Why did you choose to become a scientist?
My Dad was an aerospace engineer, so I grew up in a pretty nerdy environment to begin with! As a kid, I couldn’t see myself growing up as anything but a scientist. I think my confidence got a bit shaken as I got older and found that some parts of science were really difficult for me to grasp (chemistry, physics, etc.). So in my undergraduate studies I moved from science to the humanities, choosing to study archaeology and anthropology. Working in the United Kingdom for an excavation made me realize that archaeology and science don’t have to be separate things, so as a graduate student I moved to England and studied archaeological sciences!
How did you choose your field of study?
The first time I watched the Indiana Jones films as a child, I immediately went to my backyard and dug a 2 foot hole. My parents were not necessarily impressed, so I went to my best friend’s house and dug an even bigger hole in her backyard.
Her parents were also not impressed, surprisingly.
But I certainly caught the archaeology bug at that point! Growing up, I was very into history, cultural studies, and environmental science, so archaeology was a perfect field of study for me.
Which topic are you working on at the moment?
My current research involves animal remains from the Covesea Caves, located in north-east Scotland. Previous analysis of human remains from these caves has suggested that these places are utilized for funerary or ritual purposes; my job is to see if the animal remains suggest something similar by analyzing the treatment of the bones.
Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
It’s a nice combination of my previous studies in anthropology and my current work as a zooarchaeologist! I’ve been returning to a lot of theory and literature that I read during my undergraduate, so it feels like things are coming full circle for me, academically.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?
I’ve been suffering from depression and anxiety since I was a teenager; it’s left me with very little confidence in my academic work, which has made postgraduate studies difficult as I try to became more of an individual academic in my field. After an incredibly difficult year that led to a few months away from the university, medication and therapy has greatly helped in getting me back on track. Since then, I’ve become more active in advocating for recognition of mental health issues in academia and providing more help for students and faculty that suffer from mental illness.
How do you use social media for your science communication?
I feel like zooarchaeology is a relatively unknown field of science, at least to the general public. My goal with social media is to showcase what exactly I do, why it’s important, and teach people as well! I’ve found that people really engage with my comparative anatomy posts, where I showcase the similarities of the skeletons of many different animals – it’s an important aspect to zooarchaeological analysis, and I think its an interesting and visual way to show people animal osteology.
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you while working in science?
Well, I’ve licked a lot of later prehistoric animal bones…its a common way to differentiate between animal bones and pottery due to porosity. And if you’re wondering…no, the bones do not taste very good.
There’s also the time I was working with very tiny fish vertebrae from an Iron Age site from the Orkney Islands – long story short, I sneezed and vertebrae went everywhere!
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
I would tell a younger version of myself that the little voice in her head that constantly tells her that she’s not smart enough to get far is wrong! And that she is perfectly capable of becoming a scientist like she’s always wanted.
Also, Indiana Jones is a terrible example of an archaeologist. Sorry, Younger Alex, but it’s true!
Alex blogs about zooarchaeology on her website Animal Archaeology. She also has a Twitter account @ArchaeologyFitz and an Instagram account @AFitzpatrickArchaeology. Alex also Tweets for Crastina @SciCrastina.