It's a bit embarrassing to start an essay in the American Biology Teacher by saying that I didn't really like science in middle school or high school. Well, that's not entirely accurate; I got good grades and had great teachers, but I felt as if scientists had already discovered everything. They knew how liquids diffuse, how cell division worked, and about Newton's laws. I just didn't get any sense of mystery, wonder, or magic from science. As my friends took AP science classes, I was doing an independent study in modern women's writing. I wanted to major in English in college and be a writer or poet; or maybe major in comparative literature. As I was deciding on what class to take to round out my schedule during my first week at Bryn Mawr College, my academic advisor, a dean and former anthropology professor, suggested I take Introduction to Anthropology. “What's anthropology?” I asked her; I'd never heard of it. She gave me a brief overview and it sounded interesting enough, so I signed up.
For me, learning about human evolution in that anthropology class was the gateway to a lifetime of love of science. All of a sudden, science started to take on an entirely new meaning for me, because it was about ME. It was about the deep history and unity of ALL OF US. When my anthropology professor recognized my interest and let me tag along on an urban archaeological excavation in Philadelphia, I realized that studying human evolution was about putting the pieces of the puzzle of the past together, and I could—and did—find things under the ground that told stories. During my sophomore year, after taking a course called simply “Evolution,” I decided to create an independent major in Evolutionary Studies. I was still enamored with the biological aspects of anthropology, but thought that taking courses in the sciences—biology, ecology, geology, paleontology, and evolutionary psychology—would better prepare me to study human evolution in graduate school. My life course was set.
While studying abroad as a junior at University College London, I heard about a new field school focused on human evolution in South Africa starting that summer. I was accepted, and made my way to what would be a pivotal career experience. I had done an internship in invertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History after my freshman year of college so I knew I liked scouring the landscape for fossils, but now I was in Africa, where it all began! We excavated in famous human evolution cave sites, heard lectures by world-renowned scientists, and learned firsthand about the modern ecology of Africa. I was hooked. On the last day, I asked the director, Dr. Lee Berger, what I needed to do to come back and get more experience, and he said, “Just ask. Ask everyone. Someone will say yes.” He was right. The week after I graduated college, I was on my way back to South Africa for six months to stay at one of the research stations we'd been to during the field school to learn how to identify animal fossils while studying an ancient hyena den. Today I am a research scientist and educator at the biggest natural history museum in the world at the Smithsonian. My research focuses on the evolution of human diet, and I study fossils of animals that have cut marks on them left by the sharp edges of stone knives made by early humans. Even if they are only small scraps of bone, holding one of these fossils is like reaching back through time to find smoking gun evidence of behavior in the past. Discoveries like this one never cease to excite me.
Working at the Smithsonian is a dream because I get to make firsthand discoveries and share them with others both in the museum and online. I was on the team that helped put together a permanent exhibit on human evolution and help with ongoing exhibit updates; I manage the docents who interact with our museum visitors; I facilitate informal public programs in the exhibit; I anonymously manage our social media; and I help keep our fantastic human origins website up to date. I've become so passionate about public engagement with science that I am now doing research on evolution teaching and learning and developing materials for high school biology classes that use human examples to teach evolution. Recently, I have had dozens of opportunities to introduce elementary and middle school students to casts of early human skulls. The kids always make an instant connection with them as they touch them, and chatted with each other as they compare the skulls to each other and to themselves.
My message to biology teachers is this: tell your students about the magic and mystery that is biology. Given them experiences to show that science is fun and creative. Tell students your research stories, both successes and failures, and invite them to help you. Let students know how you got interested in science, and about the winding paths of scientists like me who tried something new and it turned their life around. Encourage them to ask for opportunities as I was encouraged many years ago; someone will eventually say yes. Tell them that they can forge their own paths, make their own discoveries, and contribute to our collective understanding of the beauty and awesomeness of the natural world.