Department of Anthropology

Graduate Student Spotlight: Samantha Archer

Fri, November 17, 2017
Graduate Student Spotlight: Samantha Archer

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Samantha Archer, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

You work with modern and ancient genetic material, are there differences in the methods you use for each? If so, what are some of the differences?

Yes. My advisor, Dr. Deborah Bolnick, oversees the operation of two separate laboratories on campus, one that is a clean laboratory used for ancient DNA research, and one that is used for modern DNA research. The ancient DNA laboratory requires specific rules and protocols because of the degraded nature of ancient DNA. The samples we work with are typically a few hundred years old, sometimes older, and are one of a kind. We have to take several precautions against contaminating our ancient samples with our own modern DNA and other contaminants from outside the laboratory. We wear full body coveralls, hair nets, face masks, an extra set of sleeves, and shoes that have never been worn outside of the lab when working in there. We use bleach in various concentrations to clean our coveralls and gloves to ensure that the parts of our bodies that are in closest proximity to the samples are as sterile as possible. We don’t lean up against the counters while in the lab, we don’t touch our faces or our glasses without changing out a set of gloves and re-bleaching, we use a UV crosslinker to irridate most of the instruments and solutions we work with. One of the most important rules we follow is a uni-directional lab flow: a researcher cannot go into the ancient DNA lab if they have been in or near the modern DNA lab that same day. If there’s no choice in the matter, they have to go home, shower, and put on clean clothes before going back into the ancient lab. There’s too high of a risk of contamination if we were to go back and forth between the modern and ancient labs. The modern lab allows for dress to be more casual (but always jeans and close-toed shoes!). Another major difference is the material we tend to extract DNA from in each lab. With ancient DNA, the two most common bone samples used are petrous bone and teeth. With modern DNA, we tend to use saliva, although I’ve also extracted DNA from blood and hair samples.  Generally, doing both modern and ancient DNA research requires a lot of planning ahead, and a lot of patience.

Epigenetics studies non-genetic factors that affect gene activity and expression, and as a result these alterations become heritable. How does past violence affect modern populations?

This is a great question, and one that many people from many disciplines of study are trying to learn more about. In a public health context, this is an absolutely critical question to try to understand the best we can. We see health disparities between racial groups, between gender, between sexual orientation, between class status, and various other axes of identity. If we understand these various facets of identity to be biopolitically constructed - such as race - how exactly is it that we are seeing people die at earlier rates because of their race or where they grew up? Studying epigenetics from a cross-disciplinary perspective might give us some insight. The concept of "intergenerational inheritance of trauma" is something that many people are interested in right now, and how could they not be? If we were to comprehensively understand how it is that the daily experience of living in a marginalized body in an oppressive society could impact a person's children, and grandchildren, several decades later, that has nearly unfathomable implications. The study of how violence becomes molecular is inherently intersectionally feminist and justice-oriented - the information we could glean from these studies can help us in our various projects of building more just futures. This is why I don't shy away from naming what I do as working towards a science for social justice.

Your work uses scientific analysis to discuss issues relating to race, class, and gender and so much more, have you encountered any obstacles?

I would say the obstacle I encounter most often is a disbelief that feminisms and social justice have a role to play in our scholarship as scientists. My work is impossible without utilizing indigenous, anti-racist, queer-positive feminisms. As an anti-violence scholar who isn’t concerned with notions of utopia, but is invested in the creation of softer and different worlds, these critically intersectional feminist theories are my guidepost. And so this belief that these theories have no place in science is challenging for me as a scholar because I personally would not exist without them, and my scholarship would not exist without them. Science is never apolitical. The histories of scientific racism teach us that, time and time again. So if we are serious about understanding the political clout that science holds, it is necessary for us to understand that we can, and should be, activists and scientists. Not separately. There is a future for an anti-violence, anti-racist science, and I want to spend the rest of my career as an academic collaborating with many other academics that share similar views, as well as community organizations and public policy makers and many others who would be necessary to realize that kind of future.

Traditionally in education there is a division between the hard sciences and the “soft” social sciences, but your research really merges these two. Can you talk a little about how this division is perpetuated and what implications it has on research or scholarship?

The overarching theme that resonates throughout my scholarship is knowledge production, and how we as humans arrive at "knowing." The academy is structurally predicated on the separation between "nature" and "culture," where natural scientists study "nature" and humanities scholars/social scientists study "culture." Because my scholarship exists at the nexus of "nature" and "culture," myself and my colleagues find ourselves in a daily struggle of producing knowledge in ways that the structures of the academy suggest are simply not possible. I think we are seeing more universities attenuate to a desire for interdisciplinary degrees, where students are given less specific coursework and more opportunity to take classes from multiple disciplines. Biology students who had a passion for creative writing in high school, for example, might have more room to take a few more English classes. Art history majors might have a penchant for statistics or religious studies, and are given room to pursue those interests. But where we fall short with these calls for "interdisciplinarity" is a lack of an impetus to actually consider what was left out, or left behind, or quelled in order for these disciplines to come into solid formation. Students in the natural sciences are rarely taught the history of their discipline, aside from short biographies of key figures scattered throughout textbooks. How can we push our future scientists to consider the histories and shortcomings of their discipline, to make it better? And how might we encourage social scientists to rethink how scientific data could enhance and expand their scholarship? I’m not exactly saying that disciplines should disappear completely, but I am saying that we could certainly stand to loosen our mechanisms of disciplining our knowledge making processes. A central question that I am constantly asking myself is, how are we, as academics, making sense of the world, and for whom?

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