Reading time: 5 mins (877 words)
How I got here. Or the story of how asking a single question can consume 5+ years of your life.
Believe it or not, I didn’t grow up wanting to study hair. And, honestly, I don’t think I even knew what the word ‘anthropology’ meant 10 years ago…
Like most other things that have happened in my life, I kinda stumbled onto this gig. In hindsight, I really feel like, rather than having a career path or an academic path, I’ve pretty much just impulsively gone down a series of interesting rabbit holes.
But, to tell you the story of how I ended studying hair, we must start at the moment I stumbled onto anthropology…
I studied Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge University, but originally I wanted to apply for Japanese Studies. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, and since I had a bit of a knack for languages, it made sense to me that I should study a foreign language and/or culture.
Also, yes, wanting to study Japanese may have been in part related to spending a large portion of my teens watching too much anime…
(In hindsight, the fact that my site icon is a literal chibi may have been a giveaway here…)
But after thinking about it a bit longer, I was worried that focusing on just one language and culture might be a little too narrow. So, when I was flipping through the course catalog, I saw ‘Archaeology & Anthropology’…
While I don’t remember exactly what the description was, I’m sure that reading it went something like this:
“Humans? Why yes, I usually like those”
“Archaeology? Well, I did really enjoy Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones”
“Culture? I don’t think I have much of it, so it might be good to load up on that!”
“Evolution? I was actually pretty good at that in Pokémon – I’m down”
Now, fast forward to me somehow getting accepted into the university…
My first year, I was exposed to a lot of new knowledge, but most importantly to me, I found out that there was a whole branch of Biological Anthropology that focused on human variation!
Until that time, I didn’t really think about the science of human variation. All I knew about human variation was the snippets you catch from popular culture/media (i.e. ‘there is no such thing as race’ and ‘all humans are 99.9% genetically similar’ blah blah blah).
But at university, my classes in Biological Anthropology were awesome!
They introduced me to the evolution of modern humans. I learnt about the migration of modern humans from the African continent:
I learnt about how human bodies can evolve adaptations to a particular environment but also that populations being separated for a long time can cause random, neutral physical differences to arise.
But what really got me hooked was the specific examples on the evolution of skin color.
I remember how mind-blowing it was to look at the slides showing how well skin color correlated with distance from the equator and the intensity of the sun.
This was very interesting to me personally because, as someone who is half-African (I personally prefer the term ‘Halfrican’) and grew up in Northern Europe, it was frequently pointed out to me that I ‘looked different’.
My skin was dark because I was African and other features were the way they were because I was African. But I never questioned why those features were African; they just were. Like many other people I had some ideas about different populations looking a certain way, and all of a sudden there was so much more depth to the physical differences I could see among people.
Like many other people, I had some ideas about different populations looking a certain way. And all of a sudden, after learning about the evolution of human variation there was a completely different meaning to the physical differences I could see among people.
Even though I thought Biological Anthropology was really cool, I was actually scared to major in it because I thought I didn’t know enough science…
But, after having spoken to a postdoctoral researcher at my college and hearing the words of encouragement I needed, I took a leap of faith and focused my studies in Bio Anth. This postdoc then became my dissertation advisor (hey, Colin!).
In one of my conversations with Colin, I mentioned I had been thinking about how my brother, my father and I all had very tightly curled hair and I was curious about how curly hair had evolved. It was one of those moments like when you ask an adult about random things and you are borderline irritating them…
But luckily for me, he had a very high tolerance for kids asking annoying, (currently) unanswerable questions.
In fact, rather than side-eyeing me, he was super supportive and said ‘If you can’t find anything on the evolution of hair, maybe that should be your dissertation topic then!’
Fast forward a few years: I went down the rabbit hole and I have a PhD’s worth of questions I need to deal with before I can properly answer my original question: ‘Why did curly hair evolve?’