05/07/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

A Day in My Life as an Anthropologist, Anything but Ordinary


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Recently, I was asked to describe my average work day as a scientist--what time I get into the office, what I do once I'm there, what I eat for lunch, that sort of thing. The thing is, I don't have an "average" work day; and I mean this in two ways. First, my day-to-day is highly variable. I may be in a motion capture laboratory collecting data on how people move as they make Paleolithic stone tools or as they use those stone tools to butcher a goat or a sheep. I may be walking around a Kenyan savannah, searching for fossilized bones and ancient stone tools, or I might spend my day following capuchin monkeys around a Brazilian forest. And sometimes I might just be sitting in front of a computer trying to make sense of everything that I've spent the last few months observing and recording. The second way my days stray from "average" is that as far as career paths go, there is relatively little that can be considered "average" about the things I get to do. I am a scientist, a human evolutionary biologist, and I love what I do.

I don't mean to imply that every day is as thrilling as a rollercoaster ride or that I'm the living embodiment of Lara Croft or Indiana Jones (though I am a bit leery of snakes). I have days when I bang my head against my desk and count the seconds as they tick by, just like every desk-jockey throughout the land. But also, on a pretty regular basis, I get to do things and go places that make my perpetually desk-bound lawyer brother green with envy (and make my mother wring her hands with anxiety.) And it is done as part of a systematic investigation into the processes and influences that made us human.

One of the lessons I have learned as a scientist is that science is vast, varied, and close to infinite. It involves everything from lasers to rubber gum boots, microscopic particles to house-sized blue whales. And the more we learn, the more we realize we have left to learn. There is no foreseeable end to the wonderful process that is scientific discovery. For instance, while it may be true that all of the above-water land masses have already been discovered, we are far from knowing about all of the organisms that inhabit those lands and even further from understanding them. We now realize that we don't even know about all of the organisms that live on and in our own bodies, let alone on some distant land mass! Just this year scientists published their findings on the 100 trillion microbes (bacteria, fungi, algae and the like) that make your body their home. You may have more than 100 different microbial species living in your mouth alone at this very moment. And the person sitting just one computer down from you may have more than 100 completely different microbes living in her mouth (to say nothing of the rest of the body). And your dog has a completely different set of mouth microbes! And every one of those different species has a different genome waiting to be sequenced and studied. Clearly, we have a lot of territory left to cover even if we confine ourselves to the human body.

There is no "average" day from one scientist to the next because science is such an awesomely broad discipline. If you were to pack a group of scientists into a room and ask them to talk about what they study, you could wind up with a Tower of Babel scenario: a room full of people speaking very different languages. Different sciences use different terms, apply different methods, utilize different computer systems and technology. But within that diversity, we find common ground in our desire to explore the natural world around us, in the curiosity that drives our investigations and in the scientific process we use to carry out those investigations. All of this means that not only is science broad, it is also inclusive: there is room for everyone in the sciences, for every gender, country, socioeconomic status, language group, sex and any other demographic division you can think of. Because the more diverse the pool of people taking part in science becomes, the better off science is, and the better off our world becomes.

So please don't think that all scientists wear white lab coats and talk like robots. And don't worry that you may not think you seem like a scientist on the outside, or that you don't like chemistry or biology or physics. You don't have to like all of the sciences to succeed as a scientist, and you certainly don't have to be good at all of them! Science is as vast and varied as the scientists who study it. And we have a lot of exploring left to do.

Erin Marie Williams, George Washington University, Washington, DC, paleoanthropologist in a biomechanics laboratory. The L'Oréal USA Fellowships For Women in Science award will help Williams investigate the decision-making processes and abilities of our early human ancestors as evidenced through their selection of raw materials for the production and use of Early Stone Age technologies.