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Experimenting with history

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Erik Sperling in plane
Photo credit: Richard Stockey

Erik Sperling

Assistant Professor
Geological Sciences 

June 8, 2018

It all began with a geology field class and a used book. Paleontologist Erik Sperling had been studying history and political science, but his first glimpse of geology, as a sophomore at Stanford University, planted the idea that he might become a scientist. “I decided that was way cooler,” he said. 

Sperling raced to get a foundation in calculus, physics and chemistry, enrolling in courses at the University of Washington while he was home for the summer in Seattle. He stopped by a red-awninged corner bookstore near the UW campus one day and picked up a used paperback copy of Wonderful Life, by Stephen Jay Gould, which looks at early life and evolution through the fossils of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. The book, Sperling said, made him fall in love with paleontology and studying the origin of animals. “It’s basically history,” he said. “It’s just a little bigger scale and more scientific.” 

The capacity to test ideas about the past in geology drew him in. “You can do experiments, which you can’t do with history,” explained Sperling who teaches Introduction to Geology and other courses. In seeking to understand evolutionary relationships between different animal groups and how they have responded to environmental change through time, he has looked for clues in traditional fossil data as well as in the physiology and genetics of modern animals, and the geochemistry of sediments.  

Sperling’s work has taken him from oceanographic cruises offshore California to the Wernecke Mountains in Yukon, Canada, to Namibia, the Welsh Basin in the United Kingdom, and the Burgess Shale that first sparked his curiosity in the pages of Wonderful Life. More than 15 years later, the book sits within easy reach on a shelf in Sperling’s office, dog-eared, with a white price tag still fixed to the cover: $5.48. “It’s a good deal for a career change.”