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September 2017 GWIS Lead

Wednesday, September 20, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Shultz
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September 2017
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Sheela Athreya embraces diverse perspectives in research, teaching, and service
Dr. Sheela Athreya lives in Austin and commutes 100 miles to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, approximately 100 miles northwest of Houston. She committed to our GWIS Lead researcher profile and webinar earlier this year, but our interview, taking place the last week of August, could not have had more unfortunate timing. With Hurricane Harvey disrupting her university's start date and making her commute hazardous and stressful, and despite our invitation to postpone, she was still determined that GWIS would not miss our deadlines. We applaud her resilience and perseverance and welcome her insights this month on specific ways to welcome diversity in her classroom and in her workplace, a topic that is dear to her heart.
How are you and your students faring in the wake of Hurricane Harvey?

I expect some waterlogged and shell-shocked kids, poor things. It really puts things in perspective when your students are stressed out about missing class because their houses are surrounded by water, or their grandparents just got flooded out of their houses. The stories I’m getting are unbelievable, I can’t believe these sweet kids are even taking the time to email me!

To those unfamiliar with anthropology research, how do you describe your work?

Anthropologists study humans. We study past societies and how people used to live by digging up the remains of their towns and villages; we study living societies—their cultures, ways of life, and languages; we study how humans are related to other creatures in the animal kingdom, both living and extinct. I am especially interested in why we all look so different, and how we came to look the way we do today. Why are people in some parts of the world so tall, and others so short? Why do people in some parts of the world have wide noses, and others have narrow noses? How long have we had this variation in how we look? To answer that question, I study fossils of human ancestors that lived as far back as half a million years ago. I look at how they differ, and how they changed over time to evolve into our own species, Homo sapiens. I think that the best way we can understand who we are today is to know where we came from.

We then moved into a more nuanced discussion of the details of her research:

My research focuses on the biology and systematics of Middle and Late Pleistocene hominins. I use morphometric analyses to study differences in craniofacial morphology between regional populations. The goal is to examine the patterning of variation among these groups and determine if it is indicative of separate evolutionary lineages. In addition, I conduct fieldwork in South Asia looking for fossil hominin sites. Most recently, my work has shifted to working on excavated samples from South Asia that do not preserve diagnostic morphology, and examining their population affinities using ancient DNA. These date to the Late Pleistocene and are relevant for understanding the peopling of South Asia, but also for understanding Homo sapiens evolution in Eastern Eurasia in general. I look at questions of Homo sapiens evolution with a view to challenging our historically ethnocentric use of the word “modern” human, and to bringing the Asian fossil record into greater focus in models of human evolution.
Dr. Athreya hiking to a prehistoric cave site in Sri Lanka
What is your favorite thing about what you do?

It’s a tie between traveling, and working with bones and fossils. I’m lucky because when I travel, I don’t necessarily go to places that are frequented by tourists. Instead, I go to places where human fossils are found which means remote rock shelters in the Sri Lankan forest, painted caves in France, and river valleys in central India. It’s also fun to surprise people living in these areas when I tell them I’m a scientist—they don’t expect a scientist to look like me! Because I study the past and human behavior, my favorite thing to do when I’m at a fossil site is to imagine what the world was like when our ancestors were living there. It’s impossible not to think about the human element of studying human evolution, to think that this set of bones was a person with a full life, and 100,000 years later their lives are still relevant in teaching us about ourselves. And then, I just love bones. They’re beautiful and  fascinating; each one is unique and tells a story, and I will never get sick of looking at them. My mother was a radiologist so I think part of my love of the human skeleton comes from seeing her love for it, and her brilliant expertise in it. I associate studying the skeleton with knowledge and helping people because that’s what she did.
Dr. Athreya and her graduate student collecting 3-D microscribe data from a fossil specimen at the Geological Survey of India in Calcutta
What is something that others normally misunderstand or misrepresent in your field?

Anthropology in general is not a well-understood field, partly because in the US it’s configured differently than in any other country. In the US there are four subfields—cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, and archaeological anthropology. My subfield, biological anthropology, would be in an anatomy or medical sciences department in Canada, Europe, or Asia. So, when I say I’m an anthropologist people often don’t expect to hear that I excavate fossils, have training in anatomy, or that I rely on the scientific method. Occasionally, the inverse is true—some people associate anthropology with Louis Leakey but don’t know that we also have training in linguistics, culture, primate behavior, and archaeology. The fact that we bridge the social and physical sciences is often misunderstood. 

The other common misconception is that we don’t provide training for the “real” world; anthropology is unfairly held up as an example of a major that isn’t useful. It’s important to note that our field has been a rich training ground, not just for academics, but also non-profit directors, social justice advocates, genetic counselors, teachers, physicians, government employees, business administrators, lawyers, and so many more professions. There is so much you can do and be as an anthropologist!

Why should the average person be excited about what you study?

My favorite description of anthropology is by one of the most famous people in our field, Ruth Benedict. She said, “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” It may not seem like studying our evolution contributes to that, but I think that knowing how and why we all came to look so different from each other, live in such different climates, adapt to different environments, and solve problems in different ways is a step towards making the world safe for those who are different from the majority, whatever that may be. This may not be an argument for anthropology being exciting, but I think it shows the value of our work and how it contributes to everyday lives. 
Dr. Athreya presenting at the 2017 American Association of Physical Anthropology conference as part of an Invited Podium Symposium entitled "Beyond Visibility: How Academic Diversity is Transforming Scientific Knowledge"
How does your knowledge of anthropology give you a unique perspective on valuing diversity in the workplace?

It informs the culture I wish to help create for the workplace. This goes back to the quote by Ruth Benedict, that anthropology makes the world safe for human differences. Anthropologists also emphasize the fact that other worldviews are not imperfect versions of our own, that each one is uniquely valid and holds value for the people who practice it. Given that we are teaching and studying these concepts for a living, it means we are in touch with concrete real world examples, day in and day out, of how learning another person’s worldview improved the outcome of a problem, conflict, etc. Having a background in anthropology arms me with enough data to help advocate for new and different policies that actively support an inclusive, tolerant culture in the workplace.

How have your personal experiences contributed to understanding the impact of diverse perspectives?

This is probably the hardest one to answer, because I spent so much of my career questioning myself for having different views than the majority of the people around me—as a woman, as an Indian-American, and as a Hindu. Acknowledging these aspects of my identity was always consequential to my career, so I undervalued my own unique perspective as well as those of others. It was through having a couple of brave, brilliant, and compassionate female colleagues that I learned about the ways my presence at the table was valuable and learned to advocate for myself. And once I felt safe to be different, I also had more energy to listen to others whose backgrounds were equally underrepresented and incredibly different from my own. Through all of this, I became shamelessly convinced that everyone would be better off if they were surrounded by people totally different from themselves—and each other; that THIS would be the way to create a more tolerant, compassionate, and safe world. I have since tried to actively advocate for this viewpoint—including doing this webinar with GWIS!

How have you specifically made changes within your teaching and your work to be more inclusive to diverse people?

I realize that valuing diversity, or making the world safe for human differences, are action verbs. People in power have to actively impart value to varied perspectives and contributions and have to actively create a safe space for diverse voices. This comes in the decision-making process, and it means trying to convince people that valuing different things doesn’t mean lowering standards. It means … valuing different things and letting new things be the standards. 

In my teaching, I actively seek out perspectives that I haven’t had any exposure to, and I also seek out perspectives that are not part of the general canon of my field, and incorporate these into my teaching, research and especially my mentoring. Every class, even one that is seemingly a hard science with an objective set of facts, has space for teaching about the contributions of marginalized populations, minority viewpoints, or underrepresented groups.

When I’m looking at someone’s professional record for hiring, tenure, etc., I try to move past the conventional metrics and think about how a person’s contribution has made space for marginalized voices. I also do not separate that person from their life experiences. People from unconventional backgrounds may not hit all the quantitative milestones that we traditionally value in academia, but they do bring something that no one else can bring—the ability to mentor different students, represent a different community, and shape our field, our university, our society in a more inclusive way.


As a reviewer of a grant, I don’t just focus on whether or not a project is meeting the pre-existing guidelines of “broader impacts.” I allow the researcher to define what they think the impact could be if they were given the chance to carry out the project. When I review manuscripts, I ask, “Is the project perpetuating the power structure, or is it making us look at the data in a new and different way?”

As a faculty member, I advocate for programs in the workplace that allow underrepresented groups to embrace their many challenges in western society without apology. This includes recognizing that female faculty are often left out of the professional development track when they have caregiving responsibilities because they are less free to travel for research or to attend conferences. I have also been conscious of the tendency for female Associate Professors to bear higher service responsibilities than other faculty. Given these well-documented facts, I believe that we either have to recognize that quantity of output isn’t the best metric by which to gauge our value; or we have to create programs that acknowledge the fact that female, LGBTQ, and minority scientists exist in a social fabric that isn’t gender-neutral or colorblind, and create programs to support them through this reality. This isn’t special treatment, it’s the active practice of inclusivity. 

Yielding space and power to students, colleagues, and outsiders who haven’t had a seat at the table in academia or science is hard because it means setting aside ego, in-group behavior, and defensiveness about the hoops we had to jump through to get where we are. But giving in to those negative instincts just perpetuates the problem, so I try to default to compassion and a humility for letting others control the conversation of what academia or science could look like if we let more people have a voice in defining it.
Dr. Athreya using a 3-D microscribe on a cast of one of the Dmanisi fossils at Harvard
What do you think are the most important steps you took to get where you are now?

It sounds cliched, but the most important thing I did in college was study hard. I didn’t even discover biological anthropology until I was in graduate school. I majored in documentary film and minored in archaeology, so in my case, there wasn’t an early discovery of my passion or focus. In fact, I went to graduate school for archaeology and switched to biological anthropology after a few years. All of this was possible because I studied hard and learned what I needed to learn to prove to my professors that I could do what they asked, even in this new field. In graduate school, the important thing I did was to treat it like the beginning of my career and not the continuation of my education. I joined professional societies, attended conferences, worked on original research, and treated my dissertation like it was a stepping stone in my development as a scholar, not as the final culmination of my work as a scholar. As a professor, the most important thing I’ve done is tune out the noise of what it means to be a successful academic. I didn’t make strategic choices just to get tenure, or to make a name for myself in a particular area. Instead, I have made my priority to be satisfying my endless curiosity about human evolution. As soon as I finish a publication or project on one question, I get excited about turning to the next. The passion for answering questions has not only helped in my career advancement, but also has helped me stay excited about what I do.

So you haven’t always wanted to be a biological anthropologist?

I never had any vision for what I wanted to do, so I think I would have been happy in any job as long as I was talking about human variation and human evolution. When I was finishing my PhD and looking for a position, I decided that if I didn’t get a job, I was going to put together a presentation on human biological variation and drive up and down the east coast (where I’m from) giving presentations to every school, police department, and business that would have me. Maybe it’s a bit naive to think I could make an impact that way, but that was what I considered fulfilling. As long as I was exposing people to understanding human differences, I was happy. Having said that, I love working at a research university. Just given my personality, I’m happiest when I’m sitting quietly on my own, reading new research, working out a problem, or writing down an idea.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists, particularly women in science?

Each of us faces different challenges at different stages of our lives and careers, so I don’t have a single piece of advice because the landscape is constantly shifting. I personally wish I had been more aware of the undermining messages women in male-dominated fields face. There is a narrow range of things that generally command respect, and it has taken me a while to advocate for myself in the face of an achievement record, work schedule, and physical presence that are all totally different from my male colleagues. I used to think my differences made me less successful, and therefore I took myself less seriously and felt less entitled to speak up and advocate for myself or my ideas. My wish is for younger aspiring scientists to recognize that their contributions can look different and still be valuable. While you may not be able to contribute the same in terms of, for example, work hours, you are contributing something valuable just by bringing a different voice to the table. You don’t need to “make up” for anything by taking on more service or volunteer duties.

Being different from your supervisors, leaders, or colleagues and bringing an underrepresented perspective to your work, doing so with integrity, and modeling that for the younger generation is a unique and valuable contribution.
Dr. Athreya with her family at Balanced Rock in Big Bend National Park
Interview conducted by Jane Sharer Maier and edited by Rozzy Finn.

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Founded in 1921, Graduate Women in Science is an inter-disciplinary society of scientists who collectively seek to advance the participation and recognition of women in science and to foster research through grants, awards and fellowships. We comprise over 20 active chapters of more than 800 women who are "United in Friendship through Science" to support and inspire member professional goals and mutual appreciation of science. Learn more at www.gwis.org.

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