CASHP Firsts

CASHP Firsts
February 16, 2013

A week filled with prospective student visits undoubtedly brings back memories of our own application processes. When speaking with each new, excited face we remember our own excitement and recount events from our time at CASHP thus far. From “lacerating” personal discoveries to wind blown wine bonding we each have our unique favorite moments. As the first year cohort we thought this time of “firsts” for CASHP prospects was a perfect time to tell some of our memorable moments from our first year in the program! (Note: Kate McGrath’s first year experience can be found in her blog from earlier this academic year)

Jordan Miller

My short time at CASHP has been filled with an array of experiences—some fun, some difficult, and others just downright odd. Attempting to sift through all of these memories and extract one life defining “a-ha” moment is, for me, quite a problematic task. You see, although some moments are certainly more impressive than others, it’s the charming quirks of this department that have come to define my time here. It’s these small moments that make you stop, smile, and think, “only at CASHP”. For me, this moment was reaching into my purse one day and severing my finger on an Oldowan stone tool, and then recognizing this strange event as a major life accomplishment.

For a project in Paleolithic Archaeology last semester, we were required to craft stone tools one afternoon behind the department. After hammering a chunk of basalt for about an hour and succeeding only in reflecting the shrapnel at my own face, it came to my attention that I was an especially remedial hominin. Despite the patience and encouragement of my instructors, I left that day with what could be loosely defined as a scraper and a new-found appreciation for modern utensils. A few days later, after recovering from the idea that the tribulations of a mid-Pleistocene landscape would have meant certain demise for Jordan erectus, I fished around in my purse for a tube of chapstick. I felt a sharp pain and immediately withdrew my hand, only to see that my finger was gushing blood. Upon further inspection, it became clear that the source of injury was my scraper! I was overjoyed to find that despite my initial doubts, I had created a functional stone tool. I reveled in this achievement and made sure to demonstrate both my stone tool and its mighty powers of destruction to anyone who would listen. It wasn’t until later that I considered the fact that natural selection probably didn’t skip over the clumsy hominins who routinely injured themselves on their own tools.

Feat or failure, this moment is without a doubt one of my favorites. It reminds me that nowhere but CASHP would I have the opportunity to make stone tools, play with data from the famous Gombe chimpanzees, extract cortisol samples from vervet hair and test the imitative capacities of human children all in the same week. Around every corner at CASHP is a new opportunity to learn, and the memories made are endless and unique. Wounds aside, there’s no place in the world I’d rather be.

Vance Powell

My first semester at GW has been filled with memorable experiences, including the barbeques, lab visits, writing and submitting my first grant proposal, and surviving/passing a 32+ hour comprehensive exam. My favorite experiences by far, however, were the camping trip we took early last semester, and taking part in my first research projects. From the wine tasting in gale-force winds, searching desperately for an open grocery store after the storm disabled the power for miles around, and hiking all of the food we found out into the woods, the camping trip really helped me to gain a bearing on the personal interactions between the other students, and to feel that I was part of them. I had rarely, if ever, previously seen so many stars and laughed so much in one night.

Later in the semester, I was invited to coauthor a paper headed by Dr. Erin Marie Williams involving lithic tools experimentally produced by various experienced knappers. My contribution to this project is to measure the difference between knappers’ intended and actual points of percussion on Acheulean hand axes, which will then be compared to the same data collected from an experimental Oldowan collection in order to determine if Acheulean tool production required greater striking accuracy. I was also recruited to coauthor a paper about morphological integration headed by Drs. Neil Roach and Mark Grabowski. My role is to take measurements on various skeletal elements involved in human throwing abilities. So far I have taken measurements on the Terry collection at the Smithsonian Institute, which allowed me to meet a number of well-respected researchers in the study of human origins.

My first semester here in the Hominid Paleobiology program has been one of many memorable experiences and personal growth, only a few of which have I mentioned above. I look forward to making new memories with my fellow students, continuing the research at hand, and beginning my own research projects in the near future.

Cassandra Turcotte

Of the many opportunities afforded to first-year students here at CASHP is the chance to get our feet wet with research. Although I and several of our cohort have had experience preparing and conducting our own projects, the very first class of our graduate career, Paleolithic Archaeology, required an assuredly more intense level of organization, planning and execution to complete an independent research presentation by the end of the semester.

My project experienced a couple bumps and bruises, to say the least. I’d originally planned to do a short study on the origins of throwing behavior using humeral torsion on a sample of Bronze Age bones that I’d worked on for my undergrad thesis. I went through the whole arduous process—designing the experiment, discussing with my lab and reworking my hypotheses. I even traveled to Philadelphia on a bus filled with crying babies to get the CT scans that I needed.

My efforts ended up being mostly (but not) all for naught. My sample was too safe—too familiar and not informative enough about the early development for the capacity of throwing. I’d need something much older. Our professor, Dr. Alison Brooks, suggested that I use the H. erectus humerus from a site on which she’d worked, called Ishango. The Ishango humerus was fortuitously located at the Smithsonian Institution a simple subway ride away and even more fortunately just down the hall from the cast of one of the most famous fossils known to anthropology—Lucy.

Lucy, incidentally, also has a humerus. A left humerus. During the course of my project and because of my affiliation with CASHP, I was granted access to study the Lucy cast. To starry-eyed young me, this was the pinnacle of cool—the moment when it finally hit me that I was actually a PhD student and that because of CASHP, I got to do exciting research on skeletons that had formerly been the subject of a staggering number of my undergraduate papers. That hour I had with Lucy has been my favorite of the year thus far, although I’m sure there will be many such moments to come.

Kaitlin Wellens

Grant writing. Anxiety producing, sleep depriving, broader impact infused grant writing. Yes, this is a post about favorite moments, but if you bear with me I will explain what made this dreaded process not only my favorite experience in CASHP thus far, but also an analogy for the grad school experience in general. This fall, all five first year students and several second year students submitted NSF-GRFP grants. For many of us, including myself, this was my first grant writing experience.

Conversations with my advisor, Dr. Carson Murray, about the grant process began before actually starting the program. These conversations were extremely helpful as they allowed me to throw around ideas and I gained a better understanding of what makes a “sexy” research topic from her feedback. However, even after narrowing down my interests, the idea of actually writing the grant seemed nearly impossible. I struggled with draft after draft, with everything you can imagine going wrong—frustrating wording and once sexy ideas awkwardly falling flat. At this moment, grant writing was certainly far from my favorite activity. It was this struggle, however, that made finding my footing with my research question, writing style, and exciting broader impact so satisfying.

A few weeks after I came to this point in the writing process, we had a lab meeting where Jordan Miller and I presented our proposed research projects. This was the first time I had exposed my own work and ideas in front of a group of colleagues. The undergraduate research assistants, fellow grad student, post-docs and my advisor all provided insight and questions that made me look at my work from totally new angles. All of a sudden the previously experienced difficulties culminated in an enlightening moment where I analyzed my research questions with the help of some truly brilliant minds. I like to think of research as a puzzle, where you logically fit different pieces together until you have a more complete picture or answer to your question. When the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place, there is a sense of accomplishment and even a bit of intellectual euphoria. As a first step in the overall process, grant writing provided a similar experience. The seemingly impossible task, the fumbling over wording and ideas, learning new ways to think and tackle problems, and the satisfaction of the completed product seems to be a pattern that speaks to all aspects of grad school thus far. Whether it is the application process, making new friends, the Paleolithic comprehensive exam or grant writing, the journey is one I truly enjoy and look forward to having with the many challenges and opportunities that my future in CASHP will undoubtedly provide.