What motivates you every day?
The process of scientific discovery is inherently exciting. The accomplishments that punctuate years of hard work may seem more thrilling, but in actuality, it’s the process of getting there that really drives me. Interacting with Academy visitors is another source of inspiration. The questions they ask are so different from the questions scientists ask each other; it challenges me to look at things in new ways.
How do you split your time between San Francisco and Ethiopia?
In a given year, I spend two months looking for new fossils in the field, most often in Ethiopia. I also spend about two months working with the collections at other museums. For instance, I recently returned from a month-long visit to Ethiopia’s National Museum, where I and my colleagues collected enamel powder from the teeth of 100 human ancestor fossils representing three distinct species and a time span of four million years. The goal is to analyze their isotopic signals for evidence of how and when these species’ diets and habitats changed, building upon some recent research I did on early human diets.
In San Francisco (where I spend the other eight months of the year), my time is spent writing papers and proposals, reading, attending and presenting at conferences, training graduate students, doing public outreach, and collaborating on Academy exhibits like Human Odyssey.
What are the conditions like when conducting field work in Ethiopia?
We aim to visit the Afar region of Ethiopia during cooler times of the year, but temperatures in the desert are still at least 100 degrees. The work is physically demanding, and it can be a challenge to think like a scientist in that kind of heat. Paleoanthropology is a field in which you must be willing to wear many different “hats”—driver, cook, diplomat, road builder, and of course, scientist. For instance, we built the first and only road into the Dikika site in order to begin working there in 1999. Today, that road is used to deliver polio vaccines to the local population, which I’m very proud of.
What are some of your favorite items in the Academy’s anthropology collections?
There are two types of specimens in anthropology collections around the world: archaeological artifacts, which provide a window into ancient civilizations, and ethnographic artifacts that document historical cultures from more recent times. At the Academy, our collection’s strengths are ethnographic holdings from the U.S. Southwest and the Pacific islands, and basketry from California. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite, but when I walk through those rooms full of baskets, pottery, textiles, and other creations, I can’t help but see them as an extension in time of the primitive tools that our ancestors used millions of years ago.
“Selam” is of course a favorite specimen, and we have a beautiful cast of her (and many other notable fossils) at the Academy. But as is the case with all fossils, the original remains in the country in which it was found, which in this case is Ethiopia.