Conversations with: Professor Tanya Smith

I am very pleased to introduce today Professor Tanya Smith, human evolutionary biologist at the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE) and the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research (GCSCR) at Griffith University. Tanya, following a PhD in Anthropological Sciences at Stony Brook University, has held fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in addition to a professorship at Harvard University. Her research at ARCHE and GCSCR focuses on primate dental development and growth, using tooth microstructure to resolve taxonomic, phylogenetic and developmental questions about great apes and humans, as demonstrated by her recent popular book The Tales Teeth Tell. She has published in a number of high-impact journals, such as Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and her work has been reported in The Conversation, The New York TimesNational GeographicSmithsonian, and Discovery magazines. She has also appeared on American, Australian, British, Canadian, French, Irish, German, New Zealand, and Singaporean broadcast media.

Professor Tanya Smith, Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University (Photo credit: Jeff Camden).

What inspired your interest in human evolution and specifically primate teeth?

I was initially lit up by an introductory biological anthropology course I took with Robert (Bob) Anemone during my first semester at SUNY Geneseo in 1993. The field encompasses so many of my personal interests in natural history, skeletal biology, and human uniqueness. While majoring in biology, I took every one of Bob’s bio anthro courses and participated in two field seasons in the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming — where we recovered Eocene mammalian fossils, including tiny primate teeth. During my senior year at Geneseo I began to read about how scholars were using biological rhythms in teeth to explore ancient human development, and using electron microscopy, I started my own search for these lines in the fossil teeth we found in Wyoming.

What types of  information can we obtain about human evolution from teeth?

Nearly everything you can think of: birth, growth rates, age, disease, evolutionary relationships, life history, diet, migration, climate, nursing behaviour, and social status — humans have even used teeth as a form of personal expression for thousands of years. As we discuss below, I had no trouble filling an entire popular science book with diverse types of information on teeth!  

Australopithecus africanus Taung child studied by Raymond Dart. The upper and lower jaws have a full set of baby teeth along with the permanent first molars.
Fossil courtesy of the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg)(Image permission: Tanya M. Smith and MIT Press).

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience as a young woman embarking on a career in academia?

As someone who happily counts tiny time lines in a dimly lit microscope room, I am drawn to empirical research on things that can be quantified precisely. For my PhD I studied the development of primate teeth, testing hypotheses about biological rhythms and methods to characterize their growth, as well as exploring variation in chimpanzee molar enamel. I was fortunate to have a supportive advisor at Stony Brook University, Lawrence Martin, who also employed me to run his laboratory and study Miocene ape dental development. At the time I was aware that some other faculty in the department were less supportive of women, but the challenges of being a marginalized academic didn’t come into real focus until later in my career.

After your PhD, you’ve worked in a number of institutions in many countries all over the world. Do you think your development as a scientist has benefited from working in these diverse working environments? 

Unquestionably. I recently wrote an article for the US Association for Women in Science Magazine on Academics without Borders. Anthropologists emphasize cultural relativism — seeing differences without judgement — and there are fascinating differences in the way that scholars work in different parts of the world. My exposure to diverse academic cultures on several continents has helped me to work differently. I find myself drawn to people who are not threatened by diversity, and really enjoy collaborations with international scholars whom I pepper with questions as I absorb their personal and professional perspectives.

Tanya in Uganda in 2014 watching Bud, a male chimpanzee. (Image permission: Zarin Machanda and MIT Press).

Recently, you published the popular book ‘Tales Teeth Tell’. Tell us a little bit about the book and your experiences when writing it.

I recently discussed this on the AnthroBiology Podcast and wrote a blog featuring some of the highlights from the book. It was actually a planned experiment in a sense; I wanted to both learn how to write a book and to show that women in the middle of their careers can communicate about science to the public. It’s been wonderful to see other women in biological anthropology recently stepping into leadership in this way; the story of human evolution has classically been told by men nearing the end of their careers. Yet biological anthropology is so much more than just a boy’s club!

What projects are you currently working on? What do you hope to find out?

Even after twenty years of seriously thinking about how teeth grow, I am still on fire about them! My collaborators and I have recently been collecting isotopic data from primate teeth with an ion microprobe, and we are able to precisely document birth through distinct elemental shifts — which raises so many questions about what is going on inside mothers and infants during this profound transition, as well as what the cells are doing to create this permanent structural and chemical record. On a broader scale, I continue to noodle over how dental tissues may better resolve developmental questions about the origin and evolution of humans. And I’m happy to share that I was just awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to investigate prehistoric human population growth by analysing the teeth of ancient children.

What achievement are you most proud of?

In 2018 I published a collaborative paper in Science Advances detailing how the teeth of Neanderthal children can be used to reconstruct weekly records of ancient climate, nursing behaviour, and illness. Leading an amazing group of anthropologists, archaeologists, earth scientists, and public health specialists to make these discoveries was one of my most satisfying accomplishments, and our team was one of three finalists for the Australian Museum’s 2019 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research. Another memorable achievement was co-hosting the Biological Anthropology Women’s Mentoring Network’s 10-year anniversary party in April 2019. I co-founded BAWMN with some friends as women are underrepresented in palaeoanthropology and at the senior academic ranks, and I really enjoy connecting with network members at the annual American Association for Physical (Biological) Anthropology meetings.

3 year-old infant Neanderthal upper jaw and associated baby and permanent teeth. Individuals from this Belgian site (commonly known as Engis) were the first fossil hominins ever discovered. Fossil courtesy of the University of Liège (Belgium)(Image permission: Tanya M. Smith and MIT Press).

What is the best thing about your job and what is one thing you would change if you could?

I absolutely cherish having the professional freedom to pursue what I am curious about. It is an incredible privilege, and I try to encourage others to find confidence to do the same in whatever form that might take. One thing I would like to change about being an academic is the expectation that one should continuously train PhD students. I’ve had a chance to work with some amazing students and early career researchers, who are under incredible pressure in the current circumstances. Given long-term decreases in permanent academic jobs market — I find it frustrating that universities seem to be graduating more and more PhDs each year.

If you were not a human evolutionary biologist, what would you be?

I am enraptured with contemplative neuroscience, having had a meditation practice for over a decade, and I enjoy dipping into scholarly literature and popular science books on the topic. It’s truly amazing to me that we can train our minds in ways that are analogous to going to the gym and conditioning our muscles. I’ve experienced the positive effects of mediation and spent considerable time with some wonderful Buddhist nuns, and could easily imagine pursuing the academic study of meditation in a future lifetime.

Tanya enjoying sunrise on top of Big Red, the famous 40-metre-high sand dune at the edge of the Simpson Desert in Birdsville, Queensland (Photo credit: Tony Miscamble).

Published by lucyjt96

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

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