Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I never consciously made the decision to become a scientist, my career path somehow sneakily led me to becoming one. After finishing my graduate studies in Egyptology, which focussed on philology, I realised hieroglyphs would never be my passion. I wanted something more tangible and decided to pursue a career as a zooarchaeologist, an archaeologist specialised in the analysis of animal remains. It was not a big leap in career choice, since I had taken an introduction to osteology course and animals played a big role in Ancient Egyptian society. I am happy I made the switch in careers, since for me, zooarchaeology is a perfect combination of archaeology and scientific methodology. I get to focus on animal osteology and biology, while learning about the role of animals in past societies. In the future, I hope to include more methods in my work, such as stable isotope analysis and protein analysis.
Which topic are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I am finishing my dissertation which seeks to understand changes in the diet of people living in the southern Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. This is a time where a lot of social and political changes can be seen, and quite often advances in agricultural techniques play an important role here. Part of my work focusses on understanding what people ate at specific sites, and using that as a starting point, I try to recognise broader trends in the entire region. Recently, I have become interested in working interdisciplinary, so not just looking at what the animal remains of the past tell us but combining this with the botanical evidence. Since I am nearing the end of the dissertation, I should probably work out some of these ideas for a post-doc!
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist?
I definitely have doubted my abilities as a scientist, and I am my worst enemy in this regard. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and I think most scientists battle with this. Being at the beginning of my career, it is easy to feel less optimistic about my own work when I look at all the exciting research being done by others. It makes me think that my research is boring, and I should be working harder and better to publish the next big ground-breaking thing. Rationally, I know this is silly and my work is solid, but imposter syndrome tends to strike without a head’s up. Having friends and family who reassure you is essential to overcome imposter syndrome but perhaps even more helpful is occasionally getting an acknowledgement from your supervisor or colleagues. Getting a ‘good job’ in an email from such people usually will make me feel on top of the world and ready to continue my work with optimism.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
There are many funny moments which happened while doing fieldwork. One time, I was counting thousands of tiny rodent bones to have an estimate of the sample, which was quite a hassle because I had no microscope, and the working space was super dusty. After a few hours, I took a short break and came back to find my colleagues had rearranged them to look like the skeleton of a mythical beast!
Another memorable moment whilst in the field was when some colleagues and I made a mockumentary, where the archaeobotanist and I were just pretending to analyse plant and animal remains (“because everybody knows those disciplines do not exist”) and our actual goal was to study the ‘Homo potteriensis’ AKA the ceramicists. We even had a British student be the narrator!
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
I am a violinist, although since my dissertation went into full gear, I have not had much time to practice. The nice thing about playing an instrument is that it feels like you are using a different part of your brain, so it is challenging in a refreshing way. Besides that, I also love playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, either as a player or as a dungeon master. The game helps me completely forget about my work and I always feel reenergised afterwards. Otherwise, I enjoy reading, cooking, and going on walks.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?
This is a tough question with multiple answers, and one that has preoccupied me since I started my dissertation. There are ‘small’ solutions such as raising awareness of gender inequality within science, such as lectures or workshops on this topic, or creating equality and diversity boards. I am a coordinator of such a group, the Lise Meitner Society Group Tübingen. However, usually these kinds of events will draw a crowd which is already aware of these problems and generally agree with equality and diversity statements. To create real change and obtain gender equity, we need to have structural, institutional changes. We need to have accountability for people, regardless of position, who harass and/or discriminate women and people of colour. But we also need to change as a society, which is an even bigger hill to climb. As a society, we need to overcome our inherent gender bias and racism. We need to have kids grow up in a world where the concept of a woman scientist is normal. I am not sure whether we will see this change in our generation, but I believe this is a cause worth fighting for, and if everyone contributes just a little bit, and with every small victory, we are getting closer to this goal.
Shyama has a Twitter account @Shyama_Ver and tweets for the Lise Meitner Society Tübingen @LMG_Tue.