Researcher of the Month
Major: Anthropology, Class of 2021
Research Mentor: Dr. Frederick Grine, Anthropology, Anatomical Sciences: Dr. Carrie Mongle, American Museum of Natural History
"Anthropology is a field that is at the crossroads of so many of my interests, just as a human, as a person. …That sort of broad question that Anthropology as a field asks, which is ‘What does it mean to be human?,’ is something that I’ve always come back to, something that's always interested me." - Nicholas Post, class of ‘21
Nicholas Post is a non-traditional student majoring in Anthropology, currently doing an honors thesis on Hominin Phylogenetics under the mentorship of Dr. Frederick Grine (Anthropology, Anatomical Sciences Departments) and Dr. Carrie Mongle (American Museum of Natural History; and incoming Assistant Professor, Anthropology Department). In fall 2019 when he re-matriculated to Stony Brook University, Nicholas took the opportunity to join Dr. Grine’s research group which investigates the hominin fossil record; his project focuses on frontal sinus volumes of Late Stone Age Khoesan crania. In summer 2020, Nicholas was selected to participate in the virtual NSF-REU Biology program at the American Museum of Natural History (NYC), where he began to work under the direction of Dr. Carrie Mongle on: “Re-evaluating Human Evolution: The Role of Postcranial Data in Reconstructing Hominin Evolutionary Relationships.”
On campus, Nicholas has served as a Teaching Assistant for ANP 120: Introduction to Biological Anthropology. He presented “The role of outgroup selection in reconstructing fossil hominin phylogeny” at the Stony Brook Young Investigators Review (SBYIR) fall 2020 symposium; and will be presenting a poster this month at the 2021 American Association of Physical Anthropologists virtual conference, on “Implications of outgroup selection in reconstructing hominin phylogeny.” Be sure to look for his poster also at the upcoming annual URECA virtual symposium on May 5. Following graduation (December ’21), Nicholas plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biological anthropology.
Nicholas originally transferred to Stony Brook in 2011. Describing himself at that earlier time as having no direction, he finds a stark contrast with his experience now as a returning student, reflecting: “ I didn't understand a lot about academia, and thought that that it was sort of off limits for me. I thought it was just beyond what was possible …I’m certainly glad that I now have people in my life that are great mentors helping me navigate this world and helping me get to where I want to go.” Nicholas Post is from Bethpage NY, and is a first generation college student. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA director.
Karen : Tell me about your research.
Nicholas: I am involved with two major projects. First, I am collecting data on the morphology and volume of the frontal sinuses of Late Stone Age Khoesan crania. This data will serve as the foundation for studies where will we examine craniofacial development in prehistoric African populations and individual fossils. And second, I have been working since this past summer on a project that evaluates how outgroup selection impacts hominin phylogenetics. I am collecting morphological data from two fossil primate taxa that will replace the living primates currently employed in these anyalses and then determining how this change impacts the phylogenetic trees that are then reconstructed.
How did you first get involved with research?
So I'm a non-traditional student, as you could probably tell. I came back to Stony Brook in the fall of 2019. And I knew I was interested in human origins, in evolution, in archaeology and all those sorts of things. While I was looking for faculty who were working with human ancestors and extinct hominins, I quickly found Dr. Grine and approached him, asking: “Is there anything in your lab that you need help with? I’m interested in working with fossils.” I hadn’t had much coursework at the time, but I was ready to learn and I think he recognized that. After I spoke to him, he got me working on this frontal sinus project. I'm looking at Stone Age Khoesan crania, specifically looking at the frontal sinus, getting volumetric measurements of them. And our goal is to build this data set so that we can use it to compare to other Stone Age specimens that we have, and we can try to get some clarity on craniofacial development as modern humans emerged in Africa. The Khoesan are very interesting too because they're one of the oldest human lineages, so they are a great population to look at when you're asking these kinds of questions. The frontal sinus is also such an interesting structure to study because its morphology is so unique and varies so drastically person to person.
Tell me about your second project.
I applied and interviewed to work with Dr. Mongle last summer through the American Museum of Natural History’s REU program. I was familiar with Dr. Mongle’s work, since she had worked with Dr. Grine, and she does a lot of work in phylogenetics — understanding the evolutionary relationships between different hominin taxa or species, and I was excited by the prospect of working with her. The project that came out of the REU is one that I’m still working on, and it became the basis of my senior thesis. When we construct evolutionary trees, we use what’s called an “outgroup” as a kind of reference. This helps us determine what traits the common ancestor of all our taxa of interest may have had. In the past, living primates have been employed as outgroups and my project’s primary goal is to replace these with fossil primates that may help us get a more accurate picture of how these species are all related. I’m working with both Dr. Mongle and Dr. Grine on that, as well as Dr. James Rossie, and outside of Stony Brook, Drs. Kelsey Pugh and Christopher Gilbert.
What are your plans after graduation?
I'll be applying to grad school, to doctoral programs. My goal is to earn a PhD in biological anthropology. After that, I expect to pursue postdocs and a career in academia where I can pursue the kind of work that I'm interested in doing, with fossils, and in phylogenetics--working with human ancestors.
What made you decide to go into Anthropology?
I'm 32. And I had gone to college at the traditional age of 18, right after high school. I went to a few different schools. I went to Hofstra, then to Nassau Community College, then transferred to Stony Brook in 2011. At the time, I had no direction and I was kind of just going to college because that's what you do. But I wasn't really particularly motivated, and I didn't have a specific path that I was pursuing at the time.
So I did poorly. I left, and since spent a decade in the professional world. I've done a variety of things. But it always sort of nagged me that I left, and, in particular, Anthropology is a field that is at the crossroads of so many of my interests, just as a human, as a person. And so while I've done quite a few different jobs and different creative pursuits in my adult life, I think at the core of a lot of them….that sort of broad question that Anthropology as a field asks, which is “What does it mean to be human?,” is something that I’ve always come back to, something that's always interested me.
A few years prior to my re-matriculation at Stony Brook, I had made the decision to come back, but then it took some time to get my life in order enough to actually do it, to have the time during the day for classes and research, to have my finances in order, those practical sorts of things. Eventually I was able to do it, and fall of 2019 was my first semester back.
Do you enjoy being back as a student?
Yes, and as soon as I came back, I knew I wanted to get involved in research. Perhaps because of my experience as a working adult for the past decade, I knew right away that doing the work and doing the research is really where it happens. Doing original research is the job — that is the career. And so I wanted to get involved with that as soon as I could. It was important for me to see right away if this was the right track for me to be on so I made it a point to seek out faculty whose work I was interested in. it was important for me to try it, and of course, I did love it!
The other thing too I think that's worth saying is that I really got lucky. Obviously I already live on Long Island, and the tuition at Stony Brook is relatively affordable. But the other lucky thing for me is that Anthropology was what I wanted to do. As I read up on the Anthropology department prior to coming back, I was excited to learn how strong the department is, and to learn about the faculty here who are doing really interesting work. I knew only a few anthropologists by name at that point, one of them being Louis Leakey, and learning how the Leakey family were so closely involved with Stony Brook was especially exciting. So it worked out exceptionally well for me that in my backyard there is such a great department that exactly fits my interests.
How has your involvement in undergraduate research affected your experience of your coursework/classes?
I think the intersection of research and coursework is really where things get the most interesting. Doing research helps me relate the coursework to the research I'm doing. In classes, when you’re learning about something, it almost exists in a vacuum. You're listening to lecture, you're absorbing this information. But you're not really applying it too much. Whereas in taking Human Osteology, for example, I found that everything in that class was applicable to the work I'm doing in the lab so the classes and research reinforce each other. Doing research helps me to understand the scientific papers that we read in all these classes, and makes me better able to understand why authors will do certain things—why certain methodologies are employed, what are the limitations of some studies, etc. I think it helps me to be more critical of the research that we read in classes and it also helps me stay focused because I can relate the material in class to the work that I'm doing across my projects.
What do you enjoy most about doing research?
I think there's something very exciting about pushing the boundaries of science, even if it's just a millimeter. I find it really exciting that for at least a brief moment, you are the only person in the world who knows this thing, who has done the study that you've done. For maybe a fleeting moment, you are THE expert, and you've contributed something to the broader conversation. That's really exciting! That’s how science makes progress, and it’s wild to be a part of that.
Have you had any experience with presenting your work?
I did a presentation for the American Museum of Natural History program, which was a bit terrifying because that was the first academic talk I've ever given. But that went well. And I found it very invigorating to present research at an institution that I grew up visiting and that I always revered. I'm happy to report that my abstract for a poster presentation at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference in April was accepted. So I'll be doing a poster presentation fairly soon as well.
What advice would you give to other students about research?
I would say it's a great way to explore your interests. If you're an undergrad and you're not exactly sure perhaps what subfield, or what particular questions you're interested in researching, I think that doing research with a variety of faculty is a great way to start exploring that. It will also help you develop a deeper understanding of the material that you're learning in your classes at a faster rate. My advice would be to get involved as soon as possible, and to not be afraid to reach out. Sometimes, undergraduates might be intimidated by professors, and be hesitant to speak up. But in my experience, at least, I’ve seen that faculty love bringing students in to show them the ropes and to get started. So I would say, be bold and reach out if there's someone whose work you're interested in.
Plus, I can’t imagine how you would be prepared for graduate school otherwise. The name of the game in grad school is research and so doing research now certainly gives you a taste of what's to come. It's important to know if it's the kind of work that you want to do.
Are you able to work in person now? How disruptive was COVID to your research this past year?
In Dr. Grine’s lab, I work with CT data, and so I do need the lab equipment that's powerful enough to run that software. Obviously we shut down immediately when COVID first started last spring. That was difficult, but I am back now. We have certain protocols, for example only one student is working there at a time.
Do you feel that people have been pretty accepting of you, being a non-traditional student?
I think so. I've never experienced any sort of negative consequence from that. I think being an older student actually puts me at an advantage, in a few ways. I have a lot more independence now than I did at the traditional college age. I’m more focused and I have a better sense of how to manage my time and take care of everything that I need to do.
How have your mentors helped you to develop your skills?
Dr. Grine and Dr. Mongle have been there for me every step of the way. There are also two other professors that I've been working with quite a bit, Dr Gabrielle Russo and Dr James Rossie. All of them helped me navigate academia, and exposed me to different ways to approach biological anthropology, either through their classes, or just through conversations with them. They’ve helped me refine my questions within the field, helped me focus on the things that I personally want to explore further — the sort of scientific questions that I want to ask as I move into a career in this field.