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Always at the Cutting Edge

French House Focus: Dr. Dominique Homberger mentors students, champions excellence

Dr. Dominique Homberger has been a professor with the LSU Department of Biological Sciences for thirty-five years. Her areas of research are biomechanics and ecological and evolutionary morphology, a branch of biology that examines the form and structures of living organisms. She is the author of the standard textbook on vertebrate dissection and comparative anatomy. Dr. Homberger has a long history of advising Honors Thesis work and teaching Honors College courses, including, most recently, an Honors course in three-dimensional computer modeling.

Tell us a little bit about the 3D imaging course you taught this past semester [HNRS 3035: 3D Imaging and Animation].

We are the only university nationwide, I think, that has a course with this high-end 3D imaging software. It’s Avizo and Maya, and one license is $12,000, and usually they are reserved for research. But we felt we needed to build capacity—teach the next generation—so we thought, we have to teach this course.

How we teach it is that we have one lecture a week. I teach what my specialty is—I’m the biologist, so [that’s] biomechanics, anatomy, research on evolution—and then I invite people to give guest lectures in their own specialty. Dr. Les Butler in Chemistry—Dr. Kenneth Matthews and Dr. Guang Jia in the Medical Physics program—Dr. Hermann Bragulla and Dr. Margaret McNulty from the School of Veterinary Medicine. Then we have two lab sessions [weekly] where we allowed the students to play with the 3D software.

At the beginning Dr. Jinghua Ge, from LSU’s Center for Computation and Technology, is teaching how to use the software. And it’s tough—these are very difficult, non-intuitive software programs. Students have to learn to see in 3D, but also how to use the programs. Once they know the basics, I give them CT scans of real animals—alligators, sharks, parrots, human beings—and I tell them: create your own project, try out new things—the sky is the limit. I let them loose, see what makes them tick and then guide them to where it’s a worthwhile project. How I evaluate them at the end is on the originality and the quality of their project.

So the beginning is a little bit tough. The students struggle at the beginning. But once they cross that threshold, they never look back! They are completely motivated and creative. That’s of course always what I believe—you can think creatively only once you have solid background knowledge. And I think some of the students will ultimately do an Honors Thesis on 3D imaging.

It sounds like there are a lot of faculty who use the software, too.

If you are interested in 3D imaging, LSU is really the place to be. We are not getting enough exposure in some ways. I suspect it’s because the people who are involved in it are dispersed in many different departments and we are all exceedingly busy. Beating our own drums is the last priority! That’s a strength of Dr. Butler—to bring people together to contribute to large grant proposals. He just recently got a large grant from the Keck Foundation. This will bring LSU to a totally next level of 3D imaging in the broad sense—from modeling in astrophysics to modeling about hurricanes or coastal degradation to modeling in what I do, anatomy. My work is now connecting with the LSU Health Science Center—we wrote a proposal to use CT scans to do research on biomechanics in human beings that will eventually—this is our dream—be used in 3D imaging as a diagnostic system. So I have been extremely lucky to have this campus-wide collaboration with various experts.

Dr. Homberger instructs students in her 3D imaging class

Do you have to be an Honors College student to take the 3D imaging course?

Because it’s an Honors course, Honors students have priority. But then [if the course is not full] I can get other students to fill up the course, even if they are not Honors students. 

You know, we have a lot of students who don’t fit the mold. Honors—it’s not what people think it is. It’s really about people working hard, wanting to push the envelope, do different things. There are always students, in my experience, who are just waiting for that message. Many students tell me that they have been bored in high school and hoped that when they come to college it will be different. I tell them, “Go to the Honors College”—because this will be challenging, but it will be really interesting. These are the students—I take them in, and one of the questions I ask is, “Are you a perfectionist?” And the reaction always is “Um, some people tell me that I am”—they think this will tank their applications working with me. And I say “Great! We are all perfectionists here.” Because we need to at least strive for perfection in research. Who will check that we are doing the right thing? Nobody, because we are constantly working at the cutting edge. So we have to be our own strictest quality-checker. We need to be perfectionists, in the good sense. These are the people who will really thrive in the Honors College.

Honors should really be earned. And it should be difficult, because life is difficult. But we have lots of students that can absolutely rise to that challenge.

How did you get interested in your areas of research originally? How did you decide to pursue a career in academics? 

Well, I’m originally from Switzerland. Completely trained in Switzerland. I started as a veterinary student—and then realized that I really like basic research. I didn’t realize it, actually. I simply—wanted to know more. [Now] I’m keenly aware of the difference between basic research and applied research. When you do applied research you have defined questions, and you apply what you know to solving this question. Basic research is asking your own questions and then going on a discovery tour. So with my Honors students—I try to help them find out what makes them tick. Is it discovery research, or is it applied research? I think it makes a big difference for the students, for their happiness in their future careers.

Anyway, I then got a Ph.D. in biology. At that time, in Switzerland women could still not vote.

Oh, wow. What year was that? 

1971. So I was in graduate school for a Ph.D. but couldn’t vote, because I was a woman. Whereas every young man, irrespective of education level, was allowed to vote. That gives me a very—interesting perspective. I really wanted to go into academia. But I was told—“It’s not possible for women, because women don’t become professors.” I was very lucky to get a Swiss National Science Foundation fellowship to come to America [to study under Dr. Walter Bock at Columbia University]. That opened a completely new life for me. Because when people asked me what I wanted to do, I would say, “I really want to do research, but I’m a woman!” And they would say, “Yes, we know! But what does this have to do with what you want to do in life?” 

In 1979, I came here—was the first woman in the Department of Zoology and Physiology [later merged into Biological Sciences]. So that informed a lot of what I’m doing—how necessary it is to get involved not only in research but in all kinds of development work. This means encouragement of women. Making them discover their own possibilities. Still many women come in with a sense that they are not very good.

Can you talk a little bit about what happens when you mentor your students?

Many of the students I have here are discovering. We have an open-door policy. If somebody comes in and wants to work in my lab, I accept them. My principle is that if students come in, maybe they know something. They may not know what they know, but obviously they are not afraidthey are interested in what my lab can offer them. We tell them “Look around and find what you like to do.” This when I start to mentor them.

What I try to teach my students is that it’s not about grades. Learn as much as possible—the grades will follow. Go to the Honors College. Do an Honors Thesis. Try if at all possible to have a dual degree. I think very often [students] get the advice that it’s more important to have a good GPA. Whereas my advice is, you will have a good GPA anyway, because the more you learn, the more you know. It’s like athletics—the more you do, the better you are. So you will get good grades, and you’ll stick out of the crowd. There are all these applicants to graduate school or for a job—everybody has a 4.0 average—guess who will get the job? People who have done interdisciplinary work at the highest level. Who can talk with people outside of their fields, who are collaborators on important projects. These will be the students who will really advertise LSU as the place where you can push the envelope in the direction that you want.

There seems to be some peer pressure among students not to do too much. But peers don’t know yet what is needed as a professional. And you may want to have a profession that you really like. I feel very motivated to help students to make plans long-term. Not simply to have a job—but to have a career that feeds their mind, that feeds their soul. Once the students get a taste for it, you don’t have to say very much more.