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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Faculty Profiles - Anthropology

Dr. Deborah Bolnick - Physical Anthropology
Dr. Elizabeth Keating - Linguistic Anthropology
Dr. Chris Kirk - Physical Anthropology
Dr. Enrique R. Rodríguez-Alegría - Archaeology
Dr. Brian Stross - Linguistic Anthropology


Academic Background: Ph.D., Biological Anthropology and Anatomy, Duke University – Durham, NC; B.A. Anthropology, The University of Texas at Austin

Field of Anthropology: Physical Anthropology

Areas of Specialization: Primate Adaptations and Evolution

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
As I neared the end of my time as an undergrad, I knew that I still wanted to know much more about physical anthropology. The opportunity to conduct my own research was appealing, and I particularly liked the idea of entering a profession in which I would constantly be learning new things. After graduating, I spent the summer working at a 10 million year old fossil site in Turkey and I was hooked.

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
I studied three questions related to primate vision:

  1. How is activity pattern (nocturnality, diurnality, etc.) related to the evolution of different eye morphologies?
  2. How does increased or decreased visual "input" to the brain influence total brain size?
  3. What does the bony anatomy of the orbit (eye socket) reveal about the visual adaptations of fossil primates?

What topics do you teach at UT?
I currently teach three classes - Introduction to Physical Anthropology, Primate Sensory Ecology, and Evolutionary Anatomy of the Head and Neck.

What is your current research focus at UT?
I'm currently involved in several different research projects. First, I'm examining the relationship between the anatomy of the inner ear and hearing abilities in mammals. The goal is to be able to reconstruct the hearing abilities of fossil species, and ultimately relate these differences to ecological factors. Secondly, I'm studying the intrinsic proportions of the hand in a large sample of primates in order to better understand the evolution of manual prehension. Thirdly, I'm working at a 44 million year old site in west Texas to recover fossil primates. Several of the primates from this locality are new species, so I'm working to describe them and better understand their phylogenetic (evolutionary) relationships.

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by scholars of physical anthropology in the U.S. or around the world?
There is a lot of discussion right now about how to interpret two recently described fossil skeletons. Darwinius masillae is a 45 million year old fossil primate from Germany. The authors claim that this species is a relative of monkeys, apes, and humans, but most previous work on similar fossil primates strongly suggests that they are more closely related to lemurs and lorises. Similarly, Ardipithecus ramidus is a 4.4 million year old fossil hominid from Ethiopia. The authors claim that Ardipithecus was bipedal when not in the trees, but the functional implications of its lower limb anatomy have not yet been fully studied. In both cases, additional research is needed to help resolve the debate.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate?
The summer after my freshman year, I helped a grad student in Archeology excavate an Anasazi site in Arizona for his thesis work. In my junior year, I began working on a curriculum project to develop computer based labs for physical anthropology. I was also lucky enough to be invited to participate in paleontological research in Turkey the summer after I graduated. All three of these experiences were vital in helping me to decide (1) that I wanted to go to grad school and (2) what I wanted to study. I absolutely encourage undergrads to get involved in research that interests them, particularly if they are considering going to graduate school.

What makes a good grad student?
Many qualities make a good grad student, but four very important factors are: intelligence, creativity, persistence, and intellectual curiosity.

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to physical anthropology programs?

  1. Apply for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. If you get one, you'll be fabulously rich (at least by grad student standards) and you won't have to TA for three years. That's a lot of free time to focus on your thesis research...
  2. Contact the faculty members that you are interested in working with before you apply. This step will help you decide whether the two of you would be compatible in a student / advisor relationship. It will also let that faculty member know to take a careful look at your application.
  3. Do your homework about the graduate programs to which you are applying. We regularly receive applications from prospective students who clearly have no idea what range of research interests are represented in our department. Nearly all of these applications are rejected.

What are the top five physical anthropology graduate programs in the US?
It depends on the sub-specialty. UT has a well-rounded physical anthropology Ph.D. program that's either top 10 or top 5, depending on your interests. For paleoanthropology, Stony Brook University, Arizona State University, and George Washington University have excellent programs. For primate behavior and ecology, Stony Brook and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are excellent. Other very good and well-rounded graduate programs include Wash U in St. Louis, the University of Michigan, Harvard University, UC Davis, and the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign.

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the physical anthropology program?
Most alumni pursue careers in academia. However, some morphologists get jobs in museums, and some behavioral ecologists go into conservation.

Download Dr. Kirk's Profile


Academic Background: Ph.D. & B.A., Anthropology, The University of California at Berkley

Field of Anthropology: Linguistic Anthropology

Area of Specialization: Indigenous peoples and languages of Mesoamerica; language, culture, & society; and ethnobiology, ethnomedicine, & foodways

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
Beginning with the first social anthropology course that I took at UC Berkeley, I came to appreciate anthropology, for methods (participant observation based ethnography), for concepts (e.g. culture, society, language in culture), and for the results (various ethnography/community studies); so I majored in anthropology and never looked back. After getting my B.A., there was so much more to learn about the subject that I continued on for a doctoral degree.

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
The topic was part of a cross-cultural study of language acquisition in which colleagues looked variously at acquisition in Western Samoa, with Luos in Kenya, and Afro-Americans in Oakland, California. I studied Tzeltal speakers in Chiapas, Mexico, resulting in a dissertation titled Aspects of Language Acquisition by Tzeltal Mayan Children.

What topics do you teach at UT?
I have taught many different courses during the 40 years that I have been teaching at UT Austin, and the ones that I currently teach most often are: Language, Culture, and Society (325m), Culture and Communication (307), Introduction to Graduate Lingustic Anthropology (392n), Indians of Mexico and Guatemala (322m), Food for Thought and Discourse: the Anthropology of Food (393), and Ethnobotany: the Anthropology of Plants.

Can you tell us more about your areas of specialization?
My areas of specialization fall into three interrelated parts, one geographic and two topical; 1) indigenous peoples and languages of Mesoamerica 2) language, culture, and society 3) ethnobiology, ethnomedicine, and foodways. The first and second are combined in a special interest in Maya epigraphy and iconography, the second and third are combined in a special interest in discourse, naming, and classification as approaches to ethnobiology, ethnomedicine, and foodways, and the first and third are combined in a special interest in Mayan ethnobiology, ethnomedicine, and foodways. My approach to all three areas of specialization is through the notion of communicative practices with an emphasis on the importance of context.

What is your current research focus at UT?
I am currently conducting research on several different topics. These include: nomenclature and naming practices (in which I observe naming behavior in natural settings, ask people to name things in some contrived settings, and investigate what sorts of things names can tell us about the people who use them); the cultural importance of seats and sitting (a project initiated with the study of an armadillo shaped stone sculpture that I identified as a seat, and that induced me to think about how sitting and seats are related to the various cultures in which they have been described –mostly library research, but augmented by ethnographic observation in Austin, TX); colors and Tzeltal Mayan color terminology (here I am attempting to contextualize and then theorize about some Tzeltal Mayan color terms); famine foods (in this project I am trying to understand the category of famine foods and to get some detailed ethnographic information about some famine foods in general, and some specific famine foods in and around Austin, TX); sustainable horticulture (this project seeks to develop means by which plants and animals in limited space can be used intensively and efficiently to feed, clothe, and house people while cleaning the air around them).

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by scholars of linguistic anthropology in the U.S. or around the world?
There are many linguistic anthropologists, each with their own notion of what are the hottest topics being discussed in their fields. For me some of the ones that I see as currently being discussed in a variety of ways in several scholarly venues are: endangered languages; language origins and evolution; the notion of context; language ideology, language universals and language exceptions; the relation of thought to language. These topics are actually recurrent ones, and interrelated by such questions as how our language influences our perception of the world around us, how children come to use language appropriately as well as grammatically, how our personalities and identities are influenced by our language(s), how language is used by others for control (both social and psychological), how language relates to multiculturalism and transnational migration, what the mechanisms are that are responsible for language change.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate?
As an undergraduate I participated in field archaeological research on Early Horizon inhabitants of central California under the supervision of Robert Heizer and museum research on Middle Horizon pottery technology on the central coast of Peru (Ancón and Nievería). I would definitely recommend this kind of hands on training as a crucial part of the undergraduate experience.

As a graduate student I participated in a study of basic color terms, in the development of a cross cultural handbook for studying language acquisition and speech socialization, and in a study of human interaction in Jalisco, Mexico. Such graduate level experience was even more important for my academic trajectory than was the undergraduate experience.

What makes a good grad student?
Enthusiasm to learn is important, as well as interest in each of the subjects one is taking. Diligence in doing homework and writing papers, and intelligent participation in seminar discussions are also important. Having personal contact with one’s professors and with other graduate students that have similar or related interests is a good way of generating and maintaining motivation.

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to linguistic anthropology programs?

  1. Have a good idea of what you are interested in studying, and be able to say something intelligent about it.
  2. Prepare well for the Graduate Record Exam, focusing on the Verbal and the Quantitative sections.
  3. Visit our campus and speak with our linguistic anthropology faculty and some current graduate students.

What are the top five linguistic anthropology graduate programs in the US?
This is a highly subjective judgment, one that few people are in a position to base on recent comparative experience. So my judgment will be founded on personal evaluations of faculty numbers and quality as well as the personal and subjective evaluations gleaned from colleagues. Here is one version of the top five:

  1. University of Texas at Austin
  2. University of California at Los Angeles
  3. Indiana University
  4. University of Arizona
  5. University of Toronto (so close to the US let’s include it).

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the anthropology program?
When possible, our graduates usually pursue careers in the academic world, teaching Linguistic Anthropology, Linguistics, or Social Anthropology.

Download Dr. Stross' profile.


Academic Background: Ph.D., Anthropology, The University of California at Los Angeles; B.A., English, The University of California at Berkeley

Field of Anthropology: Linguistic Anthropology

Areas of Specialization: Impacts of Science and Technology on Society, Language and Power, Language and Gender, Multimodality

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
As an undergraduate I became very interested in language and how clever and versatile people are at using language to create the worlds we inhabit. It’s hard to imagine culture or society without language, a tool of great beauty that is also used to maintain and justify social systems, including social inequalities. I became very interested in understanding the diversity of human systems and cultures, and I think anthropology is one of the most exciting disciplines of study.

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
I studied how people use a particular feature of language, called ‘honorifics,’ to create social inequalities moment-by-moment in interactions with others. Honorifics are ways of grammatically marking status differences. To do my research I went to a small island in Micronesia where the language had this particular feature and I studied the language and the culture there, particularly the role of language in creating and maintaining hierarchy and social stratification.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate?
The research I participated in as an undergraduate was connected to class projects, and was a type of fieldwork. For example, in a historical archaeology class I studied changes in gravestone designs over time in several churchyards, which can give some indication of changing belief systems, and I did a project in a folklore class collecting verbal art forms. I highly recommend research as a great way to get involved with discovery, to see the patterns of everyday human expressive forms, and to learn methods for interpreting what we see and hear.

What topics do you currently teach at UT?
I teach courses in Culture and Communication and courses on the impacts of science and technology on society.

After coming to UT I continued to study the role of language in creating systems of inequality, and I also began to do research in the Austin Deaf community with the help of a deaf PhD student. We studied another aspect of language, how it is shaped by new technologies. We looked at how the Deaf community in Austin in 1999 and 2000 was adapting sign language to be used with a new (at that time) communication technology, webcameras, and for the first time they were able to communicate with sign language to friends and family located in different parts of Austin and the world. For a person like me interested in language, a visual language, sign language, was fascinating to learn and study. Through this project I became very involved in researching the role of new communication technologies in society and how people are affected by new technologies and new scientific innovations.

What is your current research focus at UT?

I am currently working on several projects, including a project studying engineers in Texas who are working on complex design projects with engineers in Eastern Europe and Asia, work collaborations only possible because of communication technologies. I have been studying online gaming and how students bring their computers together to game with others. This has consequences for communication and what it means to participate with others in activities. I am also involved in a project looking at aging and hearing loss, specifically how older people and those they regularly communicate with, can better adapt to hearing aid technologies.

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by scholars of linguistic anthropology in the U.S. or around the world?
Linguistic anthropologists are very interested in how language shapes our ideas about ourselves and others, including how people discuss issues of immigration and globalization, and how language categorizes people, often in ways that maintains attitudes of prejudice and cultural value hierarchies. One hot topic is multimodality, that is, what part does the body, the face, and gesture play in communication and interpretation?

What makes a good grad student?
In my view the best graduate student has a passion for his or her subject and works hard with a mixture of pleasure, determination, persistence, and open-mindedness. In anthropology you also often have to be able to tolerate unpredictable fieldwork conditions, and work with a wide range of people.

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to anthropology programs?

  1. Read widely in current anthropology literature, including ethnographies and journal articles in the anthropology journals, and interviews with anthropologists.
  2. Think about some possible fieldwork sites in other parts of the world.
  3. Hone your writing skills and analytical skills, the latter by discussing current global issues from the point of view of other cultural groups.

What are the top five linguistic anthropology graduate programs in the US?

  1. The University of California at Los Angeles
  2. The University of Texas at Austin
  3. The University of Chicago
  4. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
  5. The University of Pennsylvania

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the anthropology program?
Generally people teach at the college or university level. However, there are opportunities in the private and public sector for people who are experts in culture and communication and issues of cross-cultural communication.

Download Dr. Keating's profile.


Academic Background: M.A. & Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Chicago – Chicago, IL; B.A., Anthropology-Archaeological Studies, The University of Texas at Austin

Field of Anthropology: Archaeology

Areas of Specialization: Archaeology, History, Ethnohistory, Mesoamerica, the Spanish empire in Latin America, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Archaeometry, Colonialism, Religious Conversion, and Food

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
I wanted to be an archaeologist, and it’s a lot easier to be one if you have a PhD, although you can certainly find work as an archaeologist with a BA or an MA.

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
My dissertation was about the use of indigenous and imported material culture (especially ceramics) among Spanish colonizers in sixteenth-century Mexico City. I wanted to understand whether colonizers uniformly rejected indigenous material culture or not, and why.

What topics do you teach at UT?
I teach Introduction to Archaeology, Introduction to Mesoamerica, Colonial Latin America, Technology and Society, and Food.

What is your current research focus at UT?
I currently research the changes and continuities in the use of material culture in colonial Mexico. I am interested in the relationship between power and the adoption of material goods for display, and also on technological change. The extensive literature on acculturation, defined roughly as cultural change that takes place when two different cultures meet, has been critiqued repeatedly for leaving issues of power unexamined. In my work I seek to understand how material culture was involved in struggles for power between colonizers and colonized, and also in struggles of power within those two largely heterogeneous categories. I focus on colonial Mexico in comparison with the Caribbean and other areas in Latin America.

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by archaeologists in the U.S. or around the world?
There are many hot topics right now. I would say that archaeology and the public is very hot. Archaeologists are trying to create ways of collaborating with local communities and descendant communities to clarify the goals of their archaeological projects and also to make their research goals mesh with the interests of local communities. Also, archaeologists are trying to figure out ways of having a positive impact on society. Some archaeologists feel that it should be a science that is free of social interests and political biases; whereas others feel that we have the potential of affecting society in a positive manner. This has caused interesting debate and dialogue in the past several years. Other than that, anything having to do with gender, ethnicity, or race is hot.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate?
Yes, undergraduates should get involved in research projects. They should go on archaeological excavations if at all possible. It’ll be fun, and they will learn a lot of skills they can use in graduate school or in an archaeology job if they choose to go right into the job market after graduation. As an undergraduate I participated in archaeological excavations in Puerto Rico.

As an archaeology student, did you do any fieldwork?
Yes. As a student I went on several archaeological excavations in
Puerto Rico, the United States, and Mexico. It was great fun.

What makes a good grad student?
Good graduate students should be creative, open minded, interested, interesting, and organized. They should have initiative, try to find projects to get into, try to find sources of funding, and work on publications. Being active is the best way to succeed as a graduate student.

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to archaeology programs?

  1. Write a good statement of purpose.
  2. Seek advice from your professors.
  3. If you are interested in working with specific faculty, only write to them if you have specific questions. Asking them what their research is about is not a specific question. Asking them if they will be taking students next year is a specific question. Students are being encouraged more and more to write to faculty, but it really makes very little difference in whether they get accepted or not.

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the archaeology program?
For the most part, alumni work either in higher education or the work in private archaeology firms. Both career paths can be very rewarding and very interesting. It is good to have some experience in working for the private sector and in teaching, so that students can keep their career options open for the future.

Download Dr. Rodríguez-Alegría's Profile


Academic Background: Ph.D. & M.A., Anthropology, University of California – Davis; B.A., Anthropology, Yale University – New Haven, CT

Areas of Specialization: Genomic anthropology, ancient DNA, human biological variation, race, population genetics, Native American prehistory, anthropology of science

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
As an undergraduate, I was fascinated to learn that genetic data could be used to reconstruct human history. I was particularly interested in what genetics could tell us about Native American population history, and I wanted to learn how to analyze ancient DNA from prehistoric skeletal remains. Graduate training in anthropology was necessary for me to further explore these interests, so I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in this field. I also wanted to teach at the college level and knew that I could get the necessary training in graduate school.

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
My dissertation examined mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome variation among extant and prehistoric Native Americans to reconstruct the biological prehistory of eastern North America. I also used the genetic data to test hypotheses about prehistoric migrations and population relationships that were formulated based on historical linguistics and the archaeological record.

What topics do you teach at UT?
I teach courses on Human Variation, Anthropological Genetics, Race and Science, and Human/Primate Evolutionary Genetics.

What is your current research focus at UT?
I am currently conducting research in two main areas. First, I study the patterns of human genetic variation and how they are shaped by culture, language, history, and geography. I also use both ancient and modern DNA to test archaeological, linguistic, and ethnohistorical hypotheses about Native American history and prehistory. 
Second, I am very interested in the emerging field of genetic ancestry research. I study what this research conveys regarding human evolutionary history, race/ethnicity, identity, and kinship. I am also investigating how the commercially available genetic ancestry tests influence and are influenced by contemporary American understandings of race, ethnicity, and identity.

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by anthropology scholars in the U.S. or around the world?
One hot topic is centered around the concept of race and whether it is useful to consider racial categories when describing and interpreting human biological variation. This debate began decades ago, but there is still disagreement about whether “race” provides an accurate picture of human biological diversity. Scholars are also very interested now in how racism can affect human biology and disease.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate?
Yes, I participated in two research projects as an undergraduate. First, I studied human Y-chromosome variation in Britain and how the patterns of genetic variation were correlated with British cultural history. Second, I examined the effects of formalin fixation and desiccation on bone strain patterns in primate long bones. These research experiences were veryimportant: they taught me that I enjoyed research and they helped me focus my research interests before I applied to graduate school. I definitely think that undergraduates should participate in research, especially if they are interested in going to graduate school or teaching science.

What makes a good grad student?
A good graduate student is passionate about the subject (s)he wants to study, has intellectual curiosity, can think critically and creatively, and is capable of working independently.

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to an anthropology graduate program?

  1. Communicate directly with potential advisors to help you decide whether they would be good advisors for you.
  2. Try to focus your interests (at least a little bit) before you prepare your application for graduate school, and write a substantive personal statement that explains your qualifications and interests. Be as specific as possible. For example, don’t just state your interest in physical anthropology or anthropological genetics. You should also give examples of specific research questions that you might like to pursue in graduate school and explain why they interest you.
  3. Apply for university and external fellowships (like the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship) whenever possible.

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the program?
Most alumni pursue teaching and/or research careers at academic institutions. Some also work at museums, biotech companies, or conservation organizations.

Download Dr. Bolnick's Profile

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