The Graduates

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Sara ElShafie

Keywords: climate change, global change biology, reptiles, science communication, narrative


Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Sara ElShafie from the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Sara.


Sara ElShafie: Thanks for having me.


Saintsing: It's so great to have you here. So, Sarah, you're a paleontologist. Is that correct?


ElShafie: Yes, I'm a paleontologist. I always introduce myself as a global change biologist, which just means that I study how climate change and environmental change impact life over time, and paleontology is part of it.


Saintsing: Right. So, would you say you're first and foremost a global change biologist?


ElShafie: Yeah, just because I don't only work on fossils. I also look at stuff that's around today in order to understand how climate change and stuff impacted life in the past and also what that tells us about where we're headed now and in the future.


Saintsing: Okay, cool. So, you're looking at like our current climate change?


ElShafie: Yes.


Saintsing: Yeah, but also, so the climate has changed a lot in the past, you'd say.


ElShafie: Yes, and, and there have been really dramatic events of climate change before, some of which kind of mirror what's going on today, so I look at how those past climate change events impacted life that lived millions of years ago in order to try to better understand what we might expect from climate change today and how it will impact animals that are currently around and also people.


Saintsing: What were kind of the outcomes of past climate changes? Is it looking bad for us?


ElShafie: Well, in terms of like how climate change now is going to affect society, yeah there are a lot of concerning ramifications that we're already seeing. In terms of how it's affected life in the past, it has all kinds of effects. It can affect where things can live. It can affect what they eat or what's available for them to eat. It can affect how big they get. So, I kind of look at all of those factors in a big picture.


Saintsing: You look at all animals, all plants, all organisms? Or, are you looking at specific things?


ElShafie: Specifically, I focus on reptiles because reptiles are especially susceptible to changes in climate and changes in their environment because they can't generate their own body heat metabolically the way you and I can


Saintsing: Right.


ElShafie: Most of them can't and I look at lizards and, and crocodiles and their relatives specifically because they're really abundant in the fossil record, and they have a lot in common with lizards and crocodiles that are around today, so I can use the lizards and crocodiles that are around today to understand the ones that are in the fossil record.


Saintsing: Okay, and so, you are looking at how their bodies change over time basically? You're looking at how big the fossils are at certain periods compared to other periods, before and after climate change and how big they are compared to today?


ElShafie: Yeah, pretty much body size is the main metric that I use, the main kind of factor that is influenced by climate change because I can use the partial skeletons that I find of lizards and crocodiles in the fossil record to figure out how big they were in the past at any given point before, during, or after a major climate change event. And, I can use lizards and crocodiles that are around today to try to estimate how big they were in the past using only a piece of a skull or a piece of a limb, for example, because it's actually very rare to find whole skeletons in the fossil record of these things.


Saintsing: Right. That must be really frustrating.


ElShafie: Yeah, well, it also means that I get to I have an excuse to study lots of stuff that's around today in order to understand the fossils, so it gives me a more holistic research experience which I enjoy.


Saintsing: So, do you actually get to study living animals? Or, do you mostly look at the bones of the living animals?


ElShafie: I do. I study living animals, the living lizards and crocodilians, to understand their body proportions and how I can estimate like the whole length of the animal from just one element, like one piece of the skull or the jaw or the arm bone or something and also to understand how the animals live today and is there any relationship between their morphology, how they look, how their bones look, and what part of a habitat they might live in or what they might be eating or what their physiology might be like.


Saintsing: Okay.


ElShafie: So yeah studying the living animals is really important for understanding the fossil animals.


Saintsing: Right, and so you study specifically reptiles and crocodiles? So you say you studying global change across time, but is there specific period you're interested in, or are you just comparing all the different periods?


ElShafie: Yeah, so specifically I look at a period of time, geologic time called the Paleogene which was from about 66 million years ago to about 23-ish million years ago. So, this is right after dinosaurs went extinct up until about 23 million years ago, at which point we had ice at the poles again. We actually didn't have ice at the poles earlier right after the dinosaurs went extinct, and so, during that whole timespan, climate change was happening. The world started off pretty warm, and then it got super-hot relatively quickly right around fifty-six million years ago when there is this incident called the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum. So, within a relatively short span of time, a few hundred thousand years or so, the world got really, really hot really fast. Like it increased five degrees Celsius or so, and that's actually even hotter than the warming that we've experienced just in the last century or two, but the rate was actually not even quite as fast as what we're experiencing now, so it is a really powerful analogous event to look at and to better understand what we can expect with the rapid climate change that we're experiencing today. So, it got super, super-hot and around that time the world looked very, very different. Like, there was no ice at the poles at all and the interior of North America actually looked like a jungle if you can picture Utah which is now a desert looking like the Amazon. That's how different it was, which is really crazy to think about. So, to find fossils of crocodiles and these huge lizards and like the first primates and crazy horses and all kinds of stuff in the deserts of Utah and Wyoming and Colorado, and, and it seems it's all from a jungle that looked more like what South America looks like today, which is really awesome, and then over time it kind of dried out and got more arid and more grassy after that.


Saintsing: Thinking about what I've grown up thinking about, you know, the extinction of dinosaurs, right? You get this picture in your head that the asteroid hits and then things get really cold.


ElShafie: Mm-hmm.


Saintsing: There was this drop in temperature that led to the dinosaur extinction still?


ElShafie: Yeah, I think it got cold for a while. Right after the asteroid hit event it like, you know, blocked out a lot of sunlight and stuff, but then after that, you know, about 10 million years or so or not even that long. Then the world had largely recovered, but it also looked very different.


Saintsing: So, it was an overall pretty warm climate?


ElShafie: Yeah, it's – the earth has gone through a lot of changes over millions of years, and it's cool to look at those changes on a timescale of millions of years rather than just, you know, a few hundred years or even thousand years because, since climate is changing so rapidly today, and it's, it's different than anything that humans have experienced in human history. We really have no analog for it in our own history, so looking at much older events in the past and the rate that that happened and the changes that happened and at what pace they happened helps us try to anticipate what we can expect in the future.


Saintsing: Right, so what brought about – why did the ice appear again at the poles?


ElShafie: At that point Antarctica became isolated, and it was isolated by a current that still flows now around Antarctica. I think it's called the circumpolar current or something, but it keeps, it basically keeps Antarctica refrigerated and that's part of what contributed to it.


Saintsing: Just having Antarctica in the place that it's in was enough to give us the climate we have today?


ElShafie: Well, yeah. Cuz it's almost like having two giant freezers at each pole of the globe so to speak, and, that you know, they don't exist in isolation either. The ocean currents travel all over the world. They pass by the Arctic or the Antarctic and they bring cold water and that affects the like nutrients and upwelling in other parts of the world including the California coast, and it, you know, it affects how climate and temperature play out over the entire Earth. So, yeah, it's all connected.


Saintsing: Yeah, I guess we're dealing with how connected we are right now, right? 


ElShafie: Mm-hmm. Exactly.


Saintsing: So as a climate change scientist – or a global change scientist but you, you know, you're really interested in climate change, I guess. A lot of your work is focused on informing the public on climate change and about science in general. I know you've done a lot of work on improving science communication as a student here, right? Or, at least studying it to understand how it can be improved. So, yeah, can you tell us a little bit more about the work you're doing on that front?


ElShafie: Absolutely, yeah, science communication and outreach has always been a big passion of mine and that really started in college, and by the time I got into my master's degree, I realized that I not only wanted that to be a big focus of my career, I actually wanted it to be my primary career direction, in fact. So, I actually came to Berkeley with the intention of pursuing a career in science outreach leadership and science communication, and I knew that I wanted that to be a big part of my activity while pursuing my dissertation here in integrative biology because I also wanted to get the highest scientific training. So, while I've been here working on my dissertation I've also been doing a lot of work in science communication which started as just an attempt to improve my own skills because I realized a couple years into my program here that I myself was really struggling to explain my research to my own family members…


Saintsing: Right.


ElShafie: In a way that was at all meaningful to them. It really bothered me that I was struggling with that, so I decided to work on it, and I realized that I wasn't the only one that seemed to be having that challenge, and probably a lot of my peers could benefit from it as well, so I got really interested in storytelling, in story development because I figured, well everybody likes stories, so if I can talk about my science in that context, you know, and using storytelling, good storytelling then maybe I would get somewhere. And, I've always been a huge film buff and especially a huge fan of Pixar movies, and I knew that Pixar Animation Studios was actually only a couple miles from our campus. Pixar is in Emeryville, which was just south of Berkley, and so, I just decided to email them one day and actually got a response from a couple story artists who were really interested, and I invited them to come chat with grad students at our UC Museum of Paleontology. We’re based in integrative biology. And, it was going to be just a kind of pilot seminar conversation, let's just see where this goes with some grads, and it's turned into everyone from undergrads to emeritus faculty crammed into our little seminar room to hear from this story artist who was just talking about bread-and-butter stuff of the kind of strategies that they use to develop stories for their films at Pixar. And then, we had a conversation about how some of those strategies might apply to how we can talk to the public about science in a more effective and engaging way, and that was about three and a half years ago now, and since then, you know, that one seminar totally changed how I was thinking about science communication, and everybody else who was in the room responded really positively to it and remarked how useful it was, so that sparked an ongoing conversation and more and more artists at Pixar got involved volunteering their time, and now it's become this whole workshop series called Science through Story that I've been running for about three and a half years now. It started here at Berkeley on campus and has since, we've gone to other campuses, conferences, museums, organizations. So, yeah it's been a really, really fun experience and very helpful.


Saintsing: Yeah, that sounds really incredible. So, you, you've taken this on the road. Is it still mostly Pixar is the main partner involved, or do you have like other studios, other artists involved?


ElShafie: I've worked with other artists at this point, and the workshops, it's not a formal program of Pixar. Pixar doesn't sponsor it or anything financially. They've just been very generous in allowing their, some of the artists that work at the studio, anybody who wants to be involved to volunteer their time. So, several artists have come and run workshops with me here at Berkeley and at a few other campuses and conferences, and I meet with artists there periodically to learn from them about the creative process they use and how they approach story development, and then I adapt that into strategies that scientists and science educators can use to talk about science and an engaging way, using storytelling techniques, so Pixar people from Pixar have been involved. I've also worked with an artist who works at Industrial Light and Magic and a couple artists from DreamWorks Animation as well as an artist who was working at Double Fine productions and a guy who's a gentleman who started his own graphic design firm. Improv people, all kinds of artists through these workshops, and also we ran actually a full-day symposium called Science through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences, and that took place at a major biology conference, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology last year in 2018, when the meeting was here in San Francisco. We had a full day symposium on this topic, on science storytelling with speakers from both the scientific community and from different artistic disciplines all weighing in from their different perspectives and experiences on how to engage the audiences with science through storytelling and in different avenues, different media, different disciplines. It was really, really awesome because, to my knowledge, I think that's the first time that scientists and artists have spoken together on the same platform at a major biology conference, and we also had a lot of early career presenters involved as part of that, and out of that symposium we not only had the event itself but we also ended up publishing a whole volume of papers in a peer-reviewed biology journal, Integrative and Comparative Biology, which are now available online, and these are all peer-reviewed papers in a biology journal, but they are all written to be accessible to any reader even a high school student. Actually, we had some high school students in the past read it for some workshops that I've done at high schools in the area. We use papers from that symposium with REU, research experiences for undergraduates, program just this past summer. So, anybody can read them and get something out of it, and I, my own paper that I contributed to that volume is just called Making Science Engaging for Broad Audiences through Stories, something like that, and I wrote that paper for myself three years ago for any grad student or any student who wants to start doing more science communication or wants to get involved with science outreach and doesn't know where to start. If you're looking for a place to start, if that, if that sounds like you, then I encourage you to check out these papers because it's not just, you know, it's grad students, its scientists, its animators, it's video game developers, it's people who work in Hollywood, it’s people who work with data visualization. All kinds of voices weighing in on this, and, and they're really a fun read.


Saintsing: That sounds like a really great resource.


ElShafie: Yeah.


Saintsing: I hope everyone takes the time to check that out. You started by talking to people at Pixar, and that was like obviously, Pixar's really close to Berkeley, and so that's sort of a matter of like convenience, right? But also, I just noticed that a lot of the people that you mentioned kind of are involved in special effects or animation or things like that? Is there a reason why that's more relatable to science, or is that just a matter of, like, you went down this avenue of talking to animators or people who are involved in animation and then that snowballed into more and more people who were involved in that side of the story developing process?


ElShafie: It's a good question. Honestly, I think that scientists can learn something valuable from any type of artist, no matter what discipline because artists and scientists actually have a lot in common in terms of how we approach problems and, and what we're all trying to produce might seem very different, but ultimately the approach that we take is very similar. Both scientists and artists have to use their observation skills. That's very, very important for both conducting science and for doing art. It's all about observation. Both of us are trying to distill complexity out of a whole bunch of material that we could use, and we're trying to distill the most cogent, most cohesive, most compelling version of that story, of that study as we're presenting it, of that thing that we're trying to capture in some, some visual form or a musical form. So, it's distilling complexity. It's using the power of observation, and in terms of the artists that I ended up working with, that was just, it kind of was a combination of who I happen to meet through my networking, people that were introduced to me by colleagues that expressed interest, and we were really wonderfully fortunate that we got such a great variety of people involved. And, that was also part of it that we, you know, if we already had someone who is an animator, then we tried to get other disciplines that we didn't yet have represented for that symposium in particular. So, that was kind of how we went about it, but I would encourage scientists to talk to any and all kinds of artists because you can learn something valuable from anybody and any and all kinds of scientists.


Saintsing: This is just a reminder that you’re tuned into The Graduates. Today I'm speaking with Sara ElShafie from the Department of Integrative Biology. So, you mentioned that you came to Berkeley with the intent of being a science communicator?


ElShafie: Yeah. 


Saintsing: Of pursuing some kind of leadership position in science outreach?


ElShafie: When I came to Berkeley my, my long-term goal was to become like the director of a major science museum or science outreach nonprofit, something along those lines, and I knew that to do that I would, it would be really helpful if I had a PhD in science. People in those positions tend to be either previous professors or curators at museums or past CEOs or university presidents and I wasn't interested in the latter two so much, but I really wanted I wanted to learn more science. I wanted to get the highest scientific training, so that's why I came here to do my PhD because I was very upfront about my career aspirations in my interviews for PhD programs and when I came to Berkeley, they were just totally supportive of that. My advisor was very supportive, the people at the UC Museum of Paleontology that I spoke with were very supportive. So, I, that's why I came here and also because being in the Department of Integrative Biology, which has this wonderful resource, the Berkeley Natural History Museums. We have a paleontology museum; a zoology museum, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; plus an herbarium, the Jepson Herbarium; and the Essig Museum of Entomology with all the insects. We have all of those in-house, right in our own department, and, and all those museums, especially UCMP, is very, very active with science outreach. So, I realized that by coming to Integrative Biology at Berkeley, I could not only be doing my dissertation, which, Integrative Biology was perfect because I wanted to do research that integrated several different fields together, but also, I could be learning from these museum educators and people who do a lot of science outreach and community outreach. So, it was kind of like getting training in both areas at the same time.


Saintsing: Right, so you graduated from undergrad knowing that you wanted to do science communication then, or was that more of a kind of developing process?


ElShafie: I would say it was an ongoing process. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Chicago. I'm from Chicago originally, and, and I had a great experience at U Chicago. I was working in, at the UC, a new Chicago fossil lab there for years as an undergrad, and I did some research for a thesis and everything, but through that fossil lab, I also had the opportunity to participate in a lot of science outreach with Chicago Public Schools after school and summer science programs, and I really enjoyed that and I loved seeing the transformation that the students would go through just coming in not really sure if science is for them and then leaving much more empowered in general. Not just in seeing themselves as scientists. So, I knew that I wanted that type of work to be a big part of my career as I was graduating undergrad, and then when I went into my master's program which was at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, coming in I knew that I wanted to pursue more scientific research and get my graduate degree, but one semester in I realized I think I actually want the outreach to be my main focus. I was really jazzed about the research I was doing. I was really enjoying it, but I was starting to realize that my primary passion was not just doing the science but actually sharing the science with other people who might not have access to it yet or might not be familiar with it or see themselves as, as scientists or understand the role that science plays in their lives. That was really my, my main focus that I wanted to take, but I also know I wanted the scientific training so I finished my masters in Nebraska, and fortunately my, my master's advisor in Nebraska was very supportive of that realization in that aspiration, and he basically said, hey if you want to be the bridge between science and the public, awesome. We need more people like that. Get your masters in science first because that'll open more doors to you down the road, but while you're here start exploring and figure out what that career path might look like for you. And, I was doing a lot of my data collection for my master's thesis in collections at natural history museums around the country, and through that, I was kind of reminded how much I love working with museums and loved being in museums and because that was a big part of my childhood growing up in Chicago which has great museums and zoos and aquaria and such. So, I knew that I wanted to work with museums and an informal education in some capacity and kind of by the time I finished my Master's, I had realized, yeah, I think I want to pursue a leadership position with a museum or some science outreach program because there seems to be a really big demand for people who can fill those positions, people who can wear the science hat but also have a lot of outreach, education, communication experience and also who understand how to manage a team and manage a budget.


Saintsing: So, you would say that as a child it was probably your experiences going to museums that sparked this whole career interest in science and in science communication?


ElShafie: Definitely, I would always be begging my parents to take me to the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium or the Brookfield Zoo or the Museum of Science and Industry. Growing up in Chicago those were like my favorite places to hang out, and, and in addition, I would visit my parents or my grandparents down in the Florida Keys every winter. They would spend the winters down there, and my grandfather was a fisherman, and he used to take me out on his fishing boat, and I would snorkel off of his boat and we would see dolphins jumping around, and I just, I think that's, that's the earliest memory that I have as a child, when I was like six and he took us out on Christmas Day and all these, this whole pod of dolphins came and jumped all around us and it was just the most magical thing I've ever had in my six-year-old memory. That's when I really fell in love with nature and animals, and I've been hooked ever since, and, and the specific focus has kind of changed over the course of my life from marine biology for a long time to paleontology to herpetology now, working with reptiles and, and kind of global change more broadly. And then, science communication and science outreach I think has always been part of my interest because I love to share my passion for nature with other people, and so, now it's kind of it's all come together now, working on my PhD and even tying in my interest in film, working with film artists and different kinds of artists as part of the science communication work. So, it's been a lot of fun.


Saintsing: All right, I was gonna ask, so as a kid you really liked talking about science?


ElShafie: Yeah.


Saintsing: So, you're probably just telling everybody non-stop about all the cool scientific things you were learning?


ElShafie: Oh, sure. Anybody who wanted or didn't want to know about dolphins and sharks and lizards and whatever I was reading about at the time. Yeah, I love that stuff.


Saintsing: But then, you mentioned earlier, part of the reason why you started getting more interested in, at least the, what you wrote the article that you published with the symposium, that was partially to help you understand how to communicate science in some ways.


ElShafie: Yeah, absolutely.


Saintsing: So, would you say that maybe it's harder to communicate the science that you're actually doing than just to share scientific facts you're learning?


ElShafie: Definitely. You've hit the nail on the head. I think it's, it's really fun and easy to just like share cool facts about animals because animals are very cool and there's lots of cool facts that you can share about them just you know in, in conversation, but when you're doing scientific research, especially, you know, long term in-depth scientific research, the specific questions of which might be a little bit more removed from people's everyday experience, it is a lot harder to figure out how to share that in an engaging way with other people you know. When I started my program here, if you asked me what's your research about, I would have jumped immediately into a detailed, jargon-laden explanation of how I study these lizards that lived 45 million years ago, and, and their body size got much bigger as the mean annual paleo temperature got a lot hotter in the Eocene and, and etc. And, you know, when I used to give that explanation to my family members, who are like farmers in rural Maryland, or my family members in Egypt on my dad's side, they would nod politely and, and be excited for me because I was clearly excited about it, but they couldn't relate to it at all because I wasn't connecting it to anything that they could relate to. So, now when people ask me what do you study I just start with, I study how climate change impacts animals over time. That's it.


Saintsing: Right.


ElShafie: And then, if they're really that interested, then maybe I would get into that I also use fossils, and if they're more interested, then maybe we get to the point of: I study reptiles and some of the details that we discussed earlier. But, it's, you know, it's, you almost have to unlearn a little bit of how you're trained to talk about your science as a graduate student. I think that's why it's really important for science communication training to be part of any graduate training program, no matter what your field is, especially if you're, if you're in a STEM field, if you're training to be some kind of scientist because it's when we write our, you know, technical papers we have to talk about science in a particular way, but even there having some story structure can really help the paper flow, but when you're talking about science with broader audiences, especially non-specialist audiences or even scientists outside of your own field, it really helps if you can start at a more general level where everybody can, can clue in and, and relate to what you're saying and then you get into more detail from there as, as needed. But, you don't even need to go to that level of detail in most cases. People just want the general sense of what you're doing. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is who is your audience, who are you talking to, and what is your goal for that audience, what do you want them to take away from your interaction with them, and that might be something specific like, I want them to understand what's really cool about this method I'm using. It might be more general like I simply want this person to understand that I'm a human being who cares about the same things that they do.


Saintsing: Right, we're coming up at the end of our interview. Typically at the end of the interview we just offer our guests a moment to speak on any issue they'd like to speak about, about social issues or about their topic, their research area in science, or really anything you'd like to address to the listeners.


ElShafie: Sure. Appreciate it. I would love to say to anybody listening who is not currently in a science graduate degree program but if you're interested in science in any capacity then I hope that you pursue that interest in some form, whether it's pursuing a degree in science or even just learning about whatever scientific field you're interested in, and, and I encourage you to bring your other interests into that as well. I think the, the best scientists I know who are the most creative about how they approach their science are those who are interested in lots of different things, and, and, and vice versa. So, I think combining interests in lots of different fields is actually a really, it's, it's a great way to enrich your work no matter what you do, and, and scientists want to meet you, and scientists want to talk to you no matter what it is you do. We love, we love talking about science, but we also love learning about other things other than science because that just enriches our perspective about how we approach science. So, if you're an artist, if you're an educator, if you're a farmer, if you are whoever you are no matter what you do, please come chat with us because we'd love to meet you, and if you're a scientist listening, I really encourage you to step outside of academia as often as you can, especially if you're a graduate student or postdoc, you know. Don't wait until you finish your degree or until you get your career up and running. It already is running, and I think the more you meet and interact with people outside of science, the better scientist you will be because it will, you learn how other people think and that's really important for science communication, but it also just enriches your perspective and enhances your appreciation for what you do, and it's also a lot of fun, and especially if you have interests outside of science whether it's a hobby or another field or whatever it is, don't wait to dabble in that. Get involved with it. Take a class. Read a book. Join a group. Whatever it is, get involved with that now because being involved in lots of different things and expanding your horizons while you're in grad school is really great for your mental and emotional health, and, and it also just gives you a broader sense of how you can use your scientific training in the world, whether you want to pursue academia or potentially something else.


Saintsing: Right, open dialogue with people who don't study the same thing as you, who are coming from different backgrounds, that would be good not just for scientists but for everyone, right?


ElShafie: Mm-hmm.


Saintsing: Yeah, but yeah especially for scientists. That's a great message, Sara. Thank you so much for being on the show. It was really great.


ElShafie: It was a lot of fun talking to you today. Thank you so much for having me.


Saintsing: I've been speaking with Sara ElShafie from the Department of Integrative Biology. We were speaking about her interest in global climate change and how she communicates her science to the public. Tune in and two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.

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9/24/2019

Kelly Ziemer

Keywords: self-transcendence, self-love, positive emotions, therapy, intervention, depressionAndrew Saintsing: Hi, you’re tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm AndrewSaintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by KellyZiemerfrom the School of Social Welfare. Welcome to the show, Kelly.Kelly Ziemer: Oh, thanks for having me, Andrew.Saintsing: It's so great to have you here.Ziemer: Thank you. Fun to geek out about research always.Saintsing: Nice, that's what we're all about on this show.Ziemer: Yes.Saintsing: So, you study positive emotions, right?Ziemer: Yes, I think specifically positive emotions that really intrigued me – there are subsets of positive emotions, and they are called self-transcendent emotions, and it's this idea that when you - I'll give you an example in a second – but the idea that when you experience a particular emotion it actually like takes you out of yourself with the ability to connect you to other people.Saintsing: Okay, yeah.Ziemer: So, you transcend yourself essentially, right? With the purpose of connecting you with others, so like creating social connections.Saintsing: So, like what kind of emotion would that be?Ziemer: Yeah, so ones that are talked about frequently are emotion of like gratitude for example. Awe is one of my favorite emotions and actually what really started my interest in positive emotions. So, Dacher Keltner here in Psychology studies awe. The research has been I think maybe 10 years now, 10 to 15 years on, and so, rather in its infancy still. But, awe is really this experience of when you are presented with this like mind-blowing stimulus that you can’t really even comprehend, and a lot of people, they realize they're in awe when they're like, wow. Like wow is like this vocal reaction, right? So, a lot of our research comes out of nature, so like the Grand Canyon for example, or like beauty, music, and so, it's this idea that you then feel relatively small in this like greater vastness, but there's something kind of bigger than you out there, right?Saintsing: Yes.Ziemer: And, awe could be negative, too, right? It could be, it could be like a tornado. It could be a person, that you're like, how did that happen? How did they get into power? I’m in Berkeley, so I think I'm safe to say that here.Saintsing: Yeah, I think you’re safe to say that anywhere. Well, maybe not. So, so there's this like speechlessness about awe that's like really yeah. Is that kind of fundamental to the self-transcendence, or…Ziemer: No, not specifically more self-transcendence is like you are really kind of taken out of yourself so you're focusing on yourself less. It's kind of like this – sometime, I mean oftentimes self-transcendence is spoken around like a spiritual religious context, but it really is this idea that we're connecting with someone else so in like in cooperation or caretaking. Like compassion for example is a self-transcendent emotion. Some emotion researchers would say that these are.Saintsing: So, it's self-transcendent because you're –Ziemer: Go aheadSaintsing: With awe, you're connecting with someone else because you both have this like awestruck reaction with something, and you can relate more because it seems like you're reacting to some – I mean aside from maybe when you're in awe of a person in particular – but it seems like you're in awe of some spectacular vision, or…Ziemer: Yes, and you could be by yourself, right?Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: You could be by yourself in the Grand Canyon, but because you kind of recognize that you're the smaller sense of self, that you, that there's something greater than then you out there, that it then leads you – and I think perhaps and maybe I'm even overstating here, but I don't know if they fully understand the mechanisms of why it leads to social connection, but just they call it in research literature they call it pro-social, so the ability to like be in awe allows you to be more altruistic, more generous, to want to help out other people because you realize that you're not alone essentially. But, there is a bigger thing out there than you, this like collective value.Saintsing: Oh, yeah. That's really interesting is that that kind of, you know, thinking about religion, right? Where you have – I think all religions but I guess I'm not sure – it would have this belief in God would generally inspire awe in someone believed in that. And so, is that kind of the basis of religion having this community like tapping into this community building sense of awe?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, definitely. The origins of awe – I couldn't – when scholars write about awe they oftentimes reference, like, reverence to God. It's kind of mind-blowing concept, and you feel like there's something greater than you out there, so to speak. But, then you're coming together as a community, yeah, but around this belief,Saintsing: Right. So, there's more emotions than just awe that would through self-transcendence allow this community-building?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, so oftentimes folks also speak about gratitude that way. They speak about self-compassion. Now mind you there's a lot of disagreement amongst the emotional world, so I don't even want to get into like the semantics. What I think is important to share, though, most specifically to my interests is, I think, some would say that love is also this self-transcendent trait. So, my own research interests over the past few years have really evolved into this idea of self-love and it's been an interesting journey for sure. As I started talking about self-love with folks over the past, I don't know, eight months or so from a research perspective because there's such a gradient, a spectrum so to speak of how people see self-love. So, if I go back to the self-transcendent nature, how I see self-love is self-love really has this ability to take us out of ourselves to then connect to others so we're focusing on ourselves like filling up our own love tank so to speak with the ability to then show up for others more and to connect more because if I'm feeling really good in myself and I'm taking care of myself that means I have more bandwidth to show up for other people as opposed to if my love tank is empty if my self-love is low then I'm doing things perhaps with expectations of receiving in return. When that's not happening, I'm feeling resentful and all that is very like negative low vibration feeling within ourselves, and ultimately, it's not the type of connection that we're searching for, right? To me self-love – and I'll say that if I can to give you a definition of self-love – one of the folks I've seen written about it the most, who wrote about the most is a psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, and he wrote a book called The Art of Loving, I believe. It was like in the five different types of love, I believe. It's like it's a hundred-page book, and it's really easy to read, and it talks about like five different types of love, like a love for God, a love from your parents. It talks about like a brotherly love – and that’s more like a friendship kind of feeling – but he also talks about this love for self, and it's this idea of caring for, respecting of yourself and your actions in the way that you're going about your life, and it's this stagnant – for me, I think it really is a stagnant way of being, so when there are adversities and when we have to be resilient, right, self-love is so important, but even when things are going great, right, like self-love is still a constant thing, and it's, I think, it's actually tied to other emotions that when we are in a state of self-love we actually experience calm and joy, and we're able to be more aware for these other opportunities to opt in to connection, right?Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: But I think – if I can just say – I think there's a myth I'd really like to bust actually about self-love, which is I think oftentimes there is this, there's this idea that emerged I think in the 80s maybe, or the 90s – I'm blanking on my timeframe right now – came out of the self-help movement which is, which was to say that like before, before you can love anyone else or anyone can really love you that you have to love yourself first, right? So, which for me I find problematic in a lot of ways. I feel like it doesn't really encapsulate the full story. I think that when we are really loving ourselves, sure I think perhaps we're choosing better partners or choosing better relationships that are healing and wonderful for us, right? But, I think – and I see this in this self-love movement right now – that kind of happens in pop culture that puts such an onus or a burden on people to really like, there's almost a perfectionism tendency of, like, I need to get to self-love. Otherwise I'm not good enough, and yeah, and this idea of like not being good enough, that's truly not self-love anyway, right? It really is a self-accepting piece, and so, I think the second part of this, also this myth I want to bust, is that, you know, we are wired for social connection, right? There are researchers, and Brené Brown has talked about this. Matthew Lieberman talks about this, and like an actual brain part of our brain literally is like wired to connect, and so, if I go back to this idea of self-love that, when we are opting into relationships and connection with people, that it can the reciprocal nature can be so healing within ourselves that we don't have to first achieve this like unachievable self-love before we can get into relationships with other people, okay? So, did I explain myself okay there?Saintsing: Yeah, you, so you're saying that self-love has this requirement that you accept yourself as you are, right? Which I guess is true of any sort of love, right?Ziemer: Yeah.Saintsing: Whether it’s directed inward or outward, right, there's this acceptance to it.Ziemer: Lovely, yeah.Saintsing: And so, you're saying that people tend to view self-love as something that they earn from themselves.Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, I think that's a great. Right. There's this like earning quality, and I think that's really well said. That it's like, to earn implies I have to do, to do, to obtain, obtain, obtain as opposed to like self-love just is because I exist, because you exist right here right now, right? And, that's my like mindfulness piece kind of tapping in there a little bit, but it just is.Saintsing: Yeah.Ziemer: It's, it's been interesting when I talk to – so my own research interest about like what am I actually studying for my PhD, because I'm a social worker, I'm also very much interested in like interventions like what can we do alongside our clients, alongside our community. What can we do in tandem with them to kind of get them this outcome that they're looking for. So, perhaps it's like feeling better about themselves if they're experiencing depression for example, right?Saintsing: Right.Ziemer: And, with self-love I started thinking about, is there a self-love intervention that would be really interesting to try out and study in some way from this like scientifically rigorous procedure for a scientific research method, right? And, when I started talking to people about, there's a common one that is spoken about in self-help, and I've also found it prevalent in addiction communities in like rehab, for example, where you look at yourself in the mirror you make, you literally make eye contact with yourself in the mirror, and you say something positive about yourself. So, I prefer that it's not statements related to like your physical appearance because I do think that it could take like a narcissistic trend, but we're really thinking about like a self-affirming statement, like I'm a good friend or even – I think and really I'm such a fan of this is – really just telling yourself that you love yourself. So, saying like I love you in the mirror while you're making eye contact with yourself. To me, to love, to love somebody else is to say like, I see you, and so self-love, you're really like, okay I see you, you know? Like, you're not that bad. Like, you're actually pretty great, and I will tell you that when I've talked to so many people about this, adolescents, I've spoken to clients of mine who are coming to see me wanting to feel better from depression, I've spoken to scholars about this, and so many people, I get two reactions. One is like absolute repulsion about absolutely not. I will not look at myself in the mirror. Like, this is, why would I ever do that, and two, I think going back to this idea that you were talking about. It's almost like confusion about well like why would I even think about myself. Why would I love myself as like this other entity, but I'm so focused on, you know, loving everybody else. That really to love is to love others, right? Like in scholarly research, we talk about one of the definitions of love is like being a trusted caregiver to others. I mean that's a very amended definition, but love is always this other-oriented emotion, and so, self-love, it's like, like why would I, why would I even do that.Saintsing: It's kind of like awe in some senses. In awe you sort of see something spectacular that makes you see how small you are or how much more there is.Ziemer: Yeah.Saintsing: And, in this self-love you have to see yourself as just another person instead of like where love is flowing from, right? But, self-love kind of like makes you realize you're not like the center of the universe or something. That you're, that you're just another person, and that like, that, that makes you more able, as you said in the self-transcendence, to connect with other people, I guess.Ziemer: I think this is actually why I feel so strongly about self-love is because I think this exact idea that you're talking about is folks who are experiencing depression or addiction, for example right? So, I'm actually, I'm funded. My dissertation is funded through the NIAAA, which is alcohol abuse and I work specifically with the funder here in the Bay Area that alcohol research group. So, oftentimes when we're experiencing addiction or depression we become so tunnel vision in our own mind about what's wrong with ourselves, how things aren't working for me and when we're in depression and addiction, often social isolation is happening it's very difficult to connect to others. And so, I'm such a believer that self-love could have the potential, and this is where I'm curious, right? Like, so from, you know, I'm hearing like my mentors and my advisors’ thoughts in my head right now about, you know, sometimes in the scientific world it can almost be a negative to be a believer, right? That, I think like self-love is a super power. But, I really need to employ my like scientifically rigorous, you know, unbiased view so to speak. Let's be curious about this. Could self-love actually be a superpower? As opposed to like approaching this self-love as a superpower, right? So, I should – let me reel it back for a second to say that, however, yes I do feel like, coming back to this point of awe, that, that self-love definitely, I would hypothesize, leads to feelings of awe because of this ability to connect us to other people, and that it gets us out of our own head. I think my greater vision for my research is to think like how can we employ self-love. It's free. It’s accessible, which I like, right, because a lot of these other therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy. Although I'm a believer, you see there's an access issue. If you go to a private practitioner in New York City, it's $200. I think San Francisco, it's 150, 200. So, my greater vision really would be for people to be able to really continue to cultivate this self-love within themselves.Saintsing: More specifically, what, what would you say your research for your PhD actually entails?Ziemer: Yeah, so yeah, thanks to that questions. I think self-love first. I was just kind of thinking of self-love, I think of, is this like umbrella term, this idea that if self-love is an umbrella and the prongs. There are many different prongs. So, to me it's this idea of like self-compassion, which is like when we're judging ourselves, criticizing ourselves, we’re able to accept ourselves, you know, amidst that. Self-care, which is like the respecting, doing things, really acting caring towards ourselves. This self-esteem idea, right, that we feel competent about ourselves. So, so the reason that I say this kind of umbrella term is because there's little research out there right now that that actually includes self-love, certainly how I know it to be true in these in therapeutic communities, for example. So, I'm so fascinated by, I'll say, phenomena of self-love in popular science in like the Psychology Today blogs, on social media. Like, if you go to Instagram and you type in #selflove, you get 32 million posts on Instagram. Google, you Google self-love, you get three billion returns. So, something is happening out there. What is it? So, I think what the, to me, the intriguing pieces. So, before I can go ahead and develop an intervention, right, even though I really want to jump to that phase, we know that a PhD that you have to take little bits by bits, right? That is actually talking about a career-long pursuit. So, it really, my own research really is conceptualizing this idea of self-love in these lay theory views. So, when I say lay theory I don't mean like scholars who have already written about self-love. I mean people who are on Instagram, and they're posting about self-love, so right now I'm in the process of thinking about perhaps analyzing Instagram posts to see how people, what sort of images people are posting when they're doing #selflove, and specifically within the context of like addiction and sobriety and recovery and that, so where these two worlds of like self-love and addiction intersects and how are people and these lay communities, you know, these therapists, everyday people, how are they talking about self-love? I'm really curious to kind of dig through that because I see, I do see some posts that could be it seen as narcissism, right? Right? I see posts that are very much moving away from this like self-care realm. So, so self-care really is rooted in this like black feminist queer theory, Audrey Lorde. This idea that like you're taking care of yourself so that you can show up for the collective, and this really activist mentality to now this transition of like #selfcareday Starbucks ad with your Frappuccino, whatever. On the beach, #selfcare, right? This is like commoditization, right, of self-care, and people there's you know, so there's, there's like #selfcare, #selflove, but what are we really talking about here? And, I'm so curious to kind of capture some of that, to also include therapists’ voices, people in recovery to kind of see like, what, what is this idea of, of self-love to them?Saintsing: Okay, so you draw on psychology, sociology, lots of different research techniques.Ziemer: Yeah, behavioral health.Saintsing: Yeah, so would you say that's generally true? People who are getting PhDs in the School of Social Welfare, that this is really interdisciplinary?Ziemer: Yeah, what a lovely question. Yes, thank you for saying that. This is why I love social work so much by the way. I really love the social work profession because I do feel like you know in this applied profession we really are always working in these interdisciplinary environments, right? If you're like a clinician working in a hospital you're working with doctors and nurses and psychiatrists for example, right?Saintsing: Right.Ziemer: And so, I think the beauty of this PhD at Berkeley in the Social Welfare Department has so much been about the freedom to connect with other professors and other departments. It's, so in public health for example I've connected with some professors there or some psychology whether it's emotions research or like adolescent development psychopathology for example. So, and I have, yeah, I have you know lovely people in my cohort who are bridging the gap with like anthropology, criminology, for example, so yeah, education. It's really, it's cool.Saintsing: And, you knew that you wanted to be a social worker right out of college?Ziemer: I took a very interesting path. I think I always knew, like in high school, I always was intrigued by the psychology profession, and yeah, I was, I was thought, you know, I'm so drawn to like authenticity and people's lives. Like, what's really happening, you know? I always was drawn to that, but when I was in college, I went to the University of Wisconsin, and they had a great business school, and so, I got a business degree, and I actually, my family, I come from, you know, a long line of people who are in the business world. My dad had been in sales for so long. My brother’s in sales now. My mom was, you know, this is like badass. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. Badass in the corporate world. So, it was always kind of an influence for me, and I did, I was a consultant, an IT consultant, but I realized, like, yeah, I need to, I felt like there was something, my soul was dying. I really wanted to pursue something that I was so excited and curious about, so yeah, about eight years ago I got my Masters in Social Work. I started my MSW program in New York City. That coincided too with some things that were happening in my family, and it just felt like the right time to like leave the corporate world and dive into the Social Work arena.Saintsing: And then, you, you got your masters, and then you worked a little while as a social worker, right?Ziemer: Yeah, so I I did my MSW. It’s a two-year program, and then I was working in New York City for three years at an after school, like a high school Support Program. It was an after-school program, and it was, I mean, I learned so much. It was incredible. I have such love. It's, the program is to reach youth and it's a working at a public high school in Brooklyn, and I think there, maybe, I don't know, our team was maybe ten people or something, and I have such love to this day for these people that I worked with. I mean the environment was so fun. Like, you – we were, we were working with teenagers, teenagers who didn't have a lot of resources at their disposal. I mean this is like a New York City public-funded high school. It's what, the school's we were working with were like C grades, so the way that New York City rates their schools like ABC, so we were a C school, and that means people that I worked with, the strategies they were using were so creative to get these young people what they needed while also providing such a safe space for these young people to learn about themselves. And so, I was actually, I was doing therapy with kids who are high-risk, so who were at risk for suicide, who were just really having a hard time academically or at home and whatnot, but it was such a fun environment. I mean people were so authentic, and I mean, I don't know your experience with young people, but young people, they can sense when you BS. And so, you really have no other choice but to show up authentically, right? And it was such a gift really to work there.Saintsing: So, that was a great experience, and what I guess drove you… I – most people in social work, or if you're a professional, I guess, you mostly just need the masters, and then, you could do the work. What drove you onward to the doctorate?Ziemer: Yeah, yeah, so, so I think there were two things. So, one was I would run, every Monday afternoon, I'd run a girl's group. So, like 16-, 17-year-olds. They would come, and we would talk about all the things. Whatever they wanted to talk about, and I was finding a lot of the girls were expressing such anger, and this anger of just like what was just happening in life but then you know the microcosm of like the school environment and Facebook and people calling each other out and you know subliminal subs that were being thrown on Facebook for example, that would then transfer to the school day the next day. And, there would be fights, and girls would get suspended, and so, when I started talking to them about anger and what anger did for them and getting to fight, it really, getting into a fight is a release, right? Like, your adrenaline’s so high and you punch someone out or you do something like, you feel better but it's instantaneous because any of these long-term consequences of getting suspended, your parents finding out, what not, right? Right, so I'd say to them like, yeah what are strategies? How can I – literally I was like what are some strategies that we can use in order to kind of sort through all the different feelings that anger brings? Because ultimately anger is powerlessness, like we get angry when we feel powerless, and so, I started investigating mindfulness. Mindfulness was really just becoming a thing. This was like 2014. At least that was when I first started hearing about it, and so, I would try to understand like, what is this mindfulness? How do I use it? So, mindfulness really is, a definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn in the simplest form that I like, is this idea of non-judgmentally noticing, so like noticing that I got really pissed when someone posted something on Facebook about me that may not be true and like then taking the breath in the pause before I respond, before I respond something nasty to someone on Facebook or want to punch them out the next day for example, right? When you're talking to adolescents, this pause is very difficult because you're also talking about like an age in development where you have impulsivity, and like they're trying to figure out who they are? So, I started diving into this mindfulness. I thought like this could really work, but I was so, mindfulness research was so new at the time. I think it really hit its peak around like 2016 in terms of like the amount of journals are published on it like exponentially increased. So, I knew that, how mindfulness is being talked about in terms of the population, I was working with, so people who were coming from primarily like black and brown communities, lower socioeconomic having toxic stress, mindfulness felt very like white, waspy, affluent. Part one. Part two was I couldn't figure out what are these mindfulness techniques and how can we actually apply them to adolescence. So, I am getting interested in that and started reading all that I could and figured I really wanted to work on interventions for adolescents that were geared around mindfulness to these specific populations I talked about where I felt like there was such a lack of evidence at that point for these groups, so that was part one. Part two: around the same time, I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times written by Dr. Keltner here in psychology, and it was, what is – something like, What is the Emotion of Awe, and I thought that sounds like, what is awe? And, how should I get to know this person? Who is this person? Which then started, for me, like a flurry of googling UC Berkeley, and I knew I wasn't going to be do PhD in Psych, but I found a professor here, Valerie Shapiro, who's my advisor and has been so lovely navigating this PhD world with me. She's a prevention and implementation science researcher here in School of Social Welfare, and she had a study examining social emotional learning programs here in elementary schools in California, so like teaching little kids about empathy for example. So, I thought, oh that's like emotion, and it has to do with like kids and in schools. Like, even though my interests aren't completely aligned, let me reach out to her and see if I could work with her. So, that's kind of how I came to study. My two main areas really have been mindfulness and then positive emotions, specifically now self-love but in this greater context of you know these social problems, like social isolation, depression, addiction and yeah.Saintsing: So, unfortunately, it's been a lot of fun, but we're coming up towards our time limit. Usually at the end of the interview we'll take a minute to offer guests a chance to address the audience about anything that they'd like to talk about. Oftentimes, people talk about like social issues or some things specific to their research.Ziemer: I think, well one thing I want to say for sure is that I think I just want to do a shout out of gratitude as I've been really developing this idea of self-love, I have been working with an undergrad in the Social Welfare Department, Joyce, who's really has helped me kind of start thinking about all this like self-care and self-compassion and where all these terms kind of intersect and cataloging these different Instagram posts to figure out like, yeah, what, what really is self-love and how people are talking about it. So, I wanted to do a shout out to her, and then, I think, you know, lastly, I guess I would say that I think for me I think it's such an important point to hit home is that for me self-love really isn't a selfishness, but it really is, and it's not this like me-focused thing, but it really is in this idea of continuing to like connect and show up as our authentic selves with others, so I think it has some serious healing power behind it. So, we'll see. Yeah, more will be revealed.Saintsing: We all look forward to the results of your research. Thank you so much. Today I've been speaking with KellyZiemerfrom the School of Social Welfare. We've been speaking about her research on positive emotions and the potential therapeutic benefits of self-love. Thank you so much for being on the show, Kelly.Ziemer: Oh, thank you for having me. This is lovely.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
8/13/2019

Marianne Brasil

Keywords: paleontology, anthropology, fossils, Ethiopia, AwashAndrewSaintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm AndrewSaintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by MarianneBrasilfrom the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Marianne.MarianneBrasil: Thanks for having me, Andrew.Saintsing: You're an evolutionary anthropologist. Is that correct?Brasil: Yeah, that's, that's about right. I'd call myself a biological anthropologist with an evolutionary bio twist.Saintsing: Interesting. So, why the distinction?Brasil: Um, so evolutionary anthropology is a field that encompasses a lot of different things that extend just beyond thinking about, kind of, anatomy in the fossil record, so a lot of people who fit in evolutionary anthropology are also focused on – pretty, pretty closely on behavior and psychology, and those are things that I find fascinating but haven't really honed in on. And, I'm more on the fossil evolution side of things, so I call myself a biological anthropologist because I fall broadly into that field. But, that's why I'm kind of within evolutionary biology, because I'm focused on evolution of anatomy more so than behavior or psychology.Saintsing: Okay, so you're studying bones. You're looking at bones and how they change over time?Brasil: Yeah, yeah, really old bones mostly. Some recent bones. So, my research is kind of, I think of it as twofold. So, on one side, I work on kind of recent modern humans. So, a lot of humans that have lived over the last, I would say, 5000 years and some of those very recent, like a collection in Portugal that I visited where the individuals in that collection have actually all died since the year 2000. So, very, very recent people. Yeah, so that's kind of one, one fold of my work is working on really recent humans, recent people trying to figure out how the anatomy varies.Saintsing: Quick question about the recent human?Brasil: Yeah.Saintsing: So, these were all people that were buried, and…Brasil: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Most of it is on people who were in cemeteries or like some of the collections I've worked in, in, that are actually held at the Smithsonian Museum, the Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian, are from Egypt and Jordan. Those are from archaeological deposits, so like the collection from Jordan was actually, those, those people were excavated from tombs, these secondary tombs, which were really, really cool to look at and see all the kind of archaeological material that was included with those was really fascinating. And then, there's also some, some amount of the collections that I work on are what we call cadaver-derived. So, they usually come from medical schools where medical students are dissecting cadavers to learn about anatomy as part of their medical studies. It's like there's a huge, really exceptional collection down in South Africa that I went and visited last summer. That's one of my comparative populations of modern humans to try to figure out, you know, how anatomy varies within a population and then how that differs across people who span geography for the more modern humans.Saintsing; You're kind of confined to skeletons that have been donated to science?Brasil: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, so I have on, on the recent side, there's obviously kind of the curse, which is that we are confined to what's available to us and that becomes even more true when you start to look at the fossil record where you know you have all of the contingencies from what you actually recover, what gets preserved, where the deposits are located. So, there are kind of a lot of factors that affect what we're actually able to recover, so we get this really incomplete glimpse of what was happening in the past and that's both really exciting, it's really frustrating as a paleontologist.Saintsing: Is that just like the whole experience of being an anthropologist? Like it's – you never have all the things you want in whatever research you're doing?Brasil: Yeah, I mean I think I feel like that's true of science, right? Like, even if you're like in an experimental setting, even if you're working on a wet lab, you know? You never necessarily have all the resources you need or you don't get the results you want, you know? There's – science is definitely not for the faint of heart. The challenge is part of what makes it fun.Saintsing: I see. I interrupted. You were talking about how you study more recent findings, and then you also look at more distant past.Brasil: Yeah, yeah, so part of that work focused on recent modern humans is like I said kind of trying to get a sense of ranges of variation and what you expect within and across populations, and part of that is to kind of to inform how we interpret variation that we see in the fossil record where our samples are much less complete, and my dissertation work actually focuses on some early modern humans that are from deposits dated to about a hundred thousand years old in the northern part of Ethiopia from what's called the Afar Depression, and I'm working on a partial skeleton and some other isolated post-crania, which just means bones that are below the head and neck, trying to kind of characterize what, what these people looked like and how they relate to modern humans and other closely related groups like Neanderthals and Homo erectus, that are quite a little bit older in most parts of the world, so trying to characterize that anatomy and figure out what it can tell us about the evolution of our species and closely related ones.Saintsing: Okay, so you look at these bones, and you have the capacity to know that it's a human as opposed to a Neanderthal and what part of the – how small are the fragments?Brasil: Sometimes, sometimes you just get a tiny scrap of, you know, long bone shaft, and in that case, you really can't say very much about it, you know? You can say, “This is likely something that is human or closely related to human based on things like the bone thickness and the shape of the cross-section.” You can basically, by process of elimination, say, “It's none of these other things. Therefore, it kind of has to be, it fits this human anatomy.” But, I'm, I'm very fortunate that my dissertation is focused on a pretty complete partial skeleton, so I have almost all, all of the bones in the skeleton represented in this one individual, and they're definitely not complete. They're really kind of broken up, and especially when they were found, there was a lot of really careful work and cleaning them and putting them back together that other project members and museum scientists worked on, and I'm very grateful that I kind of came in at a point where it was mostly ready for me to start working on, but they've, they are complete enough that I can take measurements to compare them to moderns, which is great and that's definitely not always the case. Sometimes, you're kind of, like I said, cursed by these really fragmentary pieces that you want to do more with but you just are limited by what you've found.Saintsing: That's really cool that you got this skeleton. I mean, is that just like, does that happen often?Brasil: No, I was, I was very fortunate in that I was kind of at the right place at the right time. I took an undergraduate course here at UC Berkeley. I was also an undergrad before I was a grad student here. Berkeley just caught me and held on, so I've been here almost nine years now, which is kind of crazy to think about, but yeah, I took an undergrad course called Human Paleontology that was taught by Professor Tim White here at UC Berkeley, and then I took Human Osteology the following year, and then I graduated, and I decided to stay on for graduate study, and I had made my interest in human evolution really clear and was very fortunate to be in a position where I was invited to come and work on these fossil remains that had been recovered by the Middle Awash Research Project, which is the established project that I work on, and it's co-directed by three Ethiopian scholars: Dr. Berhane Asfaw, Dr. Yonas Beyene, and Dr. Giday WoldeGabriel, along with Professor Tim White here UC Berkeley. And, this is a project that's been running for over three decades in the Afar region, which is in, in northern Ethiopia, and they have just established incredible infrastructure both in the field and also in the museum, and so, I was really lucky to be brought on to work on, on this skeleton. So again, it was kind of a right place, right time situation.Saintsing: Is that kind of – I feel like that's kind of anthropology, right?Brasil: Yeah, again, kind of just science in general.Saintsing: Yeah, yeah, definitely. So, you spend a lot of time in Ethiopia?Brasil: Yeah, yeah, I do. I've spent probably somewhere between six and eight months there total over the course of my five years of graduate study, and I've done two full field seasons, so two 6-week field seasons out in the Afar region of Ethiopia, and then during our summer I usually will go back for anywhere between three weeks to two months to actually do the curatorial and then the, the research work that happens in the museum in the lab there and Addis Ababa, in the, in the capital of Ethiopia.Saintsing: What kind of things do you actually do in the museum?Brasil: Yeah, so it depends what I'm there to work on. So, actually kind of in parallel to the humans, to the human work that I do, I've also got started in the field of paleontology and biological anthropology working on monkeys. So, I'm actually also involved in working on just enormous and amazing monkey samples that have been recovered recently by the Middle Awash Project, and a lot of the work that you, you don't really hear about or you don't see because it's not really flashy or sexy science is all of the ground work that needs to happen to get the fossils to the place where you can actually take measurements and scan them and actually do the science that most people, you know, you hear about in the New York Times. “Oh, you know, this, this human that we found or this new species.” So, you hear about this kind of end result, but what you don't see is all of the planning that went into getting out into the field, figuring out where to look for the fossils, all of the logistics and the finances behind that, that I've been very fortunate to mostly not have to think about because I've been working with an established project. But then, once you've actually found those fossils, which is no small task, getting them back into the museum and then all of the work that follows, which includes cleaning them. It means sorting them so some of the monkeys in particular, you know, you're in the field, and you're collecting things as quickly as you can, and you get back into the museum, and you figure out, “Oh my gosh! They're actually three partial skeletons kind of mixed in.” And so, you have to sort these things apart, clean them, put them back together, label them, organize them. All of that stuff needs to happen before you can actually work on them in terms of like measurements and research and, and taking notes and things like that. So, I've, I've spent a lot of time in the museum there working on the monkeys in particular on kind of that curational side, and I'm actually leaving on Monday to go back for three weeks where I'll do a little bit more curation and then start to do some of the, the measuring and the taking notes and figuring out what we can learn from these monkeys. And then, the other part of that is actually doing some of the data collection. So, a lot of that looks like taking photos, taking laser scans, taking measurements, so basically all of the data that I can collect that allows me to compare those fossils to recent and other fossils as part of a broader kind of comparative analysis in my dissertation.Saintsing: Dang, a lot of stuff.Brasil: Yeah.Saintsing: Do you enjoy like the parts of it that are, you know, the logistics, the cleaning, the measurements?Brasil: Yeah, yeah, I absolutely do. I, I love the, the museum work. I love it all, but I especially love the fieldwork even though it's really hard. It's really hot. It's really dusty, really tired for most of it, but something about actually being out in the field and walking around an outcrop and seeing these fossils eroding out of these deposits and actually being able to look back in time – like, that's the closest thing we get to time travel, you know, as humans living today, I think. So, there's just something that's really, really incredible about that experience and that's what I think will keep me going back out into the field and collecting a bunch of amazing fossils.Saintsing: Sure, did you get to do any sort of fieldwork in undergrad?Brasil: Um, let me think. I think that the only field work that I had done in undergrad actually was kind of more archaeological and focused here in California. So, as an undergrad, I was an anthropology and integrative biology major here at Berkeley, and as some, as part of some of my anthropology classes, the fields and methods, methods courses, I got to go out and work on a couple of sites in the northern Bay Area, like Sonoma area, some shale mountains that were being excavated by one of Professor Lightfoot's students, who's here in the anthropology department. And, as part of like an archaeological field methods course, we actually also excavated the Old Student Observatory up on campus which is close to Northgate.Saintsing: Interesting. Sounds cool.Brasil: Yeah, yeah it was really fun. So, yeah, I mean I guess I did have a little bit of field experience, but nothing like going into the Middle Awash for the first time. That was definitely, that was a new one.Saintsing: How is that the first time?Brasil: Oh, man. I was hot and dehydrated, but it was, I, I mean, it was incredible. It was like nowhere that I'd ever been before. There was definitely a lot of kind of anxiety about going out there because of scorpions and snakes and all of these critters that could kill me that I'd never had to deal with, but going out and working with the project, so that includes, you know, the directors and then all of the project members who live in Addis. And, some of them work in the museum during the year, work on kind of prepping and putting the fossils back together and curating them and all of that. And then, getting out into the field where we work with the local people in the area. So, the Afar people who are one of the ethnic groups who live in this region, and they, the project has had a long-standing relationship with a lot of the leaders of this group, and so, when we get out there we usually will – I say we, but the project – will hire some of the, the local people and train them to do this work with us. And, it was part of what was so interesting and one of the things that I think was so exciting and so fun was – I mean, I got into anthropology because I was interested in human cultures and different, different people and ways that people interact with their world differently – and it was, it was really interesting to see this group of nomadic pastoralists who are completely living off of the land and meet them for the first time, and, you know, I have no Afar and they have no English, and so, we're trying to communicate through gestures, but they were just some of, some of the kindest people, and they, I know they thought that I was hilarious because I was usually like completely covered up, you know, to protect from the sun. And then, they thought it was totally unnecessary.Saintsing: Alright.Brasil: Yeah, yeah, but yeah. It was, it was just like nothing else that I've experienced before.Saintsing: It sounds really cool, sounds like a lot of fun.Brasil: Yeah.Saintsing: And uh, do you ever take undergrads on this?Brasil: I don't think that undergrads have ever been taken on this particular project. It's, it's not super common that graduate students go out even just because it is kind of, there's, there's a lot that can go wrong, and fortunately things haven't gone wrong, but we're in a really remote part of Ethiopia, and there are kind of a lot of potential health risks, so it's, you have to be really, really careful when you're out there. I mean, we're, we're two days driving, usually, at least outside of Addis, and a lot of that is kind of off-road getting out to the fields, so it's pretty remote area.Saintsing: Do you – have you ever actually like encountered any of the, like the dangerous things, like the scorpions and stuff?Brasil: Oh yeah, oh yeah definitely. I've not had any encounter encounters with snakes fortunately.Saintsing: Nice, um, is that like your biggest fear?Brasil: No, no, I mean, snakes don't actually really bother me. They probably should more given how venomous the ones out there are, but yeah, definitely lots of scorpions out and about. Fortunately, the ones – I'm not sure if this is true of all scorpions or just the ones that we have out in the Middle Awash, but they fluoresce under UV light. Yeah, so at least you can shine a UV light and make sure they're not, like, under the dinner table before you sit down, gonna crawl into your boots. But yeah, there have definitely been some run-ins with scorpions. I've never been stung or anything, but they're definitely around, and there are some very large spiders which I was not excited about the first time I went out. I've made my peace with them now, but…Saintsing: Are those, the, the things that aren't spiders: solifuges? Those are terrifying. Listeners should look up a picture of solifuges.Brasil: They should. I warn you: they are terrifying. They are the stuff of nightmares, but yeah, those are out there. I've never actually seen one in real life fortunately, but yeah, I know that they exist, which is enough to keep me up a little bit at night.Saintsing: This is just a reminder that you’re listening to The Graduates. I'm AndrewSaintsing, and I'm speaking with MarianneBrasil. So, what kinds of comparisons are you actually making between the ancient fossils and the modern fossils?Brasil: Yeah, so…Saintsing: Modern skeletons. I guess, they're not fossils at this point.Brasil: Yeah, yeah, there's a lot of arguments, a lot of that in general. Kind of depends on what you've recovered in the field, so the comparisons that you can make are necessarily constrained by, you know, what you have available to you, but fortunately for me, like the, the partial skeleton that I'm working on, like I said there's quite a lot of it preserved, so I have taken 400 measurements on each individual for the recent modern humans as comparative data for those, those fossils that I'm working on describing for my dissertation, and that spans most things. That spans long bone lengths, where I can get them, that spans, you know, the breadth of the articular joints, what we call articular facets where the bones are actually in contact with each other, spans the long bone end. So, it's kind of all aspects of morphology that can be reliably measured using, you know, standard metric equipment and then those comparisons allow me to get a sense of, you know, how body size compares across, between these fossils and moderns, how things like body proportions compare, and what that might tell us about how that's changed over the course of the last hundred thousand years and, again, how it relates to these other fossil groups. So, it's a lot of measurements, and then, there are also laser and CT data that allow us to get at some of the 3D aspects of morphology and things like long bone, like, thickness, what we call cortical thickness, how thick the bone in the long bones actually is, like, the mid, mid-shaft, the mid-section.Saintsing: And so, why would we want to know how body proportions are changing? I mean, so what exactly, what kinds of questions are you trying to answer?Brasil: Yeah, so on a first pass of what the descriptive work is, it's basically, to put it very, very generally, what does this look like and how does it relate to other closely related groups? So, that's kind of just how paleontology proceeds on a first pass of how you do that descriptive work to get the, basically get those data out there so then other researchers who are focusing on, on specific questions and specific parts of the anatomy can also work on those more specific questions. So, what I'm doing is kind of big picture right now, but one of the, one of the things that I think is really interesting, and I can't say too much about this because the analyses are still in progress, but this, this, this partial skeleton is really similar to a lot of the other fossil material that's been recovered from this time period, and that it's very large, it's a very what we call robust skeleton. And so, what's interesting about that is that it looks quite different from the people who currently live in eastern Africa, and so that raises some questions about, “okay, well what's going on with these populations? Is it the same group of people that's existing in eastern Africa and they've just changed significantly over the course of a hundred thousand years, or is this picking up on some population movement?” And, that's where the interface between what we're working on with the fossils and the anatomy gets really interesting with these really burgeoning, this really burgeoning field of genetic studies and trying to figure out what modern genetic data tell us about these past population histories and how populations are moving, so it'll be really interesting to see how that interface plays out in the, in the next few years.Saintsing: Yeah, so that's another point about science, right? How long it takes.Brasil: Right. Yeah, yeah.Saintsing: So much time between, I guess, the – when did the first parts of these fossils start getting found?Brasil: I think they were first starting to be recovered in 2003 I want to say. Yeah, and so, it's been a long time, and, like I said, I mean when they were, when they were first found, unfortunately none of it was found in situ, as we call it (basically like in the sediment in which it was originally encased). So, it had all eroded out and been sitting on the surface for a while where you know the local Afar people are moving their goats and camels from one place to the next, and so, they're getting trampled over and over, and they're getting rained on, so this skeleton was just smashed to pieces and a lot of the initial work that had to happen was just putting this back together, which was quite the undertaking. And fortunately, like I said, a lot of that was done by other project members and I basically just had to kind of finish up that part of the, the curation of the skeleton and then get to work on it.Saintsing: Do the Afar people like call with tips, like, “Oh, we see this skeleton.” Or, are they just – do they not get in touch about the skeletons?Brasil: Yeah, so most of the, most of the Afar people, it's just kind of part of life, which is so fascinating, that they probably just walk around and they see these fossils and they don't think anything of it the same way we walk around and see like native Californian plants and it's just a normal part of life.Saintsing: They'd be so weird.Brasil: Yeah, but it's funny because there are a few, a few of the local Afar people who we work with now that they have been trained and it's, it's kind of funny, it becomes a little bit of a competition in the field. Everyone, you know, wants to find the humans. Everyone's, you know, kind of running around trying to find the best fossil – not running. There's no running in the field, but…Saintsing: To keep from trampling?Brasil: Yes, there's very careful surveying in the field, but yeah, it's a little bit of a competition. And so, sometimes, you know, one of the project directors will get a call from someone, one of the finders out in the field who has come across, you know, some, some fossil that they think might be human, and then, and then, it's kind of a patient waiting game of, you know, having, having to wait to get back out there to check it out and trying to preserve it as best as possible until then. Yeah, but one of the things that is really interesting to watch is how quickly a lot of the local Afar guys are just amazing fossil finders. They're the ones who are finding so much of the best stuff, and they just pick it up so quickly, and so, it's kind of funny that most, most of the Afar that I know – which is very, very little – is constrained to body parts and animal types because that's kind of the most useful vocabulary for when I'm out in the field.Saintsing: Sure. So, somebody gets a tip, like maybe an Afar person or whoever's out in the field sees like a skull, and so, how'd it, who gets to be the one, “I'm gonna publish on this skeleton,” you know? What, I mean…Brasil: Yeah, yeah, so that, that comes down to permitting really. So, the Afar region is, is very, very large and in, in terms of field sites and field coverage. So, probably you’ve heard of Lucy as have most of the listeners. That comes from a site called Hadar. That's actually kind of just to the north of the Middle Awash region, so where we're working is really close to where Lucy was recovered, and Hadar is a separate project that has separate project leadership and a separate project permit, and so, basically anything that's found within the Hadar field area falls under the purview of that project and the same is true of the other projects working in the area like the Middle Awash, Gona, Woranso Mille. So, there are a lot of different projects that have, kind of have purview over different regions of the farm.Saintsing: But then, with ownership, it – anything that's found in the nation of Ethiopia would just be Ethiopian?Brasil: Yeah, yeah. They're all, they're all Ethiopian antiquities, and even anything that's collected by the projects they all get accessioned back into the National Museum of Ethiopia and held there as Ethiopian antiquities.Saintsing: So, I know there, historically that was like a problematic issue, right? That…Brasil: Yeah.Saintsing: All these governments got to keep their own antiquities. So, has that been a recent development that, or like how, how long has Ethiopia been able to maintain ownership over its antiquities?Brasil: Yeah, I can't, I can't really speak so much to that history, but I do know that it's, it's quite different than what's happened in a lot of other African nations, like Kenya for example. Because Ethiopia was never actually formally colonized in the same way that like Kenya was by Britain. Ethiopia, other than a run in in the 40s with the Italians, has been an independent nation and, so, more so, I think, in control of its antiquities than a lot of other nations where there was this colonial power that felt that they had some right to these antiquities and often unfortunately exported them and a lot of that is kind of still in progress of getting those antiquities back to the countries in which they were originally recovered.Saintsing: Does the exporting – it must have made… I assume like not everything was exported, you know, by scientists who were keeping careful notes, right? Has that made it really hard to, like, follow all these fossils?Brasil: Yeah, so I could actually give an example that's kind of near and dear to my heart and especially to the heart of my adviser, who's Professor Leslea Hlusko here in the integrative biology department. She undertook this very large ambitious project called the Comprehensive Old Divide Database Initiative. So, you might have heard of Olduvai Gorge. It's a field site in Tanzania that was worked on by the Leakey family for decades, and it's yielded some really important, really influential fossils closely related to humans but quite a bit older mostly, and these, these fossils were kind of exported and sent everywhere, all over the world. Some of them are in Tanzania, a lot of them ended up in London. I actually got to go to the Natural History Museum there as an undergrad to work on some of the kind of inventory of what was there, but these are kind of just spilled all over the world at this point, these fossils from Olduvai of all different kinds of animals. And so, my adviser, Professor Leslea Hlusko, basically formed this initiative to figure out where all of these fossils were and try to get them into one database online so that researchers working on, you know, birds could figure out where all of the birds that have come from Olduvai, “Where do I have to go to work on these?” And, trying wherever possible to take photos of the fossils and museums so that researchers have that information available and can see actually what's there for them to work on, which is really useful if you're trying to plan research trips, trying to figure out kind of what exists and what's worth making a trip to go see. So, that's been a many-year-long project that's still in progress and just gives you a sense of an example of kind of the mess that came out of some of these early practices in the field of just sending fossils everywhere and then today trying to figure out where they, where they ended up and get them into one central place.Saintsing: All right, so I guess the real message from everything you said is science: it's very hard.Brasil: It's not for everybody, but I do love it.Saintsing: Yeah, there's like the, the natural processes obscure things. People obscure things.Brasil: Yeah.Saintsing: It takes so much time. You're kind of working with all of these layers that you have to peel back.Brasil: Yeah, yeah, definitely.Saintsing: Well, so you do a lot in the field. Do you have time to enjoy life back here in Berkeley?Brasil: Yeah, yeah, I do. Um, yeah, I, I just got a puppy which I'm very excited about. That was, that's kind of a big move in the work/life balance category, which I've not been so good at through most of grad school, but one of the things that has, I think, kept me sane and kept me grounded in grad school is that I run trail. So, I run and preferably very slowly and long distances. So, I actually did my first 50k last year on a trail up close to Redding, and it was, it was beautiful, and I, I think it's been, like I said, really important for my mental health in grad school, and I think it's, it's really important to have those outlets. And for me, trail running has a lot of parallels to grad school actually. There's a lot of endurance. There's a lot of kind of just put it in low gear and grind and get over the next climb, and then, there's a little bit of a relief from there, which, you know, there are a lot of milestones in academia that kind of fit that profile. But, it's also for me the closest thing that I can get to meditation, so it's kind of the, the best way for me to turn my brain off, other than sleep. And so, I'll find that if I go out for a run especially, if something's kind of nagging me or I can't make sense of some result that I just got, I go out for a run, and it's almost like my brain is just working on it in the background, and it just provides this kind of clarity and this grounding that then I can usually get back to my work in a much more focused way.Saintsing: So, you said you took those two classes as an undergrad. Is that kind of when you knew? How long ago did you know that you wanted to be a scientist? Was it before undergrad or here?Brasil: Yeah, that's a great question. It's hard to point to kind of one specific thing. There are a couple of things that I think were pretty formative in that sense. One is that I always was kind of the kid who just liked being outside. So, I grew up in the Central Valley of California, kind of out in the country next to a walnut orchard, and I remember loving to just spend afternoons out there whenever I could, and there would be coyotes running around out there, and I actually remember coming across this coyote den that had a fully skeletonized coyote in it and digging up parts of it and taking it home, which my mom was less than thrilled about. She should have known that I was going to be a paleontologist. Yeah, so there was always kind of this, this innate fascination with just being outside and being animals. I have really loved animals, but I think in terms of kind of realizing that, that was science and that I wanted to do science, my first exposure to that was taking an AP biology course when I was fifteen. And, that was really the first science course that I had ever taken, and I should preface this with that I grew up in a pretty socially and politically conservative household and area of California and a very kind of old-school Catholic upbringing. My parents are, they immigrated from Portugal, and they're very traditionally Catholic, and so they had never heard of the theory of biological evolution, which meant that I had never heard of the theory of biological evolution, and the first time that I was exposed to that was when I was fifteen in this AP biology class and there was something about that that clicked for me. It was really, it was, it was, it just, it made sense. It was a really satisfying answer, and so, it was also the first time that I remember walking out of a class and wanting to learn more about something not because of the grade or, you know, doing well in the class but just being so fascinated by it. And, I think that was kind of the first inkling of this is, this is the thing that you're really into and this is the thing that you're, you're gonna do, and so, ever since then it's been some flavor of evolutionary biology and the focus on humans kind of happened later in undergrad when I happen to find the anthropology department here on campus and kind of bring those interests in humans and human cultures and how humans are different and alike and marry that with evolutionary biology and studying that from an evolutionary framework.Saintsing: Well, as we come to the end of the interview, we usually have a segment where the guests can say anything they like about their field or any issue. So, are there any like final thoughts you'd like to leave listeners with?Brasil: Yeah, there's, there is one thing, kind of in terms of the broader impacts of what I do and some of the things that I've been thinking about. There obviously is a lot of cause for concern with the current political and social climate and thinking about a lot of the rhetoric around race that has kind of come to the surface, and a lot of it is really ugly, and I think that a lot of the science has the potential to be misused and it's important to be careful about interpreting results and, especially as a scientist, how you communicate your science. And, I just want to kind of underline or underscore both something that has become apparent to me and in my work working on these fossils that you know are from a hundred thousand years old and they’re ancestral or closely, closely related to the ancestor of all modern humans living today. So, when we put it in that context, all of the differences that we perceive across modern humans are pretty recent, so we're all really, really similar, and there's a lot of fuss being made about differences in drawing lines between groups of people and what we overwhelmingly see not so much in my work but especially in people who are working on modern humans living today is that there are, there's no ability to draw clean lines between groups of people, so you don't see these discrete racial units, and so, when you see these claims about there being fundamental biological differences between different groups of people, I would just urge your listeners and people out there to be really critical of those and to be kind of careful to follow sources that are putting out good, good science, and so, they are kind of looking for outlets that will regularly correspond with scientists who are leading in the field and getting their input and getting, you know, their, their perspective on things is really important and just to remember that you know we're making a big fuss about these differences that are really, really small in the grand scheme of things and that we're all quite similar.Saintsing: Great message. It's a good point about always making sure to check about maybe political or any other reason why somebody might publish something and not just take it in.Brasil: Yeah, and there are a couple of sources, like, I can point your listeners to. Like Sapiens.org, which is an outlet that is, it's an independent news outlet through I think with the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which is a foundation that funds a lot of anthropological research, and they have contributions from scientists on different topics. There's also The Conversation, which is another outlet that will often take kind of public facing pieces from the scientists who are actually publishing the work, so that's a really good outlet as well, just to point people in a couple of places that don't, hopefully don't have any political spin on them.Saintsing: Right. Nice. Okay, great resources to check out. So, today I've been speaking with MarianneBrasilfrom the Department of Integrative Biology. She's been telling us about her work as a biological anthropologist describing fossils from Ethiopia. It's been so much fun talking to you.Brasil: Likewise.Saintsing: Thanks for being on the show.Brasil: Thanks so much for having me. It was really fun.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.