This article is part of the Seriously Amazing Women series of interviews with women curators and scientists in the Department of Anthropology of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The interviews were conducted during March 2014 in honor of Women's History Month (#WomensHistoryMonth on Twitter).
Talking with Kari Bruwelheide about her work in honor of Women's History Month was a great experience. Most of us living here in America were immigrants at one time or another. My own family tree has both recent immigrants and ones who came to America much earlier, in the 1600’s. As any genealogist knows, the further back in time you go, often the harder it is to find good records about people’s lives. Kari explained the ways she and Doug Owsley go about telling the stories of people who never made it into the record books, or had very little written about them, through the examination of their physical remains. She also made the point that her work with historical remains supports her work with modern forensic cases, and vice versa, with the Smithsonian skeletal collections being a huge resource for her and her colleagues to use as reference cases. Kari, like Mindy Zeder has found a lot of fascinating things within the collections of the Smithsonian. Both emphasized that many times collections end up getting re-used after the original studies are done and new discoveries are made, with Kari saying:
And that’s not an exception, that something that happens all the time with our objects here at the museum… that’s the cool thing about working with our collections here… you never run out of things to discover.
For Women’s History Month, Kari also speaks to her experiences as a woman scientist, and how she has balanced her two children and family life with her career. She also gives good advice to young aspiring physical anthropologists! Please read on, and let us know if you have questions or comments for Kari Bruwelheide!
Kari examines a skull at the Harleigh Knoll site in the Chesapeake. Image Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.
Kari Bruwelheide: Physical Anthropologist and Museum Specialist.
Years at the Smithsonian: Since 1992, ca. 22 years.
Primary Research Focus: Forensic anthropology involving human skeletal remains in both historical and forensic cases.
Videos with Kari Bruwelheide: Kari recently starred in a webcast with Q?rius, our new education center, to teach students about forensic anthropology; the webcast is archived and has a lot of resources for teachers. Kari and her work are also featured in several videos on SmithsonianScience.org. See the video, "Power of the Bones" below, and find more videos about her work here.
Interview with Kari Bruwelheide
Since the interview covers a wide range of topics, feel free to read from the beginning or skip around! The interview is split into the following sections:
- Kari's Research at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History
- Role Models in Physical Anthropology and Advice for Students
- Being a Woman in Science and Balancing a Family
- How research evolves over the course of a Smithsonian scientist's career
- Personality Questions!
Research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History:
What kinds of research or collections work have you been doing lately?
Kari Bruwelheide (hereafter, K): We’re analyzing the skeletal remains of early colonists from the Chesapeake; that’s the focus of our research within the past decade or two decades actually. It began when I first started working here, but that’s continued to be a large part of our research. We also do contemporary forensic case work about part of the time, and then another area of research that we’ve been concentrating on are Paleo-American skeletal remains. So remains [of people] that date around 9000 years old that are found here in the Americas.
Meghan Mulkerin (hereafter, M): Have you been working on Kennewick man?
K: We did; that’s an ongoing project for more than a decade now, that skeleton is curated at the Burke Museum out in Washington so, the research entailed traveling out there doing the documentation and then bringing back the information and data and writing it up.
M: Very Cool. What about the early colonists interest you?
K: Well these are the people who arrived in the early 1600’s to the Chesapeake area. Little was written during the first 100 years of European settlement. The skeletons allow us to fill in the gaps that exist for that first century of settlement. People are surprised that there are very few records but the only real records are people’s property accounts—their wills—and those are only for the very wealthy. Most people did not have one thing written about them or related to them in their lifetime. So, these remains really allow us to look at things that no other piece of information can provide. You know, things like personal identity, what life was like, what activities these people participated in, how did they physically adapt to a new environment? How did their diet change, how did their health change, or was it the same as in Europe when they came over? So there are lots of different things we’re looking at as we collect the data.
M: Do you notice that the health gets better or worse compared to the European populations?
K: It depends on what aspect of health you’re looking at. We were surprised that it was not that improved. England during the time period that these colonists came was a very—for many of them—was a very Urban environment; life was very hard, which is why many of them came to the Americas to settle. But here, things that we did not expect to occur were occurring, things like improper nutrition. They weren’t getting the foods, the nutrients that they needed. The labor was very intense. It was very physical, very physically demanding to settle in a new place. Most people who came here died within the first year or two, so there’s a very high mortality rate, which is why during that first 100 years of settlement the population was sustained only through new immigration.
M: Oh wow.
K: The people who came… they couldn’t reproduce in high enough numbers to actually sustain the population. So without that constant influx of new people, the settlements would not have survived. So there’s a lot that we’re learning about the high price that these people paid in coming over here.
M: That’s amazing. You always hear about how hard it is to build a log cabin and all that; do you see stress factors on the skeletons?
K: Yes, very intense amounts of physical labor appear on the skeletons of these very young people, we’re talking about even teenagers who have multiple herniated disks, a lot of muscle pulls and tears. Sometimes you can even be more specific. There’s one skeleton from St. Mary’s city who was a young man in his twenties, who had large bony spurs, we call them enthesophytes. They’re on areas of the bone where muscles and ligaments attach. If the muscles are stressed they ossify at these locations. He has large areas of enthesophyte formation. And then he has—what eventually killed him—multiple unhealed fractures on his long bones. And we think he must have fallen from a barn or building, a structure… the number of bones that are broken and the way they’re broke look like he sustained a fall. In that case we’re even more specific about activities. He probably was building and had that occupation during his life.
M: Would the women be doing the hard work of building? I remember in the "Written In Bone" exhibit you could see women were holding pins in their teeth.
K: Well women also participated in a lot of heavy physical labor, and you have to remember too, unlike Europe where people had a lot of animals doing work alongside them, many people who came and settled did not have that luxury of having oxen or cows when they first arrived. So everything they did they did on their own bodies, their own backs. So even women were carrying very hard, or very heavy bundles, they were tilling the fields, plowing. They show a lot of heavy physical labor and then, yes, you’re talking about seamstress; tailors notches in the teeth. A lot of specific activities that we do can appear on our bones and our teeth, such as the marks from holding pins in the mouth. So sometimes you’re able to get specific occupations.
Example of tooth-wear patterns found in early Maryland colonists. This early 17th century colonist has a pipe wear facet, from regularly holding a pipe between his teeth. Image Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.
M: That’s really fascinating. Do you have any personal connection to that time period? Did you have ancestors here at that time?
K: No, I’m a latecomer.
M: You’re a latecomer?
K: Yeah, my ancestors didn’t come until the early 1800’s, at the earliest. So I claim no ancestry to the first colonists who came over, but you feel a personal connection with the remains anyways, just by virtue of their humanness.
M: Getting to know what they were?
K: Yeah, you know, you really feel like you get to know them, as individuals when you collect the data.
M: And how does that change for, or rather get more so, for forensic cases?
K: Well the forensic casework we find interesting because yes, it’s satisfying in the fact that you can actually solve the case and bring closure to a family who might be missing a loved one. But we do forensic case work because that informs us on these older remains as well. Forensic cases we get feedback on, or eventually, hopefully we will know, that this is a white male, aged 25 years, he died of a gunshot wound. And knowing that and confirming what we’ve seen on the bones we can then apply that knowledge to skeletons of any age. It really makes us better forensic anthropologists, physical anthropologists. Forensic case work isn’t for everybody, because it does get very personal. You do learn about these individuals, and in a way you have to shut that part of your emotions off. But like I said, it’s extremely satisfying when you can solve a case. Even just identifying someone brings some satisfaction.
M: Yeah that’s huge. We have a lot of older skeletal bone collections in the museum like the Terry collection, have you done any work with those?
K: Yes, we use the Terry collection quite a bit, because that’s a collection of known individuals. We know their age, their sex, their life histories, sometimes cause of death, and that allows us to use that knowledge to compare to forensic cases. If we have a particularly difficult forensic case we might look at Terry bones as references for that case. There are other collections, here in the museum we do that [with]; we use that same technique. One I’m thinking of is the infant and children skeletal collection. Having the bones of infants and children is extremely rare, but the museum has this collection. It was compiled in the early 20th century and recently it helped us resolve a forensic case dealing with childhood neglect and abuse. We were able to refer to these infant bones as comparison models and draw some very interesting conclusions in regards to the forensic work. So these collections are vitally important to interpreting not just the historic remains but also the modern forensic casework.
Kari Bruwelheide examines the skeleton of a 5- to 6-month-old infant buried in a small lead coffin ca. 1683, Brick Chapel, St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Historic St. Mary’s City. Image Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.
M: And that would be something I don’t think most people would know about or think about that; they’re keeping all these bones, but what for? Well, it actually helps with modern day problems.
K: Right, a lot of people can’t understand why we would have skeletal collections. What they don’t realize is that a lot of the knowledge that we have today was built from those collections and that they are still being used. Not just for training the next generation, which is really important—having students come and look at the bones for themselves—but we constantly refer to those collections when we need to ask questions. So they’re really important.
Role Models in Physical Anthropology and Advice for Students:
M: Do you have any role models of physical anthropologists, either men or women, in the past that you looked to when you were starting this career?
K: Well you know, when I was starting, I kind of came to forensic anthropology, physical anthropology in a roundabout way. My focus was on applied anthropology, which is working with living people. But I just happened to volunteer to work on a skeletal collection in graduate school and that led me down a totally different path. I guess at that point it was my volunteer advisor who was a physical anthropologist [that was influential]. He became my graduate advisor. But he was the person who was handling the volunteer project and he totally influenced me by including me in his research. I found this is a very critical aspect of influencing students to change their career paths. And then, of course when I was in school I met Doug [Owsley], my supervisor here. He’s the one who brought me here, so I am eternally grateful to him. And you know, I really have grown up here and he’s been an extremely good mentor because he, more than anyone else I know, is totally focused on his job. I mean he goes to the Nth degree to solve a question. So he’s taught me a lot. And then there are a various number of other people along the way who have kind of mentored me in my career. So, I think it’s really important to have those kinds of people in your life.
M: And for young people, young women just starting out in their career paths, maybe this direction, do you have any kind of advice for them on what to study?
K: Yeah, people always ask that and I could give the obvious answers of studying biology and chemistry and things of that sort. The less obvious ones are learning how to write well, because writing reports is a huge part of this job and communicating—taking the time to take your English classes and writing classes. However, English writing and scientific writing are two different things; you have to be versed in both. And I also encourage students [that] you can go into any good undergraduate school and get a degree. It’s really in graduate school that you’re going to have to focus on whatever field you want to get into. And as you do that, volunteer to do different types of projects, even if they aren’t internships, like with me. It can be a huge game changer in terms of what you want to do after you graduate. So volunteer for as many things as you can and meet people, and get experience, because it’s all of the networking that is going to influence your career choice, but it’s also just knowing what’s out there. When I was starting graduate school I had no idea about forensic anthropology. That wasn’t even on my radar.
M: You were going to be an applied anthropologist.
K: Yes. So just take the time to volunteer for lots of different things, even if they are not specific to what you think you want to do.
Being a Woman in Science and Balancing a Family:
M: Since its women’s history month, have you faced any challenges as a woman scientist?
K: Well my biggest challenge is raising a family while you’re doing work, because you know, as a woman, you feel a huge obligation to your kids and to being home with them. The really wonderful thing about working here at the Smithsonian is I’ve been able to fit my family life into my work life. And so, I think that’s the biggest challenge for any woman going into any career; balancing that work-family issue. Even though I have a wonderful husband, who is willing to help out, it’s just not the same thing—and of course we’re the ones who actually have the kids and that puts a strain on your work life as well. But having that environment where you can do both is very nice and probably pretty rare, but the Smithsonian is one place that you can do that in.
M: And did you take breaks when you had your kids, we talked about kind of restructuring your work around that a bit?
K: Yes, I was able to take three months off, which isn’t, in retrospect, that many. And then of course the Smithsonian has childcare here, so, we were able to take advantage of that for both kids as well. So that was really nice. Because daycare, preschool, that’s a huge hurdle to get over as a parent when you’re working full time.
M: Well and one of the things Mindy Zeder said to me was that women’s career arcs are often different than men’s and maybe your production increases even more later in life once you’re done.
K: Yes. It’s something that I think women will never totally get over... how they balance family and work issues, but yes, now that my kids are older, it’s not as difficult as it was when they were younger. But, I still feel a strong obligation to be at home. Maybe when they go off to college I won’t [feel that way]. It’ll be a different story. I know Mindy’s daughter is grown and has her own kids. But yeah, that’s probably the hardest thing. I never really faced a lot [of sexism]. The fact that I was a female in graduate school and looking for a job I don’t think hurt me in any way. In fact, I think a lot of times it’s an advantage, at least when I was younger. There weren’t as many women in science, so people were eager to bring women in. Nowadays it’s much more competitive as it is a woman-dominated field. It’s becoming that way anyways.
How Research Evolves Over the Course of a Smithsonian Scientist’s Career:
M: Was there anything you’ve ever found in the Smithsonian collections that surprised you or was especially interesting, as you’ve been working here over the years?
K: There are so many things that are interesting… and there are so many incredible stories behind objects. It would take a long time to go into them. I just showed a group today a particular skull that we had, or at least Doug had documented in the 1980’s. And then we revisited, reanalyzed that skull in the 1990’s because somebody had brought us research regarding this particular individual who was killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn. We took out this skull, reexamined it with the knowledge we had in the 90’s and it totally reinterpreted that specimen and that story. It just shows that you change over time as a scientist. You learn so many new things even in the course of ten years—and that particular skull eventually got matched with a name of an individual. It’s just bringing that information together, the different pieces, they can all come together and fit perfectly, and you get a much richer story. And that’s not an exception, that something that happens all the time with our objects here at the museum. People think that you’ve collected all the information you can on something, but in ten years that story will be so much richer because we have new techniques that we acquire. Our eyes get better from learning as we go on. And you know that’s the cool thing about working with our collections here… you never run out of things to discover.
M: That sense of being able to knit things up and solve the puzzle must be really satisfying as part of the job.
K: Yeah and I think that’s true with any field here in the museum, it’s all about answering questions. It’s all about whatever mystery you might have. I’m just partial to human skeletons because I love that human story that goes behind it, but people who study marine mammals probably feel the same way.
M: People like different things.
M: Do you have a favorite movie?
K: … Uh, wow. Do I have a favorite movie??…
M: Or a favorite book, if that’s more your speed.
K: Well… I was an English major in college so I have lots of favorite books. And just like I said, you look at a specimen and ten years later you look at it again and have a different interpretation...it is the same with rereading books. My kids are reading some of the “classic books” that I read in school. …It’s hard to name a book but I just re-read Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe because my son is reading that for class, and I don’t know, I love that book. I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but I love to read.
Movies—I know this sounds hokey—but The Lord of the Rings trilogy, they are my favorites. Just for a great adventure movie with wonderful tidbits of… life philosophy. So I love that trilogy. That has to be my favorite for pure enjoyment.
M: I can definitely relate to you on that one, and the re-reading, I always re-read books, like things I read in high school. I hated Jane Austen in high school, ‘This is stupid’ and then I re-read it when I was older and I was like ‘This is so insightful and hilarious’ it’s just funny.
K: And as I tell my kids it’s all because your perspective has changed. You’re at a different place than you were ten years ago. And so the way you interpret things is going to be so different from when you were a teenager.
K: And so, that’s why it’s hard to have a favorite book of all time because you might have favorites that relate to different parts of your life.
M: And favorite color?
K: Favorite color… is probably green, just because I like nature.
M: And how many countries have you been to as part of the Smithsonian?
K: Well most of our travel is done nationally in the U.S. because our research is focused on North America, but we have gone overseas. Probably the most exotic place is Croatia. And we went there, not long after their civil war, so it was kind of unusual for me to go there and have to have an escort, an armed escort. Getting out into the countryside away from the city was real unusual. So we do travel on occasion to various places like that.
M: Any places you want to go for fun at some point?
K: Yes, I want to go to Italy and Greece; they’re my two biggies. My daughter loves Greek mythology and all of that so eventually we’ll take a trip there together, and I would also like to go to Antarctica.
K: Just to go to an extreme place, once in my lifetime.
M: That would be great. Do you speak any other languages?
K: No, although I did almost became a French minor in college. But all of that has escaped me now so I speak teeny amounts of French and I also took a semester of Spanish in graduate school so I could understand people when I went to Peru, because I went to Peru to do some research.
M: Well this might be an interesting question for you, knowing what you know about how people lived so intimately in the past. If you had to pick a time period to live in other than your own, would you pick any of them?
K: I would pick, probably—because I always was fascinated with [the] history of the Wild West—I would probably pick the 1800’s just to experience it… the 1860’s 1870’s era. Plus, we have done research on this particular curator here at the Smithsonian, actually he wasn’t a curator, he was a naturalist called Robert Kennicott, and if I could go back in time and meet someone I would probably pick him. He lived in the 1860’s. I just love that period in history, the pioneer movement out west. I know it’s romanticized in my mind, but there was so much going on here in this country at the time and I would just like to, to know what it was like.
M: Do you have any pets at home?
K: I have two cats and a dog.
M: What are their names?
K: The dog is Toby and the cats are Sebastian and Boo.
M: I suppose I should also ask your children’s names [laughs].
K: Yes, they are important too, my son is Calvin, he’s 12, almost 13, and my daughter is Beret and she is 15, almost 16.
M: Do you have any hobbies?
K: Well I was just telling Katie [co-worker] that I have the gardening bug. I like to garden and work outside, and we also, as a family, like to go camping and we have a canoe that we like to take out. Um, and what else? I knit a little bit; like to read.
M: I knit too! Do you have anyone you especially admire, in the world? Alive or dead?
K: Oh, I admire a lot of people. Hmm. Yeah, it would be hard to… [pick]. I guess like many people, I admire historic figures… with the death of Nelson Mandela, just learning about, just like these skeletons tell us, [the] individual stories, inspires me. I’m always amazed at how one person can make such a significant contribution. So anybody that can rise up and have the courage to make such a statement in their life I think I have admiration for. So somebody like him, or Martin Luther King, or… gosh, there are so many figures who have done that.
M: I think I’m out of questions, anything you’d like to add?
K: No I think you covered it all.
M: Well, thanks very much for talking with me.
K: You’re welcome.
By: Meghan Mulkerin, Collections Specialist Contractor and Kari Bruwelheide, Forensic Anthropologist.