Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pollitzer Essay: Communicating BioAnthro to the public: How do we do this, and where are we falling short?

The following is an essay I submitted for the AAPA William S. Pollitzer Award.  It was successful, which means that I received $500 toward my conferences expenses (which was much needed!).  Here, I raise a topic that I think is incredibly important, and since I wrote and submitted it, I feel there's already been quite some progress made in this area.  I'd love to hear any feedback!  Since writing it, I have realized that I present an ideal that I would like to achieve.  However, I know I'm falling short of that ideal, at least when it comes to my blogging. Lately, I've been very focused on dissertation analysis/writing, manuscripts, and dreaming up future project ideas. Most of this stuff is work that I am not ready to share yet. I often find myself jotting notes on non-dissertation-related topics I would love to blog about in the future, but never have the time to fully develop and post them (or rather, don't, because I feel I would be using it as a form of procrastination). If anyone has any ideas on  how to use blogging productively in their work, rather than as a distraction/form of procrastination from that work, let me know!  

What important article is missing from the current literature in biological anthropology? Give the title and what you think it's impact/benefit would be.

Communicating BioAnthro to the public: How do we do this, and where are we falling short?

Biological anthropology has an image problem. The recent uproar over comments about the relevance and necessity of anthropology majors (Lende, 2011) , as well as controversy surrounding the AAA’s choice of removing “science” from its mission statement (Rutherford, 2011) indicates that, for both the wider field of anthropology and the public, biological anthropology is often forgotten, marginalized, or misunderstood.
What anthropologists need is an article that addresses ways we can rectify this situation. How do we emphasize the importance of our research and its relevance to the big concerns that affect our world? The research questions we study, whether large or small, are each getting to the root of understanding ourselves and our fellow humans. But how are we broadcasting this to a larger audience?  How do we share the theory and application of our own research niche to colleagues in other subfields?  When our students complete their gen-ed, introductory courses in anthropology, do they walk away with an accurate understanding of this field and its relevance to their lives?  When we give a lecture, whether to a class, an auditorium full of colleagues, or The Rotary Club, are we conveying how the topic of discussion fits within the large field of anthropology?  Are we adequately showing our audience how relevant this might be to both our individual lives and to society as a whole?
I envision an article that could guide us all into bringing biological anthropology into the forefront of public discourse, at multiple levels of society.  While I have no magical formula, I do have some ideas.  I think that we should each reflect on this issue and think of the ways we can share our research and our passion for biological anthropology with the world around us.  We can start by trying to understand our colleagues.  I mentally file people as the chimpanzee person, the stress and endocrinology person, the bone person…  But how well do I really understand their research, and its relevance to me, to my ancestors, to my future descendants, to the whopping 7 billion of us that are sharing this planet?
We could start there.  And we could start by communicating to our non-anthropology, non-academic friends and family.  We could share the joys of anthropology to a greater audience via blogs and popular science articles.  We could try to maintain a presence at science fairs, at every level, so that aspiring scientists realize that anthropology has many options for a passionate young science enthusiast.  We can contribute to public lectures, and share our field’s perspective on health and social issues, on human history, and the public debates and misunderstandings about the perceived conflicts between science and religion.  We can write books for a popular audience, and lend an anthropological perspective to popular accounts of health, science, stress, fertility, evolution, paleoanthropology, human resource dependence, primate behavior, and conservation.  As Agustin Fuentes (2010) laments, anthropological subjects are more frequently covered by science journalists and academics from other fields.   However, we can follow the examples of Kate Clancy (2011), Krystal D’Acosta (2012) Sarah Hrdy (2000, 2009), and Barbara King (2004) in sharing biological anthropology with the public.
I hope that we can work towards making this an issue to discuss at upcoming meetings, and generate ideas that will lead to publication of such an article. I believe that if we all consider this issue and look at ways each and everyone one of us can advance these goals, then we can truly raise the profile of biological anthropology in the public lens and demonstrate how this subfield, as well as other subfields of anthropology, are relevant to everyone.

Clancy, K. 2011. Networking, Scholarship, and Service: The Place of Science Blogging in Academia. Retrieved January 16, 2012,
D’Acosta, K. 2012. What are the Costs of Lending a Helping Hand? Retrieved January 16, 2012,
Fuentes, AF. 2010. The New Biological Anthropology: Bringing Washburn’s New Physical Anthropology into 2010 and Beyond—The 2008 AAPA Luncheon Lecture. Yrbk Phys Anth 53:2-12.
Hrdy, SB. 2000. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How they Shape the Human Species. New York: Ballantine Books.
Hrdy, SB. 2009. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
King, BJ. 2004. The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lende, D.  2011. Florida Governor: Anthropology Not Needed Here.  Retrieved December 13, 2011,
Rutherford, JN. 2011. Science in Anthropology  at AAA: an “open” discussion? Retrieved December 13, 2011,

AAPA abstract: Cortisol and reproductive state in female black-handed spider monkeys

I have been in a state of dissertation hibernation, so I haven't posted much lately. But here is my abstract for my poster at AAPA, and I will also post my abstracts for the upcoming IPS meetings in August. I will also try to make an effort to update my blog more often, but that depends on how dissertation progress is going!

Rodrigues, MA, Kitchen, DM. 2012. Cortisol and reproductive state in female black-handed spider monkeys. Am J Phys Anth 147(S54):250-251.

 Fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (e.g., cortisol) are a valuable non-invasive source of information on individual levels of physiological stress. However, using them to evaluate stress levels among females can be problematic in species that do not show overt signs of reproductive condition because concentrations of reproductive hormones can affect cortisol concentrations. For example, high concentrations of estradiol during pregnancy may promote an increase in glucocorticoids and associated binding factors. Here, we examine the efficacy of using fecal glucocorticoid metabolites as an indicator of stress and whether estradiol is a potential confound of such measurements in both wild (El Zota, Costa Rica) and captive (Brookfield Zoo, Illinois) black-handed spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi). First, fecal cortisol concentrations were measured from captive female spider monkeys before and after a veterinary exam. All females exhibited elevated cortisol concentrations after this stressful experience, though concentrations were highly variable among individuals in both conditions. Second, we examined the relationship between cortisol and estradiol concentrations in captive and wild females. In the captive samples all females were cycling and cortisol and estradiol levels were not related (N=22, r=0.177 two-tailed p=0.431). However, in the wild sample, which included nursing, cycling, and pregnant females, cortisol and estradiol were positively correlated (N=24, r=0.700, two-tailed p<0.001). Thus, we demonstrate the need to examine estradiol concentrations when measuring cortisol concentrations among females of unknown reproductive condition. We are currently examining how cortisol concentrations vary among female spider monkeys based on social and environmental factors as well as age, rank and reproductive state.