A non-expert’s guide to the hype: Why is the Denisovan-Neanderthal “hybrid” such a big deal?

Estimated reading time: 9 mins (1906 words)

So, you may have heard that a paper was recently published on the genome of a girl who lived around 90,000 years ago and was half-Neanderthal and half-Denisovan.

It kinda made the news…

Lots of people were excited, not just geneticists and researchers working with human fossils. And my favorite thing about a science story going viral is that it brings out the comedy gold:


To be fair, even Nature’s story on this publication was feeling cheeky:



But the ultimate tweets were without a doubt the Monty Python references:



And while the news articles that ran on this story gave a good overview of why researchers were excited about it, without the historical context of how we’ve understood human evolution until now, it can be really hard to understand just how incredible this discovery is.

So let’s back up a little bit…

Continue reading “A non-expert’s guide to the hype: Why is the Denisovan-Neanderthal “hybrid” such a big deal?”

Grad Life

4 reasons workshops are better than coursework for grad students

Estimated reading time 13 mins (2576 words)

I’ve just come back from my second and last bioinformatics workshop of the summer!

From last Wednesday to Friday I spent 3 days in a row staring at a computer for 8-9 hours.

You might be thinking “Well, isn’t this what you usually do?”

Touché. It is.

But this time it was special because instead of spending 99% of that time googling problems and getting distracted/giving up on my Ph.D., I was learning a bunch of incredibly useful and time-saving skills at the 2018 Applied Genomics in Anthropological Research (AGAR) workshop organized by the American Association of Anthropological Genetics (AAAG). Look, academics just love an acronym…

Since these workshops are still all fresh in my mind, I decided to write a little post about them to summarize why I think doing workshops is a really good way of learning important material for grad students.

There are many types of workshops. Some are a few hours, others are a few days. They might be offered at your university or at a conference, or they might be independent events that you have to travel to (as was the case for me this summer). What they tend to have in common is that they usually draw participants and instructors from various universities (or various departments/ cohorts in the case of within-university workshops) and they tend to be given within a limited period of time (a few hours or days).

The combination of bringing together diverse groups of people and stuffing a lot into a short time period means that they are essentially the polar opposite of the kind of learning you do within a coursework situation. So, here’s my list of 4 reasons why I think workshops > coursework.

Continue reading “4 reasons workshops are better than coursework for grad students”

Grad Life

March is for Mammal Madness (and trash-talking and memes)

Estimated reading time: 4 mins  (647 words)

The first time I asked what ‘March Mammal Madness’ was, the answer I got was:

“You know, it’s like March Madness, but with mammals”

to which I eloquently replied:

“What’s a march madness?”


Fast forward to me currently being well-versed in the US sports, allow me to explain for those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a “March Madness” (mammalian or otherwise).

March Madness is the nickname for the university-level basketball tournament that is held annually during March (and a little bit of April; see Wikipedia or your local sports encyclopedia for details).

The hype around this is that people gamble by filling in these “brackets” that predict who will win during these face-offs and advance to the next round and ultimately become the champion.

real bracket
See for reference a “real” bracket for this years basketball

So what’s the deal with March Mammal Madness?

Well, imagine if instead of basketball teams you had mammals battling against each other like Pokémon!

Replace Blastoise & Charizard with actual mammals and you get the drift

Continue reading “March is for Mammal Madness (and trash-talking and memes)”


#WakandanSTEM: Teaching the evolution of skin color

Estimated reading time: 3 mins  (608 words)

February has been a good month.

I got featured on my friend Alexis’ blog for her: ‘Sully Asks A Scientist’ series.

My birthday brought me some major wardrobe upgrades (thanks to my partner’s great taste):

This jacket ❤

And, most importantly, I went to see Black Panther. TWICE. And it may have resulted in me acting a little extra since…


Plenty of people have talked about how amazing this movie is and there’s a lot of great analysis on the story and aesthetics.

But what I want to talk about is the impact it’s had.

The memes, the outfits, the pure joy!

Black Panther has gotten so many of us to dream about a glorious Afrofuturistic world and I think that’s just magical.

I for one, want to see #WakandanSTEM happen.

I want Shuri to be our patron saint.


Nothing but respect for MY princess


Next time someone asks me what I’m doing after this PhD, I’m gonna say I’m applying to be a professor at the University of Wakanda.

If I were a professor at U of Wakanda, I would, of course, be teaching Biological Anthropology and about 60% of my curriculum on Human Variation would be African Diversity (instead of the traditional 0%).

Continue reading “#WakandanSTEM: Teaching the evolution of skin color”

Grad Life

A 5-step guide to passing your comprehensive exams in grad school

Estimated reading time: 22 mins (4349 words)

One of the great joys of grad school is that exams are not just restricted to coursework.

Nope, PhD students get to go through the fun of taking an exam that determines whether they actually get to stay in grad school. Yay!

Since a few of my very close friends in grad school are preparing to go through this cruel, yet inescapable, rite of passage, I’ve decided to write up all the tips I can think of to help them out on their journey.

In my exceedingly finite wisdom, I have conjured up a list of 5-ish steps to passing comprehensive exams in grad school.

Since I just took these a year ago, the (painful) experience is still very much a recent memory, so this seems as good a time as any to pass on the knowledge I have gained to the next batch of students.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this so dramatically. If you are, you’re probably not taking these exams any time soon. Because if you were… YOU’D BE FREAKING OUT TOO!

One of the things I hate most is when I’m panicking and someone tells me to ‘calm down’


Or, even worst, when they tell me “there’s nothing to worry about”…

With all due respect, I am perfectly able to decide what is and what is not worth worrying about. As is every other grad student.

And if you’re about to do some exam that’s going to decide whether you do or don’t get to stay in grad school, then you, my friend, have a perfectly valid reason to freak out.

So, to all my fellow grad students about to go through this ordeal:




You’ll have moments when you feel totally fine and in control of the situation.

You’ll have moments when you don’t feel okay at all.

These moments will come and go, but they are not an accurate reflection of how prepared you are, or your ability to be a good student.

Accept whatever way you feel right now, whether it is good or bad. It will pass.

The most important thing is that you keep going and keep doing whatever is best for you.


With that pep talk out of the way, I will share with you what I think are the 5 essential steps to successfully completing your comprehensive exams.

Continue reading “A 5-step guide to passing your comprehensive exams in grad school”


How does hair get its color?

Estimated reading time: 7 mins (1295 words)

A micrograph of a light and dark hair shaft crossing each other.


Have you ever gotten into a debate about someone’s hair color?

“Remember that blonde?”

“Which blonde? You mean, Jessie? Her hair is light brown” 

“No, it’s clearly dark blonde” 

“You need to get your eyes checked, that’s light brown” 

/end scene

Same goes for dark brown to black. And I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people argue that they’re not ‘redheads’ but actually they’re ‘strawberry blonde’.

But how can hair color be so debatable?

Well, it’s because hair color categories are an illusion.


Continue reading “How does hair get its color?”

Grad Life

Small conferences are great for graduate students. Especially, when they’re in Japan.

Estimated reading time: 7 mins (1289 words)

I was at a conference in Kobe, Japan.

And it was AWESOME!

Funny thing is I only found out I was going to this conference about two weeks before it started.

How did that happen? Well, I’m glad you asked…

So, at the moment, I’m in the process of putting together my doctoral committee. Basically, I’m asking a bunch of professors if they would kindly agree to evaluate my work and be the judges at my defense when I finish up this Ph.D.

100% real genuine footage of a doctoral committee judging a Ph.D. student on the verge of tears.

Continue reading “Small conferences are great for graduate students. Especially, when they’re in Japan.”


How doing outreach can teach you what you have to offer the world

Estimated reading time 6 minutes (1049 words)

Like many other grad students, I’ve been discouraged from doing outreach.

“You should be working on something you can publish”

“It’s noble but it’s not going to help your career”

“You can do that later in your career”

I never understood this attitude. If we’re not communicating our science and educating others,  who are we doing this for?

But unfortunately, a lot of people get pushback from professors when it comes to outreach.

It’s seen as a nice little activity that you do on the side when you have time and add a line to your CV.

But it can be so much more than that. It can change a kid’s life and give them inspiration to do something they would have never considered otherwise.

It can also change your life, as a grad student.

I didn’t personally have much experience with outreach until this last year of graduate school when I taught in a summer camp.  I honestly didn’t expect much from it, besides that it would be fun to talk to some kids.

But after spending a few days with these kids, I can tell you that they did more for me than I could have possibly done for them.

Finding your roots
The amazing scientists from this summer’s Finding Your Roots camp

It was the first time I felt I could make a difference, that I had something to offer. Instead of just sitting locked away in my little ivory tower, I could make these kids laugh, teach them something and inspire them to be the scientists I knew could be.

After this experience, I knew that I wanted to make this a permanent part of my academic life. I didn’t just want to do science, I wanted to share science.

Continue reading “How doing outreach can teach you what you have to offer the world”

Outreach, Science

Next level science camp: teaching kids about their genetics & genealogy

Estimated reading time: 3 mins (610 words)

I’ve watched enough American TV to know that summer camp is a thing in the USA.

I was introduced to it through the classic twin movies: It Takes Two and The Parent Trap.

These movies have given me the false expectation that you always meet your twin at summer camp, though…

And the wondrous thing about American summer camps is that they don’t just come in one flavor! There’s band camp, sports camp, adventure camp, space camp, science camp, anything-you-can-come-up-with-camp!

And this summer, I got to see kids doing a very special type of science camp – one that was about genetics and genealogy.

Continue reading “Next level science camp: teaching kids about their genetics & genealogy”


Surprise! Africans are not all the same! (Or why we need diversity in science)

Estimated reading time: 12 mins (2250 words)

(Edit: Link to an article I wrote with my advisor about African skin pigmentation genetics in Genome Biology)

Last week, a research article was published on skin color variation within Africa.

crawford et al
Last week’s article on African skin color in Science

READ IT! It is great, well-written, and has amazing figures! I would actually show you some of those figures if I wasn’t terrified of publishers coming after me for copyright infringement (look, I’m trying to finish a Ph.D., here, so I don’t have time to get sued by journal publishers…).

If you don’t have access to these journals, hit up your nearest scholar and ask them for a copy (you can email me!).

And one of the things I really appreciate in this article is that it’s a study on variation in Africa that actually includes African authors from African institutions.

This research is important. That’s why it was picked up by The New York Times and The Atlantic. These articles are all full of people emphasizing that African diversity is an amazing thing that we need to pay attention to!

Read both of those articles too because they are full of quotes that got me feeling some type of way:

“We knew quite a lot about why people have pale skin if they had European ancestry,” said Nicholas G. Crawford, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the new study. “But there was very little known about why people have dark skin.”New York Times

Few human traits are more variable, more obvious, and more historically divisive than the color of our skin. And yet, for all its social and scientific importance, we know very little about how our genes influence its pigment. What we do know comes almost entirely from studying people of European descent. Ed Yong via The Atlantic

And there you have it, in bold, the reason I ended up doing a Ph.D. in biological anthropology. I wanted to know more about human biological variation, and I specifically wanted to focus on African diversity.

Why is so much of the research on human trait variation focused on Europeans?

Continue reading “Surprise! Africans are not all the same! (Or why we need diversity in science)”