What motivated you to pursue a PhD?
Anthropology is said to be the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. When I was first deciding on an undergraduate major, I found that intersection to be exactly what I was looking for. As an undergraduate, I was especially interested in primate behavior and evolution. I completed an internship as a primate caregiver at Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville, Florida. The ability to observe non-human primates and gain an intimate understanding of their behavior and daily activities motivated me to write an honors thesis exploring the impact of human presence on the behavior of non-human primates. I found these results to be fascinating and this motivated me to explore primate evolution, and so I studied abroad at the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya. The ability to meet, learn from, and go on excavations with some of the most prominent members of the field solidified for me that I wanted a career as an anthropologist. I came to develop several more research questions and knew that the most satisfying career for me would be exploring the scientific roots of humanity. Enrolling in graduate school felt like the next, natural step in my career.
What are your current research interests in anthropology?
I’m a biological anthropologist, and so my research questions are associated with the science of what makes us human. I’m especially interested in primate evolution and skeletal morphology. My dissertation seeks to answer the question: How do we assign species classification if we only have skeletal remains? We can typically assign higher level classification, including genus, but definitively assigning a species or subspecies is relatively hard. I’m using macaque monkeys as a case study, partly due to the fact that they have the widest geographic range of any primate aside from humans and their behavioral preferences vary widely between species. To tackle these questions, I use novel methods, such as geometric morphometrics and statistical analysis to measure the shape changes in the skeletons of different species. My overall goal is to establish a protocol for how to determine species affinity in extant (living) primates, and then apply this methodology to extinct primates.
What would you tell prospective students about your PhD education at UB? What opportunities have become available to you through the program and/or the university?
Given that UB is a large, state institution, the opportunities that students have here are endless. I get several emails a week offering professional development workshops, advertising fellowships and grants, and invitations to distinguished speaker lectures. Furthermore, there are several opportunities open to graduate students such as research funding through the Mark Diamond Research Fund (MDRF), writing retreats, and world-class library facilities. Some of these opportunities, like the MDRF, are not typical of large universities and are an immense benefit to students.
Even though the university itself is large, the department is relatively small. I’ve gotten to know my professors and fellow graduate students very well, which has given me the opportunity to conduct joint research projects, teach courses that I developed, attend conferences, and generally learn how to be an academic. The UB Department of Anthropology offers a wide variety of courses with faculty who are experts on myriad of subjects, allowing graduate students to become holistic anthropologists. I have taken courses on current debates in biological anthropology, statistics and methods, human diversity, primate anatomy, human osteology, and hominin behavior, while also being introduced to contemporary issues in cultural anthropology and a history of archaeological theory. These classes ultimately prepared me to embark on a dissertation project that will positively contribute to my field.
What are your future goals?
Ideally, I’d like to expand my dissertation research to involve questions of hybridization and how to control for a plastic responses. Upon graduation, I’d like to keep teaching and researching at the university level, hopefully securing a tenure-track position in an anthropology department. These jobs can be relatively hard to come by and so teaching anatomy at medical schools or working as a museum curator are other options.
Brittany, do you have any final recommendations for future graduate students interested in pursuing graduate studies at UB?
Anthropology is a huge field and there are all kinds of research questions that you can address as an anthropologist. Get experience in as many things as you can, and know that you’ll work for free sometimes and be okay with that. Feel free to email current graduate students, as they can best tell you about the kind of research that is happening in the department and offer advice on how to strengthen your graduate school applications.
Brittany Kenyon is a PhD candidate in Physical Anthropology.