I was born and raised in upstate New York, and owe my interest in natural history to my upbringing on a farm. I learned about plants, animals, and the stars from my parents, who inspired and promoted my interest in science from a young age. I particularly enjoyed looking for fossils in the beds of small creeks on our property, and digging for “relics” under the trees near our house.
Although watching television was not a major part of my upbringing, I vividly remember watching a National Geographic special aired in the mid-1960s on the famous paleontologist, Louis Leakey, and his explorations and discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. This program, with its dramatic view of the ancient hominid then called Zinjanthropus boisei or “The Nutcracker Man” ignited my imagination like nothing had ever done before. I immediately proclaimed to my mother that, “That is what I want to do when I grow up.”
I have had an insatiable curiosity about human evolution ever since, and have had the tremendous good fortune of being able to follow the dream that Leakey’s program inspired that night. I pursued an undergraduate degree in biology at Bryn Mawr College, concentrating on the then nascent field of molecular biology. Despite my parents’ wishes for me to attend medical school, I was pulled in another and far less practical direction. Having enjoyed undergraduate courses in anthropology, I realized that my heart was really in the study of human evolution.
I elected to go to graduate school at The University of Washington in biological anthropology, hoping at the time to specialize in the emerging field of molecular evolution. Although this was an appealing possibility, I found myself increasingly drawn to studies of comparative anatomy and paleontology. What I saw in these fields was the potential to reconstruct the appearance and lifestyles of animals long extinct, including our closest nonhuman and human relatives. It did not take me long to settle on a dissertation topic involving the anatomical study of the masticatory apparatus of a little-known living monkey, Theropithecus gelada, that was the only living representative of a diverse and highly successful lineage of large African monkeys during the Pliocene and Pleistocene.
My Ph.D. research took me to interesting places, including the Department of Anatomy at the University of Hong Kong, where I undertook dissections of a large collection of the gelada, and developed an interest in living overseas. Upon completion of my doctorate, I took my first professional job as a Lecturer in that department, a position that I held from 1981 through 1990. In the 1980s, it was common for biological anthropologists and paleontologists to be employed as teachers of gross anatomy in medical schools. I was fortunate to be hired by a department that allowed me to pursue my research in paleontology and comparative anatomy, even though it was not considered mainstream biomedical research.
Living in Hong Kong during the early years of the re-opening of China to outside thought and commerce was a research anthropologist’s dream. I realized that many of the nonhuman primates of China were very poorly known to science, and that it might be worth pursuing research on them. Beginning in 1982, I cultivated a professional relationship with the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, and then in 1984 with the Kunming Institute of Zoology. Thanks to forward-looking administrators at both institutions, it was possible for me to begin to undertake collaborative research at both institutions – relationships which I have maintained to the present day.
During the latter 1980s and early 1990s, my research concentrated on the evolution of Old World monkeys in East Asia, with an emphasis on the evolution of the endemic species of China. Research on the living snub-nosed monkeys and their antecedents occupied much of my time because virtually everything that we studied about the animals was new to science. At the same time that I was pursuing this research, I developed a strong interest in the integration of paleoenvironmental and paleontological research. I was strongly motivated by the concept of examining the relationships between environmental change and changes in animal diversity, distributions, and anatomies. Because of the excellent record of environmental change known from geological, geochronological and paleobotanical data for the late Tertiary and Quaternary in China, integration of data on fossil occurrences and anatomies with environmental data was possible, and yielded results of great interest and import. This is one of the most interesting and fertile areas in paleontology today.
In 1990, I relocated to Australia with my husband, George Chaplin, and spent the next four years teaching in the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia in Perth. These were extremely productive, and in hindsight momentous, years because they marked my transition from a “bones only” paleontologist to a more broadly based evolutionary anthropologist and paleobiologist. It was during those years that I began research on the evolution of human bipedalism and the evolution of human skin color, two of the longest standing research problems in anthropology. These research programs began by accident, not design, but I quickly realized that research on these topics was clearly needed. The evolution of bipedalism and skin color, like many others in biological anthropology, is avoided by most professionals because it is assumed that they are intractable – that we will never have the data necessary to prove any given hypotheses or theories – and that it is folly to even address them because the results are just “fairy stories”. It has always been my opinion that research on such topics was worthwhile because one could, using the robust tools of comparative and historical biology, make logical deductions about what probably happened in the past. By looking at all the comparative anatomical, physiological, environmental, behavioral and other data available, one could determine how consistent the predictions of various hypotheses were with the facts provided by living organisms. This premise is the foundation of my research on evolution of bipedalism and human skin color.
I served as Head of the Anthropology Department at Penn State from 2006-2011, following 12 years at the California Academy of Sciences. My appointment at the Cal Academy permitted me to pursue diverse research interests, and ones that often required long periods of work overseas. I am now delighted to be back in a university setting, where I am in regular contact with a great diversity of students and faculty.
Although my greatest interest in paleontology is in the fossil record of Old World monkeys, virtually everything I find ignites my interest. I am currently involved in five research initiatives: human and primate evolution, evolution of Old World monkeys, evolution of bipedalism in the human lineage, evolution of human skin coloration, and evolution of environments and mammalian faunas of East Asia.
My abiding interest remains much as it was when I was a child – to reconstruct the appearance of animals, including humans, long extinct and re-create for myself and others the intricacies of past environments.