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Dr. Mary Schweitzer

When we think of invention, we imagine objects: a super-charged chip that can revolutionize the world of computers or a new material to change the way we clothe ourselves.

With a single discovery, Dr. Mary Schweitzer, an associate professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences, created an entire field of study. Several years ago, while studying dissolved pieces of bone from a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, Schweitzer saw something that shouldn’t have been there: soft tissue.

Initially, Schweitzer didn’t believe her eyes. She thought she was looking at microbes that had worked their way into the bone.

“I looked at the scope, and I backed up, and I looked at the scope again,” Schweitzer told the NC State alumni magazine in 2005. “And I said, ‘Jen (Wittmeyer, a lab technician), this is not possible. That is not a microbe, that is an osteocyte [a type of cell found in bone].’ ”

With that discovery, molecular paleontology was born. The bone itself had long dominated the field of paleontology, a result of the belief that no tissue could have survived the tens of millions of years since extinction.

“It is a wide-open field that she invented,” Dr. John Horner, a colleague and professor of paleontology at Montana State University, told Discovery magazine in 2006.