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Monday, March 17, 2014

Street Class: Chalfonte Place's Accomplished Anthropologist

For as long as Katherine Schroer can remember, she has wanted to be an anthropologist. "I was really interested in the human body in all its forms - during life, after life, what we are as an organism," said Schroer. Her interest in anthropology took her from her childhood home on Chalfonte Place to Kenyon College, where she completed her undergraduate degree before moving on to George Washington University for her PhD in Hominid Paleobiology. Schroer is currently in the first year of a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Dartmouth University, in which she will spend three years teaching and working on research projects. "We're released from our teaching load to do some really, really cool research before we get locked into being professors and do full-time teaching," said Schroer. She will be teaching a class during Dartmouth's spring semester. Her work at Dartmouth will be different from her previous experiences at Kenyon and George Washington University. "At George Washington, I focused almost exclusively on fossils. I wanted to know more about the active human body, and how we are today. And at Dartmouth, I'm working on human genetics, which is exciting," said Schroer.

One of the many interesting and exciting aspects of Schroer's experiences with anthropology is the amount of traveling she has done to help enrich her studies. Schroer has spent time doing research in Leipzig, Germany; London, England; Helsinki, Finland; Bolivia, Kenya, New York City, and various other cities throughout the United States. She traveled to Germany, Finland, and England in order to gain work experience that isn't available here in America. "Each of those was a different type of lab that I couldn't easily access here in the states, which was why I went there. But also because the people were amazing, and it was really fun to be there," said Schroer.

While many Ft. Thomas residents were spending the summer of 2011 relaxing at the Ft. Thomas Swim Club, Schroer spent hers monkeying around the Amazon (sorry, but it's impossible to resist a good monkey pun). "I spent the summer in Bolivia chasing monkeys around the forest," said Schroer. She worked directly with a family of monkeys in order to study their habits, and gain a better understanding of their diet. Monkeys have a very diverse diet, which was important to Schroer's work in Bolivia. "I wanted to know what it looks like for another primate, that is not a human, to have a diverse diet," said Schroer.

Obviously, living in the Amazon is a far cry from the metropolitan areas Schroer has worked in throughout her career. "There are really good points and bad points to living in the Amazon. The biggest problem with living in the Amazon is that everything wants to kill you. Everything wants to attack you all the time. It's a more stressful life in the Amazon because you have to watch out quite a lot." Despite the difficult conditions, Schroer's work in the Amazon allowed her to enjoy her time there in the field. "The monkeys in the Amazon were really entertaining because the monkeys are like squirrels to us here in America," said Schroer. "There's a lot of antics and tree-chasing behavior that they do."

Schroer also spent a summer in Kenya digging up human fossils. "These would have been geologically dated to about a million years ago, and includes a really cool trackway of human footprints and getting a sense of how they would have walked. There are other footprints in there too, which is fascinating. We've got different animals walking through the landscape at the same time, so it sort of gives you a view for how humans may have lived as a community with other animals.," said Schroer.

According to Schroer, one of the benefits of working in the field is the simplicity that can sometimes accompany the work. "The reason that I love traveling and love going to the field is that life is really simple," said Schroer. "You have less stuff, you have a set schedule everyday, and you have very specific tasks. Life is less complicated." She was able to work without the distractions of Facebook or Gmail, which she admits to missing at times.

Schroer's work throughout the world has had an impact on how she experiences life in America. "I get very glad to be home. But I do get guilt to be home. For example, you can walk into a grocery store and there's rows, and rows, and rows of food. You can go to one place to get everything you need, and these types of things just wouldn't happen in certain parts of the world. You go to these parts of the world, and you learn to live on what the land provides you. You also learn to live on very little. Then you come home, and you're faced with entire stores, tons of stuff, and you start consuming it again. I feel a little guilty when I come home because I know I can live with less because I just did," said Schroer.

Traveling for work has taught Schroer to be more appreciative of what she has, and to also be more conscientious of others who are less fortunate. Her work in the field has provided life lessons that she carries with her in her daily life. "I think also I've noticed that humans can survive almost anything," said Schroer. "There are some really awful things that happen in the world, and there are people who have live their lives each day with very little, and somehow people manage to survive. The same things are going to be important, and those are family and food. If you have those two things, you'll get through the day. So you look at people, and you think of them as stronger. Every person I meet seems to be stronger to me because they will be able to do things to fix the situation. So I guess maybe that's a big way I changed is looking at everybody as strong."

Along with gaining a greater understanding of the mental strength required to live in certain places, Schroer's work in the field also influenced her decision to focus on building her own physical strength. Schroer took up running in order to be safer out in the field. A lion once wandered into her camp while she was working in Kenya. Schroer immediately set a goal of becoming stronger based off of this experience. "I started running because I wanted to be able to outrun a lion if there was a lion in the camp. This year, my goal is to do a pull-up because if I'm hanging off a cliff, I want to be able to get myself back on solid ground," said Schroer. Schroer wants to make sure she's never in a situation where she could have helped herself, but couldn't.

For Schroer, growing up in Ft. Thomas played an important role her career path. Schroer grew up on Chalfonte Place, and happily recalls identifying fossils in the stones surrounding her home's flower beds. "I remember sitting there tracing the fossils, and my mom would tell us about the fossils in the flower beds. That's Kentucky - you just go outside and there's fossils, nature, and history. I love that, and it was a part of my growing up," said Schroer.

Living at the crossroads of northern and southern culture also had an impact on Schroer's interest in anthropology. According to Schroer, "If you're going to end up studying anthropology and the human body, there are two things that are important. It's that everyone is different, and that nature is really important to who we are. I think you get both those things in our area of Kentucky. I think just the fact that the southern culture of Kentucky meets the northern culture of Ohio everyday gives you this deep appreciation for the fact that people are brought up much differently in the world, and they are going to see the world much differently than you. The second thing, the nature, we have so much natural beauty in parks on the Kentucky side and the Ohio side."

Schroer's affinity for Kentucky goes far beyond her interest in fossils. "I loved Ft. Thomas. As I get older, I miss being able to walk everywhere." Schroer especially enjoyed being able to live in close proximity to other family members. "For me, a big part of growing up in Ft. Thomas was having my family close. Another wonderful thing about Ft. Thomas is that a lot of the families have been there a while, and so there is a lot of history, which I appreciate. You feel like you've been part of this community for a lot longer than just your little lifespan," said Schroer.

Schroer's work abroad as well as in the United States is just the tip of the iceberg for her career. She has her sights set on some exciting future endeavors. "I think there are two things I would like to do. I wouldn't mind being the next Bill Nye, but about fossils. That's a dream job. He was just so excited about everything that had to do with science, and I want to be that excited about everything that has to do with fossils to give that to the next generation like he did," said Schroer. Her other dream job would bring her back to her roots. "I would love to be a Curator at the Natural History Museum, and build a really cool exhibit at the museum. That would be awesome," said Schroer. It's pretty clear that no matter which path Schroer decides to take with her career, she will be making Ft. Thomas proud for years to come.

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