An anatomy instructor finds her happy place digging for fossils.
What does an anatomy instructor do for fun? Amy Chew, PhD, MSc, digs for fossils. “It’s actually not that uncommon,” says Chew, a lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology who wanted to be a paleontologist but studied functional anatomy so she could land a teaching position. “There are not enough paleontological jobs,” she explains, but “if you happen to have a mammal focus, then teaching in a medical school is a legitimate option.”
Every summer Chew pursues her passion in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin, hunting for prehistoric mammals to understand how they responded to global warming events, called hyperthermals, up to 60 million years ago. “We can make predictions about what … you expect to see in the face of rapid global
warming,” she says. But funding has steadily declined, and the pandemic nearly canceled field work last year.
It also upended anatomy instruction. Due to social distancing protocols, she’s spending more time than ever with cadavers. “We’re doing all of the prosections in advance,” says Chew, who teaches anatomy for the Gateways Program too. “We’re also in the lab for seven hours while the medical students file through.” She laughs. “I really did not know that one could spend that much time in the anatomy lab and not go completely bonkers.”
Her Moment of Zen
In the field, hunting for fossils, “there’s nothing except you,” Chew says. “I just feel the tension melting away.”
Chew studies fossils of Bunophorus (pictured above), a small hoofed mammal, for changes triggered by global warming, like diet or body size. “There’s so many things we don’t know,” she says.
Chew’s first dig in the Bighorn Basin, when she was an undergraduate in 1995, “was life changing.” Now she’s the project leader.
At home in Providence, the mammals keeping Chew busy are her husband, a RISD history professor; their 11-year-old, Claire; and two cats and a guinea pig.
Chew knows anatomy isn’t for everyone: “I have met many medical doctors who find out what I do and look like they swallowed a goldfish and say, ‘I never learned anything in that course.’”