Science Narratives is a series of interviews with students from diverse fields in science at various stages of their career. By learning about individuals and their journey in science, this series has the goal of breaking the stereotypes in science and showcasing the diversity in STEM. We hope readers will find connections and inspirations in these stories told.
Alex Daniel Velez is a 2nd year Ma-PhD student in the doctoral program in Anthropology at Binghamton University specifically focused on Paleoanthropology with a sub-specialty in Zooarchaeology/Faunal Analysis. You can follow his journey on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Describe your research or love for science in a haiku.
What is this fossil?
Maybe a Neanderthal?
A challenge awaits!
What is the focus of your research?
My research focuses on reconstructing the auditory capabilities of Neanderthals in comparison to other primates such as humans and extant apes. I’m interested in learning how and why hearing changes phylogenetically, as well as what the difference is between taxa. I’m also interested in studying faunal/hominin relationships, especially where predators are concerned. Selective ecological pressures from phagic relations can manifest in wildly different evolutionary and behavioral patterns, and very little has been done to see what if any arose from our own run-ins with carnivores.
Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time? What are your hobbies?
I like unwinding with anything that requires a good amount of skill; something like a puzzle, but that allows me creative expression and requires enough focus that I forget everything else. So, my current hobbies include embroidery, tailoring my own clothes, illustration, and even rearranging furniture if I’m bored enough.
What are you passionate about?
Everything. If I can’t get behind something and feel passionate about it, I can’t bring myself to make anything good out of it. Do everything you do with passion and you’ll never be bored.
Who is a female scientist you look up to and why?
As an anthropologist, I should say Margaret Mead and/or Ruth Benedict. Those two were pretty amazing; they made names for themselves in a male dominated field and took no crap from anyone.
However, my heart most definitely belongs to Marie Curie. She was a physicist/chemist who discovered new elements such as polonium and pretty much discovered radioactivity. She encountered adversity at every level: she was denied entrance to university at Krakow University solely for being a woman, so she went to France, and ended up becoming the first woman in the University of Paris professoriate. She was the first woman to win a Nobel science prize, and one of the only people to win two in different fields for her work in physics and chemistry. Now, this woman was such a badass, that in a personal correspondence with her sister-in-law, who had offered to buy her wedding dress for her, Curie told her to get a dark-colored dress in a strong material so she could wear it to the lab afterwards. Her original research journals were exposed to so much radiation, they won’t be safe to handle without PPE for another couple hundred years.
My favorite quote from her is: “A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.” I find everything about her, from her dedication to science to the way she shattered gender norms and made waves in science, to be inspiring.
Tell us your personal story in science + research. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
It’s a little embarrassing, but my story in science begins with a movie I saw when I was a little kid, Jurassic Park. I had always liked animals, but dinosaurs were just amazing; they were these huge, awesome creatures that looked like things out of an epic story. Fossils, and the people who studied them, became a brand new level of cool in my young mind, and dedicating myself to paleontology became the only life choice that made sense.
As I got older, however, I also became interested in the field of medicine and decided I wanted to be a doctor, since they made more money. I took a bunch of health classes during high school and even took part in a dual-enrollment program where I was able to earn a certification as a patient care technician (nurse assistant). All that time and prep to enter a good pre-med program got turned completely around once I went to college and took a bunch of science classes. Many of these allowed me the freedom to create projects based on my own interests, so my love for scientific research was re-awakened. Here, I learned science wasn’t just a field, it was a process; there was procedure, protocol, theory, experimentation, all with tight controls. Around senior year during my undergrad, I had a crisis of faith because I decided I didn’t want to give up scientific research to practice medicine. Although I knew I could have both, I decided that I really wanted to study the past using evolutionary science, but my college didn’t even have a paleontology class, let alone a major. That’s when I found anthropology, and learned that fossil humans were pretty cool too. I took part in different programs to help me learn how to officially conduct research and present my findings. With the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation in Research, I was allowed to conduct a research program under the guidance of a professor in the same field. My time in Dr William Harcourt-Smith’s lab would forever change my life by teaching me everything I needed to know, and helping me get started in the field. After taking part in the CUNY Graduate Pipeline Program, which was also life changing, I got the skills and resources to successfully apply to the graduate program in which I now work.
When I first started in Binghamton, I had no idea what to expect. My adviser, Dr Rolf Quam, has been awesome in helping me along with my training and education to become a paleoanthropologist. Thanks to him, I learned the methodology and theories that direct my current thesis project and will continue to do so for my dissertation. As an undergrad, I studied the evolution of bipedalism, how we got to the way we move today from a more primitive, likely arboreal ancestor. Now, I study the evolution of hearing among hominins, with a particular focus on Neanderthals. Right now, I’m working on several reconstructions using 3D virtual technology, and in the summers I head out of country to go to excavations. Last summer, I worked at a site in Kenya called Koobi Fora, and I’m actually heading to two sites in Spain in July and I can’t wait!
Can you talk about one moment of discouragement and how you overcame it?
Discouragement is a pretty common feeling as a grad student. Oftentimes, it can seem the entirety of the world is against you, like nothing you want to do is worth it, like everyone is screwing you over or judging you, and like you’re just not good enough. I’ve felt it all and many times have had to convince myself it’s not true. Well, I mean, there are some people who try to screw you over and judge you, but I deal with it just the same way: I remind myself, first and foremost that I do what I do for me and no one else. What drives me is my curiosity, my fascination with the natural world and with science and technology. I stay motivated simply because I feel I can never know enough; for every one question answered, for every new truth that is revealed, there are more just underneath it. There’s always something new! Keeping that in mind puts all the other bits of adversity and sacrifice in perspective.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone considering science research?
Marie Curie once said “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” There are going to be times when life gets hard while pursuing a career in science, I’m not going to lie. There is a lot you’re going to have to learn to do that you don’t think is part of science. Public speaking, networking…these are crucial for researchers nowadays. But if this is really what you want to do with your life, you’ll get the hang of it. There’s always something new to learn, and there are always resources to help you learn it.