Mike Habib has trouble getting rest.
“There are days when I don’t sleep as much as I should,” admits the assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, who has a joint appointment with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM).
Always on the move, Habib just returned from New Mexico, where he’s excavating a giant titanosaur and has a couple weeks on campus to plan the coursework for his anatomy class and then catch up on multiple research projects before taking off for Alberta for more fieldwork and research.
And, oh yes, he’s just been named one of the year’s Brilliant Ten researchers in the October issue of Popular Science.
“Popular Science has always looked optimistically toward the future, and there’s no more promising sign of what that future will bring than the inspired work of young scientists and engineers across the country,” said Cliff Ransom, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. “The Brilliant Ten is a celebration of the best and brightest.”
How does Habib feel about the recognition?
“It’s a honor and an inspiration to be featured in one of the top science magazines in the country.”
It’s hard to explain exactly what Habib does, but only because he does so much of it that the description could go on for a long time.
An anatomist by trade, Habib helps teach human gross anatomy at the Keck School of Medicine, in which new medical students dissect a human cadaver for the first time.
“Mike gives our students a basic but critical understanding of the human body that is key to their success as clinicians and researchers,” said Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen A. Puliafito. “His commitment to teaching and research are exemplary. This recognition from Popular Science is well-deserved.”
He uses his passion for biomechanics and physics to decipher the flight dynamics of dinosaurs, understand why spiders are always able to right themselves in a free fall and explore the biokinesiology of kung fu.
“My interests are a little eclectic. But they’re all connected by a theme,” said Habib, who joined USC’s faculty in June 2012. “It’s all about how bone and muscle systems work together.”
Habib has a particular love for pterosaurs, but he made waves shortly after coming to USC by overturning the commonly accepted model for four-winged dinosaur flight. Previously, scientists believed that four-winged dinosaurs — those with feathers on both forelimbs and hind limbs — would spread both sets of wings to glide like a flying squirrel.
“It would require the dinosaurs to disjoint their hips each time they wanted to fly,” Habib said. “There had to be a simpler way.”
Habib and colleague Justin Hall, a PhD student at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, demonstrated instead that the winged raptors likely instead kept their hind limbs vertical and used them to steer sharp turns through heavily wooded forests.
With a wide range of passions and several research projects in the works, Habib splits his time between offices and labs on the University Park Campus, Health Sciences Campus and NHM.
“Mike’s broad interests and focus on collections-based research makes him a natural partner for the NHM, where 35 million specimens spanning the entire history of Earth are kept and used regularly by scientists,” said Luis Chiappe, head of the museum’s research and collections. “Our research collaboration with Mike is emblematic of our strong partnership with USC.”
It was the fossil hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History that sealed Habib’s fate.
His parents took him to visit when he was 4 years old and, staring up at the dinosaur exhibits, he decided on the spot that he would be a paleontologist.
“But it wasn’t just that I was interested in the giant skeletons. I was interested in all of it,” he said.
The son of a chemical engineer and an educator, Habib received plenty of encouragement at home. His mother, who volunteered as an ecologist at the Baltimore Zoo, wrangled her precocious son a job as a volunteer zookeeper there when he was 12 years old, a job that he kept right up until he entered academia.
After grad school, he worked as a professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh until Mikel Snow of Keck Medicine of USC recruited him.
“I love Dr. Habib’s energy and enthusiasm,” Snow said. “He turned out to be everything we’d hoped for.”
Snow, who co-teaches anatomy with Habib, said that every semester’s student evaluations contain glowing praise from students who are inspired by the passion that he brings to his teaching.
That passion is backed up by an almost photographic recall that allows him to make important connections between his many fields of interest, Snow said.
USC was a natural fit for Habib — he frequently visited his sister, Kathleen Habib ’08, and fell in love with the campus. But the breadth of opportunities available at USC really clinched it.
“I have a great network of colleagues here at USC. There’s no shortage of people doing interesting research for me to collaborate with,” Habib said. “USC has so many different biologists that it has multiple types of biology departments.”
Not surprisingly, Habib is conducting research with fellow scientists from each of those departments.