Conversations with: Professor Rebecca Ackermann

This week’s guest is Professor Rebecca Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town (UCT)! Rebecca was the founding Director of the Human Evolution Research Institute at UCT, and is currently Deputy Director. She is also Deputy Dean of Transformation in the Faculty of Science at UCT. Her research focusses on evolutionary process, and specifically how gene flow, drift and selection interact to produce skeletal diversity through time, with a focus on human evolution. Rebecca is also engaged in discourse and policy development around sexism, racism and transformation of the discipline more generally.

Professor Rebecca Ackermann, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cape Town

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

I am a biological anthropologist who studies morphological – primarily skeletal – variation. I’m interested in knowing why we vary, why lineages diverge evolutionarily. This obviously involves getting a firm grasp of both within and between group variation, and I have looked at a lot of different organisms – from mice to gorillas to hominins – to do this. In particular, I’ve studied the relationship between patterns of variation and the evolutionary processes that produce them, i.e. the relative roles that selection, drift, and gene flow (hybridization) play in producing diversity

What originally drew you to biological anthropology? 

I’ve always been interested in bones, since I was small. Someone recently reminded me of the story of how I was reading a magazine describing a child’s struggle with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones) when I was about 8 or 9, and decided I wanted to find a cure for it. Although I didn’t go into that line of research, clearly I have remained hooked on bones! But more than that, I wanted to understand what makes us different and why. That included trying to understand everything from human variation (and race and racism) all the way through to fossil hominin taxonomic diversity. I was very lucky to have great mentors when at The University of Chicago as an undergraduate (special shout out to Jane Buikstra), who really helped me to explore all of anthropology and come out with a more holistic approach to considering this question. That was the time when I decided biological anthropology was for me.

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

I studied facial variation in what were then the earliest known hominins – the australopiths. A large part of that research examined how our underlying assumptions about how and why hominin taxa vary shape our species-determinations. I grew up in the United States, and my PhD work was the first time I was privileged to travel to Africa, first to South Africa in 1995 for preliminary work, then to South Africa and Kenya in 1996/7 for data collection. Like most foreigners coming to these spaces for the first time, I found it incredible. To be able to see and touch the fossils for yourself, meet people such as Phillip Tobias, and experience a very different culture. 1995 was also when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in their first participation post-apartheid, and that was an experience I will never forget. But my PhD experience was not all rosy. Multiple times during my academic training I experienced sexual harassment, and this forever shaped me. I changed universities because of it, avoided certain academics and curators, and ultimately modified my choices going forward. During that time and for many years after, I also felt the weight of being a woman and not being included or taken seriously in the discipline, and was repeatedly bullied at conferences and in other academic spaces, even when I was supposed to be the authority. Luckily I always felt able to stand up to those people, but nevertheless the experiences had a profound effect on me and on my choices going forward, and on my mentoring especially.

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

I did a two-year postdoc at the same institution where I received my PhD – Washington University in St Louis – under the supervision of James Cheverud. Halfway into that, the advertisement for a Lectureship in the Archaeology Department at the University of Cape Town crossed my desk. I only realised later that the post was advertised with what we now call transformation goals in mind – i.e. to hire a black or female South African. I applied, and ultimately was offered the position. While in South Africa previously I had been to Cape Town and said I would move there in a heartbeat if I got a chance. So I did. In 2000, I moved with myself, my husband, and our three old dogs, and have been here ever since. But the fact that there were no qualified South Africans to take up the position bothered me from day one, and I made a commitment to myself that one of my primary goals would be to make sure that next time there would be. I am now Professor and Deputy Dean for Transformation in the Faculty of Science, and my job is to continue the work of transforming our institution to one that reflects the demographic and cultural diversity of South Africa.

Rebecca at home in Cape Town, with Table Mountain in the background

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I am involved in quite a lot of research projects, many of which are in collaboration with current or former students. In addition to my focus on skeletal morphology, I am involved in issues around decolonisation in palaeoanthropology. Disparities in wealth, opportunities and privileges in the discipline have meant that the demographic of who gets to ask and answer research questions has historically been, and still is, skewed to the West. These disparities have grown out of colonial/patriarchal practices, and their correlates, racism and sexism. We’re paying more attention to this globally, especially right now, but need to look at ourselves more critically, and especially how we as individuals and collectives continue to prop up these systems and impede the transformation of our discipline.  

Rebecca with her colleagues and her son in the field (left to right: Rebecca, Nomawethu Hlazo (PhD candidate), Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Dr. Job Kibii, her son Zane, Dr. Robyn Pickering) at the Cradle of Humankind in 2019.

What project or publication or discovery are you most proud of?

My students, right through from undergraduates to PhD students. I am proudest of them and everything they have achieved, some despite considerable adversity that people in the Western world can’t fathom. I am especially proud of my PhD students, who are a beacon of hope in today’s world. 

Rebecca with some her current and former PhD students (left to right: Dr. Tessa Campbell, Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Dr. Riashna Sithaldeen, Rebecca, Robyn Humphreys (PhD candidate), Nomawethu Hlazo (PhD candidate), Dr. Kerryn Warren)

What is your favourite memory from your career?

One of the happiest days of my life happened in September 2009, when I sat my then four PhD students (Riashna Sithaldeen, Lauren Schroeder, Tessa Campbell and Wendy Black… all South African women who have since completed) down in my office to tell them I was going to have a baby for the first (and only) time. I was 40, and quite anxious to be pregnant. I know that may not seem like an academic highlight, but the outpouring of sheer joy that came from them really drove home the fact that we had created this supportive and inclusive space together. They also assured me that having a boy was for the best as none of them would have wanted me as a mother (LOL). I have been deeply privileged to have the opportunity to know them, and the cohort of young South African palaeoscience students more broadly

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in human evolution studies over the last 5 years?

Why, the fact that human evolution is so complex, of course! Hybridisation and chance have played a huge role in shaping hominin diversity. But let’s be honest, although this has received a lot of attention in recent years, the reality is that researchers – many from non-Western spaces – have been challenging simple models of hominin evolution (and especially human origins) for some time. We have simply gotten to a point where the genetics have supported previous hypotheses and made them more mainstream.

What is your favourite thing about your job? What would you change if you could?

I love giving students opportunities and watching them grow. I love the freedom and flexibility academia gives me, and them, to explore their ideas, and to change. I don’t like the slow pace of social change in academia, and the fact that it is still largely a white man’s world. I deeply dislike the continuation of practises that prop up the systemic inequalities that resulted from colonial practices. It bothers me immensely that helicopter research is still rampant, with Westerners bringing their money and people into African countries, in many cases with relatively little engagement with Africans as peers (and not just workers). I would change that in a minute.

University of Cape Town Inaugural lecture for Full Professor

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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