Meet Steph Halmhofer, a Bioarchaeologist on the Southwest Coast of British Columbia!

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

Archaeology is dirty work! – (Picture by me)

I’ve always been a curious person and science is a way for me to be professionally curious!  I get to learn a lot about the world around me in ways I enjoy and with results that can help others.  I’m also a naturally messy person and archaeology is the perfect excuse for being messy and getting dirty.

How did you choose your field of study?

I discovered it at just the right moment of “what do I want to do with my life?”  I was studying criminology in University, which I loved but was beginning to wonder where I could go with that.  I happened to take an intro to archaeology course and an intro to forensic anthropology course one semester and fell in love with both topics.  I had the opportunity to write a paper on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition (1845) which opened my eyes to the possibility of combining osteology with archaeology and I was hooked.  I finished with an Associate of Arts degree in criminology and started over with osteoarchaeology (I use osteoarchaeology interchangeably with bioarchaeology).

Augering a hole to determine the depth of our unit past what we had already excavated (it’s deep!) (Picture by Anne-Marie Warden)

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

Fieldwork can be physically exhausting!  When your survey involves spending days climbing up and down mountains, trudging through thick forests, or even walking through muddy farmers fields you can feel pretty drained by the end of the day.  And sore.  Very, very sore.  Excavations are physically demanding too.  Think about spending 8 hours working out in a gym.  That’s what it feels like spending 8 hours shoveling and screening soils.  It can also be mentally exhausting. Little known-fact: archaeologists and bioarchaeologists are some of the most detail-orientated people out there, thanks to the sometimes tedious nature of our work (paying attention to changes in soil composition, looking for tiny flakes or fish bones, etc.)

Screening soils from a recent project (Picture by Adele Keyes)

What is a typical day like for you?

Depends on the project, stage in the project, and time of the year!  Field work can involve spending hours surveying an area, which sometimes involves excavating small shovel tests at regular intervals.  Or we can be excavating a site which involves shoveling and trowling a unit and screening the excavated soils.  Or we might be mapping and photographing the site.  Maybe we’ll get a phone call asking us to go check out a potential site or that someone has found something we that we should look at.  Lab work involves a lot of artifact cleaning, photography, analysis, and report writing.   As a bioarchaeologist, sometimes this involves working on osteobiographies (reports related to the analysis of skeletal remains).  I don’t think there’s such thing as a “typical” day in archaeology!  Which is one of many reasons I love it.

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?

Right now I’m studying some unique glass beads I found during a small excavation in the region where I work in BC.  To be completely honest I chose to study the beads because I needed a topic for my Master’s research.  I never imagined I would be interested in studying glass beads, but they had been stuck in my mind since I had excavated them a couple of years earlier because they were so unusual.  Not only are the beads incredibly rare and unique, but their context of discovery opened a lot of interesting avenues for research into topics beyond the bead themselves.  I work quite closely with the Indigenous community in whose land the beads were found, as they’re very interested in the archaeology of their land.  Any work I do (whether with these beads or other projects in the region) I hope will be important to them, for a variety of different reasons.  One of the elders recently stated, regarding one of our big projects, “Here is the past truth.  And with that, we will own our future.”  I hope that my work can not only acknowledge their past truth but also help them own their future.  I’ve worked with many Indigenous communities (close to 30) across Canada and I would really like to continue working with Indigenous communities for that reason.

What are your biggest achievements, and what are your biggest failures?

I think my biggest achievement has simply been getting to the point where I’m at right now with plans to keep pushing forward, which has included navigating through many failures and mistakes.  Failures and mistakes are the best teaching moments we get, with the most important part being that we learn how to pick ourselves back up.  I’ve made a lot of mistakes (too many to list here) along the way and faced a lot of rejection, and each time I use it to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, and how I can change it going forward.  And you know what, it’s worked out pretty well so far!

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

This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the question above.  Of course, I’ve doubted myself!  Everyone has!  I go through periods of thinking I’m pretty awesome into periods of questioning myself and my abilities.  It’s completely normal to have these feelings.  Especially in a graduate student atmosphere where competition (for placement in a grad program, for grants and scholarships, etc.) is front and centre.  It’s easy to start comparing yourself to others and fall into a funk.  Especially when your project isn’t going the way you wanted it to, or you find your grant/scholarship applications rejected.  It’s important to have a good support network around you, people who are willing to listen to you voice your frustrations (thank you husband!).  One way I cheer myself up, beyond venting frustrations, is to look at my CV.  My CV reminds me of everything I’ve accomplished so far and how I got to where I’m at today.  It reminds me that there are others who believe in me and are willing to give me a chance and want me to be part of their teams and projects.  I also believe in shameless self-promotion.  Recognizing that I have the skills and knowledge to not only do my work but be good at my work as well.  Be humble, but be willing to self-promote yourself without guilt.

I sat down to take a nice picture and dirt slid into my pants.  Never a good feeling. (Picture by me)

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

Oh boy, there are a lot!  Every project there’s something new and fun that has happened.  I keep a running list on my blog of funny situations I’ve encountered on projects, entitled “Houston, We’ve Got a Problem”.  Every project I find myself adding more to that list.  Off the top of my head is when a colleague and I were excavating some super fragile glass beads (the beads I mentioned earlier) when we were swarmed by a group of poodle puppies out for a walk.  Big poodle puppies were excitedly jumping all over us and stealing our gloves and notebooks as we were frantically trying to pick up our artifact bags to protect them while simultaneously chasing puppies out of the unit.  I’m also a naturally clumsy person so I trip and fall down a lot, which always makes me laugh.

Do you come from an academic family?   How does your family regard your career choice?

I’m a first-generation academic.  My parents both emigrated to Canada from Europe when they were young and didn’t have the opportunities for post-secondary education.  They always encouraged me to find or make the opportunities for myself to pursue it.  They didn’t care what I studied, as long as I was happy with it!  They’ve also both taken a real interest in my work (my dad even volunteered with me for a day on a project I was working on) and are both excited when I have new projects or research to talk about.  My husband comes from a very academic family and through he and them I was able to learn about how to navigate the academic system.  When I started post-secondary I literally had no idea what a Masters degree or Ph.D. was.  Thanks to my husband and his family I quickly learned what they were and what I needed to do to get there.  With my family’s excited encouragement and my husband and his family’s navigational advice I certainly had a good path set to follow!

Working in my unit on a recent project (Picture by Anne-Marie Warden)




You can reach me on my blog Bones, Stone, and Books, as well as on Twitter (@bones_canada) and Instagram (@bones.canada)