Sometimes Science is Sandbag Jenga
Two and a half years ago, I received a letter that changed my life. It was still cold in Ottawa, but the snow was melting as the mid-March winds grew milder and milder. I bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate getting into graduate school and imagined what life would be like in a few short months when I moved my life across the border. But this was March 2020, and you know where this is going.
Two weeks after I had accepted my offer, we were in a full-scale lockdown. I took a walk each day to get out of the house and the streets were eerily bare. This went on for months. With the easing and hardening of restrictions, I looked out for any information to understand whether borders would be open and whether I would be able to start my PhD after all. For almost a decade, I had been dreaming of being a scientist. In those moments with everything up in the air, I didn’t know how that dream was going to shake out.
One of many pandemic walks in Ottawa, Ontario.
Fortunately, I was eventually given the option to defer or study remotely in Canada for my first year. I decided to begin the program. Since I was only taking courses that year, the impact of being abroad would be relatively low. In late August I went online to meet all my new professors and cohort-mates, each a little rectangle on a screen.
All things considered, it was great. Everyone was kind, I loved my apartment in Ottawa, and I was thrilled to be engaging with science again after I had taken a year off of school to work. I was in full-scale study mode, developing my research ideas and reading and reading and reading. My advisor and I thought about what I should do for the summer. Normally, people would be out conducting pilot studies, travelling, or using materials in the lab to practice taking measurements or learn methods. But I had none of that. All I had was my laptop.
I study teeth in hominins, which is the group of species that includes humans and our closest extinct relatives. We figured that I would survey previous articles written about hominin dental morphology to become familiar with how teeth are similar and different between species. At the time, it didn’t really feel like “science”, but at least it was something. So, I was reading paragraphs like this one:
“The buccal grooves are all well developed in all the specimens, especially the mesial one. Both grooves terminate abruptly half-way or less down the buccal face. Usually, the termination is roughly a third of the way down and in the form of a pit. This feature is better developed in the case of the mesial groove. In the latter instance the pit is wide and usually has a thickened margin which may take the form of a tubercle (double In SK 61) or may be elongated anteriorly and posteriorly so as to resemble a partial cingulum – which is probably exactly what it is” (Robinson, 1956).
For months! Not very glamorous…but I realized that sometimes this is what science is; looking through nitty-gritty descriptive texts written seventy years ago by someone who probably never imagined anybody would be looking at it in as much detail as I was. It’s tough, and sometimes boring, but it’s a necessary and important part of scientific research to make sure that we have a deep knowledge of what we’re studying and have a good understanding of what’s been done before us. But still…I was really looking forward to getting to do something hands-on.
In August 2021, I finally made my way down to Missouri. Since only one person was allowed to accompany students across the border at that time, my dad helped me move (for tourists, the borders were still closed). Even a few days after he left, it still felt surreal; living in a new apartment with new furniture in a new neighbourhood in a new city, far away from anyone I knew or loved. In those first moments, I understood that it would take me a really long time for me to feel settled in St. Louis. Sometimes, I still don’t feel that way.
But the difference made by being in person was palpable. Washington University’s campus is beautiful, with gorgeous stone buildings covered in gargoyles that look like little castles. My building had a courtyard filled with small trees along with some tables and benches in order to take advantage of nice weather and work outside. Compared to the previous year, when I couldn’t work anywhere else other than my one-bedroom apartment, it felt real again. Even though I had already “met” everyone, meeting them in person was invigorating. Instead of talking to images on a screen-Sorry… talking to images on a screen, being told to unmute myself and then repeating what I had just said-I was talking to actual, real, living and breathing people. After a year in St. Louis, with many movie nights and post-seminar peers, brunches, and walks in the park under my belt, my life is like night and day to what it was before.
Brookings Hall, one of Washington University’s iconic buildings.
I had forgotten about how important the intangibles of graduate school were. Like listening to a talk and debriefing afterwards on what went well and what didn’t. Or having an idea and running it by your colleagues, discussing why you love science and where you want to see your field go in the future. Sometimes, science is these hallway conversations. These conversations that sometimes you feel guilty over because you’re not working on your project, but that can spark new ideas and re-inspire your passion and love for research. These conversations are what hold our community together and form what it will be in the future. Now that I have this, I never want to let it go.
When the end of the spring semester rolled around, I was faced once again with the prospect of summer research. But this time it was different. This time, we planned a small-scale, hands-on pilot study. The sort of work that I had been craving since I started graduate school. Oh, and I would need to go to Boston to do it!
Early June hit, and I was at the airport to get on a flight to Boston to visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Here, I learned that sometimes science is getting stopped by the TSA because you have “suspicious” materials in your backpack. Namely, two blocks of plasticine and five sandbags. We often joke that a sign of a good communicator is that you should be able to explain your research to your grandma, but I think this also applies to the TSA. Thankfully, I wasn’t stopped too long and before I knew it, I was in the air.
I signed in on a Monday morning and received a nametag reading, “Research Visitor.” It felt surreal. I had been emailing one of the people who managed the collections at the museum for weeks and finally meeting them reminded me of just how many moving parts there are to do the work that we do. I was only there for a week, but there were researchers coming in most days in the summer after me as well. None of it, absolutely none of it, would be possible without the people to conserve and manage collections, organize visit logistics, sign off on forms, and make sure that we do things right. Much of the time, research can be isolating. But research relies on a community of people and I’m grateful to be a part of that, even in just a small way.
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography.
I was at the museum to take photographs of hominin casts and chimpanzee teeth. For the latter, my goal was to analyze their structure and learn how certain parts of the teeth might evolve together. Since chimpanzees are so closely related to humans and have very similar teeth, they are often an excellent species to compare things that are of interest to us in hominins! After walking inside, I set up my tripod, put on a lab coat and gloves, and handled the skulls and jaws with care, taking pictures of the surface of the teeth.
For the most part, placing specimens to get a good picture was pretty easy. I just had to make sure that specimens were not tilted, and that a scale was placed level to the surface of the teeth so that I could take accurate measurements later. This is what I brought the plasticine and sandbags for–so that I could place the specimens gently on a surface, securing the scale where it needed to be. But sometimes, it wasn’t so easy. Sometimes, science is sandbag Jenga. Adding or removing pieces, carefully moving the sand inside just ever so slightly in order to get everything level. In those moments, tediously maneuvering bones and sand, there was this fulfilling feeling that I was making actual, tangible progress and the work I was doing mattered.
My tripod setup (left) and sandbags piled high to place a scale and cast of a hominin fossil level with each other (right).
Now at the beginning of my third year in graduate school, having been through all of the obstacles that the pandemic presented, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what this work means to me. Sometimes, I feel lost and confused and overwhelmed. Sometimes, I feel like nothing I’m doing is important. But although the minutiae of science can be difficult to wade through, the process of working through it is transformative. I’ve learned so much about myself and my determination. I’ve learned how to take these big, intimidating questions and pick away at them through slow, diligent work. I get to talk about science, travel to new places, and meet interesting people from around the world. It’s not always rosy. And it’s not grandiose. But I’m interested in what I do and I’m always, always learning. Sometimes, that’s all that really matters.
Robinson, J. T. (1956). The dentition of the Australopithecinae: Maxillary incisors. Transvaal Museum Memoirs, 9(1), 23-34.