Meet Amanda Rossillo, a paleoanthropologist studying how we are related to extinct human species!

What is your scientific background?

My interests and training span the diverse field of anthropology, so I like to think of myself as an anthropologist first and foremost. I work within the subfield of biological/physical/evolutionary anthropology (definitely the most pseudonyms out of any anthropological subfield) studying human fossils, which makes me a paleoanthropologist more specifically. I received my undergraduate degree from Barnard College of Columbia University in anthropology with a focus in archaeology, and I did some field work in New Mexico studying indigenous rock art, in addition to attending a field school in Illinois where I studied bioarchaeology and human osteology. I also took a number of human evolutionary biology classes in college to prepare me for my graduate research on human skeletal morphology, taxonomy, and systematics.

Admiring a 2 million-year old Australopithecus sediba skull in South Africa – Amanda Rossillo

How did you choose your field of study?

I was first introduced to anthropology in my sixth grade social studies class, during a unit on ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The stories that artifacts held was so fascinating to me that I was inspired to become an archaeologist. Throughout high school I became increasingly interested in biology as well, and after doing some research I realized that bones can tell stories too! That’s how I stumbled upon the field of anthropology–the perfect blend of history and science.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

I’m studying the last common ancestor that our species shared with Neanderthals, called Homo heidelbergensis. It lived across Africa and Eurasia during a tumultuous time in Earth’s history, when the climate was swinging between severe glaciations and more temperate periods. The bones of this species are interesting because they share a lot of differences and similarities that don’t seem to follow a clear pattern. Some scientists don’t even think it’s all one species! I’m using 3D models of these bones to compare specific features to each other and see what that can tell us about how we classify this species and its relationships with other species, and how it responded to its environment. This can help us learn more about the species we came from, and how past humans have adapted (or not) to severe changes in climate.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

Getting access to specimens has been really challenging. Fossils are generally kept in their respective countries of origin, so to study them you have to travel to wherever they’re being held. That can be logistically tricky to manage, especially because I’m still taking classes and teaching throughout the week. The most difficult part is getting permission from the institution that’s holding them, because people do occasionally say no. As science becomes more open and accessible, though, projects like mine should become more feasible.

Studying rock art in New Mexico – Amanda Rossillo

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

All the time. Imposter syndrome affects everyone, but in the moment, you feel like it’s just you. It’s almost impossible not to compare yourself to others in your field and even in different fields, which can cause a lot of feelings of inferiority and self-doubt. This is especially hard for me because my data is very difficult to get, so I see others going much faster and I feel the pressure. My labmate and I share a lot of these feelings with each other which I think is helpful for both of us because we build each other up!

How does your family regard your career choice?

My parents have conventional jobs so I think they were surprised to say the least when at 16 years old I told them I wanted to be an anthropologist. There have been many not-so-subtle attempts to get me to go to medical school given my interest in human biology, but I’m so passionate about anthropology that I could never give it up. But I’m very thankful that through it all, my parents have always supported me and my choices (even if they don’t understand what I do).

Entering Sterkfontein Cave, South Africa – Amanda Rossillo

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

Being a woman in science, or in any field really, means that you’re constantly doubting your abilities. I went to a women’s college which really boosted my confidence, and I still find myself intimidated by my male colleagues even when talking about my own research. It’s important to remember that no one knows your project better than you, and you deserve to be where you are.


Amanda can be contacted at anr41 at duke dot edu!