Meet Patricia Pillay, Archaeologist and PhD Candidate in Anthropology!

What is your scientific background?

I did a conjoint degree during my undergraduate study at the University of Auckland.  I have a Bachelor of Science majoring in Biological Sciences- specifically animal behaviour, ecology, and human evolution. I also have a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology specializing in archaeology. While this is under the “Arts” Anthropological Sciences are also offered through the Science pathway both at the University of Auckland where I studied and in many other universities! All my projects in postgraduate study have incorporated methods of science whilst being archaeological and I have been able to draw on my biological science knowledge which has been beneficial to working in an interdisciplinary field.

I have a strong curiosity about the interconnected relationships between humans and animals and changing environments. This was the reason I decided to pursue postgraduate studies. The chance to develop independent research, whilst working with high-ranking academic staff seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up! I am passionate about representing my field and encouraging other women of colour to change the space of academic research.

My research revolves around the wondrous world that is Pacific Archaeology – specifically central East Polynesian cultural heritage. My Masters and now Doctorate research recognizes that there are multiple ways of knowing and being and I integrate archaeological methods with advancing ancient paleogenetic analyses. My PhD involves extracting ancient DNA from archaeological bird bones. By examining these avian remnants, I aim to reconstruct a profile of the taxa represented and integrate these findings with my analyses of birds from museum collections, and historical records including Indigenous knowledge. I am currently navigating the complex world of DNA extraction, sequencing, and analysis. The combination of methods enables a unique perspective to contextualize human-bird interactions spanning several centuries.

My experience with postgraduate study has equipped me with a toolkit of analytical skills that are transferable across a range of career paths. My research considers multiple approaches to questions about extinctions, and species diversity through time, which has been largely impacted by human activity. My interdisciplinary approach recognizes that rather than trying to “bridge” or “reconcile” the gap between different methodologies and knowledge systems, it is essential to consider the unique information each codified form of knowledge brings to the long-term question. I aim to further expand our understanding of how human societies coexisted with and shaped their natural environments. I also work on using digital tools to support my research endeavours including 3D models and Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-a mapping tool to help showcase the diversity and range of archaeological material.

Beyond my laboratory endeavors, I actively engage in Public Archaeology engagement to ensure a holistic and culturally sensitive approach to my work. My commitment to ethical research practices and community engagement underscores my role as a responsible and socially conscious scientist. I have established a successful track record in research and publication. This includes not only my MA study of Māori kurī, featured in the University News Media but also research on Māori rock art considering their preservation and distribution across Te-Ika-a-Māui North island, Aoteaora New Zealand.

Do you come from an academic family?

My parents migrated from India to Aotearoa New Zealand so that I would have a better and more recognisable education. They both went to college in India but sadly those qualifications are not very recognisable here. They have worked hard and attained qualifications here and I am proud of their decision and journey to Aotearoa to give me more opportunities. The rest of my family is mostly in India and I am definitely the first in the family to do postgraduate studies and to pursue a PhD. I am conscious of this level of privilege and opportunity I have been given that others have not received and I believe that education is something we should have access to. I am committed to doing my part to engage in this space and make my work accessible to larger audiences.

What biases, doubts, and challenges have you faced during your journey in science?

I have faced many challenges as a woman of colour in academia and in archaeology such as imposter syndrome and concerns about representation, confidence, and diversity in perspectives. I am keen to encourage the next generation of young female archaeological scientists and heritage specialists to take the challenge and change how we conduct our research and work in the discipline. I have noticed biases in who is represented in academia, what narratives are being included, and what research is most popular and am keen to acknowledge more women scientists and their research in my own work.

I am determined to demonstrate that an arts degree in anthropology can be applicable and useful in our current world. The issues we learn from anthropological studies cross into other disciplines like science and history and are relevant to many of the issues we are facing today. I am keen to educate people about how much archaeology there is around their local area and that yes, there are still things to find and in Aotearoa, there is a lot of archaeology! People often think of more ancient places like in Europe or Egypt or Petra in Jordan when they think about archaeology but I do think it is starting to change and that more focus on areas like the Pacific is important to understand processes like climate change and sea-level rise.

I am determined to engage as many people in science as possible and encourage the public to interact with both science and history which can inform major socio-environmental and physical changes in the future. Science plays a central role in our life and policy makers and the wide public are unable to make informed decisions without understanding the scientific basis of these. It’s a major challenge that calls for leadership. My enthusiasm for both communicating science and for heritage management means I want to lead the discussion on the emerging critical issues about effective science and the sustainable use of our natural and cultural resources. Essential is the active involvement of Indigenous communities and their knowledge which I embrace in my work and have been fortunate to engage with Indigenous communities for various projects.

My contributions extend beyond academia, as I disseminate my findings through engaging presentations, workshops, and public outreach initiatives including the New Zealand Archaeological Association where I contribute more broadly as the social media coordinator to promote the importance of conducting archaeological work in Aotearoa New Zealand. I work to collaborate with museums and have been involved with The Auckland War Memorial Museum, Tāmaki Paenga Hira for multiple outreach projects for Archaeology Week including creating a short video about the role of the Māori dog and what we can learn about their diet and dental health from their teeth using museum collections. I am strongly committed to community outreach and volunteering in the teaching space, including creating promotional videos for the university, leading learning activities for the New Zealand Archaeological Association, and mentoring sub-PhD post-graduate students. I  also teach as a graduate teaching assistant and give guest lectures in University undergraduate courses at all levels at the University of Auckland. I teach students about Pacific Archaeology and the Polynesian ancestors that arrived in Aotearoa and what archaeology can contribute to our understanding of the human past by studying material culture and associated animal remains among other artefacts.

I am keen on more collaboration and think that the best projects are those that work from the grassroots and involve multiple people with different skills. Sharing ideas is something that has not always been popular in academia but I have been fortunate to meet the right role models and colleagues who are keen to change this and work together to build a more supportive space in academia. My supervisors for my current PhD project are all inspiring women in Science and I am keen to follow in their footsteps and inspire other young female scientists in this space.


You can follow Patricia on her Twitter as well as her website or contact her at