An Interview with Christopher A. Schmitt

Current Job: Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Boston UniversitySchmittCA_pic2

Scientific Discipline/Field: Biological Anthropology – Behavioral ecology and genomics of non-human primates

Country: USA

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): G, Q


What does your job involve?

My research explores mechanistic and adaptive aspects of developmental variation using techniques from behavioral ecology, physiology, morphometrics, and genomics. In other words, I use a few different perspectives to study the biology of growing up, from infancy to adulthood. I currently focus on two nonhuman primate models: New World atelins (woolly and spider monkeys) and Old World vervets. Although my work with atelins is primarily conducted in the field (Jane Goodall style, if that helps you picture it; see #fieldworkfail for some prime examples), my work with vervets involves the integration of both wild and captive studies to seek out not just the genomic underpinnings of complex traits (like developmental patterns and obesity), but also how those traits evolve in the wild. As an Assistant Professor, I also do a fair amount of teaching, and in my courses I like to emphasize not only my research, but also how biology informs (and doesn’t inform) traits relevant to societally important identities (such as those we associate with race, gender, sex, and sexual orientation).

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I attended Milwaukee Public Schools growing up, and while at Rufus King High School was fortunate to win an Earthwatch Scholarship to study wild howler monkeys with Dr. Govindasamy Agoramoorthy in Argentina (which was clearly a life-shaping experience). From there, I did my undergraduate degrees in Zoology and English Literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, after which I worked for a year as a field assistant on Dr. Susan Perry’s Lomas Barbudal Capuchin Project in Costa Rica. I then did my graduate work at New York University with Dr. Anthony Di Fiore at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (which involved spending about a year and a half in the Amazon following monkeys around, collecting their poop and writing down everything they did). After my doctorate, I did postdoctoral research with the International Vervet Research Consortium under Dr. Nelson Freimer through the Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics at UCLA, with fieldwork in South Africa, The Gambia, and St. Kitts & Nevis. I then taught for a year in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. Finally, I worked for a year as a postdoctoral scholar with Dr. Leslea Hlusko in the Human Evolution Research Center at UC Berkeley, after which I was offered my job at Boston University.

Academic job paths are rarely, if ever, straightforward these days.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

Most definitely. When I was younger it fueled a kind of defiance in my decisions: I felt that I needed to show that a queer guy could do the hardcore field work that my career requires (at the time, there weren’t many visible queer role models in my field, or at all, although it’s getting better). I’ve also not applied for or withdrawn applications from some positions for fear that I’d be putting myself in mental (e.g., having to hide or stay firmly in the closet) or physical danger (e.g., working in areas of the world where being queer carries harsh or life-threatening penalties). I was more willing to take those risks when I was younger, out of some sense of defiance or hazardous glamor, but now I’m more circumspect.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

The majority of the reactions I receive from my colleagues have been very supportive, even celebratory. By and large, biological anthropologists are wonderful and welcoming when it comes to making out colleagues and students feel welcome (a good example here). There are, of course, some circumstances (primarily in the fieldwork, where prevailing cultural attitudes may be less welcoming towards LGBTQIA folks) where reactions have been more mixed, and at times negative.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

I suppose I had quite a few. My family served as role models while growing up in a number of indirect ways that have influenced my career: my dad was a park ranger, my mom was a very savvy and hard-working entrepreneur (she founded a day care center), and my older sister took a lot of risks growing up that I didn’t, all of which have inspired me. The only real queer role model I had before college was Ms. Celichowski, our freshman year Health teacher: an out and proud, sex-positive bisexual biker who refused to shy away from discussing taboo subjects and respected the intelligence of her students. Aside from Ms. C, there weren’t a lot of visibly queer role models for me when I was a kid, but Milwaukee Public Schools (whose student body was and continues to be predominantly African American) were strongly invested in teaching us about the Civil Rights Movement, which provides quite a few amazing role models for intelligence, perseverance, and strength in the face of overwhelming adversity. As for STEM, I have to admit that my role models have shifted with my career and the roles I’ve taken in science. It all started with my third grade science teacher, Mrs. Krause, and has peaked at the moment with my last postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Leslea Hlusko. Everything Leslea does is wonderful; if I can be even a fraction of the scientist and mentor she is I will feel like I’ve succeeded immensely.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m just settling in at BU, so I’m really looking forward to going back to the field in South Africa while continuing my research and teaching. In my personal life, although I’m currently single I would eventually like to make a family (in whatever form that will eventually take).

Anything else you’d like to add?

If you’re at least 14 years old, you should probably be reading Fiona Staples’ and Brian K Vaughan’s ‘Saga’. Just sayin.

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