Professor Profile: Thomas Hegna

Mathew Ward

 Thomas Hegna is an assistant paleontology professor at Western Illinois University and has taught for five years.

 Hegna explained that he’s wanted to be a paleontologist since he was a child and that his father played a crucial role in his passion for science.

 “The relevant thing is I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist since I was very little,” Hegna said. “My father is a high school biology and chemistry teacher, so he would let me play in his teaching lab when I was little with the bones and other things that he had, and he would sometimes check out books from the high school library for me when I was little.”

 Hegna has been in 16 professional articles including Geology Today, Paleontology and Arthropods Systematics and Phylogenetics. He has given many presentations in the past and gave one in the fall on trilobite taphonomy — or how trilobites, an extinct marine arthropod, fossilize.

 “My number of conference abstracts, I don’t even have a count but it’s somewhere around 50 now,” Hegna said.

 He explained the career choices that paleontologists have and shed light on why he chose to become a professor.

 “When you’re a paleontologist, you’re typically either a professor at a university or you’re a researcher associated with a museum,” Hegna said. “I found that I liked the interaction with students and the education aspect, which is why I pursued the teaching side of it.”

 His research focuses mainly on arthropods and fossilized arthropods, such as monkey shrimp and a small crustacean known as triops.

 “I’m interested in both how arthropods are related to one another, figuring out their evolution but also in understanding preservation, how you go from carcass to fossil and what information about the animal is lost along the way (and) how the morphological information is transformed from biological to geological,” Hegna said.

 He explained that paleontology is also what he does when he’s not being a professor.

 “It’s what I do in my downtime as well as reading or thinking about or doing research,” Hegna said. “That’s my idea of fun.”

 Hegna also enjoys searching and collecting old articles on arthropods.

 “One thing that’s sort of a hobby within (paleontology) is pursuing old published articles on fossil arthropods,” Hegna said. “I have a database that contains just about every published article on fossilized branchiopod crustaceans as well as pretty close to most of the article on trilobites.”

 Hegna traveled to the Great Basin area while pursuing his undergraduate and master’s degree. While he was there, he didn’t do very much fieldwork, but instead visited a lot of museums. He recalls his travels later when he was a doctorate student.

 “I spent some time in Copenhagen working with a scientist who was studying modern crustaceans and modern crustacean larvae, and then I spent some time in southern France in a little regional museum in the town called Lodeve, which has a collection of natostracans there like triops that I was studying,” Hegna explained.

 He then visited the Natural History Museum in London and spent two weeks in Beijing, and another two weeks in Nanjing, China where he studied fairy shrimp.

 In the future Hegna wishes to visit Russia.

 “One of the things that I want to do eventually is go to Russia and reevaluate some fossil specimens from central Asia that have never really been properly illustrated, or described and are really kind of a mystery as to where they fit into the evolution of fairy shrimp in particular,” Hegna said.

 Hegna concluded by stating that his teaching philosophy focuses on students applying what they learn in his classes to their personal passions.

 “I firmly believe that teaching critical thinking in particular is where science is important, and that ability to move from evidence to interpretation is vital for an informed citizen,” Hegna said. “When I teach my history of the earth class I’m under no illusion that the students who take that for general credit are going to become natural historians or go into paleontology, but instead I want them to understand how we take evidence and use it to make claims about the past.”