transition from the sea to the land was perhaps as much of an evolutionary challenge as Genesis. What forms of life were able to make such a drastic change in lifestyle? -- Jane Gray and William Shear

Bill Shear, a biologist at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, has always had a keen interest in the evolution of insects and spiders. He and his colleagues helped to reveal some of the earliest tiny land arthropods hidden among primitive land plant fossils. To get a clearer look at these fossils, Shear used hydrofluoric acid to dissolve away the surrounding rock and expose the organic fragments of both the fossilized plants and minute animals.

After extracting the microfossils from the rock, Shear painstakingly pieced together the exposed fragments revealing a whole suite of arthropods, including one similar to a modern spider. "I can remember seeing some of the really striking fossils for the first time," he recalls. "I got a feeling of excitement that's probably very similar to scoring the big touchdown at the homecoming game. You just feel on top of the world, and it makes it worth all of the tedious searching and work that leads up to that." Shear's work is consistent with what other scientists have found—arthropods did not move from sea to land in one invasion. Instead, many different groups invaded the land independently.

About Bill Shear’s Career

William A. Shear, Ph.D., is a biologist and the Trinkle Distinguished Professor of Biology at Hampden-Sydney College in central Virginia. He received his Ph.D. in entomology from Harvard University in 1991. Shear’s areas of expertise include entomology, invertebrate zoology, evolutionary theory and the history of earth and life. He has published many papers on new species of millipedes and harvestmen from around the world.

Shear is a member of the American Arachnological Society, the Cambridge Entomological Club and the Paleontological Society, among other affiliations. He is a Research Associate at the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. Shear has authored many scholarly papers and articles, as well as the book Spiders: Webs, Behavior and Evolution.

 

William Shear
Career Questions and Answers

How did you choose your present profession?
I was "raised in the woods" in the Pennsylvania mountains, and my earliest interest was in the plants around me. My grandmother, who had studied botany, taught me all the names and loaned me her ancient botany books from around the turn of the (20th) century.

In college (College of Wooster, OH), I first wanted to major in English literature, then considered Speech/Theatre before coming back to Biology. I was very fortunate in falling under the influence of Andy Weaver, along with a tight group of other students who reinforced one another’s interests in Biology. Andy is a wonderful teacher and mentor who has made himself expert on several arthropod groups (spiders, centipedes, copepods, water mites) largely by self-study. His enthusiasm was communicable and a good percentage of our little group became professional biologists. Andy also solidified my desire to teach, as well as to do research.

Later, in graduate school at Harvard, Herb Levi provided additional gentle guidance. Herb is a wonderfully generous man who also happens to have done more to advance the study of spiders than almost anybody in the last century. But he let me do a thesis on millipedes!

Finally about 20 years ago I met Ian Rolfe, then curator at the Royal Museum of Scotland. Ian turned me on to fossils, made sure I met all the right people, including my frequent collaborator, Paul Selden, and generally promoted my career as a paleontologist.

Now I am always looking for ways to return that favor by helping graduate students and new paleontologists find exciting projects. Although our college doesn't have a graduate program, this has given me the chance to interact with some really brilliant young professionals.

What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
First, I'd strongly suggest that they find a small, private liberal-arts college with a good Biology Department. The individual attention they will get will provide them with a huge head start. Most small colleges also get students into research as quickly as possible. My friends and I had great advantages in graduate school by having already done what were at that time Masters-level research projects.

Secondly, be sure that you always follow your own enthusiasms— don't pick a problem to work on because it is "hot" even though it does not interest or excite you. You'll do best if what you are researching is compelling to you.

Thirdly, stay as broad as you can in your education as long as you can; if you avoid early specialization you will be better positioned to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

What do you like best about your profession?
On the research side, I like best the aspect of discovery that looking for new species, new fossils, and new evolutionary links brings. After more than 35 years and more than 200 new species, it is as fresh as ever! In teaching, I like introducing students to Biology--teaching our first course for freshmen. I find great rewards in seeing the amazing world of life anew through their eyes and in helping them to understand their observations.

What web sites and references would you recommend for viewers interested in your work that was featured in The Shape of Life series?
Because of my clumsy web-browser, it's difficult to copy urls into a message. We have such efficient search engines available today, that students can find a wealth of sites just by searching on the names of the kinds of animals that interest them. So I'll pass on this one.