Innovator Spotlight: Michael Caldwell

Michael Caldwell’s work continues to unearth secrets that rewrite history.


Dr. Michael Caldwell, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science, takes us on an adventure to find fossils in ancient rocks, search for living forms and reflect on how science as a scholarly pursuit can intersect with art or philosophy as a way of understanding the world around us.

In this week’s spotlight, Michael challenges existing paradigms about what we know of the universe and shares why engaging in science leads to discovering more relative trust than absolutes.

How do you describe your work to people who don’t work in your field?

I study how living things change over vast periods of time. I use the phrase ‘change over time’ because it describes very simply the key components of my research. In more discipline-specific jargon, I study major organismal transformations (i.e, on macroevolutionary scales) over geologic time (i.e., tens to hundreds of millions of years). In practical terms, this means I hunt for fossils in ancient rocks spread round the world. I also comb through the world’s museum collections to study both fossils and living forms of snakes and lizards. It’s very exciting stuff actually!

What’s one big problem you want to solve through your work?

The first part of this response is big-picture scale stuff: Recognizing that science is in the business of discovering relative truths, not absolutes. I find my scholarly brain is antagonized on a regular basis by scientists who proclaim to have solved, absolutely and forever, a particular problem. Nope. Not true. You have merely modified an existing hypothesis with the addition of a couple of new data points. Second (and so on): These problems become really rather more mundane and concern such things as the evolutionary loss of the front legs in snakes. I would love to find a fossil of an animal we could recognize as a four legged snake.

What does the word “innovation” mean to you?

Innovation is a tricky word, especially today, where innovations such as new mobile phone tech, etc., are perceived as significant improvements in the social, political, economic and scholarly sense. I don’t do that kind of thing.

Instead, I see my scholarly innovation in terms of the intangibles, the non-object based innovations about how we see the world—the intersections, I suppose, where science as a scholarly pursuit intersects with art or philosophy as ways of seeing the world. I think my work remains innovative because I challenge existing paradigms in order to generate new relative, testable knowledge, as I try to understand how everything works.

What’s been your biggest a-ha moment — in life or work — so far?

There have been many to be honest. Perhaps the most career-changing moment occurred in the spring of 1996, on my first trip to Jerusalem. I was traveling with my postdoc pal, good friend and now life long colleague, Michael S. Y. Lee (Flinders University) on what we have since dubbed the “Snake with Legs World Tour'' while in collections at Hebrew University, Givat Ram Campus. We went thinking we were going to see a couple of specimens of a marine lizard known as a dolichosaur. Standing there together on day one, we opened the museum drawer, took one look at the specimen, and realized, “Oh my, that is not a lizard, but a snake…and it has fully formed back legs with at least two toes.” Two weeks later and still in Jerusalem, we had the framework written and illustrated, of what became a career-changing Nature paper published in 1997.

How do you or your team come up with your best ideas?

Like the “a-ha!” question, many "new best ideas" are often little more than serendipity. For example, when I head out into the deserts of Northern Patagonia (central Argentina), I have no idea what marvelous and unexpected treasures I might find preserved in the rocks. The same applies to discoveries in museum drawers. However, luck does not describe all best ideas. I find instead that most of my innovative work arises from my belief that no truths are so precious that they cannot be questioned. Through 22 years of mentoring students and postdocs here at the U of A, I am proud to have ground into them my core scholarly philosophy: “Question everything.”

What’s your favourite thing about working at the U of A?

I have been able to attract and retain brilliant graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from Edmonton, Alberta, across Canada and around the world. This is because the historic U of A has fostered more than 114 years of scholarly achievement across numerous disciplines and is known around the world for its public accessibility and excellent scholarship. Professors and students of all kinds are the engine powering that success and reputation. I hope that continues.

How does your work, your contributions to innovation help you lead with purpose?

I have had numerous opportunities in my personal and professional life where I found myself in leadership roles that I had never intended to be in but were due to the result of my actions. I did not plan for any of it to happen even though I held youth leadership roles as a kid in Boy Scouts, was the Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences for 11 years and now in my 25-year long career as a leader in my academic discipline. I have always, when the role and responsibility was suddenly mine to embrace on behalf of others, wondered how I got there.

As I have gotten older, and reflection comes upon me, I realize that in all of the myriad moments in my life where I have been asked to assume such leadership roles, I can see in hindsight that I always had a clear and guiding purpose “to know.” I suppose this is why the academy, scholarship, research, teaching and lifelong learning is where I find my home, where my purpose is fulfilled and where and why I can demonstrate leadership for students, grad students, postdocs and my colleagues. I believe that what I do has value, and so I believe in what we all do. I have come to see that others find value in that perspective and believe that I will do my best to help them to achieve their individual and collective goals.

Do you have a role model at the U of A? How have they influenced you?

Yes, it was Dr. George Ball, an entomologist, evolutionary biologist and systematist. I was an undergraduate student here in the late 80s, and did project work with George. When I returned to the U of A in July 2000, George was resisting retirement in order to ensure the longevity of the entomology program. He represented for me that critical combination of natural leadership and personal integrity, blended with his focus on excellence in scholarship accomplished through hard work, dedication to the craft and data, and a personal philosophy of science and knowledge acquisition. On top of that, he was simply a great guy.

What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

Yes, and it is a long list, but the ones that excite me most are all focused on the origins and evolution of teeth going back in time to the origins of jawed vertebrates (~410 million years ago). I got started back in 1998 on what seemed like a simple study on the dental tissues of fossil and living snakes (dental histology) that quickly showed that how we thought the teeth were attached to the jaws was in fact, not how they were attached at all. In the 24 years that have gone by, this has evolved into a paradigm shifting research program that has been embraced by research groups around the world. My ongoing work has a lot more secrets to reveal that rewrite what we once thought we knew. I find that to be particularly exciting.

About Michael

Michael Caldwell, born in Calgary and raised in Sherwood Park, undertook two years of three year BA (‘79-81), and then completed two U of A undergraduate degrees (B.P.Ed. ‘86; B.Sc. ‘91). He studied at McGill (Ph.D., ‘91-’95) and held an NSERC PDF at the Field Museum, Chicago and at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. (‘95-97). His first research appointment was at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa (‘97-2000). He came to the U of A in July 2000 as an Assistant Professor. From 2008-2019 he served as Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences. He was also the founding President of the Canadian Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology (2013).

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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