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The College’s new dean brings leadership experience and intellectual curiosity to a crucial role

Get to know Professor Melina Hale, PhD (Organismal Biology & Anatomy), and read about her vision for undergraduate education at UChicago

By Dylan Walsh / UChicago Magazine

Melina Hale wanted to study primates. The daughter of teachers turned travel agents, she had watched giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands and gorillas in Rwanda. Throughout high school she had immersed herself in a volunteer position at the Museum of Science in Boston as a “junior curator” of live animals, including rescued or confiscated alligators, owls, kinkajous, and more that were part of the museum’s educational programs.

Dreaming of a career studying animal behavior, Hale, PhD’98, applied early to Duke University, with its famed lemur center. By the following fall, she was spending much of her time there, observing the animals, taking notes, looking for patterns.

In spring semester Hale enrolled in a small seminar taught by biologist Steven Vogel. He had recently published Life’s Devices: The Physical World of Animals and Plants (Princeton University Press, 1989), a lively meditation on the ways physical laws influence the mechanical design of plants and animals. “The questions of concern here are enormously diverse,” Vogel writes in the preface, “ranging from why trees so rarely fall over and the significance of the hull shape of baby sea turtles to the relative scarcity among organisms of right angles, metals, and wheels.” It goes on in this casually curious manner.

The seminar, which worked its way through Life’s Devices, met early mornings. Vogel brought muffins from home that he had baked. Hale quickly became entranced with the subject matter—and quickly had insights. An observation she, a first-year student, made in class about the possible function of lengthwise grooves on birds’ wing feathers turned up a decade later in Vogel’s book Cats’ Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People (W. W. Norton, 1998).

To her interest in animal behavior, Hale was adding biomechanics—the study of how the myriad life-forms around us walk, fly, swim, stand, and perform countless other interactions with their environments. She joined the lab of Stephen Wainwright, whose work, together with Vogel’s, was foundational in the development of modern biomechanics.

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