Today’s conversation is with Dr Lauren Schroeder, Assistant Professor in Biological Anthropology at the University of Toronto! Lauren received her PhD in Palaeoanthropology from the University of Cape Town in 2015. Prior to forming the Schroeder Lab at the University of Toronto in 2017, she joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Buffalo as a Postdoctoral researcher in the Buffalo Human Evolutionary Morphology Lab. Her lab’s work focusses on evolutionary processes and variability in hominin morphological evolution through applying innovative quantitative methods and theory from evolutionary biology. Lauren also engages in decolonisation initiatives aimed to transform the field of biological anthropology.
What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?
I am a palaeoanthropologist, originally from South Africa, but now in Canada, studying the “how” and “why” of hominin morphology. Specifically, I tackle questions related to evolutionary process and variability in human and primate evolution. My expertise are in quantitative genetic approaches, statistical methods, geometric morphometrics, and the early evolution of the genus Homo.
What originally drew you towards palaeoanthropology?
When I was very young, I was really into dinosaurs. LIKE REALLY into them. Similarly, my parents also purchased a series of books for me called “how my body works”, which got me really fascinated with the human body. I think the combination of the two must have somehow piqued my interest in questions why we look the way we do, which, of course, I later learned was a question about evolution. A funny story actually – when I was 9 years old, our class at school was asked the common question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. In response I said, “I want to be a famous archaeologist.” My parents didn’t even know what an archaeologist was! If we set the differences between archaeology and palaeoanthropology aside, I think I knew from a young age that I wanted to work on the fossil past.
What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?
I completed my PhD at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015. My PhD topic focused on the evolution of the genus Homo, specifically the evolutionary processes underlying skull diversity in our lineage.
My PhD experience had its ups and downs. Some ups – I received a Baldwin Fellowship from the Leakey Foundation, which really helped with my finances throughout my degree. Thanks to this funding I was fortunate enough to travel quite extensively during my PhD to collect data, including to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nairobi, Kenya, Johannesburg, South Africa, Frankfurt, Germany, and Cleveland, USA. Not only did I get to analyse many precious and amazing fossil hominin specimens, I also met wonderful people on these travels that I have kept in contact with, continuing to grow collaborations. I also had the opportunity to work on both the Malapa (Australopithecus sediba) and Rising Star projects (Homo naledi). As both of these are South African finds, and as a South African myself (not biased at all!), it was definitely special to be able to contribute to the already rich palaeoanthropological history in the country. However, given that these new discoveries happened during my PhD (!), it definitely forced me to rethink some of my initial ideas!
I also had a wonderful PhD advisor – Prof. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann. Becky was not only supportive and knowledgeable with regards to research, she also played a pivotal role in my life when dealing with difficult issues during the Ph.D. process, especially helping me navigate the more negative sides of the palaeoanthropological field, including instances of harassment and bullying.
What current projects are you working on?
I am involved in several projects at the moment related to evolutionary process in hominin and primate evolution. These include ancestor-descendent relationships at the emergence of our genus Homo, the evolution of the human chin, evolutionary processes across the Old World Monkey lineage, as well as morphological effects of hybridization. Find out what myself and my students are working on here: www.laurenschroederlab.com.
What do you hope to work on in the future post COVID-19?
Fieldwork, fieldwork, fieldwork! Together with colleagues from the University of Cape Town, and the National Museums of Kenya, we are hoping to conduct further explorations at the Gondolin hominin-bearing site in the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa. We are currently working on the permit for submission to the relevant heritage bodies. In addition to this, I am involved in a collaborative project, led by Dr. Yonatan Sahle, to describe new hominin remains from the Megenta site in the Lower Awash basin, Ethiopia. Really excited to travel again!
What do you think has been the most interesting/revolutionary discovery in palaeoanthropology over the last 5 years?
Three topics stick out for me. First, the broader appreciation of the complexity of human evolution, specifically the extent of gene flow, effect of population structure, as well as the recognition of the importance of genetic drift. Second, the exciting advances made in the field of palaeoproteomics, especially its relevance to sites where ancient DNA retrieval is limited. And third, the fact that (finally) conversations related to decolonization and transformation are now at the forefront of the field. I write about these developments, and more, in my recent American Anthropologist piece.
If you had a time machine, how far would you ask to go back, where would you go, and what would you want to see?
Hopefully this time machine can make two trips! I think first I would probably want to hang around the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, perhaps around the Koobi Fora area in what is Kenya today, 3 million years ago to observe interactions between hominins, and also how many species there were! Then I would go to what is the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa today to do the same thing around 2 million years ago.
What advice would you give to someone interested in studying palaeoanthropology?
This is a hard one, because when I think of my journey into palaeoanthropology, I was fortunate in getting the funding I needed to pursue this degree, and probably wouldn’t have been able to carry on down this path without it. But, my advice would be that this really needs to be your passion; it needs to make you happy. Palaeoanthropology is a tough space to be in at times, and certainly my experience as a black woman in the field has shown me that there is a power dynamic that is not easy to negotiate. Also, apply to field schools. I was a graduate of the Koobi Fora Field School, an experience that really solidified my interest in the subject. Finally, the best advice I have received for my career choice is to surround yourself with good mentors.
What project or publication are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the paper I published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2017 which represented the first assessment of the evolutionary processes acting to diversify hominin skull morphology in the genus Homo. The main finding of this study is that genetic drift, i.e. random evolutionary processes, played a larger role in our evolution than previously thought. I am also proud of the work that all of my graduate and undergraduate students are producing.
What would you be if you were not a palaeoanthropologist?
An astrophysicist. In high school, I became really obsessed with astronomy and cosmology (basically, I wanted to work for NASA!), and received an entrance scholarship to study astrophysics in my undergraduate. However, my path shifted after I took an elective second year introductory course in human evolution… The rest is history!