2018 Grant Award: Audrey Arner

The first time I visited Penn State, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the dean of the College of Science. After learning about my broad academic interests in ecology and biological anthropology, he recommended I take his eco-health class in Tanzania and become involved in the Perry anthropological genomics lab if I decided to attend PSU. Two and a half years later, I’ve had the greatest privilege to be involved with both this summer.

I am at a loss for words to describe my experience in Tanzania. Participating in this experience, something I have dreamed about since first visiting Penn State, surpassed my wildest dreams, and I treasured every moment. Over the course of three weeks, we went on driving and walking safaris, taking in the ecosystem’s immense biodiversity and learning how to identify animals by their tracks and poop. Every landscape we drove through and the sheer abundance of wildlife we saw in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park took my breath away. There were zebra, wildebeest, impala, and gazelle as far as the eye could see, interspersed with giraffe, elephants, hyena, wild dogs, crocodile, hippopotamus, and birds.

We also spent time with some of the local people, specifically the Hadza hunter-gatherers and Maasai pastoralists. Interacting with the Hadza was incredibly special. They have lived around Lake Eyasi in north-central Tanania for tens of thousands of years, drawing even more excitement due to the area’s proximity to Olduvai Gorge, nicknamed the “Cradle of Humankind” due to the large number of hominin fossils found at the site. It’s one thing to read about populations with such anthropological significance, but to gather tubers, make arrows, and accompany them hunting is something entirely different.

While in Tanzania, I also found that I am passionate about sharing research results with participant communities. Talking with the Hadza about how no researcher has ever come back to share results with them, even though they would like researchers to, made me think really hard about how common, or uncommon, it is for anthropologists to engage with community members and incorporate their values and perspectives into all parts of a research project. My experiences and formal and informal discussions about ecological topics also made me think about the application of my current research and what my future plans could encompass. With its rich cultural and ecological, Tanzania just seems to be perfect for an anthropologist. I plan to return to conduct my own research there one day.

As soon as I got used to being back on eastern standard time after returning to the United States, I flew to Germany to continue the rest of my summer researching at the University of Tuebingen. Dr. Perry, my PI at Penn State, is on sabbatical as a visiting researcher there, where he is a fellow at a DFG Center for Advanced Studies. The project that I led is on the recent evolution of body size and shape differences between human males and females. By the end of the summer I also started contributing exploratory genomic analyses to three additional projects that explore various anthropological hypotheses. Although my progress started out slow, I grew exponentially as a researcher. I was able to successfully set up pipelines for future datasets and research questions, improved my computational skills, and found some really cool results. Since beginning this project in the fall of 2017 I’ve been working independently, but over the summer I hit unprecedented levels of leadership. Every Friday I would lead discussions about project updates and ideas for a group comprised of Dr. Perry and two other fellows. Doing this anthropology research makes me incredibly happy. I am so grateful to have had this experience, and cannot wait to continue my projects during the academic year.

While in Germany, I also had the opportunity to travel on weekends. I mostly stayed within Germany, although I ventured out of the country to France, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Consciously making the decision to leave my computer in my apartment while I traveled allowed me to mentally recover from the workweek and better appreciate my cultural immersion. In that regard, my experience in Germany was fundamentally different from my experience in Tanzania. Instead of spending all my time with other Americans, I lived with two Germans and was regularly surrounded by people who did not speak English.

This summer I lived what my wildest dream was as a high school senior. It is impossible for me to imagine how many things had to fall in place for this summer to have proceeded like it did. I am so glad they did, privileged to be supported by phenomenal people in my research lab and academic program, and happy to be attending Penn State.