U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

Good bones - from fossils to maxillofacial surgery

Alumnus helps paleontology students in need

Bones expert Bruce Pynn helps paleontology students pursue their dreams (Photo courtesy of Bruce Pynn)

When Bruce Pynn took Professor Robert Reisz’s paleontology course in 1980, he had no idea what he would do after graduating. 

But Reisz instilled in him a love of bones that eventually led Pynn, step by step, to a successful career repairing broken teeth and fractured bones as a maxillofacial dental surgeon in Thunder Bay. 

Now, Pynn wants to give back to U of T Mississauga with the Pynn Family Paleontology Award.  Beginning this year, the award will provide student support for undergraduates in financial need who are pursuing paleontology, the study of fossilized plants and animals.

“I set up research courses every year for students so that they can work in my lab, and financial assistance for them would be very helpful,” Reisz said. 

Pynn’s support for students is an excellent example of the creativity and generosity of alumni as the university’s Boundless campaign continues, said David Palmer, vice-president, advancement.

“Visionary donors such as Bruce Pynn help us attract the very best and brightest students,” Palmer said. “Their generosity strengthens our efforts to ensure that all qualified candidates, regardless of their financial means, can pursue their academic dreams here.”

Pynn launched his senior thesis with Reisz over 30 years ago, digging for ancient pelycosaur fossils in a cow pasture in Kansas.  That summer, he became lifelong friends with Reisz and Chuck Hardesty, the landowner of the fossil site. 

“Until he passed away six years ago, my monthly chats with Chuck in Kansas were the equivalent to Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie – I loved that book and thought of Chuck as I read it,” Pynn said.

His work with Reisz helped hone his fine motor skills while his science background led to his first job in a microsurgery lab on U of T’s St. George campus. Further education followed – a master’s degree in muscle physiology and microsurgery, and then dental school.

“Specializing in maxillofacial surgery seemed to be a perfect match with the hand skill set I developed in the fossil work and the microsurgical technique I learned in the lab,” he said.

Pynn now reconstructs faces shattered by car wrecks and other trauma.

“I wouldn’t be in my current occupation had it not been for the course work in anthropology and paleontology offered at UTM,” he said.

Reisz and Pynn joined forces last year on a research project exploring the world’s oldest known tooth infection.

“Paleontology,” said Reisz, “is an influential field because it’s the only scientific endeavor that gives us a deep time perspective.”

With the aid of a CT scan, they found evidence of a massive infection in a 275-million-year-old reptilian jaw. 

“The results suggest that we have to be careful when battling bacteria because they’ve been around with us for a long time and quick fixes, such as antibiotics, will not work in the long run because bacteria adapt very quickly,” Reisz said.

“The paper was our second publication together, 29 years after we published the results of my senior thesis. Now, it’s gratifying to look back at those academic experiences and lasting friendships which represent some of my finest memories.”