Bound By Research, Friendship
Sunday, July 31, 2011
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
A former scientist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History now is teaching at a foreign university and involved in fossil research.
Paris Pavlakis is participating in the East Libya Neogene Research Project. He said it is a group of more than 30 European and American scientists searching for and studying fossils in the Sahara Desert.
Pavlakis is director of field research; Noel Boaz, founder of the museum in Martinsville, is international director for the project.
The participating scientists are finding skeletons of animal species that lived 6 to 8 million years ago, Pavlakis said.
As dry and hot as it is, "you'd think the Sahara was always a desert," but it was not, he said. "Eight million years ago, it had a very nice river flowing, and it was full of vegetation. It was a nice tropical forest" with animals including hippopotamuses, primates and birds, plus fish and other aquatic life.
Pavlakis said he has gone to Libya each January and February since 2006 to do field work for the project, but he did not go this year because of political upheaval there. He never felt in danger during his visits, he said, noting that the research project is supported by Libyan officials.
"Libyans are a wonderful nation" of congenial people, he said.
The International Institute for Human Evolutionary Research is a nonprofit organization founded by Boaz. Since his return to Martinsville, the institute now is based here.
That prompted Pavlakis' recent visit to Martinsville. He and Boaz got together to finish some research papers they plan to send to international scientific journals for publication.
Now that Boaz is living in Martinsville, Pavlakis said he hopes to visit the city "much more often" as they collaborate, and he will encourage other scientists to visit both the institute and the museum.
Boaz, who recently returned to Martinsville after teaching medical students in Saudi Arabia, and Pavlakis are longtime friends and collaborators in science projects. They met 33 years ago when Pavlakis was a graduate student at the University of California Los Angeles and Boaz was teaching there.
The student-teacher relationship evolved into a tight friendship. In addition to their collaboration on projects, "he's my daughter's godfather," said Boaz of Pavlakis.
Pavlakis never thought it would be more than 20 years before he returned to Martinsville, a city he grew to love during the four years he worked for the Virginia Museum of Natural History.
He was a research scientist at the museum in the 1980s during its infancy. At the time, the museum was in a former school on Douglas Avenue.
Now living in Greece, Pavlakis is a professor of paleontology - the study of life forms that existed in prehistoric times - in the Department of Geology and Geoenvironment at the University of Athens.
"I always wanted to come back here" to Martinsville, he said while visiting the museum's new, larger building on Starling Avenue for the first time last week. "It is a place for which I have the best of memories," including times spent with his children during their youth.
Despite its economic problems in recent years, he said, "Martinsville is ever as beautiful as it was."
Pavlakis is optimistic that the New College Institute's evolution into a branch campus of a university will help attract people to Martinsville and revive the area's economy. He said Martinsville will be an excellent place for a university because unlike at higher education institutions in large cities such as Athens, students will not have to travel far to attend classes.
"Your mind already is tired, and you're finished for the day if you've driven in traffic for an hour" to get to classes, he mused.
Also, he noted that Martinsville is near metropolitan areas, major highways and airports, which would make it easy for students to get to the area from virtually anywhere.
Recalling Boaz's vision for the museum to grow, Pavlakis said the Starling Avenue facility is "a wonderful, amazing building, comparable to any other modern museum."
He said he wants the museum to eventually be able to increase its number of exhibits, educational efforts and involvement in natural history research.
"Museums are better institutions to do scientific research than universities," Pavlakis said, because universities' main concern is teaching students.
Although he is involved in research at the University of Athens, he said he spends more than 50 percent of his time in teaching and related activities.