Osteoarchaeologist Stephanie Jan Hamholfer Talks Her Career and How She Got Here
There’s a lot of ways that we can learn about our past and, in turn, our future. One of those ways is by studying bones — our bones. Or — rather — the bones of the deceased.
Meet Stephanie Jan Hamholfer. She is an Osteoarchaeologist based out of Canada. She has an Associate of Arts degree in Criminology from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from the University of Alberta. Currently, she is gaining her Masters at the University of Toronto.
Stephanie also has her own blog where you can read about her life and her studies here
Recently, I caught up with Stephanie and asked her some questions about her career in osteoarchaeology, and how she got there.
Q: I want to start off by telling you again how much I appreciate you getting in touch with us and your willingness to sit down and chat with me! Thank you very much! I really think our readers will get a lot out of learning about what it is you do!
So your current focus is on human osteoarchaeology, or biological anthropology. That seems to be kind of a unique field of study. Would you like to briefly explain what that is for anyone who may not know?
A: Sure! Osteoarchaeology/Bioarchaeology is the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites. Basically we're archaeologists with specialized skills and knowledge in excavating and interpreting human skeletons. I use a book analogy. Our skeletons are like books written in a language osteoarchaeologists are trained to read. So we can study skeletal remains and find out about things like height, illness, trauma, occupations, diets, places we've lived, etc.
Q: That’s neat! I think people can be generally unaware of just how much you can learn from studying human bones. Everything you mentioned there is really a lot of information!
So I’d like to ask what made you interested in human osteoarchaeology in the first place? Was it a particular teacher you had, or something you stumbled across that peaked your interest?
A: I definitely stumbled into it, hahaha! I was actually studying criminology at university and I had to fill some electives. I had always been a bit curious about archaeology, so I signed up for that. During the same semester there was a forensic anthropology course being offered. I had never heard of forensic anthropology before but the course description sounded interesting so I went for it. And I fell in love! I finished up with criminology and decided to start over pursuing osteoarchaeology.
It was a combination of course content and a fantastic archaeology professor which definitely cemented my interest.
Once I realized I loved forensic anthropology and archaeology I wondered if there was a way for me to combine the two. I had the opportunity to write a paper about the Franklin Expedition and that was when I realized that osteoarchaeology was a real career I could pursue!
Q: Isn’t that funny how those things work, and how you think you’re going one way until you completely fall in love with something else? That’s a cool story, and it’s great that you had an excellent professor on top of it. That always helps.
But your twitter bio and your blog even proudly state that you’re “shark obsessed”! Is there a particular reason you decided to go into criminology and later anthropology instead of maybe studying to become a marine biologist?
A: To be honest I wasn't really sure of where to find shark-related marine biology programs that weren't in Florida or Australia (which I wouldn't be able to afford to attend). I'm a first-generation university student so a lot of my university-related time has been spent simply trying to understand how the system(s) work! By the time I had sorted things out archaeology had definitely become a more attainable goal that I was passionate about. So now I happily advocate for shark research and shark conservation from the sidelines. Though I definitely would love the opportunity to head out on a research vessel one day…
I follow a lot of shark research groups and scientists on social media and that's a way for me to feel like I'm still part of the community.
Q: That’s nice, and it’s also a good example to show that we can be interested in several different kinds of scientific studies. We don’t have to just stick to just one. Hopefully you will get an opportunity to be on a research vessel! I’d imagine that’s incredibly cool!
So, I had a question about when you decided you wanted to pursue this route, but you kind of already answered that with your story about how you stumbled across osteoarchaeology in the first place! So how about I ask you about how you were featured in Science Magazine!
That’s awesome that you were featured, by the way. Congratulations!
So you were asked to advocate for your field in six words or less by Science Magazine. You said: “The past shows us the future”. I think that’s a great answer. Would you like to elaborate on your thought process a bit for our readers?
A: Thanks! Science was a happy surprise, I didn't realize they had featured my response until my husband's lab colleague texted him, who texted me, hahaha!
Our society today is built on decisions made and actions taken in the past. Archaeologists are kind of like human time-machines - we have a unique ability to "go back in time" and see the outcomes of decisions and actions, and in many cases we can also work out what the influences may have been. We can look at the many different situations faced by people in the past, see how they reacted to them (or sometimes how they developed them), and see what worked and what didn't work. Our society today faces many similar situations. So if we can see what worked/didn't work in the past, we might be able to develop strategies to mitigate the present (situations like disease en/epidemics, climate change, food production, etc.).
Q: I think we can all agree on that. And I think it’s too often that we don’t take what we’ve learned about the past and apply it to our future. What you do is very important to our society today, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I truly appreciate the research that you do!
So what would you say to anyone who is interested in pursuing a career in osteoarchaeology like you have? Do you have any particular advice?
A: I would tell them to look for any opportunity they can get for hands on experience! Try to find a university with osteology courses and be sure to take as many of those courses as you can. And look for any volunteer experience you can get, don't be afraid to send out emails to profs to ask if they might have any projects for volunteers!
Everyone’s path is different so what worked for one person may not work for the next. So I would also say to develop a plan that works best for you, in your situation, and don't be afraid to pursue it!
Q: I think that is some very good advice!
Thanks so much for sitting down with me today and taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me. I’m sure our readers will really enjoy this, and it means a lot to me. It was such an honor and so interesting to talk with you about this for a little while.
A: Thank you very much for the chance to talk! I enjoyed it very much and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to help spread the word about this awesome field!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM. Find her on Twitter.