Pennsylvania State University - Anthropology Ph.D. Candidate
Joan T. Richtsmeier's Morphometrics and Image Lab
I study early craniofacial growth and development using mouse models. Right now, I’m focused on using a strain of big-brained mice as a proxy to understand how the human skull changed during the evolutionary process of encephalization (fancy word for growing big brains) – basically, as the brain gets bigger, what happens to the skull?
No permanent pets, but I have been the temporary caretaker of many cats (and one hamster) while at Penn State. When students go off to conferences and field work, I often get temporary custody of their furry kids. At the moment, I’m taking care of my parents’ cat while they are in the process of moving. His name is Cody, and he was hand-raised from about 2 weeks old. As seen below, he enjoy being cradled like a baby and licking my hair.
My top choices were tardigrades and sloths, but seeing as those creatures have already been featured by previous scientists, I’ll try again.
Giraffes – they’ve become a mascot for one of my friend groups (I hope they’re reading this!).
Lactobacillus spp. – any organisms that contributes to my ability to eat, digest, and thoroughly enjoy cheese deserves to be in the spotlight.
Morgan Freeman – he narrates my life (at least in my head).
I would love to be at least semi-fluent in Spanish. I have started Duolingo three times over the last few years, but I always seem to let my schedule get the best of me. [Dude, same.] My record was 126 consecutive days of Duolingo activity (although I have a friend who has completed more than 1000 consecutive days of French practice on Duolingo!)
Who do you vent to when things are going wrong?
My masters’ cohort. The 7 of us went through a lot over the 2 years of our masters’ program, and even though we are all at different places, we still keep in constant contact via Facebook Messenger. They are an amazing support system and can offer a lot of insight from other research areas and graduate programs.
Since all of my research is completed either in my office or the campus mouse facility, I haven’t had the opportunity for any exciting field work or travel. I will broadly say Europe – I’ve only ever been to Canada and Jamaica, so going anywhere in Europe would be huge experience.
It’s not a superpower, but I’ve always thought that it would be pretty cool to be able to pick a lock or crack a safe. Perhaps this stems from my daily fear of locking myself out of my house…
What are some of your hobbies?
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS – Yes, I’m that big of a nerd. I started playing about a year and a half ago with a bunch of people from the department, and I now run a weekly game with 8 players. It may sound strange, but this has become a very rewarding part of my life – I’ve made a bunch of great friends that I may not have hung out with otherwise, and it provides a creative outlet, which is greatly needed in the high-stress environment of grad school.
Crafting – mostly knitting baby blankets and cross-stitching anatomically correct organs [left].
What sorts of music do you listen to?
A little bit of everything, but mostly whatever Spotify puts in my Discover Weekly playlist. Spotify is a data collector’s best friend!
I wish people knew just how broad the field of anthropology truly is! My research has a lot of ties to anatomy and developmental biology, but also (hopefully) significant implications for our understanding of human evolution. Yes, mice really can help us understand human evolution!!
I’ve always loved science, but got diverted somewhere along the way and attended law school and worked as a litigation attorney for several years before coming back to graduate school. While I loved the people at my law firm, I knew pretty quickly that it was not the life for me. I missed science and lab work and the feeling of actually contributing knowledge to the world. It took a few years to get up the nerve to leave a pretty cushy job, but I’m tremendously happy that I did.
Have I mentioned how much I enjoy Dungeons & Dragons? Running a game for 8 people means that I am forced to take a break from work to figure out the next step of the story (Will they fight a dragon next? What is the dragon’s motivation? What if the dragon is actually the good guy and the town elder is the villain?). It also means that I have 8 people depending on me to show up and be social, so I’m less likely to cancel a gathering and remain wrapped in a blanket on my couch, which is my normal state of being while not in the office.
Funny enough, I think that a lot of my strengths as a researcher come from my experience as an attorney. Litigation practice taught me possibly the best skills – self-motivation, good time management, and the ability to crank out written work and send it out without spending too long agonizing over potential edits. Trying to maintain/build up a publishing record is a daunting task while taking classes, teaching, and trying to do research in grad school, so having the skills to (1) get myself to sit down and write even when I don’t want to and (2) accept that my advisor/a journal’s reviewers will have likely have massive edits without stressing out too much has been a gift.
Like: As an 80s/90s child, I really enjoy getting to compare my research to Pinky and the Brain. Actually, my dad came up with the comparison, and it works quite well. It’s a great way to explain my research to a non-scientific audience.
Dislike: The time requirements of my research protocol. My research requires me to breed mice at very specific timed intervals and get multiple CT scans of all my specimens. This results in a very time consuming process before I can even think about starting to collect data. I defended my dissertation proposal over a year ago and still do not have any analyzable data.
Like: The flexible schedule is both a blessing and curse. Having the freedom to arrange my schedule as needed has been great. Of course, that flexibility means that when well-intentioned family members ask when I’ll graduate, I can never give a satisfactory answer :).
Dislike: I’ve come to dislike the tunnel-vision focus of grad school (in general) on research. I understand that PhD programs are research-based, but the vast majority of students will not have 100% research careers. I wish that (1) there was more recognition of and respect for non-research career trajectories and (2) more support and opportunities for grad students to develop non-research skills (i.e., teaching).
Much of my previous work in forensic anthropology and my current research focuses on bones. I’m currently TA’ing a 400-level mammalian physiology lab, and I am constantly geeking out over the ‘squishy bits’ – learning more about soft tissue structures and physiological systems other than the skeleton is tremendous. Did you know that the nerve cell that allows you to move your little toe travels all the way from the base of your spine? We always imagine single cells as being tiny, microscopic entities, but a single nerve cell can be nearly 3 feet long in the human body!
My masters’ cohort (again). Every one of these people is amazing and inspirational in how they have handled the rigors of academics and life in general. Plus, the seven of us once took down an entire freshly baked blueberry pie in less than 15 minutes without plates or needing to cut it into slices – I’d say that’s pretty inspirational.
QUIET! I have no idea how some people are able to listen to music while trying to read or write. Thankfully, my officemate is very understanding and wears headphones.
5 year old me – Keep playing with bugs, and thank your parents for letting you do so!
15 year old me – Don’t be so concerned that the things you are interested in are ‘weird’. ‘Weird’ people often make the best friends, and ‘weird’ interests can turn into the most rewarding careers.
At the moment, I am very focused on pursuing a career that emphasizes teaching human anatomy and physiology. I’ve been lucky enough to forge some connections in the Department of Biology at Penn State and have a supportive advisor and department chair in Anthropology, which has given me the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for several anatomy and physiology courses. I also still love forensic anthropology (I have an M.S. in forensic anthropology), so if I could find some work consulting on forensic cases as a side job while teaching anatomy, life would be pretty much perfect.