News & Stories

Olivia Antonescu, Kate Borthwick and Koshala Selvakumar in Iceland

Six Degrees of Separation

A museum in Reykjavik, Iceland, was the last place three College of Medicine students expected to encounter one of their professors’ names.

Olivia Antonescu, Kate Borthwick and Koshala Selvakumar had headed to the Icelandic capital, looking for a relaxing, fun spring break. “Next year at this time you’ll be busy studying for Step 1,’’ second-year students advised the three first-year students. (The dreaded licensure exam also known as ‘’the Boards’’ is required between years two and three of medical school.) “Go while you can,’’ the second-years suggested—and the first-years listened.

Iceland is known for glorious views of the Northern Lights in January and puffin sightings later in the spring. In April, driving on the Golden Circle tourist route of regional highlights gives you a chance to see a national park, a geyser, a waterfall, wild horses—and more. Sure, it was cold, said Koshala Selvakumar. Who cares when you’re sipping a smoothie in a natural hot spring?

The second day of their adventures, the friends stopped into the Whales of Iceland museum. “I was listening to an audio tour and watching a video, multi-tasking, when I heard the name ‘Hans Thewissen,’ and I said ‘What?!’ remembered Selvakumar. Her friends had spread out to other parts of the museum, where visitors can walk under huge (full-scale) hanging models of whales (shown here). Selvakumar quickly found them. The three sat, riveted, listening repeatedly to the video loop. They were determined to catch every reference to their Human Development and Structure professor last semester, J.G.M. (“Hans”) Thewissen, Ph.D., Ingalls-Brown Professor of Anatomy.

Because the Whales of Iceland museum tells the story of how whales evolved, it makes sense that a video there would contain the work of Dr. Thewissen, known for studying fossil whales, to learn how they evolved—in particular, how whales originated from land animals.

The life-size walking whale fossil that hangs on display at NEOMED is one of Dr. Thewissen’s more famous finds—and the one that inspired NEOMED’s mascot, Nate.

It was still pretty exciting to come across their professor’s work so unexpectedly, says Selvakumar. Back home, Antonescu, Borthwick and Selvakumar were happy to share the news with Dr. Thewissen, who was as surprised as the students.


‘’I study fossil whales in order to answer questions about their evolution, in particular about how whales originated from land animals. I also study modern bowhead and beluga whales to learn about their biology and its implications for the management and conservation of these Arctic species. I use anatomical, histological, and embryological samples, collected by doing field work in India and Alaska.’’— J.G.M. (“Hans”) Thewissen, Ph.D., Ingalls-Brown Professor of Anatomy