May 27, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 17

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    [michael labarbera] by jason smith
    Michael LaBarbera

    Michael LaBarbera, Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy and Geophysical Sciences

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    The wheels are always turning in Michael LaBarbera’s undergraduate classrooms. Sometimes LaBarbera does the driving, sometimes his students do, but the results are often the same: they end up leaving tracks in previously uncharted territory. That could explain why LaBarbera is one of the 1999 recipients of a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    “As many people have argued, good teaching very often reinforces good scholarship and vice versa,” said LaBarbera, Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy and Geophysical Sciences. “Some of the colleagues I stand in awe of really exemplify that idea. I am humbled by the company I keep with respect to the Quantrells.”

    LaBarbera probably is best-known among undergraduates for his introductory Biological Sciences 184 course, Biological Diversity, which spans everything from bacteria to mammals. But they also know him for more specialized courses in invertebrate zoology and fluid dynamics and a field course on oceanic environments.

    Shortly after LaBarbera joined the Chicago faculty in 1978, he taught a Biological Sciences Core course for non-majors. One of his students asked him a question that culminated in rare fashion a year later with a published journal article by LaBarbera.

    “It was one of those curiosity questions that you get asked after a lecture that has nothing to do with the lecture,” LaBarbera said. The student came up and asked, “Why don’t animals have wheels?”

    LaBarbera gave the stock answer. Animals with wheels would have to evolve a circulatory system that could pump fluids through a rotating joint, an unlikely though not impossible development. But LaBarbera further wondered if wheels would really help an organism. The answer is no.

    “Wheels are useful on manmade, artificial terrain like streets and parking lots, but they’re not terribly useful on natural terrain,” LaBarbera said. “If you put on a pair of Rollerblades, you can go like crazy down the sidewalk, across the street and around the parking lot, but don’t try it on the grass. It doesn’t work.”

    LaBarbera also asked himself in what natural environments would wheels actually be useful? It turned out that rolling forms of locomotion––the equivalents of wheels––have evolved in those environments where the vegetation is sparse and the landscape is relatively flat. On the African savanna, for example, dung beetles make little balls out of elephant dung, which they use to feed their larvae.

    “The student forced me to think about the question in a different way than I ever had and indeed than anyone had ever thought about it,” he said. “The real answer turned out to be a lot richer, I think, than the standard answer.”

    And the American Naturalist article that the question inspired continues to be LaBarbera’s most frequently requested reprint.

    But even Quantrell recipients rarely write journal articles triggered by an undergraduate’s question. Much more often professors bring undergraduates into their laboratories so the students can conduct their own research. Three currently work in LaBarbera’s lab.

    Elizabeth Davis studies barnacles for what could become her honors thesis project. The shipping industry spends billions of dollars annually removing them from the hulls of their vessels. “They get on ships’ bottoms, then drag goes up by 20 to 25 percent and fuel economy goes down,” LaBarbera said.

    Using high-speed video equipment that captures the action at up to 1,000 frames per second, Davis is conducting the first careful study of how barnacles capture their food. “We already know that they’re doing some clever things that no one appreciates, just from her preliminary work,” he said.

    Another student, Nicolle Lively, from LaBarbera’s course on fluid dynamics, is investigating the architecture of mammalian circulatory systems.

    “A circulatory system is a bunch of pipes for carrying fluid flow. Clearly the details of the architecture matter. You spend 15 to 20 percent of your total metabolism just circulating blood,” LaBarbera explained.

    Meanwhile, another fluid dynamics student, Alexi Rivera, became interested in blastoids, an extinct marine creature. Working from the fossil record and previous research, Rivera and LaBarbera made a blastoid model and studied its movements in a flow tank to learn which postures would bring in the most food.

    “Once we start looking at them from this point of view, the animals tell us explicitly which way they sat,” LaBarbera said. “It turns out that the standard models are all wrong. The animals would have starved to death.”