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).
When you've been around the Natural History Museum any time at all, you realize that most people have been here for more than 20 years. What can we say; people love it here and stay! We have phenomenally productive staff members who have worked with the Smithsonian for over 40 years, and since scientific knowledge is cumulative and is the work of a lifetime, this is a great thing. Dr. Briana Pobiner is a part of a new generation of anthropologists in the museum. In her eight years at NMNH, she has brought scientifically valuable collections to the museum, continued important research on the evolution of the human diet, been an integral part of the team that put up the Human Origins exhibit, and made an impact in public science education!
Dr. Pobiner currently is directing a really cool NSF-funded project to provide teachers and students with better materials that use human examples to teach evolution in Advanced Placement high school biology classes; she hopes to expand to general biology since that is the last time many adults will learn about evolution during their formal education! Briana is also the mom of an adorable two-year old, named Toby (Tobias Rex), and I was eager to hear her perspective on this recent life change and how she was balancing family with work-life. Briana and her husband have a lot in common; he is also very involved with biology and teaches human and animal skeletal anatomy, physiology and histology. Little T. Rex is quickly learning that mommy and daddy work with bones, and was very excited about his namesake arriving at the museum on April 15th!
Briana has not shied away from working in the field underscoring “that life and work intersect at all times in a woman’s career.” Go, Briana! We hope you enjoy this Women’s History Month interview. Please let us know if you have questions or comments for Dr. Pobiner.
Dr. Briana Pobiner: Research Scientist and Museum Educator for the Human Origins Program in the Anthropology Department of the National Museum of Natural History.
Years at the Smithsonian: Eight and a half years.
Primary Research Focus: Her research centers on the evolution of human diet (with a focus on meat-eating), but has included topics as diverse as cannibalism in the Cook Islands and chimpanzee carnivory. She has done fieldwork in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Indonesia. In addition, she also leads the Human Origins Program’s education and outreach efforts and manages the Human Origins Program's public programs, website content, social media, and exhibition volunteer training.
Videos with Briana Pobiner:
- Public Education
- Collections Work, Research and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum
- Starting a Career in Anthropology and Stories from Fieldwork
- Being a Woman in Science with a Family
- Advice for Students
- Personality Questions
- What Briana Wants You to Know About Science
Meghan Mulkerin (hereafter: M): Hello, I’m here with Dr. Briana Pobiner in the Human Origins Program in the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History. Hello Briana!
Briana Pobiner (hereafter: P): Hello, Meghan.
M: What is your job title?
P: Right now it’s research scientist and museum educator.
M: What does museum education involve?
P: In particular, what I do for museum education is everything from running public programs for the Human Origins initiative to maintaining and updating our website, our social media accounts, volunteer training, and larger education efforts. I’m doing a big project with high school teachers right now.
M: That’s really interesting, what kind of project with teachers?
P: So in the project I’m doing with teachers we are using human examples to teach basic evolutionary principles in high school biology classes. And the main hypothesis of the project is that students will be more interested in and therefore potentially better understand evolution, if it relates directly to them.
M: How long have you been doing this kind of work at the Smithsonian?
P: That project is in the second year of a three year project. But I’ve been at the Smithsonian for about eight and a half years.
Collections Work, Research and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum
M: What kind of collections work have you been doing lately? You mentioned that you’re also a research scientist.
P: I am and interestingly enough, I have my own collection that I started when I was a graduate student that is now here at the Smithsonian. It has recently been cleaned and is getting organized; I’m actually putting it into storage in the cabinets right outside my office. So it’s taken a little bit of time, but it’s finally now getting properly organized and curated.
M: And what kinds of things does this collection tell you?
P: This collection is made up of modern African animal bones that carnivores have chewed. A lot of my research has to do with the evolution of human diet, especially meat eating. So these bones can tell me the pattern of damage by different kinds of African carnivores. I can look back in the fossil record and I can see if I can find those damage patterns on fossil bones from collections where we also know the early humans were eating animals. To basically [find out] what kinds of carnivores were they competing with.
M: Oh very interesting! So have you heard anything about Raymond Dart and all of that during your education? Was that part of your development as an Anthropologist?
P: Yeah, certainly! I think the beginning of the Osteodontokeratic culture, or the bone-tooth-horn culture, which Raymond Dart came up with, [was] the idea [that] our earliest ancestors were sort of these blood-thirsty early humans that were wielding all these tools to kill animals.
And interestingly a lot of the broken animal bone fossils that were found in those earliest excavations in South Africa in the 1920’s and 30’s, we’re now realizing were probably just carnivore chewed assemblages.
M: So it wasn’t actually humans doing anything at all to each other, for instance like Dart hypothesized [about cannibalism].
P: Exactly, that’s right.
M: What do you consider to be the biggest accomplishments of your career so far here?
P: I would say the biggest accomplishment would be [that] I worked on the team that developed the Hall of Human Origins, which opened in 2010. That will probably be one of my biggest career accomplishments throughout my whole career. It was an amazing exciting, crazy, intense process, and it was… it was wonderful.
M: And that’s a permanent exhibit?
P: It’s a permanent exhibit; the most recent permanent exhibit to open here at the Natural History Museum. It opened in 2010, and we have a commitment for the exhibit to remain open for 25 years.
M: Oh wow. And what’s your favorite part of that exhibit?
P: Oh, that’s a good question. Probably the display of 76 exact replicas of early human fossils, that we call our skull wall. It’s this amazing array of evidence. My second favorite thing would have to be right across from it, is actually a real Neanderthal skeleton. To be actually able to exhibit real fossils, I think is really exciting.
M: That is really exciting! What was the most challenging part about putting that exhibit together?
P: The most challenging part was that in order actually get all of the objects for the exhibit—most of them are replicas—it involved reaching out to colleagues across the world, in order to find the particular person or the institution who does the casting; creating Memorandums of Understanding across museums. The hardest part was just really to get all the objects, because we’re trying to display as much as we can of the entirety of human evolution. So it’s not just the research that we do, but it’s really about the world’s wealth of evidence on human evolution.
Starting a Career in Anthropology and Stories from Fieldwork
M: How did your career here get started; how did you get this job? Tell us about what you started doing when you first got here.
P: Sure, it’s a great story. I got this job based on an encounter with my current boss, Rick Potts, at a photocopy shop in Nairobi, in Kenya. So we knew each other for a while and the long story short is he was looking for somebody with a particular set of skills, to do various things including work on this exhibition and I had that skill set. So it was being in the right place at the right time, in essence, with the right tools, under my belt; but I started here as a pre-doctoral fellow and then a post-doctoral fellow. I was finishing my dissertation, but I really came to help work on this exhibition. I had no training in exhibitions beforehand; no background in museum studies, so it was kind of trial by fire, but I spent about three and a half years doing that, and after that I transitioned into my current job where I am doing a mix of continuing to do my scientific research but really taking on a lot of these education and outreach responsibilities.
M: Have you had a lot of interaction with the larger Smithsonian collections? You said you made your own collection but have you found anything really interesting in our existing collections?
P: I haven’t had as much of a chance to do that, but some collections that I’ve worked with are actually in the Paleobiology Department, some of Dr. Kay Behrensmeyer’s collections, who’s a curator in Paleobiology. She has done some similar studies of carnivore chewed bones, but also bones that have been weathered on the surface, and thinking about different process that happen to bones as they become fossils.
M: That’s really interesting. How do bones become fossils?
P: If you want to become a fossil, the first thing you should probably do is get buried. So burials are really a key part of becoming a fossil, because essentially bones that are sitting out on the surface will eventually disintegrate from wind and water and all kinds of different erosional processes. But eventually, the minerals in bone get replaced by the minerals in the soil. Fossils are basically rocks, and so it is the process of bone turning into stone.
M: You said you’ve been to Nairobi. Do you have any interesting stories from the field that you’d like to share?
P: Wow, so, one of my scariest encounters in the field—I’ve had a couple of encounters where I have been inside a four wheel drive vehicle that I had a lot for my research over there—so, I’ve been in several situations where I’ve been in a national park doing research and had close encounters with elephants. Twice I had a vehicle stall—two different vehicles—where there were elephants all around, and elephants were fighting. And I have a great respect for and terror of elephants; they are amazingly huge and amazingly quiet. But a lot of the work I did for my dissertation, beside the excavation part, and recovering fossils and studying them, was being able to follow carnivores around and pick up animals that they had killed after they were done eating them. So I sort of felt like I was on Animal Planet all the time following lions around. It was really fun!
M: And that seems really unusual for an anthropologist to be so involved with biology and the natural world, but it tells you a lot of about human cultures!
P: Exactly, and I think that the interactions between humans and wildlife—those questions kind of span a lot of different disciplines. In essence I’m just looking at that in pre-history.
M: Where did you go to school to study all of this?
P: My undergrad degree is from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. I created an independent major there; it was mostly Anthropology focused but it was called Evolutionary Studies because I wanted to bring in geology and biology and evolutionary psychology; that was wonderful. And my Master’s and PhD are from Rutgers University, in New Jersey.
M: What first got you interested in Anthropology in general?
P: I didn’t know what Anthropology was when I got to college, but my Dean who was advising me at that point, had taught Anthropology at Bryn Mawr, and as I was rounding out my schedule my Freshman year, my first semester, she said, “Why don’t you take Anthropology for your fourth class?” And I said, “I don’t know what Anthropology is.” Then I had a fabulous professor and just got hooked.
M: Very cool! You don’t hear that often, you know it’s sort of like, “I was five years old and always wanted to be an archaeologist.” But it’s really great that you were able to encounter that in college and then go so far with it.
P: Yeah, it was a big shift. I really thought I wanted to major in English or comparative literature and do creative writing. I just saw the creativity in science, which I thought was really exciting.
M: Have you heard anything—being so involved with teachers—about the impetus to go into STEAM instead of STEM, incorporating art into science, technology, engineering and mathematics?
P: I have, and I think a lot about [what is behind that drive towards] the art/science intersection is [that] people are really interested in using both sides of the brain; both ways of thinking about the world, and in helping people learn.
Being a Woman in Science with a Family
M: Regarding our theme of Women’s History Month; how has it been for women in your field? You’re one of our younger people here; have you experienced any difficulties as a woman in science?
P: You know, it’s very interesting. I feel like I have not in a lot of ways, but I also remember having a conversation with a senior male colleague in my profession. As I was talking about my career path and things I was interested in, he was saying, “Well, you know, I assume at some point you’re going to want to run your own excavations and have a big field site,” and I said, “Well I’m not actually sure about that, I have some ideas about experimental archaeology, and doing a couple other things,” and I think there is this concept that succeeding in this field is basically running a long-term field site, which can be a really difficult thing to do if you are a woman with a family, and so that in a theoretical sense, is a boundary that I’ve encountered.
M: Very interesting.
P: I don’t know about a boundary, but it’s an issue that I’ve encountered.
M: There has been a lot of news lately about personal or family life and career goals for women. How have you been able to balance family and career?
P: Every day I balance it differently; and I’m lucky in the sense that—I have a two-year-old—and since I’ve had my son, I have scaled back my fieldwork for sure. I use to be in the field every summer for about 3 months. A lot of my projects were naturally ending right before I had him, so it’s actually part of my career trajectory that I’m thinking about smaller projects or some more museum-based projects. I still have a long-term field project that I’m running, so I think having—if you are a parent—having a partner that understands what it is to be a woman in academia, a woman in science [is important]. My husband, right now is mostly home taking care of our son, which allows me amazing flexibility in my day-to-day life, but also in going to the field for a couple of weeks. And I’ve actually looked to a lot of my female mentors in my field, to find out how they’ve done it. People are, I’ve found, amazingly open to giving me advice about that, which has been wonderful.
M: Who are some of those mentors and role models that you have?
P: One of them is Dr. Kay Behrensmeyer (Kay was selected as one of 50 most important women scientists by Discover Magazine in 2002), a curator here, who has really been a role model for me for a long time. She does a lot of her own kind of field work, runs field projects, and is involved with other people’s field projects. Another is the person who was my external committee member for my PhD, Margaret Lewis. She has kids and has a husband in academia and so talking about what it’s like to have a two-partner academic family… those have been two of my main mentors, as well as Dr. Alison Brooks, who’s at GW (The George Washington University), where I have an affiliation. She’s also in a dual academic marriage and she’s done a lot of field work... so just learning that that can be done has been really helpful for me.
M: Did people treat you any differently in the field when you were expecting your son? Was it difficult?
P: They mostly thought I was completely insane. Actually the game reserve staff forbid me from going into the deep bush where the elephant and buffalo (both quite dangerous) tend to hang out, saying I might not be able to run fast enough if we got charged. I thought that was reasonable, and although it changed our research plans I figured not putting two lives at risk – mine and future Toby’s – was worth it. I felt pretty good physically, it was during my second trimester, but sleeping on a crappy mattress was not fun! And I’m telling you, bending over to tie my boots and put on the gaitors was the toughest part of the day.
Advice for Students
M: Do you have any advice for young people, especially young women and girls who want to go into your field?
P: Um, wow, follow your heart! Really just figuring out what your passion is—and it never occurs to me to take no for an answer—so to not feel intimidated by talking to people whose articles you’ve read and whose names are big in your field, and especially finding one or more female mentors, I think is a really important thing to do. I’m actually involved in a new group at GW, in the Anthropology graduate program—a Women in Science Club. We get together with young faculty members and graduate students to talk about issues facing women in science. And I think just hearing stories and getting support from other women is really crucial.
M: Thanks for that perspective.
M: Now we have a couple silly questions so people can get at your personality.
P: Okay, oh boy.
M: Nothing too difficult. Favorite book, favorite movie?
P: Oh wow, okay, my favorite movie is The Usual Suspects and I think the amazing twist at the end that I did not see [coming]; every time I watch the movie I enjoy it. What’s my favorite book? I don’t, I don’t even know. I think that’d be a really hard one to answer.
M: Favorite genre?
P: My favorite thing that I’m reading right now... one is I’m actually really enjoying sort of pop psychology books and understanding how our brains work and how our personalities develop. I like to read popular anthropology books. I’m reading Catching Fire right now, by Richard Wrangham, which is about the idea that cooking made us human, and it was instrumental in human evolution. And of course I’m reading parenting books now, so those are the three different types of books I’m reading at the moment.
M: How about your favorite color?
M: Oh, mine too.
P: I don’t, know I love purple, sometimes it’s red, but it’s mostly purple.
M: It’s in the same family. Are you artistic at all? Do you have any kind of hobbies?
P: I cannot draw to save my life, but I’m musical so I sing, I play drums, and I played piano for ages and ages so I would say that’s the artistic side of me. I also like to run.
M: How many countries have you been to off the top of your head? Or just a few favorites?
P: Wow, probably a dozen. For my research I’m mostly in Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa; been to Uganda [for more of a] vacation, and Indonesia. I’ve not worked much in Asia, but my time in Indonesia was pretty amazing. I did a lot of traveling when I was in college. I studied abroad at the University College London, which was wonderful because probably still now as a student, you can do a lot of cheap traveling in Europe, so I got to really travel a lot in Europe. Now for the first time, thanks to a conference in the fall, I will be going to Argentina. I haven’t been to South America before; I’m really excited about that.
M: That is exciting. Do you speak any other languages?
P: I speak really bad Swahili. I actually took French and Italian in high school. I thought I potentially wanted to be a comparative literature major until I realized that I was very good at memorizing and kind of regurgitating, but not good at actually becoming fluent in a language. So I know enough Swahili to kind of get by when I’m in Kenya. That’s about it.
M: If you had to pick a time period other than your own to live in, what would it be?
P: I would pick a time deep in human pre-history and I think I would probably pick–probably because I study the origin of meat eating—I would pick the beginning of the time when people were first figuring out that big animals were food. And just [find out] what was the mind-set and how did that become… I mean our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, they don’t eat dead animals, but it looks like early humans were doing a lot of scavenging, so how did that work? Off the top of my head that’s what I would pick.
M: Do you have any pets at home?
P: Not anymore. I had a cat in fact that I brought home from Kenya when I was doing my PhD research. She unfortunately passed away about a year ago. But at some point we would like to get a cat and probably a dog. I grew up with a dog, so I’m a huge dog and cat fan.
M: So obviously Argentina sounds like the next place you want to travel. Any other ones that are high on your list?
P: I have always wanted to travel to South Asia. I’ve been on vacation in Thailand but I haven’t really been to other places in Asia; that’s a whole part of the world that I probably won’t get to with my research. I would love to go to India; I would love to go to China; I would love to go to the Middle East and Eastern Europe. You know I would take out a map of the world and throw a dart; I think that would be really fun. And Australia, again, I probably will never get to Australia with my actual research so that’d be pretty amazing.
What Briana Wants You to Know About Science:
M: And to close, if you had one thing that you’d like to get out to the public to let people know about, what would it be?
P: That science is fun and cool, and I’ve become a real big advocate for public engagement with science and public understanding of science. When I was taught science in high school it was rote and boring and I wasn’t interested in it. And there was nothing left to learn, and then all of a sudden when I got to college, I had these great professors who explained, there are all these research questions and here’s the kind of things that you could study, and there’s so much out there left to discover! And it’s really fun! That’s what I would say.
We're out to discover! If you ever dug holes for fun as a kid, you never know, anthropology might be for you (and that's not all we do)! Let us know if you have any questions about a career in science. Briana digs with her team in Indonesia. Image Credit: Craig Feibel.
By: Meghan Mulkerin, Collections Specialist and Research Contractor, and Dr. Briana Pobiner, Research Scientist and Museum Educator for the Human Origins Program
For more Seriously Amazing Women, read about Forensic Anthropologist, Kari Bruwelheide's life and career.